Midday on Film Noir: June 7, 1-2pm

[NOTE: Missed the show? Check out the podcast!]

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On Friday, June 7, Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and I, Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair of Film/Video at Stevenson University – will do our monthly appearance on “Midday with Dan Rodricks” on WYPR 88.1FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station, during the second hour, 1-2pm, to discuss film noir with Mark Osteen – Chair of the English Department at Loyola University Maryland – author of Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream.

Have you always wondered what film noir is, and where the term came from? Tune in, and learn the answer. Do you have a favorite film noir? Send me a note ahead of time, and I’ll let you know if it’s on our list to discuss. If you can’t listen live, or locally, on the day of, you can live-stream the podcast here: http://www.wypr.org/listen-live

And you can always download the podcast afterwards, either via iTunes or the Midday page: http://www.wypr.org/stationprogram/midday

Enjoy the show!

“After Earth” – Less Than an Afterthought

After Earth

After Earth (M. Night Shyamalan, 2013)

This is such a piece of crap or, to put it in polite language, worse than a complete mediocrity, that I just cannot motivate to write a review. Allow me to point you to the reviews of some professional movie critics, who have brilliantly articulated all that is wrong with the film:

Manohla Dargis of The New York Times

Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal

Christopher Orr of The Atlantic (this last one was sent to me by my friend Dan Gottheimer, and places a lot of the blame on Will Smith, rather than M. Night Shyamalan – I say, who cares who’s responsible?)

I knew from the opening unintelligible voiceover that we were in trouble. It’s pure garbled exposition, and reminds me of the kinds of fantasy worlds I used to create when I was a kid. What the hell is young Jaden Smith talking about? When I was a tyke, I liked to make up worlds and give characters and countries and planets silly names that had their roots in nothing – I dub thee Kamwutyforg, for example – and then my sister pointed out that the experience of reading my work would be more pleasurable if there were some logical consistency to the new universe, à la Tolkien. So I have very little patience when I see people just making junk up without trying to create a world that has some aesthetic to which it adheres.

I should have known better than to go see this in the first place, but it was a free press screening, so I figured, what the hey? I have always found Will Smith an appealing screen presence – loved him in the Men in Black films, for example, and found his geniality nicely played off of in (the first two thirds of) HancockBut in I, Robot he exhibited the first signs of movie-star ego with that mess of a vanity project, and the trailers for this new film showed signs of a similar indulgence, compounded by the presence of his son.

I could go on, but I promised (myself) that I wouldn’t. I will just add, as you will have seen noted in some of the linked reviews, above, that I was not surprised to read about Will Smith’s connections to Scientology, since the only other science fiction film I have seen that is this bad was Battlefield Earth. I guess nutty ideas make for nutty movies. Go figure . . .

Watch at your own risk. You have been warned.

Two Seasons of “The University,” Stevenson’s Webcast SitCom

The University

For the past two years, students in the Department of Film/Video at Stevenson University have written, produced, shot and edited a situational comedy for broadcast on Stevenson’s internal “portal” website. Loosely modeled on the U.S. version of “The Office,” “The University” follows the marvelous misadventures of one Hank Howard, videographer extraordinaire (in his own mind, anyway), played by yours truly.

Now, after two seasons, I share with you all 16 episodes (7 from Season 1, and 9 from Season 2). I am very proud of the work the students have done. It’s not easy writing an ongoing web series on top of one’s regular school work, and managing to keep the plot lines flowing consistently and continuously from episode to episode.

You can watch the series on Vimeo or YouTube. Take your pick. Enjoy! And thank you for watching.

Cleo from 2 to 6:30: My First Impressions of the 1963 “Cleopatra”

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Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963)

Today, I saw, for the first time – in a movie theater, no less! – this “great” example of 1960s studio excess, thanks to the Cinemark chain’s re-release of the movie in celebration of its 50th anniversary.  If you’ve ever read Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls – or any other solid history of the end of the studio era – about how a group of young and aesthetically radical filmmakers were (briefly) granted the keys to the filmmaking kingdom at the end of the 1960s, then you’ll know that those keys were so granted at least in part because of bloated star-driven films like a Cleopatra, which cost so much money to make that even with good box office results it nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. You can read more about its troubled production and cost overruns here and here, if you’re curious.

I was particularly interested to see the film since I had just read Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins – a book that uses the 1962 production of Cleopatra as a major plot point, and Richard Burton as a major character – for my book club. It’s a delightful book about love, memory, loss and rebirth, that jumps back and forth between 1962 and the present. In it, Richard Burton emerges as larger than life, so I wanted to see what he was like on screen in this specific film (I’ve seen him in plenty of other pictures).

