December 19, 2008

My new film!

So if you did not already know, I am a film major at Emerson College. I have just completed my latest film, shot on 16mm. And what would be the point of having a blog if I couldn't pimp my work?

I have an internet version here. It's not the greatest quality, but you get the idea. I couldn't upload it to YouTube, because it's too long. Instead, I uploaded it to Median, which is Emerson College's version of YouTube without length limits. The bummer is that it's a Flash-based site, so I can't provide a direct link. It should be one of the first titles on there, but if not, you can search "Teenage Christ."

Here ya go:

Comments welcome, as long as they are glowing positive reviews.

Happy holidays...I think you'll find the subject matter of this film fitting for the season. Share it with friends! Free publicity woohoo!

December 9, 2008

What are your favorite cinematic themes and/or elements?

Think of your favorite films. What do they have in common? What draws you in again and again? Perhaps it's a particular actor or director, or films of a certain country, but are there thematic elements you seem to gravitate toward? Here are the five themes that can almost invariably get me to a theater or video store.

1. Unrest in the suburbs. Mosey over to this post to see my full exploration of that little fetish.
2. Challenges to masculinity and/or destruction by too much power. This theme appears in some older movies, such as Written on the Wind (1957), where it takes the literal form of impotence that drives one of the male leads to insanity. That can be fun and all, but I also gravitate towards stories that show the dangers of being overly masculine (or having others expect you to be). The last few years have been ripe with these films - The Departed, There Will Be Blood, and No Country for Old Men stand out as examples. Just as too much testosterone can shorten your lifespan (true business!), being too macho ultimately destroys you. It's an interesting change of pace from the indestructible he-man that Hollywood depicted for so long.
3. Real relationships between real people. Hollywood glamour and magic can be nice, but sometimes, it's just grating. You can't always watch gorgeous celebrities reading picture-perfect screenplays of romance (or even picture-perfect destructions - Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a great film, but far more theatrical than real life). The closer to real a relationship is, whether in terms of passion, dialogue, or attractiveness, the more I'll dig it. Examples: the stream-of-consciousness dialogue in Before Sunrise, Zach Braff farting on Jacinda Barrett in The Last Kiss, the unglamorous marital messiness but ultimate reunion of Harvey and Joyce Pekar in American Splendor, people with bad social skills falling for each other in Punch-Drunk Love. As much as you hear that the cinema is escapism, people can connect more to the real.
4. Bittersweet endings. A good ending can make or break a film. Lots of older films (noirs and crime films in particular) have slapped-on happy endings put there by the Production Code (see my exploration of that subject here ) that seem awkward, but can be forgiven with knowledge of the extenuating circumstances. Crap endings in modern films - when the director/screenwriter actually has options - infuriate me. Both happy and sad endings have their place, but I believe that the Holy Grail is the bittersweet ending. Maybe things went to shit, but there's a glimmer of hope. Maybe you lost the girl, but you gained a friend. Without explicit spoilers, Casablanca, Annie Hall, and The Squid and the Whale are examples. Alternately, I like endings that show that things don't really change, or that cycles continue, such as Election or Thank You For Smoking. Another version of the bittersweet ending is one that is technically a happy ending, but doesn't give you a huge movie kiss on a silver platter. See: The Apartment, My Fair Lady (even though I hated MFL).
5. Combating aggression with intelligence. In The Big Sleep, Humphrey Bogart remarks to a gun-toting thug, "My, my, my! Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains! You know, you're the second guy I've met today that seems to think a gat in the hand means the world by the tail." SO COOL. I'm a sucker for films where protagonists can defeat enemies with just their wit. Courtroom dramas are a subdivision of this genre that I naturally love - such as Inherit the Wind, where Spencer Tracy takes down a whole courtroom of creationists by, like, making sense.

What premise or themes are you drawn to?

December 3, 2008

11 Great suburban unrest films

With the impending release of Revolutionary Road, the new Sam Mendes joint about how - get this - not everyone in 1950s suburban America was happy with their cookie-cutter lives, I got to thinking about suburban unrest in films. Well, perhaps "got to thinking" is the wrong term, since I am always thinking about it. My boyfriend always mocks my obsession with these films, but I can't help it, since it hits so close to home. I come from an almost laughably stereotypical suburb where everyone filled their emotional voids with money and pushed their unfulfilled dreams onto their kids. To me, there can never be enough films that pull back this perfect facade. Here's a sampling of films that I feel explore this theme exceptionally well (in rough chronological order of release).

1. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
This was Hitchcock's favorite film of his own, because, as he said, it brought murder "back into the home, where it rightfully belongs." Murder in a creepy motel is all fine and good, or on an exotic adventure, but Hitch gets it: it's creepier in your own house. Especially when you suspect that your own flesh and blood (in this case, a favorite uncle) is a widow killer! Some critics call this Hitchcock's most "American" film, because it is rooted in the traditional American paranoia of someone infiltrating and destructing our perfect lives.

2. Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Let's take a trip in the way-back machine, to when all this business started. Suburbs as they are now known started cropping up at the end of WWII, so this film would have been one of the earliest to explore the idea that these perfect communities do not exclusively contain perfect people living perfect lives. This film was also revolutionary in putting forth the argument that teenagers actually have real problems. Every time I hear James Dean yell "You're tearing me apart!" to his parents in this film, it gives me chills.

3. All That Heaven Allows (1955) and

4. Far From Heaven (2002)
I'm mentioning these together because the second is an homage to/reimagining of the first. It basically takes the concept further, asking what if the forbidden love had not been between the housewife and the younger man, but the housewife and a black man? And oh, her husband is gay too? Both films are heartbreaking explorations of how the suburban ideal keeps people from being themselves - and being with those they truly love.

5. The Graduate (1967)
Okay, yes, we've all heard of The Graduate (I hope?!). Benjamin is burnt out - he can't be a slave to his parents' expectations anymore. Mrs. Robinson is just as unsatisfied as he is with the "plastic" (yuk yuk) life they lead. So they turn to the short-term solution of sex. Everyone wants to escape, but nobody really gets anywhere.

6. Blue Velvet (1986)
While I can't exactly say that I like this film in the traditional sense of the word, it's definitely unique and compelling. David Lynch has painted a surreal universe where you are constantly asking which is freakier: Dennis Hopper huffing gas and committing graphic acts of sexual violence, or the chipper and fake everyday people of Lumberton. Lynch subtly implies that there's twisted stuff going on behind every closed door in the burbs.

7. The Ice Storm (1997)
Set in the 1970s during a time of changing values, this film tells the tale of neighboring families getting increasingly intertwined. The ensemble cast is amazing, but Joan Allen stands out in her role of the housewife who just can't stand by and watch her husband cheat and her anymore. Her gradual build towards an outburst can be seen as representative of suburban repression everywhere.

8.The Truman Show (1998) and
9. Hot Fuzz (2007)
I mention these together because, though they diverge wildly in style and content, they are both riffs on a much more literal interpretation of the suburban lie: that it is an actual conspiracy. Whether those nice neighbors are actually members of a violent gang or actors interacting with you for the pleasure of a worldwide viewing audience, the burbs are certainly not what they seem.

10. American Beauty (1999)
Duh. Dad's having a midlife crisis, Mom's having an affair, daughter's having a whirlwind romance with a dangerous stranger, the dangerous stranger's parents don't speak, etc. It's not new or groundbreaking territory by any means, but it's done well and with a snarky edge.

