Birdman: Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance is Phenomenal

by Erik Harty

Birdman-1Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a phenomenal film.  Written and directed by the lesser-known Alejandro González Iñárittu, it finds its life very much in the technical magic behind the scenes.  It is made to look like it is one continuous shot until the end of the movie, where some obvious hard cuts take place. But was it actually one continuous shot?  Absolutely not.  There are dramatic shifts in setting and time, not to mention the insanity of trying to choreograph every single moving part for nearly two straight hours.  So no, the film is not one single shot. Rather, it is a magical tapestry, woven together by the magic of clever cinematography, solid editing, and polished visual effects.

As an aspiring editor, I thoroughly enjoy learning about the inner-workings of the post-production process.  I love hearing editors, colorists, sound mixers, and visual effects artists discuss their work and the very specific decisions they made during their time with a particular film.  In the case of Birdman, the editors have actually kept a lot of their “secrets” to themselves, but that doesn’t mean their work can’t be dissected from the outside.  

why-birdman-is-the-best-movie-of-the-year

When examining the film to find its edits, one of the things that immediately struck me were the interior/exterior transitions.  At many places throughout the film, a character will be moving from indoors to outdoors, or from one room to another through a doorway.  Often times, the camera pushes in to fill the frame with the character’s back or the area around the doorway is so dark that the frame is briefly entirely dark.  Assuming that lighting and color are consistent, a cut can be placed unnoticeably at the point where the frame is completely dark.  This particular method is very reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), where he attempted to make a continuously shot film, but was limited by the amount of film that a camera could hold.  To hide the cuts, he had the camera push in to fill the frame with someone’s back.  Fortunately for Iñárittu, technology has progressed enormously since Hitchcock’s time.  The other two methods of hiding Birdman’s cuts require a little more post-production magic.

birdman_movie_stillThe first of these two methods is dramatically simpler than the second.  Known as “whip” or “swish” pans, these cuts find their strength in movement.  They work by cutting on the action, where the action is blurred because of fast camera movement.  The effect is further improved by using a frame rate near the cinematic standard of 24 frames per second.  Often times, a well-executed whip pan can even provide an unnoticeable transition between two completely different settings, so a discreet transition between two shots in the same setting is very feasible.  Birdman utilizes this technique all over the place, which actually helps add some energy to the film, in addition to its function as a transition.

birdman-emma-stone-changing-room-xlargeThe final technique used to mask transitions in Birdman is really more of a category than it is a specific technique.  “Visual effects” is a broad term than can mean a whole lot of things, but in the context of the cuts in this film, it refers to a method of smoothing transitions.  In some cases, such as the small number of exterior shots that showcase the transition from night to day, the effects are more akin to a very complex dissolve.  In other cases, they may add some extra blur to a whip pan to make it more believable.  Depending on the situation, they may even be a reanimation of some aspect of a cut that makes it almost unnoticeable.  Some might consider this category cheating, since it wasn’t how the film was originally shot, but it certainly rounds out the continuous feel of the movie.

Birdman-5Ultimately, I love Birdman because the unique way that it was shot and edited contributes significantly to the film.  It isn’t made to look like a continuous shot just for the sake of being different.  Rather, the continuous, almost dreamlike flow of the framing assists in characterizing this chapter of Riggan Thomson’s life as confused, dazed, and lost.  Birdman is a film worth viewing for its success in accomplishing a technical feat, but more importantly, for how its technical feat contributes to the overall character of the movie.

 

American Sniper: American Masterpiece

by Jonathan Davidson

Gilbert Chesterson once remarked, “I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees,” implying that humanity’s greatest accomplishments seldom arise from collaboration, but are the product of singular, enlightened minds. In light of this quote, it’s a wonder that any film relying on the effort of hundreds of individuals could prove itself a masterpiece. Yet each year, two or three films are blessed with just the right constellation of talent, producing an experience so compelling one couldn’t help but call it a masterpiece. 

