‘Cars 3’ Review

Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) revs up for a victory lap and a chance at one last cup before he’s pushed out of the spotlight by the new cars on the block.

This last film of the ‘Cars’ trilogy excites only the unwavering fan of the franchise. However, I will submit that ‘Cars 3’ tied a satisfying bow on a trilogy that may have otherwise lost its novelty over the years. The first ‘Cars’ movie was wildly underappreciated by the critic community, but has held vacancy in the hearts of viewers. Although I disagreed with many critics in their analyses of the original movie, I can stand firmly behind the idea that the second of the three drove way off track. At best, it is the old beat-up Camaro that dad doesn’t want to bring to the dump. But I digress.

‘Cars 3,’ while staunchly predictable, softens up the viewer to the all-so-familiar Pixar feel-good narrative. It may fall short in the echelon of movie sequels, but I enjoyed the journey it takes you on. Not to forget, however, how egregiously ‘okay’ the screenwriters were with making the plot unsurprising, the jokes repeated to the point of annoyance, and the odd use of modern technology that felt foreign in a world of 80s vehicles. But hey, the kids will love it.The first act of the movie, the explanation of the story world so-to-speak, is brief because if you haven’t gotten it by the third movie than you don’t deserve an idiomatic setup. That being said, ‘Cars 3’ derails when the hero’s journey begins.

 

Cars-3-Daytona-500-Trailer

The strange introductions to new characters, the pathetically lazy montages, the passive protagonist, all contribute to an at-times unbearable middle act. More importantly, perhaps, is an ending that saves the legacy of the trilogy. It offers the opportunity for a ‘Cars 4,’ not that we’re asking for it, but the opportunity exists nevertheless.

As stated in the opening sentence, this movie could only possibly be enjoyed by the youngest of kids or the most delusional of Pixar fanatics. However, the message (because there is always a deeper meaning with Pixar) transcends age and intelligence. It is, simply put, the idea of the underdog. The veteran. The Rocky Balboa that is fighting for relevance. The fifty-something near retirement with nothing on the horizon. The middle age crisis of longing for purpose. The student becomes the teacher saga. A beautifully cyclical poem or a connecting puzzle that just makes sense.

As unapologetically foreseeable as the plot of ‘Cars 3’ is, give it a pass for making us smile in the end. Good save Pixar.

‘Cars 3’ is out in theaters this Friday (June 16)

Rating: C

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Sound Composition in A Serious Man

A Serious Man—by the Coen Brothers—wrestles with a theme of hopeless disparity. The film follows Larry Gopnik, a Jewish man metaphorically stuck between life and death. A man with a myriad of problems. It is understood that these complications, the motifs of the film, are difficult to articulate with words. Words, that is, do not suffice. This idea is seen specifically through conversations Larry has with two rabbis. Larry’s introspective questions are merely dismissed by the rabbis who postpone legitimate answers in lieu of unnecessary anecdotes, suggesting that language is an insufficient means of understanding the answers to life’s questions. Here is where we turn to sound. In order to fully understand the purpose, and the meaning of this film, one must dissect the film on a purely sonic level. Although the entire film is rich in aural aptitude, I will be focusing on three specific scenes (or sequence of scenes) in the following paper. Through an examination of the first two scenes of the film, a conversation with Rabbi Nachtner, and the scene in Ms. Samsky’s house, this paper will demonstrate how thoughtful sound composition can enhance a film.

The film opens with an ancient fable to illustrate a broad theme of uncertainty. It is bridged seamlessly with the second scene—set in a 1960s America—by the composer of the film, Carter Burwell. Burwell’s score is a layered and colorful fabric encompassing “wind, cowbells, drums, and then electric guitar and bass,” where he was punctilious in matching the guitar and bass lines to that of the soundtrack beginning in scene two1. As such, Burwell’s score blends effortlessly with the succeeding number, “Somebody To Love” by Jefferson Airplane, as if part of the same track. Before this transition between scenes, however, we are subject to a handful of moving sound effects. As the first scene builds to a moment of confusion and fear, a discordant piano overlays a melodious harp sound that creates a sense of uncertainty when played in different meters. The sounds are subtly jarring. This inharmonious orchestra is abruptly stopped by the creaking of an opened door and a cold wind that whistles. These sounds undoubtedly connect to what the film is saying about uncertainty, in that, one never knows what is behind the hollow knock, knock, knock of a wooden door. Even the sounds of a fire that crackle in the background are texturized and prominent. Burwell further explains how the harp motif is “polyrhythmic: you can count it in three or you can count it in four—The piece is so repetitious, and yet you’re not sure where the bar lines are…”2 It is this sense of audial ambiguity that lends itself well to an unsettling film about misfortune and, as I previously mentioned, hopeless disparity.

