The Women of Summer

As part of my goal to see more movies in the theater, I’ve been taking… well, I can’t call them “risks,” because everything I saw was a crowd-pleasing hit. But the three I’m writing about were targeted more towards female audiences, and of course, everyone is waiting with baited breath to find out what a childless man in his 40s thinks of these. Right?

Hm. Lot of tumbleweeds suddenly blew through the room.

Frozen (2013, dir. Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee)
Theater: Mann 6, Hopkins (2nd run)

get it. I get why people like the movie, despite it’s flaws. I thought the third act was a terrific reversal of the Standard Disney Ending. But good heavens, getting to that ending was like a long slog up a mountain in waist-deep snow.

This is one of those movies where I feel like I can see the script revisions that came in halfway through. There’s a very compelling film to be made about the relationship between two sisters, however we never see that relationship beyond the first scene. It would make more sense dramatically if one or both of the sisters were sent away, allowing their personalities and a sense of “did I do something wrong?” to develop, rather than the confusing idea that they’re in the same castle but never see each other.

There was no commitment in the script to the world. It’s, what, 18th century Norway? But everyone talks like they’re posting to their Facebook page. A Disney movie can support maybe one anachronistic comedy relief character, but it shouldn’t be the protagonist.

The main thing that trips Frozen up is that it’s more concerned with The Point That It Is Making rather than the story it’s telling. Elsa is not developed as a character so much as a metaphor for female repression.

Again, let me stress that I get why people like this movie. It’s a step in the right direction, and must feel like a glass of ice water in the desert. What I’m saying is, let’s fix the flaws in this one, too.

Malificent (2014, dir. Robert Stromberg)
Theater: The El Capitan, Los Angeles (3D screening)

I enjoyed Malificent more than Frozen, though the two movies came from the same studio, have the same point, and indeed, share virtually the same climax. But there is a big, big, big ol’ honkin’ plot hole in it that everyone’s just supposed to ignore.

Aurora’s mother. No, her actual mother.

The film’s conflict is between Malificent and the evil king who loved her as a boy, betrayed her as a man, cut off the analogy for her power as a woman (her wings), and then married another woman and fathered a child. The guy is presented as a complete scumbag (fine, he’s the bad guy in a Disney film), and Aurora’s mother, the Queen, is barely present as a character at all, except to plead that Malificent not kill her daughter outright.

Aurora is then sent off to live with the fairy godmothers in the woods, never knowing who her real parents are. The mother then dies, off screen, never having seen her child again.

Think about that for a moment.

The movie, however, quickly glosses over this woman because it wants you to see Aurora not as an innocent who has been ripped from her mother and father out of a thirst for vengeance, but as the daughter Malificent and the King would have had. Malificent softens to Aurora almost immediately, protecting her and making sure she’s well taken care off (the good fairies sent by the king as guardians are comedic goofs). And eventually Aurora comes to think of Malificent as her fairy godmother.

I brought this up on Twitter, and had one person suggest that the Queen was meant to be the old-style Disney Princess, the kind that the company was trying to leave behind. But she’s not. Aurora is is the oldest of old-school fairy tale princesses. Everyone loves her as soon as they meet her, and her personality could be succinctly described as “she’s so nice.”

At no point does she ever ask about her real mother. At no point is it discussed that Malificent’s actions have driven her father insane. The evil king dies, Malificent gets her metaphor back, and a brand new daughter to boot.

Divergent (2014, dir. Neil Burger)
Theater: Mann 6, Hopkins

I went into Divergent blank, knowing only that it was based on a book, and had a female protagonist. In fact, I had it confused with a trailer I saw for another teen SF movie, and may have ended up paying more attention to it as it went on.

Divergent is the best movie of the three, in that it feels like a complete cinematic experience rather than a commentary on the female-focused films that have come before it. Briefly, Tris (Shailene Woodley) lives in a post-apocalyptic dystopia where everyone is sorted into five cultures: smart people, warriors, farmers, lawyers, and servants/governors. At 16 you choose which clan to join and are expected to think and behave in very rigidly set ways. Tris is, surprise, surprise, Divergent, which means she can think in several different ways to a crisis, and this is a capital offense, punishable by death. Fine, whatever, what’s a YA novel (or Role Playing Game) without an absurd societal premise.

