Green Town – A Video Tribute to Ray Bradbury

I grew up in Waukegan, Illinois–learned to ride my bike on it’s sidewalks, developed my first friendships and crushes on it’s playgrounds, began to love nature in it’s parks and preserves. I also learned to love reading in it’s downtown library, a sprawling and boxy 1960’s artifact filled to the brim with dusty old books and strange statues. It was here, around the age of 12, that Ray Bradbury stole my heart. I picked up one of his collections of short stories of the shelf–maybe it was October Country?–opened it and was hooked. His poetic prose and vibrant imagery were like a drug to my young mind, and I devoured most of his writings in the space of a couple months, immediately aping his style in my messy notebooks, desperately trying to write a story as exciting and melodic and moody as one of his.

As I grew I never lost my passion for Bradbury–it only deepened as I began to learn how much of a creative connection he had to Waukegan, the place where I also became an artist. Recently I discovered this interview with him that was recorded shortly before he died in 2012, and I knew I had to make a video.

Here’s the video I made, featuring audio from the interview edited to footage I captured of the actual places in Waukegan Bradbury is describing. I shot the video on a GoPro HERO 4 Black set to 120 frames per-second to achieve the slow motion effect, mounted on a motorized gimbal to smooth out the footage.

This film was an honor and a delight to make, and has been featured on a couple of Ray Bradbury and Waukegan Facebook pages. I owe so much to Ray and his wonderful life and writing, and I’m so glad I could finally create something to pay him a little tribute.

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The Spiritual and the Mundane Side by Side

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As Christians we are told by our Savior that those who seek a sign are a wicked generation–but the spiritual gifts given at Pentecost have not gone away. Last summer my roommate prayed for a pain-stricken woman who was instantly healed, and one of the students I help lead encountered a demon that was beaten back by prayer and dependence on Christ’s power. Neither of these instances involved spiritual power being wielded by humans, but simply followers of Christ depending on His power for providence and protection.

There are those in the Christian church today, many well meaning, who teach that spiritual gifts and miracles such as these no longer exist, that God speaks only through His word now and it is the only gift and miracle we need. I used to rest in this camp, but I can’t experience what I experienced last summer and write it off as plain emotionalism. My church visited a people who believe in the power of evil spiritual forces, and Christ manifested His power to show that He has the ultimate authority, even over those rebellious spirits.

One night I slept in fear because I had begun to give into the temptation to believe that demonic powers were able to harm me even as a child of God. Another night I slept in peace, remembering the promise that “He that is in me is mightier than he that is in the world.” One night I was troubled by spiritual forces attempting to harm me, another night I rested in and was refreshed by the good God who cares for me and protects me.

Today I’m back in the morass of middle class American consumerism and I’m already doubting what I saw with my own two eyes. It’s easy to see salvation as a logical choice that stems from having a relationship with a Christian who reasons with you until you gain an understanding of the gospel and repent and accept Christ’s working. Though this is a totally legitimate process of salvation, it’s not the only one. Where my church visited we saw men saved by intimately repenting and the demons in them fleeing. We saw people gain an understanding of the gospel in minutes rather than long years.

The reason I think we Western Christians have such difficulty in accepting the miraculous side of our faith is because we can’t see it for what it is: the spiritual and the mundane side by side. Either we want to live our lives in the mundane, thinking of Christ and His kingdom as logical realities to be reasoned through, or we want to live only in the spiritual realm, looking for miracles around every corner and thinking that our salvation is defined by how much power the Holy Spirit works through us. The hard truth is, to get to the home of the demon possessed man you must first wake up, thank God for the morning, take a shower, eat breakfast, and drive over. Maybe breakfast is late, maybe your car breaks down–God cares just as much about these physical realities as he does about spiritual realities. When you are able to cast out the demon in the name of Christ, the formerly possessed man may still need food, shelter and medical attention.

This isn’t as exciting or sexy as living in a purely spiritual world, and it’s more messy and emotional than most scholars would like, but this is the world God calls us to live in–a holistic reality where we care for both the body and the soul, God’s current creation and the new one to come. I want to stop doubting and accept both God’s miracles and His hard truths.

