Summer Films Part 1

It’s been a fairly average year for summer films so far. Here’s what I’ve seen:

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
2014. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo


The first Captain America film from Marvel Studios had charming characters but no real plot to speak of. This sequel has both, plus well-paced action scenes and superbly choreographed fights. But unlike a lot of films these days the action doesn’t take away from the story, which is just the right balance of cheesy comic book camp and genuine spy vs. spy intrigue. Also, just enough time is given between action set pieces for the characters to breathe and develop, another thing sorely lacking in most recent blockbusters. Add in a villain that is just as menacing and complex as Bane from Nolan’s last Batman outing, a bigger, juicier role for Samuel L. Jackson, who has been criminally underused in genre films for the past decade, and you have a popcorn film that’s as stimulating as it is entertaining; a breath of fresh air in this age of slapped-together CG fests.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
2014. Directed by Marc Webb


This film has been called a mess. I’ve read critics who say it’s just a series of plot points thrown together, an unsatisfying and meaningless series of vignettes; but I beg to differ. As much as it irks me that Sony has rebooted Raimi’s much loved series, this sequel to the mediocre The Amazing Spider-Man is a much better film. It has stronger pacing and a more satisfying story. What seems like a series of disconnected scenes to some plays to me like the story of a very confused and stressed Peter Parker, torn by his feelings for his girlfriend,  his self-appointed duty to the city, and his search for his lost parents. I’ll also add that the structure that no one seems to see is definitely there. In this rebooted world of Spider-Man, Oscorp, the company that Peter’s father worked for, has created both Peter’s alter ego, as well as a slew of other super-powered beings who Peter must deal with. The corruption of the company is at the heart of the film’s conflict, and creates some amazing moments where I found myself rooting for the villains, who find themselves fighting Oscorp for their very lives. Not often is a comic book film made that feels so much like a comic book, full of melodramatic pathos, tragic villains, and episodic adventure. I was on board from the first rousing opening shot to the last.

2014. Directed by Gareth Edwards


The original Godzilla film was a dark and somber sci-fi monster film that worked as both a piece of King Kong-like entertainment and a moralistic statement about the consequences of technologically advanced warfare. Every Godzilla film since has presented an increasingly heroic monster defending his homeland from external monstrous threats. This second American reboot of the series wants to have it both ways: it attempts to combine the horror of 9/11 with the fun of a monster wrestling match, and fails miserably at both. It also attempts to make a giant monster film in which the human characters are the main focus and the giant monsters are the backdrop. It fails at this also because the human characters are jaw-droppingly dull, and what they have to do is as uninteresting as it is implausible. I love the Godzilla franchise, and I really wanted to like this film, but it’s 9/11 grimness, coupled with it’s ugly POV aesthetic and dull story make it pretty much unwatchable. The only redeeming part of the film is the first fifteen minutes, which feels like an entirely different and better film.

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Police Stories


Every few weeks a story come out about a police officer getting in  a fight with a photographer. Generally the altercation begins when the photographer tries to capture a shot that the officer deems unfit. The resulting aggression seems to stem from a basic misunderstanding of the law: what a photographer is or is not allowed to photograph and how much authority a police officer has over such actions. As a filmmaker, I’ve encountered my share of police officers while out shooting, but most of my encounters have been humorous ones.

In high school I was stopped by a cop for shooting a video in a park. Not because I was shooting a video but because my young friends were running around with brightly colored squirt guns, which he thought looked dangerous. We handed the officer one of the toy guns and he stood next to his cruiser for a long time, examining it. Then he told us to just shoot farther away from the road. He was actually pretty nice about it, allowing us to continue shooting rather than sending us home.

Another time my friends and I were out on a shoot when we saw a toilet on the side of the road. Of course we had to pull over and get footage. I parked and set up a tripod. Shortly after, as one of my friends was approaching the toilet and I had the camera rolling, a cop pulled up behind us. He walked over and asked “is that your commode?” I said no, and that we were just filming it. He thought a minute and then said, “okay” and drove off.

I snapped the photo featured above without either officer noticing me. I was walking around Greenville, South Carolina when I happened upon the scene. I assume the cruiser ran into the other car, but I don’t know how it happened. I also don’t know what the officers would have done if they had seen me taking the picture. I assume they wouldn’t have cared much. Most people around there were pretty laid back.

