Happy Camp Starts Well Enough and Goes Down Hill To A Horrible Ending

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by Carrie Specht

Some ideas for a film start out pretty good and for some reason just turn into a great big disappointment when you actually put them onto the screen. That’s the case with Happy Camp. Although I am not a fan of the “found footage” genre, the film had a pretty good idea that seems to have begun with the premis of a group of twenty-somethings documenting a friend’s return to his creepy childhood town where hundreds of people (including his little brother) have over the years gone missing. But sadly, the concept mutates into a found footage horror film. Like the residents of the remote Northern California town where the story is set, the production of Happy Camp the movie went missing somewhere along the way and came to a horrible ending.

Happy-Camp-2014-620x320When I first read about the concept I actually believed it was a real documentary about a strange little place where there have been nearly as many people who have gone missing over the years as those who currently live there (missing people over twenty years: 627, current population: 1100). I suppose I didn’t read the press release closely enough, or the misdirection is a clever part of the promotional strategy. Either way, I was intrigued and continued to be until about ten minutes into the film. That’s when I began to suspect the worst, and by twenty minutes in I was certain that the plot that once had great possibilities was nothing more than another imitation of The Blair Witch Project with a supposedly clever twist. Unfortunately, it was a twist that I feared was going to be pretty feeble. You will feel the same way the moment the group of friends roll into town in their fully camera equipped RV and see a larger than life image of a local legend. I won’t ruin that moment of stunned disappointment for you by telling you exactly what that tribut is, but I literally scoffed and said out loud, “oh, please no”.

maxresdefault2Although the film becomes rather tiresome once you realize the direction it’s going, the cast is for the most part very likable with the exception of the girl who gets pretty annoying with her increasingly frequent use of the expletive, “guys”! And in case you’re wondering the dictionary definition of expletive is, “a word that contributes nothing to meaning but suggests the strength of feeling of the speaker”. In this case it made the girl, Annie sound like a college girl mad at her buddies during a drunken party.

I went into this film wanting to like it. However, Happy Camp did a very good job of removing that desire from me every step of the way. Most insulting to the viewer is the sudden ending that appears to be attempting a shocking twist that you’ll see coming a mile away. You’re going to be hoping that the film isn’t going there, but your hope will be in vain. And worst of all is a what seems to be tacked on last few minutes that for the first time introduces the concept that everything you watched was found footage. Duh! Add in the cliched cue music (for those sudden scares), and the illogically selective use of camera angles from supposedly constantly running cameras and you have a mess of a film that could have been so much more if only a little more effort had gone into it. Happy Camp is one to be missed.

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Red Carpet Morning at the Oscars

by Carrie Specht

IMG_1643Today is an unusual day. Today is the day the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hands out Oscars for what they consider to be the best of the industry produced during the past year. Today was also the day I, and two of my production students spent the morning on the red carpet outside the Dolby Theatre shooting a segment for my site RetroSpecht.com. For most college students that’s an unusual morning.

That’s the two of them in the picture standing next to an oversized golden statue. They were acting as my crew as I oversaw my sister and her husband (that’s us in the next picture) as they reported on the tremendous impact Australian actors have had on the Oscars. That’s it that was our whole crew. That may seem small, but in actuality, most of the reporters populating the pre-show red carpet were either in pairs or by themselves pulling selfies with their iPhones and other portable cameras.

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Although it was early morning (we started at 5:30am ) there was a hive of activity happening all around us and it just got busier and more hectic as the morning went on. The feeling became palpable and an overall sense of excitement came over the entire area as the clock ticked closer and closer to the time where we were required to leave the area in order to make room for attendees, entourages, and the rest of the media hullabaloo.

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After driving into LA, finding a spot to drop our equipment and then park we spent an exciting two and a half hours getting the footage we needed. When we got to our spot just inside the entrance to the Dolby stairs it was notably busy, but by the time we finished there was a constant drone of sound tests, a steady rush of reporters whizzing by with hand held cameras talking about the famed Oscar staircase, and an automated recording blaring with information for attendees about which escalators to take to get to the Governor’s ball. It was an electrifying circus… and the real show hadn’t even started yet.

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Because our bit was to be a record segment to be edited with “B” roll pictures of the surrounding scenery we had to shoot many takes, or repeats of the same information. There was no way we were going to be able to control any of the action in the background, so we decided it was best to just go with whatever came our way. This included dealing with competing reporters standing so close we could pick them up on our microphones, and paparazzi helicopters circling above. It was rather impressive how our on air talent kept their composure through all of this. I think the Ugg boots helped. And a great big woolly jacket between takes. Of course our appropriately dressed reporter became so uncomfortable with the cold during part of the shoot that I stepped in as her double to hold the microphone during a close up on the interviewee. Sine the picture was framed in such a way that you couldn’t tell whether the original reporter was there or not, she took the opportunity to get warm, and I got my moment on the red carpet. It was an unseen moment , but it’s a step in the right direction.