11. Little Children (2006)
Oh, Little Children. You are challenging, you are painful, you are real. It's incredible that Todd Field managed to elicit sympathy for a bunch of adulterers and even a child molester. It's even more incredible that parts of this movie are actually funny.

As a disclaimer, I am aware that there are certain things that would qualify for this list, but I have not seen them. They include, but are not limited to: Edward Scissorhands, The Virgin Suicides, and countless classic zombie or horror films that I don't have the nerves and/or stomach for. Kindly do not freak out at me for this.

What are you favorite films of this genre?

November 14, 2008

My dream week of theater programming

There's a great little independent movie theater in my native Boston called the Brattle Theatre. It has hosted such pivotal moments in my life as almost getting a picture with Simon Pegg and going to a screening of American Splendor because I knew a cute boy was going but ultimately falling completely in love with the film and forgetting the boy. Anyway, they have a cool annual raffle (called the Braffle!) where the winner gets to pick a night of programming for the theater. Anything you want them to show, they'll try to dig it up (read more about it here ). Winning that would clearly be awesome, but I couldn't even begin to think of what I'd pick if I only had one night. Thus my interest was piqued when they posted their schedule for this past March (yes, I started this post a while ago), and I noticed that one of their repertory series is called "Selected By...Andrew Bujalski." Bujalski is a local indie filmmaker ( and now, the target of my fierce jealousy. I've decided that being chosen to inflict your taste upon people - for a week! - is the ultimate measure of success. You can check out his picks here - or just do what I did and start thinking about what your dream program would be.

Let's say you had six days (as Andrew did). You can do single or double features, maybe a triple, themed or not. But before you just start rattling off all your favorite movies, there are some things to take into consideration. First of all, you might want to think in terms of films that could benefit from being shown on the big screen. Silent expressionist classics? Sure. Lavish musicals? Totally. A Will Ferrell movie? Not really. Second, this is your chance to tell people what they should see. Maybe you really like Jaws, but bringing Jaws to the masses won't really make a statement at this point. It's your chance to be that cool friend saying "hey, check out this movie, maybe you haven't heard of it but I think you'll like it" on a large scale. Finally, you would want to pick films that say something about you as an artist or as a person. If someone told you that they like the Beatles, does that really narrow down what kind of a person they are at all? Similarly, if you were to screen Star Wars or The Godfather or The Wizard of Oz, that's pretty noncommittal. Everyone likes those. Also, if you want, it's fun to think of films that go well together, either thematically, chronologically, by person, etc...

So after some consideration, here is my dream "Selects" series!

Ruthless ambition night!

Election (1999)
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Though one is a perky high school student and the other is a sleazy and desperate ad man in New York, both Tracy Flick and Sidney Falco are experts at clawing their way to the top. Election's dark comedy would complement the acidic tone of the jazz-tinged Sweet Smell.

Dance! Dance! Dance!

Center Stage (2000
All That Jazz (1979)

The former is just a straight-up guilty pleasure. It's what a ridiculous dance movie should be: absurd and contrived dialogue, unlikely coincidences, and unironically awesome dance sequences. The latter is especially timely due to the recent passing of its star, Roy Scheider. If you only know Scheider as Captain Brody from Jaws, you're in for a treat if you witness his bravura performance as a thinly veiled portrayal of the film's director, Bob Fosse. Although he doesn't actually do much singing or dancing, those duties are more than amply distributed to the rest of the cast, who create an alternately jubilant, morose, and surreal experience. Would be amazing on the big screen.

Pedro Almodóvar night!

Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown) (1988)
Carne trémula (Live Flesh) (1997)
Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother) (1999)

This is my frenzied cry for America to pay more attention to Pedro. He is my favorite director working today, and the only one whose movies I consistently get ridiculously excited for. I try to push him on people at every possible opportunity. This trio of films represents the three stages of his career pretty well. Early on, his movies were lusty screwball farces, of which Mujeres is the best example. Carne marked his move into melodrama, but is still teeming with the extravagant excess of his earlier work. Todo sobre mi madre is one of my absolute favorite films of all time, and represents a maturation and polish to his films. No detail is overlooked, and Almodóvar dictates everything from casting to set design to soundtrack. He is pure cinema. (They actually had a Pedro program at the Brattle this summer, so maybe this would be better somewhere else.)

Rockin the suburbs!

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1959)
Little Children (2006)

Two very different films, from very different times, that echo the same sentiment: the suburbs are fucked up. The ORIGINAL Body Snatchers (I don't mess with the 70s version, or that Nicole Kidman remake crap) begs the question of whether the emotionless clones of citizens that begin to appear are symbolic of Communists. Whether they are or not, I think we can all agree that giant oozing pods appearing all over town and spawning evil clones is fairly problematic. Little Children, a criminally overlooked masterpiece of 2006, deals instead with inner demons - adultery, pedophilia, porn addiction, isolation, insecurity, and other fun things of that nature. And Patrick Wilson is gorgeous, so now you have no excuse for missing this nonexistent event.

Modern black and white night!

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

I'm always interested by modern filmmakers who choose to film in black and white. Some, like Kevin Smith for Clerks, do it for financial reasons, but Clooney and the Coens wisely chose it for artistic reasons. Both films, set around mid-century, make ample use of gorgeous cinematography with no shortage of langurous cigarette smoking. Stunning cinematography and acting would make this pairing a knockout.


What a Way to Go! (1964)

A breezy matinee to cap off the week. Did you know that there's a movie starring Shirley MacLaine, Robert Mitchum, Gene Kelly, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Newman and Dean Martin, that's a dark comedy that parodies silent film, French film, and musicals? Yes. This exists. And it's awesome.

What would yours be, for a day or a week?

November 11, 2008

What a movie ad's choice of endorsing quote says about the film quality

Having worked at a video store and having seen my fair share of movie posters, ads, and DVD covers in my time, I feel that I have developed a pretty good system of "reading" endorsement quotes. It's really not enough to hear that it's the best movie of the year - you need to know who said so. Additionally, it's only partially about what reviews were received - it's about what review is displayed. Presumably, the quote they choose to flaunt is the best they have. A movie isn't going to proudly display a quote from some podunk reviewer for an Alabama newspaper if they have a glowing review from Variety. So, going on the assumption that the review on the poster is the best and most prestigious one the film has to date, let's see how you can interpret their choice to determine the film's quality. I know this sytem isn't perfect, but it's fairly accurate. Please don't bother giving yourself a hernia from angry commenting, because I know there are exceptions and on some level, this is INTENDED TO BE HUMOROUS. I have provided crappy pictures that I took myself as examples.

If the most prominently (or only) displayed endorsement quote is from...

Local TV or radio stations: it's crap. Also, be wary of reviews that are just straight comparisons. One of my all-time favorites is "If you like Jack Black, you'll like Nacho Libre!" (from the Nacho Libre poster. Wow, bold statement!)

Roger Ebert: This can mean one of two things. It either means that every critic loved it and they snatched up Roger Ebert's quote because he has the most name recognition, OR Roger Ebert was the only one who liked it. Very often he's alone in his favorable opinion of a movie.
Pete Hammond (of Maxim/ Doesn't look good. This guy is the world's biggest sellout. I don't think he has ever written a bad review in his life. He called The Women, a chick flick most chicks couldn't get behind, "hilarious, flat-out fun."