My weirdest encounter with the police happened a year ago. My friend Jeremy was out shooting video in a park while I did some intern work in an office a few blocks away. We were making a film over the weekend and Jeremy had decided that he might as well get some B-roll while I was at my internship. Three officers surrounded him, told him they could arrest him right on the spot for what he was doing, and then escorted him back to where I was working. They never explained why what he was doing was arrest worthy. He was just shooting video of the park lake and some trees, and he showed them all the footage he had captured. Apparently there was a little league baseball game going on at the other end of the park, and some parents had called to complain. A cruiser sat outside the office till we left, and it followed my friend when he walked over to the gas station to buy some coffee. It was a quiet Saturday in October and we assumed they were just bored.

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The Camera Snob and Photography


My job requires me to spend some time on photography blogs and forums every week, and I’m consistently surprised by how much snobbery I run into. It seems everyone has a premium brand or model they swear by, and the predominate claim is “costlier is better. While I won’t argue that expensive lenses and sensors can yield great results, I still want to grab the internet by it’s collective shoulders, give it a good shake and ask it a few simple questions: does your camera have ISO, shutter speed and aperture control? Do you understand the basics of composition and subject matter? If so, you have the tools to be a great photographer. So cut it out!

ISO, shutter speed and aperture: these three settings and the mastery of them, plus a basic knowledge of the art of photography are all it takes to take great photos. Having high quality, fast glass is great, but it’s not essential. Give an experienced photographer the cheapest entry level DSLR and some time and he’ll show you exactly what I’m talking about. It doesn’t even have to be a DSLR. A mirrorless or point-and-shoot camera that has these three settings will do, or even a camera with only some of these settings. Heck, give a photographer an automatic camera with no settings and if he has a mastery of composition and subject matter, he’ll still deliver something pretty great.

My point is this: cameras, be they digital or film, are amazing tools no matter how low-end they are, and we are privileged to live in an age where this advanced equipment is so cheap and accessible. I admit, it’s fun to obsess over the newest and slickest camera tech, to imagine what gear you could own if money was no object. But how many of us spend most of our time thinking about what we could achieve with what we don’t yet own when what we do own could achieve just as much if not more? I’m consistently blown away by the work of photographers who shoot this way, who humbly break out their humble gear and take amazing photos.

The Filmmaking community is very similar. I’ve encountered filmmaker’s who say you simply can’t shoot something worthwhile without a high-end camera, lights and a large crew. A friend of mine is working on a really beautiful looking sci-fi web series and I assumed his team was shooting it with RED Epics. I asked him what the process was like and he told me they were actually just using an entry level Canon Rebel T2i. Clearly, the quality of your image is determined by knowing your gear, not by owning the best.

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My Top Five Favorite Films of 2013

It was a weird year for me and film viewing. I ended up spending most of my time in cinemas watching mediocre summer fare, and I had to scramble at the end to rent and watch the films I had wanted to see all along. Well, I finally saw everything on my list and now I can present my top five favorites. Here they are:

1. Blue Jasmine


More than any other Woody Allen film, Blue Jasmine is a study of emotional pain. I was devastated by Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of a broken socialite driven to madness by her own bad choices and the selfishness of the people around her. The film often plays like a dark comedy, but there’s nothing funny about this story. Blanchett’s Jasmine weds a crooked real estate investor and her life and the lives of her sister and brother-in-law–who invest in his schemes–are subsequently destroyed. Having turned an intentionally blind eye to her husband’s crooked dealings, Jasmine is plagued by the knowledge that she is somewhat to blame for her own downfall and the pain she has caused her sister and son. She turns to drug and alcohol abuse for solace and her grip on life begins to spiral out of control. Her sister tries to show her grace, but her unwillingly to fully forgive Jasmine and her bad choices in men, who show Jasmine no grace at all, drive an irreparable wedge between them. While some characters in this film make slightly better choices than others, no one is without guilt, and everyone contributes to the pain of everyone else. It’s one of Allen’s approaches to storytelling that I’ve always appreciated: his unflinching portrayal of a world where no one is blameless. The film ends on a very dark note, and I’ll never look at a crazed homeless person the same way again. It’s a film worth watching for that fact alone.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis


It’s remarkable how many kinds of films the Cohen brothers have made: gritty crime thrillers, madcap comedies, mannered period pieces, psychological dramas, and musical extravaganzas. They’ve tinkered with 1940s fast talking noir, cartoonish grunge and violent realism. It’s hard to imagine, watching Inside Llewyn Davis, a slow period piece character study, that these are the same guys who brought us The Big Lebowski, yet both films, though wildly different from each other in tone and execution, share the Cohens signature wit and candor, the unexpected events and great characters. Llewyn Davis is a folk musician working in the 1960s Greenwich Village scene who can’t seem to catch a break. The Cohen’s walk a thin line with this character, placing him somewhere between sympathetic protagonist and jerk loser, and though you’re constantly tempted to feel sorry for him, he continues to make the worst possible choices in every situation, facing the ironic consequences. Llewyn is his own worst enemy and you often don’t know weather to laugh or cry at his escapades. We follow his mournful wanderings for a few cold winter days and then the film just ends. In a cinematic culture where plot is king It’s refreshing to see a simple character study that’s also rich in complex characterization.