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Unlike the on-air talent I was not dressed for camera. I never am. However, I noticed that most of the other camera crews were dressed to the nines with many members of the behind the scenes crew looking ready to jump in front of the lens at any time. I suppose this is  befitting of a red carpet event, and reflects a certain level of professionalism, but I think most of these people were either overly excited about being involved with the Oscars (even if only in a minor way) that they over-dressed, or they knew they were going to be interacting with the nominees as they arrived, so dressed for the occasion. We on the other hand had only limited passes that required us to leave by 11:00am. So we were never going to be anywhere near the stars.

IMG_1654No indeed, it wasn’t until hours later when we had already packed up our camera, had a good breakfast and driven back home that any of the night’s honorees had even stepped into their limos to head for the red carpet on which we had earlier been standing. But then this is only a first brush with Oscar for my two students. It’s entirely possible that they will have future opportunities to spend a greater amount of time on the red carpet, and in better outfits. It’s even possible that there will come a day when one of them will walk up the same tapestry without the need of a press pass before taking his seat as a nominee. And he will be calm and feel right at home. Because after all, it won’t be his first time at the Oscars.

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Oscar Nominated Shorts in Theaters Now

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by Carrie Specht

The regular movie-going audiences generally overlook short films because usually there’s no sure way to see them. That is unless you happened to go to a movie in Los Angeles where one was linked with the feature film you went to see. Otherwise, short films are traditionally reserved for festivalgoers and even then it’s only those at a festival who go out of their way to attend a shorts program who see them. Fortunately, that has recently changed. For the past nine years the Oscar Nominated Shorts have been organized into a group presentation for public viewing, and this year is no exception. ShortsHD, the Short Movie Channel will be screening the 2013 Academy Award Nominated Animated and Live Action Short Films at the NuArt in West Los Angeles and at the Regency South Coast Village 3 in Orange County starting Friday, January 31. The films will be presented as two collective programs with separate admissions for each group, with the Oscar nominated Documentary Shorts set to open as a third program later in Los Angeles on February 14.

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The world’s only channel dedicated to short films, the Short Movie Channel (www.shorts.tv) is working with Magnolia Pictures to make this special presentation happen in over 250 theaters across the United States, Canada and Europe, with more than 400 theatres slated to screen the films during its theatrical release. These screenings will be the only opportunity for audiences to watch the nominated shorts prior to the 86th Academy Awards® ceremony on Sunday, March 2, 2014. After that you’ll already know who the winners are and have lost your chance at having an edge in your office Oscar pool. Truly a wide open category where anyone can win, this year’s nominated Shorts originate from all parts of the globe, representing the pinnacle of filmmaking from Japan, the UK, Denmark, Luxembourg, France, Spain, Finland, the UAE, Yemen, Canada and the United States.

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The Live Action Short Film Nominees run about 108 minutes all together and include That Wasn’t Me, a story set in Africa amongst child guerilla soldiers, Just Before Losing Everything, which is a French film about domestic abuse, Do I Have to Take Care of Everything, a family comedy from Finland, The Voorman Problem a high profile effort from the UK that stars Martin Freeman, and what I believe to be the front runner, the Danish fantasy/drama, Helium. Each of these films has tremendous production value and is well deserving of the recognition, but there can only be one winner and my money’s on Helium. I’ll refrain from saying why because I don’t wont to give anything away, and I truly want you to see these films for yourself. More than likely they’ll be the best things you’ve seen all year. And no doubt, there’s bound to be a future feature filmmaker or two emerging from the group in the coming years.

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Likewise, I was impressed with the Animated Short Film nominees. Running just a bit longer at 110 minutes, the diversity in this category is even more wide spread. With films ranging from the traditional to the innovative, do not be surprised if this is a tough one for you to make a conclusive call on. The first US submission, Feral is unique in its use of sketches and a style that suggests flowing watercolor. Whereas, the other US contender, Get a Horse is a product of the Walt Disney Company and uses a combination of old school Mickey with creative story telling to keep you laughing (honestly, you’ve never seen the world’s most famous mouse like this before!). At the same time, France’s Mr. Hublot has a dystopian whimsy that charms like no other nominee. Whereas, Possessions, a very styled entry from Japan is a feast for the eyes. And England’s Room on the Broom is a sweet tale with a sort of Toy Story-ish quality to its look.

