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Heroes: Jim Henson

This may seem like a curve ball to some of you, but Jim Henson is a major inspiration to me, and here’s why. Jim Henson is who I want to be when I grow up. A successful yet humble man that oozes optimism and serenity. I may have lost all the cynics out there from this point on, but that’s okay, to each their own. I’ve always been more of a lover than a fighter anyways. This idolization goes beyond permeating positivity though.

“I know that it’s easier to portray a world that’s filled with cynicism and anger, where problems are solved with violence. What’s a whole lot tougher is to offer alternatives, to present other ways conflicts can be resolved, and to show that you can have a positive impact on your world. To do that, you have to put yourself out on a limb, take chances, and run the risk of being called a do-gooder.” -J.H.

Henson was a man of steely determination, and he stuck to his ideas and ideals throughout his career. His beginnings were in local television in rural Maryland when he was still in high school. He wanted a job there so badly he went and asked for one, they ended up turning him down, but on his way out he noticed a wanted ad for a puppeteer. So he went to the library and read up on puppeteering, made a few crude puppets, came back and said “I’m a puppeteer now, will you hire me”? and they did. That was the miracle of Jim Henson, determined but never bossy, always at work on another project, but never in the doldrums about it.

“I don’t resent working long hours. I shouldn’t- I’m the one who set up my life this way. I love to work. It’s the thing that I get the most satisfaction out of and its probably what I do best. Not that I don’t enjoy days off. I love vacations and loafing around. But I think much of the world has the wrong idea of working. It’s one of the good things in life. The feeling of accomplishment is more real and satisfying than finishing a good meal- or looking at one’s accumulated wealth.” -J.H.

Above all else, the man just seemed thankful to be part of the experience of life. How do you think Kermit turned out to be the way he did? As you can see, a large part of Jim ended up in the portrayal of Kermit. Henson’s philosophy on life tended to bleed into the ways the characters “lived” in their own world, often reflecting this peaceful pacifism in the decidedly “British” humor of the numerous characters.

“I spend a few minutes in meditation and prayer each morning. I find that this really helps me to start the day with a good frame of reference. As part of my prayers, I thank whoever is helping me – I’m sure that somebody or something is – I express gratitude for all my blessings and try to forgive the people that I’m feeling negative toward. I try hard not to judge anyone, and I try to bless everyone who is part of my life, particularly anyone with whom I am having any problems.” -J.H.

Jim Henson’s approach to life means a lot to me because of its potency, and yet its simplicity. Often he had to fight to debate the legitimacy of his work and the meaningfulness behind it and as someone who has an urge to step into the world of creativity I can understand that debate with others, family, friends, the gatekeepers. The people that always ask why. In the end, just give them a why not? As we all know he eventually convinced enough of us that some stories just need to be told in felt. In the end Jim Henson fought for what he wanted to do, worked hard when he was able to, and never took any of it too seriously. That is why he’s one of my heroes.

“Life’s like a movie, write your own ending. Keep believing, keep pretending.” -Jim Henson (1936-1990)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Henson

http://www.evancarmichael.com/Famous-Entrepreneurs/590/Jim-Henson-Quotes.html

http://muppet.wikia.com/wiki/It%27s_Not_Easy_Being_Green_%28book%29

http://www.azquotes.com/quote/751310

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The Final Frontier

“Guardians of The Galaxy” Marvel Studios’ craziest risk factor that features a ragtag group of thieves in a pulpy science fiction adventure hit theaters a year ago and quickly became one of the most beloved movies of 2014. In light of this I’ve decided to focus on the science fiction genre for this piece. While personally I enjoy a lot of different styles, genres, and sub-genres, of movies science fiction is my absolute favorite kind of movie. I believe this to be so because its sense of imagination and wonder is boundless. What better playground to construct a story within than the universe itself. The possibilities are in fact, endless. Any type of story can exist with science fiction, romance, adventure, drama, horror, mystery and more!

