Thursday, January 28, 2010

False Nostaliga in Movies :: Old For Me, New For The Kids


This past weekend I decided to fire up the Roku and spend a cold winter's day watching a streamed movie from Netflix. I try and watch the films that are scheduled to expire the soonest. If they do expire soon after I watch them, I avoid wasting a half a week waiting for them to arrive on DVD.

I decided to watch Across The Universe, Julie Taymor's 2007 musical set in the 1960s and using the music of the Beatles as catchy show tunes. I had read some decent things about it. The reviews were mostly positive, with reviewers specifically pointing out how good the movie looked. And it did look good.

The movie's general story is about Jude. Jude is a British kid working in a dockyard in Liverpool, England who was fathered by an American soldier during World War II. Jude decides to travel overseas to America, and he finds his father as a custodian at the Princeton University campus. He soon meets a Princeton student named Max and the 2 become fast friends. They move to New York and are soon joined by Max's sister Lucy. Max is soon drafted and sent to Vietnam while Jude and Lucy live out a romance against the backdrop of the "volatile" 1960s.

I didn't enjoy it. I thought it was rather shallow and predictable, and the use of Beatles songs (which at times were completely misinterpreted) bordered on criminal. The movie looked good, but it was mainly a mash-up of Hair and Moulin Rouge. In other words, it probably won't win any awards for originality.

What really struck me, however, was how two-dimensional it portrayed the 1960s. It was like the writer had a checklist of the 60s and carefully ticked off each item as production progressed. The hippies were fun loving, recreational drug using peaceniks: check. People got drafted and went to war, even when they didn't believe in it: check. People protested, sometimes violently: check. It was all there, and it all felt very uninspired.

Across the Universe has an inexplicable modern feel to it, even though it is set in the past. It almost presents the 60s with a packaged nostalgia, like it came in a box labeled "Make your own memories of the 60s". It was trying to present the 60s in a way that lets the kids of the 21st century claim the 60s for themselves. The movie presents a false nostalgia for kids for whom the 1960s is becoming ancient history. And it's this false nostalgia that I take issue with, and I realized this isn't the first (or last) time this has happened in a movie.

Hollywood seems to be presenting us with more and more strangely nostalgic films. Being a child of the 80s I grew up with many of the properties movie studios are trying to sell today. Transformers, G.I. Joe, The A-Team, were all things I watched when I was younger. But I don't think I'm the audience these properties are for. These are aimed more squarely at kids that grew up in the 90s and the 2000s.

A friend told me the other day how an 18 year old acquaintance of his complained of how the new Indiana Jones and Transformers movies ruined childhood memories for him. (he used a more vulgar statement) But how? These were created during the 80s. He wasn't born until 1990 or later. How can he complain about a sequel to a movie that was released in 1989?

But Across the Universe, and things like the video game Beatles Rock Band, seem to really be reaching. The 60s were a long tome ago, with the summer of love more than 40 years past. How can kids today even relate to things like the draft? We've had 2 wars and there has been no serious discussions about re-instating the draft. They live in a very different world from the 1960s. I can't imagine they have the same understanding of racial inequalities, drug use, or the sexual revolution that young adults did who grew up in those times, let alone be able to identify with characters in a movie about those times.

Perhaps this repackaging is a result of people who did grow up with these properties and ideas. For a long time former "hippies" have tried to convey how great their college years were, often siting Woodstock, street protests, and recreational drug use as romanticized centerpieces. Perhaps these same people, now in charge of industry and government, want to pass their own memories and youthful ideas on to the younger generation. Maybe this helps them to feel that their youth meant something more than what it was. After all, most of the baby boomers grew up and left their values lying by the side of the road, forgotten in the wake of their own self-interests.

