the candler blog

Five Years

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Five years and change ago, I launched the candler blog, my home for “movie reviews, cinema essays, personal rants and the like…” This wasn’t my first crack at a blog, but it’s the one that stuck. And what a ride it’s been so far.

I’ve interviewed filmmakers, sparked debate and even helped a few people better use Mac productivity apps along the way. This site allowed me to become involved in the Fountain plain-text screenwriting project. This site is how I landed a gig at Heeb Magazine. The candler blog of today is nothing I could ever have imagined five years ago.

Let me also mention the contributors who helped make the site what it is: my friends Sunrise Tippeconnie and Daniel Kremer. At the beginning I thought the candler blog would be a full-fledged outlet, with a staff of writers covering a range of topics. Over time I turned it into my personal blog, but their contributions still mean the world to me.

A trap that I often fall into is viewing each of the site’s milestones as a victory. When traffic is high, for example, I always get this silly feeling inside that I’ve “arrived.” When a writer or outlet I admire links to me, I think I’ve accomplished something. But that’s all bullshit. Achieving small successes is easy; maintaining the site is hard. I bring this up here merely to point out (mostly to myself) that five years is nothing. I am sentimental and proud, but there is so much more to be written (and so much I regret not writing over the years). There is plenty of work ahead.

So I wanted to just say thank you. Thank you for sticking with the candler blog. Thank you for your patience. Here’s to the next five years.

Review: Creep

Movies, Reviews, SXSW 2014

A found-footage mumblecore horror film basically sounds like the last thing I would want to watch. One of my goals at this year’s SXSW, though, is to leave my comfort zone a bit and see films contra what my gut tells me. So I went and saw Patrick Brice’s Creep, and I’m quite glad I did.

The film stars its two creative fathers: director Brice as Aaron, a videographer, and Mark Duplass as Josef, who, I think it’s fair to say based on the film’s own promotional material’s, fulfills the role of the film’s title.1 At the film’s opening we see Aaron heading to a cabin in the mountains where he has been hired (via Craigslist) to shoot an undisclosed subject for Josef for $1000. Two guys, a cabin, a camera and a mystery. Go.

So, here’s my problem with found footage films: they’re (often) based on the false premise that the camera and the eye are in equal standing when it comes to perspective. Of course, they are not. The eye can’t zoom or rack focus, has peripheral vision and works in conjunction with the brain and the rest of the body to scan an area so our field of vision is, ideally, extremely wide. We can’t see behind us, but we know how to look. The camera doesn’t.

Brice’s camera offers us an extremely limited perspective in order to heighten tension. This is no sin, but it also feels inorganic. We learn a bit about Aaron, over time, starting with the fact that he uses his video camera as a diary. Aaron and his camera are very much a character in the film, but there is a disconnect between the two. Why, for example, does he use only one camera both for professional filming and self-diarizing? Who is he documenting his life for? As far as we know he is a loner; no family, no friends. Does he put his diaries online? Save all the tapes in his apartment? The answer to these questions is probably “Who cares?” because Aaron’s camera is a creative conceit to move the found footage premise forward.

Duplass, as Josef, is a delight. He commits to the role to an incredible degree. There is no wink-wink cleverness to his performance. He rises to the challenge of presenting us with a compassionate, charismatic creep. He manipulates Aaron and the audience in equal measure. It is a deft performance from him that, frankly, makes the whole project watchable (as it should since he’s the only person on camera some 80-90% of the film). The same, I should mention, cannot be said for Brice. It would have been nice for Duplass to play off of a more seasoned actor, but the film works despite Brice’s forced and stilted performance.

For about the first half to two-thirds of Creep I basically tolerated it. The narrow perspective of Brice’s camera is used to pull off a few too many simple horror parlor tricks (actually just “Boo!” sometimes). The dialogue sort of circles around aimlessly2 and somewhat predictably. After all, we know that Josef is a creep; we assume he will get creepier.

I won’t give anything away, but at the aforementioned halfway/two-thirds marker the film takes a turn with a rather clever plot device that pulled me back in and elevated the whole story. To Brice and Duplass’s credit, this turn would not function the same without the groundwork they had already laid. And so one must take the good with the bad, but the good is, in fact, so good that it changes the entire experience.

