The Road goes ever on and on…

I don’t really post a whole lot of “personal” stuff to this blog; I try to keep it movie-centric so that there’s some consistency with the content (whenever I actually get around to posting content). Today, the second day of the year 2012, has ended a little strangely for me because I realize how different the beginning of this year is compared to 2011. Last year was an exciting year for me: new opportunities, new experiences, etc., etc. This year has the potential for all those things, but none of it is certain.

To start, as I write this I’m unemployed, and have been for about six months. The job market where I live (the San Francisco Bay Area) sucks and new opportunities to do anything beyond serving food or ringing up a purchase are hard to come by. Not that there isn’t work, there’s just not a whole lot and, more importantly, finding full-time work is even more rare. But this isn’t some sob story of how my life sucks or anything. My being unemployed was mostly my choice, having left a really cool job where I basically played videogames all day. I did it to continue pursuing my passion: film. I moved across to country and earned a Master’s Degree so I could explore cinema, and maybe do it for a living. My year working in the videogame industry was amazing, but there were more than a few times where I questioned what I was doing and where I was headed.

A year ago, the company I worked for was moving offices and had also downsized in staff. That meant more responsibility for everyone, and that was OK by me. I was itching to do more than what I originally signed up for, and they let me expand my horizons a little. I had my core responsibilities and I also got to do some video stuff on the side. This was fine for a few months, but that itch to do even more started again in the back of my head. By the summer, I was contemplating a break from my day-to-day. I had talked it over with some friends and we were all considering a trip to New York to shoot a short film. We didn’t really have a plan (or even a script), but it didn’t matter. I had been away from my passion for too long and “winging it” was all the plan I needed.

Then my work life got a little more complicated. Long story short, the option was on the table for me to try for a new position with different responsibilities, or not do it at all. I wasn’t being fired, and this wasn’t some sort of ultimatum, but that’s just how it was. I decided to not pursue this “new position” and take my chances back out in the world. I was nervous (being unemployed in an expensive city like San Francisco will make anyone nervous), but I was also excited. I didn’t want to get stuck in a job, no matter how good it sounded on paper, only to dislike it down the road and realize I’m too old to pursue my dream.

I wanted to direct again. I wanted to be slaving away over pages of scripts with my trusty red and green pens in hand, making notes and crossing things out. I wanted to be on the set, discussing lens choices with a DP, or at rehearsal arguing with actors over choices and stakes and all that pretentious-sounding film stuff. All that stuff I spent the previous three years doing, I wanted it back. That’s why I came out here. That’s why I left my old life behind and started a new one.

As 2012 begins I’m only a little more closer to getting back to all that. My first priority has to be survival – SF is an expensive place and making a living somehow is what I’ve been focusing on. I think about what I’ve done since I moved, what I’ve accomplished. I haven’t won any awards or become famous or anything, but I feel like I’ve done a lot. I’ve met new people, tried new things. 2011 felt like a transition year, a test year. A year that tested me to see if I had in my heart to really do what it is I wanted to do. Fate dangled something nice in front of me, but I struggle to look beyond that, to see what lies ahead. To quote J.R.R. Tolkien,

“All that is gold does not glitter. Not all those who wander are lost…”

I feel like I’ve been wandering the desert these past few months, and at times it seemed as if I lost my way. But I was just finding myself. I’m hoping 2012 is going to be a fantastic year. I’ve already got some things (hopefully) lined up that will not only take care of my need for survival (i.e. paying rent) and my passion. So here’s my raising my proverbial glass to the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.

“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.”

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January 2, 2012 at 5:34 pm 1 comment

Androids Need Love HD

Yesterday I put up a video shot using the stop-motion feature on my Nintendo 3DS. Titled, Androids Need Love, it got a little bit of love from popular gaming blog Kotaku. I mentioned that I shot it with my Canon 7D as well, and I finally got around to processing all those RAW images.

But the results are less than spectacular.

The video is jerky as a result of the camera being shifted incorrectly between shots. My focus was on my 3DS, so I had my 7D positioned next to it at an angle. Because of the way the shutter button is positioned, and the amount of force needed to press down on it, this caused my camera to shift slightly at an angle on quite a few of the frames. Also, because the 7D was kind of at an OTS (over the shoulder) angle, and not in a wide shot like the 3DS was, panning with the camera was a little more difficult.

I’d like to try again sometime, maybe using the 7D exclusively. And maybe shooting JPEG instead of RAW because I’m not really concerned about editing the images in post and it will take considerably less time processing hundreds of JPEGs than it wold RAW images.

Anyway, you can see the video below.