This despair takes shape in Larry Gopnik, the man with many questions and nowhere to turn for answers. From an audial perspective, Larry’s conversation with Rabbi Nachtner is infinitely complex. Larry and the Rabbi sit in a silent room. I must submit, however, that I follow John Cage’s idea of silence when he puts, “in absolute terms, it does not exist.”3 The idea that even in a secluded room one begins to hear the sounds of hearts pumping, blood flowing, and nervous systems at work. What is important to take away from Cage’s ideology is that this “silence” forces us to listen to sounds that would otherwise evaporate in the ambience. For instance, in this scene we hear Rabbi Nachtner’s tea bag slip in and out of his teacup, and every word spoken in the short dialogue is isolated, therefore emphasized. Like a musical note, the language in this scene is reduced to mere sounds. When Larry asks, “what is going on?” Rabbi Nachtner begins his convoluted parable as if the words Larry spoke were entirely inaudible. Larry, to whom no one listens, is grasping at answers to orient himself, but in keeping with the film’s theme, the rabbi’s response is anything but satisfactory. What is most intriguing about the rabbi’s story, however, is the accompanying music. “Machine Gun” by Jimi Hendrix comes alive and we here a guitar riff, a repetitious bang bang bang of the drum as the rabbi tells the story of a dentist who finds a message inscribed in Hebrew within a patient’s teeth. The unpredictability of this song choice paired with the banality of dentistry and the tediousness of teeth cleaning is what makes the piece memorable. Hendrix’ song is jazz-like, improvisational, roaring, and as Burwell so eloquently puts it, “when music pointedly ignores the apparent proceedings of a film it implies that there’s something else going on.”4 Meaning, the thematic sound elements are more deeply rooted than simply surface material. I affirm that the rock-and-roll repetition symbolizes the film’s unflinching philosophy of a skepticism towards the things we believe: love, religion, and the meaning of life.

The meaning of life is a debated topic, however, the film suggests—unbeknownst to Larry—that life’s complexities are far more simple than they’re made to appear, and everyone deals with these complexities in a different manner. Larry uses philosophy and music. So does his son Danny. Larry and his son share a passion for music, but there remains a fundamental difference in taste. Larry enjoys the Yiddish tune, ’Dem Milners Trern,’ by Sidor Belarsky, whereas Danny is more partial to contemporary music like the aforementioned “Somebody to Love.” Similarly, Danny memorizes a portion of the Torah, not through understanding the Hebrew language, but rather through the sounds played back through his vinyl record; to which he cannot keep a harmony. When I refer to harmony here I am following Michel Chion’s definition.5 I digress. What I mean to say is this, music drives A Serious Man forward because the characters use music as a means to cope.

Similar to how Larry and Danny turn to music, so does Mrs. Samsky. Here I will be analyzing the scene when Larry smokes pot for the first time at Mrs. Samsky’s house. As Larry approaches her door we here the faint echo of a vinyl record. A melodious tone. Another Jefferson Airplane song. He turns to leave without knocking. We hear a door open, and our hearts race because of what David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson refer to as “the power of sound from an unseen source;” that which “engages the audience’s interest.”6 We don’t know who is behind the door, or why Larry is there, but when the camera cuts back to the door frame we see Mrs. Samsky. The music grows louder. A car rumbles past. Larry enters the house, and the floorboards creak. The music grows louder. Ice cubes dropped in an empty glass. The music grows louder. Mrs. Samsky bursts through her beaded drapes, a faint echo as the beads bounce off each other. The music grows louder. Mrs. Samsky pulls the joint out of a small wooden box. A lighter strikes. The music grows louder, and the music grows louder. A single toke. Up until this point we are given a fair balance of ambience, foley sounds, and music (that which Mrs. Samsky enjoys). However, the music builds until the moment Larry gets high for the first time. That is when the sound composition of the scene changes. As one may surmise, high Larry becomes hyper-aware of his surroundings. There is an ethereal “silence” to the room. The ice cubes in his glass clank together as he slides them about, and before it is audible to the audience Larry hears a siren in the distance. The ingenuity of this scene can be traced to the fact that it can be dissected from both a musical as well as a strictly audial reference-point. The scene begins with a record that invites us into Mrs. Samsky’s world, and ends in the head of a high Larry Gopnik who hears absolutely everything.