One major question that I have to ask – and my limited online research has not provided great results – is: how the hell did this get past the censors? There’s a lot of nudity (or almost nudity), including one of Liz Taylor’s butt cheeks and the side of her breasts, and at least one exotic dancer dressed merely in panties and nipple pasties. What red-blooded straight male could object, you might ask (and I don’t), but I do wonder how it made it into the film. It’s possible that, post-premiere, when the film was cut from 4 to 3 hours (see production articles above), such titillating shots were removed. Still, it’s strange to me that they were allowed in there in the first place. From 1934 until 1968 (when something close to our current ratings system was put in place), the Production Code Administration ruled on whether or not films would receive its stamp of approval. If they didn’t get approved, most theaters wouldn’t play them. One of the reasons that the Production Code was abandoned in 1968 was because more and more producers and directors were flaunting it, so perhaps Cleopatra fits into that history. This online article makes that argument, anyway.

So let’s talk about the film, and my impressions:

  • It’s long. With the 12-minute intermission, I was in the theater for almost 4 hours and 30 minutes, or from 2 to 6:30pm.
  • It’s bloated. Its length is not justified by any story reasons. In fact, it’s amazing how two-dimensional both Cleopatra and Mark Anthony remain at the end of the experience.
  • Rex Harrison is terrific as Caesar. He conveys just the right sense of authority and charisma, coupled with world-weariness, to make a compelling ruler. Once he’s gone, the picture loses its most vital player.
  • Lovely as she could be at the time, Elizabeth Taylor is miscast as Cleopatra. She’s too 20th-Century American. She is not helped by the many ridiculous wigs and outfits she is made to wear, nor by the over-the-top eye shadow. All of this merely serves to make her look more out of place, much as Sean Connery only looked more Scottish in You Only Live Twice when they dressed him in a kimono and pinned his eyes to make him look Japanese (ha!). For the record, I think Taylor is a fine actress, and have enjoyed her performances in films as diverse as Father of the Bride, GiantCat on a Hot Tin Roof, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Reflections in a Golden Eye. I just don’t think she works in this movie.
  • Richard Burton does not a strong Mark Anthony make. If you want to see a much better Anthony, I suggest that you watch HBO’s Rome, in which James Purefoy blew me away. The problem with Burton is that he seems to be acting in his own bubble. He’s not reacting to anything anyone does or says. Once in a while, he’ll deliver a speech in a stentorian voice, which briefly shows us why he was such a star, but then it’s back to giving a hermetic performance that stands apart from those of the other actors (many of them fine). Interestingly enough, this self-absorption is a hallmark of his character in Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, so maybe Walter was on to something . . . Again, as with Taylor, I have seen Burton in many films in which I have life him, such as Bitter Victory, BecketWho’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (where self-absorption actually served his character well) and Where Eagles Dare, to name but a few.
  • As a result of the miscasting of Liz and Dick, their love story is actually the weakest part of the film. I do not for one minute believe Cleopatra’s love for Mark Anthony, or his for her, whereas I completely buy the attraction between Cleopatra and Caesar.
  • Other performers that I enjoyed were, in no particular order: Martin Landau as Rufio, Hume Cronyn as Sosigenes, and Roddy McDowall as Octavian. I had fun noticing Desmond Llewelyn (the original James Bond “Q”) in the Senate, as well.
  • The production design was mind-blowing, and my favorite scene in the whole film was Cleopatra’s arrival in Rome (and not just because of that exotic dancer and her pasties . . .). I may not have liked Liz Taylor’s hair and costumes, but I loved the sets.
  • I also liked the scene-framing device of the freeze frames that go in and out of murals. That was a very nice touch.

And that’s about it. I recommend this very funny review of the movie, on pp. 229-234 of Nathan Rabin’s My Year of Flops: One Man’s Journey Deep into the Heart of Cinematic FailureI’m not unhappy to have seen the film, even though I could have spent the day outside (and it was a beautiful day). Still, I must say that if you ever want to see a film that paints – in much less time (90 minutes) – a far more fully realized portrait of its main female protagonist, watch the 1962 French New Wave classic Cleo from 5 to 7, instead.

I’ll be seeing, at press screenings this week, two upcoming summer films – After Earth and The Way Way Back (I am particularly excited about this one) – so stay tuned for more reviews of new films, coming soon.

Thanks, as always, for reading!