The framing is kind of tight because I was on a 50mm f1.8 lens. Because the 3DS version (when viewed on a 3DS) is in 3D, I needed to do something with the 7D to help make the figures pop a little more. This particular lens has a very shallow depth-of-field; it’s not the same as 3D, but I wanted more separation between foreground and background.

If I ever shoot another one of these, I’ll make sure to choose a better angle, or at least plan out exactly how the camera is going to move. With the 3DS, it wasn’t too much of a concern because the system was parallel to the “actors.” And the lo-fi quality of the 3DS kind of lets it get away with some mistakes.

December 9, 2011 at 8:17 am Leave a comment

Androids Need Love

http://youtu.be/Yy4FnEwxj-o

Yesterday I shot a stop-motion short using some toys and figures I had lying around. This was actually something I’ve wanted to do for a while but I decided to wait until Nintendo released the update to their 3DS that allowed for 3D video recording. Although the 3DS could do 3D image capture out-of-the-box, one of the many features in the update was a ‘stop-motion’ mode, which allowed for easier stop-motion photography.

The dual-lens 3D camera on the system actually sucks, with quality being equivalent to a cell phone from six years ago, but whatever. It actually looks good in 3D, though no one will be able to see it that way unless you viewed it on a 3DS screen.

I also shot this simultaneously with my Canon 7D, so I’ll cut together an HD version at some point. There were over 200 RAW files taken with my 7D, so going through all those is going to be a pain.

Continue Reading December 8, 2011 at 10:09 am 1 comment

Review: “Hugo”

Most filmmakers work on a project that’s personal to them, something that they put a little bit of themselves into, beyond, say, collaborating on a script or directing the movie. My prime example of this would be Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, a film that’s as much about Spielberg’s childhood (or his romanticization of it) as it is about an alien stranded on Earth. Spielberg’s colleague, Martin Scorsese, has also made personal films. Mean Streets, his breakout feature film, was inspired partly by Scorsese’s experiences growing up in New York City. With his latest film, Hugo, Scorsese yet again puts a little of himself into a project that many critics are calling his “love letter to cinema.” I’d say that Hugo is Martin Scorsese’s E.T.

Based on the children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, the story of Hugo is about a young orphan, Hugo (Asa Butterfield) living and working behind the scenes of a train station in Paris, sometime in the 1930’s. He fixes and upkeeps all the station’s clocks, and in his spare time, he assembles parts for a mysterious automaton left by his father. Hugo meets a young, intelligent, and free-spirited young girl, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), and her grandfather-figure-of-sorts, Georges (Ben Kingsley). Georges has a secret that connects him to Hugo’s deceased father and the broken automaton Hugo’s been hiding.

Without spoiling too much, Ben Kingsley’s character is Georges Méliès — yes that Georges Méliès, the pioneer of cinema who employed some of the world’s first special effects in cinema. And he did it all before the advent of sound in motion pictures. Méliès is a popular subject among film historians, filmmakers, and film critics because, simply put, without him, the art of cinema would not have progressed the way it has over the last century. He was an inspiration to many, including Martin Scorsese.

What makes this film feel personal is that Scorsese obviously has a fascination and deep respect for early films, especially ones made during the Silent Era, where nearly all special effects were done in-camera, any color was painted in by hand and frame-by-frame, and the films were required to tell the story visually without the aid of sound. In Hugo, we see an older Georges Méliès past his prime, and living in a world that’s practically forgotten him. He sees how far movies have come in the decades since he was active and has become bitter that he can no longer practice the art he loves so much.

This is the real meat of the story.

There’s a scene in the film which touched me personally. It’s a flashback scene of sorts where Méliès is recounting his days making films. You could hear the wonder and sincere yearning in Ben Kingsley’s voice as he tells of how he started making motion pictures. It’s obvious that, for Méliès, and by extension Scorsese himself, making the film is more important than the final product. It’s the collaborative process that draws artists like him into doing what he does. The act of creating versus looking at what you’ve created. As a student of film myself, I can agree with this. No matter how bad my own movies were, I have never regretted actually making them.

So if all this attention is placed on George Méliès, why is this film called “Hugo”? Well, that’s kind of one of the problems with this film. Clocking in at a little over two hours, the movie didn’t really get interesting until about halfway through when we learn who Georges really is. Everything else before that just didn’t seem as important, so the first hour moved a little too slow for me.

Visually, the film is amazing. While the 3D effects were impressive, they didn’t always work for me. It was probably due to where I was seated in the theatre, but there were times when a character would get really close to the camera and all of a sudden my eyes just didn’t know where to focus on and it became blurry. Aside from those few moments, the 1930’s-era Parisian train station really comes to life in the lens of cinematographer Roger Richardson. With the exception of a not-so-convincing CG fly-through of the station at the start of the film, the entire production just looked gorgeous.