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I recommend seeing these films in the theater while you can. It’s not often that you get the opportunity to see such high quality filmmaking with such entertainment value from all over the world. And they are shorts after all. So, if there’s one that’s not really to your liking all you have to do is wait a few minutes and something completely different will be along in no time. But I don’t think you’ll want to leave your seat or even turn away, not even for a moment. The films here may be short, but they have the power to hold a viewers attention with the full impact of a feature film, and then some. Given the choice of the typical offerings at the Cineplex and these short little beauties I’d pick the latter. After all, a satisfying five-course feast that out-entertains any single film far more deserves your hard-earned dollar than yet another potentially disappointing current release. You won’t be disapointed.

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For a sneak peak at The Oscar® Nominated Short Films 2014 program, go to http://theoscarshorts.shorts.tv/

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10 Live Action Shorts Advance in 2013 Oscar® Race

The-Oscars-e1381262416749by Carrie Specht

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently announced that 10 live action short films will advance in the voting process for the 86th Academy Awards®. This is out of the one hundred and twenty pictures that originally qualified in the category. That’s an impressive number, I suppose, but I would like to know if that’s an unusual amount, high or low. And just what do these filmmakers expect to get from all this hard work? Fame? Money? Well, not if they know anything about the filmmaking world. The best they can ever hope for is a pretty statue, one that represents the ultimate validation of their artistic endeavors.

www.indiewireBut the odds are stacked against them from the start. After all, if you break it down the chances for the current list of competitors is about a 1 in 12 chance of making the cut. Not bad, but that’s of all the films that officially qualified. That’s out of all the shorts that went to all the festivals that didn’t qualify, let alone the films made last year by eager short filmmakers that didn’t even make it to a festival. So now the accomplishment is somewhat staggering and far more impressive than the feature films that make it to Oscar night. I’m just sayin’ let’s give the short filmmaker some respect and give them their due when they walk the red carpet this March, whoever they may be. If one of the many commentators takes the time to interview one of these lucky few, please don’t take that moment to visit the restroom. And be sure to listen to their acceptance speech. In my experience these speeches tend to be the most sincere, full of heartfelt gratitude, becoming the most meaningful moments of the night.

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An added aspect to the Short Film category is its growing representation of the future of filmmaking on a global scale. The current list represents a broad spectrum of nations and cultures, which is not surprising considering the fact that other countries actually support the art of short filmmaking. Things are tougher here for the American artist who ventures into the unprofitable world of shorts. I mean let’s face it; there’s no true outlet for a short in the US other than the festival route. And that costs the filmmaker money to submit. Where as, in other countries there are supportive art councils and other government agencies, not to mention the standard practice of showing shorts on TV.

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So, if you’re going to make a short film in the US you better love what you’re doing, because the odds are highly against any financial rewards. Which is all the more reason to celebrate the hard work produced by these filmmakers who will truly mean it if they get the chance to say, “it’s an honor just to be nominated”. Heck, when all is said and done, it’s an honor to make the short list. Here they are in alphabetical order:

“Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me),” Esteban Crespo

“Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just before Losing Everything),” Xavier Legrand

“Dva (Two),” Mickey Nedimovic

“Helium,” Anders Walter

“Kush,” Shubhashish Bhutiani

“Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?),” Selma Vilhunen

“Record/Play,” Jesse Atlas

“Throat Song,” Miranda de Pencier

“Tiger Boy,” Gabriele Mainetti

“The Voorman Problem,” Mark Gill

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The Short Films and Feature Animation Branch Reviewing Committee viewed all the eligible entries for the preliminary round of voting at screenings held in Los Angeles. The members of this branch of the Academy will now select only three to five nominees from among the 10 titles on the shortlist. Branch screenings are being held in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco this month. The final nominees for the 86th Academy Awards will be announced live on Thursday, January 16, 2014, at 5:30 a.m. PT in the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater along with all the other 2013 nominees. And then the Academy Awards for outstanding film achievements of 2013 will be presented on Oscar Sunday, March 2, 2014, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. ABC will televise the event live to more than 225 countries and territories worldwide. Good luck to them all!

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Blood Brother – The True Meaning of the Holiday Spirit

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by Carrie Specht

In case you’re tired of the same old rush of Holiday films and you’re looking for something different to fill your movie going hours, may I suggest a documentary? There are quite a few good ones out at the moment, and playing at many of the major chain theaters. If you throw in Netflix, Red Box and your neighborhood Art Houses you have a lot of variety from which to choose, including a rare and unusually quite, yet moving tale of a young man’s new found life as a volunteer at an Indian orphanage for children with AIDS. Blood Brother is just the kind of story that will help keep the true meaning of the holidays in focus as you hustle and bustle between Black Friday, Cyber Monday and all the big budget block busters extoling the virtues of caring for your fellow man. Blood Brother is the one film that actually, truly demonstrates the true depth of human compassion.

