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Monday, December 10, 2012

First Impression: Star Trek Into Darkness

Last week, the teaser trailer for Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) hit the web with a flurry of excitement. Most of the buzz has focused around Benedict Cumberbatch's character; could he be the infamous Kahn? To me, the more important question is this: how does Into Darkness seemingly fit into the Star Trek canon?

What jumps out to me is the atmosphere of the trailer. J.J. Abrams has gone to great lengths to make this a gritty, jagged environment. I cannot help but think of it as a Nolanized version of Star Trek. Without Nolan's wildly financially and critically successful Dark Knight trilogy, would Abrams have had such a dark vision for his second Trek outing? Instead of focusing on space, Abrams is locating this story at least partially in the city. Like Nolan's Batman vision, Abrams seems to be presenting a more "realistic", humanistic version of Star Trek, one unlike we've ever seen before.

Also interesting is the focus on the theoretical villain. The proliferation of comic book films has sparked an increased interest in bad guys. Abrams's relaunch of the Star Trek franchise established the "goodness" of the Enterprise crew, orienting us within the ensemble cast. However, this single film did need leave me with a strong knowledge of Abrams's Trek universe; ignoring the known characters in this trailer leaves me feeling a little bit empty. What is their relationship to Cumberbatch? Do they feel anger, nervousness, fear, disgust? Is Cumberbatch even evil? These questions are leading people to latch onto the idea of Kahn to make any sense of the trailer. Without knowing the , I feel less intrigued and more vaguely irritated.

But what is truly missing for me is the most important character of all: the Enterprise. The ship is obscured in a few shots, mostly by water. What's missing is the money shot of the Enterprise cruising through space, jumping into warp speed. This would be a reward for Trek fans' dedication. Instead, we have to hold out in the hopes of seeing threads of classic Star Trek.

Are the visuals stunning? Absolutely. Does Abrams love and respect for the franchise? Of course. How do I feel about Into Darkness? Based simply on this trailer, I'm a bit nervous, but I hope to become more optimistic as future trailers emerge. Come May, I'll certainly be in the theater to render judgment.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Why I'm Not Watching Liz & Dick

I am a sucker for campy movies. I've watched Showgirls more than any human should, and I worship at the throne of John Waters. However, I refuse to indulge the train wreck that is Liz & Dick, and here's why.
Liz and Dick

Lindsay Lohan's slow decline has been detailed in every American tabloid. Between the drug abuse, rehab visits, jailings, DUIs, and other scandals, she has been very busy over the past few years. What hasn't she been doing? Working. Her reputation has made it practically impossible for her to get insurance on set. In fact, Lifetime had an incredibly difficult time keeping her insured; in the 3 short weeks they were shooting, rumor has it that Lohan trashed Elizabeth Taylor's original trailer, didn't pay her bill at the Chauteau Marmont, and drove without permission. That's no shortage of drama, but Lifetime knew it would be worth it for the schadenfreude viewership. Everyone is waiting for the next installment of the Lohan downward spiral, and Lifetime is only happy to oblige. Their image is already laughable, so what do they have to lose?

Lohan, on the other hand, is pretty desperate. She's referred to as the "Mean Girls star"; not only was the movie released a whopping 8 years ago, but the most memorable characters and lines belonged to other actors, not to her. If she wants her brand to stop bleeding money, she needs something -- anything -- on her resume. There are two main problems here: she never was a truly talented actress, and she isn't even trying. Just the gifs from Liz & Dick show how Lohan has lazily sighed her way through the role she claimed would prove her worth. Between her distractingly bad plastic surgery and her lack of enthusiasm, this movie just seems painful to watch.

So this train has been wrecking for at least 6 years. At first it was titillating, then it was a sick obsession. Now, it's just plain sad. Watching Liz & Dick just lines Lohan's pockets with a few more pity bucks to continue her downward slope. If enough of us take a stand against Lohan, maybe she'll take a step back so that she can stop being the laughing stock of the internet. Admittedly, I'm enjoying the ridiculous gifs and innumerable articles this TV movie has spawned -- I'm only human -- but I'm officially stepping away from Lohan until further notice.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Skyfall: A More Feminist Bond?

Ever since I was a little girl, I've looked forward to the release of the next James Bond movie. I loved the pulse-racing action and the witty puns, but I have always struggled with the female roles. From their absurd innuendo names to their irresponsibility, Bond girls are not exactly feminist icons. Skyfall (2012, directed by Sam Mendes), I would argue, liberates its female characters to go beyond the classic Bond girl fate. (Obviously, there are spoilers ahead. Consider yourself warned.)
Severine, Bond Girl

The most important part of feminism is not where the characters end up -- it's about choice and agency. A woman can be a stay-at-home mother and a feminist if that is her choice. The classic Bond girl has no agency; she simply submits to the men around her, has one night of passion with Bond, and then dies horribly. At first glance, Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe) falls into this trope. She escaped the horrific sex trade to become the girlfriend/slave of abusive and psychotic Silva (Javier Bardem). Of course, she also sleeps with Bond (Daniel Craig) and is quickly executed the next day. Some critics have argued that this death was totally anti-feminist and unjustified. Indeed, the death does feel cruel, as though Bond finds women disposable. However, it is critical to consider this scene within the context of the film. In the opening sequence, M must choose whether or not she can risk Bond's life to potentially stop an intelligence leak. Of course, she decides that national security is worth more than one man's life. Bond feels absolutely betrayed until he is faced with the same decision: does he rescue the girl and risk losing the terrorist, or does he sacrifice her to await reinforcements and capture his foe? Like M, he has to make the rational choice, both in order to complete his mission and to forgive MI6.

Eve Moneypenny

Let's move on to Eve (Naomie Harris), another MI6 field agent. Despite her young age, she seems to hold her own on missions; she's able to fight, chase, and shoot as well as any spy. In the opening sequence, M gives her the order to shoot at a terrorist, despite the fact that she doesn't have a clean shot. Although she hesitates, she does fire, accidentally hitting Bond in the process. Here, Eve is at a crossroads: does she continue her job to the best of her ability, or does she have an emotional breakdown because she is of the "weaker gender"? She chooses the stronger path, continuing in her duties. But this isn't the final choice that Eve faces. Near the end of the film, she must select her future path with MI6: field agent or desk job. She has demonstrated her abilities in both positions, so she has the agency to select her future. There is no shame in choosing an office job, especially when it could save her life. Of course, this leads up to the big reveal that she is Moneypenny, thereby transforming the classic secretary character in a more complicated and lively role.

M

And then there's M (Dame Judi Dench). Like the English bulldog statue on her desk, she's constantly vigilant, fighting for England as the head of MI6. Consider that for a moment: as a woman, she is in charge of a critical national security division. Few female characters in films occupy such positions of power. In the face of controversy and political discord, she would rather go down with the ship or be terminated than retire. Of course, her power also makes her the target of the terrorist Silva's plot to destroy MI6 and kill M. Even as Silva is en route to execute her during a Parliament meeting, she refuses to run; she would rather face the judgment of the government and a terrorist than lose her dignity. Truly, she is a feminist character if ever there were any in a Bond film. This makes it all the more devastating when she dies of a gunshot wound near the end of the film. Is this an anti-feminist move? I dare say no. Her death highlights her strength and composure -- and, ultimately, it has nothing to do with her gender. This also paves the way for Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), head of the Intelligence and Security Committee, to step into the role of M. This reorients the Craig Bond films to fit within the classic series. Thus, her death allows us to come full circle, completing a 50 year journey that hopefully ends with a little more female empowerment.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Why The Walking Dead Matters

A few years ago, zombies were the hottest trend in media. You couldn't go into a store without finding zombie t-shirts, books, and movies. The Walking Dead hit at the height of this trend, but it has remained popular as trend-lovers have moved on to vampires and werewolves. Clearly, there has been no shortage of zombie films, but The Walking Dead* pushes all zombie movies and television to be stronger. Here are the unique points of difference that elevate the show from zombie horror to well-done drama.
The Walking Dead
1. Sex without sexualization. Practically every zombie movie or video game features hypersexualized female characters. For some reason, I have a hard time believing that women would fight for their lives in leather booty shorts and see-through t-shirts. The women in The Walking Dead wear realistic clothing and contribute equally to the group's survival. While multiple character engage in their fair share of sexual relationships, they are presented within the context of daily living. Obviously, the televisual medium does limit the overt nudity that occurs during the sex scenes, but the show could very easily focus on the women's bodies. Instead, they are sexual without being exploited.

2. Accessibility. The Walking Dead isn't just for horror fans. The show highlights the tension between humans when confronted with survival in a hostile environment. These characters are facing the reality of death every single day, so viewers are presented with multiple (often conflicting) opinions on how to react in life-or-death situations. This focus on humanity instead of death broadens its appeal to a wider, less horror-centric audience.