We're in a strange point in our popular artistic culture. We are surrounded by remakes, reboots, and repackaging of franchises and cultural moments that came before. And this is happening across media platforms, including game consoles, television, and movies. The entertainment industry is completely focused on their key young demographic at the expense of everyone else. Hopefully, like most trends, this one will run out of steam and we will see a new era of originality in the near future.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Movie Review :: The Book Of Eli

The Book Of Eli is part Samurai movie, part western, and part Mad Max. The main character, Eli (Denzel Washington) is on a cross-country journey through a desert wasteland to deliver a very special book. But this isn't just any old book, it's the last book of its kind, and it has sent Eli on a 30 year journey across post-apocalyptic America to make sure that the notable tome stays safe.

Along the way, Eli encounters highway bandits dressed as Road Warrior video game rejects (I always wonder why people all dress in some weird stylized way in the post-apocalypse. It's as if no clothing stores make it through the end of the world). But Eli is on a special journey, and his speed and agility are no match for anyone who challenges him.

When Eli enters a town to stock up on clean water, which is a scarce commodity in the barren land, he runs into a group of toughs led by a man named Carnegie (Gary Oldman). It just so happens that Carnegie is looking for the book that Eli has, and Eli must fight his way out of town and escape with his book. He continues the last part of his journey with the help of young Solara (Mila Kunis), and together they must avoid the pursuing Carnegie and his post-apocalyptic gang.

The Hughes Brothers, who have written and directed this movie, are not breaking any new ground in this film. We've seen this brand of post-apocalyptic nightmare before in movies like A Boy And His Dog, The Road Warrior, and even Terminator Salvation. Certain rules apply to all of these moves: the roads are the most dangerous place, water is hard to come by, the world is a desert wasteland with few places to hide, etc.

They also aren't covering any new ground when it comes to the bad guys. We've seen the type of gangsterism in some of the best Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns. A bad guy runs a lawless town with an iron fist and no concern for morality. Gary Oldman as Carnegie chews the scenery with the best of them and is a pure joy to watch.

There is only one thing that makes this movie different than those mentioned previously: the book. The book is not just a plot device to get Eli into fight scenes and to motivate his journey. Like Bilbo's journey in The Lord of the Rings the book is at the very heart of his quest. Unlike Bilbo, however, Eli is in some ways a monk or a prophet, sent on his journey by mysterious spiritual forces after the "flash" that destroyed the world. This serves to lift the movie up above it's well-worn premise, and gives his journey more weight and purpose beyond being a good man in a bad world.

The acting is truly terrific by all involved. Denzel Washington's quiet, praying, contemplative Eli is a remarkable character. When he does have to fight, it is lightning quick and brutal. He may be a moral man, but his journey is an unforgiving one. He must fight to survive against the worst of people, and he shows them no mercy when confronted. But he also takes no pride in his abilities. He has a buddhist monk-like quality to accept what he is and what he does. There is no moral confusion in what he must do. All that matters is protecting the book he carried for so long.

The only disappointing spot among the acting is Mila Kunis' Solara. It's not that she's a bad, but the problem is in how she dresses and how she carries herself. She doesn't look or act like a person who has been raised in a difficult world of murder and rape. Instead she looks like she showers everyday and carries herself with a child-like innocence that makes little sense in the context of her living conditions. This could almost be the post-apocalypse according to Old Navy, where if you're going to live in the worst times in history, you might as well look good doing it.

The movie isn't perfect and has many glaring flaws (Carnegie is looking for the book Eli is carrying, but when they capture Eli and throw him into a cell they don't search his backpack? And why does Solara suddenly find the need to repeat a prayer that Eli teaches her in front of the secretive and unforgiving Carnegie?). But even so, it is a decent film that managed to hold my attention for the full length. It is also a sort of film you don't see very often today, as it takes its time in developing the plot and is in no hurry to get you to the next fight, the next explosion, or the next bad situation. It's a nice change of pace from the bombastic blockbusters  to which we have become so accustomed. It is a worthy addition to a well known genre that rises above others of its like.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Rise of Televison

For most of its history, television has been considered the step-child of movies. They are very close mediums in that they both are built on the concept of motion pictures. But for years that was where the similarity ended. Television, for much of its history, has ben the repository of entertainment fluff, like variety shows, sitcoms, and soap operas. Cinema has always been considered a step above TV in the realm of moving pictures, and cinema has been an art form that is today considered every bit as important as opera or the fine arts.

