Friday, October 11, 2013

"Metro-Manila" - Movie Review

British writer/director Sean Ellis at Sundance 2013
This film had won the Audience award for best World Dramatic Competition film at Sundance this year, and has been chosen as the British nominee for Best Foreign Language film at the 2014 Oscars.  I find all this slightly ironic, since it is a British made movie that dramatizes a very authentic Filipino story (film) at its core.  I guess, like most good dramas (and good art) that succesfully encapsulates a universal existential human dilema, it does not really matter who made it in the end.

The family's migration from idyllic countryside to the urban slums
British Writer/Director Sean Ellis' story was inspired by a scene he witnessed serveral years ago when he visited Philippines -- Two armoured truck personel wearing bullet-proof jackets and helmets carrying M-16s, arguing and screaming at each other on the street.  He could not forget the scene, wondering what they were arguing about and how it might have eventually ended.  It led him to develop a 20 page synopsis, which eventually became a full-length feature.

The story is simple, and quite typical for most Manila (and most Southeast Asia) slum dwellers.  A farming family driven by the hardship of life in the province decides to seek their fortune in the big city.  Jaded and naive, they soon fall prey to petty criminals who rob them of their meager savings and take advantage of their desperation.  A number of them end up becoming criminals themselves or get caught up in the seedy sex trade.

Oscar and Mai soon get employment at a huge personal cost

Sean decided to use both criminality and the sex trade in his story to magnify the direness of the couple's plight.  Despite their desperation, a lot of Manila's urban poor successfully navigate away from these illegal occupations.  Inspite of being reputed to be one of the worst cities when it comes to crime, corruption and the sex trade in Asia, a lot of Filipinos do manage to find decent work within Metro-Manila in the midst of rampant economic hardship and poverty.  So despite the characters' desperation in this movie, they do have choices beyond the ones they decided to take.  Sean Ellis was able to tell his story well enough, that it seems as if Oscar and Mai were locked-in to their fate.

Oscar caught in the web of (his mentor) Ong's machinations

But despite that sleek 'slight of hand' from a very capable director, I think the movie successfully delivers a gripping tale of human desperation pushed to the extreme.  The casting was perfect.  Jake Macapagal's portrayal of "Oscar's" innocence and decency was realistic; John Arcilla's "Ong" was on the money; and Althea Vega's "Mai" looks convincing.  The supporting cast also looked authentic in their parts, most of whom were not professional actors.

Friday, September 20, 2013

IPhone 5s and 5c

It's September 20 and the new iPhones are finally available today worldwide.  The two newest incarnations of Steve Job's mobile tech legacy were announced two weeks ago, to mixed reactions.  I am a fan who is less than enthusiastic about the current line-up.
An avid loyalist from the first iphone, I stopped upgrading after the 5th version-- the iPhone 4s.  Aside from the obvious cellphone function, I use my iPhones mainly as a camera backup for shooting candid photographs, and it frustrates me that Apple has not really upgraded its mobile camera technology for the last two generations.  Stuck at 8 megapixels for the last 2 years, despite slight improvements in low-light capabilities, I have had no real reason to upgrade my phone.  If I needed to shoot in extreme low-light, I have a Leica, several Canons and Mamiyas, and even a Go Pro 3 to choose from; so an increase in resolution would have been a great selling-point to me and other iPhone photographers.  Besides, the iPhone is now seriously lagging behind its competitors, who have been offering better cameras in their cellphones for years.
I have used the iPhone as a serious photographic tool for years, to the extent of having an exhibit of limited edition prints from my iPhone generated images.  It continues to be a great tool for visual artists like me, mainly because of its versatility and wonderful Apps.  But the resolution of its camera limits my print sizes to 8 x 10 inches.  Apple, please take note of this plea or I might be forced to switch to another brand, just to satisfy my technical needs.  I am already using a Samsung as a second phone to my now outdated 4s, trying to see if its technology is actually better.

Iphone fans line up from New York to Tokyo to get their fix.
This year, Apple released two versions of the iPhone to address a segmented market:  The iPhone 5s-- the logical descendant of the previous models; and the iPhone 5c-- to cater to a more budget conscious consumer.  The company made sure that there are slight differences between the two models to justify the 5s' steeper price.
Like the older models, the 5s is armored in an aluminum/plastic shell, while the 5c is encased in an obviously cheaper all-plastic body.  You can finally get the iPhone in a variety of colors:  the 5s in Silver, Gold and Gray trim; the 5c in pastel pink, green, blue, yellow and white.  The 5s has a 64-bit A7 chip and an extra M7 motion coprocessor; the 5c retains the iPhone 5 A6 chip.  The camera specs. of the 5s is essentially the same from the iPhone 5, with a larger sensor (8 megapixels with 1.5µ pixels); while the 5c retains the iPhone 4s camera specs.  The premium 5s model also has a 'True Tone flash', auto-image stabilization, burst mode and slow-motion video capabilities.  Both models feature a 4-inch Retina display.  But the 5s also has Apple's newly developed Touch ID fingerprint identity sensor installed on the main button for added security.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Purge - Movie Review

Imagine living in a society where murder is legal one night a year...