Much like this film’s theme, the sound composition is creatively complex. This, of course, is the very reason why it makes for a profound piece on sound analysis. Each scene is meticulously composed. Burwell improvises. But also returns—over and over again—to his harp phrase in a number of variations; nevertheless, the same instrument. This elucidates what Tom Schneller calls “leitmotif” in his article, “Unconscious Anchors: Bernard Herrmann’s Music For Marnie.”7 Leitmotif is the concept of a recurring musical phrase associated with a particular idea or person. In this case, the repeated harp melodies pertain to an ironic peacefulness. There is nothing peaceful about life’s struggles. However,  A Serious Man unquestionably sings, and while each note may not be in pitch or harmonious, it is executed with great thoughtfulness. That is, every musical expression is carefully articulated to represent something greater than itself.

 

1“Carter Burwell’s Notes,” http://www.carterburwell.com/projects/A_Serious_Man.shtml (December 3, 2009).
2“Carter Burwell’s Notes.”
Nardelli, M. “Some Reflections on Antonioni, Sound and the Silence of La Notte.” The Soundtrack 3 (2010): p14. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.
4“Carter Burwell’s Notes.”
Chion, Michel. “Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen.” New York: Columbia University Press (1994): p36.
Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. “Film Art: An Introduction.” New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 1997: p270.
Schneller, Tom. “Unconscious Anchors: Bernard Herrmann’s Music For Marnie.” Popular Music History 5.1 (2010): p55-104. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Mar. 2016.

The Last Hoorah: A UPO Campaign

The past month or so I’ve been doing work for The United Planning Organization, it is now over. I partnered with one of my peers to create a brochure, fact sheet, media kit, mailing campaign, poster, and print ad for UPO. Our work benefitted UPO in diversifying their media presence, and strengthening their overall campaign.

Our project area emphasized UPO’s community reinvestment. In other words, our work reflects how UPO is a financial resource, or crutch, for those communities and people who need it.

Within the fact sheet and brochure we elaborate on the financial structure of the organization and its societal benefits. The poster, print ad, and mailing campaign serve to catch a reader’s attention and promote UPO through aesthetics. The media kit, or press kit, is a collaboration of sources that sum up UPO. The media kit is essentially a folder we can hand out to the press, or someone merely inquiring about the organization, that will expound upon UPO’s investment and community engagement ideals.

When gathering the content for our work we relied heavily on UPO’s website. Specifically, we used the majority of the content under the tab “Family and Community Services” on their site.

For the brochure I sought out the community reinvestment strategies of other non profits and organizations to get a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. For instance, I researched charity organizations, cancer-recovery organizations, the Community Reinvestment Act of Alaska, and I even referred to my own nonprofit, the Healing Hope Foundation, for assistance. Shameless plug? I know. What I found: successful advertisements, and information in general, is branded uniformly. That is, all of our work had to be a motif. Thus, it is all visually similar. It has a brand that is unique, and the same throughout all of our content.

As I have previously mentioned gathering content from the organization proved to be an obstacle. I am not saying this was their fault. That is not the point. However, this challenge forced us to break down the creative process of making a fact sheet, brochure, et cetera, without the pictures. This is to say, we adapted the images and media (which we eventually received) into our already established content. This forced us to internalize design principles like the rule of thirds, and the inverted pyramid, the idea that the most important information comes first.

This way, we only left in essential information. Our information had to be of the highest importance, like the media kit, which I like to refer to as: an essentials kit. The images fell into place afterwards.