3. Balance. It's lots of fun to see creepy, scary, gory zombies attack people. However, it takes contrast to create tension; otherwise, we'd just be stuck with inevitable death. It's a lot more terrifying to see the characters create camps outside of Atlanta or at the farmhouse, be lulled into a false sense of comfort, then get attacked than it would be to just have the character be constantly bombarded by zombies. Rationing the zombie moments also makes them far more effective. For example, the bicycle girl of season 1 was so compelling because she was a small, legless zombie in a quiet, empty field. She would not have been so haunting if she had been, say, crawling across a parking lot filled with zombies in an episode with 20 different zombie attacks.
This is not to say that The Walking Dead has been perfect in its balance. The first half of season 2 suffered from a shocking lack of zombies. Instead, the show focused on the personal struggle between group leader Rick and bad boy Shane trying to win the alpha male position in the group. After more than 10 episodes of this, I came seriously close to quitting the show forever, but the second half of the season completely redeemed the show. This section restored movement, tension, and dynamic interactions into what was becoming a stagnant, lifeless season.

4. Different strokes for different folks. The limitation of a zombie movie is that there is a very small amount of time to squeeze in character development. Obviously, it's so much easier to develop 3-4 main characters in 2 hours than it is to include 10+ main characters. Television allows The Walking Dead the luxuries of developing personalities over time and introducing new characters to keep things fresh. This allows for a much broader representation of gender and race without feeling forced.

5. Zombie evolution. (CAUTION: POTENTIAL SPOILER!) What could be more terrifying than not knowing how to fight a plague? At first, people are only zombified via flesh wound, but the disease evolves to turn every dead person into a walker. This implies that the virus could further mutate and cause living people to become zombies without any injury. Such developments spark more questions, which makes the show even more compelling.

So what's your take on The Walking Dead? Is it a fresh take on horror, or is it just the same content in a different medium?


* I'm aware the show is based on the comic series. For this discussion, I'll be discussing why these particular elements are important for television/film.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Friday Feature: 007 Edition

James BondGrowing up, James Bond was an absolute institution. The movies were everywhere. Even though my family didn't particularly enjoy the series, we would always tune in when the films were on television. I developed a lifelong habit: I watch the first half hour for exposition, take an hour long nap through the cat-and-mouse middle, then wake up for the thrilling conclusion. As an adult, I now love Bond films -- after all, my generation will always hold a certain affinity toward GoldenEye (1995) -- but I do admit to taking the occasional nap for old time's sake. Since today is the 50th anniversary of the first James Bond film, Dr. No, I can think of no better way to celebrate than with a classic film! Enjoy with a healthy dose of humor (and maybe a hearty nap, just for good measure).

Moonraker (1979) is an unusual choice for a variety of reasons: it stars Roger Moore, Bond goes into outer space, and it's absurdly comical. Its brilliance lies in spoofing the Bond franchise. It takes just 3 minutes for 007 to feel up a woman and instantly be held up at gunpoint. This leads to the spy getting into a mid-air parachuting fight with fan-favorite villain Jaws; it is only fitting that the foe loses and lands on a circus tent, an obvious symbol of the campy fun the film invokes. Moonraker also has the pleasure of starring one of the most absurdly named Bond girls: the not-so-subtle Holly Goodhead. I can't help but chuckle whenever I hear the name. These jokes acknowledge how insanely unrealistic the whole franchise can be; instead of being more realistic, the movie gives us a wink and a nod.

But for all of its humor, Moonraker includes enough classic chases to keep action fans satisfied. This fight to save humanity spans California, Venice, Rio de Janeiro, and yes, outer space. The flamboyant sets and gadgetry are as spectacular as any other Bond film. Without a doubt, my favorite scene occurs at the Carnival celebration. The setting heightens the senses: the music is pounding, the revelers are gyrating, and the costumes are thrilling metallics that resemble Jaws's namesake dentistry. Initially disguised as a clown, Jaws attacks Bond's companion in an alley. It is not until this moment that our hero dons his classic tuxedo; he needs his common enemy to take him from James Bond to full fledged 007. This encounter sets the tone for the rest of the film. In short, come for the Goodhead, but stay for the Jaws.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

First Impression: The Iceman

Autumn means three things: Halloween, pumpkin everything, and film festival season. So many amazing films are being screened right now, which means that so many brilliant trailers are now hitting the web. My personal favorite trailer preview is for the hitman thriller The Iceman (directed by Ariel Vromen) starring Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, and James Franco. As usual, my buddy Stephanie of Classified Cinema Club joins me to discuss the trailer.
Jess: What intrigues me about The Iceman is that it seems to deal with mobs in a very serious way. Gangsters have been so sexy in the past few years (Sopranos, Mob Wives, etc.) that it's refreshing to see a truly terrifying take on gangs.

Stephanie: I completely agree with that, and it's what I find interesting about it too. It's not too slick and Hollywoodized, which is refreshing because it would have been so easy for them to go that route.
Jess: It's also really, really difficult to make a hitman sympathetic without romanticizing his story. They took the hard route by eliminating the sex appeal.
Stephanie: Absolutely. I'm really interested in seeing how they handle the family story lines. That is what sparks my interest the most. We've all seen mob movies millions of times, but showing the family life more would keep my attention.
Jess: In that regard, it reminds me of Abel Ferrara's The Funeral, which deals with close family ties, death, and gangs. The tone is also very similar: sad, sinister, and quiet while building to something greater.
Stephanie: Wow, nice reference. It's been a while since I've seen The Funeral, but I just think that diving into the man behind the hit man will make The Iceman stand out. Also, who doesn't love Michael Shannon?
Jess: There's something very haunting about his portrayal, something that beckons for repeat viewing. I've probably watched the trailer 5 times already because his characters are always so nuanced.
Stephanie: So nuanced. He is so utterly believable in this role, like all his roles, that you can't turn away from him onscreen. I'm interested to see Chris Evans pull off a grittier role, too. Hopefully he can pull it off well.
Jess: It's an absolute transformation to see him look like a gross 70's porn star, and I applaud him for it. It would be so easy to ride the Captain America wave, but he's really rebelling.
Stephanie: Agreed. He's taking a risk, and hopefully it pays off.
Jess: I'm also excited to see Mr. Goodfellas himself, Ray Liotta.
Stephanie: Totally. How do you feel about Winona and Franco?
Jess: Winona looks fantastic, but Franco is a real sticky wicket for me.
Stephanie: We've just been so oversaturated with Franco. I have a hard time taking him seriously anymore.
Jess: Absolutely. He's a caricature of himself at this point, so he really downgrades the film. If this were in the future when we've had more distance, that'd be a different story. It just makes me hope that Michael Shannon gets to kill him quickly.
Stephanie: I agree. I think he needs to take a break, completely focus on doing one thing really well. It's like he's always just phoning everything in.
Jess: There's also a smugness that's saturated his performances. It's like he's smirking all the time.
Stephanie: It's rather condescending. Like this is all a big joke, but we're not in on the joke.
Jess: Definitely agree. He hasn't taken a serious role in a while, and I'm not sure this was a great fit for him. I'd love to be proven wrong, though.
Stephanie: Me too. I'd love to see him blow it out of the water.

Needless to say, I anxiously await details of The Iceman's theatrical release. With its excellent cast, foreboding tone, and unique story, this film looks to be a much-needed addition to the gangster film dialogue. What do you think of the trailer? Are you excited to see The Iceman?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Liz & Dick: Schadenfreude Fail

It's no secret that bad things can be enjoyed in ironic, campy, or even malicious manners. I have been known to indulge in my time (after all, this is Film Fromage, not Film Great Taste). As such, I assumed that Lindsay Lohan's "comeback" TV movie, Liz & Dick, would be deliciously trashy. The trailer, released yesterday, proves just how wrong I was.

Frankly, these 30 seconds made me feel sad. Everything is absolutely wrong. Instead of being overly dramatic a la Showgirls or infusing some humor, the trailer's tone is rather earnest. Reminder: This is a Lifetime TV movie starring Lindsay Lohan. Capitalize on her scandalous image in connection with Elizabeth Taylor's not-so-girl-next-door antics instead of being so very literal. Nobody is watching this as a serious biopic, so make it enjoyable!

Despite its earnestness, the trailer has seemingly no content. Sure, sexy words like "scandalous" flash on the screen, but nothing feels daring or edgy or even interesting. There isn't enough dialogue to excite or enough acting to feel compelled to tune in. Surely, Lifetime was trying to lure us in with some mystery and intrigue, but all they delivered was empty buzzwords and a couple of costume changes.

But what's even more distracting is Lohan's face. I understand that not every actress will look identical to the person she is portraying (i.e., Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn). However, Lohan's face is painfully bloated, making her look downright comical. Not only does she not look like Taylor, she does not look like herself -- she's Lindsay Lohan pretending to be Lindsay Lohan portraying Elizabeth Taylor. Sadly, the only time she even remotely embodies Taylor is when wearing huge sunglasses and a salt and pepper wig from late in life. Thus, her image's downspin overpowers any possible content within the trailer.