Tris leaves her servant family behind to join the warriors (Dauntless, they’re called), because she longs for a life of adventure. What I liked about the way Divergent unfolded was that the film dealt with the fact that Tris had never had any physical or combat training before she joined them. When she gets into sparring matches, she gets the crap kicked out of her when she tries to go toe-to-toe with better (and bigger) fighters, and has to learn to use speed and tactics. The movie deals with her as a character, and how that specific character would have to respond to the obstacles in the story.

And being “divergent” simply means she can think differently. It doesn’t give her magical powers to defeat people using cool special effects, it doesn’t make her telekinetic, or invulnerable to harm.

Of course there’s a love interest, a tragic past, and a secret plot that must be defeated against all odds, but those are standard issue for a summer action film. The film gives us a female protagonist, though, without just doing a gender flip in the script. It is an enjoyable action movie based on a YA novel, that just happens to have a female protagonist.

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Michael Bay watches Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

It is almost an fifteen minutes into the film, as he is working on fishing out the Gummy Bear that has lodged itself into his back left molar, when he first notices the feeling of disquiet that has come over him. Something… something is wrong.

He runs down a mental checklist: has he forgotten to tell his Asia/Pacific Islands accountant to recheck the gross percentages on the the Optimus Prime Bento Boxes that come out this week in Japan? Was the Licensing Lawyer certain that they didn’t need approval for the Calvin Peeing On The Decepticon Symbol stickers they’d be selling (discretely) at the NASCAR promos shows?

He goes over everything he can think of, but Lance, his Afternoon Personal Assistant went through the entire list before the screening and said he was clear for the next two hours and one minute. The tip of his tongue continues to search for a weak point in the gummy’s defenses. He returns to The Product.

It’s pretty good. The pixels are arranged nicely, though it’s been half an hour and he’s not sure where the lead is and he’s getting anxious to see whichever model they’ve hired to play the girlfriend. There’s a fight with a bear at the beginning that he would have put 45 minutes into it after spending the entire opener with just the humans to make the ticket buyers really antsy for some action. But that’s the kind of mistake you make early in directing.

The disquiet gets stronger. He checks the watch that was given to him by the King of Some Place when he was knighted, he thinks, and he’s nearly halfway through this. He puts the box of Gummy Bears down, presses his palms into his temples and makes himself pay attention to The Product. The pixels and the humans are trying to fight? No, that’s not it, they’re trying not to fight. The pixels look like monkeys but they can kind of talk, but not very much. Huge mistake—they’ve limited their catchphrase virality target, which is going to bite them on the ass in Wal-Mart T-shirt sales, boys 4-9, come holiday pre-orders.

He can feel his pulse in his skull but he keeps his hands clamped. Are these the leads? Who are these people? Why aren’t the apes wearing clothes? How is he supposed to tell them apart? How are they going to sell this as a Sexy Halloween Costume for girls 4-21? He notices that the pixels haven’t spoken for a while, but keep waving their hands. Something yellow keeps showing up at the bottom of the screen. Are those words!? Why are there credits in the middle of the movie? 

He starts coughing. He hasn’t noticed that he’s been clenching his jaw so tight the Gummy Bear pressed into his lower molar and sealed his teeth together.  Phlegm is filling his mouth. He gets up, stumbles to the door, but steps on the box of Gummies which shoots out from under him and bangs his head on the arm of his chair.

He pulls himself up. The teenager gives something to one of the pixels. It looks like a whadyacallthosethings… a novelization?

The screen starts to artifact. They’ll need to fix that before release.

Posted in Movies, Wroter | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

True Detective & From Hell

Like a lot of people, most notably Vulture in their excellent write-up on the topic, I noticed a similarity in the finale of True Detective and the comic book Top Ten, scripted by Alan Moore. Both feature characters remarking on light vs. dark in the night sky. Read the above article for a comprehensive recap.

