Sunday, December 28, 2008


Teenagers are pretty dumb, and sadly I was no different. Don’t get me wrong I’m not needlessly picking on the pubescent it’s just that between the ages of 13 and 18, if not longer you tend to think almost everything is stupid. You’re young, your hormones are raging, you’re trying to carve out an identity for yourself and therefore one of the easiest ways to do that is to subscribe to the opinion that everything that everyone (Especially adults) likes is lame. Sadly I was at this stage in my life when I saw IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE for the first time.

I remember sitting there watching this “hokey black and white movie” that had no explosions, no violence, no guns or heck… anything good and thought, man this sucks. Seriously what kind of drugs was this guy taking when he made this sappy, melodramatic pap (Yes even as a teenager I had an expansive vocabulary so I knew what that meant)? Life isn’t really like this. People don’t really act this way. Where’s PULP FICTION when you need it?

Sitting here, a year away from hitting the three decade mark on this planet IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE sends my heart soaring with so much happiness and love I can barely comprehend a time when I had anything but unabashed love for Frank Capra’s seminal work. Like I said teenagers are morons.

First and foremost I feel I need to get something off my chest. I’m a pretty smart guy. I don’t think you’ll run into very many people that will disagree with that statement. I’ve studied film for almost my entire life and I can debate it and analyze it with the best of them. I only bring this up because in these first three pieces I don’t know if that comes across at all. In my first two blog posts and for sure in this one I have spoken much more from the heart. I know people love delving into the subtextual, intellectual details of everything and trust me so do I. It’s just that in the past three instances that’s not what’s called me to put finger to keyboard.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is a rich, layered film filled with remarkable subtext, first rate craftsmanship and one of the more interesting histories of any film ever made. All of that though is not why it has become one of if not THE, single most beloved film of all time. Yes, Frank Capra, Jimmy Stewart and all involved were working at the top of their game. Yes, the film is a brilliant subtextual examination of “wants vs. needs”. Yes, the film was a box office and critical disaster upon its release. At the end of the day though that’s all just background noise as to why this film has enraptured so many people. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE first and foremost makes people FEEL, and that above all else is why it has stood the test of time and if anything continues to grow more and more popular with age.

I have over the course of my life, due to my religion, my upbringing and various things I’ve learned and experienced developed my own sort of personal philosophy. Everyone has one, whether they realize it or not, mine is just something I’ve put a lot more thought and understanding to than most. It would take hours to delve into every single facet of it but most of it can be summed up in just a few words. Aside from serving my God and my creator with every ounce of my being I feel that it is my job, my goal in life to make the world at least a little bit better each and every day. Secondly I feel that no matter what there is ALWAYS hope and that if you try hard enough you can change the world and make peoples lives better. That, at the end of the day, after all the analysis and dissection is what George Bailey’s story is all about.

I love idealists. They may be off their nut crazy but I love them none the less and as a result many of my favorite artists fall under that category. Aaron Sorkin, my favorite writer of all time is a dyed in the wool dreamer and idealist and in every single way he is cut from the exact same cloth as Frank Capra. In fact I think at the end of the day Sorkin owes his career and everything he’s ever written to Capra.

Frank Capra was a lot of things but for the most part the guy was not a realist by any stretch of the imagination. His two best films, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON aren’t accurate portrayals of reality. They’re Capras’s dream of the way the world should be. They’re his way of telling the world to pull it’s head out of it’s rectum and make things better.

In my last post I gushed about my love for George Lucas and how he helped the world learn to fulfill it’s dreams and fantasies. While that’s commendable in many ways I think Capra deserves even greater praise because his visions, his dreams were attainable, they were and still are within mankind’s reach. Capra wasn’t convincing the world it could travel to other galaxies, defeat ultimate evil and have a Wookie for a co-pilot. Instead he was showing the world that if each and every single individual were to simply live for the betterment of the people around them and not themselves nothing would be outside of mankind’s reach. Of course as a religious guy I love the fact that in the case of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE he did this all within the frame work of an approving Christian (If albeit slightly theologically off) God.

We live in some very scary, very bad times caused by some very scary, bad (And in the case of certain outgoing politicians, inept) people. Fifteen years ago, as a dumb, punk teenager I would have sat there and thought how stupid it all was. Now as an adult I realize how sad it is and I, like Frank Capra, like George Bailey realize how easy it is to make it better. I don’t think hope, optimism, love and good old fashioned kindness are stupid, I think they’re absolutely essential to furthering mankind.

In every possible way, on every possible level IT’S A WONDEFUL LIFE is one of the best films ever made. One of the greatest film makers of all time directed one of the greatest actors of all time in a story filled with love, drama, heart, emotion, desperation, loss, redemption and so much more than could ever be covered by me or probably any other writer. That’s only part of the reason though that more and more people flock to the simple story of George Bailey, the luckiest man in the world year after year. George wasn’t the luckiest man in the world, he wasn’t the noblest or even the best he was simply a guy that did what he had to do to try and make the world a better place. Frank Capra captured the essence of that idea and displayed it to the world at 24 frames per second. Nothing neither I, nor anyone else can say can hope to match that.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

"We do it to understand . . ."

Taglines are supposed to be eye-catching, informative little blurbs that give you just enough information that ties in with the poster's image to hopefully incite some enthusiasm for the film being advertised. Yesterday, after seeing The Reader, my sister and I were looking at the poster outside the theater. The tagline sucked. It reads: "How far would you go to protect a secret? Unlock the mystery." From reading this, you'd think that the film is a suspense thriller or something like that. It gives no real sense about the poignant, thought-provoking story that unfolds in The Reader, Stephen Daldry's new film with Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes.

The Reader is about the lifelong effect of a summer relationship between Michael, a 15 year old boy, and Hanna, a woman over 20 years his senior. He goes to visit her because he, not surprisingly, becomes infatuated and falls in love with her. I'm guessing the sex had more than a little bit to do with that . . . Her reasons for initiating and maintaining the relationship are less clear. Like Daldry's last film, The Hours, the film takes place in more than one time frame. Later, Michael learns that Hanna was a member of the S.S. during World War II. I wouldn't dream of telling you any more than that, so I'll just leave it there.

The performances are uniformly strong. Kate Winslet does a fine job and will probably merit some consideration for an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Of particular note are the two actors who portray Michael, the main character. David Kross and Ralph Fiennes do an excellent job of maintaining continuity within the character as he ages. For example, the younger Michael has this odd habit of smiling at the strangest times. At first, this bothered me a bit, until I realized that the older Michael had the same weird habit. In addition, the resemblance between the two is strong, which helps with the believability factor.

In the movies, it's become commonplace to vilify certain groups of people or things without objection. For example, aliens are a convenient target. Need a massive evil force to invade the planet at a moment's notice? They're your man. (well, technically not your man, but I'm not sure what noun to insert there) How about the insane? It's incredibly easy make the villain out of a person (presumably one who used to be a friend/relative of the hero) who, usually through either a freak accident or a traumatic experience, has lost his/her mind. If you were to write a screenplay and use either of these two types of villain as your antagonist, no one would blink an eye.

There is, however, another archetypical villain that has been used countless times as perhaps the most convenient of targets: the Nazi. Maybe it's a sense of moral superiority that audiences derive from knowing that, almost no matter what, they are superior to this group of people who was responsible for the deaths of almost 6 million innocent men, women, and children. Maybe it's just because they're an exceptionally easy target to shoot at. Could be a little of both. While there have been films with sympathetic Nazi characters, like Oskar Schindler in Schindler's List, and Doctor Lessing in Life is Beautiful, I can't recall a film with a truly sympathetic character who was a member of the S.S.

That's one thing that really impressed me about The Reader. Instead of contenting itself with mere condemnation, the film makes a much-needed effort to do something much more vital. It tries to understand.

I'm not suggesting that The Reader lets people like Hanna Schmitz off the hook for their actions. That would be undeniably, unbelievably wrong. That's not the point. What it does instead is try to understand how a person like her might think and why she acted as she did, given her circumstances. This, I think, is infinitely more valuable than the standard angry finger-wagging that occurs in almost any other characterization of Nazis that I can think of.

So, what does this add up to? Simply put, The Reader is a film that I've been looking forward to for quite a while and is something I'll be thinking about for a long time to come. The questions are hard and the answers even harder, but I think that we are better for having made the effort. This is one of the year's best films.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

In the interest of full disclosure . . .

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy New Year from all of us at Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Film (But Were Afraid To Ask). We hope that you have a terrific holiday season and wish you every happiness in the coming new year.

See you at the movies,

Adam, Chris W, Film Ninja, & Megan

Monday, December 22, 2008

Oh, I've got a light . . .

