Last week a bunch of friends got together a made a little Christmas movie. We had some borrowed equipment and sound gear rented for a commercial job. With a few hours notice everyone volunteered their time, and devised and shot this film over a single day. I’ve edited it together over Christmas.
Arrival– Film Review by Gareth Stack
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Eric Heisserer (screenplay), Ted Chiang (based on the short story “Story of Your Life” written by)
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Nobody makes science fiction movies anymore. What?! I hear you say. Aren’t they the only movies these days? And sure, if you walk into a random screen in a multiplex anywhere on the planet, chances are there’ll be a franchise superhero movie playing. Star Wars has recently seen a reboot, arguably besting the original. Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Blade Runner is due to receive a sequel next year. JJ Abrams Star Trek ‘re-imaginings’ are popular and indeed fun. But this revival of interest in the fantastical is deceptive. While Marvel and DC movies, and even the techno futuristic work of Christopher Nolan may play with the tropes of science fiction, they are emphatically not SF. For a…
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Generally, I can’t abide criticism. Outside of academia, it serves little function beyond banal consumer recommendation. However, my principles won’t get me free cinema tickets, now will they? Here’s my first wee report for No More Workhorse.
Todd Phillips made a career out of fusing comedy with ‘high concept’ action, raking in a fortune from the Hangover trilogy. Hill transcended gross out comedy to earn an Oscar nomination for his outsized role in Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street. Teller, hazed in a series of frat house comedies, gained attention for his turn in critical darling ‘Whiplash’. So can the Philips succeed in wringing engaging and humorous performances from such promising leads?
Just over a year ago, I went along to an event run by Dublin Filmmaking Collective Kino D. Kino Kabaret’s are weekend long filmmaking jamborees. Anyone no matter their level of experience can take part in making a movie – usually lots of short movies. That weekend I helped out with a bunch of short and silly movies, doing everything from acting to sound. In the sleep deprived downtime between shoots I wrote a daft little script. We scrounged some time together and filmed it, my short – ‘Spaghetti D*ck’. Flash forward a few weeks and shot through with enthusiasm for zero budget filmmaking we remade this absurd flick in super ultra mega full colour hd. I’m a big fan of whimsey, and a movie about a man whose equipment is primarily pasta certainly qualifies. Making this silliness helped convince me that writing and directing films was something I could actually imagine doing. It introduced me to a bunch of incredibly talented actors and filmmakers I still count as friends today. Hope you like it. If not, suck a spaghetti d*ck.
Over the past few months I’ve been working on ideas for sketches and short movies. Radio is great and all, but the audience for radio comedy is limited and for radio drama, practically non-existent. With that in mind, I’ve been developing some scripts and shooting a couple of test shorts – one of which has made it out into the wild. I’m lucky enough to have some extremely talented friends who’ve amassed cameras, lights and sound equipment and aren’t afraid to use them. That said, I always feel nervous using other folks equipment – if it breaks I’ll have to replace it, and feel awful, and I still won’t have my own camera. Plus, you always learn more when using (and having to pick) your own equipment.
After a few months of ferocious poverty, I’ll soon have a trickle of cash coming in from my latest drama series for Newstalk (more to follow on that, mucho excited). Now’s the time to pick up some very basic video recording equipment. Ideally I’m looking for an easy to use setup that has non-awful picture quality, steady shots, usable battery life, and decently long recording time. Since we’ll be recording sketches, it needs to work in ‘low light’ (in other words, inside a normal house, without additional lighting). And since I work in ‘the arts’ I can’t spent too much on the whole dealio. After buying a bunch of crap over the years I’ve figured out two things 1) you really need to try before you buy, or failing that ask people who regularly use the same stuff 2) the ‘best’ equipment is the equipment you can best use, not what can theoretically do the most in perfect conditions in the hands of an expert. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat around on film sets while the DOP fussed with a camera and the light died – complex camera setups make simple things very much harder and longer to make.