American Sniper Movie

American Sniper is such a film. Directed by Clint Eastwood and featuring a precise, emotionally gripping performance by Bradley Cooper, this true story about Chris Kyle, the most deadly sniper in American military history, works on every level. Stunning cinematography and tactically accurate battles offer up all the excitement and suspense expected in a war film, yet its true power derives from examining the full spectrum of Chris’s experience as a warrior—how the all-consuming experience of combat can put “lighting in your bones” yet just as easily eviscerate the soul. It also shows how he must choose between being present for his family or his brothers in arms, and the nearly impossible task of coming off the extreme highs of combat and re-assimilating into the emotional flat-line of civilian life.

Bradley Cooper works through a grueling bootcamp workout on the set of American Sniper in Los AngelesThe film’s portrait of Chris Kyle begins early in his childhood. After beating up a bully for hurting his younger brother Jeff, Chris’s father congratulates him for “finishing it” and tells him that there are three kinds of people in the world: sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. Sheep allow themselves to be victims, sheepdogs protect the weak, and wolves prey on the weak. It’s clear from an early age that Chris sees himself as a sheepdog, ready to use violence to fend off the wolves. But what’s not so clear to Chris is that, even though a sheepdog appears to have noble motives, he’s being raised to be an animal, one who acts off of the base instinct of violence. Subtly, Chris’s upbringing makes the audience wonder, when does the sheepdog become a wolf? Where does the line fall between protecting the weak and becoming a monster? How long can he live by the sword?

detail.de524157Even though Chris never asks these questions of himself, they develop into the underlying themes of the film. In his book What It Is Like to Go to War, Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes says, “Once we recognize our shadow’s existence we must resist the enticing step of going with its flow.” Throughout the film, we see Chris becoming sucked deeper and deeper into the vortex of war, volunteering for multiple tours of duty despite the objections of his wife, who can tell he’s being enticed to follow his shadow into total darkness. On top of deep and rich themes, this picture excels in balancing action and story. Many high-budget films rely heavily on CGI action; hoping excitement can make up for a weak story. Recently I watched Captain America: Winter Soldier and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. In both movies I was appalled to see twenty minutes of story followed by two hours of chase sequences and combat. Thankfully, the makers of American Sniper understand that action can quickly lead to emotional fatigue, causing the audience to quit caring about what happens to the characters.

maxresdefaultInstead of relying on action, American Sniper focuses on Chris Kyle’s personal journey. The screenwriter Jason Hall, who also wrote Paranoia and Spread, recognizes that the audience connects to a film’s hero only after discovering the hero’s strong desires, for strong desires are universal and highly sympathetic. We see Chris’s desire to protect his younger brother as a child, and we like him. We see Chris working hard to become a cowboy, and we admire his dedication. We see his intense desire to defend his country, and we’re touched by his willingness to sacrifice on our behalf. We see him pursue a beautiful woman until marriage, and we’re charmed. And before long we have so connected with Chris’s desires that we can feel his anguish at having to choose again and again between staying with his family or returning to Iraq to hunt down the sniper—a Syrian Olympic medalist in sharpshooting—who has killed his comrades. Once ensuring we understand and empathize with Chris, the filmmakers put him and his buddies into a few gritty, frighteningly realistic engagements and an incredible climactic battle near the end, but never let those action sequences detract from the real story.

Another area in which American Sniper adds to its richness is through exploring the politics of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Politically, Chris observes the war in stark white and jet black. When asked by fellow frogman Marc Lee if their presence in Iraq is a waste of time and lives, Chris blows off his friend’s concerns by saying things like, “There’s evil here. We’ve seen it. Would you want these f***ers in San Diego or New York?” Yet Marc and other characters in the film have a better appreciation for the complexities and vagaries inherent in the business of war, adding just enough counterpoint to Chris’s hyper patriotism to prevent the film from feeling like a raw-raw pro-war cheerleader.

American-Sniper-Wedding

 What really surprised and pleased me about this film was its portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder. So many films focus on the heroic, cinematic battles of war, yet neglect to convey how, for many of the veterans, the battle rages for years after the bullets have stopped flying. In his book On Killing, Dave Grossman says, “Some psychiatric casualties have always been associated with war, but it was only in the twentieth century that our physical and logistical capability to sustain combat outstripped our psychological capacity to endure it.” Each time Chris returns from a tour of duty, the audience can see how modern war ravages the minds of those who fight. Each time his PTSD has grown worse, and its effects on his family prove the true costs of war even for those who are fortunate enough to have “survived.” 