Does cinema still hold sway over television 10 years into the 21st century? is television still a lesser version of the movies that we all spend billions at the box office to see?

While television in the 21st century is still full of time-filling nonsense, in recent years there have been many programs that have broken out and achieved greater prominence as art. The Sopranos on HBO may be the first successful television show that deserves a cinema-like appreciation. While the show's draw were the gangsters who commited heinous acts of violence, they were balanced  with a focus the psychological exploration of what it meant to be a modern American family. It delved into subtleties that have rarely been seen in television, and are only matched by the likes of films such as Citizen Kane.

Once The Sopranos reached the peaks of television success, executives salivated at finding the next Sopranos. This meant they were willing to take risks, willing to push the envelope even further than The Sopranos did. Soon, shows such as The Shield, The Wire, and Mad Men delved even deeper into the psyche of modern America and posed serious questions on marriage, violence, and politics rarely seen on the proverbial "boob tube".

The first wave of these shows was primarily on cable. The rise of DVD allowed easier access to programs from HBO and Showtime. It was easy to enjoy shows like HBO's Rome or Carnivale even if we didn't have a subscription to cable. DVRs have further made it possible to catch these shows after they are broadcast, heightening cable's popularity like never before.

The old guard broadcast networks have recently followed suit with programs like Lost30 Rock, and The Office. The traditional networks reliance on advertising, however, have not allowed them to get quite as psychologiclally "dark" or as in depth as cable. Networks still produce 20-24 episode seasons, causing writers of network television to have to stretch out complicated story arcs instead of being as focused as they are in a 13 episode cable program. Networks also rely more on ratings than cable, since network ad rates are the all-important factor in broadcast network television.

Films, on the other hand, seem to be trending downward in complexity. With few exceptions, films in the modern day trend toward the easy storyline, the big explosions, or the dirty joke. Television was always considered the place for cheap laughs and sub-par drama. While television still has its share of absurd programing like Big Brother, Two and a Half Men, and the many simplified procedural dramas like CSI, the multiplexes seem to fill more and more with pap like Transformers and 2012. Like TV sitcoms of the past, cinema has even cornered a market in the ridiculous humor category with low-brow hits like The Hangover.

The point isn't that television is better than films. What is really happening is that television has, at times, managed to rise to the quality of cinema and even surpassed it. While it seems to be easier and easier to find complex artistic programing on television, it becomes more and more difficult to find it at the cineplex. Movies from 2009 like Precious, Moon, and The Hurt Locker were more difficult to find than ever at your local mall, and were often times only found in big city art house cinemas or in limited engagements in regional theaters. Today these movies seen more and more often on DVD in the home. People are expecting more from their TV and less from their cinema, and this is quickly changing how we all view the moving picture.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Movie Analysis :: Daybreakers

***Remember, any and all analyses will more than likely have SPOILERS

Daybreakers opens with a young girl writing a letter in her bedroom. When she finishes, she walks outside and sits to watch the sunrise. As the sun comes up, she bursts into flames, and the credits role. It turns out he girl hasn't aged in 10 years and she is perpetually stuck as an adolescent.

The film is about vampires, and in a twist on the old vampire-runs-from-human tale, this story has the vampires running the world while the humans are being hunted. It's a novel concept and one that makes for an entertaining film.

The plot revolves around Edward (Ethan Hawke), one of the vampires tasked with finding a blood substitute for the survival of the vampire "race". It seem that the vampires have almost exhausted their supplies of human blood, and instead of trying to re-supply humans, they've decided to create a new supply by chemical means. Leading the research for a substitute is a large pharmaceutical company called "Bromley Marks". This company is not only looking for a blood substitute, but they also are the leading supplier of real human blood. They farm humans by locking them in "blood milking" machines and are kept in a catatonic state while their blood is processed for the vampire population.

At its most simple level, Daybreakers is about supply and demand, consumers vs. supply. Of course the vampires are the consumers and the humans the commodity. The vampire society mimics our own, in that they have some of the same foibles that we do. They have starving homeless who beg for blood. They have delinquent children (though they are not really "children" as we think of them). And they have a gentrified society that wants no part of the problems that surround them.