3. Upstream Color


I discovered Shane Carruth’s first film, Primer, in high school and it blew me away–a micro budget, naturalistically acted, beautifully shot film about time travel that was so deliciously complicated I still can’t understand or explain it all. I bought it and watched it again and again. Ten years later Carruth is back with his second feature, a much more technically complex yet simpler film about a woman and a man who are deeply connected by traumatic experiences that may themselves be connected. To say much more would spoil the plot, but one thing I can say is that the story, though just as bizarre as Primer’s, makes much more sense by its end. I was actually a little disappointed by how concrete it was, regardless of the trippy, sometimes almost abstract visuals. The acting is just as powerfully natural as it was in Primer, and the cinematography is, in many ways, better, if a tad trendier, but the overall affect of the film isn’t a tenth as powerful as Carruth’s first. That being said, it’s a fine film and really worth watching. As miffed as it made me, I still really enjoyed it. I guess I’m just glad to have an old friend back

4. Gravity


Gravity is a film with a simple plot where things happen and we get on with it. It’s refreshing in an age of three hour CG extravaganzas to see something so spectacular yet so grounded in telling its simple story. The visuals are lovely and the performances are great. I didn’t think I’d like it based on the CG heavy trailers, but it was actually the fleetest, most well-crafted film I’ve seen this year. Also, it’s the first film I’ve seen in 3D where the 3D effects actually served a purpose and made the experience better. Hats off to Alfonso Cuaron for this little masterpiece.

5. The World’s End


I wouldn’t have liked this film half as much if it hadn’t have been for its brilliant ending, a bonkers science fiction creation worthy of Douglas Adams. It’s really quite a joy to behold and elevates the film to an almost poetic level. Writers and co-stars Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright should be proud. Like their previous films, Hot Fuzz and Shaun of The Dead, The World’s End is a tightly written and choreographed genre parody with heart, this time dealing with a man who never grew up and his desperate attempt to re-live the glory days with his now very grown up friends. As they return to their hometown and begin a bar crawl of epic proportions, they begin to realize things aren’t as they seem. Violence explodes on all sides as our heroes get more and more drunk in a desperate attempt to survive. A ridiculous premise pulled off to near perfection. I could have done with a bit more verbal and a bit less literal sparring, but otherwise this film was just great.

Honorable Mentions:

To The Wonder


Terrence Malick consistently makes films that take my breath away. The Tree of Life may be the most powerful film I’ve ever seen, dealing with a young boy growing up in a small Texas town in the 60s who suffers loss and seeks after God. Like The Tree of Life, To The Wonder continues Malick’s meditations on man and his relation to God, this time threading through the wreckage of multiple broken marriages and relationships in present day America. Like Tree, it took my breath away and brought me close to tears. What kept it from being my number one film of the year was its unforgivable use of nudity, though very infrequent and mostly half-veiled. I simply can’t recommend it for this reason, though an edited version I would definitely recommend. The film is potent with love and selfishness, forgiveness and bitterness, and ultimately ends on a low note; but at the same time it shows us a world teaming with beauty and wonder, and characters so close to the truth of God and his love that they can almost taste it. Unlike The Tree of Life, one character in this film has actually found God and His son Jesus. A Catholic priest, played hauntingly by Javier Bardem, both laments the dark valley of doubt he finds himself in and continues on faithfully in humble service to his master, at one point asking God in wonder where He is leading him, and intoning “Christ in front of me, Christ behind me, Christ to my left, Christ to my right.” Unlike the Christian cinema that I so wish Malick was a part of, nothing is easy in the world of To The Wonder, and no nice resolutions are reached. I found this frustrating but also truthful. People apart from Christ may reach close to what true repentance and forgiveness is, but in the end they never truly take hold of it without the Holy Spirit’s leading. To The Wonder is a haunting reminder of this truth, and the beautiful fact that Christ is always near, offering us forgiveness, grace and joy in the wonder that He is.

After Earth


The critics forgot to tell people it was okay to like an M. Night Shyamalan film again, so this one had an amount of disgust rained down upon it equal to his previous two directorial abominations, a very unfair treatment of a film that basically worked and wasn’t terribly bad. People should be encouraging the man for getting a little better, not tearing him down further. If we keep doing that, we’ll never coax another gem like The Sixth Sense out of him. Sad, but it’s good to see one of my favorite directors on his feet again, or at least sitting up. Word is he’s working on a TV show. Hopefully it gets him back the credit he deserves.