For all these reasons and many more, American Sniper is an important, must-see film. By the end you’ll be thoroughly entertained, emotionally depleted, and will have likely gained significant insight into the lives of our most highly trained warriors.

Wreck It Ralph is More Than Worthy of an Oscar Nom

by Kaitlin Palma

There was a time in all of our lives where games meant the world to us. Whether it was jumping rope, playing tag or, as Wreck It Ralph portrays, video games. Disney’s latest dive into the animation pool was released in the late fall of 2012 and is now currently under consideration for an Oscar as Best Animated Feature of the year. Although the film faces tough competition it is more than worthy of the nomination and in any other year would likely be a clear win for the trophy. Yes, a simple story about a villainous video game character wanting to turn a new leaf is that good.

Wreck It Ralph's Mixed CastFrom the moment Disney made its way into theaters with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 (that’s more than 70 years ago!) the stories that have borne the studio’s moniker have warmed our hearts and allowed our imaginations to expand vastly. This film is no exception. Whether you are one for animation or not, Wreck It Ralph is more than just a bunch of colorful pictures and cute little catch phrases. To my delighted surprise this film had essentially everything it takes to be called a “good movie” regardless of mode or medium. More than just a kid’s pic, more than a family night flick, this film—action packed with racing candy cars and villainous famished cyber land insects—is the greatest adventure never taken. With an exciting twist of good versus evil and an unexpected hero and villain, Wreck It Ralph will make you laugh until you cry and keep you on the edge of your seat.

Ralph explores being a different character

As someone brought up in the digital age, I have to say that Wreck It Ralph was a real surprise treat. It’s very easy to watch animation and not appreciate the time and effort it takes to carefully create every detail required to tell a tale like this one. But the visual effects here really stand out, running the gamete of style and presentation in order to represent actual past video games as well as the ones created specifically for the movie. Amazingly enough the collaboration of disparate (game) realities seamlessly come together as a unified whole, thus placing the audience into a world they’ve known but have never explored.

Ralph tries to make friendsOf course all the artistry in the world doesn’t mean much to a film without a solid story as a foundation. And the story here is one that offers a lot of heart and a positive message without being sappy or preachy. One scene in particular is quite memorable. It’s when the main character, Ralph, expresses the need to be more in life than just one that wrecks things. So, he ventures out to discover how he can be the hero instead of the villain and begins an adventure that takes him through the many worlds of video gaming. Ralph discovers that what he needs to be a hero, or “good guy” is a medal. Believing this to be the key to achieving his goal, he sneaks into the game “Hero’s Duty” in which the players must fight to bring his/her team to the top of the light tower where the medal of a hero awaits.

Of course, Ralph’s world (his game) is very different in setting from “Hero’s Duty” which mimics the real world games of Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed. This is where the pacing of the film picks up speed to match the adrenaline filled universe of these alternate realities. Naturally, Ralph is confused and scared by his new surroundings. Then, BANG! A gun is fired, followed by a second, third and fourth. With every gunshot or screech of a dying “cybug”, Ralph’s face is shown in acute reaction with very quick and concise cuts. The audience not only sees, but also feels the strife and determination in Ralph’s eyes as the medal becomes the only thing that holds any meaning in his life. In the midst of the fight we are suddenly taken back to Ralph’s home game (where he exists as the antagonist). There the protagonist, Fix It Felix is seen genuinely concerned about Ralph’s disappearance. It is perhaps the first time in cinema where the “hero” sincerely misses his nemesis. This moment acutely demonstrates the necessity, even the dependency of opposites in any world, animated, fictionalized or otherwise and the natural need for balance.

A diverse group of genres

With a message like that it’s easy to see why the film is not only enjoyable for every member of the family but worthy of accolades and even awards. Whether you grew up on Atari, Sega or Xbox a good story is a good story, and makes you come back again and again to experience the pleasure of the adventure whether it’s on film or in a video game. Academy Award winner or not, that’s the real achievement when it comes to animated films – reaching as large an audience as possible. Wreck It Ralph has done that, and is bound to continue to do so for generations to come.

