We had a wedding in the family this week, which was planned to be in the UK, before things got unusual, and so took place in the local Botanic Gardens instead. Permits were obtained, numbers were restricted, and everyone wore face masks for most of it, but apart from that it was very nice.
I brought my D-Lux 7 along and got some workable shots. I love that it has that old Panasonic trick of natively changing aspect ratios from the sensor instead of cropping, for when you need a wider angle. The alternative was the CL with 18–55mm Vario-Elmar which would have been useless in the evening (f3.5 and no IBIS). But by the time we were having drinks on a rooftop, the only camera that could reliably see anything was the iPhone 11 with its Night Mode.
The weather service says we’re in for storms and 22ºC nights in the days to come, which is highly unusual here in Singapore. Standing out in the fading sun at the wedding after 5pm was a rather sweaty affair, to say nothing of being out at noon. I think the average nighttime temperature must be around 28–30ºC, so I’m looking forward to seeing this.
Segue to things I’ve seen: the Snowpiercer TV series on Netflix. Am not a fan of any Bong Joon-Ho film I’ve seen apart from Parasite, so have not been keen to put the film on my list, but am slightly curious now that I’m done with the TV adaptation. It was not a complete waste of time. Fully expecting to be hit over the head with Themes will make it easier to go in, I suppose.
Better things I can actually recommend: John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man (1976) starring Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, and Roy Scheider. It’s even on Singapore’s Netflix so it must be widely available everywhere else. I’ve seen snatches of this on random late-night TV screens over the years, but never the whole thing. They don’t make them like this anymore — it’s generous with scenes and shots that exist just for world and character building, and you’d never say it needed tightening.
Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound (2020) starring Tom Hanks is worth whatever Apple TV paid for it. I read an interview where Hanks said he was upset that the film wouldn’t get a theatrical release because it needed to be seen on a big screen. We saw it last night with the lights down, virtual surround sound bar cranked up, LCD backlight at maximum, and it was a thrill. Don’t see this one on your iPad.
Patrick Vollrath’s 7500 (2019) starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a gem of a hijack movie on Amazon Prime Video that’s practically a play. I know a couple of aviation nuts who’d love its opening minutes, devoted to the pilot and co-pilot’s pre-flight routine of checking meters and flipping switches amidst small talk. It’s a rarely seen moment on screen, rendered with a lavish amount of mundane detail and realism that sets the tone for a film that takes place almost entirely in the cockpit.
7500 got me looking for more quiet-but-intense films set at night or in relative darkness, because they’re perfect for watching in bed. I also quite enjoyed Into The Night, which makes me think maybe I just want more films set on planes? Anyway, this eventually led me to a subgenre of YouTube mood videos not unlike lofi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to, but a blend of rain sounds, faint jazz BGM, and cafe noises. Check this one out.
I bought Ghost of Tsushima because I couldn’t resist a graphically gorgeous open-world game set in feudal Japan, Western gaze or not. One of my long-time wishes for the Assassin’s Creed series was for them to do a Japanese edition, but they arguably waited too long and now no one cares. This also marks the first time in at least six months that I’m turning my PS4 Pro on. The Switch can’t compete on looks, but not having to commit to significant time in front of the TV means a lot.
Two of the movies I’ve been waiting for in one weekend. Pacific Rim in IMAX 3D (found the 3D dull, dim, and uncomfortable), and Keanu Reeves’s directorial debut, Man of Taichi (thankfully in 2D). Both are films I’d like to go see again.
They are both fascinating in that Pacific Rim is the monster (kaiju) movie that Japan could never make, while Man of Taichi is the martial arts (gongfu) movie that Hong Kong could never make. Both borrow richly from their sources, but add something of their own. In Pacific Rim’s case, wads of special effects money and (unfortunately) Michael Bay’s apocalypse movie template. Andy Baio remarked on Twitter that it’s the worst of Transformers, Armageddon, and Independence Day rolled into one. While that’s a fair assessment of its characterizations and plotting, Del Toro at least executes his material as if he’s seen some anime and knows how to shoot a fight so you can actually see it.
What it really needed was a tight script and team dynamics you could both enjoy and invest in. Instead of Michael Bay’s template, I wish they’d taken Joss Whedon’s. But no, it falls back on faceless national stereotypes and comically bad romance tropes. Rinko Kikuchi may have an Oscar, but I wouldn’t trust whoever oversaw her doe-eyed scenes with bland Charlie Hunnam to direct traffic on a one-way street. Perhaps the Mako Mori character was just meant to be younger than Kikuchi looks, but her uncertainty and shyness were incongruous with having the coolest/most badass hair in the movie.