Tabloids/fashion magazines: it's crap. They probably just liked it because it some someone fabulous in it. (If you can't read it, the endorsements below are from Star and Vogue.)

Peter Travers (of Rolling Stone): Peter Travers' opinon of films is comparable to a 13-year-old boy's opinion. He will like it if it is cool, fast-paced, or features explosions, frat-boy humor, a totally awesome soundtrack, and/or shiny things. Depending on your tastes, this is not necessarily bad.

Horror websites, i.e. - It will appeal to horror fans and no one else.

No review: This was not screened for press. It is most certainly crap, and even its makers have no faith in it.

Dropping festival names: If it says the film was an official selection or won things, that's a good sign. Be wary, however, when it says it was just...there.

Associated Press: AVOID.

Some family-type organization: Children can see it and they will not start worshipping Satan. Other than that, no quality can be guaranteed.
Generally, the smaller the name of the reviewing party is printed, the less people want you to know who said it and just remember the sentiment.
Have you found these assessments to be true?

October 8, 2008

Does knowing that the bad guy must lose in old movies affect the viewing experience?

I don't know how well-versed in film censorship history y'all are, but a long long time ago there was a system of censorship in American known as the Production Code. I wrote a massive research paper on it several years ago, but in a nutshell, from 1934 to the late 1960s there were a rigorous set of rules and standards of decency that movies had to meet. Have you noticed a lack of extreme violence, graphic sexuality, and obscenity in older movies? Well, it certainly wasn't for lack of directors trying - that was the Code's doing. I even argued in my paper that these restrictions forced filmmakers to be more creative and subtle, ultimately leading to more sophisticated films - but that's a story for another day.

One aspect of the Code that I've always found interesting is that the bad guys weren't allowed to win. To cite the actual text of the Code, "the treatment of crimes against the law must not: 1. teach methods of crime 2. inspire potential criminals with a desire for imitation 3. make criminals seem heroic and justified." Even in the era of gangster movies, where the audience secretly sympathizes with the gangsters the whole time, their behavior was not allowed to go unpunished. They must either repent, get caught, or die (or all three).

Now, perhaps you have not noticed that in older movies (and keep in mind that this does not necessarily apply to pre-1934 films) it never ends well for people working against the law, even if they are arguably the protagonists. I'm always very aware of it, and it can sometimes color my viewing experience. It's essentially knowing the ending - or at least the general outcome - of every crime movie made in a 30+ year period. I know that a good film should still hold up and be engaging even if you know how it ends, but a certain virgin quality is lost of going in totally unaware.

For example, I recently saw Stanley Kubrick's breakthrough film from 1956, The Killing. It's a taut crime noir about a gang of hoods robbing a racetrack. Even though I was totally hooked on the story, my mind started to wander a little and I couldn't help but thinking, "no matter how well they execute their plan, they will ultimately not succeed." Even though nobody explicitly spoiled the end for me, the truth of that era of moviemaking hung over me. To Kubrick's credit, he actually handles the mandatory disciplining of his lawless characters with deftness and grace, but depending on the nature of the story being told, often the endings just seem slapped on. Take Michael Curtiz's Angels With Dirty Faces (1938). The film features the incomporable king of the gangsters, James Cagney, thugging it up for almost the entire running time and clearly having his escapades glorified, but then shows him being executed at the end, and appearing afraid and pathetic in the face of death so that a gang of street urchins who idolize him will cease to do so. Most modern audiences - and in fact, even the audiences at the time - realized the incongruity of these endings and generally ignored them, but being a sucker for good endings, I still wonder how these movies would end if the directors were left to their own devices.

In trying to think of a film where the bad guys got away with it, the first one that came to mind was Ocean's Eleven (the Soderbergh version - I can't speak for the original). How could they not get away with it? Those guys are heroes! They're too cool to get caught! In modern films, because the possibility of success and failure exist in an equal ratio (unless it's based on a true story), there is actual tension and suspense as to the outcome. Again, the film should still stand on its own if you know who wins and/or loses, but with that knowledge a certain bite is lost.

What do you think? Have you noticed this phenomenon, and has it affected your viewing experiences?

September 18, 2008

Really easy ways to not make a terrible movie

Friends, as a student at one of the nation's most prestigious film schools, I have seen the next generation of American filmmaking.

It is a fucking disaster.

In one of my classes yesterday, my fellow students lamented the inexplicable surge in popularity of zombie culture at our school, and by extension, zombie-themed movies. The oppressively tangible irony of the situation was that the complaining parties were completely guilty of abusing EVERY OTHER FILM STUDENT CLICHE EVER. They had all made movies with strippers, suicides, murderers, etc.

I deserve medals for the screenings I have sat through. There are no apparent storytelling skills, the lighting sources are obvious, the sound is bad, the acting is overly melodramatic, the themes are ludicrous. And there are lots of penises. Yes, penises. I'll get to that later.

I think part of the problem is that some of the professors are too lenient in what they allow. Some probably feel like they have no right to interfere with their students' visions, but allow me to butt in and say that if their visions are shit, they should be told that, and soon.

Filmmaking has rules. The rules aren't in place to be mean and arbitrary, but rather because they are time-tested strategies that are effective at communicating stories in a non-confusing manner. I am 100% okay with breaking the rules, but not because you didn't know them in the first place. For example, the 180-degree rule states that you should never orbit a full 180 degrees around a character in two consecutive shots, because it is spatially disorienting. In Spike Lee's fantastic film 25th Hour, he breaks this rule left and right. This is okay, though, because Lee studied the rule, employed it in other films, evaluated how it would work in this particular project, and consciously decided against it for artistic reasons. This is a far cry from a spatial mess that is a result of sloppy shooting.

The biggest problems I typically see, however, are thematic. What horrible traumas happened to all of these students as children that condemn them to make film after film of morbid, perverse tragedy? During a final screening of student films last year, I kept a running tally of on-screen suicides. I ran out of fingers to count on. The suicides are all the same, too: 1) shot of gun held against head 2) Black screen with gunshot sound 3) Shot of lifeless face in a pool of blood. For the love of God, if you somehow must involve a suicide, do something DIFFERENT.

There are also virtually no comedies. Everyone has this Really Intense Story that they simply need to share with the world. The few comedies that get made, however, are not funny. One film sticks out in my memory about an old-school actor accustomed to performing in blackface, who naturally cannot find work anymore. This had a slight potential to be funny with competent execution, but as it was it just made the audience uncomfortable.

Sometimes I wonder what I would be like as a film professor. I feel that with a few simple rules, so many cinematic train wrecks could be avoided. I don't plan on becoming a professor, though. So, for the sake of my own sanity, I will throw the following advice up into the air and hope it lands on at least a few aspiring filmmakers. It's difficult to make a great film, but it's also not hard to avoid making a terrible one. If I can make a difference in the creative output of even a single person, I will feel that I have done my part to prevent a potential cinematic apocalypse.

(Disclaimer: I am not, by compiling this list, claiming to be the world's greatest filmmaker or any kind of critical authority. But I do think we can all agree on certain points of taste and competence, such as submitting a colonoscopy for a final project. Yeah. See #5.)

