Indie Intros

Indie Intros Oscar Edition: Alejandro González-Iñárritu’s Powder Keg

Since my last Indie Intros post chronicled the work of Richard Linklater, a response to Boyhood being nominated for six Academy Awards, I thought I might just cover other nominees till the awards kick off in February. Up until the week of the 22nd I’ll be dedicating the Indie Intros section to filmmakers nominated for the 2015 Academy Awards. We’ll look at some of their humble beginnings before we witness all the bad jokes and musical numbers the Academy is so known for. Then we’ll all go to work the next morning and complain about who should have won.

Before we begin, I’d like to preface something for the sake of controversy. Ideally, I wanted to focus on all of the Best Picture nominees, but the fact is not every filmmaker in this category have short films to view. Short films from James Marsh or Morton Tyldum were nowhere to be found on the Internet. When I searched for a site showing Damien Chazzelle’s “Whiplash”, the short film that is now an Oscar Nominated feature of the same name, I was directed here which just screams to me, “If you dare show this film we’ll sue you back into the Stone Age!” Finally, Clint Eastwood hasn’t had to make a short film to show off has talents, most likely because there has never been a time in his life where he hasn’t been goddamn Clint Eastwood.

With the recent commentary over the amount of nominations given to American Sniper and the lack of nominations given to Selma, I don’t want any additions or omissions to be viewed as political or social commentary (that’s for a different section of my blog).

With that, Birdman director Alejandro González-Iñárritu is no stranger to the Academy. His debut feature film Amores Perros was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 2001 and Babel, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, was nominated for Best Picture in 2007. “Powder Keg” isn’t exactly his first short, yet it’s still relatively early in his career. Before ever shooting Perros, he had shot “El Timbre”, a Spanish film that I couldn’t seem to find anywhere. Worry not though, as soon as I do I plan to cover it on my future Spanish sister site, El Barrio de Los Cineastas Amistosos.

“Powder Keg” comes right off the heels of Amores Perros and as a result has some significant star power behind it. It stars Clive Owen, the king of gruff deliveries, and Stellan Skarsgård who shouldn’t to be confused with Alexander Skarsgård, or Peter Sarsgaard, that smug bastard who thinks he can just jam as many A’s into his name as he wants. Skarsgård plays a war photographer who captures local terrorists murder a group of innocent civilians. Embedded in Columbia, the UN sends Owen in to extract him, but things go awry. Basically, it’s a faster paced, less elaborate Argo.

That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have the same sense of urgency that makes Argo so good. As Owen drives through the Colombian town of Nuevo Colon, you really get a sense that this is a place going through a giant upheaval. Armed soldiers and terrorists alike litter the streets and pose a constant threat to the two protagonists.

Much like Amores Perros, “Powder Keg” gives us a look at the everyday lives of those who live south of the border of the U.S. Here in “Powder Keg” we witness how U.S. demand for cocaine has affected those living in Cartel controlled Columbia. This ties into the overall message of the film; that as we watch the horrors that the drug war wreaks on South America, there is more we could be doing to stop it. Anyone who has seen Amores Perros or 21 Grams might be seeing a pattern in Alejandro González-Iñárritu’s work, to address that the actions of one person can create a Butterfly Effect that can influence the lives of others. In “Powder Keg” he explores this theme on a much grander scale; pointing out that many of us here in the U.S. are content with condemning the atrocities witnessed abroad, yet fail to address our role in them. This is conveyed through Skarsgård’s Harvey Jacobs, a photographer who regrets his lack of involvement for the sake of getting the perfect picture.

Finally, the cinematography works to further stress Iñárritu’s message. Many of his shots give the impression that they come from the POV of an onlooker lurking in the shadows, watching everything unfold but refusing to get involved in fear of the repercussions. Also, the graininess of his shots will remind you of old 8mm war footage, implying that we are content simply being a horrified viewer, but never an active participant.