Let's be clear: Lohan knew what she signed up for with this film, and Lifetime was happy to indulge. That doesn't make me feel any better watching a shadow of the former Lindsay Lohan struggle at something so mediocre. There is no schadenfreude to be found here, just sadness.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Why a Bad Box Office Isn't Bad for Viewers

It's no secret that this summer's box office had the lowest ticket sales since 1993, despite 2 blockbusters earning over $1 billion. It seems that moviegoers just weren't as interested in buying tickets, and who could blame them? Just because box office spending was down doesn't mean that cinephiles weren't get their fixes. Here are few reasons why customers have been avoiding theaters -- to the detriment of the box office but not their entertainment.

1. Really awful movies. Let's reflect on this summer's offerings: Dark Shadows, Battleship, What to Expect When You're Expecting, Rock of Ages, etc. As a cinema lover, I usually hit the theater every week or two for a show; I love the experience so much that I'm willing to pay for the experience, even if the movie is just decent. This summer I've gone weeks, sometimes more than a month without the big screen because I'm just not going to pay a premium for absolutely absurd movies. If I want to watch something terrible, I'll just watch Netflix, thank you very much.

2. Really amazing television. Cinema-quality television shows are becoming easier to access with subscription cable networks, Netflix, Hulu, and other on-demand options. AMC sets the bar extraordinarily high with its popular shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead. These shows shatter the traditional 3 camera set up, offering cinema-quality visuals with compelling story lines, excellent writing, and stellar performances. That means that television is filling the content void that a weak box office creates. When movie lovers have the option of staying home to watch Game of Thrones or going to a sub-par movie, chances are they'll choose the former.

3. 3-D fatigue. I enjoy my fair share of silly 3-D in campy horror films, but there's no reason movies like Men in Black III and Step Up Revolution need to be in 3-D. Viewers seem to be increasingly upset over the high cost of 3-D tickets, especially when the technology adds nothing to the film.

4. Nontraditional releases. Crafty distributors are finding lucrative opportunities to skip the expensive and complicated wide theater distribution in favor of alternative venues. Online rentals allow the distributor to generate excitement for a film; since the rental is for a limited time, the viewer still has to pay for repeat viewing after the rental expiration. For example, Bachelorette was released for rental on iTunes before a limited theater release. Likewise, some films (and television shows) are being released on subscription models like Netflix. The most notable example of this is the upcoming season of cult-favorite Arrested Development. The beauty of these models is that they provide a cheaper alternative to the theater experience. Because they are only accessible through a rental or subscription, they are not always available, which means the value of a purchased DVD or download is not diluted by these competitive media.

It's my (somewhat futile) hope that Hollywood seriously analyzes this summer to find the faults in the box office. As cinephiles, we want to buy tickets and see shows, but we won't stand for the pathetic offerings we've had to endure. We're voting with our dollars, and there are far too many amazing things out there for us to sit through another Bourne movie.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Delayed: A Cinephile's Nightmare

At the beginning of every season, I like to take a step back and look at the upcoming releases. I'll watch a few trailers and make mental notes around which holidays or special occasions the releases lie, gearing myself up for the exciting (or depressing) future of the box office. Of course, right around these summer doldrums lingers a dark, evil word that no cinephile wishes to see: DELAYED.

Now, there are many perfectly valid reasons for a film to be delayed, the most obvious of which being that it's just not done. Reshoots happen, schedules get pushed back, special effects need perfecting, and so on. This is an unfriendly reminder that humans are imperfect, and as such, sometimes things don't happen on time. Take, for instance, Gangster Squad, which was slated for a September opening. After the Dark Knight Rises theatre shooting, Warner Brothers decided to pull Ganger Squad due to a similar scene. The movie is now undergoing intense reshoots for a release early next year.

But delays aren't always so innocent. Sometimes studios delay films because they've exhausted their marketing budgets for the year. Other times, they look at the award season competition and gamble on which year will give them better results. After all, even film people are in the business of making money.

Worst of all, though, is the unexplained delayed. Really, I'm talking about Baz Lurhmann's The Great Gatsby being pushed from this December to next summer with no explanation. Perhaps it's because studios were worried that the box office is only big enough for one Leonardo DiCaprio film in December (what nonsense!), but nobody knows for sure. Instead, we'll all let out a collective sigh and rearrange our mental schedules.

Wallowing cinephiles, remember this: there are always more movies. Even if we have to wait with anticipation for some, we have innumerable others available to us. Let's just hope that the studios don't forgot how quickly our eyes can wander, though.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Bachelorette: Not Just Another Bridesmaids

It's Women's Equality Day here in America, so there's no better film to discuss than Bachelorette (2012, Leslye Headland). Originally a stage play, this film was just in production as a giant hurdle appeared: a tiny little film called Bridesmaids (2011, Paul Feig). It's rare enough for audiences to get one female-centric comedy, let alone two on the same subject so close together. Given the blistering success of Bridesmaids, is there room at the table for even more raunchy females?
Bachelorette
In short: yes. Where Bridesmaids dabbles in vanity and gross-out comedy, Bachelorette goes straight for serious issues. The three main characters -- Regan (Kirsten Dunst), Gena (Lizzy Caplan), and Katie (Isla Fisher) -- have failed to achieve much outside of high school, and they must pull it together to celebrate the wedding of Becky (Rebel Wilson, who was also in Bridesmaids). They aren't dealing with broken hearts, ice cream, periods, and other cliché "women's issues"; instead, they struggle with drug addiction, abortion, infidelity, and eating disorders. With such serious problems at stake, the film could quickly become a Lifetime movie of the week tearjerker. Instead, it embraces the flaws and shows that women can be hilarious in the face of adversity. These moments also produce one of my new favorite motivational phrases: "Fuck everyone."

As with most films where the characters are insulting friends and doing too much cocaine, the performances are critical in creating sympathy for the characters. Dunst's acting showcases the miniature fractures in seemingly perfect Regan's veneer. As she frequently does, Caplan portrays an outsider character, but this time there's a pain and tenderness that I haven't seen in her performances since Party Down. Perhaps it's Adam Scott (playing Gena's ex-boyfriend, Clyde) who brings out the best as Caplan's foil. The only disappointment I had was that Fisher didn't push her character to be more memorable; instead, her character Katie turns into more of a hard partying airhead than a complicated and interesting woman.

Now that I've quickly gone over the film, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the movie's inspired release strategy. Bachelorette performed well at this part January's Sundance Film Festival, but it did not immediately hit wide distribution. After all, the spectre of Bridesmaids was still looming, so it would be a huge risk to invest millions of dollars in a film that audiences thought might be a simple copy. Instead, it was distributed via video on demand first, becoming one of the most popular rentals on iTunes as of this writing. Such a strategy not only tests the waters before investing in a full release but also can prove the strength of a film when moving from limited to wide release. Next week, the film will enter limited distribution, and I'm excited to see how the unique release strategy impacts both Bachelorette and future films. In the meantime, I highly recommend that you spend the $9.99 to rent the film on iTunes.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Why a Justice League Film Matters

Rumor has it that a Justice League movie is coming, potentially with Ben Affleck at the helm. Following the epic success of The Avengers, it's absolutely no wonder -- Marvel has figured out how to create not just a series of films but a dedicated film universe. Assuming DC isn't just having a case of me-too-ism, here are 5 reasons why a Justice League movie matters.

1. Strong female characters. This may not be the top priority for some people, but the Justice League has more than its fair share of badass women. Although the original roster only had one female, Wonder Woman, the team has since expanded to include almost every superheroine: Huntress, Hawkgirl, Black Canary, Zatanna, and so on.

2. There's something for everyone. Because the Justice League encompasses so many characters, lots of personalities are represented. Obviously, the film wouldn't include heavy screen time for many characters, but the diversity of the team really makes a difference. Not every member is sarcastic, handsome, or even human.

3. It ties everything together. For years, DC has been producing movies for Superman, Batman, and even the Green Lantern (with some false starts on a Wonder Woman show/film), but everything has existed separately. By combining the efforts into one movie, DC can carry the momentum from the Justice League into each of the separate ventures. After all, there won't be a new Avengers movie every year, but new films for the individual characters can be peppered throughout a few years to keep the steam going.

4. It appeals to a wider audience. For example, my hatred of Superman runs pretty deep, but I'm always willing to watch Superman television episodes if there's some Batman material involved. A Justice League movie probably won't change my decades-long disdain for Kal-El, but it may convince me to sit through a separate Superman movie I wouldn't have watched otherwise.

5. The stage has already been set. There's certainly no shortage of source materials for a Justice League film, and the Justice League television series has won numerous awards. Likewise, there's an active Green Lantern/Hal Jordan (albeit not well received) and a new Superman on the horizon. Forward momentum is building, and DC needs their next big thing now that the Dark Knight trilogy has wrapped up.

Notice that I did not include "to beat Marvel" or "to compete with Marvel". The better superhero/comic-based films do, the better for the entire industry. We don't want more Elektra or Daredevil-types of movies; we want witty, engaging films that reward our knowledge of comics while still appealing to non-comic book audiences. DC has produced some excellent material, and the time is right to push forward with the Justice League.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Critics, Don't Be Lazy and Blame the Young

Yesterday, a Los Angeles Times piece swept across the internet with some fervor. Neal Gabler's article, "Perspective: Millennials seem to have little use for old movies", placed the blame for weak remakes squarely on the shoulders of the under-30 crowd. His chief arguments are that young people these days have no cinematic memories and only want newer, bigger, faster, flashier movies. The Amazing Spider-Man is his chief example of bad taste. As an under-30 person myself, I respectfully yet emphatically disagree for numerous reasons.