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Mini Reviews: 2015 Awards Season Films – Part 2

The Hateful Eight

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As a storyteller Quentin Tarantino is a cold-hearted chess player. He sets up his characters on the board and then pits them against each other in violent combat, gazing unflinchingly at the resulting carnage, uncaring and unmoved. This clinical approach seemed to be slipping slightly in Tarantino’s 2012 film Django Unchained, in which he seemed to truly care for a couple of the characters he sent into the fray, but its back with a vengeance in The Hateful Eight, which is undoubtedly his most sadistic and amoral film to date. That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its redeeming features, but you have to dig through a couple of inches of gore to find them.

The film opens with a wooden crucifix displaying Christ contorted with pain on the cross. Perhaps its just Gothic set dressing, but my guess is it has more significance–its warning us that we’re about to see some of the horrific evils Christ came to die for. The story unfolds as eight shifty characters hole up in a haberdashery to wait out a blizzard. The Civil War has just ended and soldiers who fought on both sides are present. There’s a black Union soldier turned bounty hunter with a history or ruthless killing under his belt, as well as two former Confederates guilty of similar atrocities. A second bounty hunter has a ruthless female killer chained to his wrist who he’s taking into town to hang, and the rest of the shifty company may or may not be who they claim.

As the film unfolds, characters shift around the large single room of the haberdashery, discussing the nature of justice and arguing the finer points of war and race. No one is clean–everyone has blood on their hands–but Tarantino picks a side early on. Soon cataclysmic violence erupts and plot twists start coming fast and loose. By the film’s end two of the more sympathetic characters have formed an unlikely alliance, overlooking their vast differences in an attempt to survive. It’s a strangely sweet note in an otherwise sour work, and the only redeeming aspect of the story. For all the hatefulness and violence on screen, this film is actually really well made; I just really didn’t like watching it.

The Revenant

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I should love The Revenant–it has everything I love in it: great actors, realistic period art design, a beautiful and hypnotic score, and stunning natural light cinematography by one of my favorite cinematographers–but I really don’t care for the thing. The film is based on the true life story of trapper Hugh Glass, who was mauled by a bear and abandoned in the American wilderness only to eventually catch up with the men who left him for dead. It’s a great story but unfortunately Director Alejandro González Iñárritu makes all the wrong revisionist choices, adding extra levels of violence and conflict to an already thrilling tale and tacking on an unnecessary revenge plot that makes the film more of a big dumb historical action flick like The Patriot than the deep art film it so desperately wants to be.

There are some great moments in The Revenant, moments that transcend the film and thrill with their beauty, but these are few and far between and are muddied by an overabundance of fake looking CG-enhanced action scenes, an overbearing blue color palette, unnecessarily fancy camera work and a complete lack of spacial reasoning, which makes one question the implied difficulty of Glass’s journey. He basically wanders around and bumps into whichever character or group of characters he needs to meet next, and we cut from mountains to rivers to plains to frozen lakes without any sort of visual coherence.

The film ends with a fight scene of unearned brutality and a statement that so overly simplifies what we’ve just seen that I want to reach into the screen and slap the character who says it. I’m not sure why The Revenant has garnered such praise from critics or so many Oscar nominations. It feels more like a missed opportunity than a great work.

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Spy Vs Spy Vs Spy: Mission Impossible, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Spectre Go Head to Head to Head

This summer brought us not one super spy film, but two, with Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and when the holiday movie months arrived, it was once again time for another entry in the James Bond franchise: Spectre. Instead of reviewing these three films separately I decided to pit them against each other in a no-holds barred fight to the death. Let’s see who’s left standing when the dust clears.

Characters

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Every film needs them, and Mission Impossible has a couple, but they’re all pretty bland. It feels like they all have interesting back stories and relationships that have happened off screen, I just wish they could have happened on screen instead. Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg play their parts amiably, and Tom Cruise’s Agent Ethan Hunt is steely eyed and daring as ever but not much else. Many of the characters in this film were introduced in 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, but then as now they had little depth or development. For such a huge franchise, it feels like an opportunity to create enduring screen characters has been wasted.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. fares much better with it’s characters. It’s trio, played by Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, and Alicia Vikander, have plenty of fun scenes together, and the film seems more interested in developing their characters than anything else. Unfortunately, Spectre gets the lowest ranking in terms of character. Craig is great as Bond, as burly and volatile as ever, but the rest of the characters kind of just lie there, from a bland bond girl to a villain with zero motivation and nothing to do. It’s kind of sad really.