Lets not beat around the bush here, I’ll dive in headfirst with the biggest nerd debate since Mac versus PC (The answer is Linux by the way), Star Wars, or Star Trek? Both franchises have earned their monumental fan bases at this point for their different perspectives on planet hopping, never ending, space/time adventures. I have to admit, I never paid much attention to Star Trek before JJ Abrams rebooted the characters back in 2009. Yup, I’m that guy. I will say that, however, that Abrams re-imagining of Trek is what hooked me to it though, I’d honestly just never sat down and watched any of the television series. After that movie I went back in time, courtesy of Netflix, and encountered a gigantic universe of space faring tales. From “Voyager” to “Deep Space Nine”, to the spectacular “Next Generation” I fully embraced the daring exploits of the Star Fleet crew in its different iterations. Star Trek is an excellent example of quality science fiction that embraced it’s serial expectations to its fullest extent by focusing on powerful ideas and themes such as authoritarianism, imperialism, loyalty, economics, racism, class warfare, religion, sexism, human rights, feminism, and the role of technology in the character’s lives. Merging the vast possibilities of imagination with real world conflicts and issues, Star Trek has successfully etched its own place in the history of science fiction.

Star Wars on the other hand has always been the big budget brother to Star Trek. Now that JJ Abrams has brought the Enterprize and her adventures into the limelight though the average moviegoer now has two major space faring sagas to consider. The Pepsi Starship to your Coca Cola X-Wing, so to say. Wars is about different ideas and structures than Trek though, it focuses more on the themes within political science with a favorable distinction towards democracy over the totalitarian order pushed by the Nazi-like regime of the Galactic Empire. In fact most of Star Wars is just an adaption of our own cultures and ideas, Jedi are simply Samurai in space with blades of light rather than steel, and Han Solo is the classic embodiment of a wandering western hero a la Clint Eastwood, granted with more of a verbal personality. It’s the edge-less boundaries of what Lucas did by making his saga a thing of its own that intrigues me most though. Star Wars is unique (in film) in that it truly stands on its own like a work of Fantasy. It has no connection to the Earth we all know and love, but rather exists within a galaxy all its own. It resembles the completely imagined setting of Middle Earth in its fully created environment, a true force of creativity.

Melding genres has always been exceptionally enticing to me, whereas Trek and Wars utilize human themes, issues, and ideals these next few entries mix science fiction with other genres to blend a unique take on both. Three series in particular have effectively morphed the horror, or monster subgenre, with the infinity of the cosmos. The Alien series is one literal hell of a time, cause who doesn’t enjoy the idea of something living inside you and then ripping through your abdomen? Apologies to all expecting mothers. The first Alien in particular is more horror than science fiction, but it reshaped both genres significantly and its set in space, can’t get much more sci-fi than that. Alien got a lot of recognition and critical response due to its sexual overtones and female empowerment. Plus how good was that pacing? I’ve only recently re-watched this classic and its tension still holds up quite well! The sequel continues the themes of female power in a masculine environment. Ripley is constantly being shut down by her male counterparts, but she is also partaking in misjudgment by exhibiting a sort of robo-racism against the android Bishop because of her previous betrayal by another robot named Ash during the events of the first film. This further continues the “android apartheid” seen throughout the entirety of the Alien series.

Predator, on the other hand, is akin to the alien series (lets forget the versus movies for the rest of… time) in that it shares monster brethren that hunt humans and mercilessly murder their faces. While the series might embrace more action than horror as far as sci-fi goes, it still offers a good time at the movies. Unfortunately while Alien and its sequels empower women, the Predator series hardly even gives them a voice to be heard. The focus here is more on the idea of a galactic hunt, the fear of being pursued, and the heart pounding thrill of hunting your hunter.

