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DIGITAL MEDIA FROM THE INSIDE OUT: My focus is digital content -- production, distribution, collaboration, innovation, creativity. Some posts have appeared across the web (HuffPo, Tribeca's Future of Film, The Wrap, MIPblog, etc.). To receive these posts regularly via email, sign up for my newsletter here.

Saturday
Jan022016

2015: A Year for Fine Cinema

My year-end review continues with a look at some of the films I most enjoyed. I shy away from ranking these uniformly high-quality entries, but I would say that the first two, films with very different virtues, impacted me in the most lasting fashion. 

Spotlight

Was upon viewing, and may still be at the end of this great movie year, my favorite -- an old-fashioned kind of telling of an old-fashioned industry, newspapering, fueled by old-fashioned virtue, e.g., honor, honesty, truth. It's remarkable that a story centered upon almost unspeakable crimes -- the sexual abuse of thousands of young boys (and some girls too) by members of the Roman Catholic clergy -- is really a mystery story about finding the proof that will expose the monsters in the church hierarchy who knew about the crimes, covered them up, then lied about the cover-up. Virtually everyone in the story in Catholic Boston knows each other and is steeped in the culture that made such venality possible for so long -- the priests, the church administration, its influential supporters, the cops, the prosecutors, and indeed, the leadership of the Boston Globe. Except for two outsiders, an Armenian-American defense attorney and a Jewish editor who pushed the investigative unit, known as Spotlight, to dig, and then dig harder, at immense personal costs to the members of the team. Like the films of Frank Capra, Spotlight brings the story to a rousing finale -- you want to stand up and cheer, were it not for the horror that remains at the center of the story, to this day.

Son of Saul

Every moment of this remarkable movie is intense, a kind of fever dream suspense story about a father trying to honor the death of his son, only grafted on top of two other stories -- the day-to-life of kapo/guards in a death camp in Poland during the waning days of WWII when the Nazi's literally rolled up the trains and the kapos managed the industrial process of death. Along with all the elements of a spy thriller among the kapos who are planning an escape. The amazing experience is the first feature of Hungarian director László Nemes and a great Hungarian cinematographer (trained at the AFI) Mátyás Erdély, who tell the story through an amazing combination of intense close-ups of the face of the protagonist (played by Géza Röhrig) along with run-along-with steadicam of the horror that is everywhere, a kind of helter-skelter hurl of action and emotion that must be experienced to understand. Like nothing I've ever seen.

Carol

Haynes is now the master of the "woman's film," as often noted he virtually channels Douglas Sirk. But it's not the romantic or sentimental side of Sirk alone that we get with Haynes -- Carol is a tough version of the story of doomed love, in this case, between an older experienced married woman who has affairs with women outside her upscale marriage, and a younger naive shop girl who falls for her. Haynes and his DP use the iconic faces of these two beauties in extreme close-up, allowing us to seemingly enter into each woman's inner life. And, of course, we have the now patented Haynes "look," which in this case is literally and figuratively a million-bucks look from 50's New York City and environs, rivaling the look of The Godfather. The pricey suburban mansion where Carol lives with her angry husband and angelic child is American baronial. Her clothes are meticulous, restrained, and seductive. Mara is doing a bit of channeling of her own, namely Audrey Hepburn, whom she resembles here quite remarkably. Altogether a moving and exquisitely rendered slice of the untold history of ordinary people.

Tangerine

You'd never know this tight, fierce little street drama was shot entirely on an iPhone 5s, except when I think about the fluidity of the close-ups and tracking shots in places like cabs, donut shops, and bathrooms, well, it's a long way from break-out sets on the studio lot, that's for sure. As is the subject: a bitch-match between street trannies, johns and assorted street folks radiating out from the core pair, Cind-ee and Alexandra. The former has just gotten out of jail on Christmas Eve and splits a forlorn donut with Alexandra who promptly rats out Chester, the boyfriend/pimp, who seems to have been boning a real girl with a vag. And we're off to the races, a startling, very real-feeling journey into the sun-bleached sadness of the working life. We meet a married Armenian cab driver who has a thing for chicks with dicks, and soon enough, his entire family. We meet the blond 'beeatch', who gets dragged along, literally, for the ride. And Chester, who is especially believable as the white trash, tatted up pimp who rules the world from a dollar donut shop. Great pacing, impressive performances, and technically, I'm telling you, it's a milestone.