Winner: The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Action

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The action in U.N.C.L.E. is fast and hard to follow. It relies heavily on computer graphics and flashy editing and seems to be more of an afterthought than anything else. Imposible‘s action on the other hand is jaw-droppingly awesome. It’s so well paced and so exciting that it trumps everything else in the film. Cruise does a lot of his own stunts and it really helps sell the shots. We get to see him hanging from a real airplane in flight, racing down precarious mountain roads on a motorcycle without a helmet, and enduring one of the hardest to watch underwater scenes in movie history. There’s also some excellent hand to hand combat, both by Cruise and co-star Rebecca Ferguson.

The action in Spectre is pretty good too, with plenty of exciting set pieces in exotic locales and a climactic escape scene. That being said, it just doesn’t have the style, grace or raw energy of Impossible’s action.

Winner: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Plot

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Spy films thrive on overly convoluted, improbable plotting, and all three of these films suffered from just that–but which had the best? The plots in both Impossible and U.N.C.L.E. seemed to exist solely to forward the action and character building. Both were hard to follow and kind of fell apart when you thought about them, and neither had very interesting protagonists. The convolution in Impossible was a bit more annoying than U.N.C.L.E.‘s because it took itself more seriously without having the actual dramatic weight to justify it. Spectre also had an overly serious and problematic plot. Plot points were set up then dropped halfway through the film and a big reveal at the end didn’t really thrill any but the most die hard Bond fans. It also attempted and and failed to tie plot threads of the three previous Craig Bond films together, making for quite a mess of a story.

Now, as much as I liked the simplicity and lightness of U.N.C.L.E.’s plot. Impossible’s tangled web of intruge still made for a more enjoyable ride with higher emotional stakes. So as much as it annoyed me, I have the concede that it probably was the best of the lot.

Winner: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

Cinematography/Art Design

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The opening for U.N.C.L.E. is beautifully shot to appear as if it’s a Cold War news reel. Even after this conceit fades to a more polished look, the film maintains it’s 60’s aesthetic, right down to grainy film, gaudy colors, whip zooms and long tracking shots. The costumes and sets are impeccable and the lighting strikes just the right mix of classic studio and modern realism. Impossible is more polished, with lots of swooping aerial shots and shiny spy interiors. That being said, there are some very beautifully stylized scenes including a knife fight performed mostly in silhouette and a protracted sniper scene in the dimply lit catwalks above an opera.

Our underdog Spectre has a surprising comeback here! As beautiful as the opera scene was in Impossible, Spectre blows it away with the beauty of its every shot. The film opens with an impressive single take of a Day of The Dead parade in Mexico City, and then takes us to a brooding Italian city at night, a gorgeous mountain lake in winter, a dusty Eastern city at sunset, and a bizarre technological citadel in the middle of nowhere. The set and costume design are superb, and the cinematography just sparkles. If only the film could have been as good as it looked.

Winner: Spectre

And the Winner Is… Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol!

I’ve read a couple reviews arguing that the Mission Impossible franchise has stolen the mantle of best super spy series from James Bond, and I have to admit, I kind of agree. Even though I wasn’t a huge fan of the previous film, Rogue Nation was a pleasure to see in theaters, and a classy endeavor at that. As Bond continues to seduce the ladies and play with weird gadgets, its nice to see a series that takes the theme of spying a bit more seriously without losing the fun of a Bond film or entering the dark dramatic grounds of the Bourne series. Even though I’m not huge fan of the franchise, I’m looking forward to watching Agent Ethan Hunt’s next adventure.

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Winter Forest Gimbal Video

I grew up next to Lyons Woods in Waukegan, Illinois, and to this day I’m still drawn back there. It’s a beautiful forest full of grand old oaks and strange rows of pine trees, and I know every inch of it. I recently had the opportunity to test a new brushless gimbal for GoPro cameras, and I knew where to test it.

I shot this video with a HERO4 Black set to 4K and Protune to give me extra grading flexibility in post. I reduced the focus in post to counteract the HERO’s sharpness, giving the footage a more cinematic feel. The poem in this video is one I wrote in high school, and is inspired by a winter walk I took in these same woods years ago.

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