Indie Intros: Richard Linklater’s Woodshock

Well, the Golden Globes are over and one of the big winners was Richard Linklater and his monumental film Boyhood. I use the word “monumental’ because Boyhood took 13 years to shoot, all of which with the same cast. In celebration to his win, I’ve decided we should take a look at one of his first forays into filmmaking with the documentary short “Woodshock”.

“Woodshock” documents the Woodshock music festival held in Dripping Springs, Texas in 1985. The film acts as a celebration of Linklater’s love of rock music, a theme that would also play a big part in films like School of Rock and Dazed and Confused. “Woodshock” is clearly a play on the famously influential Woodstock Music Festival of 1969 and the infamously violent Woodstock Music Festival of 1999. The 1985 Wookshock Music Festival had a long list of performers such as Daniel Johnston as well as huge list of bands I’ve never heard of because I’m not nearly as knowledgeable about music as I’d like to be.

The end credits list “Woodshock” as a “film attempt” by Linklater and collaborator Lee Daniel. This might be a pretty apt description. As cool as it is to see a young Daniel Johnston, a man who would later go on to influence musicians like Kurt Cobain, peddle his album to the camera, the film doesn’t have a lot of direction. Many of the good documentary films have a sort of narrative that accompanies the documentation. “Woodshock”, on the other hand, focuses purely on documenting the feel of the festival, which gives the film a kind of rebellious attitude that works well with it’s source material, but doesn’t really tell a story. What we get is a documentary that operates more like a home video or Trails commercial (a piece of advertising any Arizonan who’s stayed up till 3 am watching episodes of Cheaters is familiar with).

Still, this style of filmmaking is not unlike Linklater’s Slacker, the low budget feature that basically started his career. Just as in Slacker, the camera in “Woodshock” jumps from person to person, begging for interesting material like a dog at a barbeque. In Slacker, it was used with more storytelling application, giving the illusion of a bystander following the everyday lives of a group of young Austinites. I can’t help but think that Linklater’s experience shooting “Woodshock” allowed him to pinpoint exactly how he wanted to shoot Slacker. It acts as another example of how a director’s early films can be built upon to produce a defining piece of work.

Indie Intros: Sam Raimi’s Within the Woods

Before The Evil Dead, there was “Within the Woods”. “Within the Woods” isn’t exactly a prequel to The Evil Dead franchise in terms of story, but rather in terms of style. Many of the motifs common in Raimi’s later works are present in this film, including his love of POV shots, his clear hatred for appendages and of course Bruce Campbell. I’ll warn you ahead of time, the only copy I could find on the Internet looks like it was filmed off a VHS that, similar to the Necronomicon, dates back to ancient Sumer. Sorry everyone, but until Raimi decides to release his Blu-Ray remaster of “Within the Woods” we’re stuck with this. On the plus side, the severe tracking problems kind of add to the eeriness.

The plot of “Within the Woods” is almost exactly the same as The Evil Dead. A group of kids decide to stay the night in a creepy cabin for no other reason than cabins can be stayed in. Where it differs from The Evil Dead is that instead of an ancient book causing all the trouble we get an Indian burial ground, because as movies will have us believe, Native Americans love to plague modern day white kids with posthumous curses. As the kids begin to poke around, people die, come back to life and begin killing to add to their ranks.

Upon watching “Within the Woods”, you’ll immediately begin to pick up on common Raimiesque film techniques. For starters, the famous, fast-paced POV “Raimi-cam” chase shot is in full effect here. Not only would Raimi reuse this shot famously in the Evil Dead series, but also its popularity would be further pointed to in other directors’ works. Perhaps this is due to “Within the Woods” low budget, but the audio techniques from Evil Dead 1 and 2 also seem present here. Like the scene in Evil Dead 2 where Ash loses his mind and the cabin becomes a Pee Wee’s Playhouse of Horrors, Raimi’s Foley work in “Within the Woods” is loud and has all the subtlety of a jack hammer, with loud grinding sounds that overpower any ambient noise.