1. Have people act their age (and their look).
Your 20-year-old roommate is not a rogue cop. He is not a serial killer. He is not an innocent 13-year-old boy. He is not a weathered father. He is a 20-year-old dude, and he looks like one. Cast accordingly. If you are not going to put in the extra effort to find people who can realistically portray their assigned parts, then make a movie exclusively about people the age of your friends. Nothing wrong with that.

2. Your dingy apartment is not CIA headquarters.
It's not a police station, or a high school, or a brothel, either. It's your dingy apartment. With some art direction, it could be a few different things, but the audience isn't really going to buy it if your rogue-cop roommate brings your serial killer roommate in for government interrogation in front of a blank wall with the corner of a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas poster poking out. If you think I'm exaggerating, I saw a film where a high school with some brown sheets draped around was supposed to be a cave in Iraq. Really.

3. No suicides.
It's lazy. And no murders unless you give me a really, really compelling reason.

4. No strippers/prostitutes. And better women in general!
The vast majority of film majors are males. The vast majority of males are heterosexual. The entirety of heterosexual males are horny. Also, men in college typically lack a world-weary lifetime of experience with women that is reflected in the films of older male directors. The sad result is that their film projects play out as a fairly straight depiction of their fantasies, fetishes, and desires. For instance, I once saw a (silent!) film project about a high school boy with an attractive teacher. Some Googling reveals that his teacher is a former porn star (of course), so the boy (after masturbating vigorously) takes it upon himself to post a printout of her in her porn days on the classroom door. When the class asked the writer/director why the fuck anyone would do that, he just looked away uncomfortably and said that sometimes people feel confused, leading me to believe strongly that this really happened. A script I read in class recently featured a young and attractive girlfriend character who appeared to have a three-second memory - despite her boyfriend constantly ignoring her and mistreating her, within a matter of minutes after any offense she was pawing at him for sex. I shot this mo-fucker down in class, basically saying that this might be his dream girlfriend, but that shit doesn't fly in the real world.

5. No penises.
There's a running joke every year about anticipating which film at a screening will be The Penis Movie. The motivation for showing a penis in these movies is never, ever clear. One movie I saw last year had the following plot outline: man wakes up. Man makes and eats breakfast. Man smokes a cigarette. Man goes to beach. Man strips down naked and wades into water. Man buries himself in sand up to neck. A cockroach walks by. The end. A more famous example around campus featured a guy masturbating, and at the end he backed his asshole into the camera while spreading his butt checks. Straight-up colonoscopy. The only time I could make a compelling point for seeing a penis would be 1) for genuinely comedic purposes, such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, or 2) in the context of a WELL-DONE (emphasis on WELL-DONE) sex scene. Same for female naughty bits, really.

6. Write real dialogue.
Most student films contain dialogue that sounds like it was written by Martians with no knowledge of human interaction. The real genius in crafting dialogue is simply listening to how people talk and communicate. You don't have to write a terse 90 minutes of Tarantino-esque pithy one-liners, and in fact, you shouldn't. Just listen to your friends, your family, yourself. The best dialogue, in my opinion, resonates like something either I or someone I know might have said. Don't try so hard, just listen.

7. Be able to tell a story without words before graduating to words. Words are a privilege, not a crutch.
At our school, we have a rather strange curriculum order. First comes Intro to Media Production, where we make little projects on digital (with sound). Then for film students, there's Film I, which is black and white silent filmmaking. Then Film II, which is color, sound filmmaking. Huh? Kids get so whiny when they can't have their little Tarantinoish dialogue peppering their masterpieces. Well, film was silent for almost 30 years, and they did alright for themselves then. Most students cheat their silent films by filling them with signs, text messages, emails, letters - any kind of type they can, feeling panicked by the silence. If you really think about it, though, you tell people stories all the time that have no dialogue in them. Weird guy following you down the street? Waking up hungover with no idea where you are? A strange dream you had, where nobody talked? There are countless examples. People sitting around and talking is not a movie, unless it's Before Sunrise or Before Sunset (and I am not knocking those movies). One of the best student films I've seen in my time here was about strange cowboy boots that made people so uncomfortable that they died and the sun exploded. And it had virtually no dialogue. It was so out there that it actually worked.

So please. I impore you. Take my bite-sized nugget of alternate film school with you in your journey through life. Remember, you make films for yourself, but also for the audience. If a movie falls in a forest and no one watches it, is it still a movie?

August 30, 2008

Third-person narration done right

A couple of days ago, I saw Woody Allen's latest, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I feel that this film should be taught in film schools - as an example of every single thing not to do. For starters...the title? Um, yeah, it's the two main characters and the setting. It's also hopelessly out of touch - "oh, these crazy young folk and their sexual escapades! They're all bicurious and unfaithful!" It's riddled with tired stereotypes and generalizations - Americans are uptight, conservative, and perpetually dissatisfied! Spanish people are tempestuous and passionate, and are constantly either stabbing or fucking each other! One reviewer astutely pointed out that this film leaves you hungering not for a sequel, but for a prequel - Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz arguing in Spanish and alluding to their former love affair give hints of the movie I would prefer to see. But this film's worst offense, by far, is the voiceover narration.


Ask anyone who's studied film for three or more minutes and they can tell you that one of the cardinal rules of filmmaking is "show, don't tell." Don't have a character say "I am so sad right now!" - have them cry instead. Narration can be a very tricky thing to master - you shouldn't do it unless there's a concrete reason. Third-person narration in particular is near impossible to pull off, because it lacks the personal connection to the story gained from one of the characters narrating in first person. It can't just be a crutch. I think great cinema is achieved when it doesn't take very much to convey a lot. When one look on an actor's face says it all.

Well, in VCB, the actors' looks have to say mostly everything, because the narration renders them useless. The movie is like an audiobook with pictures. One of the opening shots has Vicky and Cristina, played by Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson, sitting in the back of a taxi. The narrator spills out their life stories, values, likes, dislikes, habits, and desires in one fell swoop while the two talented actresses sit there and stare out the window. WTF?! Don't just have a random voice saying "Vicky was conservative and traditional in matters of love, while Cristina was adventurous and free-spirited" (or whatever they said to that effect) - have Vicky on the phone with her man from back home while Cristina flirts with the cab driver. Something! It's so patronizing that it's offensive.

Not only was the voiceover patronizing, it was redundant. Long ago, it became cinematically accepted for characters to do several things in a montage sequence without painstaking explanation. Two characters say "we're going to have a fun day!" Then they go shopping, get ice cream, see a movie, go dancing, walk through the park, etc. These can all happen in rapid succession without someone stopping to clarify everything they're doing. Woody apparently missed this memo, because shots of the characters going to a bakery and a sculpture garden are accompanied by that goddamn voice saying "Then they went to a local bakery and sampled candies and sweets. Then they went to see a sculpture and Vicky thought it was beautiful." Those lines are as close to verbatim as I can remember them. It's like a slideshow of someone's vacation.

So as a favor to Woody, who apparently does not know any of this, I will provide some legitimate and creative reasons to employ third-person voiceover narration as a cinematic device, and some filmic examples of each.