Creep is basically a backlot horror picture. The story is simple and the execution even a little sloppy, but it all comes together, eventually, as a great, chilling little yarn. Duplass’s performance is a career milestone. The complexity he brings to Josef makes the film almost a master class in lunatic charisma. If you see it for no other reason, see it for him.

  1. There is one other performance, a woman’s voice from off-screen, that goes uncredited.

  2. This, mind you, is why I will apply the admittedly outmoded “mumblecore” moniker to the film.

Defining Cinematography

Filmmaking, Movies

When Gravity took home awards for both cinematography (to Emmanuel Lubezki) and visual effects (to Timothy Webber, Chris Lawrence David Shirk and Neil Corbould) at the Oscars this past weekend, it got me thinking about the relationship between these two intertwined art forms. One can’t do most (though soon I would modify that to some) effects work without a camera, and, increasingly, one can’t shoot a film without the help of a skilled effects team. Are cinematography and visual effects actually that separate anymore?

So I poked around the old Oscar database. Here are all of the films ever to win an Oscar for both cinematography1 and visual effects:

  • Gravity (2013)
  • Life of Pi (2012)
  • Hugo (2011)
  • Inception (2010)
  • Avatar (2009)
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
  • Titanic (1997)
  • The Longest Day (1962)
  • Ben-Hur (1959)
  • The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

Ten films. Five of them in the last five years. This, to me, looks like a trend.

According to the Academy’s current bylaws, cinematography isn’t narrowly defined. Visual effects, on the other hand, are.

Achievements shall be judged within the parameters defined by the executive committee and on the basis of:

a. consideration of the contribution the visual effects make to the overall production and

b. the artistry, skill and fidelity with which the visual illusions are achieved.

And later on:

Visual effects, as an achievement or a craft, shall be determined by the Visual Effects Branch Executive Committee.

No such dictum is directed at the Cinematographers Branch. Cinematography is just…cinematography.

I think it’s becoming clear that we should be questioning what is and what isn’t considered cinematography. In the case of Gravity, a film whose illusion is so closely tied to its plot, it’s fair to ask how much of that movie magic comes from the camera, how much comes from special effects. Would it even be possible to award one and not the other? How could Lubezki’s camera work possibly hold up without the stunning work of the effects team?

Another question: why not make animated features eligible in the cinematography category? Regardless of how, technologically, a film is animated, there is always a “camera” that has to be positioned, moved and controlled. As visual effects and cinematography coalesce, why shouldn’t animation and cinematography as well?

For good measure, here’s how the Academy defines an animated feature:

An animated feature film is defined as a motion picture with a running time of more than 40 minutes, in which movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique. Motion capture by itself is not an animation technique. In addition, a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time.

That’s a good definition for now, but it will soon become more difficult to make the distinction between effects-laden work and an animated film. As the uncanny valley shrinks, our perception of “what is filmmaking?” will only get broader. Perhaps the Academy’s definitions should broaden as well.

  1. From 1940 through 1967 (the 12th through 39th Oscar ceremonies) the Academy gave out two awards for cinematography, one for color and one for black-and-white. This had already become de rigeur for the Academy, which had given special awards out for color cinematography three years in a row before bestowing the first “Best Cinematography, Color” award upon Ernest Haller and Ray Rennahan for their work on Gone With the Wind.

Review: Dallas Buyers Club

Movies

So far I’ve done a terrible job catching up on all of the Oscar-nominated films.1 No matter; it’s crunch time now so I’m catching up where I can.

I picked up a Blu-ray of Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club at the video store last night to close the gap on the Best Picture category (I’ve only not seen Philomena and 12 Years a Slave). My knee-jerk reaction on Letterboxd last night2 was that it was “sloppy.” In a nut, this film is two stellar performances wading through a disjointed narrative.