I also have a bit of an issue of this being a “children’s movie.” While it may feature kids as main characters and have a very whimsical nature about it, many of the themes will fly right over kids’ heads. And I can’t imagine a 10-year-old knowing who George Méliès was to begin with, or even caring about the history of cinema. That doesn’t mean this can’t be enjoyed by children, however. I guess it’s like how Pixar’s films can be childish in appearance, but deep down, they’re really for adults and the young at heart. The film’s most important lesson can easily be understood by people of all ages: no matter how lost you feel, there is a place for you in the world and you should never lose sight of that.

Hugo is a film I would recommend to anyone interested in cinema as an art and not just a form of entertainment. Budding filmmakers would also benefit from seeing this because it shows why we do what it is we do, instead of pursuing “normal” careers. It’s everything that the camera doesn’t show that makes us want to make films. The process, from writing to editing, is the art. What you get afterwards is merely icing on the cake. Hugo serves as a reminder of all that.

8.5/10

December 2, 2011 at 6:56 pm Leave a comment

Review: “Immortals”

Director Tarsem Singh isn’t someone you’ve probably heard of. You may have heard of his films, or maybe even seen one of them (most likely the one with J-Lo), but his name isn’t as ubiquitous as someone like Steven Spielberg. The last film he directed was 2006’s The Fall, a beautiful period drama that, like all his other films, focus on style over substance. But he’s no Michael Bay — Singh’s films aren’t exactly filled with explosions. They’ve got vivid colors, wonderfully composed shots, and beautiful cinematography. It was a little surprising to me when I learned he was going to direct a sand-and-sandals epic focused around Greek mythology.

But then I thought to myself, “What would Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy look like if directed by Tarsem Singh?” At the very least, it would be a gorgeous film with buckets of blood.

I’m in.

Immortals takes a little bit of Greek mythology, namely the stories centering around Theseus and the Minotaur and the Titanomachy (the war between the Titans and the Olympians), and changes them around a bit to create a new tale. King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) declares war on the gods of Olympus and sets out with his army in search of the legendary Epirus Bow, a weapon that could help him win a war against the gods.

Zeus (Luke Evans) foresees the coming war and chooses a mortal, Theseus (Henry Cavill), to lead the  rest of the mortals against Hyperion’s army. Holding fast to the old laws that govern their universe, Zeus forbids any Olympian god to directly affect the events on earth (though he himself is obviously bending the rules quite a bit). Instead, Theseus joins a motley crew of adventurers to get to the Epirus Bow before Hyperion does.

For better or for worse, Immortals plays like your typical adventure movie like Clash of the Titans (the original), any of the Sinbad movies, or even more recent stuff like The Lord of the Rings. I guess that’s why Immortals has been getting a bad rep from critics — there’s really nothing new here. Sure, it looks great. Scratch that, this movie can look gorgeous at times. I did see the movie in 3D, and Tarsem Singh and cinematographer Brendan Galvin know how to take full advantage of that extra dimension of depth. There’s also a few cool transitions that the editors employ.

But that’s kind of it.

Immortals isn’t a bad movie to me. In fact, I quite enjoyed it. There’s action, lots of violence, hot women (I don’t think Freida Pinto has ever looked hotter than she did here), and even some crazy ninja fight scenes when the Olympians have to step in and kick some ass. All these things are enough to entertain me at the theatre. But why would I not consider Immortals a new adventure classic?

I’d like to compare this to another stylized Greek action-adventure movie: 300. Visually, Immortals and Zack Snyder’s movie are very similar. But that’s where the similarities end. I’d say 300 is the superior movie for one reason: it’s trying to say something. Maybe I’m reading too much into Snyder’s film adaptation of the graphic novel, but the reason why I love 300 so much is because it’s making a statement on masculinity, on what it means to be a man.

In 300, real men fought for the things they cared about. It also wasn’t just about violence, though. Men had to be passionate lovers who cared so much for their family and their country that they’re willing to die for them. There’s something awe-inspiring about the notion of three hundred warriors standing toe-to-toe against a vastly superior force (a million-man Persian army, according to the movie). They weren’t tricked into going to battle; the soldiers new exactly what they were doing. They did it because they had to. If there was even the slightest chance of victory, they were going to take it, even if it that meant failure brought death.