Filmed entirely form the perspective of an observer, Blood Brother is about a young American man named Rocky who took a trip to India as a tourist and ended up changing the course of his life. On a chance day trip away from the big city, Rocky came across a home for children with HIV and created a lasting bond. The story begins when after a brief and disillusioning trip back to the states he decides to return to India and devote his life to the dispossessed children who had so impressed him. The film’s director, Steve Hoover is best friends with Rocky, and in a bit of a state of disbelief ventures to India with him to chronicle his newfound life. The end result is a film that is beautifully crafted and extremely personal.

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In the beginning of the film we learn that Rocky grew up without a close-knit family, which makes it all the more remarkable that he finds himself dedicated to the health and wellbeing of orphan children infected with HIV. And despite facing formidable challenges with nothing but his own instincts, Rocky’s playful spirit and determination proves to be unfailing even at the darkest and most depressing moments. Placing adoring faces upon the statistics of the HIV/Aids crisis in India, Blood Brother is a powerful film that beautifully illustrates the impact one person can have on the lives of so many.

blood-brothersReleased in October in Los Angeles, the film received a lot of attention earlier in the year when it won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for Best Documentary at Sundance. Since that time the film has been shown around the country at special one night only engagements in over 50 other cities. These screenings are presented in collaboration with Tugg.com, which is enabling communities nationwide to host screenings of Blood Brother in local theaters, schools and community venues.

Now here’s the really great, Christmas-y part – in support of Rocky and his work all proceeds earned will go directly back to the children and the orphanage featured in the film and to other HIV/AIDS organizations. Think about that. This is one of the rare times that just by buying a ticket to a film, or by organizing a screening you can make a difference. And you can contribute to the holiday spirit at the same time! So, I urge you to do some good for yourself and for others the next time you go to the movies – see something that will restore your faith in mankind and help it at the same time. Not only is this a win-win, it’s a pretty certain way to avoid coal in your stocking, at least for another year.

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To find show times in your city visit http://www.tugg.com/titles/blood-brother. For additional information about the film or to sign up to host a screening of Blood Brother in your town, please visit www.bloodbrotherfilm.com.

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Summer Wars: An Example of Anime with a Familiar Ring

by Jasmine Pagaduan

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Welcome to Oz. Not the city, but a futuristic global protocol for communications used for socializing, shopping and even business transactions. In this concept of a future world the dependence on the multifaceted and multifunctioning virtual reality results in “Oz” holding everyone’s most precious information. Of course, when it comes to anything technologically advanced it is youth that conquers, and sometimes youth that causes catastrophes. In this case it is a high school math genius, Kenji Koiso who inadvertently becomes responsible for activating a potentially devastating collapse of the titan network. And yet, because of a practical joke pulled off by his classmate (Natsuki Shinohara) he becomes familiar with her extensive family who are the very people he turns to for help. When he releases a menace into the digital world that causes mayhem in Oz, and wreaks havoc in the real world, it’s up to Kenji and all of Natsuki’s family to defeat this monster in Summer Wars.

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Summer Wars is a production by Studio Madhouse, the same company responsible for animating the anime (Japanese cartoon) series, Death Note. In recent memory, Madhouse is known for fluid animation that doesn’t neglect what’s happening in the background, and Summer Wars is no exception. There’s always a lot going on in the frame, especially in the first half of the film where every plane of action is in full use with children being rambunctious little brats, adults make gestures to match their dialogue, and the television has a baseball game going on throughout. At first all of this can and will be very overwhelming, but no doubt this is what the director planned: to make the audience feel like Kenji where there’s so much for the senses to take in, it’s hard to keep track of everything! Great idea (but it wouldn’t hurt to bring it down a notch or two would it?).

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To balance out the insanity of the animation the characters have a simplistic design, which in turn works in the movie’s favor. As a result of this modest scheme, the characters are able to become cartoony for the light-hearted instances, and then pull a complete 180 to express realistic emotions during the more somber scenes. To accompany these expressive character models, the scenery itself is absolute eye candy. This includes a traditional Japanese home nestled into the forested countryside, a bustling metropolis, and of course a digital realm teeming with virtual life. Madhouse uses some CG, however it’s integrated so well that it isn’t an eyesore, and in fact there may be moments where it’s hard to distinguish one animation execution from the other. As for the voice acting, there’s just no way to compare the Japanese version to the English dub. The Japanese used actual children and elderly people to play their respective roles. Meanwhile the English didn’t cast any kids or older folks, but they may as well as there isn’t a voice that sounds out of place. Michael Sinterniklaas delivers a stellar performance as the meek but proactive Kenji, and Brina Palencia expresses the strong-willed but sensitive Natsuki. There are roughly twenty other roles to address here, but to sum it up: all of them have their moments in the spotlight. In addition, the dialogue sounds very natural and the graphics match so well there isn’t a single lip flap out of place, thanks to the ADR director, Mike McFarland.