1. Young people ruining everything is the oldest excuse in the book. Seriously, it's just lazy. In the past, people criticized the youth's infatuation with mindless cinema when they should be exploring the art of novels. This is the same argument: young people have no taste because they don't have my taste. It's cheap, it's lazy, and it's wrong.

2. We didn't ask for a new Spider-Man. I'm pretty sure that most of us remember Toby Macguire's dreamy-eyed Peter Parker, so it's not a matter of updating or freshening up the franchise. People of all ages -- yes, even those over 30 -- have an affinity for Spider-Man and other franchise characters. In fact, this year marks Spider-Man's 50th birthday, so there are numerous generations who would go see any Spider-Man movie, good or bad. It's an allegiance to the character, not to cinematic newness. Why not blame the production company for putting out sub-par films instead of fans who watch the pictures?

3. Let's get to the real issue: the option on Spider-Man the character. In case you aren't aware, the option to create a film on a given character or book does expire. That means that if Sony doesn't actively use its option, it will expire and revert back to Marvel. If that happened, Marvel could move the franchise to a different company; they'd still be making money, and Sony would miss out. As such, Sony is choosing to actively exercise the option in order to legally keep claim on it. If that means cranking out movies that aren't up to snuff, so be it.

4. Here's where I get controversial: not all movies are art. Film is an amazing medium because it marries art and entertainment, but they aren't always created equal. I don't know anybody rushing to say that Men in Black III is a work of art, and -- take a deep breath -- that's perfectly okay! Sometimes people want to suspend reality for a few hours and be utterly entertained. Why should we punish them for that? We can't watch Citizen Kane on a loop and expect society to be happy. Certainly, entertaining movies have taken priority in cinemas over the years, but that's not a new trend. More artistic films are being released in smaller theaters and alternative venues, so they still exist and are still being viewed. In fact, I dare say that many people would rather watch a new David Lynch movie in the privacy of their own home than risk the talkers and texters who notoriously interrupt the cinematic experience. That means Millennials are still watching the art movies, just not in theaters. Here's another big shocker: the same person can enjoy watching both The Amazing Spider-Man and Battleship Potemkin. Art, entertainment, and taste are not mutually exclusive. Isn't it amazing how complicated Millennials (and all people) can be?

So, in conclusion, there are tons of reasons to criticize Millennials. The bad eggs tend to be self-involved jerks who spend the entire crappy movie on their iPhones. That doesn't mean we don't go home to our precious Netflix accounts to watch classic art films. Crappy movies don't exist because we're young and desire more movies. Crappy movies exist because some movies are crappy. End of story.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Top 4 Best US Presidents on the Silver Screen

Happy birthday, America! The US has given film some pretty incredible gifts over the years: being a safe haven to European directors during the World Wars and pushing Hollywood to be the world's movie production capitol, among other things. In return, Hollywood has turned the President of the US into one of its most iconic roles. To celebrate Independence Day, here are my top 4 favorite presidential portrayals in film. (Note the lack of women, but then again, the White House also lacks women. I digress.)
The American President

4. Michael Douglas: The American President

Michael Douglas plays bad better than almost anyone else. He has a certain loathsome charm wrapped in a magnetic personality. However, his role as President Andrew Shepherd in The American President (1995, Rob Reiner) plays to his softer, more sympathetic side. President Shepherd is a rarity in America: a single president. The film focuses on the president's personal life, an often overlooked aspect in film. President Shepherd may not be incredibly powerful, but he is highly admirable and, above all, human.

Air Force One

3. Harrison Ford: Air Force One

Harrison Ford has a lot going for him. Outer space fighter pilot with a heart of gold? Check. Bumbling archeologist who goes on zany adventures? Double check. American president who beats the crap out of the terrorist Gary Oldman? Triple check! Ford's James Marshall in Air Force One (1997, Wolfgang Petersen) is the definition of a badass. Not only does he kill a bevy of terrorists, he also takes control of the airplane to save the day. "Get off my plane", indeed. Bonus points for Marshall having a female vice-president, portrayed flawlessly by Glenn Close.

Mars Attacks!

2. Jack Nicholson: Mars Attacks!

When aliens inevitably invade the planet, the president will inevitably have to guide the people. Nicholson's President James Dale in Mars Attacks! (1996, Tim Burton) strongly resists calls for nuclear retaliation. Instead, he tries to reason with the aliens while keeping the American people calm, which is no small task. Although his stellar performance is in a comedy, it could easily be translated to a dramatic film for a wider audience. Bonus points for the First Lady, also played by Glenn Close.

Independence Day

1. Bill Pullman: Independence Day

Bill Pullman's President Thomas J. Whitmore in Independence Day (1996, Roland Emmerich) has all of the qualifications we look for in a president: intelligent, handsome, calm, and authoritative. Like Harrison Ford's Marshall, President Whitmore has a background as a fighter pilot. When America comes under attack by aliens, the president refuses to sit around with diplomats. Instead, he straps into the pilot seat and assists other pilots deliver a nuclear weapon to the aliens. Way to be a hands-on president while staying cool and collected, President Whitmore! (And it goes without saying that his hair is flawless throughout the movie.)

Of course, there are plenty more silver screen presidents, but those are my personal favorites. Have a happy Independence Day!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

First Impression: Django Unchained

Cinephiles love the summer for more than just the box office: teaser trailers for the fall and winter are popping up and making us wish for cooler weather. Last week, the trailer launched for Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, slated to hit theaters this Christmas. I'm once again joined by my buddy Stephanie of Classified Cinema Club to talk trailer. Here are our thoughts on the preview, as well as our prediction for Tarantino's next picture.




Jess: I admit that I was skeptical when I first heard the concept and read about all of the production issues.
Stephanie: I agree, I just felt like it would be a spaghetti western version of Kill Bill, and it kind of is in some ways. Now that I've seen the characters and more of the plot, I'm somewhat intrigued.
Jess: I thought it would be more of a blaxploitation/Jack Hill kind of movies, but I was pleasantly surprised at how he avoided being too gimmicky.
Stephanie: Good point. I had that fear as well. And you can tell at some moments that Tarantino restrained himself some. But then again, it might be more gimmicky in its full form. (I sure hope this is not the case)
Jess: He did manage to include blood spatter on cotton in the trailer. Somehow, that came across as witty instead of exploitative -- maybe because it was a small spray instead of the classic Tarantino drench.
Stephanie: That's true. Someone should do a paper on Tarantino's use of blood splatter. I'm looking forward to seeing Christoph Waltz in another Tarantino film. Love that guy.
Jess: His accent is a bit off, so I'm hoping there's some explanation for that, like his character is a German immigrant or something.
Stephanie: I feel like I could forgive that if his character is interesting enough. But you're right, hopefully Tarantino provides us with an explanation. Leo's character feels a bit like he was rehearsing for a Scorsese film on drugs.
Jess: But in the best way possible.
Stephanie: Exactly. I meant it as a compliment.
Jess: Like Colonel Sanders meets the Departed.
Stephanie: That is so perfect!
Jess: I actually laughed hysterically at his line delivery. It's so refreshing to see him have some humor in his acting.
Stephanie: Totally! He has a sense of humor, but we never get to see it.
Jess: I was a bit concerned when he was cast, but it seems like he really brought it.
Stephanie: Yeah, I didn't know how he would hold up in a Tarantino world. But he clearly seemed to enjoy it.
Jess: I'm interested to see a Tarantino film without as many pop culture references.
Stephanie: Stripped down Tino? I don't think it's possible. But I agree, it gets a bit tedious at times.
Jess: I love that about Tarantino (probably because I have similar taste to him), but I know it's a sticky issue for many people.
Stephanie: Well, I feel like you either love or hate Tarantino. You kinda have to be all in to really appreciate his work. But even if you aren't crazy about his films, you have to admire his dedication and enthusiasm.
Jess: Most definitely. I'm excited to see where he goes with something historical.
Stephanie: For sure. I'm looking forward to it in general. Surprised there's no role for Uma Thurman though.
Jess: Maybe she has a cameo as a woman of ill repute!
Stephanie: One can only wish. That would be amazing!
Jess: Also, I must admit to being a bit resistant to the casting of Jamie Foxx, but he really seemed to nail it in the trailer.
Stephanie: Yeah, he's totally got this under control.
Jess: Of course, this isn't Tarantino's first time around the historical bush. He did take down Hitler in his last film.
Stephanie: Very true. No easy task either, that's for sure.
Jess: Next stop: Revolutionary War?
Stephanie: Too bad he didn't snatch up Hatfields and McCoys. Totally his style - so much revenge happening at once.
Jess: And so many people to maim! 
Stephanie: So, so many. So many potential blood splatters.
Jess: I guess HBO didn't have the budget for that one.
Stephanie: nope, spent it on Judd Apatow and Girls.
Jess: Overall, I think we can agree that Tarantino isn't hurting, and Django Unchained will make for an interesting Christmas romp.
Stephanie: Definitely. Perfect synopsis. Am I counting down the days to see it? Not exactly, but it will certainly add some spice to the Christmas movie season.

