Balboni Films
Detroit (2017) - Still 2

This review was originally published in Vol. 14, Issue 35 of The Sandpoint Reader.

“Detroit” is not a beautiful film. It’s rough, it’s violent, and it’s uncomfortable. It’s also absolutely necessary.

In July of 1967, the city of Detroit …

The Revenant - Balboni Films

This review was originally published in Vol. 13, Issue 14 of The Sandpoint Reader.

Before The Revenant was launched to the forefront of Hollywood this winter as a critical and box office success, the story of Hugh Glass already …

Welcome To Leith - First Run Features - Balboni Films

This review was originally published in Vol. 12, Issue 39 of The Sandpoint Reader.
 
 
“Well this is embarrassing,” someone half-groans behind me in the theater a few weeks ago as a trailer for the documentary “Welcome to …

This review was originally published in Vol. 12, Issue 19 of The Sandpoint Reader.

Over thirty years ago, George Miller used money he saved while working as an emergency doctor to fund his directorial debut, a violent Australian action film titled “Mad Max.” Shot for next to nothing, the film went on to set box office records, launching two legendary sequels that catapulted Mel Gibson to international stardom and influenced decades of post-apocalyptic media. How did Miller follow up such a gritty, highly-regarded trilogy? By producing and co-writing the acclaimed family films Babe and Happy Feet, as well as their sequels.

With Fury Road, Miller finally returns to the hellish world of Mad Max and despite all the talking animals between the Thunderdome and now, within minutes it’s clear that he’s still got plenty of brutal weirdness up his sleeve. After being caught by a group of marauders, Max (Tom Hardy) finds himself imprisoned by a desert-dwelling cult known as the “War Boys” just as one of their warrior drivers (Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron) goes rogue, freeing a group of enslaved women as she does. Max eventually finds himself fighting alongside Furiosa and the film takes off as they search for her home: The Green Place, a refuge of life in an otherwise barren, hostile world.

Plot descriptions do little justice to Fury Road: You have not seen a film like this before. Stylistically, it sits somewhere between steam-punk and western; a surreal combination of Speed and the Burning Man festival that’s both beautiful and absolutely out of its mind. It’s a two-hour chase at full-speed through the desert that constantly escalates, and just when you’re positive you won’t see anything more outlandish than a flame-throwing guitarist strapped to a wall of amplifiers on top of a semi going 80 miles an hour, Miller ups the ante even further. The fact that almost all of this is done without CGI makes the spectacle all the more jaw-dropping.

But beyond the dusty nightmarish spectacle lies what makes Fury Road truly special: Character. The film eschews Western outlaw cliches and allows issues of gender equality to take center stage, something rarely attempted in a big-budget action film, and accomplished here without being heavy-handed or under-played. There’s meat underneath the explosions, and it’s a testament to Theron and Hardy’s acting prowess (as well as the rest of the outstanding cast) that such heavy subtext can be present in a film that relies on insinuation and the faces of its characters more than their words.

Fury Road may take place in a universe established by Miller a lifetime ago, but it has plenty to say about the reality of today. A world of fire and blood has never been so hypnotic.

Holy Hours - Balboni Films

Last year, my good friend and musician Angelo Chiaverini started a groove/thrash metal project and asked if I’d like to be involved. He’s an immensely talented dummer and sound engineer from the same town as myself (one of the first things I ever shot- back when miniDV was a watchable medium- was actually his band in high school), and over the years we’ve worked on a few projects here and there. Our taste in metal has always overlapped nicely so I was absolutely thrilled to contribute vocals, and the final track turned out to be incredible. We decided to create a video for it (with Ben Cleek on acting duties, who provided additional guitar work to the track), and you can find it here. Hope you enjoy.

Is it ever going to start acting like winter? I think to myself, before tossing my camera gear into the truck.

Troy, MT in November & December looks like Children of Men: Everything is the bleak grey color of death and there’s explosions everywhere and Clive Owen is a superhero and women can’t have babies anymore the reality of another long, cold winter is starting to settle in on everyone’s face. Except for mine. I’m heading south in a week, where the eighty degree weather and regular sun is offset only by a loveable, astounding ignorance found only in rural parts of The South. But that’s the future, and right now I need to amass more winter photos to even out my portfolio. The objective? West Fork Falls. Obstacles? Getting out of bed before noon and rain clouds. I’ve defeated the former after a grueling battle of willpower, and dive headlong at the latter as I get on the highway. A bit of rain is all that stands between me and a handful more photos before I call it a season. Or so I think…

Driving up the Yaak highway, despite doing it daily for months on end during my work season with the Forest Service, never seems to get old. Oh sure- the bright, vibrant fall colors of the valley have disappeared- but having grown up in this part of the world, the monochromatic scenes of early winter always feel like home. I throw on some sludge metal to compliment things appropriately.