Another issue we ran into was making finances exciting. Money, of course, has a universal appeal. Financial budgeting, financial business, however, not as enticing a conversation. What I found worked was rhetorical questions within our content.

Let me explain. Rhetorical questions serve as a means for the audience to interact with the media, and in turn, the organization. Some of the questions we asked our viewers: Want to invest in yourself for a change? If someone offered to give you $3 for every dollar you save, would you gladly accept?

This strategy is far more appealing than a banal description of financial services provided by UPO. What we were striving for was for someone to pick up our brochure our see our poster and think, UPO sounds like a thriving organization. How can they help me?

Interactivity is one of the most effective and likewise influential ways to engage people. Making someone else do something, may be one of the hardest tasks in life. Even with incentive it is seemingly arduous to evoke human reaction. Our goals were steep, but we were prepared for the climb.

We are both proud of the work we have accomplished this past month and are satisfied in knowing UPO will be as well. After all, there is no greater exercise of the soul than to reach out and help others. UPO is a great organization, with great goals, and we are simply glad we could be a part of the process.

The Worst Film Ever (*Also, Not Up For Debate)

Shark Attack 3 may be one of the worst movies ever. A trilogy of shark attack movies? Spoiler alert, the shark attacks the fisherman in film one, film two, and yes, you guessed it, film three. I must confess I did not see Shark Attack 1 or 2; however, I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed the third movie any more having seen the first two. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have made it through the trilogy seeing that the films are so poorly made it makes me visibly angry.

This mistake of a film has terrible camera angles, music that doesn’t compare to Jaws or Tentacles so by process of elimination it is terrible, and it has terrible acting too. A trio of disappointment. This Israeli-South African co-production tries to portray a massive shark as this menacing, aquatic beast that destroys anything in its path. There is no story to follow and it is so unbelievable a plot that my three-month old cousin threw-up on the TV while the family was watching it over holiday break. No coincidence there.

Even writing about the damn film is painful. However, I’m all for taking positives out of unfortunate situations. So when you get laid off from a job, your cat dies, you drop your phone down the sewage grate, watch this film for a good laugh. It will remind you that life will always be better for you than the director and actors of this film. For the rest of their life they will have to live with the memory of making the worst movie that has ever disgraced the earth. Your life is better, trust me.

Now don’t ask me why we sat down and watched this film. I don’t remember the rhyme or reason behind our decision making, it just happened. I only got through about 30 minutes before I gave up, and even that is a long time. Please do not watch this film; it’s a waste of time. And for those brave souls that give it a try: you are all savages.

Can you think of a worse film? Please let me know.

The Departed: Movie That I Love, and You Should Too

The Departed, directed by Martin Scorsese, is one of the greatest movies produced in the 2000s. Possibly ever. The film is a crime drama set in Boston. An undercover state cop has infiltrated an Irish gang and tries to disrupt the operation. The mobsters themselves have a rat within the police department, and the entire film is centered on the two sides. I hope you enjoyed that “Cliff notes” version of such an incredible film. This film is one of the greatest for two distinct reasons: the acting, the writing.

Leonardo Dicaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Vera Farmiga, Ray
Winstone, Anthony Anderson, and Martin Sheen make up an impeccable cast. Should I even bother continuing? Are you still reading this? No? You’re watching the movie now? Ok, good.

Dicaprio, Nicholson, and Wahlberg were nominated for Golden Globes for their acting, and the entire cast was nominated by the Screen Actors Guild for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. I can’t name one other film I’ve seen that I remember more than five of the actors’ names. The Departed, however, displays these notable actors at their best. And they are memorable. This cast is full of professionals, that which isn’t disputed, but if you are not left in awe at the end of this film you are a soulless, unappreciative slug. These actors have it easy; however, they were given an incredible story.

The screen writing for this film is likewise phenomenal. What make a great story are great characters, and The Departed is not lacking by any means in this category. Instead of telling you the story itself, I’m going to tell you the effect it will have on you. I cannot give it away; it’s not fair to you. This story will move you and it will make you appreciate the history behind the story. It is a true story about an Irish gang, and the way William Monahan brings these characters to life is beyond the simple story. The complexity of the plot will keep you scratching your head, but the intensity will keep you wanting more like an unfamiliar fruit. I’m not comparing the film to modern-day art, but instead, the film represents an early form of storytelling unfamiliar to audiences. It challenges the idea of story structure and forces you to ride a motorcycle before you’ve tackled training wheels.