The Big Short

McKay moves from pop satire (Ron Burgundy) to trenchant social analysis with this adaptation of the Michael Lewis book about the housing meltdown, bank collapse, and Wall Street perfidy. With a focus on a colorful, but mostly unconnected group of financial industry outliers who came to understand that the housing bubble simply couldn't be sustained, and bet against the world economy is what is by far the biggest "short" bet in history. Christian Bale's Palo Alto fund manager, an Asperger-fueled, flipflop-wearing weirdo, is the first to figure it out, and others follow. Bales performance is revelatory, he continues to simply kill with every new challenge he takes. The rest of the cast, led by a sympathetic Steve Carrell, is also good, but for my money, this is Bale's Oscar nom to lose. I'm slightly unimpressed by McKay's attempt to explain complicated financial chicanery by breaking the third wall, a la Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, mainly because he does it often and with decreasing affect. But otherwise, this is a roaring good tale, well told.

45 Years

A master class in screen acting from two incomparable masters of the form. Director Haigh, whose earlier work (Weekend, Looking) dealt with the emotional terrain of gay men trying to find love, turns his considerable skills to a marriage in sudden free fall after the couple learns of the improbable survival (in Alpine glacier) of the wife's predecessor, who had probably been the husband's 'one true love.' While both Courtenay and Rampling are superb, her performance really got under my skin. There were moments when literally her eyes told the story. Or a tiny movement around the mouth, and hand gesture or a turn away. Here we have another form of explosion that cinema reveals best, far from the well-worn trails of CG spectacle, but intensely valuable for those of us still caring a bit about human beings.

Youth

I'm a near-fanatical Sorrentino fan, and now that his achievements are obvious, he's getting bigger budgets and bigger actors, working here with a spectacular cast. I was fond of Weitz and Dano, not so much a fan of the Fonda walk-on and the downer performance by Keitel. Cain is, as it seems he always is, close to perfect. Sorrentino is a visual master, and doesn't disappoint, with set-piece after breathtakingly beautiful set-piece setting up various scenes, a looser and lusher version of Wes Anderson's "look" without the manic humor. This is a story of aging, but named Youth, which is the kind of sardonic humor Sorrentino is more frequently known for. We get to know the characters at a Swiss health spa hotel as they navigate through little moments of revelation and breathless beauty. A masseuse with braces who likes to dance along with her Kinect; a sumo-sized sports star who kicks a tennis ball high into the air, turning to reveal a Karl Marx tattoo; a Buddhist monk who levitates into the Swiss Alps, and a recurring circular stage featuring one wacky act after another. With the barest of plots, this film gets lost in its own sumptuousness for a while, but comes back around with a finale so grande and musical that I never wanted it to end.

Straight Outta Compton

As many a middle-aged white reviewers have already written, I'm not a big fan of rap or hiphop, and yet, I loved this movie, one of the few musical group biopics that seemed real, though the press clips report otherwise. Like I said, not a fan here, and yet I was able to connect to the characters, their conflicts, and the times. While there are plenty of rough edges in the story as presented, surely many have been sanded smooth in the manner of "The Rose", which never officially purported to tell the story of Janis Joplin, but did anyway. What SOC does is tell the story of a generation of justifiably angry black men from South LA who found a way to fight back, and sparked a revolution in consciousness that is still relevant in the era of Black Lives Matter. They also, like many stars before them, got rich and got messed up as a result. A Star is Born all over again. Dig it.

 

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Thursday
Dec312015

2015: TV's Embarrassment of Riches

Habit, if not my so-called audience, compels me to once again unload my opinions about the best of the media I experienced during the past year, as delivered by television, books, and motion pictures.