Two hours later, I arrive at the turn-out/trailhead for West Fork Falls. Tourists melt in snow (and explode if they try driving on it; truth), so it’s empty. I hop out, positively GLEEFUL about the lack of rain and how it’s a nice, soggy 35-40 degrees rather than sub-zero and stupid. Gear strapped on, I start towards the trail when I notice… Some tracks.

They were not very subtle tracks.

What the fuck, bear? It’s winter now and you don’t even fit. Despite working on a crew studying bear population in the area last summer, I’ve rarely seen any obvious grizzly tracks. My brain reminds me that humans didn’t survive in the wild by hanging out alone near giant predators, but I quickly silence that line of thought. I didn’t drive two hours to puss out here and these are at least a few days old. Boldly, for the noble sake of science art, I press on.

It’s a brief, five minute hike to the falls. I’ve never been here this late in the year and my worries of the water being frozen or dried up are quickly put to ease by the thundering roar of the falls as they come into view. Overcast sky for better long exposures? Check. Snow? Check. Discontentment at standing on a wooden platform to take photos like every genius with a iPhone and Instagram? Check. Time to get stupid.

The trail ends at a Forest Service Approved platform with high wooden railing, allowing you to both look at the falls and, if you’re a particularly careless individual or fighting a case of Tourettes, not fall forty feet down the steep slope of slippery rocks and into the frigid waters of the West Fork. Locals have occasionally taken this platform down to express their resentment of “The Man”, and as a photographer of nature and not of wooden railings, I feel a certain kinship to these fearless individuals. Fist metaphorically raised, I step off the platform and onto the side of the hill.

The first boss battle is a snow patch at the top of the hill’s slope; the sort of thing that should have punji sticks and alligators at the bottom of it, waiting to maim any would-be challenger. I lack traction on my feet so I carefully set the best source of friction I have- my ass- on the snow and slide, stopping myself with an allied tree as I reach a small flat spot of dirt. SUCCESS.

The hill does nothing but go straight down from here, so I set up my tripod and camera. I discover that perhaps this tree isn’t a true ally as no sooner than I have my camera out, it elects to drip snowmelt directly on top of the camera body. Traitorous swine. Before taking the first shot, I place my camera bag- full of lenses, cards, and batteries- on the hill, just above me. It immediately falls back into me. Well we can’t have that. I shift some weight inside and set it right back where it was, thinking I can totally catch it if it rebels again.

I take some shots. Garbage. I adjust some settings. I take an-

ka-thump. thump. thump, thumpthumpth…

I look over just in time to see my open bag begin its long frolic down the hill side, and proceed to re-enact every slow-motion shot you’ve ever seen of somebody before disaster strikes. It sounded like this:

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOooooooooooooo!!!!

Crouched slightly under my tripod/camera, instinct prevents me from flailing at my adventurous camera bag, as doing so would knock my camera over and right into an unsavory group of rocks. I scramble out from under and watch as the bag tumbles down the forty or so feet, sending out a solid thud as it stops suddenly on a rock at the bottom, spilling its contents into the snow and launching my plastic 50mm lens into the water.

I go into photographer-hulk-mode, screaming the sort of colorful language usually reserved for times of great injury and HBO programming, and fly down the hill- grabbing trees and leaping over spots of snow and wet rocks as I do, all the while noticing that my lens has decided it’s Jesus and is now walking atop the water and away from shore.

I land at the bottom, put one leg knee-deep into the water and snag the lens, which I (ever so) thankfully keep wrapped in bubble wrap on account of it being plastic-as-hell. It’s wet. I look down at the spilled contents of my bag, the 28-135mm lens half in snow. Also wet. With the speed of somebody trying to save a newborn from hypothermia, I strip off my hoodie and begin drying everything immediately. Given all the aforementioned gravity and rocks, I figure the following: I’m cold, soaked, and just lost a thousand dollars in lenses. BEST. DAY. EVER.

I look up to make sure my camera hasn’t gotten any ideas and run off with the tripod. It hasn’t. However, the formerly-friendly-but-now-just-a-raging-dick of a tree is dripping water onto the body at an alarming rate. With a few more choice words about nature, I wrap everything in my hoodie, stuff it into the camera bag, and climb straight back up the hill in a fit of adrenaline that would make more than a few physicists throw their hands up in confusion.