Fair Enough, Old Sport: The Okey-Dokey Gatsby

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The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, 2013)

Before seeing this film last night, I had watched two previous versions of The Great Gatsby: the one made in 1974 – starring Mia Farrow as Daisy, Robert Redford as Gatsby, and Sam Waterston as Nick Carraway – and the one made in 2000, starring Mira Sorvino as Daisy, Toby Stephens as Gatsby, and Paul Rudd as Nick. Neither film had impressed me, although both were relatively faithful to the novel. There are three other previous filmed versions of the book that I have never seen: a silent film from 1926, a noirish film from 1949 (with Alan Ladd), and a hip-hop version – entitled G – from 2002.

I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel for the first (and only) time in 1988, while studying for the summer on a college trip in then-Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), in the former Soviet Union. Somehow, I had missed reading it in school. I loved the book, though not as much as I loved Tender Is the Night when I read that later in the same summer. I found something very powerful in the narrative of the self-made man falling short of his aspirations, undone by the ruthless carelessness of the moneyed classes. Perhaps I especially enjoyed reading it in the (crumbling) land of the supposed proletarian revolution.

But it was a dreamy and melancholy book, and something seems to come over the cinematic adaptors of the novel when they create their own versions. The films that I have seen all seem to get bogged down in the depressive nature of Gastby’s failed struggle to win Daisy, ignoring the manic energy that must have propelled Gatsby so close to his goal in the first place. Sure, the parties in each subsequent movie are lavish and crazy, but the rest of the story drags on, and on and on.

Baz Luhrmann, the director of this new Gatsby, has done a decent and faithful job of bringing certain elements to life. The cast is strong (with the exception of Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, whose sad-sack face and manner is part of the problem here). Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy, Joel Edgerton as Tom, and Isla Fisher as Myrtle are all quite fine in their respective roles. In fact, they are each better than the actors who preceded them in earlier versions. If one could combine them with Sam Waterston from the 1974 film, one would have an almost perfect cast.

Luhrmann has also done a good job with some of his mise-en-scène. I enjoyed the party scene at Myrtle’s apartment in New York, and the parties at Gatsby’s on Long Island. They have verve and style, which is to be expected from the director of Strictly BallroomWilliam Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, and Moulin Rouge! (I only liked the first of those, however). Would that he had then avoided the deep funk that seems to overcome every director in the later parts of the story. And at 142 minutes, Luhrmann doesn’t do us any favors by prolonging the narrative almost 30 minutes longer than the longest of the earlier films.

One thing I decidedly did not like was the framing device of Nick Carraway writing the story from a sanitarium, where he has gone to recuperate from the “morbid alcoholism” (I think those are the words we see on his diagnostic papers) brought on by the tragedy to which he was witness. This seems to be an excuse for Luhrmann to throw words from the novel directly on the screen, floating in front of us, quoting the original source text. I’ll give the director points for trying, though, and it was the only part of the movie where the 3D technology made any sense, since it is kind of cool to have the words dance in the air. But it’s also unnecessary, and only slows down the plot, which is the last thing this particular movie needs. And speaking of 3D, other than that (wasted) effect, there is absolutely no reason for this movie to have been made in anything other than 2D – since other than the floating words, nothing comes of it – so save yourself some money and avoid the more expensive ticket.

I was also disappointed in the quality of the CGI (computer generated imagery). Luhrmann and his team have created these sweeping overhead shots that send us careening through New York City, or across the bay between West Egg and East Egg, yet every time we cut to one of these shots, the details in the frame look fake. It’s jarring and, again, unnecessary. No amount of fancy camera work will make up for the slow pace of the screenplay.

Still, it’s a harmless enough adaptation, and I recommend it for the cast.

One aspect of the film that is truly indefensible is the use of African-Americans. Strangely enough, Baz Luhrmann – who worked closely with Jay-Z (listed as an executive producer) on the film – seems to feel that his inclusion of African-Americans in the film is a net positive, as he relates in this interview from the 2013 Cannes Film Festival: “I think there’s a great African-American presence in this film and I’m very very grateful for it.” To which I can only write in reply – to both Luhrmann and Jay-Z – “Are you nuts?” It’s a totally superficial – and stereotypical – presence. We see black servants (mostly faceless), which I can deal with, since that fits in with what we expect of the 1920s domestic arrangements of wealthy white households. But then, for absolutely no reason, during the party scene at Myrtle’s, we keep on cutting outside to a balcony where a lone black jazz musician plays a soulful tune. We are also treated to near naked black female dancers in speak-easies and at Gatsby’s parties. Finally, at Myrtle’s accident scene, in the midst of weeping faces – some black and some white – we are treated to a lone black woman who begins to sign a gospel song. True, we do get one brief scene where we see a car full of black partygoers being driven by a white chauffeur, but it is hardly a meaningful image, beyond the superficiality of the optics. I would have preferred that Luhrmann ignore African-Americans entirely than include them in this way, redolent of the way blacks were portrayed in films throughout the studio era.