I already have a decent sound recorder (the Zoom H6) and mic (Rode NTG2) , which I use for radio work. I also own a cheap DSLR I picked up in the states a couple of years ago – the Canon Rebel T4i (known in Europe as the 650D). Right now I only have the ‘kit lens’ it comes with, which sucks for video, especially in low light. The Canon has a whole bunch of limitations. It doesn’t like to record for more than about ten minutes at a go. The battery dies after maybe 30 minutes of video. It’s slow to focus, even with a good lens. And it’s relatively complicated to use. So here are the options I considered.
1) GoPro Hero 4 Black
+ cheap steady rig available
+ lots of shooting possibilities due to tiny size / simplicity
+ tiny and easily set up
+ up to 2 or 3 hours battery life
+ numerous accessories (e.g.: batteries, mounts, mic inputs, super long 12 hour batteries)
– really expensive, distortion needs to be corrected in software
– video is washed out
2) Better video equipment for the Canon – a better film lens, better memory card, longer lasting batteries, and a cheap ‘steadicam’
+ by far the best video quality
+ cheap batteries and lenses available
+ cheap steady rigs available
– much more complicated use
– slow to focus
– limited shot length before overheating / hitting the camera’s file size limit
– good lenses are expensive
3) A point and shoot camera or camcorder
+ reasonable image quality
+ relatively inexpensive
+ really easy to use
+ reasonable sound in the camera
– point and shoots have very low battery life
– difficult to steady
– looks like video
– difficult to import video for editing
4) A cheap android phone with a good camera
+ also a phone
– limited memory (32 gig max)
– shooting a lot could wear out the phone
– battery life
– cameras aren’t good until you hit a pretty pricey phone
– phones break, crash, and get grumpy when wet.
After chatting with a bunch of friends, including camera geeks and comedians who regularly shoot sketches and shorts, this is what I’ve decided to pick up.
What to buy
1 * Sony HDR-CX405 camcorder – 215.00
– This tiny camcorder seems to work unusually well in low light, gets a couple of hours video on one battery, it can transfer video via wifi, and has very good depth of focus and good onboard sound. Hopefully it’ll be perfect for simple sketches.
1 * Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens – 134.00
– This ‘nifty fifty’ lens has a really low f.stop, which the camera geeks assure me means it’s great for low light. It’s also got a quiet STM motor, for less jarring and noisy focusing. It’ll help me learn to shoot video better on the DSLR, and perhaps be good enough for making shorts – although issues with staying in focus, and more complex setup means we’ll probably not use it for sketches, at least at first.
2 * replacement T4i batteries – 20.00
– Cheap, if slightly dodgy batteries should greatly extend recording time on the Canon.
1 * low cost steady cam rig – 100.00
– This ultra cheap steady cam thingamejig is a little bulkier and heavier than I’d like, but it should work with both the camera and camcorder, and let us do handheld shots without too much horrific shakiness.
Every few years hollywood is shocked by an utterly predictable success. Some startling maverick producer actually markets a movie to an underserved audience. The flick makes major bank, and a mad scramble begins, as studios line up to cash in. Five years ago it was the grey dollar, as the critically acclaimed Kings Speech dragged in sexagenarians who’d drifted away from the action packed vacuity of the block buster era. Our screens are still filled with it’s predictable follow ups, from Cannes darling Amour to The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Five years before that it was kids movies; as a series of franchises, from Harry Potter to Spy Kids proved that tweens had a powerful grip on mammy and daddy’s credit card. Now another, arguably more sinister trend has taken hold, as Hollywood seeks to cash in on a long ignored and even disdained audience. Mel Gibson might be persona non grata, but his 2004 spatterfest The Passion of the Christ nailed a market so lucrative even progressive, secular Hollywood could no longer ignore it. Ever since, the Jeebus movie has edged towards becoming a box office mainstay. Contemporary Christian movies religiously follow a variety of tropes. They exist in a post racial America of prosperous, hard striving, counter-culturally embattled Christian families, whose faith sets them at odds with a world literally in thrall to the devil. Their production tends towards the almost pornographically chintzy, and they’re most often staffed from a self contained stable of avowedly Christian actors.