Clint Eastwood is a god among men, man among boys, and, at 78, could still kick just about anyone's butt in 10 seconds flat. Ask most movie buffs who holds the title of greatest living American filmmaker, and most would pick Martin Scorsese. Since the passing of Robert Altman, it's hard to argue with that choice. However, I think Clint's on the shortlist, and, furthermore, might just be knocking on the door.

For the first time since 2004's Million Dollar Baby, Clint found a project he believed in enough to star in it. Previously, he'd said that he was done with acting and even turned down the lead in In the Valley of Elah, a role that Paul Haggis had written especially for him. (not to worry, Haggis had one heck of a backup plan) I went into Gran Torino with mid-level expectations, and came out blown away.

Clint is a rare breed of filmmaker and one that I think deserves to be considered an auteur. This distinction is one that is normally afforded a filmmaker with a well-defined visual and thematic style whose films are clearly recognizable as "theirs." That said, Clint Eastwood is probably not the first person who comes to mind when thinking about who is or isn't an auteur. From a visual standpoint, Clint's films are very naturalistic. I get the feeling that he could care less about impressing the audience with a nifty shot or camera trick. Instead, his focus is always on serving the story, which, I'd argue, is exactly where it should be. It's on these grounds that I really feel that he deserves the "auteur" label. In most cases, his films are small in scope in that they deal with only a few characters who are usually ordinary people. The real riches are in the emotional landscape he chooses to explore. I challenge you to find a Clint Eastwood film that doesn't feel like a Clint Eastwood film.

Gran Torino is no exception. I went into the film not expecting a great movie, and was completely surprised. I'd been interested in seeing it since seeing the first trailer, but felt that the material seemed formulaic and might come across on the corny side. My initial assumptions have some grounds, but, in large part, Gran Torino's strengths wipe out its weaknesses.

The film's single greatest strength is the performance of Clint Eastwood. I think he deserves serious consideration for an Academy Award nomination. It's one of the finer performances I've ever seen him give and one of the year's best. One of the things I like most about the film is the way it doesn't sugarcoat Walt Kowalski, the main character. He's a racist, pure and simple, and, to be honest, isn't a big fan of a lot of white folks either. It's refreshing to find a character like Walt who doesn't get sanitized and made politically correct. Then, when his perspective starts to shift, the changes are natural and feel as though they've been earned. This is unique, because a lot of films err in this area by trying for certain types of character development without building the character enough to sustain those changes. As a result, the changes feel false and clumsily tacked on. A lot of filmmakers would do well to watch this film and take notes . . .

Another of Clint's trademarks comes into play in Gran Torino to great effect: the sucker punch. He's a master of lulling the viewer into thinking that he/she's watching a certain type of film, creating a false sense of security, and then blindsiding him/her with a sudden shift in tone and thematic content. I wouldn't spoil it for the world, but there's a moment in Gran Torino that will almost take your breath away. It's perfectly set up by the film's humor, one of its unexpected strengths. I spent the first hour and a half laughing and enjoying myself (and enjoying my friend's reactions to Walt's behavior. Priceless.) and then after that moment occurs, I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore and the stakes had just gotten monumentally higher.

As most people go through life, they mark different time periods by certain occasions. I've almost always marked my years by movies and I'd have to say that Clint Eastwood's made for some oustanding moments in my cinematic life. With Letters From Iwo Jima, I knew I'd seen one of the greatest films about war that I'd ever seen. With Million Dollar Baby, I knew my life had been changed by one of the greatest films I'd ever seen. Gran Torino doesn't quite get as high up, but I wouldn't worry, 'cause it gets a distinction of its own. It's just one of the year's best films.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

FOTM: The Dark Side of "Christmas"

This is spoiler heavy, if you have not seen It’s A Wonderful Life or know most of the plot I would not suggest reading this or listening to the below podcast until you do see the movie. However, if you don’t care about spoilers more power to you and read on!

We picked It’s A Wonderful Life as our feature of the month for December because it is the classic holiday film. You cannot have a Christmas season without seeing It’s A Wonderful Life on TV, in select theatres, and showcased at DVD stores everywhere. It really is a tradition, which is odd if you look at the text of the film. I was going to go detail by detail of why this is a great noir but I realized I couldn’t do better than Clute & Edwards (check out their podcast on It’s A Wonderful Life here) so instead I am going to point out what I see as the obvious about this movie - It’s A Wonderful Life is a very dark film populated by a very dark central character in George Bailey.

You might be wracking your brain right now to argue with me about how wrong I am about It’s A Wonderful Life; what we celebrate and love the film for is the uplifting message that we take away from the film. However, until the end of the film George is a very selfish character and this trait is marked by periodic outbursts of depression and anger until he ultimately decides to commit suicide – that’s right – we get the ultimate message of this movie because George Bailey wants to die.

To understand the very natural human progression of George Bailey you have to start from the beginning. George Bailey wanted to go to college and see the world. He is stopped from doing this because first he needs money for college, then his father dies and he must take charge of the family business. When George finally thinks he is going to be able to shake the dust of Bedford Falls off his feet and let his brother Harry deal with the business Harry returns to Bedford Falls with a young wife in tow but soon George is married as well and thinks at least he’ll get to escape no matter how briefly on his honeymoon with his new wife Mary.

This is when George’s life completely changes and it becomes impossible for him to leave Bedford Falls. On the day he is married and as he is headed to start his honeymoon the stock market crashes and the depression hits. George and Mary use their honeymoon fund to save the business and some of the residents. Now George and Mary begin to have children and WWII hits. Unlike every other man his age George can’t fight in the war because he is dea fin his left ear – as such George stays and fights the “fight of Bedford Falls”.

But finally, finally George’s life beings to look up. Harry is a war hero. The business is almost turning a good profit. That is how you know George’s luck can’t hold. Sure enough the businesses deposit is lost by Uncle Billy as they are being audited and when it is discovered both he and Billy will become convicted felons. This is when George snaps –he does not want to pay for a crime he didn’t commit because of a life he didn’t want.

George is in a rage. He accosts Uncle Billy, he goes home and screams at his children and wife until he sees that they are afraid of him. That sets in the depression and George reacts like anyone might. George goes to the local bar and gets drunk only to end up being hit by another bar patron and on his way out of the bar crashing his car into a tree. This all finally leads up to his ultimate decision to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge.

This is not a uplifting character. George Bailey is not idealized or heroic in any fashion; even if his actions were good he wanted to be anywhere but here. He is a disappointed man who only comes to his final epiphany because someone has to prove to him that his life was not wasted; the man is so self involved that it takes an supernatural experience to show him how great he has life.

There are two reasons we remember George Bailey as the truly fabulous character he is – Jimmy Stewart and Frank Capra. Stewart layers Bailey with warmth, humor, anger and disappointment in a way no actor of any other generation may ever be able to. We care about George Bailey because Stewart’s performance makes Bailey a character that is all too human, and as viewers you will empathize with something in George Bailey’s circumstances. In the same vein Capra take Bailey’s world and shapes it into one that is all too real – whether we are looking at Bedford Falls or Pottersville the worlds are so real that we can imagine living there ourselves. Capra layers his world with characters that mirror the people in our own lives and though the movie is supernatural in nature it is very real.

The thing to remember in the end is that George Bailey and It’s A Wonderful Life are so very real to us, so uplifting to us, because the character goes through such realistic situations; while you or I may never have the urge to throw ourselves off a bridge I can guarantee that more than once in life we have been faced with a situation in which we did the right thing, but it was very much not what we wanted to do and usually, however subtlety this situation changed our life just like it changed George Bailey’s. That very empathy that we feel between ourselves and George is the reason this film went from being a box office flop in 1946 to one of the most beloved movies of all time. We don’t like it when life disappoints us but over time if we try we will appreciate the changes and over time we have realized that It’s A Wonderful Life had something very important to say. It’s A Wonderful Life is a lot more than a “Christmas movie” it’s a movie about life.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

FotM: Mad Max - Beyond Thunderbordom

I am a huge Mel Gibson fan. Both as a director and an actor. And if there is anything that he does well, it's action. So when I was deciding which trilogy to do for my feature of the month, the Mad Max trilogy seemed like a fantastic opportunity to not only see some films I'd never seen, but to enjoy some of the action classics that helped launched his career.

After viewing the films (back to back on Thanksgiving day), I was blown away. How the heck did these films help launch his success? Why on earth did people want a sequel to the original (let alone a third)? And why the heck didn't I stop after the first one? I've decided that these films must have been using stunts and special effects that were top of the line, that I have obviously come to take for granted, because it certainly wasn't the stories or the acting.

Mel Gibson was great. In fact, he was definitely the Gibson I've come to expect and enjoy, and was no doubt new and exciting to audiences at the time. But that doesn't change the fact that the movies are bloody terrible. They all start off with great potential, but end somewhere that is just downright disappointing, and somehow it took you forever to get there.

