Review: The Motel Life

DIR: Alan and Gabe Polsky, Starring: Emile Hirsch, Stephen Dorff, Dakota Fanning, Kris Kristofferson          US, 2012. 95mins hero_MotelLife-2013-1 Based on Willy Vlautin’s (a singer-songwriter turned author) 2006 novel of the same name, this indie road-movie concerns downbeat Americana as its most melancholic. But don’t assume it’s depressing viewing; as brothers Frank (Emile Hirsch) and Jerry Lee (Stephen Dorff) drift through odd-jobs, motels, casinos and whiskey, in the search for safety, they are a lesson in loyalty, hope and finding the beautiful in the mundane.

Their backstory is boiled down to an unfortunate accident involving Jerry Lee’s leg and a promise to their dying mother never to separate. Bad luck is never far around the corner, with their fates seemingly forever circumscribed by circumstance. When Jerry Lee is involved in a fatal hit-and-run, their only choice is to escape Reno and head towards Elko, the home of Frank’s former lover, Annie (Dakota Fanning). Smith_Seq04_MotelLife_01As the brothers traverse the economic fringes of society, through a landscape as rugged and bruised as they are, Joan Didion’s opening to her seminal essay collection ‘The White Album’ seems particularly pertinent. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”, she wrote. In The Motel Life Frank and Jerry Lee do just that; inventing wild, wacky and downright improbable adventures to find relief from a disenfranchised existence. Frank spins stories just as fast as Jerry Lee can sketch them, providing a much-needed outlet and expression for their pent-up frustrations and on-going disappointments.

The Polsky brother’s intersperse colourful animations to depict these tales, punctuating the desolate landscapes with a poeticism and phantasmagoria.

They also remind me immensely of Annie Proulx’s collection of short stories ‘Close Range’, where gritty realism marries with surrealist imagery, exploring an America at once austere and magical. Slant Magazine contends, “in Vlautin’s book, these stories are simply weaved into the prose, beautiful in their straightforwardness and vital in depicting the characters as wayward romantics. But the Polskys struggle to integrate this animation into their film”. I would proffer that despite presenting a disturbance from narrative flow or engagement, these cartoonish interludes allow for humour (albeit dark) and whimsicality to seep into an otherwise bleak cinematic texture. They give us a sense that beyond the wintry setting and harsh reality, a version of the American Dream just might beckon in the distance.

motellife0404aImbuing the film with a much-needed dose of humanity, are two winning performances from Hirsch and Dorff. They are the heartbeat of the film, and the reason you endure this perilous journey alongside them. Hirsch’ Frank is a self-destructive alcoholic, getting over his heartbreak caused by Annie’s dabbling in a seedy underworld. Whilst Dorff’s Jerry Lee, immobilised physically and economically, simmers with sincerity, emotion and anguish. Their bromance is utterly believable, relying on each other to survive and delivering the emotional peaks and troughs with raw intensity and naturalism.

As they encounter death, gambling, amputation, prostitution, drinking, gay-bashing, attempted suicide, theft and romantic possibility, Hirsch and Dorff are consistently understated, but thoroughly captivating.

the-motel-life03Dakota Fanning’s character needs fleshing out to be more than a flash in the pan cameo, though what we do see of her is promising and gestures towards the continuation of a mature career. Kris Kristofferson meanwhile features as a ‘cruel-but-kind’ car salesman, offering Frank some sage fatherly advice and further adds to the rugged US iconography of the film.

The Motel Life doesn’t reinvent or particularly revitalise the genre, but neither does it claim to do so. Much like its two protagonists, the film appears content to just get by, doing it’s own thing. Vacillating between flashbacks, animated segways and current drama, the production design, editing and cinematography all depict a weary wasteland to potent effect – like Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ on a drug-induced comedown.

I’m anxious not to wax lyrical about its quiet potency for fear that you’ll expect a masterpiece. But go in with muted expectations and you’ll discover an assured, artistic and affecting directorial debut.

Verdict: An indelible, endearing and atmospheric portrait of impoverished America, with performances that resonate and pathos to boot.

The Democratisation Of Filmmaking: Is It Enough To Have A High Quality Camera?

Originally published by Raindance.

Once the preserve of bearded, baseball cap-wearing men over 40, the notion of what a film director looks like has broadened to accommodate women, amateurs, students and ingénues.