Much has been made of Matthew McConaughey’s recent spate of brilliant choices. From Bernie to Magic Mike to True Detective to this one, he’s been taking on increasingly complex roles and delivering great performance after great performance. His (and costar Jared Leto’s) most ballyhooed choice has been his weight fluctuation, winnowing his body away to almost nothing to play AIDS patient Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club. (It should be noted that fellow nominee Christian Bale went in exactly the opposite direction, putting on poundage for American Hustle.)

The physical transformations actors go through may be impressive, but they are beside the point once the camera rolls. McConaughey’s talent comes from a place deep down inside, an actorly spark that cannot be taught. It’s incredible how many Texans one man can play without any (or minimal) overlap; each character is his own man, easily distinguishable from the others. His Woodroof is far more complex than the story lets on, though I agree with Richard Brody: McConaughey’s brief appearance in The Wolf of Wall Street far outstrips what he does here.

Leto manages to go toe-to-toe with McConaughey as Rayon, the transgender woman who goes into business with Woodroof selling unapproved drugs to suffering HIV patients. Rayon is a tortured character; she feels duty-bound to the maligned gay community (left to die while the FDA drags its feet approving new treatments) yet is also driven to keep up a nasty drug habit. She is capable of pulling off the impossible: tempering Woodroof’s intolerance. It’s not hard to see why. Leto imbues Rayon with so much humanity. She is tragically flawed and yet finds a way to keep going each and every day in the face of certain death. Woodroof finds a kindred spirit in her.

Narratively, Dallas Buyers Club is a mess. Director Vallée along with writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack do a good job of composing scenes that bring to the screen a specific time, place and crisis that I don’t think is often told. The AIDS crisis, in film, so often feels like a New York City (or at least North Atlantic, as in Philadelphia) scourge. Moving that narrative to another part of America, looking at it in the micro, is powerful stuff. Nonetheless the story barely holds together as the film progresses. We bounce from scene to scene as the story circles around. Woodroof hustles drugs, they dry up, he gets more, the feds close in, he fixes it, more trouble, he fixes it, and on and on. There are too many little conflicts that do little to inform us about these characters’ wants and needs. The story just keeps going and going until it’s over. And when the film does end I’m left to wonder what was gained, what was revealed?

One of my favorite, fleeting moments cuts down to Woodroof’s core. As most members of his Dallas Buyers Club are gay or transgender, the straight Woodroof, who previously never had to work hard to sate his sexual appetite, takes note of a young woman picking up drugs at his motel headquarters. Once he learns she has full blown AIDS not a moment passes before the two are going at it in the shower. When he was diagnosed, Woodroof entered a sexual desert. Despite the effects on his ever-deteriorating health, he kept up all of his vices (coke and booze) but one. There is something sweet and poignant about seeing him get to have animalistic sex3 without consequence once again.

It’s a real testament to the cast4 that Dallas Buyers Club has risen to the stature it has. McConaughey and Leto elevate an otherwise forgettable affair (I realize that’s an insane conceit, like saying that but for the cocoa those brownies tasted no good). Sometimes it’s not easy to separate out which aspects of a movie you like. I, for one, feel a little bad saying I don’t like the film since that there is so much in it that I do like. But all told, this one was a chore to get through.

Photo Credit: Anne Marie Fox, Focus Features

  1. 15 out of 42 ain’t bad, but it ain’t batting .1000 either.

  2. I’ve been writing tweet-length little nothing “reviews” on Letterboxd as a means to log each film and get my gut feeling out. It’s not a great system, so expect me to ramp real reviews back up here on the candler blog.

  3. Vallée knocks you over the head with Woodroof’s animalism in the film’s opening and closing scenes.

  4. I’ve left out Jennifer Garner, whose performance as Woodroof’s doctor, Eve Saks, is barely worth mentioning. It was nice to see Griffin Dunne briefly as an expat doctor in Mexico who supplies Woodroof’s stash, though I wouldn’t say his work is too memorable here.

IT’S OVER

Link

John Campbell in a Kickstarter update:

I shipped about 75% of kickstarter rewards to backers. I will not be shipping any more. I will not be issuing any refunds. For every message I receive about this book through e-mail, social media or any other means, I will burn another book.