Darwin once said that “it’s not the survival of the strongest or the most intelligent, it’s the ones most adaptable to change” that are most successful. Art and film are susceptible to change. We live in an ever-changing world. Monahan, Scorsese, and this cast are all present-day Darwin’s. They are our lens into what we want to know of a story. They provide us with a story, a film that represents an emotion that is unique to the viewer.

The film is above entertainment. It is the unknown and it is intangible. But art is the unknown; art is the antidote for quiet desperation. This film is art, and a solace for deep thought for those that want to escape.

The Greatest Film Scene Ever (*Not Up For Debate)

Pulp Fiction
1994
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Awards:
Won– Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen
Nominated-Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role (John Travolta), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Samuel L. Jackson), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Uma Thurman), Best Director (Tarantino), Best Film Editing (Sally Menke)

The scene embedded above is the last scene of Pulp Fiction, a film by Quentin Tarantino. This scene is also the greatest. Ever. I’m not saying the scene is the greatest in this film, but rather, the greatest scene ever, in any movie, ever. It is important, however, to understand the context of the film before you watch the clip. For thematic reasons, this scene doesn’t make much sense until you’ve seen the film in its entirety. For an abundance of reasons this scene is unparalleled including its cinematography, acting, the story/script development, lighting, historical perspective, and sound aspects.

What makes a film more aesthetically pleasing than others is its adherence to certain cinematographic principles. This scene has a plethora of different camera angles that highlight perspective and authority among the characters. The different angles also help keep the viewers interested. The colors are vibrant. Color variation is played with throughout the film, and here we see a variety of colors (e.g. Ringo’s Hawaiian shirt, Jules’ blue shirt, Yolanda’s purple shirt, and the orange seats in the diner) that add to the brightness of the scene’s intensity and the film’s colorful language. Another principle that is unspoken but contributes to a cinematically “good” scene, is the rule-of-thirds. While we only subconsciously appreciate the adherence to the rule-of- thirds, this scene does as good a job as any at applying this rule.

Moreover, It is no surprise that this film was nominated for its acting. In this last scene, Samuel L. Jackson makes viewers believe that he has changed as a character and as a person. Watch this film and I guarantee you will lose yourself in the realness of the fictitiousness. During this scene, nothing else exists beyond the walls of the diner because the scene is that believable. Where Jackson showed growth, John Travolta showed consistency. It is an intense scene but credit is due to Travolta’s congruent nature. He never sways out of character (and neither does Ringo or Yolanda). It is clear Tarantino had the whip out during rehearsals because this scene is flawless.

I’m not arguing perfection here, but the reason this scene, above others, is so memorable is because of its relevance to the story and plot structure of the film. The film begins in the same diner with Ringo and Yolanda planning to rob the restaurant of all its money. It ends here as well. The brilliance of this film is its intertwining stories. Different characters from different stories never meet-until the end-but their stories are always connected somehow. What is most important is how Samuel L. Jackson’s character can help Ringo through a difficult time. Two people that were never meant to meet. Or maybe they were? This film is about Samuel L. Jackson’s (Jules) transformation as a character in a period of American nihilism. This scene displays just that. And it is beautiful.

Moving on to more technical aspects of the film: lighting and sound. These two I’m clumping into one category because they are similar. Similar in how they can negatively affect a film, that is. If a scene has poor lighting it can be hard to see what is happening. If a scene has poor audio than it can be difficult to hear what is happening. Both of which can detract from the enjoyment of a film. Tarantino uses light specifically as a metaphor (in the briefcase), or to convey emotion in someone’s eyes (shadows on Ringo’s face represent his lack in understanding or knowledge). There is no music playing in this scene. Ambient background noise is all. However, the tone in which characters speak is representative of their mood. Jules talks calmly and slowly to Ringo, trying to guide him towards “the light.”