I get everything back onto the platform and, after convincing my nerves that they really should settle down because I don’t need an actual heart-attack, methodically dry everything out. I attach the 50mm to the camera. Functional. I attach the 28-135. Also functional. A man-sized sigh of relief ensues.

Sensible people would go home at this point. Just pack up, call it a day, and find a nice container of alcohol that won’t judge you for being an absolutely careless asshat. I’m not that person. But after eyeballing the hillside again I decide it’s high time to listen to logic & reason, and spend the next half hour shooting from the top, on flat ground, where gravity is less likely to troll me.

I get all the shots I can and, still all kinds of damp and squishy below the knees, head back to the truck quite appreciative of my luck at not losing any of my gear. But as I unpack everything onto the seat to dry out, I discover that one battery has gone AWOL. I look at the time. It looks back with disapproval. I look at the trailhead. It disagrees with me. I admire the grizzly prints.

Don’t be an asshole. Go home.

A minute passes… Nope. We don’t leave men behind! Light fading, I rush back down the trail and to the hillside. Alas, after scouring the mud and snow for ten minutes, all I have to show for it are numb fingers encased in mud and slightly damper footwear. Defeated, I return again to my truck as evening sets in. Driving home, I contemplate the fact that $60 is a small price to pay for being an idiot in the woods.

Worth it? Probably not.

DVD Burners are a luxury item. You can still buy VHS at Best Buy. MiniDV cameras are $5,000 and compete mainly with Hi8 and 8mm. Windows XP is new and exciting. Four megapixel digital cameras are top-of-the-line. Online interaction is done largely through forums and chat applications. YouTube is a fantasy. Streaming video usually comes in the form of RealPlayer files and looks like a small mess of pixels changing shades, forming a vaguely recognizable moving picture. It takes hours to download a 40 megabyte file.

Welcome to 2002.

This was the state of things when I started making movies, beginning with a trilogy about a war set in modern-day Korea (a post in itself), which we shot over the course of a year on a 2.2 megapixel camera with 352×240 video resolution because, well, we didn’t know any better. In order for me to get those films into a format that most people could watch, I had to save them as .MOV files out of Quicktime Pro (having never heard of a NLE, much less Adobe Premiere), convert them to MPEG files with TMPGenc (a freeware encoder), burn them as a VCD (a CD-R with video data files that only some DVD players could play), play the disc in a DVD player, and record the screen onto VHS (as many people still didn’t have DVD players at that point). Even after all this, the most I could hope for was that it would be watchable for those of us involved, our friends, and families. I was 14.

Twice the size of an average smart phone with one third the photo/video quality. And how.

Fast-forward 10 years.

One particularly gorgeous day back in July, I was driving a government vehicle up an uncomfortably narrow dirt road on the side of a mountain in the middle of absolutely nowhere, on account of I was getting paid a hilarious amount of money to do such things. I was supposed to be looking for bear rubs (google it), however, the chances of finding any was slim given the tree line had ended half a mile earlier. So in the interest of science, I pressed on and zoned out listening to music until the road ended. At some point or another I listened The White by Agalloch: A mellow, largely acoustic EP produced by a band that tends to use abrasive black metal as a spine for their sound. This in turn got me thinking about fall in Montana, vivid colors, Christopher Lee, and Nicolas Cage punching women in the face while wearing a bear costume. Long story short, several months later I found myself wandering the wilderness and back roads near my hometown, shooting footage of the fall with the intention of cutting it all together for a particular song from that album (“Sowilo Rune”).

The projects I work on are usually region-specific: Videos for independent bands, shorts done with friends, documentaries, etc., and while most wind up on YouTube, they generally don’t garner much attention outside my immediate area. There’s been a few exceptions, namely two fan videos I made for bands I’m particularly fond of- one for Explosions in the Sky, one for God is an Astronaut– both of which eventually got picked up via YouTube’s tagging system and gained popularity just by having the band name in the title. After two years, the God is an Astronaut video sits at 21,883 views and after four years the video for Explosions in the Sky is at 194,732. But again, I attribute this largely to both bands gaining popularity over the years (especially EIS) and in the big picture of view counts on streaming media, those numbers are still relatively small potatoes.