1. To lend an epic nature to the proceedings
Successful examples: The Big Lebowski (1998), Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
At their cores, Lebowski is just a movie about a Los Angeles slacker embroiled in a kidnapping mystery, and Anchorman is a silly story about a newscaster. But by employing a booming voice to set up their stories, The Dude and Ron Burgundy
become heroic men of their times. Another byproduct of this faux-epic setup is, unsurprisingly, humor.
Excerpt: "
And in San Diego, one anchorman was more man then the rest. His name was Ron Burgundy. He was like a god walking amongst mere mortals. He had a voice that could make a wolverine purr and suits so fine they made Sinatra look like a hobo. In other words, Ron Burgundy was the balls." -- Anchorman
Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that's the Dude." -- Lebowski

2. To establish a thematic context
Successful examples: Amelie (2001), Magnolia (1999)
These two films are both largely about the interconnectedness of people, so the narration talks about events that may not pertain directly to the main narrative - but that's exactly the point.
Excerpt: "
On September 3rd 1973, at 6:28pm and 32 seconds, a bluebottle fly capable of 14,670 wing beats a minute landed on Rue St Vincent, Montmartre. At the same moment, on a restaurant terrace nearby, the wind magically made two glasses dance unseen on a tablecloth. Meanwhile, in a 5th-floor flat, 28 Avenue Trudaine, Paris 9, returning from his best friend's funeral, Eugène Colère erased his name from his address book. At the same moment, a sperm with one X chromosome, belonging to Raphaël Poulain, made a dash for an egg in his wife Amandine. Nine months later, Amélie Poulain was born." -- Amelie
(after noting several historical coincidences) "
And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just 'Something That Happened.' This cannot be 'One of Those Things...' This, please, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can't. This was not just a matter of chance. Ohhhh. These strange things happen all the time." -- Magnolia

3. Expressing a character's thoughts that, no matter how talented the actor, they couldn't express themselves
Successful example: Little Children (2006)
A good actor can display a myriad of emotions. He or she can give countless different readings of a line. But there are subtler trains of thought that can't be conveyed any other way. As talented as Kate Winslet is, how else could she communicate the train of though below? Besides, a lot of the source material from Tom Perrotta's novel was probably just too good not to include.
Excerpt: "She didn't feel shame or guilt, only a sense of profound disorientation, as if she had been kidnapped by aliens, and then released, unharmed, a few hours later."
"Sarah was short, and boyish - and had eyebrows that were thicker than Brad thought necessary." -- Little Children

4. To pack in a lot of backstory about a character
Successful examples: The Royal Tenenbaums (2002), Network (1976)
I know I said earlier that the voiceover in VCB explaining the characters' lives away was unnecessary. However, that was because it was discussing their traits and characteristics, which should be able to come out in their performances. At the beginning of the two films listed above, there's just some narrative information that needs to get out there, and fast. Also, when your narrator is Alec Baldwin, it's hardly ever superfluous.
Excerpts: "In the sixth grade, he went into business, breeding dalmatian mice, which he sold to a pet shop in Little Tokyo. He started buying real estate in his early teens and seemed to have an almost preternatural understanding of international finance." -- Tenenbaums
"This story is about Howard Beale, the acclaimed news anchorman on UBS T.V. In this time, however, he was a mandarin of television with a HUT rating of 16 and a 28 audience share. In 1969, however, his fortunes began to decline. He fell to a 22 share. The following year, his wife died, and he was left a childless widower with an 8 rating and a 12 share. He became morose and isolated, started to drink heavily, and on September 22, 1975, he was fired, effective in two weeks." -- Network

5. To set up a chronology that might otherwise be unclear
Successful example: The Killing (1956)
Kubrick's early film received initial criticism for its non-linear account of a robbery, which was cited as confusing. However, that same element holds up as a strong point today. Without the voice specifying what time it was, the full impact of the overlapping storylines might not have been achieved. Interestingly, though, the narration was added at the studio's insistence and Kubrick hated the idea.
Excerpt: "An hour earlier that same afternoon, in another part of the city, Patrolman First Class Randy Kennan had some personal business to attend to."

6. When the source material is a widely-known classic and people will be pissed if it isn't included
Successful examples: movies adapted from Dr. Seuss or Shakespeare
Could you imagine a Dr. Seuss movie without the delightfully nonsensical rhymes of the corresponding book, read in voiceover by some narrator with a twinkle in his eye? Or how about a Romeo and Juliet adaptation (one that uses the original language) where the famous opening is just hacked off? It simply can't be done. Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (1996) added a twist by having that opening read as a newscast, but it was still there.
Excerpts: "Two households, both alike in dignity / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene / From ancient grudge break to new mutiny / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean..." -- any decent R+J adaptation
"And so, all ended well for both Horton and Who's, and for all in the jungle, even kangaroos. So let that be a lesson to one and to all; a person is a person, no matter how small." -- Horton Hears a Who (2008)

What other movies do third-person narration right - or horribly wrong?

August 20, 2008

Actors that are not only still alive, but have been consistenly working since their heyday

It's always sad when a prominent and/or talented star either retires, fades into obscurity, or dies. Sometimes after the former two happen, the star in question will make a comeback, for better or worse (looking at you, Jane Fonda...seriously, Monster-in-Law was worth coming out of retirement?). But there are also curious cases where not only is a star still working, but they never stopped - although simultaneously fading out of the collective consciousness. Here's a sampling of some such actors, whom you might have even assumed to be deceased or retired, but have been slaving away in showbiz all these years (with varying degrees of success).

1. Faye Dunaway
Poor Faye. She was a go-to girl in the late 60s and the 70s for playing complex and sophisticated women, winning an Oscar for her devilish role in Network (1976) and earning nominations for her roles in the classics Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Chinatown (1974).

And then?

Lots of TV movies and TV guest appearances. Dunston Checks In in 1996, where she costarred with a monkey. Independent movies where she is billed near the bottom.

Lowest point: Cougar Club (2007).We're not talking about wildcats here....

2. Eli Wallach
Making his film debut in Elia Kazan's Baby Doll in 1956, Wallach is best known for his menacing turns in The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), but kept busy with juicy roles through the 1970s. He is also a Tony-winning stage actor.

And then?

TV appearances ("Whoopi"??), voiceover work, an uncredited bit part in Mystic River (is that cool or sad?), and headlining several independent films about Italians. At least he's managed to maintain lead or high billing all these years, but that doesn't really matter if no one sees the movie, huh? He shows no signs of slowing down despite being 93 YEARS OLD.

Lowest point: Two Much (1996). Right from the punny title, you know it's comedy genius...

3. Mickey Rooney
Best known as a child star, Rooney of one of the major musical stars in MGM's stable in the 1930s. He made 15 films as his Andy Hardy character, costarring often with Judy Garland, and countless shorts as his Mickey McGuire character. He received four Oscar nominations, and a special "juvenile" Academy Award in 1939.

And then?

He did receive one of his Oscar nominations in 1979 for The Black Stallion, an impressive four or five decades past his heyday. But he never stopped - there were TV movies, endless appearances as a grandfather figure, voice work, and bad, bad movies.

Lowest point: The year 1998. How about Sinbad: The Battle of the Dark Knights (1998), with its stunning 1.6 star rating on IMDB? Or how about Babe: Pig in the City (also 1998), where he is credited as "Fugly Floom, The Speechless Man in Hotel"?

4. Kevin McCarthy
Best known for his role as the lead in the 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, McCarthy also had a Golden Globe-winning turn as Biff Loman in 1951's Death of a Salesman. He also made an appearance on practically every TV show of the 50s and 60s.

And then?