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Notably, the characters aren’t cardboard cutouts; Kenji is soft-spoken but is more than ready to stand his ground when times become dire and doesn’t surrender until he’s exhausted his options. On the other hand, Natsuki is strong-willed like everyone else in her family and yet she can still portray that teenage girl who is easily embarrassed by her family. Speaking of family, the Jinnouchi clan members each have their own little quirk that not only makes them unique but also has characteristics that the audience can identify within their own relatives. From the aunts that try to pry into romantic life to those annoying little nieces and nephews that make you want to bunt them across the backyard, watching all of these people bounce off of each other will no doubt remind everyone of their own families. In contrast to the voice acting, which shines brilliantly on its own, the music hides in the shadows of the production. It doesn’t really stand out so much as it acts complimentary to the movie, and this isn’t a wrong approach. The music features a fascinating juxtaposition between the techno beats used for the scenes set in Oz and the soothing orchestral music used when depicting the real world. To be honest, there are no themes that really stand out on their own, except for the movie’s main theme, Bokura no Natsu no Yume or Our Summer Dream. However what is intriguing to note is not the music, but the silence that is planted most notably in the second half of the movie. It is used to really have the seriousness strike home and show the consequences of what happens in the movie.

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Okay, it’s pretty much impossible to talk about the story without mentioning this… For those of you who grew up in the nineties and remember watching Digimon as kids, then there may be some familiarity with the premise of Summer Wars. However for those who are unaware, Digimon the show was about a group of kids falling into a digital world, partnering up with digital monsters to fight against the enemy of the digital world. During its hype, a movie titled The Digimon Movie was released in North America. There are three distinctive parts in this movie, but what needs to have special attention is the second part called, “Four Years Later.” In that segment a deadly menace is released onto the Internet and it is left to the protagonists to combat it and take it out before it causes anymore harm. Ring a bell? That’s right ladies and gents: Summer Wars is a re-telling of “Four Years Later” in The Digimon Movie. Coincidence? Nope! The director for “Four Years Later,” Mamoru Hasoda is the director and story writer for Summer Wars. And yet it’s the latter that’s better by leaps and bounds, mostly because of the almost-decade difference between them. However, production quality aside, it is the characters and story that truly set them apart.

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Because the characters invoke the feeling of family, it’s no shocker to realize there is a powerful theme of families in this movie. The Japanese have been known to hold family closely to cultural traditions, and what better example than the Jinnouchi clan? All these family members who have jobs and live all over Japan gather at the matriarch’s home to celebrate her 90th birthday, and the matriarch leaves the family with these words, “Never turn your back on family . . . Especially when times are rough.” This can’t ring any truer to everyone, after all who else can one turn to when everything seems to go wrong? It may be a touch cliché but it’s a cliché that truly works in this setting.

Over all Summer Wars is a great watch to sit through with a very diverse cast to hold up a very intriguing story and offers stunning visuals as a wonderful bonus. However, it does lose some points for being an almost-exact retelling of a previous movie, even if it was from the same director. But on the other hand its theme and emphasis on family bonds compensates just as much, if not more for that flaw. After compiling together the story, characters, sound, visuals and personal enjoyment, and then having Kenji calculate all together in one over-complicated math formula, Summer Wars earns itself 4.16 out of 5.

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ESPN Documentaries on Women in Sports

by Carrie Specht

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A sport is supposed to be the ultimate level-playing field, at least for athletes. Right? However, when it comes to sports and the popular media (particularly advertising) sexism and sexiness definitely come into play often overshadowing an athlete’s accomplishments. This can be true regardless of gender, but it is especially so for women. Why? Because that’s the way it is in Western culture. There’s no use trying to deny it. Sex (or sex appeal) sells. The real question is, will the situation ever change and is the added pressure placed on female athletes to remain overtly feminine while remaining extremely competitive ever going to subside? Both the question and the answer is explored in a series of documentaries produced and aired on ESPN this past summer, including the compelling Branded and the  informative Venus vs. These films give sports fans a behind the scenes peak like they’ve never seen before.