“Within the Woods” was made for a paltry $1,600, which isn’t bad for half-hour short. It was also filmed on 8mm, which Raimi paid to have blown up to 35mm for theater showings, which might also explain the grainy look on YouTube.

Another thing to note is that “Within the Woods” marks the first pairing of Robert Tapert and Sam Raimi. The two would go on to produce a number of successful film and TV projects like The Darkman series, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. Tapert would also go on to produce many other popular films such as The Grudge, 30 Days of Night, and arguably Jean Claude Van Damme’s best film, Timecop.

Indie Intros: James Cameron’s Xenogenesis

“Xenogenesis” is the first film directed by James Cameron back in 1978. It’s showcases an impressive amount of special effects, something Cameron would be known for throughout his career. It’s also chock full of themes and scenarios that fans of Cameron will immediately recognize. The plot involves a team of two that go to explore an abandoned ship. They come across a robot that is still operational and as “Xenogenesis’s” Wiki page describes, “Combat Ensues.”

“Xenogenesis” really is an interesting watch for anyone who is familiar with James Cameron’s films. Many of the central themes and plots in his later works are addressed in “Xenogenisis”. The initial setup for “Xenogenesis” is very similar to films like The Abyss, Aliens and Prometheus; a team of specialists set out to investigate an alien local and then inevitably encounter danger. To add to the Cameron lore, the central theme of Man vs. Machine that he explores in films like The Terminator is also a big part of this short as the two main characters must fight off a giant machine that doesn’t take kindly to intruders.

Aside from plot and theme similarities, “Xenogenesis” also foreshadows other characters, scenes and techniques that Cameron would later expand upon in his later films. The character of Laurie is not unlike Ripley from Aliens or Sarah Conner from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a woman who can take care of herself and doesn’t fall into the old damsel in distress trope. On top of that, Laurie’s battle with the giant robot is almost identical to Ripley’s battle with the Xenomorph Queen in Aliens.

Cameron’s use of stop motion animation from movies like The Terminator is also on full display here. It’s clear that both robots use stop motion to come to life, much like when the T-800 walks out of the fire in the original Terminator. Also Cameron throws in a little hidden homage to stop motion. The score to “Xenogenesis” is taken from the films Jason and the Argonauts and Mysterious Island both directed by Ray Harryhausen, one of the biggest pioneers in stop motion movie making.

James Cameron has always been one of those directors that come to film with a very clear “vision”. His work with special effects has come to define his career and it’s interesting to see where the roots of a film like Avatar came from. Also, like many great directors, Cameron revisits certain themes throughout his catalogue. “Xenogenesis” shows that much of what we would come to see in films like The Terminator and Alien franchises were a result of his ponderings during his early filmmaking years.

Indie Intros: Robert Rodriguez’s Bedhead

Love him or hate him, Robert Rodriguez is on of the biggest names associated with guerilla filmmaking, a form of independent filmmaking that uses low budgets, small crews and stolen locations to get the best out of production value while still keeping cost extremely low. His book Rebel Without a Crew is an interesting read for any indie filmmaker. It recounts the making of his ultra-low budget feature El Mariachi, where Rodriguez goes as far as to sell his body to science to finance the film. From the mid nineties to early 2000’s, there was a surge of guerilla filmmakers like Rodriguez. Kevin Smith, John Linklater and Quentin Tarantino not only were getting features made for thousands of dollars, but also found the films getting picked up by major studios and winning big at film festivals.

Rodriguez’s short film “Bedhead” was made in 1990 and if you watch closely you will see common themes that he would come to revisit in later films. It tells the tale of a girl who gets in a fight with her older brother and as a result gains super powers due to a small case of head trauma.

From the opening credits, we begin to see some trademarks that would define Rodriguez’s career. I’ve already discussed Rodriguez’s love for comics before and we see that reflected in the film’s introduction.

