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 (http://www.listsofbests.com/lists/home/movies). 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 jsesnovich@yahoo.com. 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!