Now, back to Immortals. Yes, there’s a moment in the film when Theseus makes a rousing speech to rally the troops because they’re outnumbered and about to get their asses handed to them. But I didn’t feel it earned that moment. The whole movie felt slightly empty to me. Again, I want to make it clear that I enjoyed the movie. But I wasn’t “wowed” by it. I’m sure Immortals would look fantastic on Blu-ray, I just don’t think it deserves a spot on my shelf next to the classic films it’s clearly inspired by.

6.5/10

November 27, 2011 at 8:40 pm Leave a comment

Review: “J. Edgar”

I haven’t always been a Clint Eastwood fan. I’d seen a few of his Westerns, some of his cop movies, and even part of the one where he hangs out with a orangutan. It wasn’t until I saw him in Gran Torino when I really started to respect him as a filmmaker. Sure, everybody praises Unforgiven (great film, btw), but I connected with Gran Torino more and really respected the choices he made from behind the camera (except for hiring non-professional actors to play the supporting roles). So it goes without saying that I went into J. Edgar with some high hopes.

The biopic about the founder and director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is at times slow-moving, and even a bit confusing about its message, but it kept me engaged. Leonardo DiCaprio single-handedly keeps this movie afloat. He’s the kind of actor that keeps getting better with each movie. DiCaprio brings to the screen a flawed, but driven individual. His Hoover is intelligent and determined, but becomes increasingly paranoid and his hiding of his homosexuality forces Hoover to  constantly betray himself.

The story of the film spans several decades through which we see the rise of the FBI and criminal science. J. Edgar Hoover has a hand in all of it, turning the small subsidiary of the Justice Department to an effective national police force. Unfortunately, by the end of the movie, it left me feeling a bit empty. I couldn’t see where Clint Eastwood was going with this movie. I learned a lot about Hoover and a little bit about the post-World War II America that the movie is set in, but that was kind of about it. Maybe I was thinking about it too much, and maybe there isn’t some kind of morality tale buried underneath all the layers of make-up. Maybe Eastwood just wanted to make an effective biopic about J. Edgar Hoover.

Speaking of make-up, some of the aging effects on the actors looked phenomenal. Naomi Watts looked great as Hoover’s secretary, Helen Gandy, and at times so did DiCaprio. Armie Hammer, who plays Hoover’s right-hand-man (and possible lover) Clyde Tolson, however, didn’t look so convincing as an old man. His face looked stiff and, well, fake.

History buffs will no doubt find this movie interesting and could spend days discussing Hoover, his policies, and what the movie got right or wrong. I’m no expert on Hoover, so I can’t attest to this movie’s historical accuracy, but I’m assuming that screenwriter Dustin Lance Black did his research and the story only takes a few liberties for dramatic purposes. With that said, I can say that I found this movie entertaining overall. No doubt we’ll here more about this movie as awards season comes around — this movie has Oscar bait written all over it.

7/10

November 22, 2011 at 10:06 pm Leave a comment

Avengers Assemble!

I’m crazy stoked for Marvel Studios’ The Avengers, hitting theatres next May. Usually, with big franchise movie events like this, I like to re-watch the previous movies in the series before the release of the new one. However, The Avengers is a special case, because the films weren’t released in the chronological order in which they happen. With something like Star Wars, you could start with A New Hope and finish with Revenge of the Sith (though some would argue that, chronologically, you’d want to start with The Phantom Menace then finish with Return of the Jedi, but it really doesn’t matter…shut up, nerds).

A better example would be the Harry Potter movies. They were released in the same order in which they happen. So, I guess ignore the Star Wars example above.

Anyway, the movies that Marvel Studios has produced don’t exactly fit well chronologically with their release dates. Yes, you can watch them in order of release, and they’re very easy to follow, but if you want to do it comic book-style, then I’ve put together the following list, along with a summary of how they all fit together in the lead-up to The Avengers.

1. Captain America: The First Avenger

Although this was released last (this past July, to be exact), it takes place before Marvel Studios’ first movie, Iron Man. Steve Rogers’ battle with the Red Skull is only the backdrop in which we are introduced to the Cosmic Cube, a powerful object that will later be at the center of the conflict between the Avengers and the Norse god, Loki. Bucky Barnes, Captain America’s sidekick, is also featured, and he’ll no doubt play a big part in the eventual Cap sequel.

The movie also sets up a potential foe to S.H.I.E.L.D., in the form of HYDRA. Possibility for the sequel, maybe?