Vin Diesel’s Chronicles of Riddick series has had its fair share of tonal changes over the trilogy, but it’s most compelling entry, in my opinion, was the latest. Simply titled “Riddick”, the newest flick dropped the world building nature of the sequel in turn for a tighter, more character driven entry in the antihero’s planet hopping antics. Working as a spiritual successor to the first movie, “Pitch Black”, Riddick goes back to being a grimacing, shadow loving, murderer. The entire first act is essentially a slasher film as Riddick systematically toys with the bounty hunters that pursue him. Its sheer brilliance. Riddick is one of my favorite antiheroes because you can constantly see him calculating, manipulating people with his words and my god does he utilize his environments to his advantage. If you haven’t checked this series out yet, I highly suggest it, if anything else it’s just a fun way to spend a rainy day if that’s all it does for you.

Not all sci-fi has to be off planet though. My favorite original science fiction film of the last five years has to be “Looper”. This movie smartly utilizes one of my favorite storytelling devices, time travel. “Looper”, if you haven’t seen it (see it!) the film deals with the Mob of the future sending their marked victims back in time to be killed by specifically chosen executors known as loopers. These arbiters of death meet their victims at a certain time and place, kill their targets as soon as they have been sent back in time, get paid, and live the high life. That is until the future Mob sends the future versions of the loopers themselves back in time to the present looper who ends up killing his future self while getting a golden pay day. They then live out their days until the Mob comes for them. One looper in particular, dubiously named Joe, (who is excellently portrayed by both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis) gets into trouble when his future self comes back and subsequently escapes from his present self resulting in an extremely fun AND intelligent take on a man pursuing himself. The movie is about mistakes at its core, what we can do to correct them, or prevent them from even happening in the first place.

Lastly, if you enjoy this subject or material at all I can’t leave you without suggesting “FireFly”. I came incredibly late to the game here but this short lived space-faring series is truly a thing to behold. Joss Whedon’s intergalactic team of feisty underdogs is full of heart, superb writing, and a clear love of the genre. Imagine a western in space and you’d be close, it speaks for itself, but that’s a good way to approach it. It’s unique to itself and it was a tragedy that the series didn’t get more time for itself. If you’re only watching for fan favorite Nathan Fillion’s role as Captain Malcolm Reynolds, then that’s well enough, but I’d be doing the series a disservice- all of the characters consistently shine through! Do yourself a favor if you haven’t seen this gem and knock out the 13 episodes and the film “Serenity” in a weekend, it’s well worth your time!

So, yes, I love science fiction, and I’m quite glad that it seems to be sticking around and caught in the current attention span of the masses, which isn’t always guaranteed. Even if it drops back into obscurity, as it once was, I’ll still be there to watch starships, time travelers, space samurai, and even face murdering aliens do what they all do best, entertain.

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Heroes: Edgar Wright

Within this subsect of my (possibly everchanging) blog, I intend to put a spotlight on the people that make me want to pursue my dreams more so than anyone else in the movie-making business. For my first entry I chose a director that has been in the spotlight in the last year regarding his once future film “AntMan”. First off, I admired Wright’s work before this whole “AntMan” hubbub. “Shaun of the Dead” is easily my favorite zombie movie and “The World’s End” might be in my top ten favorite films. It’s that good, really it is. I adore his work so much because it reflects the reality of what I want to do, that its possible to succeed if you work very hard and pour your soul into it. Yes, sometimes a quip with a zombie, or an invading alien robot deserves a little bit of heart. Taking a step back to our pint sized superhero flick though, Wright clearly isn’t just making movies just to get a foot in the door with the larger world of newly accepted geekdom. He had a vision with that character and Marvel wanted to do it in a specific way, and I respect the man for stepping back when he knew he was no longer making his “AntMan” film.

Such is what happens when big money and properties come into play. But I also understand Marvel’s point of view as well, at this point they have a formula, one that they intend to keep cashing in on. As they should, but not all director’s fit into a formula. Wright leaving Marvel to pursue other creative opportunities keeps me in mind of the ever present battle of creative control in the studio versus the indie filmmaker. This is important. It comes down to how you want to define yourself as an artist when writing or directing your films, and somewhere along the line you have to decide how much control you’re willing to give up for a multitude of reasons. Better pay, being part of a larger integrated system, bigger toys, bigger sandbox etc. This isn’t to say I’m against studios or studio made films, but this argument does matter though when considering creative freedom.