Let me start with this - Why I kept watching? One, it was my homework assignment, and I follow through on my commitments. Two, it is a famous trilogy . . . I thought surely it would get better with each one. I imagined three possibilities:

1. Perhaps, like the original STAR WARS, craze over a new concept, cool characters, set in a futuristic world of chaos and fighting, inspired the studio to increase the budget and get a different director.

2. Or maybe, like DESPERADO (Mexican Trilogy), the sequel would be more or less a creative sequel/retelling of the same story, with more explosions, action, and better acting.

3. If nothing else, surely a performance by Tina Turner, and a better soundtrack would be worth the wait!

Sadly - none of these things really happened. Each sequel started off with hopes of story improvement, more of a great character, and the possibility that the story would be cooler and larger than the one before. Instead, the beginnings were simply a tease, Mad Max was there just enough so that they could call it a sequel, and each story existed just to get more people in crazy outfits assembled from late night spandex and last year's football equipment, driving go karts and dune buggies with better gas mileage than any car today. Let's go through each, one by one.

Mad Max - Like any trilogy, this story is an origin story of why Max is Mad. Clearly our world has a dark future, as order is dying (with the help of a lousy system) and anarchy is very popular among punk bikers who like to serve as pets to their leaders. Max is a good cop, and apparently the best driver ever (however it seems like his victims that die by car crash or collision, suffer their fate more by accident than the strategy or skill of Max's driving). Devestated by the murder of his friend, he hopes to avoid the urge to become who he is fighting by running away from his duties as a cop. But he can't run away - it finds him and murders his family as well. So basically he is the PUNISHER with a kickass car. I love the concept, and the evolution of his uniform and upgrade of his car in this process is cool. Unfortunately the telling of the story sucks. For one, it takes 80% of the film to kill his family. Max was responsible for the killing of one of the main gang members (Knight Rider - I'm assuming it would be spelled the same, ha ha) at the beginning of the film. It seemed like revenge on his family would follow. But instead it's because his wife and child run into the same gang while running errands, and she doesn't do what they want. But they don't kill her on the run . . . no, that would make sense. They hunt her down, watch her sleep on the beach, chase her through the woods, kill the dog they just bought, and then they run her over. See - too long. It's no different than their revenge on Max's partner earlier in the film. They damage his bike so that he flies off it, knowing that he'll get in a truck to drive back to the station (oh - he isn't hurt much after flying through the air either), so that they can attack the truck, which he gets stuck in, and they light on fire. It's just long and ridiculous. WHY? Because it's more time with bikes, cars, and explosions. The coolest part of the film, was the last 20 minutes where he is MAD and after revenge. But it's not him chasing the gang leader into a head on collision with a truck that got me . . . it was the eye for an eye moment with the gang member that lit his friend on fire. Unfortunately, as cool as this revenge tactic was, I'm not sure how Mad Max knew it was this member that sealed his friend's fate. But who cares, Mad Max is badass, and I want a sequel (well - I didn't, but apparently the world did).

Road Warrior - Everything about the opening made me think I was in for a treat. It had the cool intro, recapping the original film in a way that made it look watchable, and reminding us that Max is Mad and isn't going to put up with anyone's crap. Also - it upgraded the anarchy of the future to an endless struggle over gas - something that our actual future could turn into. And then the entrance of our beloved character is kickass. His car has new gadgets, his uniform and look has aged and evolved, and once again, he just wants to be left alone . . . but if you mess with him, you are going to pay (mainly with the gas from your vehicle that he just crashed). After that, you realize that WATERWORLD was actually a remake, only they were on water instead of in the desert, and they used boats instead of cars. They even had the crazy dog like child, who just wants to hang out with the loner, who just wants to be left alone. But Mad Max is a softy for kids and "family" and gets sucked in to helping. I personally felt the action was better in WATERWORLD, and that film sucked too. But I will say that Road Warrior, like most second installments in a trilogy, was the best of the three. I was much more entertained. But I was hoping they'd think of a cooler way to kill the gang leader in the third, rather than simply running into him with a truck.

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome - I thought having the pilot from the second movie randomly put Max in his new predicament was kind of stupid, especially since he served no real purpose in the rest of the movie, but I guess it was supposed to be funny. Never the less, the beginning of the movie was kickass. I was most excited about Tina Turner's opening song, because I thought surely the rest of the soundtrack would be better than the previous films. Unfortunately this was the only time we heard her sing until the credits roled at the end of the movie. Once he is banished from Thunderdome, the movie turns into TEMPLE OF DOOM. He has to save a bunch of kids and the underworld of Barter Town. Only these kids aren't the slaves, and their only real connection to Thunderdome is a monkey that can find his way across the desert to anyone, anywhere. The movie is basically two concepts thrown into one. Mad Max is left alone at the end, in hopes that their could be a fourth film (only no one cares), and because Tina Turner didn't really want to hunt him down and kill him, she just wanted to ride in her dune buggie. At least they upgraded the truck to a train. This movie was just stupid. It could have had a twist at the end, it should have had a twist at the end . . . I really wanted a twist at the end. Maybe then, it would have made sense.

My new idea of an apocalyptic future is to strap someone in a chair CLOCKWORK ORANGE style, and force them to watch this trilogy back to back. Those individuals would then fire up their cars and hit the streets, stopping only for refills and accessories for their inventive outfits. Only, they better look out, because MAD FILMNINJA will be ready to run them over with a truck. My new fear is that they will bring Mad Max back from the dead (as bringing back Action Heroes from the 80's is very popular right now) in Road Warrior: Return to Thunderdome. When that happens, I will not.

Monday, December 1, 2008

FotM: Pulling Back the Curtain

I will be the first to admit that as Baz Luhrmann’s films were being released (and I was enjoying them in the theatre) I had no idea that they were related as anything more than three distinctive films by a rising director. As a fan I simply assumed that these three films were done in Luhrmann’s directorial style; little did I know that Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! were actually a trilogy – The Red Curtain Trilogy.

The Red Curtain Trilogy is not a traditional trilogy following characters through one epic story (i.e. - Star Wars or Lord of the Rings) but three films that celebrate and showcase a style of filmmaking. Due to this, defining the trilogy becomes complicated; lucky for me I am a Luhrmann geek and I’ve seen the three films so many times that picking out the patterns in the three films was much easier than it should have been – my film school education put to good use.

What attracted me to Luhrmann’s films before I knew they were a trilogy is the hyperkinetic sense about them. Everything about Strictly Ballroom, Romeo + Juliet & Moulin Rouge! is loud, colorful, and tweaked. In a way so specific to Luhrmann, reality is in his films but altered enough that it comes off as pure fantasy, yet enough of the real world is present that we are able to empathize with the characters plights, romances, and random happenstances. Luhrmann makes the kind of film that reminds me about the creative possibilities of the medium – not just the unique stories you can tell but how greatly a filmmaker can control the environment in which stories take place. For me it’s like being a kid that’s discovered the movies all over again.

Part of this uniqueness is of course the images and colors that are key to Luhrmann’s assembly of his trilogy; there are other elements that hold his trilogy together but I feel this obvious touch makes the tie between the movies the most obvious. Before Australia I assumed that the bold color choices and fast moving camera were what Luhrmann uniquely contributed to his films; I now know that while Luhrmann still composes strong images and beautiful colors, the editing, camera work and colors attributed to his first three films are indicative to the style of The Red Curtain Trilogy. This visual style was evident in Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet but I do believe it culminated in Moulin Rouge! - I still remember my younger brother telling me that he loved the film but the colors, motion, etc., made him dizzy.

Besides the crazy visuals of Luhrmann’s trilogy there is one very obvious thing that holds all three films together – the dumb thing is that even with a degree in film it was so obvious that I didn’t notice it until it was pointed out to me. Each of Luhrmann’s first three movies begins in a theatre with a red velvet curtain that must be drawn back before the audience is introduced to the story, hence the red curtain in the name of the trilogy. Looking back you might assume that this was put in the DVD releases after as a marketing ploy but I assure you it was not. Having seen both Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge when they were first released I can tell you that the curtain was always there.

One thing I feel I also must point out is the beginning of each film. I am a person that hates using exposition in films; with the exception of the Star Wars trilogy and that crawl that comes up at the beginning of each film I kind of feel like exposition in general – but especially at the beginning of a film – is a weak story telling device, it almost always seems like the writer put it there because he thought the audience was too dumb to figure it out themselves. I hate exposition. However, Luhrmann does exposition at the beginning of each Red Curtain film beautifully and it becomes another thing that ties all three films together.