But there’s another similarity I want to discuss with True Detective that involves a different Moore work: From Hell, his tale of the Jack the Ripper murders (illustrated by Eddie Campbell).

From Hell, unlike every other Ripper tale you’ve seen (including the film) is not at all concerned with who the killer is. Moore doesn’t actually care if the man he pegged as the killer actually did it, and assumes everyone in the modern era who investigates the crimes is probably a loony who is wasting his time and yours by working on it.

What From Hell  is about (in my worthless opinion) is explaining the culture that allowed the murders to happen. How power, the police, prostitution, men, women, the church, everything were aligned to make these horrific crimes (and please gird yourself for the very graphic depictions of the actual acts against the victims were carried out) possible without the killer being caught. It is an examination not of a WhoDunIt, but of (to borrow a thought from Douglas Adams) the crimes holistically. 

Likewise in True Detective, who committed the killings isn’t the point. It’s not either of the principles (though Rust is under suspicion by the other detectives). And while the reveal of the killer is chilling and well done, who he is is utterly unimportant. What matters is how he was able to do it. Not his technique, but the world that allowed it to happen.

Women do not matter in the world of True Detective. This is not an omission: this is the point. Marty sees the women in his life: his wife, his daughter, his lover, as his harem. If another male comes into that circle—even at her behest—it’s a threat to his dominance that must be literally, physically, violently beaten down. He attacks his lover’s new boyfriend, the boys caught in the car with his daughter, and finally his partner.

Likewise, the women in the case don’t really matter, except as a threat to the status quo of society. Had the initial victim been found in a parking lot or a ditch, it would have been written off as just desserts: a tale of a life gone wrong. But the ritualistic nature of the killing, the tattoos and the crown, represent a threat to both the government and Rust and Marty’s moral authority as policemen. This will not stand.

As Rust investigates the crime, evidence piles up about the women and girls who have disappeared, and the structure in place that allows that to happen. Sheriffs suppress reports, rumors of girls going off with fathers are accepted. Those who loved them simply accept that they’ve disappeared. The system is structured so that a set of men who command and manipulate that structure are allowed to do so.

The police in From Hell cannot catch Jack because they’re looking for a madman, when in fact the criminal works at the highest levels of the government that empowers them and gives them the authority to act, a power they cannot question. The police in True Detective cannot see the Yellow King because they’re trying to discern a crime in a pattern they’re implicitly a part of. Only when Rust breaks that pattern and becomes a criminal himself does he see the crimes he was party to.

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Some questions I have about “Hugo”

  1. Why was the Inspector chasing Hugo at the end? Hugo had been introduced to the Inspector as Isabelle’s cousin, so why pursue him?
  2. Why did Hugo climb out on the clock arm? Where was he expecting to go?
  3. Why would you say to two orphans, one of whom is your goddaughter, that they don’t understand what pain is?
    1. Actually I understand this one, because that’s pretty clearly how Scorsese feels: that this man’s film being destroyed is worse than the children losing their parents. Parents, after all, can be replaced by kindly old people.
  4. So like, Hugo’s uncle never told anyone that Hugo was coming to work with him?
  5. What happened to Hugo’s uncle’s pay during the months that he was dead. No one thought it odd that he didn’t pick it up?
  6. At the very end, Hugo is almost killed by the train which is traveling very fast and has to apply the emergency breaks. My question is, since the train was heading into a dead-end stop in a crowded train station, wouldn’t it be traveling much slower?
  7. And why was there a dead-end stop in the train station? Wouldn’t the train have to back out to a switchback to move on to its destination?
  8. Méliès says that his films weren’t popular after WWI because the audience had seen “too much reality,” or words to that effect. I find this reductive and absurd. In times of hardship, people turn to fantasy more than ever.
    1. I realize that was not a question.
    2. While we’re here, I want to note that the Inspector was supposed to be a villain, a buffoon, a tragic figure, and a romantic lead.

In short, I don’t think Hugo was as well-made as you think it was.

Special thanks to my friend Zoe, who articulated the point about orphans.