Although Rodriguez is probably best know for films like Sin City, Machete and From Dusk Till Dawn, he is also the guy responsible for the popular Spy Kids franchise. In fact, despite his penchant for directing highly stylized, violent action movies, his highest grossing films come from his work with children. “Bedhead” foreshadows Rodriguez’s penchant for making children’s films like Spy Kids and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl as well as the many familial themes those films explore.

Another common characteristic of Robert Rodriguez films is his exploration of Mexican and Mexican-American cultural themes. Films like Machete and Once Upon a Time in Mexico borrow heavily from classic Mexploitation films, where films like Spy Kids portray the life a common Latin-American family with extraordinary abilities. “Bedhead” has shades of the latter, depicting a sibling rivalry within a Latin-American family unit.

Finally, there are a few homages to other filmmakers that can be found in “Bedhead”. It’s pretty clear that Rodriguez borrowed heavily from Sam Raimi and his Evil Dead films. The famous high-speed POV tracking shot from The Evil Dead can be seen in “Bedhead” along with Lock and Load montages popular in many of Raimi’s films as well as the Rambo franchise.

“Bedhead” is the type of short I like to see from famous visionary directors like Rodriguez. The type that someone can watch and immediately recognize common themes that will come to define a director’s more iconic films. Shorts like these show how an amateur director can start with an idea and then expand upon it later in life.

Indie Intros: Steven Spielberg’s Amblin’

So I’ve decided to add a segment to the blog, one that will hopefully show that every filmmaker, even the great ones, started out somewhere. Indie Intros will look at early short films from famous directors made well before they were ever household names. The goal will be to pick up on early influences, analyze growth or simply sit back and enjoy the early works of filmmaking’s finest. To kick it off, I’ve decided to start with arguably the most famous name in film, Steven Spielberg.

“Amblin'” is one of Spielberg’s very first short films. It was directed in 1968 and shot on good old 35mm. The name “Amblin” would later become synonymous with some of Spielberg’s best work. In 1981 Amblin Entertainment was founded with Spielberg’s partners Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall and would go on to produce some of the most memorable films from directors such as Robert Zemeckis, Clint Eastwood, Richard Donner, Martin Scorsese and The Coen Brothers.

“Amblin'” as a film, probably doesn’t hold up very well by today’s standards. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just very late 60’s. For instance, the tag line for the film is, “He and she were thumb-trippin’. They had the makin’s… and the tail-end of summer.” I have absolutely no idea what that’s supposed to mean. On top of that, virtually every stereotype we’ve come to know about the hippy generation is in this film. Folk music? Check. Psychedelic double exposures? All day. Drug use? Of course. Free love? Why not? Volkswagen Type 2’s? How else would you get around? There’s even a shot of sunflowers blowing in the wind for good measure. To sum the plot, it’s really just two unnamed kids walking through desert landscapes for 25 minutes on their way to Mordor or someplace.

“Amblin'” has no dialogue to speak of. As a film study, it’s interesting, because what plot points we get must be told through the actions of the characters. We know that the two are hitchhiking, that’s clear by the setting. There’s a sort of hesitance with the boy, as he holds on tight to his guitar case, not letting anyone touch it. What could he be hiding? The girl, on the other hand, is clearly the “free spirit” of the two. She hands the boy his first joint, invites him into her sleeping bag and generally frees his mind. She’s basically the late 60’s version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It’s almost as if Spielberg is channeling the silent film directors of old and giving them a swinging sixties makeover.

What may come surprising to many filmmakers used to digital movie making, is that “Amblin'” cost around $15,000 to make. The type of production value you can get with $15,000 on modern equipment might have you scoffing at “Amblin'”, but instead, take this as a history lesson as to how expensive it used to be to shoot on film.

Ultimately, “Amblin'” would go on to win festival awards at the Atlanta Film Festival and Worldfest Houston. It eventually found it’s way to Universal, where they offered Spielberg a seven-year contract.