Unlike Stephanie, I may just have an alarm set for Christmas, but I count myself among the firmly pro-Tarantino crowd. What do you think of the trailer? Is Django Unchained a must see, maybe, or skip?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Summer of Box Office Nostalgia

It's become cliche to point out how unoriginal Hollywood has become. The countless remakes have damaged the American entertainment industry's reputation. But this year is a little different. Instead of remaking classics or Asian horror films, Hollywood's crop of summer blockbusters is capitalizing on nostalgia.

Memory is critical to this. Two of this summer's most heavily promoted films, Prometheus and Men in Black III, add to series more than 15 years old. These aren't just reboots, though; these movies are designed to spark your imagination and reinvigorate interest. Instead of creating new franchise opportunities for the future, they allow us to rediscover the original films while introducing them to a brand new generation.

But the true king of nostalgia this year is the superhero. This summer has more comic-fueled films than ever: Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Amazing Spiderman. These movies have all been bolstered by popular recent film series. More importantly, though, these films target people who have been these characters for generations. Each hero has decades of comics, TV series, video games, and films associated. Audience members carry these years of fond memories with them as they purchase movie tickets and sit in the darkened theatre.

In a way, these films boost the audience's self-esteem. They tap into our interests in order to reach out emotional cores. When movies concern our favorite older films or characters, we feel validated. Obviously, this is an excellent strategy for Hollywood. Instead of forcing unwanted remakes on us, they are expanding upon our pre-existing interests and rewarding our years of acquired knowledge. Of course, this technique will get stale quickly -- nobody needs another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film series -- but for now, it's just what the doctor ordered to breathe life into the box office.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

First Impression: The Great Gatsby

Remakes are the name of the game for 2012, and Baz Luhrmann has thrown his hat into the ring with his retelling of The Great Gatsby. Luhrmann certainly has his work cut out for him: F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel is one of the most beloved of the 20th century, and the 1974 film adaption featured a stellar cast and a script penned by Francis Ford Coppola. The film's trailer caused quite a buzz this week. In conversation with my buddy Stephanie of Classified Cinema Club, we break down the trailer and discuss our first impressions of the film.


JessFirst of all, the casting is bonkers.
Stephanie:  Bonkers is seriously the best way to describe it.
Jess:  I can get behind Leo and even Toby, but then why cast somebody 15+ years younger as Daisy?
Stephanie:  I agree. I like Carey Mulligan a lot, and she would be a Daisy if her male leads were younger. You're so right about that.
Jess:  You know, she always looks sad to me. The book always describes Daisy as being dizzy with glee and so emotionally moved.
Stephanie:  Well, Daisy is kinda a little pathetic, but pathetic in all the best ways. She's kinda flighty
Jess:  And giddy!
StephanieI was just typing giddy.
Jess:  Mulligan is so not giddy. She's too...smart. That's it! She's not dumb enough.
Stephanie:  Haha, so incredibly true.
Jess:  I can't imagine her crying over beautiful shirts. As for the setting and design, I think it may lean a bit too costumey/burlesque instead of art deco.
Stephanie:  I would prefer to see a modern retelling of it, something totally fresh.
Jess:  That would be interesting. I totally love the old Gatsby movie. Sure, it looks like they smeared vaseline on the lens, but the casting is so good.
Stephanie:  I kinda like that whimsical look to it. It plays so well on the element of romanticized nostalgia.
Jess:  That's a great way to describe it. I feel like Luhrmann has eliminated the romanticized elements. It's all glitter and no lace. What do you think of the music?
Stephanie: I like the music, but not for this story. If you're going to go for the 1920s, then go all in. Don't modernize the music. Once again, it would have worked for a modern adaptation of it. I don't know, I might change my mind once I see it all play out on screen.

Suffice it to say, we're not totally sold on Luhrmann's adaptation yet, but we are very curious to see the final cut. Gatsby hits theaters in 3-D this Christmas. In the meantime, what are your first impressions of the film? 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Friday Feature: Chinatown

Everyone loves a good mystery. Whodunnits allow us to flex our brain muscles as we follow along, making us more invested in the outcome. It's even more fun if the detective goes off the beaten path to discover something truly sinister. This week, let's change things up and just watch one film on Friday. It leads such a mark that you'll be reeling for hours afterward.

In Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski), the cops do as little as possible. The same goes for Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a questionable private eye who makes his living following two-timing husbands and backstabbing dames. What starts as a simple affair investigation quickly turns into a conspiracy involving false identities, fraud, murder, affairs, and gangsters. Okay, so those are a lot of film noir buzzwords, so what makes this movie unique?

As viewers, we completely rely on Gittes for our information. We find the film's clues exactly when he does, never before or after. Furthermore, Gittes is in every single scene of the film, so like it or not, he is our avatar in the investigation. When he's knocked unconscious by gangsters, the shot imitates his condition by fading to black. But unlike many film noir, this movie does not include a voiceover. This keeps the film in the present, solidifying our association with Gittes. A narration would undoubtedly set the action in the past, making Gittes our guide as opposed to our avatar.

Unlike the classic detective films, this neo-noir was shot in color. Instead of highlighting the bright, saturated tones so popular in the 70's, Polanski chose a muted look for the film to emphasize the 1930's Los Angeles setting. The recurring browns and tans of furniture and clothing imitate the dryness as Gittes explores the hoarding of water during a heatwave. The brightest color to appear is red, the shade of something that's too hot. Appropriately, this color appears in two key places: lipstick and blood. In true femme fatale fashion, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) wears the perfect shade of red lipstick when talking to Gittes. Blood, of course, appears a few times in this story; the most noteworthy occurrence is during Gittes's confrontation with a gangster (played by none other than Polanski). To literalize the metaphor of being nosy, the gangster slices open one of Gittes's nostrils, threatening to cut off the rest of it if he doesn't back off. This subsequently leads to a lot of jokes about noses, including my favorite sarcastic exchange in the film (delivered with signature Nicholson smiling contempt):


Yelburton: What happened to your nose?
Jake Gittes: I cut myself shaving.
Yelburton: You ought to be more careful. That must really smart.
Jake Gittes: Only when I breathe.

Of course, it's the film's unexpected twist that truly stuns. I won't give it away, but I think it's no exaggeration to claim it's one of the most shocking in cinematic history. This leads to a final climax that brings about a truly thrilling triangle: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and esteemed director John Huston (as Mulwray's father). It's sexy, it's sinister, and damn if it doesn't smart after you watch it.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Double Feature Friday: The Road Edition

Is there anything as American as driving a car on the open highway? The freedom, the rebellion, the attitude all personify the American lifestyle. So maybe you can't drop your whole life to take to the open road. Instead, liberate yourself with this double feature from the comforts of your home.

By the mid-1950's, film noir started its decline. The genre became infiltrated by repetitive, derivative pictures that lost the tension that made film noir famous. 1955's Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich) breathed a new life into the stagnant arena by incorporating two of America's hottest trends: the open road and nuclear fears.

Of course, the film centers around a detective. Unlike most film noir protagonists, Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is as crooked as private eyes can come. As he's driving down a lonely highway, he encounters a woman (Christina, played by Cloris Leachman) wearing nothing but a trench coat. Hammer gives her a ride -- not so much because he's a good samaritan but because his sexual interests are aroused. This can only mean one thing: she's an escaped mental patient who's about to be murdered, and Hammer might just be along for the ride.

But the movie isn't just about sexy murdered mental patients. It's also about sexy secretaries and sexy roommates. More importantly, those sexy women are in close proximity to a briefcase containing "the great whatis", a glowing material that not-so-subtly alludes to nuclear weaponry. The person who possess the case has the power; in the hands of a crazy woman (or Russia), this is bad, but in the hands of the rational man (America), this is great protection. But there's just no reasoning with women, is there?

This dichotomy of safety and danger is also represented throughout the film with the car. It is when Hammer is alone in his car that he is truly himself, isolated with his thoughts. When Christina is murdered and Hammer knocked out cold, his car acts as a hearse. Of course, the car also transports our heroes to the beach, the location of the film's thrilling climax. Without the car, there would be no danger, but there also wouldn't be any adventure.

It's no surprise that Mr. 50's-lover himself, David Lynch, incorporates so many film noir aspects into his work. 1997's Lost Highway goes a step further, borrowing the visuals of both the opening and closing sequences of Kiss Me Deadly. While Aldrich's original has a beautiful contrast, Lynch's careful use of sparing color and grainy texture increases the isolation and tension. It truly heightens the emotions presented in the original while maintaining the integrity of film noir.

I admit that this film has 2 major things I look for in a film: 1. It's directed by David Lynch (my favorite director), and 2. Bill Pullman stars in it (see also here for more information on that weird fetish of mine). That being said, it's difficult to discuss the film in terms of narrative; in typical Lynch fashion, the story obfuscates logic and traditional concepts of plot. Lost Highway is a surreal nightmare trip into anger, obsession, personality, and murder. The extreme emotions are highlighted by the film's strong color palette. Bold red, gold, black, and white are consistently repeated -- in the road, the sets, blood, Fred Madison (Bill Pullman)'s saxophone, and the make up of the Mystery Man (Robert Blake).