Oscar Nominated Shorts in Theaters Now

by Carrie Specht

The Academy Award nominated shorts are currently playing in select theaters, and whether you’re a fan of the medium or not (though I don’t know anyone who isn’t) you’ll find that this year’s nominees are well worth the price of a feature film. In fact, they’re so good you’re likely to enjoy them more than anything else currently playing in the multiplexes. Furthermore, you’re going to have a bit of a hard time making a pick for your office Oscar pool. There is a standout among the bunch, but there’s definitely a dark horse too that could pull off a surprise upset. So, to be safe I think you better see them all and judge for yourself.

The Paperman

The Paperman

If you’ve been involved with any kind of social media over the past few weeks then you already know that Disney’s The Paperman is the odds on favorite to nab the golden statuette come February 24. It’s a gorgeous, traditionally animated tale of boy-meets-girl told without any dialogue what so ever in a beautifully depicted sepia tone. The film evokes a nostalgic feel heightened by its period setting and use of multiple planes of focus. You know, just as if you were watching a movie shot on actual film stock. Thus avoiding the error made by most early digital films and many animated ones: that of having everything in focus. There is a wonderful tangible quality of reality in The Paperman that I just haven’t seen in an animated film in a very long time if ever. This is the safe bet for winner.

Maggie Simpson and The Longest Daycare

Unlike Maggie Simpson in the Longest Daycare. I had very high hopes for this one given its origin, its main character and the title’s allusion to one of my favorite war films. However, I was sadly disappointed. The short just doesn’t have the feel of either the popular TV show from which it spawns or the movie it tries (I think) to emulate. Which is particularly disappointing given all the prestigious names (Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, Hans Zimmer) involved with the production. With this kind of pedigree you expect to have at least something that would stand up to being a good episode for the weekly show, but not so. I guess it was a case of too many cooks or something because these talents just don’t play on the screen. And the animation itself is certainly nothing new given that The Simpsons has dominated the television airwaves for more than twenty years. It’s not that the short is bad, not at all. It’s just that Maggie Simpson in the Longest Daycare has the least chance of winning the coveted award. You’ll enjoy seeing it, especially on a big screen. I just wouldn’t lay any bes for it to win, place or show. Not with these other strong entries.

Fresh GuacamoleThe same can be said of Fresh Guacamole. Yes, this cleverly devised short uses stop motion and claymation to create the most unique bowl of dip you’ve ever seen remaining entertaining from start to finish. But there’s no real story here. It’s kind of a case of art for arts sake. No doubt there will be some that favor it for that very reason, and I’m very pleased that it demonstrates a form of animation highly underrated by the common man. However, when you’re up against a film like The Paperman you have to bring more to the table than the impressive visual gymnastics demonstrated here. Fresh Guacamole certainly deserves its nomination and will likely be the film you’re thinking about most as you leave the theater, but it will not take the Oscar. Not that that will hurt the filmmakers. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more from them at future award ceremonies, and they will likely be taking home an Oscar of their own someday. Just not this year.

Head Over Heals

Head Over Heals

Now I get to the two possibilities for an Oscar upset. First there’s Head Over Heals. An interesting story of an elderly couple who for some unexplained reason occupy the same space but live in separate gravitational pulls. It’s a complicated concept that is very well demonstrated in a brief amount of time. Which is notable since, like all the other nominees in the animated short category this year, there is no dialogue. That’s right. Not a word is spoken to explain anything. Nor is it needed. Although it might be nice to have some questions answered the through line of the story is clear and delightfully touching. Stop motion is the animation form of coice, but more like a puppetry style so it stands out from Fresh Guacamole. Another compelling aspect to the short is the fact that it is a student film made by a young man in the UK who is currently forming his own production company. Very likely he will be following in the steps of Nick Park, so there’s no doubt we will be seeing the name Timothy Reckart again. But will we see it on a golden statue this year? I say maybe. Not the strongest choice, but maybe.