At the very least I’m glad what we got out of all of that was a fairly good superhero flick to add to Marvel’s vault of success. Wright’s presence can be felt throughout the flick and who knows, maybe that’s why it felt more personal and (pun intended) smaller than its big blockbuster brother that preceded it this summer. In fact between the Avengers sequel and “Antman” I personally got more out of the latter than the former. Expectation may be the culprit to blame most here though. With “Antman”, I was just hoping for it to be fun and a bit self referential in its wildly apparent silliness, which I got in spades. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” was entertaining enough, but ultimately didn’t reach the height of the first movie, and really, who could blame them? The first “Avengers” was a milestone in the genre.

I think I’d have to side with Wright if I had been in his position though, if only because I long to be the kind of involved director that writes his own material and is very much “down in the trenches” of film-making. Maybe it’s just because I’m young, have hardly any film-making experience, and haven’t grown into the culture as of yet, but I’d like to believe in the power and integrity of the indie filmmaker. Until then I’ll be heavily anticipating Edgar Wright’s next piece, because if his cornetto trilogy is any indication, Wright is the fine wine of indie genre film-making and he’s only going to get better!

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Who is the most American Superhero?

When you think about American cinema lately you might conjure up images of a household name actor or director a la Bradley Cooper or the much maligned Micheal Bay. It probably won’t take the average person long to mention a superhero movie. The superhero movie in and of itself has taken over our culture’s attention for more than a decade now. Personally, I’m biased, I quite enjoy the genre as a fun escapist two hours to get away from the world and enjoy a little fantasy every now and then. The other day however, as I was considering just how popular Marvel and DC movies have become I came upon an interesting question. Who is the most American superhero?

There might be a fair amount of you that immediately spout off your “Superman”, your “Captain America”, maybe even a “Batman”. I believe it demands a bit more deliberation than that though. It can be argued that certain characters represent American ideals better than others, while others represent modern American society and our current culture’s mindset to a whole other degree. Now, to be fair, anyone that said Superman right off the bat does have a whole lot of points going for them already.

Superman was the first superhero, he began, and currently still perpetuates the comic book genre to this very day. Recently celebrating seventy-five years of publication he has some clout for the argument at hand, specifically the fact that he’s an immigrant, essentially the most American part of our own history. Clark Kent embodies the traditional “American Way” in too many ways to count, he’s resilient, his Kansas upbringing in a small town, he doesn’t want a fight- but won’t back down from one, and his handle on keeping his powers in check under stressful social situations proves that he is the better man (a point I believe the latest film iteration “Man of Steel” did well). Those are just a few examples, but I’ll move on just to speed things along.

Captain America. America is in his very pseudonym. However, Cap still falls into the same category as Superman. Half of the stories involving Captain America play off of him trying to relate to current American society, or referencing his traditional take on situations. He is a man stuck in tradition, and he, just as Mr. Kent, plays up the reserved, quiet, but strong and determined male model of masculinity. They both represent what most, but certainly not all, men strive to be at times in their lives, but it’s impossible to be at that level of responsible and level headed functioning all the time. Which is why Marvel wisely capitalized on the relatable superhero.

Spiderman is the quintessential icon of relatable superheroes. Peter Parker is a young, smart, and hard working individual that’s always rushing from crisis to crisis. A superhero that has trouble paying the rent but works tirelessly to help the average joe was a brilliant stroke of the evolution of the American superhero. The student with a secret always has far too many problems going on at once. From Doctor Octopus to getting to class on time, he is the epitome of a modern millennial, constantly juggling as much as possible just to get by and keep his loved ones safe and close. For every yin there is a yang however and the 1% must have a hero to call their own in this day and age, right? Why not, they’ve got everything else.