Dishonorable Mentions:

Man of Steel


It had all the spirit of roadkill, and all the cynicism Hollywood could muster. Add to that an ungodly running time and a palette of ash and destruction, and you get this mess. I refuse to believe Christopher Nolan had anything to do with it.

The Lone Ranger


Lockstep loyalty to the approved Liberal narrative of history means joyless, dour period pieces, full of sermonizing and capitalist/Christian/white male bashing. This was one of those. A western doesn’t really work if it’s made by people who literally hate the west. Luckily, even modern film goers couldn’t stand it. Hopefully Disney learns a lesson.

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The Desolation Of The Hobbit


And I thought I had mixed feelings about the first Hobbit film! I’ve seen Peter Jackson’s second installment of his Hobbit Trilogy, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, three times now and I still don’t know what to think about it. As in the first film, Jackson and his Weta wizards run amok with Tolkien’s beloved novel, cramming cartoony action scenes, bonkers sub plots and alternative character motivations in every nooks and cranny. The result is a film that’s both immensely enjoyable as cinematic entertainment and extremely insulting as an adaptation. I actually walked out of the theater the first time I saw it. It was late in the film, the characters had all strayed as far away from the plot as they possibly could and Thorin was shouting at Bilbo to “pull the lever!” Visions of a drug-addled Bela Lugosi babbling nonsense in an armchair filled my head and I fled, not after hurling a few childish insults at the screen.



And yet, I was intrigued enough to go back twice; I really admire Peter Jackson as a filmmaker, and it’s not every day one of his films is playing in cinemas.Words fail me as I try to sum up my thoughts on this glorious, messy, obnoxious film, so instead I’ll just tell you what I liked and what I found to be desolation.

What I liked:


As in the first Hobbit, the art design here is exquisite, and this film gets to show off a lot more than it’s predecessor. We see an ancient tangled forest, intricately detailed giant spiders, a beautiful cavern kingdom and a rustic, run-down wooden city on a lake. Aside from a few obvious set-to-location transitions, everything is excellently rendered and the set and lighting design is incredible. Jackson and his team are craftsmen and it’s a joy to see what they can accomplish completely unfettered from budget constraints or technical limitations.

Though the plot deviates wildly from Tolkien’s work, there are some noteworthy exceptions. The Spider attack scene, though heavily rushed and rudely interrupted by elves, stays mostly true to the book and is pretty thrilling. The talking spiders are particularly faithful and I couldn’t help thinking of my Dad reading this scene to me when I was little and doing the voices all high pitched and hissing just like they are in this film. Jackson did get a bit tricksy, making the Spider’s language only understandable to Bilbo when he puts on his magic ring, but it’s a clever deviation and reminiscent of elements of Norse mythology, so I’ll give it a pass. The Smaug and Bilbo scene is also fairly faithful to Tolkien’s text, up to a point, even if said dragon and burglar are gallivanting about in the treasure rather than staying put. The Arkenstone figures too prominently, and the scene eventually breaks down into revision, but for a few glorious moments, Tolkien’s clever dialog shines through.

Much has been said about the additions that Jackson took from Tolkien’s other writings on Middle Earth. It’s a particularly favored approach by film critics who haven’t read a page of Tolkien. They use it to cover a multitude of Jackson and his fellow screenwriters’ adaptation sins. I’ve recently re-read both The Hobbit and said additional texts, and the argument is mostly rubbish. One wonders why film critics can’t pick up a book once and a while. What Jackson did actually borrow he distorted out of recognition, excepting Gandalf’s quest to confront the Necromancer. Tolkien wrote little on the subject and mostly left it up to his reader’s imagination, so Jackson’s thrilling take is actually a welcome, if overlong and slightly pandering addition. It’s a lot of fun to see our old friend Gandalf play magical detective, wandering though ancient ruins and muttering incantations. Sir Ian McKellen is as twinkly-eyed and wonderful as ever as the old wizard. I didn’t even mind that Radagast tagged along this time. It seems Jackson took a page from George Lucas’s book and toned down the most hated character from his previous film.