At the head of each film after the red curtain opens Luhrmann has a sequence that is unlike the body of each movie and this sequence gets the audience up to speed with where the characters are at this point in their world. In Strictly Ballroom the opening is a faux documentary where everyone in Scott Hastings life laments about how he is throwing his career away; in Romeo + Juliet the opening is Shakespeare’s traditional chorus monologue told through a news reporter on a TV set which launches us into a beautiful expository faux title sequence; finally, Moulin Rouge! has the opening black & white/silent film-esque sequence where we are brought up to speed on Christian’s life that has led him to Paris. Each sequence sets the style tone for the film but is different enough from the body of the film to stand out as being visually apart from it. I do think this is something that very few filmmakers could do and make it feel natural but Luhrmann manages to pull it off which is just another reason he is one of my favorite directors.

I do have to say that The Red Curtain Trilogy is one of my favorite trilogies because it manages to inspire, thrill and entertain me without ever making me feel like I have to shut down part of my film filled brain and not think about what I am seeing in order to enjoy it. Personally, Luhrmann just has a unique way about his visuals and stories that just makes my love of film renew each time I watch one of them; just as The Red Curtain Trilogy is not a typical trilogy, Luhrmann is not a typical filmmaker and that is more than fine with me. As long as he keeps making movies I will keep seeing them opening weekend and if his four films so far are any indication I will be able to find something fresh and breathtaking in every one.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Feature of the Month: It Had To Be Star Wars

It had to be STAR WARS. It jus had to be. I’ve been sitting here for the past month, wracking my brain trying to find every high falutin trio of films (Both official and not) that I can write about, but try as I might nothing I wrote seemed honest or genuine. Of course I should have known better. This past month I’ve been running from the obvious but flee no more shall I.

I’m not going to bother going into the story of STAR WARS or the historical impact that the franchise has had on the film industry. If you don’t know that by now you should probably look into moving out of your cave. No instead I’m going to examine WHY it had to be STAR WARS.

I’m sure I will get into this more and more in future posts but at the end of the day the reason that I am sitting here in front of my computer right now, the reason that I have dedicated my life to studying, watching and now writing about and making movies is because I had strep throat when I was 10 years old. Sure the genesis of this idea probably started a long time before that but it never became real, never became tangible and apparent until the day I stayed home from school, eating nothing but pudding because anything else caused unbearable agony. Having nothing better to do I popped my parent’s well worn, video copy of STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE into the VCR and watched Luke, Han and Leia fight the evil Empire for the hundredth time. Obviously this wouldn’t be very good story worthy if something life altering hadn’t happened. The Death Star blew up Alderaan for the umpteenth time but this time I couldn’t help but think how cool that was. I couldn’t help but think how much I’d love to create things out of nothing more than my imagination and do with them as I wish. Thus some 19 years ago a little nerdling was born.

The reason I mention this and the reason that I realized I HAD to write about STAR WARS is because there are hundreds, thousands, perhaps maybe even millions of stories just like mine.

The original STAR WARS trilogy is THE story of good and evil. It had been told thousands of times before that and has and will be told thousands of times since then but at that point perhaps no piece of fiction had ever better encapsulated the ideas of good vs. evil more than George Lucas’ effects filled extravaganza. But is that really why STAR WARS became what it is? It didn’t hurt but I can’t help but think that was only one small brush stroke that played into a much larger tapestry.

At the end of the day no matter how you slice it, throw in all the Wookies, Ewoks and Yodas you want STAR WARS is at it’s heart a cribbing of every major ideological and philosophical belief this world has ever known. It’s well documented that Lucas structured his story after Joseph Campbell’s brilliant HERO OF A THOUSAND FACES and as such there is very little if anything “original” brought to the galaxy spanning saga of the plucky, noble rebellion versus the sinister, evil, all encompassing empire. Nothing new that is except dreams.

Ray Harryhausen, Merian C. Cooper, Gene Roddenberry, all of them were geniuses, dreamers without peer, who helped ignite the imaginations of millions of people world wide. The only problems they faced were limits. Budgetary limits, technological limits, limits of what could be conceived and executed in their day and age. Limits that George Lucas decided should no longer exist.

With the original STAR WARS and its subsequent sequels George Lucas almost single handedly changed what people thought was possible. What people could dream and see was no longer men in rubber suits and pie tins hanging from fishing wire. It was no longer clay moved painstakingly one inch at a time. Our dreams and our visions were no longer limited by what was only in the center of the frame and thus the audience’s consciousness. No, suddenly our imaginations were given purchase not just in shots, not just in rooms, but in sweeping vistas, entire worlds and unfathomable galaxies. After 2000+ years on the planet mankind could finally put each and every single thought, image, nightmare, vision and dream in his head in front of the world to see.

I’ll be the first to admit that in recent years it hasn’t always been the easiest thing to be a STAR WARS fan. The franchise has taken so many hits that it’s almost become downright embarrassing to stand up for my childhood love at this point. But stand up for it I will, until the day I die.

Every Jar-Jar Binks, Hayden Christiansen or CLONE WARS can’t take away from what the original trilogy did to every dreamer on earth all those years ago. Having not been born until 1979 I can’t even begin to fathom what it was like to live in a world pre STAR WARS as a movie fan, much less a movie maker. Sitting in my Dad’s well worn recliner I instantly knew that NOTHING was impossible. I knew that if I could conceive it, if I could dream it up it could happen. If that isn’t worth a lifetime of adoration then I don’t know what is.

It’s funny because as I sit here writing this it dawns on me that those optimistic, the sky is the limit notions didn’t just apply to my creative endeavors. While I know my parents and my positive upbringing have a lot to do with it as well I can’t help but think that realizing absolutely nothing is beyond my limits or my reach at such a formative age helped form me into the man I am today, and we all know I’m not the only one.

If you were at the right age, if you were of the right mind set STAR WARS touched you in incalculable ways. Over the 6+ hours you spent in front of the screen watching ideas spew forth from George Lucas’s head it was impossible not to stand in awe of not only what you were watching but what it meant. Young minds were given a forceful shove through a door that once opened could never ever be closed again. No longer did minds have to be filtered by notions of “that’s silly” or “that’s undoable”. No instead the question of “What can we do” was immediately and irrevocably replaced by “What can’t we do?”

For the past several weeks now I’ve been working on an article in which I wished to express my excitement, enthusiasm and little boy giddiness for J.J. Abrams upcoming remigining of STAR TREK. However as I’ve sat here and worked on this piece it’s dawned on me what has gotten me so jazzed, something that I can sum up in one sentence, not paragraph upon paragraph: They’ve pulled a STAR WARS on STAR TREK.

Watch the trailer (Like I have dozens and dozens of times) and you’ll see what I mean. For the first time in the history of the STAR TREK franchise they are holding nothing back. Nothing is too big; nothing is to complex or extravagant. Gene Roddenberry’s vision is no longer limited by what nose-piece can go on what actor or how hard can the cast shake to one side and still make it look believable. The reason I’m more excited about STAR TREK than not only anything coming out next year but anything I’ve seen in a while is because nothing is being held back from the imaginations of those making it.

I have some pretty lofty goals for my career and my life path. However none of them gives me greater drive than the idea that I too might be able to one day create something that sparks the imaginations and minds of people the world over. Will something I write have the same impact as STAR WARS? No, most likely not, but if I can just for one second make some kid, home sick from school, realize for one fleeting moment that his mind, his imagination is a priceless tool that can make anything possible then I will done something good, something noble, something that can never be ripped away from the consciousness of the globe that will forever be changed by MY imagination.

Since STAR WARS came out we’ve seen Middle Earth brought to life. Spider-Man has swung through the skyscrapers of New York, Alan Moore’s “unfilmable” graphic novel WATCHMEN is being brought to life and around the globe children everywhere are creating worlds the likes of which we’ve never seen or dreamed of. Stories that will affect millions of people are being conjured in the wide open planes of dreams throughout the earth all because one guy from Modesto, CA. decided to tell a universal story, unlike any other about a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. How could I not honor that?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The mind is deceptive above all things

Last week was a different kind of week for me, cinematically speaking. Since graduating, I've been trying to catch up on the movies I should have already seen, but hadn't.

Oh, all right, I'll come clean.

I was one of those people who didn't take classes like American Film 1 or American Film 2 or World Cinema. You know, the kind of classes that make you watch 3 films a week, inhibit your social life, and force you to watch stuff you might not want to watch or be in the right mood for. Overcome by a tremendous, mind-numbing sense of guilt that's disturbed me to the point of not eating or sleeping, I've been trying to watch more of the movies that I would have watched in those types of classes. Besides, I was getting hungry.

So, in my comings and goings since graduation, I've watched films by Scorsese, Allen, Soderbergh, the Coens, Anderson, Kieslowski, and Mendes. But last week, like I said, was something different. Over the course of 48 hours, I watched two films that are so far out of the "mainstream" I'd be surprised that they even know what water looks like.