Posted in Movies | Tagged | 2 Comments

A letter to Al Franken


Your campaign has written to me on a number of issues, so I hope you might not mind if I call you, or rather the unpaid intern who has to sort through your email, “Al.”

I’m writing, Al(s), because I’ve been told that you support SOPA, and I really, really don’t. I understand the goals of the project, as someone who works in entertainment (though I don’t make my living solely by doing it), they’re trying to protect their income from illegal online sharing.

But the tools that are part of the enforcement of this project, namely the blocking of websites by the government to protect the commercial interests of private industry, are too broad and frankly Un-American. In addition to the fact that the MPAA and RIAA have never demonstrated any sense of restraint, the fact that the US government is giving itself the power to create a Great Firewall of America lends it sell far too easily to gradually increasing that power to other sites it deems unsuitable.

Al (both of you), I know you have a lot of friends in the entertainment business. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories about how their livelihood is in danger, and how piracy is affecting not just the very rich, but the working men and women on the lower end of the industry. But this bill is goes too far in giving the government the ability to censor the Internet.

I ask you as a constituent to withdraw your support for this bill.

Warmest regards,

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Macbeth: the Video Game Remix (2011 MN Fringe) post-mortem

What went right:


  1. I went through and altered bits that I thought didn’t work in the original production.
  2. We got all of the original cast to be in the show (despite the fact that they all had other Fringe shows to be in). Sharon took over my parts so I could focus on directing and restaging the play for the Thrust.
  3. Pre-show buzz. We got mentioned everywhere. Multiple news sources (including the Wall Street Journal) used the title “Macbeth: the Video Game Remix” when talking about the variety of shows at the Fringe.


  1. The cast knew the show so even with an abbreviated rehearsal schedule, we were able to pull together a tight show.
  2. The Rarig Thrust is a great space that was perfect for our production. I dread to think what would have happened if we were in the Proscenium; you need to be close to a show like this. Being in the Rarig never hurts to pull in audience members. Also, being at the Big Kid’s Table in the Thrust raised our visibility.
  3. Our press was uniformly great. We got a “must see” from the Pioneer Press, and glowing reviews from City Pages,, and TC Daily Planet. The only one we missed was the Strib, but after two Fringe shows with no press at all, I’m not complaining.
  4. The audience also loved the show. 4½ Kitties.


  1. Sharon was asked by another theater company (out of towners) about production rights.

What went wrong

  1. Because everyone else (with the exception of Sharon) was in another show, scheduling rehearsals was problematic. As I was freaking out, however, it was pointed out to me that this is a remount with the same cast, and they’d pull it together. Which they did.
  2. Despite amazing reviews from both press and audiences, we never filled the house. We had solid attendance in a large venue, and had we gone medium we probably would have had multiple sell-outs, but still. My rationalization for this is that:
    1. this was a remount, and a lot of the people in our potential audience had already seen the show
    2. Arlo is a new company, even though Matthew and I have been doing Fringe shows for years
    3. the glut of nerd + Shakespeare shows at this year’s Fringe.
  3. The postcard thing. After a conversation with a volunteer about her friends who work for a video game magazine, we gave her a postcard for the show. Two days later while Googling for press, I find a blog post where the writer trashes the show based on the ad copy on the postcard. He objected to my use of “n00b” and “pwn,” and said that the show sounded terrible. How I dealt with that:
    1. I responded in the comment section of the blog, linking to the positive reviews of the show
    2. Explaining my rationale for using those words
    3. Inviting the author of the post to come see the show, free of charge
    4. Emailing him the next day to reiterate that I was serious about comping him in
    5. He didn’t come to see the show, but updated his post with my response, adding that he was “admittedly harsh.”
    6. Lesson learned: I do not see how I could have anticipated this, other than not giving postcards to people I think might be interested in the show, but I think my response was the best one.