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In Branded, ESPN and the filmmakers explore the double standards placed upon women to be the best players on the field while pressuring them to be the sexiest when off. Particular case studies such as Mary Lou Retton, Gabrielle Reece, Danica Patrick and others are presented as examples of how a woman’s appearance has played a key role in obtaining endorsements. Or in other words securing the big money they’ll live off of once their sports careers are long over. For example the extremely fit and multi-champion Martina Navratilova’s net worth pales in comparison to the less-titled, yet eye pleasing Maria Sharapova whose appearance has enabled her to secure commercial endorsements that greatly exceed the value of her tournament winnings. The blonde and lanky beauty was the highest paid female athlete in the world in 2006, and the only woman on the list of the 50 highest paid athletes in 2011. Although Serena Williams has far exceeded Sharapova’s professional success, the more athletic looking Williams did not join the list until 2012! The film does a good job addressing the cultural factors behind this blatant discrepancy and other factors that deal more directly with the disparity between the sexes.

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Another Williams is the focus of Venus Vs. This film places a critical eye upon the issue of equal pay for equal play within the professional tennis world.  Oddly enough, grossly disparate paychecks between men and women remained the norm well into the new millennium. The film chronicles the efforts made by female tennis players to achieve the same level of prize money to that of their male counterparts at the sport’s most notable stage; Wimbledon. Billie Jean King was the movement’s first leader, but as the years passed and Venus Williams emerged as the dominating world figure she has become, the young sports icon was approached to assume the mantle and did so to great effect. Why was Venus Williams the key catalyst in getting Wimbledon to finally award equal prize money to women players? According to King, “She was the right player at the right time to lead the charge”. And fortunately for the filmmakers, Williams has been a media figure since the age of 14, so there was plenty of compelling archival footage of her (and the many other notable key figures) to intertwine with original interviews.

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Sexism is not a new issue, nor is the idea of women athletes representing the body beautiful. However, what these two films manage to achieve to great effect is a context of understanding – from both sides of the gender aisle. This is not just a group of women expressing their dissatisfaction with an unjust system of consideration and compensation, but a well represented group of experts who provide information for the historical timeline. The filmmakers do rely heavily upon the usual collage of first hand interviews, mixed among vintage footage of the actual events. This is achieved to mixed effect as some of the interviews include an unusual amount of pre-roll, or dead air of the interviewees before they begin speaking. Some of the framing is also off putting, looking more like bad framing than an artistic choice. Given the significance of the topic I think a more traditional shooting style would have been a better choice in order to avoid alienating the older audience who may not watch long enough to get past the style and be pulled in by the subject.

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As you may suspect the films simply document the current state of affairs without suggesting any real answers. But good or bad, the arguments will leave a definite impression upon the viewer regardless of their gender. Yes, we all know, the world is not fair. So maybe we should stop promising our athletes that such a thing exists in sports. Perhaps that promise can be limited to the playing field. Maybe. But at this time fairness is not for all people at all times and not if you’re of different genders, at least not until sex becomes a non-issue. And in the real world that just doesn’t seem to be a possibility any time soon. I hope ESPN repeats Branded and Venus Vs. and the other films in the series, or makes them available on DVD. If there is ever to be any hope for equality these discussions need to be had, and often. It’s only fair.

 

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Drinking Buddies Has Limited Appeal Even For Beer Lovers

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by Carrie Specht

Olivia Wilde stars as Kate in Drinking Buddies, the tale of a twenty-something hipster who works and lives a life centered on beer. Jake Johnson is her co-worker, Luke who works with her at a craft brewery. From the very beginning we are led to believe that they have one of those friendships that could be something more. We believe this because they get along so well and have way too much fun that borders on flirtation. However, Kate is with an older, more cerebral guy named Chris (Ron Livingston), and Luke is with the young and intelligent Jill (Anna Kendrick) who wants to know if her boyfriend is even considering marriage. It seems pretty clear throughout the film that he is not, but the question is pressed when Luke and Kate find themselves alone for a weekend. You might think this would challenge their relationship and heighten any unexamined feelings they have for each other. However, Kate is the only one who pushes the envelope while Luke dismissively laughs at her alcohol-induced antics, leaving the already thin story line without much of a punch by the time we get to the pointless ending.

1373480615000-drinking-1307101424_4_3Written and directed by Joe Swanberg, Drinking Buddies does have a certain charm that sets it apart from other films of the day. Many critics have remarked upon this and hailed the film as “genuine” and the characters possessing a palpable “chemistry”. Well, maybe yes and maybe no. I found the cast to be very likeable, but the lack of any real heft to the story lets the full potential of these characters down. Yes, there’s no denying the fact that it’s refreshing to see such a unique relationship between two adult friends of the opposite sex. However, it seems as if we are purposely mislead to believe that there is an unexamined attraction between these two people, and that’s just a big fat no.