Adam Meets Dog

Adam and Dog

And then there is Adam and Dog. It’s picturesque backgrounds are mixed with a somewhat rougher style for the characters of a man and his dog. I should say the first man and the first dog. This short is longer than the others and certainly paces itself when revealing its story, but it’s worth it. It too is wordless, but clearly offers up a reason why man’s best friend is a dog. As lush as it is rough around the edges the differences highlight the opposites between the garden of eden and the flaws of man. Given the beauty of the artistry demonstrated here there will be those who’ll pick Adam and Dog as the favorite. And that very well may be. However, I think not.

Given the popularity of the style of animation used in The Paperman, its graceful beauty, its stylish presentation and accessibility of its universal story I think it’s the one to beat. But by all means I encourage you to see for yourself. After all, you’re probably going to see all of the feature film nominations. Why not the animated shorts too? Especially if you have the opportunity. It might very well be the best day you spend at the movies so far this year. And most importantly you’ll have an upper hand in your Oscar pool. You can thank me later.

 

 

Oscar Nominated Short Films in Theaters Now

ShortsHD working with Magnolia Pictures is releasing this year’s Oscar® Nominated Short Films to over 200 theaters across the United States and Canada beginning Friday, February 10th, 2012.

Due to the popularity of last year’s theatrical release of the Academy Award nominated Documentary shorts audiences will now have the opportunity to see all three categories of short films before Oscar night on February 26th. These three separate theatrical programs (Documentary, Live Action and Animation) will screen across the country, accessing and entertaining an audience they might not otherwise reach.

I’m a huge fan of the short format, and strongly believe in its essential place among the film world. For years the Academy has played with the idea of eliminating the categories all together, succumbing to pressure from those that believe them to be antiquated modes of filmmaking left over from the days when movie houses actually showed shorts as part of their daily programs. However, due to a surge in public interest in recent times the Academy has rethought this suggestion and has retained the honorable format. After all, many a great future filmmaker has begun with the production of a short film, and those efforts should be duly awarded.

Having just finished watching all of this year’s fine nominees I can whole-heartedly recommend each and every one without reservation. The diversity of subjects and presentation will undoubtedly appeal to a wide scope, providing something for everyone. The animated shorts are touching and definitely family-friendly. I’m particularly found of The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which is about a Buster Keaton like character who lives a life of quiet beauty among a playful group of books. And the live action films offer a nice variety of plots, ranging from heart-warming (Raju, my pick for Oscar) to out-right hilarious (Tuba Atlantic). The short documentaries are particularly moving with subjects that are issue oriented and of immediate interest. I dare anyone not to be uplifted and moved by these poignant expressions of feeling, especially The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, my pick for the Oscar.

Although, I must say I wouldn’t be surprised if The Barber of Birmingham takes the prize come Oscar night. It is a particularly inspiring short documentary about an 85 year-old man who has lived and watched the social events that have changed this country’s view on the African American’s place in our society from the Civil Rights Movement right on up to the election of President Obama. It’s a magnificently compact film that elicits a feeling of pride and tugs at your heartstrings at the same time. I just think it may be too short to grab the statuette. It feels as if it should be longer than its 18 minutes. It seemed to end rather abruptly and left me wanting more, which I felt could have been accomplished.

In Los Angeles the Animation and Live Action shorts will be at The NuArt Theater in West LA and Regency Theatres’ South Coast Plaza in Santa Ana. The Documentary shorts will begin screening later this month on February 17 at Laemmle’s Music Hall 3. Also on the 17th you can catch the Documentaries at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. And still later, on the 24th, the Egyptian will be screening the Live-Action nominees, as well as the Animation nominees (check theaters for exact schedules and ticket pricing).

I urge you to take advantage of this opportunity and see these wonderfully entertaining films. Not only will you undoubtedly have a terrific theater going experience, but you’ll also have a leg up on your office Oscar pool. Think about it. Here’s three points no one ever gets (unless it’s with a wild guess) because most people never get the chance to see them, but you do. Just think how smart you’ll look. It’s a win-win situation!