 Overall lessons learned:

  1. We did a good show, got great response, and now have a reputation to build on.
  2. I’m thinking the age of postcards might be over. They’re useful for raising awareness of the show before the Fringe (we had them ready for CONvergence, for example), but at the Fringe, they’re virtually worthless, lost in a sea of four-color. I don’t know what’s going to replace them, other than Facebook invites.
  3. The best show I saw at this year’s Fringe was raw, visceral, and original. And only a handful of people went to see it. Make of that what you will.
Posted in Post-mortem | Tagged | 1 Comment

“HMS Pacific Princess Boat” Post-mortem

What went right:

1. The cast was extremely positive and threw themselves into the script with gusto.
2. The director loved the script. Everyone brought a lot of energy to the work.
3. We got a lot of press for this show, landing on the City Pages A-list and an article in the MN Daily.
What went wrong:
1. I started with a faulty assumption: that The Love Boat is a cultural touchstone. This is not true, as we discovered in rehearsal when two actors informed us they had never seen an episode. I was making reference humor to something that people had no frame of reference for.
2. Continuing on that theme, the script was paced too quickly, trying to make use of TV-ish montages. It is extremely difficult to do montages on stage–that’s a function of editing, and outside our realm–and this script was made up almost entirely of montages, which were further harmed by, again, the idea that everyone knew what I was making reference to. The play starts, in fact, by announcing that it’s the second part of a two-part episode.
3. Looking back at THACO and Macbeth: the Video Game Remix, there are little bits of exposition and jokes that clue people who aren’t gamers in to what’s going on. HMS lacked those.
4. As my wife pointed out, “You were working through some things here.”
5. The show is frantically paced, with multiple costume changes.
Lessons learned
1. Structure, structure, structure.
2. Reference humor only works is someone knows what you’re talking about.
3. Theatre time is different that movie time. People need to spend time with characters. Theatre is word-based, not image-based.
4. If a TV show is not in reruns, it does not exist.

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Frame Rates For Victory!

So the new thing for professional filmmakers is shooting in high frame rates: 48 fps. Jackson is doing it for The Hobbit, and Cameron is doing it for Avatar 2. If these films are successful—excuse me, when these film are successful, expect to see more blockbusters moving to the format, and probably charging you more for the pleasure.

Now, Crunch Gear has an excellent explanation of what this means in terms of how film works, how TV works, and how the new high frame rate works. If you’re curious on a geek level about why frame rates are the way they are, you should read it. There’s one bit, though, I want to pull from this:

The negative reaction to high framerates is also associational. For decades we’ve watched cheaply-produced TV shows shot on video tape or transmitted live at an end framerate of 60i. Flat lighting, bad production in general, and small screens have for our entire lives associated high framerates with low quality.

Here’s the thing. I (or rather my cinematographer, who owns the camera) shoot on high definition video. Because that’s what we can afford. There are a lot of tricks and plugins and processes that we can run that high def video through to make it look like film, which means that we’re trying to degrade the video to make it look more expensive.

I know, right?

Now! Two of the biggest directors in the world are working on the most hotly anticipated movies, and these movies that are going to “break” the look of what a blockbuster film is. They are not going to look like films you’ve seen before, they’re going to look like video. And this is going to cause some cognitive dissonance for older audiences. And then people will get over it.


Except that once Hollywood gets audiences to accept that shooting at high framerates doesn’t register emotionally as “this looks cheap,” then they’ve undermined the major obstacle between Hollywood Films and amateur filmmakers. You’ll still have to worry about depth of field, lighting, Mise-en-scène and all the stuff that truly separates a filmmaker from someone shooting a home video, but the last stronghold of “Film” as a piece of celluloid that runs through a shutter will have been breached.

Think about this: amateurs like me, film students, independent filmmakers; we won’t have to process our digital video to make it look like a 35mm camera that was invented decades ago, because professional movies will be made to look like digital. The mountain came to us.

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“Re: Your Brains” post-mortem

So, 28,000 hits later, it’s been an amazing weekend. It’s true, what they say, refreshing the YouTube page every five minutes when you know they only update the page every hour is a completely different experience when it’s your video and not Maru.