On Thursday afternoon, I went to see Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York. While Kaufman's been renowned for years as one of the most gifted writers at work in film today, this was the first time he stepped behind the camera to tell one of his own stories. I can honestly say that Synecdoche, New York is one of the strangest films that I've ever seen. It's been almost a week since I saw it, and I'm still not completely able to make heads or tails of it. I think it's one of those films that's attempting to make a grand point about human existence, and how we're all the same, my problems are the same as your problems, and the like. I'm not very sure if most (if not all) of the events in the film take place in the "real" world, a dream world, or something else altogether. On a positive note, Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives a terrific performance, and the supporting cast is solid. Unfortunately, Synecdoche, New York did something to me that most movies don't. It lost me.

I'm not suggesting that I never find myself confused by a film. That happens all the time. What was different about this film is I actually got to a point where I was ready for it to be done and wasn't willing to give it any more time. That doesn't usually happen for me with a movie I'm enjoying. To be honest, I really would like to understand Synecdoche, New York, because I think it's got potential on that front. Unfortunately, I don't feel like Kaufman gave me the tools to work on figuring it out for myself. He surprised me in how good a director he was, on his first attempt, no less. However, I wonder if he might not have been reaching too far with this one. So, did I like it? I don't know. I think the film needs to be seen by anyone who considers himself/herself a fan of the movies. Just be aware that it's Kaufman on steroids. If you thought Adaptation was somewhat labrythine, just wait.

The very next day, just when you were thinking my week couldn't get any weirder, (Come on, I know you were thinking that. . . at least, I would like you to have been thinking that. Same thing.) I watched David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. Wow. If you've never heard of Lynch, he's definitely an American original. Look at it this way: he's one of those people who, when you watch one his films, you know that he's either uncannily brilliant or just plain nuts. Could be a little of both. He's a surrealist, with a thing for old pop songs and beautiful people in bizzare settings. I quite liked Mulholland Drive for multiple reasons. First, after the frustrating experience that was Synecdoche, New York, seeing a film that was just as unique in a much more fulfilling way was refreshing. In particular, after doing my homework, I was able to understand the film, which is no small feat. It starts in a very clearly defined "world," continues that way for about 2 hours, and then, for the last 20 minutes, pulls out the rug and puts the viewer somewhere completely different. Second, the story is very compelling, and the two lead actresses, Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring, were perfectly cast. Harring, specifically, is great in the vulnerability that she shows in her role, not to mention the fact that she is a truly gorgeous woman in the tradition of an older brand of actress. There's a really terrific scene where the two of them go to a club and hear a singer (Rebekah Del Rio) sing an a capella version of Roy Orbison's "Crying." It was remarkably moving. Third, Mulholland Drive is nothing if not completely engaging, despite the way that it plays with the viewer and the viewer's expectations and ideas of what's "real."

So, I'd recommend you go out and catch Synecdoche, New York before it's completely out of sight. It's got the originality to power about 15 mainstream Hollywood movies. Let me know if you understand any of it. I'd be really grateful for the help. I have to say though, my personal favorite from "weird week" is definitely Mulholland Drive. Like Kaufman's film, it's not for everyone, but if you're a fan of art-house movies and mind-twisting stories, I wouldn't miss it.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Australia Controversy

australia poster
Originally uploaded by Asso Pixiel
For those in the know the post production on Baz Luhrmann’s Australia has been a thing of controversy. For weeks now it’s been rumored that the film isn’t finished, that the studio and Lurhmann are in fights, etc. Awhile ago I had a chance to see an advanced screening of Australia; as with most advanced screenings the film was nowhere near done – that’s just how it works. However, it was readily apparent that Australia would be a good and entertaining film but there were rumors about what was happening behind the scenes. The rumors were that the studio a) wanted to cut the film down, and b) hated the ending. While I know it’s not that common for studios to give a director final cut of their film any longer I would argue that Luhrmann should have it – particularly on a film of epic proportions like Australia.

My first argument would be to look at the classic films like Gone with the Wind and Lawrence of Arabia - these are films that are huge in all senses of the word and they are probably the two films I can think of that are most similar to Australia. I have already been telling people that I think Australia is Gone with the Wind for Australia; both films are grand, lavish love stories that are set in a very distinctive time and region. I also think Australia can be compared to Lawrence of Arabia which is a love story about the land and the culture. Both Gone with the Wind and Lawrence of Arabia are over three hours long, and as much about the images on the screen as they are about the story being told and are considered to be some of the best in the film cannon. My point here is that while long movies may no longer be widely sought by studios & audiences, well made epics endure forever no matter what their length and Australia is nothing if not an epic.

The studio thinking that audiences will not sit through a long movie is completely untrue. In the past decade Titanic and three Lord of the Rings films have proven that an audience will sit through a movie of any length as long as it is a good and compelling story. I tell you now that while I may not be able to say with finality that Australia is a perfect film, I can tell you that if Luhrmann was able it will be a good and moving tale.

The perfect example of why Luhrmann should be given complete control of Australia is perhaps Moulin Rouge!. Moulin Rouge! is a cinematic spectacle that no one else could have achieved and it is responsible for the resurgence of the musical into contemporary film. This Luhrmann film was nominated for eight Oscar’s and won two; the biggest travesty (which was even commented on by the host of the evening Whoopi Goldberg) was that Luhrmann didn’t get nominated for Best Director – and the film was so obviously the work of a masterful director. Luhrmann proved that he can make a visually stunning film, a film that bucks the current film trends, and make the film entertaining, a pop culture phenomenon and bring critical recognition. In my opinion Luhrmann’s previous film is the best reason why he should be left alone and allowed to make the film that he see’s in his mind’s eye.

One of the biggest controversy’s about Australia is how it is going to end – the actual film itself that is. I won’t spoil anything here but as always, it’s said that the studio wanted control over the ending as well as the running length of the film. According to at least one source Baz is firmly in control of his film; in fact this source claims he filmed three endings to the movie, only tested two and the third is the one attached to the film. One can only hope that Luhrmann really did retain the reigns of his film and we see what he wanted us to see.

I have to say that I am just as excited about seeing the finished version of Australia as I was about getting into the advanced screening, especially if it still holds a few surprises for me. On November 26 you will be able to see a full review of what I thought of the cut of Australia I saw at the advanced screening I attended and I hope to post my review of the final cut soon after; both will be available at The Director Is In. It is my hope that Australia will be as good as I hoped it would be and that it won’t be enjoyable to only the Luhrmann geeks like me.

Hear ye, hear ye. . .

I wanted to let you know about a few things that are going on around here. First, Megan, FilmNinja, and I are all really grateful for everyone who has taken the time to read the blog. We're especially thankful for your comments. If you see something that interests you, or if you think that the post made a completely ridiculous point, please take a moment and comment. The three of us love what we're writing about, and would LOVE the chance to enter into a dialogue with you about it.

Second, we've added a team member to the blog. If you've read his guest article about Aliens, then you're already familiar with the writing of Mr. Christopher Welch. In the future, he's going to be contributing to all of our monthly features, and he'll post rants just as the rest of us have and will continue to do.

Third, if you read the blog regularly and haven't already, please feel free to sign up as a reader. By doing so, you'll receive a link to every new post on your blogspot dashboard. Also, if you know anyone who might enjoy the blog, take a moment and shoot them an email, text, or phone call. We'd love the opportunity to write for a larger audience, and you could be a big part of making that happen. Finally, please let us know if there's anything that you'd like to see us write about or if there's something that you think we could do better.

The rest of the year certainly looks like an exciting one for the movies. I'm really looking forward to seeing films like Australia, The Reader, Revolutionary Road, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Here's hoping it's as great a race to the finish as it was last year. Thanks for reading and I'll see you at the movies.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Feature of the Month: Contaminated Water and a Baseball Bat

I am late. I am very very late. I apologize for taking such a long time to write my portion of our October feature series on favorite Halloween movies. I've actually never celebrated the holiday and don't really like horror movies, per se, but, never fear, for I have an angle! I happen to quite enjoy "suspense" films. There's just something about being on the edge of your seat knowing that something's coming . . . I think that M. Night Shyamalan is one of the most interesting filmmakers of the past 10 years, and a new film from him is an event. One of my favorite films of his is 2002's Signs. The film's strongest aspect is its consistency. When I first watched it, aside from being completely freaked out, I marveled at the fact that I knew that every single shot had a concrete purpose and had been chosen specifically by Shyamalan. He certainly isn't the first person to approach his craft with such attention to detail, but it was the first time that I recall noticing it in a film.