One final note – since I mentioned Jay-Z – the soundtrack to this film has been the subject of some controversy. It is supposed to “[translate] the Jazz Age sensibility of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s novel into the music equivalent of our times, through the blending of hip-hop, traditional jazz and other contemporary musical textures.” And I would have been fine with some wild anachronistic stuff, if only to add energy to the picture. Instead, we just get really boring remixes of jazz standards. All of that work for such paltry rewards!

So, old sport, you should have enough information to make your own choice as to whether or not you want to see the film. It’s no worse than the 1974 adaptation, just a little longer.

Maryland Film Festival 2013 Recap

MD Film Fest 2013

So another Maryland Film Festival has come and gone and, as usual, I did not get a chance to see nearly enough films. For one thing, on Thursday and Friday of the Fest I had to be at school most of both days, and then on Saturday and Sunday I was both tired from a long semester (which made me start to fall asleep at the evening screenings), and unable to spend all day down there because, well, I am the proud owner of a lovely little Beagle mix, and you can’t just leave a dog alone all day. They have needs . . .

Here are my thoughts on what I really liked. I’ll leave out any negative reviews, because I’d rather focus on the mainly positive responses I had to this year’s selections (in other words, I did see more films than the ones listed below). I didn’t always take notes during the screenings, so these are just quick impressions. Thanks, Maryland Film Festival, for providing all of us with a great opportunity to see interesting films!

Wednesday, 5/8/13

Opening Night Shorts Program

  • Boneshaker (Frances Bodomo, 2013)
    • This was a beautiful and dreamlike work starring Quvenzhané Wallis, the young actress who made such an impression in Beasts of the Southern Wild. She is equally stunning in this work, in which she plays a girl subjected to religious chastisement. It takes place in the Southern bayou.
  • The Chair (Grainger David, 2012)
    • An equally dreamy and beautiful Southern tale, told entirely through voiceover.
  • Jujitsuing Reality (Chetin Chabuk, 2011)
    • A very inspiring documentary about Scott Lew, a screenwriter with ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), or Lou Gehrig’s disease. A must-see film.

Friday, 5/10/13:

16 Acres (Richard Hankin, 2012)

This is an extremely well told documentary about the (attempted) construction of new buildings and memorials at the ground zero site in lower Manhattan. It is beautifully shot (lovely talking head interviews), coherent and gripping. All of the major players that you would hope for – George Pataki, Rudy Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg, Larry Silverstein, Daniel Libeskind, and others – are featured.

Saturday, 5/11/13:

Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas, 2012)

Wow! What to say about this beguiling film? I still don’t know what the $%^&* it was about! I do know that the images are entrancing – particularly the opening scene in the field with the director’s daughter surrounded by cows and dogs as the sun sets – and that the film held my interest throughout. It won Best Director at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, though the film was by no means universally acclaimed. I agree with the naysayers that the film is exasperating in many ways, but it’s also fascinating, and I like being challenged. A few years ago, also at the Maryland Film Festival (2011), I did not enjoy being frustrated by another Cannes winner, the Thai film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, but this film appealed to me, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its narrative opacity.

I found a nice parallel between the blurred-out, vignette-like prism quality to the edges of the frame and what I perceived to be the subject of the film: the prism of memory. The cinema is the great art of time, and I enjoy films that play with time as a fourth dimension as this one does. I did not appreciate the horrible treatment of some of the dogs, but can still recommend the film. Be forewarned, however, that it is a true mind f***.

Here is a (positive) Manohla Dargas review, from the New York Times, to help guide you through the movie.

Drama Shorts Program:

  • Miracle Boy (Jake Mahaffy, 2012)
    • This may have been my favorite narrative short of the festival. Beautifully acted and meticulously constructed, it is what every short film should be. It’s about young boys misbehaving and growing up.
  • American Girl (Jason Shahinfar)
    • The acting is uneven in this film, but the story, about spoiled partying teenagers in Manhattan, is quite good. It turns out the director was a yellow cab driver in New York for a while, and based this story on some of the kids he drove around.
  • Black Metal (Kat Candler, 2013)
    • This was notable primarily for the acting, as the story was a little on the slight side. It’s about a metal rocker dealing with guilt over a killing supposedly inspired by his music. I would have liked a few more minutes of plot.
  • When We Lived in Miami (Amy Seimetz, 2012)
    • I think I would like to make a point of seeing more of Amy Seimetz’s work as a director (and actress) now, after seeing this compelling short. It’s about a woman/mother coping with her husband’s departure. Its formlessness fits the state of her mind. Seimetz is terrific in the central role, as is the little girl. I liked the vibe.