Like Kiss Me Deadly, the car plays a critical role in the story. Madison is fully isolated in his car; again, this intimacy shows that character for who he truly is. Further, Pete Dalton (Balthazar Getty), Madison's double, is an auto mechanic. The film's anxiety culminates in multiple cars meeting for a classic noir-style climax. Afterward, Madison flees from the police, flying down the highway like in the beginning of the film.

And with that, I wish you a happy Friday. Drive safe!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Double Feature Friday: Killer Robot Edition

Humans are terrified of robots, and it's no wonder why. After the Industrial Revolution, machines replaced a large portion of workers' jobs. Therefore, as technology advances further, humans fear that robots will annihilate our species. Right now, there's nothing to fear except Google Glasses, so kick back and enjoy some dystopian futuristic cinema.

Let's start with one of the best worst movies of all time: Chopping Mall (1986). You may recognize some of the notable names attached to the picture. Director Jim Wynorski has also helmed such illustrious works as Piranhaconda and The Bare Wench Project 3: Nymphs of Mystery Mountain. The King of Camp himself, Roger Corman, also produced the film. If that doesn't have you queuing up this movie already, well, it gets even better.

The plot is one everyone can get behind: a group of horny teens wants to hang out at the mall after hours. What could be so bad about that? Well, they might knock over displays or have premarital sex on the display linens, and that is simply unacceptable. Enter the robots.

Chopping Mall

These robots are designed to act as mall security, but when their commanding computer goes haywire, they lock down the mall and must destroy the intruders. Perhaps I've been shopping in the wrong places, but I've never seen a mall incident that justified deadly force. These robots mean business, but they never lose their manners; after every murder, they declare, "Thank you. Have a nice day!"

Needless to say, trashy camp abounds in the movie. The highlight, though, is one of my favorite movie quotes of all time. The character Linda declares, with all seriousness, "I guess I'm just not used to running around a shopping mall in the middle of the night being chased by killer robots." I encourage you to pause and reflect on that. Killer robots made a teenage girl less horny. Talk about accidental realism! For its low budget charms and ridiculous so-bad-it's-amazing quality, Chopping Mall simply kills the murder robot competition.

So after that ridiculousness, you may become complacent with robots. You might even think that they're cute and cuddly like Wall-E. Think again, buster. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, James Cameron) proves that robots will eventually try to destroy humanity. What's scarier than a robot trying to destroy humanity? Simple: a robot going back in time to destroy humanity. Not only are they killing us, but they've also mastered the space-time continuum. Now, you may ask why I recommend the sequel instead of the original. Here's one great reason:

T-1000 in Terminator 2

Not only are the graphics simply better, but T-1000 (Robert Sean Patrick) is a much more formidable opponent than the original Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger). T-1000 is mortifying because his body can change shape at any time. Not only can push himself through prison bars and transform his arms into weapons, but he can also shapeshift into any human being. Think that's your mom? Think again! It's T-1000 about to murder you! Patrick has an uncanny ability to remove any humanity from his acting, leaving the viewer ice cold. Honestly, he's so good that when he played Agent Doggett on the X-Files, I was completely convinced that he was an evil uncover operative (and maybe a future cyborg visiting the past to kill Mulder).

But T2 goes beyond teaching you to fear robots -- it also offers up some great survival techniques. For starters, it's time to start working out! Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) goes from frumpy to grade A badass while locked in an asylum with no gym equipment; what's your excuse? Another survival tip: stash a ton of weapons. Sure, they might not work on liquid robots, but they don't hurt to have. And finally, learn how to drive!

Now that you've had your robot defense training, I hope you're prepared for the inevitable robot uprising in our not-so-distant future. Don't say that I didn't warn you.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

In Support of Movie Musicals

Now the object of box office ridicule, the movie musical was at one time a force to be reckoned with. Gone are the glory days of top hats and tap dances, but why? Broadway musicals still earn millions of dollars each year, despite the fact that some of the shows have been running for decades. Indeed, even short-form music videos are becoming short films in their own right. Clearly, there's a desire for musical film, so what's the problem?

Seriousness. It hasn't been an easy decade in America, and it shows. Media are constantly screaming about politics, the degradation of women's rights, wars, the economy, etc. Art is an important avenue of response to these societal pressures -- an avenue that wasn't as open during the movie musical's heyday. After all, movies were considered pure entertainment, not art, which is why they weren't protected by the First Amendment (and, subsequently, were heavily censored under the Hays Code). Somehow, it seems that a musical is more lighthearted than even the raunchiest sex comedy, and we can't afford to be so flippant.

But really, what's wrong with entertainment? In these stressful times, we deserve some relaxation. When I watch Top Hat (1935, Mark Sandrich), I'm not necessarily thinking about the social implications of their gender dynamics, and that's perfectly okay. My feminist card won't be revoked for suspending stress for an hour or two as I watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers glide across the screen in perfect unison. My relationship with the film comes from a deeply emotional place; it's difficult to logically describe the sweetness of the music or the beauty of the dance moves. Frankly, it's time for us to give ourselves permission to enjoy this.

Of course, this isn't to say that there aren't intellectually stimulating musicals. Films like Singin' in the Rain (1952, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen), Cabaret (1972, Bob Fosse), and even Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001, John Cameron Mitchell) engage with social and political issues in a quirky, infinitely consumable manner -- a manner that no other art form can manage. After all, these are movies about ruined careers, Nazi, and sex changes, respectively, but they all capture a certain irreverent spirit. No one would ever deny that at least the first two of these three films are simultaneously art and entertainment.

So why are we still running away from musicals? Let's take a bit of time today to enjoy dancing and singing. And if you're feeling particularly moved, be sure to watch one of my all time favorite musical numbers, "Never Gonna Dance" from the film Swing Time (1936, George Stevens).

Friday, April 13, 2012

Double Feature Friday: 80's Nerd Edition

Let's say that you have some buddies coming over to hang out, have a few drinks, and just relax this Friday night. Sure, you could challenge their tastes with a little Jodorowsky (and trust me, I often do), but I have a sneaking suspicion that an 80's nostalgia night would go over a little better. These movies are lighthearted and silly while celebrating the brainiac in all of us. So put on your glasses, smartypants, and queue up these movies. (Watch Jodorowsky afterward if you're feeling particularly brilliant.)

Perhaps the best 80's theme song goes to Revenge of the Nerds (1984, Jeff Kanew). A handful of nerds attend college hoping for a new beginning, but they discover that the bullying doesn't stop when high school ends. This movie has become a classic for its ridiculous laughs and cheap thrills. Of course, it doesn't hurt that nerds get revenge on jocks the old fashioned way: by taking their women and beating them at their own frat games. It's like Animal House for geeks. And, as everyone knows, nerds make better music, so the film has to culminate in a fabulous electronic musical number.

Revenge of the Nerds

Now, the feminist in me has to disclose that there is a panty raid in this film. When I recently watched this, I thought about how all of the nerds would certainly be on the sex offender registry. There's also the fact that [SPOILER ALERT] head-geek Lewis (Robert Carradine) disguises himself as a jock and has sex with the jock's cheerleader girlfriend. Instead of being alarmed at her rape, the cheerleader is thrilled at Lewis's sexual prowess and becomes HIS girlfriend. Now that I've gotten that bit of feminism out of the way, I'll say that it's a delightful, ridiculous (if problematic) movie that has all of the farting, belching, beer-drinking, innuendo, and childish behavior that a Friday night film should include. Sidebar: my 7th grade science teacher had a test bonus question asking the name of the nerds' frat, and I'm happy to report that my 12 year old self knew it was Lambda Lambda Lambda.

After that, you'll probably want something even more lighthearted. I turn to 1985's Real Genius (Martha Coolidge). Long before Val Kilmer donned the Batsuit or was a member of the Doors, he was a teenage genius helping to develop laser technology. When I think of all of the "cool" tech startup dudes out there today, I can honestly say that they have modeled themselves after this role. Kilmer's Chris Knight is edgy, fun, rebellious, and of course, boyishly handsome.

Okay, I admit it: there's only one thing I want to see from an 80's movie, and it's nerdy revenge on The Man. I think that filling an entire with popcorn and cooking it with a laser is a pretty great revenge idea. How many movies can you think of where a house explodes with popcorn? Not nearly enough for my taste.

Real Genius

Now go forth and nerd it up for humanity's sake. Nerd power!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Double Feature Friday: Leo Edition

The latest trend in Hollywood is re-releasing older films in 3D: Star Wars, Jurassic Park, etc. But it's the re-release of Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) that has the world a-buzzing. Yes, it's been 15 years since every girl in America postered their bedrooms with Leonardo DiCaprio photos from Bop -- that is, with the exception of your humble blogger, who so maturely referred to him as "Leo DiCraprio" and loathed his effect on heterosexual women. Now that I'm not a 10 year old girl, I can admit that Leo has come a long way and proven himself as a strong (but accent-challenged) actor. To atone for my childhood snobbery, here's a double feature starring the man himself.

