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."