Jan 24, 2013

Hutchinson Block in Medicine Hat

Likely best known as the former location of Hutchings and Sharp, the Hutchinson Block in downtown Medicine Hat was constructed in 1911.  Thomas Hutchinson was an influential businessman in Medicine Hat's early years, and was actually the town's mayor in the 1890s.  As a skilled harness maker, he operated his shop on the ground floor of this building throughout the 1910s.

H.R. Hutchings took over the building in 1934, and by 1950 it was known as Hutchings and Sharp Clothing Limited.  The business remained in operation for decades, becoming the essential western clothing shop in Medicine Hat.  Whether it was the declining relevance of downtown or the thinning cowboy population, the business has been closed for years now.  The branding still remains on the outside of the building however, and I even spotted a vintage Wrangler poster through one of the windows.

Not too long ago the neighbouring building was demolished.  I noticed this back in early 2012 when I went to get a new picture of the rooftops that I had been using as a backdrop for my production logo.  I wrote about that here.  The empty space has since become a bit of a park in progress, with cool graffiti work and a few planters going in.  

I'm inclined to believe that the Hutchinson Block isn't in great shape, since it was looking pretty rough even when it was open.  I'm hopeful that there's still a future for this cool old brick building, and that it doesn't meet the same fate as so many of the other historic buildings downtown.  I suppose only time will tell.

Hutchings and Sharp ca. 1963

Store front windows ca. 1980s

Store front ca. 1980s

Ghosting image of my modern shot merged with an archival one.

Jan 23, 2013

Toy Story (1995)

What is it about Pixar? Is it the characters, the look, the stories? Obviously, it's a combination of all of these things.  Pixar Animation is what the film industry could use more of, and that's exactly what I was thinking ever since I was a kid and first saw, Toy Story (1995) directed by John Lasseter.

It's still amazing to me to think about how computer animation sprung up into the mainstream, created a new visual form of storytelling, and revolutionized the landscape of modern cinema just during my own childhood.  It was clear from that first feature length computer animated film about toys that came to life, that Pixar was on to something that was going to change everything. 

I've got to be honest though, technological innovation aside, at 11 what made the movie resonate was the brilliant cast of toys and how they were personified and crafted into a completely original and imaginative world.  We all used to bring our toys to life when playing with them, and the concept wasn't merely captivating, it was entirely relatable to the kid in all of us.  It's why I still love the movie as an adult, and probably why I appreciate it even more now that I understand the work that's gone into making it.  

It's unbelievably rare for a studio to release success after success as is the case with Pixar.  If it can be attributed to anything, it's that they actually take the time to polish and refine their concepts. Stylistically they continue to push the envelope and tell creative stories full of adventure and heart, which makes it tough to pick a favourite among the bunch.  From toys to cars to monsters and fish, it's like they've found a way to tap into all of these brilliantly thematic worlds and add their own flavors.

I love that Toy Story demonstrates how a movie can appeal to all ages without sacrificing emotional investment.  That originality isn't simply about being different, it's about breathing new life into basic concepts, like friendship and love, when they've become so familiar and exhausted by the same story lines. Pixar seems to understand that a little bit of heart and style can go a long way. 

Pixar has really mastered the art of creating endearing and honest characters.  Buzz and Woody are no doubt at the top of that list, and their rivalry and eventual friendship is born out of a genuine conflict and very real emotions.  The desire to feel wanted and dealing with jealousy have rarely been addressed so powerfully in such an innocent way.

Quite simply, I could watch this movie a hundred more times without getting bored.  I felt bonded to Pixar at an early age, and the quality of their work has maintained my interest all of these years later.  With nods to my childhood and concepts that spark my imagination, films like Toy Story aren't merely for kids, they're genuine classics. 

Jan 22, 2013

Spliced: Movies About Movies

The following comes from my column, Spliced from Volume 47 - Issue 19 of the Carillon (the University of Regina newspaper) from March 2005.

Nowadays it seems that there is a sizable amount of behind the scenes knowledge, made possible through deluxe limited special collector's edition DVDs, that the average person feels no guilt in skimming over.

You have to question when watching some of these features (the lengthy Lord of the Rings box sets come to mind). Why would we want to know about the make-up artist who worked on extra number 11 on whatever deleted scene?

Honestly, I’m all for special features, and I did enjoy the Lord of the Rings, but so many DVD bundles seem to have ignored the “quality before quantity” rule.

Special features are popular for obvious reasons; We enjoy seeing more of a film that we love. It seems sometimes that features are essential to understanding a film, and sometimes they’re purely promotional to convince people that the DVD is actually worth that new release $30 price tag.

I think we all roll our eyes though, when we click on a production featurette that is simply a mash up of the film’s trailer and the lead actors spewing about how this is a film you have to see. Perhaps it would hold some significance, had we not just watched the movie.

I find the best of both worlds in movies about movies, and filmmaking.

For instance, I love the opening of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and how Robert Zemeckis melds animation and live action as though filming a cartoon is just a matter of getting all of your characters to show up at the same time.

It’s clever and good storytelling, but in its own right, it’s groundbreaking cinema.

Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty (1995) is another great movie about movies. Chili Palmer (John Travolta) comes to Los Angeles to collect on a debt, and ends up pitching a movie idea about the job he’s doing. Playing on the “everyone wants to be in the movies” bit, Get Shorty is great fun that anyone accustomed to following the entertainment industry will latch onto.

Other great movies about movies to check out include L.A. Confidential (1997), Ed Wood (1994), and Woody Allen's Hollywood Ending (2002).

And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003) directed by Bruce Beresford, is a story about how filmmaker’s were hired to film Pancho Villa and the Mexican revolution.

What’s astounding about this film is its historical context, and how the hired filmmakers created a legend out of such an infamous character. It's an entertaining movie made even better by the history of what they were doing.  Pancho Villa even agreed to a clause in his contract for the film that stated he could only fight during the day so that there was ample light for filming.

Learning about film can be a lot more fun, and even more educational when it’s dramatized (at least they have to hit plot points). Who is kidding who anyway?  Most of the special features are orchestrated pretty well on DVDs to make the experience of making the movie come across as awe-inspiring and life-changing.

I’ve yet to see a director or actor completely broken and confessing to the camera that it was all a mistake, but my fingers are crossed.  Use a few of these recommendations as a sampler to get into movies that go behind the scenes.  You obviously have some features to catch up on, so pop in a movie, and like me, use it as an excuse to study.