Man of Taichi takes the best of Enter The Dragon, Bloodsport, and Ong Bak (fighting tournaments with explosive combat scenes), and adds both directorial and visual restraint to a philosophical story layer that HK films sometimes try to do (Ip Man, much of Jet Li’s period work), but almost always too heavy-handedly. For the genre of film that he’s taken on, I think Keanu Reeves has shown himself to be a good director. Not for an actor, or for a Hollywood man, but a good director, period.
Man of Taichi’s star is Tiger Chen, a stuntman that Reeves met during the production of The Matrix. I won’t complain about his performance in the film’s non-fight scenes, because it never gets in the way, which is more than I can say for Pacific Rim’s moments of downtime. When he fights, or is seen struggling with the Star Wars-like light vs. dark side moral dilemma of his pugilism, Chen’s placid face conveys exactly the intensity required. In the final moments of the film’s final fight, he uses it as a blank canvas to great effect — much like Keanu Reeves in his portrayal as Neo in The Matrix when we needed to believe a world lay inside a computer. Some see wooden acting, I choose to see inspired detachment.
Reeves is in this film too, as the main antagonist. My viewing companion was not impressed. Maybe I’m just a fan, but again, I found his typically one-dimensional portrayal to be perfect for the film. It’s so hard to see what’s going on behind the rigid, mechanical demeanor that it produces an oppressive sense of mystery, fear, and apprehension whenever he enters the room opposite the human, naive, in-over-his-head Chen. You simply don’t know what Reeves is supposed to be capable of, or if he’s even meant to be human. I felt the whole thing could go From Dusk Till Dawn at any point and literally reveal Reeves as Satan with Krav Maga training. Through the stark presentation, voice effects, sleek dark suits and occasional black mask, bloodlessly pale face, and perfunctory short utterances, you are invited to read his existence in the whole scenario as a let-it-all-hang-out metaphor for demonic evil. All villains are, but this one does it without overacting in the face!
Where Pacific Rim is happy to show great swathes of the world, and then gleefully destroy it, much of Man of Taichi takes place indoors, with only a few establishing skyline shots of Beijing and Hong Kong. Like Hong Kong, the sparse fight arenas are all concrete surfaces and sharp corners for flesh to get caught on, and you are constantly made aware of the combatants’ mortality. In Pacific Rim, the robot Jaegers are virtually invincible except when fighting the Kaijus, which are only flesh, and bleed. You could toss a Jaeger through a skyscraper made of the same metals, but it only malfunctions when punched in the face by a tentacle. Like in Man of Steel, which got flack for Superman allowing awesome amounts of collateral damage, Pacific Rim’s environment is an inconsequential foam that inhabits the fight space, to be ignored by everyone except the audience, whose job it is to be overwhelmed by enjoyable particle effects.
In both films, there is a man with a knife. One is played to the hilt by Ron Perlman, who talks a lot, wears gold shoes, sunglasses, and flips a flashy butterfly knife around for effect. I can’t remember if he had a cigar in his mouth but there might as well have been. In the other universe, Keanu Reeves pulls the blade out low at the waist, and stabs silently and mercilessly before you know it’s there. It is beautiful and unintentional asymmetry.
I recommend seeing both. Pacific Rim is a dream come true for many of us who love giant robots and schlocky movies with men in rubber monster suits, but by only improving upon visuals, its clearest future is as an HDTV/4K showcase at your local electronics dealer. I think Man of Taichi might become a cult martial arts classic talked about and recommended to friends for years.
Pacific Rim is obviously out now, Man of Taichi is out in Asia and is slated to be in the U.S. sometime in 2013.
Pacific Rim has a load of digital marketing bits out online, some created by Qualcomm Snapdragon (official microprocessor of the film’s Jaeger robots) on their Facebook page. One of the best is this Jaeger Designer app, which lets you modify a Unity 3D model with different parts and colors, and then render a poster featuring your own country’s robot defender, which you can also name. I think Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment sits nicely alongside the U.S.’s Gipsy Danger and Japan’s Coyote Tango.
Seeing the movie this Friday night in IMAX 3D and pretty damned excited.