People will click things out of curiosity, watch two seconds and move on to find what they were really looking for. We all do it, and as a result the value of view counts is often over-stated. But because of the niche appeal for bands like those I’ve mentioned, I believe the people who wind up stumbling through YouTube watching unofficial content are mostly fans that love the music just as much as I do, as evident by the pages of comments I’ve received on both of those videos. YouTube, Vimeo, Twitter, and Facebook have all interwoven in such a way that spreading the word about a band is often done just by pasting links from one to the other. As a result, thousands of such fans have seen something I made with a good friend on a whim one summer, favorited it, “liked” it, and commented on it in a generally positive fashion. It’s piggy-backing for sure, but if there’s anything I’ve learned over the years from that level of connectivity, it’s that there’s a sincerity amongst fans of genres like post-rock that’s hard to deny. At one point, a viewer from Italy found my Facebook profile and private messaged me after seeing the Explosions in the Sky video, saying that it had helped him feel better for a few minutes and thanked me for it (he seemed to be struggling with depression). I’m certainly proud of what I do, but no matter how many positive comments I get, I never expect them- especially ones like that.

Agalloch - Sowilo Rune - Balboni Films

Still from “Sowilo Rune” (2011)

When I posted the video for Sowilo Rune, I’d kind of forgot about all this. Fan videos, while showing a lot of love for a band, generally aren’t something I care to be associated with as a) the legal implications these days are ridiculous and b) they’re usually (and rightfully) regarded as a low form of filmmaking. A fair amount of the driving force for making it was indeed wanting to do a tribute to Agalloch, whose albums I’ve spent countless hours listening to over the years (usually in the dead of winter when it was most fitting), but most of the purpose for the video was to show off the scenery I grew up with, specifically the fall. To the best of my knowledge, nobody had bothered shooting the landscapes around Troy in any reasonable quality and I felt that was a hole I should fill in.

I consider myself pretty quick on the uptake when it comes to technology, but I’m still dumbfounded by the speed at which some things get shared today. Consider the efforts we had to make in 2002 to get something seen by just a handful people, compared to now: Output to MPEG4, upload to YouTube in near broadcast-quality, post the link on Facebook, done. In less than an hour, without leaving your chair, and for anybody with an internet connection to see. While I understand on a logical level how sharing via social media can happen quickly, the whole process is somehow more surprising when your material is the subject.

650 views accumulated within just a few days, largely due to my hometown’s Facebook page posting it on their profile. Honestly, given my main reason for shooting, just seeing so many people from home say how much they appreciate it was satisfying enough for me. And then, something wholly unexpected happened: Agalloch posted it on their Facebook. I certainly wasn’t looking for that kind of validation, but having one of your favorite bands call something you did “one of the best fan videos out there” is an immensely wonderful feeling, as is their frontman complimenting you specifically on a separate page.

More amazing to me, however, was looking at the locations of people sharing, commenting on, and liking the video via Facebook: The United Kingdom, France, Australia, Spain, Russia, Serbia, Argentina, Honduras, Germany, Belgium, Sri Lanka, Poland, Libya, Iran, Brazil, Lithuania, Mexico, Israel, Quebec, and India, to name a few of the ones I randomly clicked at (and to say nothing of the ones from all across the United States). That says more about Agalloch’s fanbase than anything, but it’s still mind-boggling to me to see such a universally positive reaction from such vastly different areas. Shooting those slow-motion shots of the roads- sitting in the back of a truck going 20 mph down a narrow gravel road on a frigid day, holding a homemade steadicam and hoping Levi doesn’t hit a deer while he’s driving- the notion of complete strangers in places like Libya or Sri Lanka sharing the outcome of that moment wasn’t something that ever crossed my mind, no matter how obviously possible it is in hindsight.

I can’t help but think how this level of global connection would change things if I were 14 today. The first movies I’d shoot would be in High Definition- or at least a resolution comparable, and certainly nothing close to 352×240, which today is almost completely unwatchable. I’d have access to software powerful enough to cut high-budget feature films. I’d be able to post videos online in an era where literally anybody in the world can have access to them. That notion is both exhilarating and terrifying: Consider the potential caliber of filmmakers who start out today working with these tools and stick with it- where their skill level will be after 10 years of growth. But terrifying in that the internet is not forgiving to beginners, and I can only imagine the ridicule our first films would receive on YouTube. It takes a certain amount of maturity to learn to deal with the unbridled maliciousness of the internet at large without giving up, and that’s a hard skill for anybody to come up with, let alone a young teenager.

It’s not any sort of revelation that we’re all connected these days, but we seem to be getting a bit jaded to it. Looking at the list of places my videos have been viewed is viscerally exciting, but part of me still thinks “well no shit, that’s how the internet works.” I don’t mean to lament the evolution of technology, I just want to stop for a moment and reflect on how surreal it is for someone like me- that still feels like a kid from the middle of nowhere- to create something and have it seen, literally, across the world.

[Please review the introduction in Part I for context]

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