The single most thing that I admire about Shyamalan as a filmmaker is his restraint and use of atmosphere. Instead of taking the "easy" road and popping out every five seconds with a BOO! moment, he does something much harder. He creates an environment where, although you constantly anticipate him frightening you with a BOO! moment, he can pick and choose exactly when and where to use them. Think of it as a sort of consistent feeling of being creeped out, without actually having a concrete reason. This, I believe, is infinitely better than what has become standard practice for scary movies today. The trend toward showing everything on screen and leaving nothing to the imagination is, let's just be honest, completely lame. Think about it, how many films have been made recently (mostly of the torture porn variety) in which there were a ton of blood, guts, and shocking moments, but ended up failing to engage the audience? Now, I am at a loss here, because I don't watch those kinds of films, but I truly believe that the best and, indeed, scariest, films involve more of what you don't see vs. what you do see. The mind, after all, is the most terrifying of all things.

Another thing that I admire about Signs is the sneaky way it's about so much more than it appears to be. On the surface, the film is about a rural family that discovers crop circles in their fields, comes to the realization that the circles signify an imminent invasion by an alien race, and tries to stay alive during the invasion itself. On that level alone, it's an enjoyable film, and very satisfying too. What truly makes Signs soar, however, is the fact that it's not really about aliens, crop circles, and things that go bump in the night at all. Signs is about one man's loss of faith and the way that he finally comes to terms with it. This plot could have been couched in any number of scenarios, and directed by any number of directors. Shyamalan, however, is the only guy who probably would have set it in the middle of an alien invasion, and the film is all the better for it. Even when the alien is finally shown on screen, it's either seen quickly, in shadow, or reflected in the family's television set. It wasn't until I watched the "making of" featurette that I got a good look at the alien for the first time. It's pretty scary-looking, too. It's a testament to the strength of the screenplay and the complex characters that Shyamalan created that an alien movie can get away with not really showing the alien.

A lot of folks think that Shyamalan's recent films have been inferior to his earlier work. I tend to disagree, holding the position that The Village suffered from the one of the most misleading marketing campaigns in cinematic history and Lady in the Water suffered from a lot of ill-deserved malice. I admit that I haven't seen his most recent film, The Happening, just yet. I am squeamish, after all . . . one of these days, I'll do it. Unfortunately, while I've enjoyed most of his films, (except for Unbreakable. Great ending, but the rest of the movie? Eh.) I've found that they don't do well on repeat viewing. It reminds me of hearing a great joke more than once. The first time, it's hilarious. The second time? Not so much. Despite that, I'll never forget the first time I watched films like Signs and The Sixth Sense. To paraphrase one of the greatest lines of dialogue ever written: "We'll always have those crop circles."

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Feature of the Month: Wolfman's Got Gnards!

The horror genre is just fantastic and fun. And unlike most genres, you have to enjoy these films on the big screen the first time you see them. It's got to be dark, with loud music and screams all around you, and the energy of the people around you.

My favorites are the films that reinvent the genre or classic horror monsters, or those that simply pay tribute, and manage to make fun of the genre, while still scaring the crap out of you.

You've got the classic hollywood monster movies that pretty much made people crazy about the movies to begin with. Back then it was all about the images. Lighting and old school make up that created things no one had ever seen before, and were almost too terrible to imagine. Thank goodness they weren't real.

Then you've got the slasher movies that made the old hollywood monsters seem like senior citizens that just wanted you to be quiet during bingo. With Freddy, Jason, Myers, and yes, even Chucky running around, you had a new reason to stay awake at night. These movies relied on new special effects to expand your idea of terror, and relied on a basic story that was pretty grounded and slightly more realistic.

These new special effects led to reinventing old characters, such as Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy. Like we are seeing with comic book characters these days, such as Spiderman, the Hulk, Iron Man, and my favorite, Batman, these classic characters were given detailed back stories. Now we knew how they came to be, and why they are out for revenge. As a result, we now cared about these characters, but they were that much darker and scarier too.

The slasher can get pretty predictable, and often the sequels are cheesy. But when you get a classic character such as Freddy or Jason, you just can't seem to get enough. Having these characters face off is the new trend . . . mainly because you are cheering for them rather than running from them. "Awesome kill Jason and great pun Freddy . . . let's go get a drink." But as much fun as these viewings can be (definitely in a theatre with a large crowd on opening night . . . it's awesome), real fans want something deeper. It's time for the remakes, and they are coming. It started with the classic monsters. So it's only fair that the slashers get their time too.

The best thing that ever happened to the slasher/horror genre was Scream. It managed to pay homage to what made these movies great to begin with, yet made them brand new again. It was because of scream that people realized a lot of people can put on a creepy mask and run around (or walk slowly) killing people. It's the story and characters that make it real and heart pounding. You have to care about who this is happening to, and you have to wonder why.

Finally, the new thing is movies like SAW and Hostel that are out to freak you out with extreme torture and gore. SAW is my personal favorite, because I find it to be a fun puzzle to watch unfold onscreen. If the film isn't keeping you guessing as you are squirming in your seat . . . it's an amateur copy cat. Ask for a refund on your way out (or at least a popcorn voucher).

So basically I'm one of those people that leaves the theatre saying, "That was cool. But they shouldn't make another one . . . it'll ruin it." Then a few years later, they announce the sequel, and I'm like, "SWEET!!!!"

That was a long rant, and introduction to my favorite horror movie of all time. But if you've seen the movie, you knew it was coming from the title of my review. I couldn't believe that I had to wait for it's 20 year anniversary to get it on DVD. In fact, it wasn't until I got it that I found out my favorite horror movie was a CULT CLASSIC. It makes me sad that millions of people didn't enjoy this when it came out. I must have watched it hundreds of times as a kid.


It's what Scream was for the slasher movies . . . only it was for the classic hollywood monsters. It's a bunch of kids (yeah, kids playing kids . . . pretty unique for horror) who have a monster club. They know all the rules about the classic monsters. Little do they know that the monsters are real, and they are coming out of hibernation to take over the world. Yep, a monster legion of doom, and no adult believes the warnings of a bunch of kids (picture the goonies with cigarettes in their mouths). Well these kids kick ass, and they decide to take down the monsters themselves.

Pay tribute to the classic characters, give them a fresh look, and throw in a new attitude (kids that curse and kick wolfmen in the gnards), and you've got a classic film. If you haven't seen this . . . don't rent it, buy it.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Two Tales of Two Cities

I watched Leaving Las Vegas a few weeks ago. This film was widely considered to be one of the best films of 1995, and was nominated for 4 Oscars, resulting in a Best Actor win for Nicholas Cage. Having heard a lot of good things, I was looking forward to watching it. Only thing was, after watching it, I wasn't that impressed. For the purposes of comparison, I'd like to bring one of my favorite films, Lost In Translation, into the discussion. One several levels the two films share a lot of similarities. They're both about two people who meet one another in an urban landscape and use the other person as a lifeline of sorts. Both films were independently financed and shot on location, without always having the appropriate permits in place. Both films were critically acclaimed. Leaving Las Vegas was written and directed by Mike Figgis. Lost In Translation was written and directed by Sofia Coppola. Despite these similarities, however, Figgis and Coppola made drastically different choices in how they told their respective stories. Allow me to explain things more clearly . . . which you'll have to if you intend to finish reading, since I'm the one writing this. So there.

First and foremost, while I do not consider myself to be a very technical person, I still notice when certain things seem out of whack. In the case of Leaving Las Vegas, I found myself annoyed at director Mike Figgis' constant use of camera gimmicks that didn't really do anything to help the picture. For example, when Ben (Cage) is driving to Las Vegas early in the film, Figgis resorts to speeding things up by showing the road in a sort of "fast forward." In addition, at several points in the film, Figgis suddenly slows things down in some kind of herky-jerky slow motion that comes across as very awkward. I'm still not completely sure what he was trying to achieve by that. As I said, I'm not very technical. I consider myself to be a writer and find myself much more interested by facets of plot and character than I do by camera angles and the like. However, while watching Leaving Las Vegas, I found myself consistently thinking "Oh, I wouldn't have done that." What's more, there are incidents that take place that are supposed to take place in Ben's mind, but I only found that out because I did some online research about the film after watching it. Now, I'm not completely against camera tricks and dream sequences. There have been many films in which I thought such techniques proved to be highly successful, like Jackson's use of slow motion at the end of the Moria sequence in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, or Minghella's decision to make Almasy's scream of grief a silent one in The English Patient. What strikes me as strange about these choices on Figgis' part is the fact that they don't serve the story at all. Instead, they only call attention to themselves and, for my money, seem painfully self-conscious. On the other hand, in Lost In Translation, Coppola never resorts to any of these tricks to tell her story. If someone's going somewhere, her camera follows them there at 24 frames a second. Additionally, Leaving Las Vegas is an hour and 52 minutes long. With a lot of these gimmicky things removed, the running time would have been reduced, but I think the story would have been served a lot better. Think about it, without a lot of these gimmicks, the focus would have been squarely on the characters, without distractions.

