Thursday, 26 June 2014

Belong (A Short Film)

At la universidad I was given the assignment of creating a short film under the crazy-low length of 90 seconds. At this length the challenge becomes finding a nice balance between making a short with one basic scene, and making something with a true narrative arc.

Well, mine is complete now, and here it is for you to witness. It's about trying to fit in and "Belong", but it's not necessarily optimistic about this universal human desire.

I should warn you, I decided to try some trippy constant-panning which has made some people not only perch on the edge of their seats - but also fall off their chairs. Strap in.

Yours evidently,

Brief Review of "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968)

In terms of scope, 2001: A Space Odyssey is difficult to compare. It is one of very few films which succeed at commenting on the big picture of life itself.

The film is structured as a series of seemingly disconnected chapters, or vignettes, each of which take place in a totally different environment and time period. Recurring through these stories however, is the mysterious monolith, which likely represents the involvement of aliens in the narrative.

We see a broad picture of human evolution. From apes to astronauts, from sticks to complicated space age technology. The film’s themes are painted with strokes broad enough that many different conclusions can be derived from the text. For many the film is about how aliens created humanity and guided our entire evolution.

I find the fourth act, which depicts a human expedition to Jupiter, most engaging. It features an artificial intelligence called HAL, which has been copied, sourced and replicated in hundreds of science fiction narratives in modern culture. HAL is still one of the best though, the perfect mix between human and robotic, likeable and terrifyingly sinister. When he is being activated it is intriguing to witness HAL plead for his virtual life.

The film’s special effects are outstanding for the time, and still stand up today - nearly half a century later. Though we may laugh at the men in ape costumes, they still have a practical, confrontingly true quality, which still beats the incredible CGI possible today. And solid as the rest of the film is the score. The use of classical music “Also sprach Zarathustra” has become a cultural icon.

There’s a reason 2001 is still regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, and that is because it goes further than any other Hollywood production dares, sticking it’s fingers deep into mind-twisting themes that no one was previously talking about. It is a perfect discussion film, and will likely be analysed forever, or at least until humanity finds rebirth in the stars.

Brief Review of "No Country For Old Men" (2007)

It’s bizarre, violent, unpredictable and authentically American. Yes, it’s a Coen brothers film.

Written by the Coen brothers but based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men is possibly the Coen brothers’ most violent film, which is saying something. From the very beginning Anton Chigurh, played enigmatically by Javier Bardem, is killing people left and right in brutally creative ways.

The narrative meanders contemplatively, but essentially this is the story of Llewelyn Moss. When Llewelyn happens upon the scene of a drug deal gone wrong and consequently two million dollars, he decides to keep the money for himself - despite the danger he knows comes with it. Said danger comes in the form of Anton Chigurh, a hitman who has been hired to reclaim the money. Very quickly Anton is recognisable as an utter psychopath. In his first scenes he is seen strangling a sheriff’s deputy and stealing a car by killing the driver with a captive bolt pistol.

Carving a trail of destruction through West Texas, these two men play cat-and-mouse through ingenious set pieces involving switcharoos and a lot of spilt blood. Both parties are proficient and practical: good at improvising and even fixing up their injuries after a violent encounter. It’s always refreshing to watch such clever and driven characters on screen.

The authorities trying to keep up with this conflict however, are not so quick on their feet. Or they’re just unlucky. A handful of police die while trying to intervene in the million dollar chase. Perhaps the police fail because they are simply less driven, without the money as an encouraging prize.

The film’s soundscape is a subtle and carefully designed construct which plays a huge role in the success of the production. Dialogue is minimal and music is non-existent, leaving the few sound effects to stand out as powerful and punchy. Every time Anton blows open a door handle the accompanying “bang!” is unexpected enough to make the audience jump.

The film’s style and narrative is unconventional and unpredictable in the usual Coen brothers fashion. You never really know what’s going to happen, who are the lead characters, and how much longer anyone will be alive. But as viewers we are allowed to enjoy this uncertainty, because this is an impeccable piece of filmmaking. The audience is always in the safest of hands with the Coen brothers, despite the terrible danger of their narratives.

Brief Review of "The Hurt Locker" (2008)

The Hurt Locker is a film about Sergeant William James, a daring and reckless explosives disposal expert. The film opens with a quote from the book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” which sums up the central theme explored by director Kathryn Bigelow: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug”.

James is addicted to the thrill of war. This is revealed through his keen desire to put himself in the middle of dangerous situations, and the fact that at the end of the film, when his service is over, he decides to leave his family and return to Iraq. This interesting character is made totally believable by a steady, focused performance by Jeremy Renner. When the drama escalates in the second half of the film, James deals with the situations both expertly but also with just enough humanity for the viewer to empathise with the character.

Kathryn Bigelow’s filmmaking style is intense to say the least. Scenes build tension with fast cutting between close and wide angles. Unlike typical actions films, however, this cutting is performed with a proficiency that allows the scene to be clear and understandable for the viewer. The film never dissolves into an indiscernible whirlwind of incomprehensible quick cuts, as would be easy to do.

The Hurt Locker is one of the most interesting and accurate depictions of modern warfare on film. It is relevant to our time and morally interesting - and not only for soldiers but for all people and their everyday lives. The film shows that it is possible for one to become addicted to a dangerous or destructive activity without realising. It raises the question for the United States: will they be able to leave the war when they have the chance, or will they keep looking for conflict, because that is what they are used to?

Brief Review of "Beyond The Hills" (2012)

Beyond the Hills is a confronting film about religion, illness and madness. Director Cristian Mungiu has crafted a balanced narrative with a keen eye on the church’s line of tolerance, and the ethics therein.