Even though he acted highbrow fare like the 1966 adaptation of Chekhov's The Three Sisters, McCarthy hasn't lost touch with schlock. He played "fire department rescuer" in the campy Mommy (1995) and despite his ripe old age of 94 he has a film coming out called The Ghastly Love of Johnny X (tagline:
" They Sing! They Dance! They're Teenagers from Outer Space!"). He also played Dr. Bennell in Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), a groan-inducing nod to his character's name in Invasion.

Lowest point: Trail of the Screaming Foreheads. Yes. This exists.

5. Lauren Bacall
A husky-voiced screen siren of the 1940s, Bacall made her smoldering debut in To Have and Have Not (1944), playing opposite future husband Humphrey Bogart (they fell in love during filming). They made three more films together, and Bacall moved on to other such films as How To Marry a Millionaire (1953) and Murder on the Orient Express (1974).

And then?

She actually received an Oscar nomination in 1996 for The Mirror Has Two Faces. Through the turn of the millennium, she's been in about one movie a year, often with fairly high billing. You go, girl.

Lowest point: none, really. I mainly included her on this list because she is often thought to be dead. Even if she did star in some movies that weren't amazing, there was no Trail of the Screaming Foreheads equivalent.

Any surprises here? Who else fits this description?

August 15, 2008

The death of the answering machine

Ah, the answering machine. A perfect cinematic device. Even more so than a telephone, really, because you can hear the voice on the other end more clearly. It has so many applications: in the romantic film, after the couple's big fight, the offending party can leave soul-bearing message after message until the offendee can't bear it anymore and picks up. In the thriller, the bad guy can leave a string of menacing messages (although he's probably more inclined to go for the Breathy and Abrupt Phone Call). The comedy sees a hapless protagonist leaving embarassing messages, probably on the machine of his dream girl. And so on.

Trouble is, I don't know anyone with a traditional answering machine anymore. Even those old dinosaurs who still have land lines have probably made a mandatory switch to digital voicemail. Pressing a speed dial button, hearing a short ring followed by the robotic lady saying "Please enter your password," punching in a password, hearing "You have __ new messages" and listening to them just isn't compelling cinema. I've noticed that to cling to the answering machine for as long as possible, some filmmakers hide behind the excuse that a character has a crummy little apartment and isn't tech-savvy. Well, as previously mentioned, most phone companies have forced people into voicemail, so that line of reasoning doesn't fly.

The introduction of cell phones has also had a quiet but profound effect on cinema. In a movie made before the advent of cell phones, if you had arranged to meet with someone at a certain time and place and they didn't show, they were probably dead, kidnapped, standing you up, setting you up, etc. Now it's a different story - give them a quick ring on their cell ("Oh, you meant that park. I'll be right over."). This is a welcome development in the real world, but it makes things a little too easy on screen. Again, some filmmakers are flat-out ignoring the existence of cell phones and clinging to payphones for as long as possible, despite the fact that they barely exist anymore. Payphones/phone booths are another unfortunate loss from the silver screen, as they are wonderfully dramatic - not enough money to finish the call! Random payphone ringing! Calling the person in the next booth over to discuss your evil plans! But in the age of cell phones, payphones just seem sad and ridiculous.

What are some other fading technologies that are winding down their glory days on screen?

August 7, 2008

A few thoughts on celebrity offspring

I like celebrity gossip as much as the next guy. I might not buy a copy of US Weekly, but I'll flip through it in a waiting room, and I'll absorb all the latest dish online. I like to know who's wearing what and who's sleeping with whom - I think it's a perfectly natural human impulse. But there is one aspect of celebrity worship that I simply do not understand: the attention given to their new babies.

We're all adults here (at least maturity-wise, I presume), so let's be honest about something: ALL BABIES LOOK THE SAME. Unless you see their special parts, you can't even tell if it's a boy or a girl. The only variations are size, skin tone, and amount of hair, but a human baby is a human baby. If you put one of the Brangelina twins in a room with 100 other random babies and instructed someone to find the celebrity spawn in the bunch, they couldn't. Now, if you put 100 random men in a room and instructed someone to pick out the one that Angelina Jolie was sleeping with, you probably could on basis on attractiveness (although there was that Billy Bob Thornton debacle). Or which of 100 evening gowns she had worn. The point is, reading about celebrities is fun because of all the sparkle, glamor, and variety, but their babies are the one thing in their lives that are just like everyone else's. They're not born with halos, lightning scars, or an otherworldly glow - there's nothing distinguishing them from some hick baby born in a trailer park.

I sometimes wonder if the tabloids that pay 19 kajillion dollars for a picture or two of a famous baby half-expect something special. They send out their check, and they get back a picture of the celebrity in question holding...a baby. A regular baby. Honestly, I'm not surprised that more people don't try to scam the bloids by sending in a random Google image of a baby and trying to pass it off as one of famous pedigree, because if it wasn't for the inherent shadiness of the source, NO ONE WOULD BE ABLE TO TELL.

The celebrity baby obsession is also pretty bipolar, however. Once these kids are about a year old (or in the case of adopted children, once they've been with a new celeb family about that long), they fade into oblivion instantly. No one cares. Their baby pictures may have financed three new houses, but by age 1 they're dead to the world. Their only hope of re-entering the media is through one or more of the following: 1) an expos
of their famous mom or dad's bad parenting skills that involves them only as a victim 2) an adorably futile attempt to become a star in their own right and not because of their lineage, or 3) some slutty scandal of their own.

And while some stars savor the publicity that their bundles of joy can bring, others (at least act like they) hate it. This
article about Nicole Kidman and child made me roll my eyes so far back in my head that I didn't know if they'd come back. To summarize, she issues a whiny plea to the paparazzi to leave her newborn daughter Sunday alone. This won't work, because she is a celebrity and gave her baby a stupid name like Sunday (as an aside, who wants to be named after the day of the week that you spend groaning about how you have to go back to work/school?). Hey Nicole, you know how you can get the the shutterbugs away from you and your precious cargo? Go back in time and don't become famous, or don't have a baby. Being a celebrity stunned that paparazzi want to stalk your baby is like being a normal person shocked that their baby isn't potty-trained from birth. As powerful as celebrities are, they are powerless to change the social structures designed to document every second of their lives.

What do you think? Am I alone in being passionately disinterested in celebrity spawn?

July 19, 2008

What's a nice movie like you doing in a DVD case like this? or: great films with bad DVD covers

You know the feeling: you go out to buy a DVD of a film you like, thinking how nice it will look on your shelf. And I mean a classy, well-made film. Then you find, to your chagrin, that the DVD cover is abominable and does not do the movie any justice. What are these designers thinking? In this day and age, there are typically a few different versions of a DVD available (different editions, regions, etc.) so you might have a choice - but strangely, the nicer editions tend to have some of the worst cover art. Let's take a look at some DVD covers that make me cringe every time I see them.

Dogma (1999) special edition:

Okay, I just don't get this faux oil painting look. It just looks cheap. I understand the commercial need to cram all the stars on the cover, but this was achieved in the non-special edition with actual photos. The rendering of Linda Fiorentino makes her look like she had fetal alcohol syndrome, and that weird creature in the top center? That's supposed to be Alanis Morrissette. Yuck.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
The special edition of this film has an aesthetically pleasing cover. It looks like this:

Unfortunately, the non-special edition looks like this:

I can just imagine the creation of this image: Designer: The DVD cover's all done, boss.
Boss: What?! But you forgot to put Laurence Harvey on there. He's the MAIN character.
Designer: Oh shit!
Boss: Here's what you do. Just get a HUGE picture of Laurence Harvey and slap him in the front, over everything, with a GUN. Cuz he's the MAIN character. Oh, and mute those colors, will you?