The update (which is over 4000 words) is a rather intense polemic on art, capitalism and the ways in which people value one another.

Do read the whole thing, though, as Campbell later (rightly) warns:

If you have been skimming this to get the “gist” of it, it is not going to work in my opinion. If you are reading this to summarize it for someone else, please fuck yourself instead if possible.

How The Comcast & Netflix Deal Is Structured

Link, Movies, Technology

Dan Rayburn at StreamingMediaBlog:

There’s been a lot of speculation involving the business and technical details surrounding the recent deal between Comcast and Netflix and plenty of wrong numbers and information being used. I thought it would be helpful to detail what’s really taking place behind the scenes, highlight some important publicly available data in the market, talk about the deal size, and debunk quite a few myths that people are spouting as facts.

Smart piece that walks you through how streaming works and where the money is.

Here’s something interesting:

In a little known, but public fact, anyone who is on Comcast and using Apple TV to stream Netflix wasn’t having quality problems. The reason for this is that Netflix is using Level 3 and Limelight to stream their content specifically to the Apple TV device. What this shows is that Netflix is the one that decides and controls how they get their content to each device and whether they do it via their own servers or a third party. Netflix decides which third party CDNs to use and when Netflix uses their own CDN, they decide whom to buy transit from, with what capacity, in what locations and how many connections they buy, from the transit provider. Netflix is the one in control of this, not Comcast or any ISP.

In my gut the Netflix-Comcast deal still feels wrong.

Yet it’s interesting to note that Netflix does pick and choose transit providers for different devices. Why? And do the device manufacturers have a say in this? If Apple is negotiating for prime delivery, doesn’t that undercut net neutrality as well?

This is a whole can of worms that will probably be the major technology story of 2014, but there are so many factors involved it’s hard for most readers to keep up. So sensationalism always wins.

(via Scott Macaulay.)

The misguided detective work of the CSI: Cinema Scene Investigators

Link, Movies

Matt Singer writing about “forensic cinematologists” (online debaters trying to get to the bottom of any filmic ambiguities) at The Dissolve:

This obsession with finding the “answers” frequently skews film conversations into fruitless tangents.

Singer then gets into some specifics of Inside Llewyn Davis that I think are beside the point for my purposes here, concluding:

A lengthy debate returned no resolution, but even if it had, what would it have added to the film itself? Nothing. The debaters missed the forest while studying the specific taxonomy of one single, irrelevant tree.

This endless pontificating on specific aspects of movies is certainly something, but an appreciation of cinema it is not.

Alas, we live in an era in which promoting such detective work is good, viral business. See under: summer movie campaigns.

David Fincher in Early Talks to Direct Steve Jobs Film

Link, Movies

Tatiana Siegel in The Hollywood Reporter:

[David] Fincher is in early talks to helm the untitled film based on Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography of the Apple co-founder, sources tell The Hollywood Reporter. If a deal comes together, the film would reunite the director with Oscar-winning Social Network writer Aaron Sorkin, who recently finished the adaptation, and Social Network producer Scott Rudin.

First one right guy, now another (maybe).

The internet is fucked

Technology

Nilay Patel for The Verge:

Internet access isn’t a luxury or a choice if you live and participate in the modern economy, it’s a requirement. Have you ever been in an office when the internet goes down? It’s like recess.

Preach.1

  1. I give The Verge a lot of shit but Nilay’s piece is a great walk-through of the current political situation in US.

    That said, I can’t necessarily abide that bro-tastic headline. There’s something…unsavory about the Internet being fucked which is, you know, the analogy at hand. Plus there’s the unfortunate closer from Free Press President Craig Aaron: “We can still unfuck the internet.”

    The piece is a call to arms with accompanying shareable graphic displaying appropriate email and phone contacts at the FCC, asking readers to file complaints beneath the headline “HOW TO UNFUCK THE INTERNET.” Because what we really need is a bunch of dudebros calling up asking for an unfucked Internet.

    Nilay’s article is a great overview. And the suggestion to flood the FCC with complaints is a wise one that requires a bit of sensationalism to light a fire under folks’ asses. (But still…)