Along with the theatrical run, the nominated short films will be released individually later this month on iTunes beginning February 21st. The release will also be available via cable’s Movies On Demand (MOD), distributed by In Demand and will be available via Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Brighthouse, Cablevision and Cox Communication.

Oscar Speculations

Pretty little statues waiting for new homes.

It’s that time of the year when those of us interested in the entertainment industry begin to spend a lot of time thinking about the Oscars. Perhaps speculating would be the better term. We have our opinions about what will win the big awards, we consider what was nominated, and wonder about what wasn’t even considered. Many nominations and eventual outcomes for that mater are no-brainers, but more often than not it seems the bigger question is why something or someone has been nominated while another is completely overlooked.

I have never considered myself much of a barometer for the whims of the Academy. After all my track record for selecting Oscar picks was far more accurate before I joined the industry. However, I do believe I have a good eye for films and performances that are bound to become classics, and it makes me sad when such achievements are not appreciated in their own day and age. I am the first person to argue that greatness often requires the passage of time to determine its true value, but still, come on. Good is good, and current popularity tends to be forgotten over time if there is nothing of weight to sustain it.

Case in point: Jeff Bridges in “True Grit”. Bridges is undoubtedly a great actor who himself spent many years providing superb performances that went unnoticed. It was a long time coming when he finally received a Best Actor Oscar for his role in “Crazy Heart”. That aside, his work in the Coen Brothers’ remake of a John Wayne classic falls short of his previous endeavors, which makes me feel that this nomination is really the result of becoming a recent Academy darling and not a reflection on the quality of his acting. It was a strong choice Bridges made in the characterization of Rooster Cogburn, but most of the time I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Add you couldn’t tell a thing by his expressions because his face was nearly hidden by an eye patch and full beard. The performance just wasn’t there for me and I don’t think the Academy should have honored it with what I consider to be a “make up” nomination for all the times he should have received one in the past.

And why is Geoffrey Rush nominated for Best Supporting Actor instead of Best Actor? His role was just as dominate and impressive as Colin Firths in “The King’s Speech”, maybe even more so. And that’s probably the reason why. It’s the producers of films themselves that submit recommendations for Academy consideration, and most producers have learned it’s a bad idea to place two actors from a single movie in the same category of competition – it splits the vote. Submitting equally billed actors in separate categories avoids this possibility and provides the chance that they both might win. After all it looks far better in ad campaigns and pulls in far more money if a production can boast two Oscar winners rather than just two nominees. Seems a shame though to cheat Rush out of the opportunity to win as Best Actor. But seeing as he already has a golden statue for acting (“Shine”), and he’s one of the Executive Producers, he probably doesn’t mind.

And then there are the performances that have gone completely unnoticed by industry honors. Lesley Manville is absolutely magnificent in Mike Leigh’s latest film, “Another Year”. At least the script for this look into one year in the life of a happy middle-aged couple and their tight knit circle has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Those familiar with the work of Mike Leigh know that improve amongst the actors in rehearsals has a tremendous impact upon the final product. That act in itself merits a second look at the actors’ performances. And Manville as Mary is achingly real as a pathetic middle-aged creature that has yet to come to terms with the effects of the passage of time. She slowly begins to realize her life has changed irrevocably through the way her closest friends have changed toward her, and that her little world was never quite what she thought it was, and never will be. Mary starts out as a peripheral character but comes to dominate the story through what can only be described as a nuanced yet powerful performance by a very skilled actor who deserved to be recognized with an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Manville is far more deserving than say Helena Bonham Carter who was very good in the “King’s Speech”, but whose screen time was hardly worthy of such enviable recognition.

Of course the 2011 Academy Awards are no different than any other year and its unlikely the 2012 will be either, or the year after that, or the year after that. It’s impossible to say if the nominees for any given category will ever truly be the most deserving, let alone the eventual winners. However, I hope that the many speculations of such designations will prompt audiences to find out for themselves what the arguments are all about. Agree or disagree with the critics in the end, it is my hope that in the process people will have seen a whole bunch of worthy performances they might not have discovered otherwise. And that in the long run is far more important to any creative artist than the number of statues on their mantle. At least I hope so.