All About My Mother (1999)
The American version of the DVD is nice enough:

The Spanish version, however, uses essentially the same image but a very different rendering:

Ew! There are toddlers than could produce better drawings than that. This is not a picture suitable for an Oscar-winning Spanish melodrama. And the eyes are different sizes! Make it go away!

There Will Be Blood (2007):

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the design here. It’s rather nice and suits the film. But doesn’t Daniel Day-Lewis look a little…funny to you? He looks like he’s made out of wax. While this could serve as a metaphor for the lack of humanity in his character (doubtful), it just comes across as shoddy design.

Silk Stockings (1957):

Who let the caricature artist off the boardwalk?! Cyd doesn't look too bad (aside from being a bobblehead), but Fred looks like some alien with a killer chin. Not cool.

No Country for Old Men (2007):

The problem here is that the cover makes this Best Picture winner look like a shitty movie. From the years I worked at a video store, I can tell you with authority that this design adheres strictly the Straight-To-Video Shitty Movie look: floating heads of actors on top, title in the middle, action-packed image on the bottom. Think about it. If it wasn’t for the star power, the Coen name and Newsweek’s enthusiastic praise, this could easily be an image from Jean-Claude Van Damme Fights People and Blows Things Up #3761. Furthermore, why don’t the names match the floating heads? I know this is common practice, but that’s typically when they’re trying to alphabetize. The names here aren't alphabetical, and it’s even more confusing because one name matches the face. And while I’m at it, what’s with the god-awful poster for this movie?

What’s a surefire way to make Javier Bardem look even scarier? Blur out the bottom half of his face and give him Josh Brolin for a mouth. No Country, you’re an amazing movie, but on this front, you fail epically.

The Apartment (1960) collector’s edition:

Remember The Apartment, that terrible romantic comedy with Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey that millions of squealing girls dragged their annoyed boyfriends to? No you don’t, because The Apartment is a bittersweet Billy Wilder gem with a stellar cast that won the Best Picture Oscar in 1960. But from this image, you’d think it was the former. The major plot elements are painstakingly laid out for morons – you see, there’s this big KEYHOLE, to symbolize the APARTMENT. Shirley MacLaine is flanked by two potential suitors, and she’s SHRUGGING, because she DOESN’T KNOW WHICH ONE SHE’LL END UP WITH! This is just insulting.

If this post has hurt your eyes and your sensibility, I recommend cleansing your palate by browsing the DVDs of the Criterion Collection. Each and every one of their covers is a miniature piece of art that skillfully communicates the theme of the film inside.

For a good read on the tangentially related subject of the differences in poster and DVD art for the same film, check out this post at More Than Fine.

July 16, 2008

Genre study: the war comedy

War: dead soldiers everywhere. Brutality against civilians. Explosions. Destructions. Families torn apart.


Sure. If you ask some directors, war can be a goldmine for comedy (usually of the dark variety). But when do these comedies toe the line of bad taste? Let us examine some standout contributions to the genre.

Civil War

1. The General (1927). This Buster Keaton silent film is more of a showcase for his comic abilities than any particular scathing indictment of war (although the plot is based on true events). One might argue today that the Civil War was so long ago that nobody's blood will boil over it anymore, but at the time of this film's release, the time that had elapsed since the war was about the same as WWII to now. There's also the fact that for American audiences, there's no external force to villainize. Because the North won, it may be a bit difficult to sympathize with Keaton's Confederate-affiliated character, but he's just an everyman trying to get by. This film could have taken place anytime, from the Roman Empire to space wars of the future, but it's really just about Buster being Buster.

Offensiveness cringe scale (from 0-5): 0. The only real politically charged element is that Keaton's sweetheart basically says that he's not a real man if he doesn't enlist.


2. The Great Dictator (1940). Charlie Chaplin was always ahead of his time, and could get downright edgy (in Monsieur Verdoux, he played a lady-killer). Making a film (his first talkie) about WWII before it started? Brilliant. Playing the dual roles of a Jewish barber and a crazed Hitler stand-in named Adenoid Hynkel, Chaplin foreshadows the devastating effects of the war to come. If laughing at Hitler seems a little uncomfortable to you, Chaplin's cartoonish portrayal makes it hard not to, from speaking gibberish as German to his famous ballet sequence with a globe. The Jewish barber is in a hospital for many years with amnesia, and his innocent befuddlement upon returning to his old neighborhood is both funny and tragic. Unlike Keaton, whose war backdrop was more incidental, Chaplin's was completely deliberate. He was a known pacifist who ended this film with a lengthy and well-known speech pleading for peace.

Offensiveness cringe scale: 1 - because it's Hitler, and also because this film was eerily prophetic.

3. To Be or Not To Be (1942). Ernst Lubitsch adds his "Lubitsch touch" to this sparkling comedy about stage actors in Poland during the war. It's a clever premise: the acting troupe keeps playing different roles of figures in the Nazi government to further their cause. Unlike other war films, there is no serious message here - it's all fun. Hard to believe, since WWII was in full swing at this time and star Carole Lombard died right after production in a plane crash. It was a pretty bold move of Lubitsch not to sermonize with this film.

Offensiveness cringe scale: 3. Even though none of the protagonists sympathize with the Nazis, some of the things they say while pretending (or some of the things the Nazis say) are a bit much, particularly the line "Concentration camps - we do the concentrating, the Poles do the camping!" It also portrays Nazis as womanizers trying to seduce people over to their side, and the lack of a serious message lets the comedy keep its full sting. It's still hilarious though.

4. Catch-22 (1970). I could not get through this book. I tried. Twice. But the film is entirely another story, featuring an all-star cast that includes Alan Arkin, Anthony Perkins, Jon Voight, and Orson Welles. The focus of the film is the insane bureaucracy surrounding war, and the measures participants go to in order to stay sane. It also marked a unique piece of cinematic history: it's the first American film to show an actor sitting on the toilet, in the hilarious scene where Martin Balsam's character nonchalantly has a conversation with Perkins while sitting on the john.

Offensiveness cringe scale: 2. It's not intrinsically offensive - more blasphemous, in that it paints the heroic men of WWII as deranged, heartless, wimpy, or manipulative. But is that just the plain truth?

Vietnam War thinly disguised as Korean War

5. M*A*S*H (1970). Korean War? Bitch, please. We know what was really going on here. Robert Altman's film is a curious mix of serious subjects, medical gore, and satire. In contrast to Catch-22, which came out the same year, Altman's protagonists are careless swingers who happen to be really good surgeons. They're kind of like Steve Carrell's character on "The Office" - he has completely the wrong attitude and ethic for the job, but at the end of the day, he surprises everyone by actually being a good salesman.

Offensiveness cringe scale: 3, largely for the characters' misogyny. Again, you don't necessarily feel that Altman endorses these sentiments, but they're there nonetheless - lines like "It's a good thing you have a nice body, nurse, otherwise they'd get rid of you quick."

Cold War-ish

6. Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Stanley Kubrick turned Cold War paranoia on its head in this riotous and outrageous satire. Featuring Peter Sellers in a multitude of roles so convincing that I initially didn't know they were all the same actor, both overzealously patriotic Americans and Soviets are lampooned mercilessly. The best-known line of the film summarizes its circular logic: "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here. This is the war room!"