"The Purge" is what can happen in the United States (or anywhere) in the near future, if 'freedom' is taken to the extreme.  Violence and murder are legally sanctioned by law to promote peace and economic health.  Sounds crazy?  I thought so too, when the movie began.
But the idea is intriguing none the less.   If we humans are really inherently violent, and that releasing our murderous impulses do result in relative peace and prosperity for the rest of the year, would it be justifiable to hold a 'hunting season' for killing en masse?  We sanction it for wildlife... and war... This movie makes us confront our darkside.  Just how far are we (collectively and individually) willing to go?

The family enjoying a brief calm, before the storm
A dystopian horror story set in the home of a relatively average (2.5 kids) upper middle-class suburban family, "The Purge" took me by surprise.  The plot is fairly simple: the father, a successful home-security specialist, 'locks-down' his house like an impregnable fortress for the 'Night of Purging.'  Given how the character is introduced and how the neighbors were acting, you knew right from the start that there was going to be an attack on him and his family that same evening.  The only questioned that remained was how will this attack be perpetrated, given the built-in barricade and state the art security system he installed his house?

The 'fortress' like house in the movie
The answer... through the kids.  Without them there would be no story and no movie to speak of.  I happen to have two kids, one girl one boy, exactly like the family in the movie, with roughly the same ages.  I may just have identified with Ethan Hawke's character too closely, but it certainly gave me pause for thought on how I can better educate my own given the moral dilema his character (James Sandin) was faced with.

James Sandin contemplating the fate of his family
His daughter was the first chink in his armor.  A teenager going through puberty, she is bored and unwilling to go along with their usual family routine.  Aside from her already stereo-typical teen angst, she has also fallen in love with a boy her father flatly disapproves of.  The boyfriend sneaks in with a gun that same evening to confront her father about their love-- the proverbial 'snake in the nest' dilema.  At first, I thought that the movie was playing towards the 'hostage' scenario I have seen in so many other films, where the boyfriend (or captor) abuses his hosts, maybe even calling in a couple of his friends to join in the fun.  But I was mistaken, it was just an appetizer for things to come.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Celebrities And Their Cameras - 2

By popular demand, I am extending last year's photo collection: "Celebrities and their cameras" with a new set of celebrities shot with their cameras "on hand."  When I posted it last year, I did not realize that a lot of people would be interested in seeing their favorite celebrities being photographers themselves-- apparently we number in the thousands.
So here is an additional collection.  Consider it my way of thanking all of you, for your continued patronage :-)  Enjoy!
The Master (Picasso) captures light with a Leica
Frank Sinatra does it his way with a classic Nikon F 
Tony Stark (Robert Downey) always brings his Canon
Lady Gaga is a Nikon user
Eric Clapton trying to find his way around a Leica
An SLR on the yacht for Jackie (Kennedy) Onassis
A "fashionista" like Anne Hathaway always carries a compact
Jimi Hendrix prefers a Canon Super 8 to capture Purple Haze
Bon Jovi exudes style and quality by using a Canon with an L lens
Beyonce and her Canon EOS 50D 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Restoring Old Photos

"Restoring old photographs" is an art in itself.  In my experience, it is a combination of photographic knowledge and painting skills.  I am not a professional restorer in the strictest sense of the word, but I do use restoration/retouching techniques in my work as a commercial photographer.  I have to warn you that I did not take any seminars to learn what I am about to share here.  So my methods might be a tad unconventional, but they do the work and get the job done.
Hair can be tricky to restore. Pay attention to highlights and shade.
By definition, "Photo Restoration" is the practice of restoring photographs that have been damaged by nature, harsh handling, the deterioration of the medium and/or plain neglect.  Before the advent of Photoshop (and other similar photo-manipulation software), restoring old photographs were only undertaken by professional restorers and serious hobbyists, because it required manual hand-painting or retouching with photo-safe dyes on the actual print.  It was costly and time consuming.  But digital technology changed all that.  By scanning the original print or negative and working on a digital facimile, we are able to restore the image without damage to the originals.  Through this process, we are not only able to restore but also improve the quality of the picture -- in terms of color, contrast and resolution.
Anyone equipt with Photoshop (any version or any similar software) can restore old photographs easily.  All you need beyond this basic software, is a good digital scanner and a lot of imagination.  Being good at drawing and painting helps, but visual acuteness is more paramount.  Because in the end, how a photograph ends up looking will all depend on an individual's personal taste -- something no one can ever teach.  So I limit my discourse to purely technique here.
I had to recreate the whole right-side of her face because of the damage.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Perception and Imaging