As much as Kate playfully taunts and teases her male co-workers, there’s absolutely nothing on Luke’s part that even remotely implies that he is interested. Not even after this truly beautiful woman strips down in front of him and begs him to join her for some skinny-dipping. In fact, in the one and only moment that anyone comes close to questioning the massive amount of beer Kate consumes Luke’s interest barely peaks above a passing concern for her alcohol influenced judgment skills. And that’s it. Although Jake Johnson more than holds his own among his better known colleagues, his character (Luke) simply comes off as a nice guy who’s happily rolling through life. All the so-called romantic comedy (which is not how I would categorize this film) is left up to Olivia Wilde and the one misleading scene between Livingston and Kendrick, in which you’re left wanting to see some follow through that never comes.

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It is apparent that Olivia Wilde is a star to watch, but as far as Drinking Buddies goes the film is no real friend to her. The story’s potential is never fully reached, leaving the viewer dissatisfied as if they just drank a bad lite beer that’s less filling and offers very little to entertain the palate. Of course, I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to beer, and movies. I can’t help it. I’ve just experienced too many good ones to accept anything that simply satisfies. I prefer an experience that quenches my thirst by the time I get to the end of it.

Drinking Buddies opened in Los Angeles Friday, August 30th at the NuArt Theatre.

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Ain’t Them Bodies Saints Maybe Artful But Is It A Good Film?

www.indiewireby Carrie Specht

There’s been a lot of talk, or “buzz” about one of the latest indie darlings, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Much of this talk is well earned, and yet there is some purely momentum-generated hype going on here. You know the kind that comes from people jumping on an already popular bandwagon. No doubt about it, this is a visually beautiful film that flows like an ode to a more lyrical style of filmmaking of an age gone by – the type of which we don’t see in today’s movie houses. However, the story itself never quite comes together as a whole. Too many important elements to the plot are left unsaid, and these key points would clarify a somewhat murky storyline. That is not to say that the individual parts, such as the stellar performances and keen cinematography are not remarkable on their own. Yet, ultimately the individual parts do outweigh the whole. Significantly.

movies-aint-them-bodies-saints-still-4Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) provide two truly exceptional performances as the young lovers who have a rather traumatic, although deserved misadventure with the law early on in the movie. He naturally takes the blame, and she goes off and proceeds to live a solitary life to wait for him under the watchful eye of her neighbor and their mentor, the always reliably watchable Keith Carradine (still a mighty handsome figure on the silver screen since his appearances in McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville). Ben Foster (The Messenger, 3:10 to Yuma) does an impressive job conveying the poignancy behind the young deputy sheriff who suffered from the lovers’ mistake and now noticeably longs to be something more to our heroine and her little girl.

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So, with so many great elements (including the aforementioned cinematography created by Bradford Young) why am I not raving about this festival darling? To paraphrase a well-known quote about Los Angeles, “there’s no there, there” in the plot. What do I mean? The mysterious connection between Carradine and his two protégé’s is never truly explained. The audience is just suppose to go with it, which I think is sloppy filmmaking. A similar problem exists within the budding relationship between Mara and Foster, not to mention a completely unaddressed reason for a fifth character to risk his own precarious freedom and even his life to aid Affleck in his pursuit to reunite with Mara. Too many holes to be covered by the greatly admired beauty of this film.

c85eb71a4ad5423ba19e478e2b59fd0f-cf36a19fc9ba45fb9a3c5219d23edf9b-2I never accept great performances over content, and that’s what’s lacking. Yes, the main characters are very compelling, but when you rob both the actors and the audience the opportunity to experience the fulfillment of a major plot point by having crucial action happen off screen you’ve lost major credibility points, and created a film that is likely to fall through the cracks once the initial glow of the artificially amped popularity has faded. Some will not mind these shortcomings and join the parade of ardent admires, but I am certain that these same people will not remember their current favorite movie in a year’s time. There are just too many parts askew to achieve a satisfying whole no matter how much you focus on the best parts. Anatomy just works that way.

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The Visual Storytelling Tour is NOT To Be Missed

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by Carrie Specht

If you have heard of The Visual Storytelling Tour and had any thought about going I urge you to do so. If you don’t know about this incredible one-day seminar taught by Alex Buono of the SNL film unit and you are an aspiring independent filmmaker, film student, or producer of web content looking to make the most of your projects I suggest you sign up for the next available date ASAP. For all the information, tips, and tricks that Buono packs into a twelve-hour period is worth far beyond the $300 entry fee. In fact, I suspect if this seminar should tour again it is likely to be offered at a more exuberant price, and still be under valued. So, go now while the cost is ridiculously reasonable. If you don’t I promise you you’ll be kicking yourself for missing out on such a golden opportunity to learn how to make the most of a small budget on a tight schedule from someone whose made doing just that his lively hood for more than a dozen years.