Tony Stark is the aged vintage wine of the elite superheroes. He not only represents America’s lust for consuming merchandise and wealth, but also our unrivaled American Ingenuity. He’s constantly renovating and rebuilding the world of technology around him. Tony has gone through changes that mirror in many ways what America has gone through in the last twenty-to-thirty years. They’re both now more invested in the green market, both have pretty shaky pasts at times, and both are working towards bettering their own images to transcend and excel. I believe The millennial generation is working hard to change the social stigma of our country across the globe to better represent ourselves in every field. I may be biased in this argument, but as an American, at least I can relate to Tony Stark in that way, confident enough to boldly make the changes we so desperately need, however I can’t snark like Stark, let’s leave the pros to do what they do best.

Speaking of professionals, I doubt there’s a more unprofessional professional than the Merc with a mouth himself, Deadpool. Now, I include Deadpool on this list because he represents a fervent and ever growing, ever changing, subculture. The internet. It has given us many things, but chiefly relevant here is the warped sense of humor and a desensitization to violence that oddly, yet successfully, merges cartoonish antics and adult content. This essentially is Deadpool, with his ridiculously short attention span and lust for silly violence, he vividly represents the “Call of Duty” modern subculture that is prevalent among a wide swath of American youth today. While Wade Wilson is void of the hard moral lines that make Captain America and Superman such icons for the values of American tradition, I say he is a much needed force to represent the balance of our culture. Deadpool represents the flip side of that coin and rightly so, The United States of America is a massively diverse place, with wildly different opinions driving everything we do.

Thus it stands to reason that there is no one supremely “American” superhero because it would defeat the purpose of our country in itself. Maybe the angle here isn’t that any one super powered individual best represents us because we are all so different. We’re akin to a gigantic machine with millions of different gears and cogs, coils and springs, all moving independently of each other, and at the same time, in unison with one another. It’s probably more accurate to say that simply the idea of superheroes by itself is a truly American invention because they’re beginning to represent more and more of the rest of us as time goes on. The New Ms. Marvel is a teenage Muslim American, the new Thor is be a woman, and Sam Wilson (The Falcon) has taken up the Mantle of Captain America himself proving that diversity is starting to reach the arenas of entertainment that has had a harder time changing decades old fan favorite characters. On DC’s behalf even Victor Stone, the African American superhero known as Cyborg, has become an unbridled force for good on the Justice League standing with the legends themselves, Batman and Superman.

When you really boil it down to its core the idea of someone imbued with a significant advantage in life that chooses to stand against the evil intentions of others, to protect those with less, is a truly human thing. Maybe it’s not about flags or borders, but just about the nature of good people that take action and stand as a symbol to others that injustice, lies, thievery, and rape (physical, emotional, or mental) will not, and should not, be acceptable in a community of decent human beings. To be human though, is to tell stories, its how we started recording history by oral traditions. Thousands of years later our imaginations could no longer be contained by a single medium and we grew in the world and in the way we tell our stories, by speech, on paper, in print, within our music, and even with film. So, to be a true American, to be more like a superhero, to be human really, go out there and tell a story, any story, it doesn’t even have to be yours. Get Vivid, and have fun.

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Practical Magic

This September brings the home video release of one of the biggest surprises of 2015, “Mad Max: Fury Road”. Without going through a typical movie review of the film I’ve come to the conclusion that having a conversation about what makes this movie so special would be more productive. Seriously though, if you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor and check it out, a solid 9/10. In my opinion the feminism portion of the story is all good and well for a modern movie, but what burned into my memory more so than the story of Furiosa and her gang of fiercely independent women was the mind bending practical effects utilized throughout the movie. That was, in my opinion, what made the movie stand tall above other CGI focused movies currently in the market.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed a fair amount of movies that rely heavily on computer generated content, but the balance between these two types of filmmaking is what matters most though. It’s what gives the movie it’s allure, it’s magic. Thinking back on it, the movies that inspired wonder and awe most for me were the movies that poured their hearts into every prop, car crash, prosthetic, and miniature set. “Back to the Future” “Indiana Jones” “Jaws” “The Nightmare on Elm Street” “Star Wars” All of these movies, and a great deal more, successfully merged reality with a flair of fantasy (not simply swords and magic for all you D&D’ers out there) that transcended whatever genre they existed in to create just the right amount of immersion.