However, I'm not entirely convinced that Ben and Sera's love story is completely viable. Now, pay attention here to one very important word. Completely. I don't want to suggest for a minute that their relationship feels totally false, because that would be a disservice to Nicholas Cage and Elisabeth Shue's fine work. They manage to create two sympathetic characters, and have a few gripping moments. Despite this, I still had a problem accepting their relationship on the terms that were given. Now, there's a difference here between my understanding of what's supposed to be going on vs. my acceptance of what's actually taking place on screen. As the film progressed, I wasn't sure exactly why these two people needed one another. One thing that doesn't help are the moments in which the writing in Leaving Las Vegas becomes an example of what I call the "non sequiter screenplay." This is a phenomenon that occurs when how one character responds is inconsistent to what was just said by another character. For a good modern example, watch As Good As It Gets. That film has it in spades. This really tends to annoy me anytime it occurs in a film I'm watching. Now, in the case of Lost In Translation, there's significantly less dialogue than Leaving Las Vegas, but it's always consistent. Additionally, the love story seems much more believable in that, in Coppola's film, I understand exactly why Bob and Charlotte need to be together and, what's more, I buy that reasoning in the first place. This takes us back to the question of understanding vs. acceptance. In Lost In Translation, I understand and accept the relationship for what it is, but, in Leaving Las Vegas, I understand the relationship without fully accepting it.

In the end, it might not seem fair to compare two films as different as Lost In Translation and Leaving Las Vegas. It might even seem stupid, considering how different these two films are in terms of tone. Despite that, when I think of the two and the way that Coppola and Figgis told their respective stories, I have to give a massive edge to Coppola. Her restrained touch created a mood in her film that you just can't fake. On the other hand, Figgis' techniques seems much more forced and self-conscious. Maybe this says more about my own preferences than it does about them. Who knows? After watching Leaving Las Vegas, I went online and did some reading of what Roger Ebert had to say about the film when it was released and what he had to say when he added it to his Great Movies list. The film he talked about sounded really good. I would have liked to have seen it.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Feature of the Month: Favorite Halloween Movies

Written By: Christopher Welch

I didn’t want my mother to kill my father. That’s the thought that kept running through my head, the thought that caused me to lose countless nights worth of sleep and condemn me to months of sleeping in a fetal position. Very early in my life my father performed two very cool to me, but very taboo to my mother movie watching acts. Both involved James Cameron films, one was Terminator the other was Aliens.

The point of this endeavor is to write about a Halloween movie, a movie that encapsulates what this spooky, creepy day means to me as a movie goer. For me this presented a monumental task, pick a scary movie, a movie that flat out freaked the crap out of me. The problem is that, at least for me, no such film really exists.

I love horror movies, but I don’t really find any of them at all scary. I’m not the kind of person that jumps and shrieks at shocking cinematic moments. I don’t get the heeby jeebies, the hair doesn’t stand up on the back of my neck and nothing really makes me look twice over my shoulder. I love watching horror movies in the theatre because they are a great communal experience and I thrill to watch the audience squirm and squeal as I sit there and mock them. I mean I’ve never, ever been one of those cowering, whimpering masses. Or so I thought.

It took a bit of humbling myself and a nice long trip down memory lane but afterwards I realized that there was one movie, and honestly ONLY one movie that flat out scared the living crap out of me. That movie was James Cameron’s Aliens.

To this day I remember the conversation amongst the elder people in my life. My father and his brother were at the rental store coaxing my mother into letting them rent Cameron’s follow up to Ridley Scott’s brilliant, genre busting Alien. My mother was arguing that this was a film that they should not screen in front of my young, 6 year old eyes for fear that the images would haunt my dreams and plague my mind. Wanting to show my father and uncle that I was extra grown-up I convinced her along with her husband and brother-in-law that I would be fine. Eventually she relinquished and my young mind would never be the same again.

We returned home and what I saw didn’t just scare me, it terrified me beyond the capacity for rational thought. To this day I remember very little about my first viewing of the film other than the fact that when the alien threatens to pop out of Ripley’s stomach in her dream sequence, I quite nearly lost my mind. It was at that time that I feigned falling asleep so that I could still be “cool” without losing face. Like a terrible car accident though, I couldn’t help but sneak peeks every so often and the images of the face huggers and the slime covered insect like baddies did nothing to calm my fears.

After that fateful night I don’t think I slept right for a month, if not longer. Every night I would get into bed and curl into the tightest ball humanely possible for fear that Ripley’s enemies were lingering at the foot of my bed, under my covers, just waiting to feast on my succulent, young (thus all the more tasty) flesh. Sure I wanted to go running into my mother and have her hold me and assure me it was all a silly fantasy but I knew that by doing so I would prove her doubts about my viewing habits thus not only get my father in trouble but also ensure that I would no longer be able to watch the cool “big boy” movies. Of course finally my young fears got the best of me, I confessed and after a nice coddling and chastising of my father my sleep returned to its normal, peaceful nature. Now of course as any self respecting movie fan should expect, the story doesn’t end there.

Jump to some 11 or 12 years later. I am working at Suncoast Motion Picture Company and for reasons that I can’t quite explain (and it should be pointed out I’d like to think fear wasn’t one of them) my manager and good friend Matt finds out that I, a self proposed James Cameron junky have never seen Aliens… or at least haven’t seen it in a VERY long time. I realized that something that frightened me that much as a child could very well thrill me now and after Matt’s money back guarantee I bought the film, went home and that night devoured Cameron’s sci-fi opus.

It’s funny because a film that scared the snot out of me as a kid, heck the only movie that ever really scared me my entire life quickly became one of my all time favorite movies. As I sat down and thought about it I thought what better movie to sum up the Halloween experience. I went from abject fear to adrenaline pumping excitement and joy. If that isn’t what Halloween and horror movies are all about then I don’t know what is.

For my money Aliens is not only James Cameron’s best film, but it is also one of the single most overlooked movies of all time. Every few years AFI and or someone else and their mother will come out with a list of the greatest movies or the scariest movies, or the most influential movies of all time. Invariably Alien always shows up on that list but Aliens is never anywhere to be found. This always leads me to ask the question; are we watching the same movie or does the critical community just follow the standard party line like seemingly the rest of the world? Make no mistake, Alien is a brilliant film, but pound for pound it doesn’t hold a candle entertainment or influence wise to Cameron’s sequel.

At the end of the day, no matter how you slice it Alien is a VERY effective, horror film that substitutes the boogey man and a haunted house for a spaceship and an acid blooded E.T.. While Sigourney Weaver is certainly the standout of the film and a great female role model, at the end of the day she’s really only the “survivor” of the horror film. She does very little other than be smarter and luckier than everyone else and as such outlasts the rest of her crew mates. In fact any real hope of establishing her as a revolutionary, women’s lib era heroine goes right out the window during her very seductive and unnecessary striptease (Go back and watch the movie and you’ll see what I’m talking about) at the end of the film.

On the other hand we have Aliens. In one film Cameron not only ups the scare factor by the hundreds by introducing hundreds of the face hugging, acid bleeding, stomach bursting baddies and the Queen Freaking Mother, but he also takes Ripley from being a reactive defensive, force to an aggressive, proactive one. Yet through it all Cameron never once allows Ripley to lose a single ounce of her femininity and in many ways adds to it even more by introducing Newt thus creating a motherly connection and relationship for the ultimate, female, badass supreme.

Sure Aliens takes a few minutes to get going but the moment Ripley and The Colonial Marines (Perhaps the single coolest group ever created for the movies outside the Jedi) hit the planet you never know what’s going to happen. The tension and the fear in the air is palpable as your realize death and so much worse can be lurking around every corner. Add to the mix humanity’s own capacity for opportunistic evil in Paul Reiser’s brilliant Cater Burke and the dread and suspense of the past as epitomized by Lance Henriksen’s Bishop and you have a film that’s infinitely more layered than Ridley Scott’s creation. Heck, I haven’t even brought up the cowardice of Bill Paxton’s “Game over man” Hudson.

In 1986 James Cameron forged Ellen Ripley into the single greatest heroine cinema has ever seen. From that point forward every film maker worth his or her salt has tried to emulate it yet none, save for Cameron have come even close. The fact that he did all of this in the scariest, most pulse pounding, sci-fi/action adventure film ever made is just icing on the cake.