Lastly, the historical perspective of the film is quite significant in understanding the meaning of the story. This plot is set in late 20th century America where people, in this case, Travolta and Jackson, make sense out of their lives through pop culture icons like a Quarter Pounder. Life is stricken by an inherent belief that life has lost all value and meaning. This film is about violence and redemption at life. Redemption can be earned or given, but nevertheless, it is liberating. It is evident Jules is dealing with issues of self-purpose, which further elucidates why this last scene is the greatest. It is satisfyingly complete, like a good sneeze, or finishing a puzzle, or a tasty Quarter Pounder with cheese. That kind of satisfying.

Another Beat Sheet

The Blake Snyder “Beat Sheet” (aka BS2) for: The Road to Perdition

Director: Sam Mendes

I consider myself a student of the Blake Snyder school of thought at this point, so here goes another attempt at a “beat sheet.” As usual, I am going to spoil this movie for those that haven’t seen it, so stop here if you wish the see the film without knowing the plot.

 

Opening ImageA visual that represents the struggle & tone of the story. A snapshot of the main character’s problem, before the adventure begins.

The film begins on a calm, white beach. A boy is standing looking out to sea , wearing suspenders, knickers, and he tells us this is going to be the story of a journey. It is white, very white. Almost innocent.

Set-upExpand on the “before” snapshot. Present the main character’s world as it is, and what is missing in their life.

The boy delivers papers, it is winter and about the 30s in the U.S., the Great Depression era, the boy’s father is mysterious. The boy is scared of his father. Mother is loving, the house feels wholesome, and the boy’s brother is like a friend. Also innocent.

Theme Stated (happens during the Set-up) What your story is about; the message, the truth. Usually, it is spoken to the main character or in their presence, but they don’t understand the truth…not until they have some personal experience and context to support it.

There are multiple themes to this film. Hopefully we can address them all. One theme of this film is respect to tradition and elders. This can be seen through the relationship the boy has with his father. Another theme is people may not be who they appear to be. Deception. Although it may not be apparent now, this theme surfaces many times throughout the film.

Catalyst The moment where life as it is changes. It is the telegram, the act of catching your loved-one cheating, allowing a monster onboard the ship, meeting the true love of your life, etc. The “before” world is no more, change is underway.

Michael (the boy) watches his father commit murder. This is when he realizes what his father does for a living, why they live in the house they do. This is where life as it is changes. Life changes for Michael, who is noticeably distraught by this sight. And life changes for the father who now must protect his boy from the men who employ him.

Debate But change is scary and for a moment, or a brief number of moments, the main character doubts the journey they must take. Can I face this challenge? Do I have what it takes? Should I go at all? It is the last chance for the hero to chicken out.

The father’s boss knows Michael is a liability so he must decide whether or not to kill the boy. He asks Michael to keep a secret and further intimidates the boy by saying a man of honor always pays his debts and keeps his word.

Break Into Two (Choosing Act Two)The main character makes a choice and the journey begins. We leave the “Thesis” world and enter the upside-down, opposite world of Act Two.

The father kills an accomplice to the operation and he and his son plan to escape town and head to Chicago to seek help after the murder of his wife and kids. As per Snyder, “the journey begins.”

B StoryThis is when there’s a discussion about the Theme – the nugget of truth. Usually, this discussion is between the main character and the love interest. So, the B Story is usually called the “love story”.

The most prominent “b-story” of this film is the prospect of the hunter becoming the hunted. The father and the boy are being tracked down by an expert assassin played by Jude Law. How will survive? That is the only question.

The Promise of the Premise This is the fun part of the story. This is when Craig Thompson’s relationship with Raina blooms, when Indiana Jones tries to beat the Nazis to the Lost Ark, when the detective finds the most clues and dodges the most bullets. This is when the main character explores the new world and the audience is entertained by the premise they have been promised.

Michael and his father make it to the city. They seek help from a former employer, however, he is unwilling to help and now the two are left to fend for themselves. The father reaches out to family for refuge, and then he and Michael start their “Road to Perdition.” Wherever that may be?

 

We have reached the midpoint of the story now and I’m going to stop here in hopes that you finish the film on your own because it is one of my favorites. Take luck, and enjoy.