2. Iron Man

Marvel Studios’ first film is still considered to be its best. It features a billionaire playboy who makes a suit and fight bad guys. But Batman this is not. Tony Stark eventually shares his alternate identity with the world, and his powerful Iron Man suit becomes the envy of militaries the world over. His genius at designing weapons and the resources at his disposal place him squarely in the sights of Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D., who approaches him about a special government project, known as the Avenger Initiative. S.H.I.E.L.D., for those that don’t know, stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division. Toward the end of Iron Man, we’re also introduced to S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Phil Coulson. Agent Coulson will play a key role in a few more Marvel Studios movies and acts as Nick Fury’s point-man on the field.

Here’s where the timeline gets a little messy. Events in The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man 2 all seem to overlap, but I’ve done my best to figure out what movie happened when.

3. Iron Man 2

In the sequel to Iron Man, Tony Stark goes up against a crazed Russian with engineering chops comparable to his own. We’re also introduced to another S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, Natalia Romanova – a.k.a. Black Widow. Nick Fury plays a larger role here compared to his cameos in Iron Man and Captain America. While IM2 doesn’t add too much to the Avengers mythology, it does setup a few characters that will play a role in the upcoming superhero team-up, as well as potential sequels in the future.

Tony’s business rival in this movie, Justin Hammer, could potentially be a villain in a future Avengers sequel, or possibly even in a Captain America sequel (imagine this: Hammer arming and supporting Winter Soldier who’s out to get Steve Rodgers, but that’s just my own little theory).

Agent Coulson, who is assigned by Fury to babysit Tony Stark, receives another assignment about halfway through this flick. In the post-credits scene, he travels to New Mexico where Thor’s hammer had mysteriously landed.

4. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer (Marvel One Shot short film)

This short film is a bonus extra included in the Captain America home video release.

As of this writing, this short has yet to be released, but from what I’ve heard it features Agent Coulson traveling to New Mexico before the events of Thor.

5. Thor

This is the first Marvel Studios superhero flick to feature beings with actual super powers. Up until now, all the other Avengers-related stories had artificially-created heroes. This one features the Norse god of thunder, Thor, being banished from Asgard by his father, Odin. Sent to live among mortals on Earth (New Mexico, to be exact), Thor runs into Agent Coulson, newly arrived from Tony Stark’s estate in California. S.H.I.E.L.D. has tracked Thor’s fallen hammer, Mjolnir, and has setup shop around the crash site. Showing up for a cameo is Clint Barton, who will eventually join the Avengers as Hawkeye.

In the post-credits scene of Thor, Dr. Erik Selvig is approached by Nick Fury to study the Cosmic Cube, which has found its way into S.H.I.E.L.D. hands. Also shown in the scene is Loki, Thor’s villainous half-brother, who now intends to use the Cosmic Cube for his own purposes.

6. The Incredible Hulk

A reboot – and in some ways, a sequel to Ang Lee’s Hulk – that has Dr. Bruce Banner already in hiding after gaining his monstrous powers. After a run-in with super-soldier Emil Blonksy, a.k.a. the Abomination, Banner is now being sought after by S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s not too much of a stretch to connect the super-soldier program that created Captain America to the same tech that birthed the Hulk and the Abomination. In the post-credits scene, Tony Stark approaches Banner’s adversary, General “Thunderbolt” Ross, about a ‘special team’ being assembled.

Of potential interest to owners of The Incredible Hulk on DVD or Blu-ray is the alternate opening scene. In it, Banner is in self-banishment somewhere in the Arctic when a wave of anger comes over him. He starts Hulk-smashing everything around him, causing an avalanche. Pause the scene at the right time and you’ll see a man frozen in a block of ice (hint: it’s supposed to be Captain America). Whether this is canonical to the Avengers film universe is still in question.

7. The Consultant (Marvel One Shot short film)

This is the first released short in the One Shot film series. It was released as part of the Thor Blu-ray package.

Taking place concurrently with The Incredible Hulk, Agent Coulson meets with fellow agent Jasper Sitwell to discuss the event in New York (i.e. Hulk and the Abomination tearing things up). S.H.I.E.L.D. learns that General Ross and the World Security Council intends to release Blonksy from prison. This, obviously, does not sit well with Fury, so the two agents come up with a plan to keep Blonksy in jail, under the watchful eye of S.H.I.E.L.D.

It is revealed that the ‘consultant’ they send is Tony Stark. Stark’s conversation with Ross is the post-credits scene of The Incredible Hulk.

So, anyway, that’s my little theory to the ‘what-happened-when’ of the Avengers film universe. I think it’s awesome that Marvel Studios is approaching their film titles like a comic book. Each movie can be enjoyed on its own, like an individual title could in a comic. But, they all intertwine with one another in the same universe, again, just like the comics.

Who knows, maybe Warner Bros. and D.C. Comics can do the same for the Justice League.

October 11, 2011 at 5:23 pm Leave a comment

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