"How we see" and "what we see" have always been facinating to me.  I have always professed that we see with our minds, more than our eyes -- because informational pattern and meaning can only be comprehended by filtering it with our brain.  The "eye" is of primary importance because it is where light enters and is focused, but only after we have perceived order in the shapes, colors, shades and textures mentally do we really "see" and give meaning to the visual information we receive.
"Gestalt psychology" has been studying visual perception and how we see since the 1920s.  Gestalt psychologists believe that the brain is holistic, parallel and analog, with self-organizing tendencies. They believe that our minds have an innate tendency to see patterns first, before analyzing details; or that we have a tendency to see 'relationships' between individual components as parts of a 'whole,' whether they were intentionally assembled or accidental. The "gestalt effect" is the form-generating capacity of our brain to see figures and whole forms instead of a collection of random lines, shapes or shades.
"Gestalt perception" is illustrated in these examples
A few "Gestalt" principles
"Perception and Imaging: Photography - A Way of Seeing" is a guide to this facinating world of Gestalt perception. Written by an expert in the field of Photography and Imaging sciences, Richard Zakia, the book throughly examines visual perception and presents a compelling perspective on "how we see."  Richard is Professor Emiritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology and served as chair of the Fine Art Photography department and the Graduate Program in Imaging Art. He has written 13 books on photography and was the prodigy of Rudolf Arnheim, art and film theorist, perceptual psychologist and the leading proponent of gestalt perception. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Christo's Big Air Package

Christo unveiling Big Air Package

Christo, the world famous environmental artist, unveiled his latest large-scale installation work "Big Air Package" last Friday.  It is the largest indoor sculpture ever erected.  It will be on display at the Gasometer Oberhausen in Germany from March 16 to December 30, 2013. 
Big Air Package: on top, inside and concept drawing 
The sculpture is made from 20,350 square meters of semitransparent polyester fabric and 4,500 meters of rope.  Encased inside a 117 meter high industrial complex (Gasometer), the inflated balloon-like piece has a total weight of 5.3 tons and a volume of 177,000 cubic meters.
Erecting Big Air Package
The balloon fills the enclosed space of the Gasometer, leaving a small passage around the sculpture to walk around in.  Air fans create a constant pressure of 0.27 millbar to keep the sculture inflated, with airlocks at the base to allow guests to come in and experience the art piece from the inside.  Light coming in from the skylights on top and 60 additional projectors create an otherworldly atmosphere and ambiance for the visitors.
At the opening of Big Air Package, March 15, 2013
Acting like a gigantic tent diffuser, the viewer is transported into an experience with pure light.  In Christo's own words, "you are virtually swimming in light when you are inside the Big Air Package... the inner space is probably the most unique aspect of the piece...when experienced from the inside, the space is almost like a 90 meter high cathedral."

Monday, March 4, 2013

Bolex Digital D16

It's just appropriate that my first blog for 2013 will be about the new Bolex D16.  Long awaited by die-hard Bolex fans, this camera had a long laborious journey towards its realization.

My beloved Bolexs: my motorized H16 SBM and my hand-cranked 1930s H16

I am one of those devotees aching to get my hands on one.
I bought my first Bolex 20 years ago to shoot my student films at Art Center College.  I had a choice between an Arriflex S and the Bolex SBM.  The Bolex won hands-down, because of its built-in manual-wind internal motor and its more stylish "retro" body.  I just could not get myself to like the "blowfish" like body of the Arriflex S.  At the dawn of the digital transition when I purchased the Canon XL-1s, I traded my SBM for an older all manual 1930s H16 with a turret mount -- which I thought was even better looking than the SBM.  I just had to have a Bolex, even if I got to use it rarely (just to create texture in my now mostly digital films).  I was really devastated last year when Kodak annouced its bankruptcy, which meant that my precious Bolex's days are numbered.  Well... until I found out about the new Bolex D16!
Proto-type body of the Bolex D16
The dream of creating a digital Bolex came from two Los Angeles based filmmakers, Joe Rubinstein and Elle Schneider.  After securing the blessing of Bolex, SA, they lauched a Kickstarter campaign that raised $100,000 in 24 hours.  After extensive field tests, tweaking, modifications and launch delays, the camera proto-type you see above is the finalize camera body, except for a few minor details in color.  The MSRP will be around US $3,000.