Many of us have a soft spot for the look of film photos, whether because of nostalgic associations; or a preference for the grain, faded tones, and color shifts that render the familiar world just a little more interesting. The effort to simulate this in digital photos has lately become conflated with “vintage” effects, where age and strong aberrations are introduced. Those are okay for throwaway shots and fun Instagrammable occasions, but not when a moment deserves quality with a little added character.
As a frequent user of the Visual Supply Co.’s VSCO CAM iPhone app, I knew their VSCO Film preset for professionals using Adobe Lightroom and Apple Aperture were going to be capable of producing subtle film-like looks, and save a lot of time in post-processing to achieve the kind of results I usually want. But there’s a big difference between a US$0.99 app and buying two sets of presets (a handful of finely-tuned settings and slider positions) costing US$79 each.
It’s a no-brainer for the working photographer who shoots weddings and events; VSCO Film presets are the result of people with more time than you, slaving away to find the perfect combinations of color, lighting, and grain to get the most out of photos. You pay to save yourself that Herculean effort, and make it back almost immediately.
The amateur photographer (me) has less incentive to part with their money, apart from curiosity and desire. I don’t even own a DSLR camera. The VSCO presets are very much designed to be used on well-exposed, high quality RAW photos from a DSLR. On holidays, I mostly shoot with high-end compacts like the Ricoh GR Digital, which are capable of saving RAW files, but I’m just as likely to use Point & Shoots or smartphones with small sensors, depending on the situation. Up to this moment, I’ve always chosen to save JPEGs over RAW for the convenience.
I tried to find articles online about whether or not it was worth buying VSCO Film for use on photos from regular compact cameras, but found little in the way of reassurance. The company’s official line was that they would “work”, but an SLR + RAW files was recommended. Being presets, they could not be expected to perform consistently across sources of widely varying quality.
It doesn’t help that the company has a No Refunds policy, and does not make available any demo files for curious customers to judge the results with. Being that they are geared towards professional users using gear I don’t have, I understand my need to see how the presets work with consumer cameras is a unique and unsupported one.
If you’re a Lightroom 4 or Adobe Camera RAW user, there’s a preset in the including Toolkit called “JPEG Contrast Fixer”, which corrects some of the issues you will encounter when processing a JPEG from a DSLR or camera incapable of saving RAW files. As an Aperture 3 user, that option was not available.
Since there’s a sale now on to celebrate the release of VSCO Film 02 for Aperture, which amounts to savings of 25% if you buy both packs, I decided last night to take the plunge and see what would happen. I’ve only had a couple of hours or so to test it out on some old vacation photos, but the results are encouraging.
The bottom line: If you’re not concerned with absolute emulation of the film stocks the presets are designed around — and online sentiment I’ve come across seems to be that their accuracy is subjective anyway — and you merely want to achieve a look reminiscent of film photography, you’ll be perfectly pleased using VSCO Film with consumer compact digital cameras.
The shots below were taken with a Ricoh CX6 and GRD3, and processed only within Aperture using VSCO Film 01 & 02. The trick is usually to boost exposure between 0.3 to 1.0 whilst recovering highlights, and then apply the presets you want. This approximates the default brightness I see in many DSLR photos, while expanding the dynamic range a little. Most compacts I’ve used tend to underexpose by default, with the exception of many a Sony Cybershot.
Even with the knowledge that these can work well for those with lower-end cameras, the usual per-pack price of US$79 (and US$119 for the Lightroom versions) is still going to be a significant roadblock for the casual photographer. Nevercenter’s Camerabag 2 for the desktop is just US$20 and capable of yielding great results too. I just wanted something that integrated with Aperture (non-destructive editing), wasn’t a plugin or app I had to leave the environment to use, and was more subtle. Camerabag’s baked-in presets are decidedly closer to “vintage”, but you are free to tone them down and save your own favorites.
One of my all-time favorite film directors passed away two days ago at the age of 46. It didn’t matter that he worked with animation, but his original ideas were a perfect fit for the medium. Millennium Actress is easily in my top ten list, right alongside the Hitchcocks, Kurosawas, and Allens.
Studio Ghibli and Level-5 are making a videogame for the DS, and it’s just been announced that a version for the PS3 will also be released; most likely a different story in the same world rather than a straight port. The screenshot above is purportedly the actual game being rendered by a 2D/3D animation engine. Compare it to a still from an actual animated cutscene here. They are almost indistinguishable in terms of art quality. That a console game controlled in real-time by a player can look (at least when paused) just like a real Studio Ghibli movie is utterly amazing.