Ultimately, the landscape of filmmaking has shifted to encompass, and arguably champion, the everyman. The average Joe can now pick up a digital single-lens reflex camera and tell their story at a fraction of the price, resources and manpower hitherto required.

 “The digitalization and democratization of the filmmaking process has the ability to bring the power to the people and cultivate new and fresh voices in film that deserve to be heard”. (For full article, go here).

hitrecord (1)The DSLR revolution gave a mass audience a camera capable of producing cinematic images for an affordable price. This process of democratization has made production companies like Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s ‘HitRecord’ possible. Marketing themselves as an open, collaborative company, Levitt himself purports that “anybody with the internet [or a camera] can contribute” to their projects.

So is that enough? Will the red carpet roll out in front of you as soon as you purchase that digital camera?

Unlikely, but with the quality and accessibility to DSLR cameras constantly improving, and their cost constantly lowering, anyone with the innovation, vision and determination to get their film made can do just that.

Popular-DSLRsDSLR’s boast adaptability, mobility, image stabilisation, and for those of us lacking the strength to schlep around hefty equipment, ease of use! What’s more, because the prices of such cameras aren’t heart attack inducing, eye-wateringly high, if the camera gets ruined while shooting a scene or you want the dynamic feel of several cameras, it won’t dent your budget irreparably.

Interchangeable lenses are also a major bonus for the independent filmmaker, enabling us to achieve that high-quality aesthetic for a fraction of the cost. When shooting video with a DSLR you can mount lenses ranging from ultra wide 14mm to 800mm, as well as specialist lenses like macro, fish eye, and tilt shift. The creative possibilities afforded by this combination of a larger sensor and a wide range of lenses are near endless, generating a cinematic look once reserved solely for the major studios.

Equally, depth of field is an invaluable tool in storytelling; allowing you to focus on or emphasise certain aspects, moments or motifs in your narrative and which give your film a more professional edge. The low-light capability and shallow depth-of-field offered by most DSLR’s allows for softer focus as well as the ability to clearly see objects or people in the background, foreground and anywhere in between.

However, there are some drawbacks to be navigated if you are to invest in a DSLR. While the shallow depth of field offered by cameras like the 5D is impressive, keeping a subject in focus is a considerable challenge. Autofocus is absent from most HD-capable cameras, and a steady hand is needed to control things manually. What’s worse, for professional or independent filmmakers, rendering the output in real-time on an external monitor can be difficult, if not non-existent on most models, making it hard for operators and technicians to evaluate focus, lighting and other factors.

nikon_d810Poor audio quality has been another criticism frequently levelled at DSLR’s and is a feature most new models are seeking to eradicate. The Nikon D810 DSLR possesses a number of enhanced video features, designed specifically to improve the aesthetic of your film. One such improvement is the inclusion of two microphones, allowing it to record in stereo rather than mono, and those capturing audio with an external mic will be able to split the recording into a separate wide range and voice range.

Furthermore, the D810 is able to film in an auto ISO mode that still allows for manual control over aperture and shutter speed, letting those two factors stay locked down while the camera adjusts to changes in lighting. The internet is the filmmaker’s oyster and such rapid development of DSLR technology has made it easier than ever to exhibit your growing portfolio.

And that’s not to confine DSLR filmmaking to the amateur’s playing field either. ‘Like Crazy’, the recent indie offering from director Drake Doremus, was shot on a Canon 7D and went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and achieve an acquisition deal from Paramount for $4 million. Doremus praised the snatched feel in the lensing that the 7D provided, lending the film its guerilla filmmaking aesthetic. Other films to have employed the DSLR include Lena Dunham’s ‘Tiny Furniture and the DP for ‘Black Swan’ Matthew Libatique also got on board with digital filmmaking for a few scenes. Not a bad reason to follow suit.

Whilst the marketing and distribution of your film still requires a certain amount of financial backing and know-how to get your product to the consumers, certainly making a masterpiece is more doable than ever.

Nevertheless, cheaper, fancier equipment does not a Christopher Nolan make. The DSLR revolution has enabled filmmakers to proliferate, but to really succeed you still need the directorial vision and capability to realise your narrative in a dynamic, visual and unique way. That being said, there are a plethora of reasons the DSLR has become such a mainstream form of video capture and DSLR image quality will out perform any other camera in that price range.

But when it comes down to it, what should capture the imagination of your audience is the story you’re telling, rather than the means by which you’re telling it.