Sunday, 5/12/13:

Narrative Shorts Program:

  • Ástarsaga (Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir, 2012)
    • This was a very well made short film, with very good acting. Nepotism isn’t always a bad thing, as Katherine Waterston (daughter of Sam) in the central role is quite fine. Like her father, she has an interesting, if not beautiful, face. I liked the openness of the ending (a bit Graduate-like).

Mother of George (Andrew Dosunmu, 2013)

I will confess that I had not really liked Restless City, which played at the 2011 Maryland Film Festival, and which was the previous feature by this same director. But I really enjoyed Mother of George. I found the acting very strong, the story compelling, and the cinematography absolutely stunning.

I loved the long slow focus racks that don’t always resolve . . . or the shots that are just blurry for a long time . . . or the occasionally dramatic difference in planes of focus (such as just a slice of hand in focus in the foreground).  I also liked the dreamy/drifty transitions between scenes.

The only misfire for me was the use of loud classical music (opera) in a few scenes, which felt excessive, telegraphing what the scenes were about, rather than just letting them play out.

I recommend.

Kon-Tiki: Adrift in an Ocean of Possibility

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Kon-Tiki (Joachim Rønning/Espen Sandberg, 2012)

The first thing you should know about Kon-Tiki, one of the 5 nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2013 Oscars, is that you will only be able to watch it in English. That’s right. English. Hmmmm . . . given that there are plenty of films made in English that get nominated for regular Oscars that are also financed in part with “foreign” money (and that’s not counting the studios – like Sony – that have their corporate headquarters in other countries), it does make one wonder what this film was doing in that category. Well, it turns out that the filmmakers made two separate versions (with the same actors) – one in Norwegian and one in English – to increase their box office chances. Huh. The last time I heard of people doing this was in the early sound era, with films like Dracula made in multiple languages (before sound arrived, films had traveled easily between countries, since all one had to do was switch out the intertitles, and so some producers were still trying to work out how to adapt to the new system – eventually they just sold their films abroad, and let the other countries decide whether to subtitle or dub). Interesting. I still think it’s kind of wrong for this film to have been nominated in this category, however, especially since it beat out other solidly foreign-language films from the shortlist. No matter. Not my call. No one cares.

The second thing you should know about Kon-Tiki is that it is about Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian anthropologist who came up with theory, in the 1940s, that Polynesia had not been colonized from Asia, as had been previously believed, but from South America, by people navigating on the currents on balsa-wood rafts. No one really believed him, so he decided to gather a crew of like-minded Norwegians (and one Swede), and set sail from Peru on a vessel modeled after the earliest Polynesian ships, in order to prove his theory was correct (or, at least, possible).

This film follows Heyerdahl, played by the very likable Norwegian actor Pål Sverre Hagen, as he develops his theory, is rejected, finds his crew, and then spends 101 days crossing the Pacific. During that passage, Heyerdahl and his comrades face depression, sharks, and one very big storm. When they finally land on the Raroia Atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago, they embrace both dry land and the fact that they have successfully proven that such a voyage could have led to Polynesia being colonized by ancient Peruvians.

Let’s leave aside whether or not there is actual merit to Heyerdahl’s ideas. My understanding is that he opened up certain possibilities that had not heretofore been considered, but that he also overreached. In his book The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis takes exception to much of Heyerdahl’s methodology. Let that be someone else’s concern, for now, and let’s just consider the movie.

Until the journey begins, it’s actually a pretty gripping story. And then somehow, once we end up on the raft with Heyerdahl and his 5 shipmates, the movie slows to the same slow pace that the men must have endured on their crossing, and we are forced to spend much time watching the interchangeable blond actors bicker, and CGI sharks menace the boat. Plus, if Heyerdahl were really as inept a captain in real life as he is portrayed in this movie, it is a wonder the Kon-Tiki arrived anywhere at all.

There are joys to be found in the beautiful cinematography, though it is this film’s misfortune to have been released in the same year as Life of Pi, a film which showed us just how stunning a film about a drifting boat can be. There are also joys to be found in the film’s brisk opening first act, when the plot is set in motion. But the journey itself – in spite of the grandeur of its purpose – leaves us wanting more.