Most of these movies – like the flurry of wide release Bollywood flicks current aimed at the Indian diaspora – appeal exclusively to their target audience. But breakout hits like this years ‘War Room’ prove that even ‘the lost’ (as evangelicals refer to their secular brethren) are no longer allergic to holy fluff. ‘War Room’ depicts a particularly pentecostal version of Christianity, in which the almighty can be compelled to intervene in ones career and marriage, but only if the lowly penitent rolls up her sleeves and really squeezes out an old prayer. This world view, with it’s sinister implication that misfortune is the deserved result of insufficient faith, ties into the evangelical belief that prayer is a weapon of mass demonic destruction. To a conservative America, still in the grip of a variety of wars on abstract concepts, from terrorism to the gay agenda, the idea holds a powerful appeal. To this view, the social ills of our time are not so much the result of economic inequality, or a history of prejudice, as the active intervention of Satan and his minions. The heavens fight a proxy war on earth, intervening in daily life for good or ill, much like the Gods of the Greek pantheon. With mortals as their emissaries, empowered to perform magic, good and evil battle in our daily lives.
The War Room’s setup exemplifies this narrative. An elderly magical black woman ‘Miss Clara’, played by Karen Abercrombie, helps repair the failing marriage of a wealthy couple, by her ‘war room’, essentially a closet full of prayer paraphernalia. Making her own Christ closet enables the young wife Elizabeth (played by Priscilla Shirer) to battle the demons threatening her marriage. Notable incidents in the film include a mugger fleeing, after a verbal slap down, ‘in the name of jesus’, and a alluring temptress defeated from afar by the power of prayer.
Producers, the Kendrick brothers, have created a slew of ‘educational materials’, to accompany the film. This merch includes a bible study kit, a branded teen prayer journal, the original War Room novel and a ‘battle plan for prayer’ which exhorts the reader to build a magic prayer room of their very own. This rather lucrative package, marketed directly to evangelical churches, along with suggestions to block book tickets, invites comparisons to George Lucas’s galactic scale entrepreneurship.
Fireproof, The highest grossing independent film of 2008, set the kindling to the current round of Christian flicks. The film – which in a deeply Freudian moment begins with a small child asking her mother if she can marry her father, is a romantic fantasy in which an inattentive fireman follows a forty step programme encouraging him to smash his porn riddled computer, and love his cheating wife unconditionally.
Despite their increasing ambition, relatively high budget Jeebus movies are not yet guaranteed success. The formula to reach a wider audience seems to require an Oprah style appeal to the power of positive thinking. ‘Yellow Day’, which opened to minute box office last month, features a glossy combination of animation and live action. The film imagines a kids camp where once a year on the mysterious ‘Yellow Day’ God ‘bestows incredible visions and miracles’ on the faithful, like a narcissistic santa claus. Perhaps the movies failure lies in it’s emphasise on the more feverish, fantastical aspects of evangelicalism.
Last years creepy ‘Heaven is for real’, recounted the story of a four year old boy who has a near death vision of heaven. This trip includes meeting Jesus riding a rainbow coloured stallion, and hanging out with his own miscarried sister. The film based on a purportedly non-fiction new york times best seller, as been labelled ‘heaven tourism’. Its 12 million dollar budget (huge in Christian cinema terms), grossed over 100, 000, 000 world wide. Heaven is for real doubtless owes part of its success to its promotion by media titan, Sony Pictures. Signalling increased investment in the segment by mainstream studios. But also to it’s marketing as a chilling M Night Shyamalan style mystery.
Whats concerning about the rise of such films is not their proselytisation of a belief system, but rather their sanctification of prosperity, their replacement of the vacuity of consumerism, with a kind of sinister conformity – predicated on a just world in which pain proceeds according to a plan. If there is a more malicious machine than the cynical dream factory of hollywood, it’s the the Christian Industrial complex. A hope franchise, with thousands of branches, that ensures capitalist conformity across the economically blighted flyover states. The evangelical block, wilfully courted by post Goldwater Republicans, upheld by Conservative Christian radio, televangelism, Christian publishers, Christian rock, and increasingly Jeebus movies, are selling a very particular kind of celluloid opium. One that appeals to the vulnerable, even as it forestalls any effort to challenge their circumstances.
Download: ‘Jeebus Movies’