Lastly, there was one addition in this film that (gasp!) I actually liked. Tauriel is a ridiculous character who was added simply to play into the current fad of female fantasy characters that kick butt. Unlike Tolkien’s lone fighting female character Éowyn from Lord of The Rings, Tauriel is not driven to combat out of desperation. Instead, she’s the captain of the Mirkwood elven guard, the leader of a force of fighting men. It makes zero sense in Tolkien’s world, a world in which there is a distinct division between the roles of men and women. That being said, there’s a scene in which she explains her love of starlight to a dwarf. It’s the most beautiful, delicate scene in the film and really helps flesh out that part of Tolkien’s world. It helps that the dialog is lifted directly from Tolkien’s narrative prose. Sadly, Tauriel does a lot more damage than good.

What was Desolation:


Beorn is my favorite character in The Hobbit, and his existence in the narrative really fleshes out the broader world of Middle Earth that Tolkien otherwise mostly breezes through in his first novel on the subject. Beorn lives in a massive house in the wild that he built with his own two hands. He loves food and animals and has plenty of both. He names things because he likes the sound, and he’s kind and good-natured, if unpredictably fierce. In a sense, Beorn represents the cultures that told the stories that Tolkien was inspired by. He’s an homage to a simple, strong and imaginative people; a people that one gets the sense Tolkien longed to belong to. Jackson rushes through all these beautiful details and ends up with just a big gruff violent guy, not to mention a major deviation from the plot. What was once a clever scene displaying Galdalf’s social ingenuity and Beorn’s true nature becomes just one more action set piece. We also get a tacked-on back story that, though I guess it could be implied from the text, makes Beorn seem a lot less than what he’s supposed to be.

Jackson’s “character’s giving up in the 11th hour” syndrome is still annoyingly in full play. Just like Samwise before him, Thorin and his dwarven crew journey all the way to the lonely mountain and then throw a fit and abandon the quest the moment things get hard. We also get characters “staying behind,” kind of like when Bilbo and Sam got dragged halfway across Middle Earth in The Two Towers before Faramir suddenly realized his charcter would never do such a thing. But these are all to be expected in a Jackson film. and didn’t bother me that much.

What did bother me was Fan Fiction Legolas. Seriously, what was he doing here? I expected a cameo, but instead I got a super-charged action hero way more powerful than he ever was in The Lord of The Rings trilogy. He slays hundreds of orcs in ways that are, as my bow hunting brother-in-law aptly pointed out, pretty much impossible. Even if this wasn’t an adaptation–Legolas never makes an appearance in the book–the character dosn’t work. He comes out of nowhere with no development and falls directly to dolling out heaps of violence. One scene near the end of the film pits him against a massive orc in a quiet winter town in the moonlight. Visually it works well and it’s obviously a setup for a rematch in the major battle coming in part three, but it left me wondering: what am I watching right now? How does this have anything to do with the story? It’s as if one of the thirteen year old girls who had a major crush on Legolas back in 2001 and wrote a fan fiction version of The Hobbit with Legolas playing a major role as the dashing hero who constantly saves the day behind the scenes, forgot to delete her Xanga account, and Jackson found it and thought, “why the heck not?” Seriously, it’s that bad. I’ll admit, as a fan of the Lord of The Rings films it’s kind of fun to see Orlando Bloom back in the roll, but it just dosn’t work.

Peter Jackson was a very different filmmaker in 2001 when the Fellowship of The Ring came out. He employed a fairly classical style, mostly keeping the camera on a tripod and covering shots in long takes. Though that style is still somewhat at play, and I would hesitate to lump him with the “chaos cinema” crowd, something pretty major has changed. He now employs cameras that swoop every which way, and his action scenes are overly acrobatic, not helped by overly frenetic editing. It appears that physics have ceased to work in Middle Earth, and sets seem to be constructed more vertically than horizontally. There’s an awful lot of falling in this film. I think King Kong is mostly to blame for this shift in style. Released in 2005, Kong was a super indulgent film utilizing all of the tech tricks that Jackson and his team learned while making Lord of The Rings. It’s as fun and schlocky as a film about a giant gorilla should be, but I think the approach it took to action, hurtling the viewer down every cliff and right at every giant creature as it lunged, never went away at Weta. And while it certainly is a fun style, it causes the world of Tolkien to lose some of the levity and believability it had in Jackson’s first trilogy.

At the end of the day The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a deeply flawed film, both as a narrative and as an adaptation, and a very entertaining bit of cinema. By act three, when elves are healing dwarves with magic and duking it out WWF style, a dwarven king is riding in a wheelbarrow in lava and swinging on ropes while his men build a weaponized statue, and Smaug forgets he’s a deadly dragon and won’t stop monologing, I just have to shake my head and give up. Maybe Jackson will finally get it right in part three. Maybe he’ll stop supergluing action scenes to Tolkien’s already perfectly balanced tale. Maybe he’ll finally learn that more is sometimes less. Maybe.


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