Star Trek Endophora

Please note – if this review intrigues you – I will be on WYPR 88.1 FM’s Midday with Dan Rodricks on Friday, 5/16, at 1:50pm, to give my review live. Tune in at that time, or podcast it later!

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Star Trek Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams, 2013)

  • From the Oxford Dictionaries, a definition of endophora (noun/linguistics):
    • the set of relationships among words having the same reference within a text, contributing to textual cohesion; anaphora and cataphora. Compare with exophora.
  • From UsingEnglish.com, an example of it’s usage:
    • As he was late, Harry wanted to phone his boss and tell her what had happened.
    • Here, he is endophoric because it refers forwards to the proper noun Harry and her refers back to the noun boss.

Star Trek Into Darkness comes to us 4 years after director J.J. Abrams released the first entry of this rebooted series, the 2009 film titled, simply, Star Trek. As a lifelong fan of the original television series, which ran from 1966 to 1969, I was actually quite excited to see what Abrams would do with the beloved characters. Though I had missed the first TV run of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Sulu, Scotty and Chekov, since I was only born in 1969, I had grown up in the 1970s, when Star Trek hit its stride in syndicated re-runs, and had been a proud owner of Star Trek action figures, coloring books and lunch boxes. I had watched the 6 feature films featuring the original cast, knew their quirks and foibles, and loved them dearly. I was, in short, a Trekkie, though my own fandom stopped short of attending conferences, and even stopped short of enjoying the many spinoffs of the original show, including the popular Star Trek: The Next Generation (which I don’t hate, but never grew to love in the same way). And as a fan of much of the TV show Lost, co-created by Abrams, I had high hopes for that first film.

Abrams did not disappoint. The new cast – led by Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, and Zoe Saldana as Uhura – brought new energy to the characters while paying respectful homage to the actors who had first incarnated the roles. The story took us quickly through everyone’s origins, then launched us into space for a rollicking action-adventure picture that even included an appearance from one of the original cast members. I had a great time, though I confess that I was very disappointed in one very significant plot point. Abrams and his writers were not satisfied to merely restart the series with new actors. Instead, they wrote in a few scenes that effectively wiped out the entire Star Trek universe that we had come to know, thereby truly rebooting from scratch. It was creative, but slightly irritating.

And now we have the new film. The cast is still quite good – though Simon Pegg as Scotty mugs perhaps a little too much – and much of the action is terrifying and gripping. We even get a new villain, played by the magnificent Benedict Cumberbatch (a man who has been developing quite a following), who manages to be a part of both the old Star Trek universe and Abrams’s restarted-from-zero universe. I won’t give anything away here, since there is a nice identity reveal halfway through film, but anyone who knows how to look up films on imdb.com (and who doesn’t?), will quickly realize who he is, and how his inclusion in the story might play out. How you react to Cumberbatch’s character will most likely determine how you react to the movie, overall.

I found Cumberbatch extremely compelling, and liked what he added to the story until about two-thirds of the way through. At which point I figured out the too-clever-by-half way he was going to be used in the film’s last act, and started to get annoyed. You see, Abrams and his writers decided to flip the ending of one of the previous Star Trek movies, which caused wild hoots among the preview attendees sitting near me, but which I thought was a lazy move. At just about the same time, the action scenes became too busy, too loud, and simply too much, overwhelming me with data, and I tuned out of the film for about 20 minutes. But then, at the end, I came back, and actually enjoyed how they resolved the story, setting it up for what will surely be the next entry in the series.

Overall, therefore, I can recommend the movie, but with some reservations.

Which brings us to that word endophora. I think it’s wonderful that so many people around the world know and adore Star Trek. It exists as a prime example of transmedia in our culture. But at some point, in this latest film, I began to feel as if the writers had abandoned any real attempts at character development, and had instead decided to rely a little too much on all of our collective knowledge. The film, in other words, became a little too self-referential, and the pronoun too often replaced the actual noun.

NAB Recap: The Future Never Stops

NAB Graphic

Do you know what the NAB is? It’s the National Association of Broadcasters, which, according to its website: “is the voice for the nation’s radio and television broadcasters. As the premier trade association for broadcasters, NAB advances the interests of our members in federal government, industry and public affairs; improves the quality and profitability of broadcasting; encourages content and technology innovation; and spotlights the important and unique ways stations serve their communities.”

Every year, NAB holds a convention “show” out in Las Vegas, where technicians, engineers and vendors from all of the major (and minor) companies that sell any kind of film and television gear can demo their new products. It’s huge, taking up all three halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center.