Film noir may be considered outdated, but Shutter Island (2010, Martin Scorsese) helped reposition it as a viable subgenre of psychological thrillers. All of the classic noir tropes appear: detectives, a disappearance, a whodunnit mystery, and a haunting damsel. The film is set on an isolated Massachusetts island in the 1950s, which allows Scorsese to incorporate the costumes and libations integral to film noir. DiCaprio also gets to use his famous Boston accent as Detective Teddy Daniels, but don't let that scare you off!

Shutter Island

Scorsese definitely wants what he wants in a picture, and stunning cinematography is high on the priority list. The film is filled with rich wide shots to convey the maddening isolation of the island. Every wave, tree, and piece of rocky coast appears to be its own character, intensely and beautifully detailed. This is a stunning contrast to the inside of the island's mental hospital: each room is practically monotone, from the walls and decorations to the characters' wardrobes. Instead of the wide establishing shots, the hospital features sharp angles, strange cuts, and uncomfortable close-ups. The soundtrack also mirrors Teddy's descent into madness: the gradual crescendo into hysteria features the perfect combination of John Cage, György Ligeti, and Krzysztof Penderecki that would make any person question his or her sanity. While the actual storyline leaves a bit to be desired, the strong performances, brilliant cinematography, and masterful soundtrack more than make up for it.

But what's a DiCaprio marathon without Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan)? Perhaps DiCaprio's largest cultural touchstone since Titanic, Inception combines his prowess at brooding with enough action to make a film that appeals to quite a wide demographic. The elaborate, mind-bending plot pushes the ensemble cast to the limit, from romantic interpersonal conflict to physically decaying dream worlds.

Inception

Of course, we all know Inception is great. Nolan made sure that it was all anybody talked about in 2010. What makes it truly fabulous is that it beckons repeated viewings. Every screening makes you ask, "What was that? Did that make a noise? I forget where happened there. Did it drop?" That kind of staying power elevates a good film to a great one.

And with that, I am going to plop down a hefty fee to see Leo in 3D. It's the least I could do after my childhood campaign against his career.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Double Feature Friday: Marathon Edition

We've all been there: you sit down to watch an episode of a TV show, and then you promise yourself, "Just one more episode." Before you know it, you're covered in empty pizza boxes, and you've reached the very end of the entire series. It's so ubiquitous that there's a Portlandia sketch about it (and I should know, since I did this very thing with Portlandia). This week's Double Feature Friday highlights a TV show that can easily be made into a triple or quadruple feature before you remember to service your bodily functions. Enjoy, and remember to stretch your legs every few episodes.

Harper's Island is perfect for binging: the modern whodunnit storyline keeps you wanting more, and the entire series is only 13 episodes. That's less than 10 hours, so you can easily make a day of it without your disappearance alarming anyone! The premise is simple: young couple Henry (Christopher Gorham) and Trish (Katie Cassidy) return to the namesake island for the wedding of their dreams. There's just one tiny problem: a serial killer murdered a handful of people a few years back, and he might just be on the prowl again. The show's entertainment goes beyond merely guessing who is picking off the characters one by one. There's a certain humor in the increasingly elaborate ways in which the the murders are executed, from hanging to harpooning. If that's not enough, each episode's name cleverly references a character's mode of death: Bang, Crackle, Snap, etc.

Now, it's important to have a realistic expectation of Harper's Island. An intelligent, cerebral horror series it is not. However, it does meet 3 key requirements for me: fun, campy, and available to stream in full on Netflix. While you're watching, you can cross off each murder victim on the image below. Think of it as a deadlier version of Bingo! (Click on the image to zoom.)

And with that, I wish you a happy weekend. Remember to go outside once in a while -- Vitamin D is important!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Double Feature Friday: Drag Queen Edition

Double Feature Friday is a weekly post curating two films based on a given theme.

Drag queens may be experiencing a heyday thanks to RuPaul's Drag Race, but their art is still notably absent from the silver screen. Sure, there are lots of movies with cross-dressing -- Rocky Horror Picture Show, Mrs. Doubtfire, etc. -- but drag queens are not just wearing women's clothing. Instead, they are performing entertainment while in costume. Now that we've got our vocabulary cleared up, let's talk drag films!

Perhaps the most accessible and easily enjoyable dragalicious movie is To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995, Beeban Kidron). The film follows three New York drag queens as they road trip across the country to enter a national drag competition. Sounds like this appeals to a limited audience, right? Brilliant casting elevates the film from niche market to wider appeal. The queens are portrayed by well-known actors Wesley Snipes (Noxeema Jackson), John Leguizamo (Chi-Chi Rodriguez), and Mr. Romantic Lead himself, Patrick Swayze (Vida Boheme). All three men have careers built on hetero-masculine roles, so it's impressive to see them adapt to drag so fluidly. It certainly doesn't hurt that the film boasts an impressive lineup of actual drag queens, too: RuPaul, Lady Bunny, Miss Understood, and Candis Cayne are just a few of the performers with cameos.

To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar

The most important aspect of the film is its message of empowerment. As the more seasoned queens, Noxeema and Vida help Chi-Chi improve her performance. When their car breaks down, the queens are stranded in a small town with cliché small town attitudes about women. The queens teach the ladies to empower themselves and stand up against masculine oppression. When they win their battles, we as viewers also win and can celebrate their victories. Given the current American political hostility against women, it's so critical to take this film's message to heart: stand up for yourself, celebrate your victories, and support your community.

The Australian film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994, Stephan Elliot) has a beautiful symmetry with To Wong Foo due to its similar plot: a trifecta of drag queens travel through the desert to perform at a hotel. But there's a darkness to Priscilla that's far more extreme than its American counterpart. The queens are verbally and physically abused by the men they encounter. The mutilation of the film's namesake with the words, "AIDS fuckers go home" really emphasizes the potential dangers that drag queens, gay men, and transgender women face every day. Indeed, the film is more about the everyday lives and motivations of its characters than it is about the extravagant, gorgeous, glittery, feathered drag performances (which are thrilling nonetheless).

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

If you thought that the actors in To Wong Foo were playing against type, you'll be incredibly impressed by the cast of Priscilla. Stone cold Terrence Stamp, best known for being a British badass, falls brilliantly into place as transgendered female Bernadette Basinger. His supporting cast includes Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce. Admittedly, there is something otherworldly about seeing Agent Smith from The Matrix being so fabulous, but Weaving had not yet become the popular character actor he is today. Pearce, too, was mostly known from his work on Australian soap opera Neighbors; while the film could have been risky to his career (due to Hollywood's rampant insider homophobia), its enormous success really helped him break the international market.

And with that, another Double Feature Friday comes to a close. Have a fabulous weekend!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Double Feature Friday: Cannibal Edition

Double Feature Friday is a weekly post curating two films based on a given theme.

I apologize for my recent blogging silence; I moved and didn't have internet access for quite a while.

Anyway, is there any human fear that equals cannibalism? This taboo is truly one of the most terrifying, as it shows that people really are animals. It would be all too easy to suggest Cannibal Holocaust as the be-all, end-all of cannibal flicks. Indeed, it is a particularly gruesome, unflinching, graphic look at the darkest parts of humanity. Although I do enjoy it, I understand that it's not for everyone. Therefore, I'll suggest some films that probably won't make you vomit. (For the record, I'm a vegetarian.)

Some cannibalism has peppered the history of America. During Western expansion, groups like the Donner party became hopelessly lost and unprepared for the cruel winter. The Mexican-American War delayed their rescue, causing survivors to resort to cannibalism. 1999's Ravenous (directed by Antonia Bird) is set during similar circumstances: an American Army Captain (Guy Pearce), traumatized by his experiences in the war, is transferred to a quiet mountain post. Shortly after his arrival, a traveler arrives and describes how his wagon became lost in the mountains, forced to resort to cannibalism for survival.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of any cannibal film is casting the perfect lead. He must be able to act certifiably insane while maintaining authority. The people behind the film certainly struck gold when they cast Robert Carlyle. After all, if the actor can play Hitler, he can probably portray a cannibal pretty convincingly. Carlyle brings a certain succulence to his character, lingering over his taunts and enjoying every morsel of torture. His pleasure is an absolute delight to watch.

Ravenous

So we've established that the film includes cannibalism, but what's even worse than everyday, run-of-the-mill cannibalism? Cannibalism with a curse. When a character tastes human flesh, he is cured of his ailments, but he will forever need to eat humans. Of course, every tale of immortality discloses the harsh, lonely life that it entails. Similarly, even the most amoral of persons would grow weary of endless murder. Is it worse to die or to need to murder forever?

After the darkness of Ravenous, you'll probably need a chuckle. The whimsical French film Delicatessen (1991, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro) is a charming black comedy lovechild of Sweeney Todd and Amelie. The tale is set in post-apocalyptic France, so the idea of cannibalism is not so demonized. Instead, it's the means of procuring human flesh: a landlord/butcher simply murders his tenants. But some people have managed to avoid cannibalism altogether. An underground group of vegetarians live on the fringes of society, showing that there is an alternative to the desperate reliance on the butcher.