Offensiveness cringe scale: 3, again with the Hitler. The titular Dr. Strangelove has a condition where his hand involuntarily salutes Hitler. (This is actually a real condition, called agonistic apraxia and nicknamed "Dr. Strangelove Syndrome.") Some may also be offended by the glib and, shall we say, "explosive" finale.

War on Terror

7. Team America: World Police (2004). Right from the self-righteous title you know this movie is gonna be trouble. Your second indicator is that it was made by the creators of "South Park" (Trey Parker and Matt Stone). A film this topical can be hit or miss (Postal, anyone?), but the key is making fun of the right things. And as far as I'm concerned, Parker and Stone hit a home run in that department. And with an all-puppet cast, no less!

Offensiveness cringe scale: 5. This film mocks everyone and everything - from Kim Jong Il to...Matt Damon?! It also boasts catchy songs like "America...Fuck Yeah!" It's probably most known, however, for the filthy sex acts involving puppets that should make anyone with an ounce of decency blush. And yet, like an episode of "South Park," it's a lot smarter than you think.

Basically, the world needs war comedies -whether to lift spirits during a hard time or heave a hearty laugh at how ridiculous we can be. Because as the saying goes, "If we can't laugh, then our enemies win."

July 10, 2008

Is this actually a movie? #2

The second offering in my prestigious line-up of movies that can't possibly be real comes to us courtesy of Uwe Boll. Yes, Uwe Boll, director of such fine films as Alone in the Dark and BloodRayne. The same Uwe Boll who has a petition going to prevent him from ever making another movie. And yes, the same Uwe Boll who challenged his critics to a boxing match.

I present to you: Postal.

Checklist of ITAAM (is this actually a movie) elements (some gleaned from other clips and trailers):

- Brokeback Mountain joke involving George Bush and Osama bin Laden? Check.
- Verne Troyer? Check.
- Tons of monkeys? Check.
- Hot Nazi girls with Hitler mustaches? Check.
- Dave Foley's dong? Check.
- Painfully easy Tom Cruise jokes? Check.
- Suicide bombers debating the number of virgins they get to shag in heaven? Check.
- The guy who played the Soup Nazi? Check.
- A tasteless recreation of the 9/11 attack that shows a guy blowing up? Check.

And much, much more!

Inexplicably, this film won not one, but two awards at the Hoboken International Film Festival. Yet at a free screening at the same festival, 200 people walked out.

I have provided not one, but two trailers for you that highlight different elements of the film's ridiculousness. If you're still somehow enticed to see this catastrophe in the full, it comes out on Blu-Ray next month, so you can see the poor taste at superior quality. And may God have mercy on your soul.

July 7, 2008

Addicting site for tracking movie-viewing progress

Wouldn't it be cool to quantify the percentage of Academy Award Best Picture winners you've seen and check them off as you go? How about the AFI Top 100? The 1001 movies to see before you die? Palm d'Or winners? All Hugh Grant movies ever?

Well, now you can.

Enter Lists of Bests ( You can plow through the above lists and more, and user-created ones as well (Mindi T's "The Saddest Movies Ever Made," anyone?). The site also has similar listings for books, music, and more. You can add lists to your account that you're currently working on, and if an item appears on more than one list it'll already be checked off for you (unless it's a different DVD version, which can be a bit confusing). So addicting.

Here's how much I've seen from some major lists:

Best Picture winners: 41%
Steven Jay Schneider's 1001 Movies to See Before You Die, 2nd ed.: 20% (oh come on, it's really long)
Time Magazine's 100 Greatest Films: 41%
AFI Top 100 (1998 version): 59%
AFI Top 100 (2007 version): 62%
Edward Copeland's 100 Greatest Foreign Films: 19% (working through it this summer...)
Films of the Criterion Collection: 8% (working on it...)
100 Highest-Grossing Films at the U.S. box office: 37%

Have fun!

When DVD cases or menus ruin everything

Call me old-fashioned, but I don't like to know the ending of a movie before I watch it. I don't think that's too much to ask. Sometimes a friend ruins it for you, or you accidentally wander into a minefield of spoilers on the interwebs. But the worst is when endings are betrayed by DVD cases, menus, or anything else you could easily stumble upon in the viewing process. So as a public service to my readers, I would like to compile a list of films that fall into this category. Here are two examples that happened to me:

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) - This is a a Tennessee Williams adaptation with a star-studded cast. I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more, however, if the entire quasi-twist ending wasn't revealed on the back of the DVD case! (and the IMDB plot synopsis too, as it turns out). At the video store where I used to work, this pissed me off so much that I covered the back of the case with a piece of paper on which I wrote my own, spoiler-free synopsis.

Barton Fink (1991) - If you are catching this surreal Coen Brothers flick on DVD, close your eyes and ears while it loads - some genius chose to make footage from the wild and unexpected ending be the loop that plays behind the menu!

Okay, so now I need your help. Have you ever had this happen to you and want to spare others the agony? Email me your experiences at Don't post to the comments section, because I want to formally compile these. Do a good deed for the sake of your fellow film fans!

June 11, 2008

Is this actually a movie? #1

Being a cinephile, as I am, I try to keep up on the latest developments in the world of film. I'll read magazines or articles on the Internet about the latest movies, and I'll watch trailers of upcoming flicks. But every now and again, I find myself asking of a certain title, "Is this actually a movie?" Not just because it seems bad, but because you can't think of more than two people on God's green earth that would ever want to bring this film into existence. My mind starts reeling at the number of people who must have thought this movie was a good idea in order for it to get made. Directors, producers, actors showing up every day to put their heart and soul into something that anyone could see is a piece of crap. It's simply stunning. I think perhaps the first time I uttered those exact words was when I saw the trailer for Norbit. My response was the same as if I had seen a unicorn prance by the window: is this real?

So, in order to better share this phenomenon with my darling readers, I will begin a series called "Is this actually a movie?", featuring films that elicited that reaction from me. Let's begin!

The inaugural title is actually one I had known about for a while, but I am still in disbelief that it actually came through. It is called You and I. Sounds harmless, right? Well, the original title was Finding t.A.T.u. Yeah. As in the faux-lesbian rocker duo from Russia that had a hit song like five years ago. Oh yes.

The source material for this movie may be the only thing in the world crazier than the movie itself. It's based on a novel about two lesbians who meet at a t.A.T.u. concert in Russia. Yes, there is a novel about that. And do you know who wrote it? A Russian politician who was a member of the Russian Parliament, a manager for several bands, and the director of a porno. I am not creative enough to make all of that up.

The movie is directed by two-time Oscar nominee Roland Joffe (nominated for The Killing Fields and The Mission), although his last film was the let's-put-a-hot-girl-in-a-cage classic Captivity.

The star is Mischa Barton, doing a ludicrous Russian accent and apparently working in a meat processing plant. Interestingly, Barton refuses to promote the film, and was MIA at the premiere, fueling speculation that even she thinks it sucks.

And yes, the internet is portrayed as a series of neon tubes.

Anyway, just watch the trailer, because as is the case with most of these can't-believe-they're-real movies, you really just have to see it to believe it.

Well, at least there's a guaranteed audience of horny dudes who like lesbians. Then again, some crazies are still disturbingly obsessed with t.A.T.u....