Take “Raiders of the Lost Ark” for example. Remember that infamous Nazi face melting scene? They achieved it by making a mold of the actor’s face out of gelatin, meat, and liver among other things and had it set next to a heat lamp that slowly melted it. Afterword they sped up the footage and there you have it! C’est magnifique! I could go on for days detailing numerous effects over the last century of filmmaking, but more importantly, there was a time in the last decade or so when it seemed like practical effects had been thrown to the wayside by the new and shiny computer effects brought on by newer technologies in filmmaking.

Films like ”Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow”, a film that was entirely shot in green screen (They didn’t even use sets or locations, nothing at all except handheld props and costumes) were being lauded as the new way of modern filmmaking. This thinking held true for much of the 2000′s, some deviations being the wonderfully practical ”Lord of The Rings” trilogy among others, but for the most part CGI had seemingly taken over.

Recently however in the last five years of movie releases a peculiar thing began to happen. Slowly but surely people seemed to tire of overly fake sequences and practical effects began to creep back into the limelight. Now I’m not much a of a horror fan, but the recent “Evil Dead” remake heavily embraced such filmmaking, and knowing that they created a moment with practical filmmaking just baits the question of “How the hell did they do THAT?!” I’m still at a loss as to how they sawed a girl’s arm completely off onscreen. I would have assumed she might have just only had one arm and a prosthetic was sawed in half, but I’m also pretty sure they blatantly showed her utilizing that very real arm beforehand. However they did it, I was wowed. Mission accomplished.

More and more movies began to reincorporate on location shooting, heavily ornate and “lived in” setpieces, and all kinds of manmade visual tricks. Even more dramatic films like the brilliant “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” meshed palpable effects back into the light. “Predators” was one such film. It went back to the jungle, an actual jungle in Hawaii, utilized practical tricks for the Predators themselves, and props aplenty. Now the more you look around the more you see a real effort to wow audiences with a respective meld between both CGI and Practical effects. Even “Interstellar” was lauded for it’s use of special effects sequences, and that was about wormhole traveling through space and across galaxies! Hell, even the Muppets are back!

What George Miller did with this newest iteration of Mad Max was wonderfully brilliant because it lovingly crafted the look and feel of the film with equal parts practical effects and CGI. Just check out this excellent article that details the minutia of several key sequences! http://www.blu-ray.com/movies/Mad-Max-Fury-Road-Blu-ray/74537/ In today’s world of filmmaking anything is possible. From Galaxies far far away to indie darlings that focus on more down to earth questions about love or death, there is room for both takes, and in many cases you need to embrace both. Sometimes the effects can be so good that you can’t tell which is which either. Anyone remember the scene late in “The Wolf of Wall Street” when DiCaprio and Hill are walking down the Italian boardwalk to their boat? Only the pier is real. Which is astounding when you think about it.

My point being that practical effects can be used to great effect in a multitude of ways, as can CGI. We shouldn’t be demonizing CGI either because when they are both used in tandem, the results are spectacular. Personally, I’m most looking forward to JJ Abrams entry into the “Star Wars” universe and he has seemed to be heavily utilizing both resources, as he should. So, I say to you Hollywood: Thank you. Thank you for realizing that movies can be made in many ways, and that using the best of all our abilities to wow audiences is the point. Necessity maybe the mother of invention, but when you have an abundance of skills and tricks, we all win.

http://www.raindance.org/7-practical-effects-in-films-you-probably-thought-were-cgi/

http://filmschoolrejects.com/cinematic-listology/7-surprisingly-low-budget-effects-in-big-budget-movies.php

http://mentalfloss.com/article/55963/21-things-you-might-not-have-known-about-raiders-lost-ark