Saturday, March 23, 2013

Of Mice and Muhammad

by Drew Martin
The other day I watched Of Mice and Men with John Malkovich, and I also watched two recent films: Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. Of Mice of Men is a classic story by John Steinbeck removed from distractions of civilization. In the movie version there is electricity in the shack where the workers sleep but not much else: a deck of cards, and a gun. When Lennie crushes Curley's hand in a fight, the witnesses cover up the incident by blaming "the machine." Of Mice and Men is timeless and metaphorical. It can be apply to any time and place. Argo and Zero Dark Thirty are the opposite; these films are really specific stories, and determined with their political agendas, which take sides, and piss off the Muslim cultures they attack.

Zero Dark Thirty is a superior film to Argo, and although it shows a much more gruesome side of the United States, I found Argo much more offensive, as a preemptive cultural strike against Iran. That being said, looking at these two films with a eye on media, they are both really interesting because they are loaded with layers of media with themes of espionage, government intelligence and special missions.

I love how the cartoon story board cards are used in Argo to legitimize the cover story of the escaping Americans, especially since story boards are such an essential part of how many films are realized. When I first heard of the killing of Osama bin Laden, I was really interested in seeing how the operation was possible. Kathryn Bigelow did a fantastic job detailing the events. I was amazed by the technology shown, such as the laser scopes on the guns that are only visible with the night vision goggles. What was most interesting was how the commandos called out the names of their targets, with soft hushed voices.

My favorite part of Zero Dark Thirty was when the special forces returning from Osama's compound with a bounty of hard drives and other Al-Qaeda information, were calling out for Sharpies to tag everything. Beyond product placement, the Sharpie is just part of our culture.

Click to watch trailers for:

Of Mice and Men
Zero Dark Thirty

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Call Me Maybe: Social Media Soldiers

by Drew Martin
It is amazing to look the relationship of modern wars and new media of the respective eras: WWI and photography, WWII and film, Vietnam War and television, Gulf War and video (from smart bombs), and the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Internet. In the beginning of the Iraq war, leaked photos showed US soldiers torturing Iraqis. The private performance went viral and changed how images and stories reach the public. A decade later, the most talked about media event from the front lines is the military tribute to the Miami Dolphins Cheerleaders' version of Carly Rae's Call Me Maybe. The Internet has replaced the USO's wartime tour of female entertainers for male troops in the trenches, and the soldiers' YouTube post has turned the tables. Unlike the Abu Ghraib soldiers (men and women) who were caught with their pants down, these "social media soldiers" not only know they are being watched but put on quite a show. The video is entertaining but it is a sugar coating to the fact that these men are trained killers who flaunt their weapons, which must be the ultimate insult to the families and friends of the people who they target. I think the weirdest thing in this new wave is that this will be the first time soldiers will return from war and be greeted not for their heroism but for their popular celebrity, which will continue when they go on the late night talk show tour.

Call Me Maybe:
Miami Dolphins Cheerleaders' version
Soldiers in Afghanistan version
Side by side comparison

Friday, March 8, 2013

Apple is for Apple

by Drew Martin
When Chip Kidd discusses design in front of an audience, he usually recalls a priceless lesson he learned in art school. His graphic arts teacher drew an apple on the board and then wrote the word apple. He vehemently told his students that you can either show the apple or use the word apple but never do both, never combine them. This lesson goes a long way, and should be grasped by filmmakers as well. I started watching a low budget film the other day but had to turn it off because of this problem. The narrator would say “My husband’s friends did not like me,” and the scene would show a group of people frowning at her. Redundancy works really well if the reiteration is ironic and the director has fun with it, but unfortunately this was more the case of someone who was glued to the screenplay and lacked imagination.

Recently, I was convinced by the DVD cover of Sleepwalk with Me to check this movie out of my local New York Public Library. “From the producers of This American Life” crowns the title. It has endorsements from Judd Apatow and Robert Ebert, and the jacket is decorated with laurel leaves from seven film festivals including Sundance where it was a winner of the Best of NEXT Audience Award. Lauren Ambrose, who I really liked in Starting Out in the Evening, played one of the lead roles. The clincher was, this is “the first movie from Ira Glass,” What could go wrong? Glass is such a talented radio personality and Mike Birbiglia, the lead actor works as a standup comic. The problem is that the visual narrative of the film never takes more than baby steps from the script. That being said, there is a poignant monologue in the end when Birbiglia concludes his tale of his decade-long relationship that was rattled by his fear of getting hitched. He explains that he and his girlfriend almost made a life-long commitment of marriage simply because they were afraid of hurting each other's feeling by splitting.

It is interesting to note that the last three films I watched over the past week were independent films with performances by Alex Karpovsky. This week’s New Yorker devotes nearly a full page to him. Tad Friend writes, “Yet, even as he shows promise of becoming his generation’s Woody Allen, a deadpan notice of indignity, Karpovsky remains in the milk-crate-d├ęcor stage of his life.” Karpovsky is certainly jockeying to be the next Allen-type man-child. This actually set off my redundancy alarm in Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture. In a couple scenes Karpovsky is shown reading from a book of short stories by Allen.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Changing Cat Litter in Low Budget Films

by Drew Martin
I watched two low budget films this weekend, Tiny Furniture and Uncle Kent, in which each of the leading characters is shown changing cat litter. This works for many reasons. For one, no animal is actually in the scene, so it is less involved than a dog pooping in the street and you can shoot it as many times as you want, but it functions as a dog walking scene in an interior space. The main thing is that it shows a character in a compromising position. I wonder if there is an industry-trick for the prop; perhaps a wad of modeling clay.

Tiny Furniture is a neo-slacker film, which functions off-screen as a modern day debutante ball for its writer, director and lead Lena Dunham, daughter of two well-off New York City artists, Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons. The less nepotistic Uncle Kent stars Kent Osborne, who has been a writer and storyboard artist for Sponge Bob Square Pants. The difference is just that; having a litterbox scene is meant to show the humility of the main character but even so, one is shot in a fancy TriBeCa apartment while the other is in a messy LA bachelor pad.

In Tiny Furniture the litter box scene is catty and territorial. Dunham is lectured by her younger sister who tells her to clean the litter box. On the way out the door the sister says "Deep scoops," as Dunham fills a plastic bag from Murray's Cheese shop with cat feces.

In Uncle Kent, Osborne likes his cat as much as he likes smoking pot. Even though changing litter is a labor of love, the scene gets under your skin. While smell is a really hard sense to stir up in film, the director Joe Swanberg is able to rub it in your nose. What works really well in this shot is that it is sandwiched between a scene where Osborne's best friend tells him that his life is a wreck and just before a scene where he greets a young woman, played by Jennifer Prediger, who he is interested and has come to stay with him for the weekend. She calls him from outside his house while he is crouching in a small space shared by his washer, dryer, and mountain bike, with his t-shirt over his face.

While Tiny Furniture is a much slicker film and a little easier to watch, it's main fault is its privilege. Uncle Kent takes more risks on an even lower budget and is more in touch with reality.

Click here to watch the trailer for Tiny Furniture.

Click here to watch the trailer for Uncle Kent.