What went right

Pre-production: Rather than storyboard (which I hate doing, but know is absolutely necessary to force myself to think visually rather than verbally), I did a pre-visualization video using stock photos. This allowed me to set up shots in my head and more importantly time the shots to the music. “Re: Your Brains” is 4 1/2 minutes long, and I was really worried we would run short of bits. The pre-visualization also made it much easier for me to explain to the crew what I wanted. It’s much easier for me to edit video of stock photos than to draw, as I get embarrassed by my doodling.

The Shoot: Beyond just having incredibly talented, patient people to work with, some behind the scenes stuff:

  • Amanda Kudalis, our producer and production manager, broke down the shot list that we had discussed and checked each one off as we got it on tape. This was absolutely essential because at the end of the day, I was getting tired and just wanted to go home. But as I learned on our previous shoots, when you’re in editing, either you have the shots you need or you don’t, and with this project there was virtually no way we could go back for reshoots.
  • Changes made on the fly: Originally I had planned for the vending machine bit to be done with a glass-fronted machine that sold potato chips. I was planning on doing the glass shatter and blood on the chips as a digital effect. Honestly, that effect is probably beyond my skills at this point, so when I saw the pop vending machine, I decided to go with that, and do the blood splatter as a practical effect.
  • Coverage. Thanks to the pre-visualization video, I planned out the coverage I wanted (close-ups, etc.). This has been a problem for me, as a director, to remember, and me-as-an-editor really hates that.

Post-Production: Once I got the footage pulled I realized, much to my happiness, that I would probably have more footage than I needed, especially since we shot several takes of the zombies singing the chorus while improvising at the desks. Again, the pre-vis helped tremendously getting the first cut together.

Second, I used Bleach Bypass from PHYX Color to desaturate the video and give it a real horror movie feel. If I had to point to the one thing that I did that really helped this video look great, it’s the color processing.

Bleach Bypass also gave the blood a crustier, dried look.

There were a couple of shots that we had to get in one take (most notably my lovely (and tolerant) wife Sharon getting blood shot all over her face). We got really lucky, and it looked great.

Distribution: I was initially going to post the video on Friday, April 1st. Sharon, who is much smarter than I, pointed out that the ‘net was going to be awash in April Fool’s Day pranks, and I should put it out on Thursday. She was, as usual, right.

As we got ready to release the video, I sent links to the actors and other friends to get them involved with spreading the word. I let them know when the video was coming out, and sent another email when we had posted it publicly.

What went wrong

Sound: Since this was a music video, we were able to dispense with sound for almost the entire shoot, which made it a lot easier to shoot, especially in the cafeteria, where we simply could not have unplugged the refrigerators.  The only bits we needed sound for were the very beginning where you hear the footsteps. Unfortunately, as we captured that sound at the end of the day, no one was on headphones and there was a loud electronic whine that ruined every second of it.

I tried to foley the footsteps myself using my Mac and Snowball mic, but the consensus on that was that it sounded fake, was the worst part of the video, and since it was at the beginning, it was bringing the great bits down. So, we re-foleyed the footsteps using our good mic. My good friend Olga also gave me advice on how to use sound to help enhance the visual image.

Craft Services: I want to mention this only as a matter of shooting on a low budget. Since I promised to feed the actors, I decided to save money by buying pizzas  to cook for them in the office cafeteria. When we got there, however, I discovered that the “oven” was a small toaster oven, the kind you’d use to warm a sandwich. I ended up ordering pizzas to go which not only cost more money, but took me away from the shoot to order and meet the delivery guy.

Lessons learned

  • Always have someone on headphones when doing sound.
  • When you ask people you trust for advice, listen to that advice
  • If you hate drawing, use stock photos or other ways to think visually
  • If there’s a part of a job you hate, find someone who wants to do it. They’re out there. Don’t torture yourself by half-assing something you don’t like to do.

Addendum: after discussing it with a friend, I’m told that point #2 above would be better phrased as “”I often ask for crticism in the hope that they’ll tell me what I know needs to be fixed doesn’t need to be fixed. I am always wrong in this.”

Posted in Post-mortem, Video | Tagged | 3 Comments

Re: Your Brains video

Song by Jonathan Coulton

Produced by Moontalk Productions

Written, edited, and concept by me.

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