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To quote from the website, “The Art of Visual Storytelling Tour delivers an intense educational overview of the artistic elements and core principles of cinematography”. And that’s no lie. The class is taught by the Director of Photography of the Saturday Night Live Film Unit, Alex Buono, who is use to having to create product week after week on a very tight schedule. The demands of his work required that he develop a process of shooting that was streamlined while maintaining a high level of quality. Buono has taken all that he has learned over the years of working for SNL and compacted it into an all-day class that will dramatically impact the production value of your projects (no matter what they are) through specialized techniques for lighting, lens selection, blocking, camera movement, audio, workflow, camera settings, visual structure, and more.

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I attended the San Diego seminar held on July 16 along with my teaching partner and four of our film students from La Sierra University in Riverside. We knew the day would be interesting and offer a variety of scenarios for lighting on the fly, but we had no idea what to expect. After all, plenty of professional seminars have boasted similar claims, and many have been taught by working professionals but offered little more than what most university film classes already provide. What prompted our interest most was the fact that Buono’s weekly deadlines were in sync with the kind of time limitations demanded of most students. That, and the fact that the days work was going to be produced on a camera our department had just purchased, the Canon EOS C100 and its sisters the C300 and C500.

As it turned out, the Virtual Storytelling seminar really hit it out of the park. To begin with the main part of the day, the Daytime Cinematography Workshop was presented in a setting that we strive for in our own classes – that of an on-set learning experience, mimicking a behind-the scenes look at the process. Buono would show one of the skits he had produced for SNL and then physically demonstrate on the spot how it came together using only the equipment he and his small company had been traveling with from city to city, which consisted of a package small enough to fit into a small moving van.

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The day is long, but it goes by very quickly because it is full of the necessary information needed to completely prepare and shoot any given short project. Buono starts out by showing how he breaks down a script shot by shot. He then shows how he scouts locations, design shots, puts together lighting plans, and selects his gear package.  Then the practical hands-on element is introduced as scenes are lit and shot by crew Buono selects from the audience, demonstrating exactly how he sets up camera moves, lights a master shot with matching coverage, and works with audio. He takes the footage all the way through his normal on-set workflow, from the camera all the way to the edit using the latest footage management tools. He finishes up with a look to the future of 4K delivery, discussing vital 4K considerations both on set and in post.

Although there is an official Q&A session held at the end of the first portion of the day the seminar is run to allow a free flow of interaction between the audience and Buono. So, when I wanted to know more about the power of a light source I called out my question and Buono answered it. Likewise was done for all the other queries participants had along the way. Additionally, there is a hands-on hour when everyone is allowed to fiddle, examine and play with all of the gear brought to the seminar, including the cutting edge Movi camera mount (think Steadicam without a body harness). Having an opportunity to manipulate the latest cinematic phenomenon was a remarkable moment of inspiration. It was a kinetic way of hitting the point home that each of us in that room can do what Buono does, that if we apply the skills demonstrated that day there’s no reason we can’t create the best commercials, industrials, short films or what have you to the best of our abilities. It’s just a matter of knowing how. And this seminar is where you can learn how.

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The first and final parts of the day are available at separate costs. However, I urge you not to miss what was the strongest part of the seminar: the Evening Visual Structure Seminar held from 6pm-9pm. It starts with an overview of all the tools and techniques that Buono has learned by shooting with both DSLRs and Cine-Style cameras at the SNL Film Unit, followed by a focus on Visual Structure. Inspired by the work of visual consultant Bruce Block, Buono identifies and breaks down the use of the seven core visual components of image, which are Space, Line, Shape, Color, Tone, Movement and Rhythm. The stunning Power Point presentation offers example after example of how the masters of filmmaking have used these techniques to create their signature styles, including Stanley Kubrick, David Fincher, the Coen Brothers, and Wes Anderson.

The price is a mere $295 for the Full Experience that includes the Daytime Cinematography Workshop, the Evening Visual Structure Seminar, a DVD of the Cinematography Workshop, the Visual Story textbook by Bruce Block, and a FREE Pass to the 2014 NAB Show in Las Vegas. That’s a crazy lot of bang for the buck. On top of these awesome incentives the first 30 people to sign up for the full experience in each city receive “Crew Seats”, which is seating in the front of the class. Crewmembers are chosen first to become part of the manpower pool during the filmmaking demonstrations, they get a Visual Storytelling CREW t-shirt, and one will win a private lunchtime portfolio review session with Alex Buono. With so much to gain from one 12 hour experience I’d say this is the best offer any aspiring filmmaker will ever come across. Don’t miss out!

Go to visualstorytellingtour.com to find out which West Coast cities are yet to be held and how many tickets remain.

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