Delicatessen

The true beauty of the film lies in its surrealist quirks. Everything is exaggerated to grotesque heights through the use of sharp shots, close ups, and unflattering angles. The picture has a rich yellow tone to it, making everything appear jaundiced and filthy (it is, after all, the apocalypse). While this could be distracting, it instead highlights the repellent nature of the apartment building and its tenants. Add in elements of slapstick humor taken to very dark places, and you have a delightful, humor take on cannibalism. Frankly, it's probably the most you'll laugh at a cannibal movie (at least, I hope so).

And that's it for our trip down Cannibal Lane. I hope you have a festive St. Patrick's Day. Remember to avoid soylent green!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Double Feature Friday: Last Minute Oscar Edition

Double Feature Friday is a weekly post curating two films based on a given theme.

Here's a little secret: the Oscars are this weekend. That's not enough time to watch every nominated film, and frankly, I don't want to be held responsible for you watching Albert Nobbs. If you don't want to be embarrassed at your roommate's Academy Awards party or at the water cooler on Monday morning, I suggest you watch the following two films.

Without a doubt, my favorite film of the year was Midnight in Paris (2011, Woody Allen). The glorious scenery of Europe is a constant reminder of history, drawing up strong feelings of nostalgia. Owen Wilson is phenomenal as Gil, a screenwriter struggling with artistic inadequacy. He embraces the quirky self-deprecating humor so specific to an Allen hero, but he adds a certain charm in the place of overpowering neuroses. His gleeful naïveté and endless longing are endearing; after all, we can all relate to his longing for completion.

Midnight in Paris

His obsession with the past takes him to the 1920's. Certainly, this was an amazing moment in history, with some of the world's greatest writers getting insanely drunk and partying all night while carrying on brilliant conversations. The supporting cast manages to encapsulate the charms (and follies) of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí, and other influential figures of the time. Whenever Gil meets a new celebrity, he exclaims, "Wow, T.S. Eliot!" As an viewer, I too felt the thrill of meeting my idols each time he had a new encounter -- a testament to Wilson's enthusiasm and Allen's writing prowess.

I would be remiss if I did not highlight Corey Stoll's phenomenal turn as Ernest Hemingway. Generally, Hemingway does not tend to elicit much sympathy from modern readers. Stoll captured Hemingway's tortured spirit beautifully, showing how the first World War managed to fracture every man it touched. His speech on the similarities between sex and death was delivered with sharp Hemingway punctuation, but it remained eloquent and moving. His foil to the other rollicking figures shows Gil that every time period has its own struggles, either for or in spite of its prolific art.

Of course, the most important lesson here is that nostalgia is timeless. Adriana (Marion Cotillard), Gil's 1920's love interest, finds herself fixated on the 1890's. No one is ever satisfied with the present; this is especially true for artists. Allen shows that we can carry our nostalgia as inspiration, but it must not cloud the future. This is the perfect statement for this era of his career, and I couldn't have been more charmed by the experience.

On the same theme of nostalgia, The Artist showcases the difficulty of advancement. It's much easier to simply look backwards or continue on the same path than it is to adapt and improve. Like Midnight in Paris, The Artist shows that endless nostalgia is ultimately fruitless -- time keeps moving forward, so it's impossible to stand still.

The Artist

While the film is obviously nostalgic for Hollywood's golden days, it is also daring in its use of silence. Most modern American audiences refuse to even watch subtitles. This makes The Artist's critical and mass success all the more impressive. The casting had a large part to do with this, which I discuss at length here. I won't repeat myself, so suffice it to say that you should watch this film -- not just because it's this year's most buzzed about film, but because it's a damn good movie.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Old White Guy

Some would call Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011, Tomas Alfredson) a stunning achievement in restraint. Others may just call it boring. It's true that the description "Cold War espionage spy film" conjures a certain James Bond-like image, and it's risky to disrupt that with a quiet, slow crescendo. While the narrative does suffer the complications of adaptation, the performances and the visuals truly shine.

It's easy to see why Gary Oldman received an Oscar nomination for his turn as George Smiley*. Much of the role required Oldman to observe and contemplate silently. Many modern actors would falter without dialogue, but Oldman's expressive face adds to the seriousness of the espionage. After all, accusing a coworker and friend of being a Russian spy is no laughing matter, so Smiley takes the job with appropriate emotion. There's no humor for him, no fancy cocktails -- just a man conducting research, interviewing, denying sleep as he searches endless documents for clues. The life of a British intelligence agent isn't filled with glamorous destinations and exciting car chases, but perhaps the intellectual search for a double agent is far more terrifying than the physical pursuit.

The second biggest star in the film is certainly the objects. From typewriters to tweeds, the sets and accessories scream 1970's. Beyond that, the sheer silence of the soundtrack really showcases the importance of objects: the shuffling of paperwork sounds deafening; the buttering of toast is elevated from simple act to condescending torture. Smiley's decision to get new glasses has absolutely no impact upon the plot, but the visual lingering on the identifier holds enormous meaning: he must look closer, have better eyes. This is especially true because the audience is left clueless throughout the entire investigation. We can hazard guesses about the mole, but we have don't have enough information beyond scowls and personal infidelities. We must trust Smiley as we must trust our own glasses to bring us to the truth. As a viewer, it's difficult to place complete faith in a character, especially when all information is withheld. Thankfully, Oldman's performance is convincing enough that he earns our respect and our faith.

The supporting cast also does a stunning job of recreating 70's London. Strong performers like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Mark Strong show the diversity of the intelligence agency: all white men, true, but varying from suave ladies' man to bookish sidekick to roguish working man. The standout to me, however, was Tom Hardy as Ricky Tarr. Undercover, Tarr is the only agent to experience true action. He goes behind enemy lines, defies direct orders, risks serious physical harm, and falls in love. He's defiant of the hyper-intellectual, frigid, unemotional way that his colleagues run their lives; he proclaims, "I want to have a family. I don't want to be like you." Without this foil, the film would just be a bunch of older white guys side-eyeing each other; instead, Hardy brings back the humanity.

Certainly, there are ways that the film could have been improved. The 2+ hour run time requires emotional investment, and the slow pace may be off-putting to some viewers. The slew of tertiary characters can be difficult to keep straight (which is probably the point: they all think the same way, and it's up to Smiley to step outside of the Circus and uncover the truth). And, of course, some real clues about the spy's identity would help pique audience interest and quicken the pace. Expectation is everything with this film. If you think you're going to see an exciting British spy film, you'll probably be disappointed. If you think you're seeing a cerebral film that conjures a London of yore, you're in for a rewarding experience.

* Footnote: While this is Oldman's Oscar nomination, his catalog is lengthy and varied. I'd like to remind everyone that this man played Sid Vicious in the 80's. Let that sink in. Sid Vicious. Now he's nominated for a role that's the opposite of Sid Vicious. So dynamic!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Double Feature Friday: Hitckcock Edition

Double Feature Friday is a weekly post curating two films based on a given theme.

I have a confession to make: I think Vertigo is incredibly dull. That being said, I can agree that Alfred Hitchcock was quite revolutionary and prolific. In particular, his popularization of the thriller and his unique usage of long takes merit high praise from this wee blog. It's a shame that his career is so often defined by a choice few films from late in his filmmaking. The following two films don't feature Hitchcock's signature glamorous blonde actresses, but they are thrilling nonetheless.

Rope (1948) is one of Hitchcock's lesser known gems, despite starring frequent collaborator Jimmy Stewart. Based on the true story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, Rope follows two young intellectuals as they attempt the perfect murder. Their crime is inspired by their professor (Stewart), whose lessons on Friedrich Nietzsche's Übermensch seemingly justifies the taking of life as a means of exercising superiority.

Rope

But what's really important about the film is its real-time action. Just a few very long takes, lasting between 4 and 10 minutes, are cut together to make the film appear to be one continuous scene. From a modern perspective, this can make the movie have a very slow pace, but it also makes the tension grow exponentially. As the audience, we feel that we are in the room, waiting for the body to be discovered at any moment. The room becomes claustrophobic, and we desperately want to escape it, for justice to be served, but the film constantly denies us relief. Indeed, the film is not particularly satisfying to watch, but it is an amazing exercise in restraint and viewership -- one that everybody should experience at least once.

So after that film (if you're not totally cursing me), you'll probably be in the mood for something with a faster pace. Look no further than Strangers on a Train (1951). Again, the camerawork makes the audience feel active in the film, but rather than being active participants, we are passive voyeurs. In the opening sequence, the camera moves through the train station, following the feet of our characters, but others travelers sometimes obscure our vision. We witness the actions unfold as though we are fellow passengers and potential alibis.

Strangers on a Train

Again, the antagonist is attempting the perfect murder: two strangers commit each other's murders so that the crimes are completely without motivation and, thus, untraceable. But if Hitchcock has taught us anything, it's that there is no such thing as a perfect murder. With its quick pace and stunning score, Strangers on a Train is an excellent foil to the gradual build of Rope.