We enter the convent and learn its systems with Alina, whose character flavours our impressions with caution and uncertainty. But throughout the film Alina becomes increasingly ill, crazy and distant. In some scenes we don’t even see her face, just the back of her and the apprehensive faces of those she is confronting. VoichiĊ£a could then be seen as the protagonist of the film, but as a whole the film follows no one character, but rather the ideas and moral questions at the core of the events.

The film is tremendously dialogue-heavy. There are dozens of scenes with many characters exchanging vast back-and-forths in soft, hushed voices. And there is always drama in the discussion, with characters always requesting, convincing, disciplining or attempting to understand one another. This constant and evolving conflict and debate comprises the core intrigue of the film. These scenes are also exceptional for their length without cuts; many long takes go for minutes in one camera shot.

To pick nits, the film is probably too long. Some shots are too dark and too slow, and could have been trimmed without losing atmosphere or meaning. That said, the filmmaker’s choice to take his ponderous own time is commendable.

The final scenes, in which the priest and several nuns are arrested for the murder of Alina, show a striking twist of power dynamics. Suddenly the priest, who until now has been a sure-minded leader, appears like a child who has been caught doing something naughty, obeying the every instruction of the now-dominant police.

The amount of drama that can be caused by one individual (in this case, the character Alina) is incredible.

Brief Review of "The Piano" (1993)

The Piano is a beautiful and dramatic telling of a tragic romance story. Set in the 19th century, the narrative follows a mute woman, Ada, and her daughter, Flora. Despite her desire to keep a distance from others, Ada finds herself caught between two men in a dark love triangle.

Exquisite cinematography and art design is paramount in the film’s successful world building. The setting of the murky New Zealand coast and its misty woods provides an incredible atmosphere, particularly in some of the rainy scenes towards the end of the film. Director Jane Campion demonstrates a powerful mastery of mise en scene; every shot is interestingly framed, and often has layers of meaning and subjects in both the foreground and background. Furthermore, a remarkably unobtrusive edit lets the drama play out very organically. Scenes are minimally cut, and there is a strong sense that no shot is wasted, or is too long or too short.

The piano at the heart of the film acts as a metaphoric plot device. It is essential to Ada, practically replacing the void her muteness creates. Early on, playing the piano is emphasised as her favourite and most essential activity, as it’s the only time she can express herself. But then in order to get closer to her, Baines and Stewart inadvertently corrupt this haven.

Musically, the piano is brilliantly incorporated. It’s playing within scenes is oft interweaved into the already excellent score by Michael Nyman.

Interestingly, Baines is for some time perceived to be the villain of the piece and Stewart seems the faultless hero, but the drama thickens and their roles are reversed in the second act when Ada demonstrates her affections for Baines.

In a meta-narrative flair worthy of Shakespeare, the play within the movie - which depicts a killer with an axe - effectively foreshadows the end of the film when Stewart, angry and betrayed, wields an axe against Ada. When he dramatically cuts off her finger, removing her ability to express herself through piano, the camera lingers with Ada as she struggles to comprehend her circumstances. Holly Hunter’s performance is wall to wall incredible, drawing in the viewer with a physical and emotional intensity. This climactic moment is heightened ever more by gloomy rain and the use of slow motion. Many powerful moments in the film take on a theatrical, larger-than-life quality which is epic and cinematically appealing.

All of her voices destroyed, Ada attempts to kill herself, but as she is drowning she finds the will to live. Emerging rebirthed from the water, she begins to speak again. A statement not only on the resilience of the human spirit, but the ability for one to change and grow through sincere effort.

Brief Review of "Chungking Express" (1994)

Chungking Express is a wacky romance film in two parts. Both set in the same area of Hong Kong, director Wong Kar-wai tells two similar stories of characters between relationships. In the first, a policeman who is struggling to forget his previous sweetheart, May, goes out to find any distraction he can. As fate has it, he meets and develops a seemingly platonic relationship with a surreptitious drug smuggler. The idea of a policeman and a drug smuggler unknowingly developing a relationship is striking, and speaks to the film’s ideas on the city environment: a place where so many people’s lives bump into each other so randomly and frequently that anything is possible.

The second story follows another policeman in grief after being abandoned by his girlfriend. This officer attracts the attentions of Faye, who works at a snack bar, and the story follows the development of their unclear relationship. Every character in the film is quirky (in a rather realistic way), but Faye is particularly wild. Often dancing carelessly to her favourite song, “California Dreamin” by The Mamas & the Papas, she continuously sneaks into the policeman’s home to tidy and move things around. This could be seen as a gracious or loving act, but it’s also creepy. Most relationships depicted in the film have some kind of bizarre or slightly twisted feel to them.

Filmmaking techniques are used to vividly portray a bustling Hong Kong. Jump cuts keep events lively and musical montages are engagingly wacky. Shaking handheld camerawork is key to the sprawl; our viewpoint swirls around in a constantly-creative fashion, sending us into claustrophobic shops and smoothly following playful characters - notably the child-like Faye. Another regular film effect is that of time manipulation. In several scenes our main character is quite still while crowds bustle past behind them in fast motion. This has an isolative effect, making us appreciate the fact that we are seeing one man’s troubles in an ocean of millions.

Chungking Express provides an original and non-cliche commentary on romantic relationships. Refreshingly, however, it forces no opinions or ideas upon the viewer. The two stories are simply told and are told simply, leaving us to extract our personal meaning from the strange swirl of heartbreak and hope.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Case: Fluff Poster

I've been working on yet another wacky short film lately. Does it have teddy bears, accents and strange costumes? Yes, of course - as always.

The actual film may not be complete for some time yet, but we're all pretty fond of this poster image:

Yours seriously,