I went there this year, for the first time, to see what it was like. It ran from April 8-11, 2013, with two days of conferences beforehand. I had signed up to attend the Technology Summit on Cinema. Sadly, I came down with something on the trip out to Vegas, and spent the first day of the conference sick in bed, in the lovely Trump Hotel Las Vegas. It’s always great to lie moaning in a hotel room in a city far from home. You should try it, if you haven’t already.

The next day, though still not at 100%, I decided to start forcing myself to see what was what, and so I made it to the second day of the conference. Here are my thoughts.

The main gist of both the Technology Summit and the products being hawked at NAB was this: you cannot rest – newer and higher resolutions of digital cinema, as well as higher frame rates, are barreling down on us, and we must adapt. 4K and 8K are the near future. We all need to start buying cameras, TVs and projectors that can showcase these amazing new technologies, or we will be luddites.

I exaggerate, perhaps.

To explain about 4k (and 2K and 8K) . . . The current standard for your high definition TV is either 1280×720 or 1920×1080, with 1920 representing the horizontal lines of pixels, and 1080 representing the vertical lines. That is “1K.” A very popular digital cinema camera, the Arri Alexa, typically shoots at 2K (or 2048×1152). Another very popular digital cinema camera, the RED, shoots at 4K (or 4096×2304). Actually, there are now RED cameras that shoot at 5K. And just down the pike is something called UHD, or Ultra High Definition, which will be in 8K. The question is, can you tell the difference? I guess you could if we were looking at images on giant screens, but since many of us watch films and videos on computers and mobile devices . . .

A director like David Fincher loves shooting in 4K, since no one really screens in that format. Which means he generally has at least 2 times more resolution in each shot than he needs. He can punch in and create close-ups out of wide masters. He can correct a shaky camera move since the edges of his frame are not necessary. It gives him freedom to keep reframing long after the movie is shot. I bet it drives his cinematographers crazy! If you’re curious about how he works, buy the blu-ray disc of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and watch the special features. They’re fascinating, and will help explain some of what I just wrote.

Remember 3D? Ha! I know, it’s still here, although it hasn’t been doing all that well lately. Well, it turns out that 3D might just work better in higher resolutions. Or . . . in higher frame rates. That’s right. We have clever engineers working on more than just higher resolutions. If you saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last December, then you might just already know what to expect from these higher frame rates. Since the dawn of synchronized sound- on-film, in 1927, motion picture cameras and projectors have shot and played back movies at 24 frames per second (fps). It’s what we’re used to do. When the television standard was created in this country, the original frame rate adopted was 30fps (which has to do with our electrical currents running at 60hz). When color television was created, they had to adjust the frame rate to 29.97fps. You can read about all of that here. Regardless of whether it was 30fps or 29.97fps, those extra 6fps were enough to create a slightly different (smoother) look to the new medium that we have since associated with video. We know what film looks like, and we know what video looks like.

Or so we thought. Over the past 15 years or so, more and more video cameras have added 24fps shooting options, to allow video to look more film-like.

But now, filmmakers like Peter Jackson and James Cameron are pushing higher frame rates, telling us that the 24fps standard was arbitrary, and that with more frames per second, we will see more detail in the image, and thereby enjoy higher resolution. If one wanted, one could view their proselytizing with a cynical eye, since they are both making 3D movies, and 3D, apparently – as I noted above – looks better at higher frame rates.

During the Technology Summit on Cinema, James Cameron appeared in a pre-taped video presentation, during which he presented examples of scenes shot in 24fps, 48fps, and 60fps. He made his own opinion very clear that there was no comparison between the lower and higher frame rates: higher = better. And yet, to this viewer – weaned on 24fps – higher looked too smooth, and the stuttering (in 24fps) that Cameron kept on telling made the lower frame rate images unwatchable was perfectly normal to me. I didn’t like the HFR images, in fact (nor did many of the critics who watched The Hobbit). I expect, however, that if Cameron and Jackson – and the companies that support them – have their way, a new generation of film viewers will be weaned on HFR, and will then find 24fps strange.

I’m OK with that – with changing technologies, tastes inevitably change. When I go back and watch the 1980s TV shows that I enjoyed in my youth, I am appalled at how bad they seem to me now. But what I’m not OK with is the ceaseless promotion of new technologies every few years. Or rather, even that I’m OK with, since companies need to make money, and the market is currently saturated with HDTVs. But please don’t promote new technologies, like 4K and 8K, 48fps and 60fps, or 3D, as if we all must use/have them, and as if everything that has come before them was terrible (which was the gist of Cameron’s message at NAB), when what you really want to do is sell more cars, I mean, cameras. Show me your new toys, let me enjoy them, but don’t try to destroy the memory of my old toys in the process. The cinema that many of us love and cherish was created using technology that lasted for over 100 years. Perhaps we can celebrate the new without denigrating the old.