For every big breasted bimbo stupidly running towards danger as opposed to running away from it, there is Ripley, armed with a pulse rifle, a grenade launcher and a flame thrower, descending into the mouth of hell and turning gender roles on their ear. Aliens changed the world of cinema in ways no one ever really gives it credit for, changed my views on horror in cinema, women in the world and almost made my dad sleep on the couch. I don’t know if that’s everyone’s idea of a great scary movie, but it sure as heck is mine.

Friday, October 24, 2008

What's in a Release Date?

This has been a rather frustrating year for me and the movies; this frustration is mainly due to what I think is off shoots from the WGA strike earlier this year. While I think that they WGA had every right to strike and they probably should have, the strike and the current economic mêlée has begun to take a very disturbing toll on the movies that I love so much. A perfect example of this is the fact that since about August release dates have meant nothing.

Typically, film release dates are almost set in stone; the only time they change is if a studio realizes they can get awards attention for a film, or move it into a prime release date like a major holiday. This year release dates have been bouncing around so much that I can no longer keep track of what is coming out when or exactly why a release date changed. I can only assume that studios are reeling from a lack of product due to the strike (and possibly a pending SAG strike) and a money crunch because people are not spending as much. Still, not all of the release date decisions make sense.

Let’s start with the first one I remember that started early this year – Valkyrie. Currently, Valkyrie is scheduled for a December release date. This movie has always been on my radar because Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie made one of my favorite films of all time and were reuniting for this one, but so many people doubted Tom Cruise who has been a bit of a pariah lately. So this movie had a release date of summer 2008, but Tom’s PR didn’t get any better and the studio balked and moved the film to October 2008, then December 2008, it seemed for awhile that Tom Cruises’ PR got even worse and the film was shoved to February 2009 (and February is when you dump date movies and movies you have no faith in as a studio).

Finally, a little movie called Tropic Thunder started to screen and Tom Cruise was the huge surprise in that film, people began to buzz about the quality of Valkyrie and before you knew it Valkyrie was back in December 2008. Even though Valkyrie’s release date has been bounced around like a yo-yo I think it ended up in the films favor, and in mine. I get to see the movie I’ve wanted so badly long before I thought I’d get to.

One that also made me sad, but didn’t totally surprise me was the release date change for the new Star Trek film. I have an original, Comic-Con exclusive poster that has a release date of December 2008 for that one. However, the studio realized not that they couldn’t get the film out in time but that Star Trek is a potential blockbuster and they can maximize their return in summer by making it a tent pole film; as such Star Trek was moved to May 2009. So far that one is firmly staying there.

One that’s not quite so bad is the new Daniel Craig vehicle Defiance which I’ve been seeing trailers for the film for at least a year now. While this one has not been shoved into no man’s land it was finally decided that it will be released in limited release in December of this year (just in time for awards consideration) and will go wide in January 2009. The film has been finished for a very long time so I am glad any decision was reached.

Now you come to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince which is perhaps the most controversial of the release date changes. Early in the summer David Yates proudly announced that editing was complete on the film and they were on schedule for their November release date – keep in mind this film would be released day and date worldwide. This was good news.

Now comes the maddening part. A bit over a month ago Warner Brothers came out and announced that due to the WGA strike they had no real summer tent pole films for 2009 and they had decided to move Half-Blood Prince into the slot The Dark Knight had for 2008. This is surrounded by much controversy; it is true that the strike affected them, but the decision to make the move strikes more of greed than an actual need. Everyone saw that The Dark Knight made an obscene amount of money and it seems pretty obvious that Warner’s wants to see if they can duplicate that. This one actually does make me quite angry; after all, they had already begun marketing the film.

When Warner’s made this announcement Summit Entertainment breathed a sigh of relief and decided to take advantage of it and move their fall/winter tent pole Twilight into the hole left by Harry Potter getting Twilight to audiences weeks earlier than it was originally slated. They were very smart no matter what my opinions on this movie are.

Another odd ball decision on the part of Warner Brothers is a film that has been treated in a completely illogical way – Trick ‘R Treat. For this film I also began to see trailers for this film about a year ago but never heard a release date. Naturally, based on the title and genre I assumed that the film was scheduled to be released this Halloween.

Apparently, Warner’s must be afraid of the film because while it has been acclaimed as one of the best horror films in years, and this has been an October almost devoid of horror films yet Trick ‘R Treat sat without a release date for a good long while. Finally, Trick ‘R Treat was given a release date of October 31; while this may look good on paper you have to think about it logically. This would be like giving the upcoming Four Christmases a release date of December 25. Your audience is not going to be interested in driving to the theatre to see that film for very long because by the time it is released people are over the “season” it takes place in. Again, the release date just doesn’t make much sense – but that’s become a trend.

However, the newest one that has pushed me over the edge is the release date of The Soloist. The film had a prime release date right before Thanksgiving, was being advertised and getting awards buzz. It was recently announced that the release date was changing from this November to March of 2009 with no explanation.

What confuses me the most is that all these release date decisions is not just that there seems to be no logic behind them but they are taking a toll on awards season. I cannot think of a single film besides The Dark Knight that I would nominate for best picture. While it is maddening for someone like me who anticipates movies months before they are released it is going to be interesting to see what happens to awards season. I can only hope and pray that SAG does not strike further damaging upcoming releases. I just want my release date calendar to stay somewhat the same, I don’t think that is too much to ask.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Feature of the Month: Favorite Halloween Films

It is Halloween, a time known for causing thrills, chills and wondering what goes bump in the night and we all have different things that scare us or at least cause us great tension; this is why movies in the horror, suspense and thriller genres can endure for so long and become indelible franchises. It is to those thrills, chills, tense moments and genuine frights that we dedicate this month’s Feature of the Month to – our favorite Halloween movies. These can be anything from the horror movies you’re familiar with to the suspense films you wouldn’t think of as scary, but part of the fun is seeing why we love them so. For this month you may or may not be surprised to learn that my favorite Halloween film is Scream by Wes Craven.

I tend to not easily scare at movies so I really enjoy when a movie surprises me or keeps me guessing what is going to happen – Wes Craven did that for me in this film. I don’t remember ever being truly scared by Scream but the first time I watched it the film did keep me on the edge of my seat; it’s one of the only films where I wasn’t able to guess the ending and was fully satisfied by every aspect of the plot – in a world where my only experience in the “horror” genre was Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein it was a breath of fresh air.

The thing that is different about Scream is the fact that it defies the traditional “rules” and conventions of horror films while somehow managing to pay homage to all of them, Craven even manages to create a new horror convention – the character that dies in the opening act, the character you assumed was a crux of the film. Everyone remembers Scream for its brilliant marketing campaign that favored Drew Barrymore so much, and the shock it created when everyone found out that she didn’t last more than fifteen minutes into the film – it was a whole new way to use a McGuffin and set your audience on their toes. On top of this unsettling new development Scream created, the film is filled with characters that seem to know they are in a horror film.

What Scream is now truly known for is beginning a trend of self-aware horror films; suddenly horror movies began to copy Craven and Kevin Williamson and try to play with conventions and have characters that knew the conventions of horror and that trend slightly continues to this day. The only problem is that so many films who tired this approach ended up being just plain derivative or in spoof territory and Scream managed to avoid that trap; Scream is a smart film that defies conventions and has a reason and purpose for everything that happens to the characters and plot.

The best example of this self-awareness would have to be the character of Randy played by Jamie Kennedy. Randy is the character that works in a video store, has a vast knowledge of horror films and is the person who constantly tries to compare life to film. The best known scene in Scream is attributed to Randy: the scene where Randy lays down the rules for surviving a horror film as we see the actions he warns of being played out on the video the teens are watching and with the characters in the room who scoff at his set of rules. Throughout the entire film Randy is able to predict every aspect of the serial killings as they happen and is of course laughed at or ignored by almost every character.

However, equally important to the intelligence of the film is the main character Sidney Prescott played by Neve Campbell. Sidney is a smart teenage girl with a tragic past who refuses the role of helpless victim and takes on every challenge she meets instead of shying away from it – she is a character that refuses to sit down and be beaten. This does not make Sidney a flawless character; Sidney is close to the killer without knowing it and of course her most memorable scene is when she talks to the killer on the phone telling him that she hates horror movies because the women are always “running up the stairs when they should be running out the front door – it’s insulting”, then before the scene ends she herself ends up fleeing from the killer by running up the stairs when she can’t get out the front door.

I can thank Scream for many things: it introduced me to the horror genre, an admiration for Wes Craven and the realization that a “horror” movie can be so much more than gore, jumps and a building body bag count. Scream was a very influential film for me and I think it will be remembered among the classic horror films of this era. To this day Scream is the only horror franchise where I made sure I saw each sequel in the theatre as close to opening day as possible.

Recommended Halloween Viewing: Halloween, Scream, Night of the Living Dead, Young Frankenstein