I begin with television, still the most watched medium overall, though what worries the industry is TV’s absolute decline among young consumers, who watch a whole lotta video from “non-TV” type sources, much of it driven by social exchanges with peers and icons unknown to those of us still stuck on the couch with a big flat screen. 

Ironically, of course, as the historical form of “television” (note the quotes) is in the process of getting shoved around by new competitors for the time and allegiance of audiences, the industry continues to create ever-greater experiences that somebody, somewhere is probably calling the new Golden Age, because it is. There’s so much good TV these days that my list cannot possibly stop at ten shows, and so I don’t.

How long this can possibly last, who knows, but I have really enjoyed a bunch of TV-type stuff, described below. (BTW, here are my 20112012, 2013 and 2014 choices, if you’re curious about which multi-season shows sustained my interest, and which departed).

In no particular order, here are my favorites: Transparent, The Americans, Rectify, The Leftovers, Mr. Robot, Justified, Fargo, The Jinx, Show Me a Hero, Better Call Saul, Mad Men, Last Week Tonight, Unreal, The Affair, Silicon Valley, and You're the Worst. Read on for "why":

Transparent, Season 2 (AMAZON)

Yes, I binge-watched all 10 episodes of this brilliant Amazon series the day it dropped. I hadn’t intended to, but I just couldn’t stop, because each successive chapter delivered another revelatory angle on the supremely selfish Pfefferman family, further proving that Mort’s transition into Moira is the least outrageous behavior. Moira’s three grown kids continue to make poor choices that hurt others, and so does Moira, for that matter. Here we have a deep exploration of the consequences of a “Me Generation” steeped in “doing our own thing.” 

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Wednesday
Dec302015

2015: One Year in 'Now' Media

For the fifth year in a row, Finland's Simon Staffans has published a unique compendium of opinion about what he calls "now media," a coinage designed to side-step the flame wars over nomenclature ("transmedia" being the most notorious) that were underway at the time. It was a wise decision, as you will see if you dip into his document, which is divided into two parts -- a survey of Simon's own views as expressed in a year of quite sharp blog posts; and a series of online interviews with thinkers and practitioners in this space, including Lance Weiler, Jeff Gomez, Caitlin Burns, Michael Monello, among others -- and me.

To read or download the complete document, go here, or flip through the embed below. For my opinions, read on. Once again, Simon provides me with an excuse to review trends and themes driving creativity in this digital world of ours, as the year comes to a close. (BTW: Shortly, I will post my 2015 "best-of" lists in books, films and television.)

CFC's Ana Serrano at WEVR Studios, where our minds were blown by the HTC Vive and TheBlu: Experience.

SIMON: In your opinion, how has the media world evolved this past year?

NICK: 2015, the year of mainstream streaming. Not only are the market leaders (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon) continuing to grow and thrive, but we’re seeing significant streaming offers from most broadcast and cable market leaders, including CBS, HBO, Viacom, Fox, and Disney. Cable and satellite subscriptions are flat or declining (depending upon how you read the stats), but clearly younger viewers see relatively little reason to sign up at all.

The native online video world is exploding as well, with an impressive amount and quality of original programming – certainly from the aforementioned streaming market leaders – but also from what used to be thought of as the YouTube ecosystem, a content environment which is getting quite complex with new platforms and models for content, whether it’s YouTube itself (with a new subscription model), Vimeo originals, BuzzFeed, Facebook video, Snapchat and Vine, and live streamers like Periscope and Meerkat. Or even old-school content providers like the NY Times are becoming more video-centric.

All of this is being driven by increased mobile consumption of video content, which is perfect for “snackable” short-form video we associate with UGC, but increasingly is the screen of choice for longer-form content as well. Millennials don’t seem to need giant surround sound home systems, maybe because they don’t have giant homes or incomes to support those kind of form factors. Mobile screen sizes are approaching iPad mini size, perfectly adequate for most video viewing. Even geezers like me watch everything in the morning on my iPad mini while the coffee kicks in, before I move to the computer and on my iPhone when in line or bored.