The future may never stop, but the past will always be with us.

Here some of my notes from the actual Technology Summit:

Saturday, April 6, 2013:

Was very sick with nasty fever. Stayed in hotel room, in bed, all day. 😦

Sunday, April 7, 2013: see my photos in support of these notes

Technology Summit on Cinema, Day 2

SMPTE is sponsor

They have June 18-19 conference at Stanford:

Entertainment Technology in the Internet Age

1.  A Tidal Wave of Pixels: New Workflows for Digital Production

New Capabilities:

  • 3D
  • 4K
  • HFR
  • HDR (High Dynamic Range)
  • Wider Color Gamuts – UHDTV
  • 8K

A data-driven world

Motto in this brave new world is “do or die”

Workflow is the new term of the last 20 years:

  • To and from
  • Place to place
  • System to system

Designing workflow – managing data – must have at least 3 copies

2.  James Cameron on HFR – 24, 48, 60 – plus, show HFR screened at 24

  • I ask – do we want this clarity?
  • I can’t tell the difference between 48 and 60
  • High res is driving HFR, because without it you can’t see advantage of HFR
  • 3D, also, along with High Res, drives the HFR revolution, because it requires smooth edges of the frame.

3.  Advanced Image Capture

UHDTV – way over my head . . .

4.  Jon Landau (producer for James Cameron) interviewed by David Cohen of Variety

Video of the conversation here.

“New Digital Storytelling” (focus on HFR)

  • Filmmakers have to ask why they are using new technologies
  • Nobody watches movies/TV for the technology, but for the content
  • Problems in business model for SFX houses (his answer was lame)
  • One sees more provocative TV than films, these days, as far as content, style & technology are concerned
  • [I am getting tired of the triumphalism of HFR/3D – I think he’s wrong about the theatres in new countries.]
  • Last 3 Oscar winners for Best Cinematography were all 3D films
  • If you want a movie in 3D, shoot it in 3D. [apparently, he’s not a fan of conversion of 2D to 3D.]
  • They edited Avatar in 2D – Jon Landau doesn’t think 3D requires any new film grammar.
  • Stereoscopy = seeing in 3D
  • There are autostereoscopic screens, where you won’t need glasses, being developed.

5. HFR – “What’s the big deal?”

“Neuroscience and HFR” – Christopher Peck, McGill

  • reactions to Hobbit = a) looks weird and b) looks too fast
  • His research shows that 30-60 fps is a powerful stimulus, but one is not necessarily responding to the additional frames
  • But higher frame rates allow us to see faster motion more clearly

Stuart Hameroff, U. of Arizona – “What Is the Frame Rate of Consciousness?”

  • What is “consciousness?”
  • [I don’t want to be someone railing against new technologies just because I don’t understand or like them yet.]

Howard Lukk, Walt Disney

  • If we can do it, should we?
  • Just another tool in the toolbox
  • High Resolution demands high frame rate (Cameron said the same thing) – a direct correlation
  • As we increase dynamic range and resolution, we will have to incerase frame rates

Bert Dunk, DP

  • I like some of the extra detail, but don’t like the way image moves
  • With a higher shutter angle, the greater motion blur that he introduced makes it look more appealing
  • Seeing stereoscopically is affected by age
  • [My main issue with the push to HFR/3D is that it seems driven by engineers, not artists/designers]
  • [For every Life of Pi, there are 10 Oz films]

6. HFR, part 2

Wendy Aylsworth of Warner Brothers on The Hobbit

  • In April 2011, Peter Jackson announced at NAB his intention to shoot The Hobbit  in HFR
  • [Now – not only do theatres have to upgrade to digital projectors, but to ones that can also do HFR – is The Charles doing this?]

Odeon UCI guy – The Hobbit in Europe

  • He admits that the HFR push is to monetize 3D (refresh it)

Stevenson Film/Video at the 2013 Maryland Film Festival

Today, 17 students and graduates of Stevenson University’s Department of Film/Video went down to the Maryland Film Festival to spend the day watching movies.

Before they started their movie marathons, however, they first met with Lotfy Nathan, director of the acclaimed new documentary 12 O’Clock Boys, which had its Baltimore premiere at this year’s film fest, for an hour-long discussion about filmmaking.

Here I am, flanked by Maryland Film Festival director Jed Dietz, on the left, and 12 O’Clock Boys director Lotfy Nathan on the right:

2013-05-12_SU FV at MFF2013_03