Business-wise, the hot hot hot trend is virtual reality. 2015 was the year of exploding awareness within the content creation and tech communities, with events like VRLA ballooning from a meetup to a giant trade show in less than a year. Everyone is scrambling to find their niche as we wait for the consumer rollout of Oculus and the other high-end VR head mounted displays. Even next year, there won’t be many sold, but unlike the failed Google Glass or AR experiments of a few years ago, full-featured VR experiences are blowing people’s minds. I worry a bit about low-end VR experiences like Google Cardboard providing the first experience for many, because that’s a bit underwhelming as a visual or storytelling experience.

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Tuesday
Oct272015

At the Dawn of A New Medium

Last week I moderated a panel that was part of Digital Hollywood's impressive lineup of sessions on virtual reality and other forms of immersive entertainment. My four very interesting speakers helped the audience explore VR innovation in Canada: Ana Serrano, Chief Digital Officer of the Canadian Film Centre, Eric W. Shamlin, Executive Producer from Secret Location, Roy Taylor, Corporate VP at chipmaker AMD, and Ian Tuason, producer, Dimension Gate.

The focus of the discussion was the complex of new aesthetic and production workflow considerations being developed in this early stage of VR content creation. Taylor urged creators entering the VR space to create "really great" work that will blow the audience away. If yours is the first VR experience a user has, your work define the medium for that user. For that reason, he and his company AMD are focusing on the higher-end experiences possible with the new generation of head-mounted displays such as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, rather than the more rudimentary VR delivery system of Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear. 

Serrano reviewed two VR projects at the CFC -- Mind, Body, Change, a VR extension of a transmedia production inspired by the films of David Cronenberg, and VR Sketches, a collection of short VR experiences by various artists who explore a specific aesthetic property of VR. Shamlin shared two recent VR experiences produced by Secret Location: a site-specific VR extension of the Fox series Sleepy Hollow, created for ComicCon, which was recently awarded an Emmy, the first VR project ever to do so; and Van Beethovan, a collaboration with the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra.

Tuason shared his experience as an independent VR filmmaker. He shares his work in the horror genre on YouTube's 360 channel, so that he can utilize fan feedback in the comments thread to shape his story in a medium for which there are few fixed rules. Did fans have the intended experience, or did they miss the action? Did the story get advanced, or was it unclear? YouTube as a real-time focus group for VR filmmaking is an idea that could only happen with today's digitally connected fans.

Take a look at the video, now available on the Digital Hollywood site, and while you're there, check out some of the other fascinating discussions of this emerging art form. Every day we gather new evidence that VR is finally, after two decades, about to reach a turning point. The New York Times has ordered one million Google VR devices for its subscribers. Most VR device manufacturers are ready to release their devices into the consumer market. Major content players are jumping into the VR fray -- from Fox, which has announced VR extensions for many of its hit movies to AFI Fest, which is devoting a day of its mainstream Hollywood film festival to the creative aspects of VR production and content. 

 

Saturday
Oct172015

Dare to Write

Attention Writers. If you have something to write, I know somebody who can help. My friend, teacher and editor Dan Nussbaum is now available to all. A new slate of workshops begins this week in L.A., with more to follow.

Dan is now available to any writer needing editorial services, in person or via Skype and the web. Dan is a spectacular teacher and a very fine editor. On top of that, his background as a meditation teacher gives Dan special powers of attention and compassion that makes the process of working with him a truly heart-centered experience.

For years Dan’s writing workshops were offered privately by groups and word-of-mouth. Now he is doing the marketing himself, in order to make his very special workshops available to all. Check out his new website  “Dare to Write, L.A.”  for the details of his current and upcoming offerings.And please pass this note along to other writers you may know who could benefit from meeting and working with a truly gifted teacher who can help writers at any stage of their development, experienced, newbies or periodically frenzied like me. Dan helped me overcome my own resistance and doubt and has dislodged my writers blocks more than once.

If you want to learn more, send me a message and I'd be glad to set up a time to chat. Or contact Dan directly from his website.