And it doesn't stop there. It seems that if the vampires don't get ample supplies of human blood, they begin to degenerate into vile bat-like creatures. These creatures have pointed ears, they begin to grow wings, and their faces deform so that they barely look human. If the human blood supply were to ever run out, it would mean the end of the vampire "race". They lare immortal with a plentiful supply, but they become less than human with none.

What happens if any society consumes too much, though? What if people consume and consume without any concern for future supply? Eventually, they will run out. Like our own use of fossil fuels, if we give no thought to the future, we will see a dwindling supply and we become less than a modern society. For vampires in the film, their blood supply allows them to live forever without incident. For our own society, if we run through our fossil fuels, we revert back to a more primitive society. We would no longer have cars, computers, or any of the conveniences that make our life easier. Like the vampires, we would become less than what we believe a modern human is, and we would become unrecognizable to our former selves.

It is no surprise, either, that the film makes the evil corporation a pharmaceutical company. We tend to see large corporations as immoral entities, truly the men behind the curtain deciding what is best for the society at large. The pharmaceutical company men sit at a board room discussing what is bets for the population, almost like a shadow government who pulls the strings of those "in charge". They even have a nazi-like military man sitting at the table. It is not truly revealed what his role in the company is, but there is no doubt what he symbolizes.

There are parallels all through the film to the Holocaust aside from the nazi at the table. There is a military force that hunts down humans for their blood and to resupply fresh humans to the blood farm. One is reminded of the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds, where the evil Hans Landa, an SS Jew hunter, is tasked with chasing down those in hiding. The vampires have even innovated daytime technology that allows them to hunt in the day as well as the night. Like the nazis, they create a systematic method for hunting down and processing those they capture. They create new technologies that allow them to achieve their aims with disgusting efficiency.

The vampires also experiment on their own. In a brutal scene, Edward injects a volunteer with a test version of the blood substitute. It seems to work at first, but eventually the volunteer explodes covering everything in gore. The vampire society seems to have no morality even about killing their own kinds. They are completely corrupt, and it is all under the banner of the pharmaceutical company.

The vampires seem to have no choice but to consume. We are never told the rules they have to live by, like if they can be cured by killing the vampire that created them. There is no easy cure. And even if there was, most of the vampires are content to be immortal. They have no desire to give up their everlasting existence for a return to being human. When Edward dares suggest that they work on the cure for vampirism instead of a substitute for blood, no one even takes him seriously. Like real pharmaceutical companies, they are less interested in the cure than in supplying the populace with the drug. After all, if there was a cure, why would the company even be needed?

The only ones that are interested in a cure are a band of humans who have one amongst them who was cured. His nickname is Elvis (Willem DaFoe), and he was once a vampire, but after facing a limited accidental exposure to the sun he was cured of his vampirism.

It serves to remember the opening of the film at this point. Not all vampires are happy in their life. Like some people feel chained to their office desks, some vampires dislike the vampire life. Children who never age, people not able to live in the sun. It is unnatural. We have all had the experience of leaving an office on a sunny day. The feel of the sun on our face is like freedom, and some vampires long for this.

The film uses lighting to highlight the differences between the two groups. The vampires exist in a constant blue light, bathed in a somewhat depressing fluorescent-like glow. They live in posh apartments and homes near cities that are filled with technology and are brimming with style.

The humans seem to live in more incandescent light. It is a yellowish, sun-like light that we are most familiar with. They hide in a vineyard, an ancient symbol of life, and live without technology. Their existence is simple and communal. They have abandoned all possessions in order to concentrate on the future of humanity.

What can we take from these differences? Are the filmmakers trying to tell us that there are those of us who are consumers, and we are the bad guys? What do the humans in the movie represent? Are they the "hippies" of the world? Are these the only right people?

The message seems to be that consumption leads to corruption. As long as there is money to be made, people will consume themselves to their very end without concern for the future. The only hope, according to the film, is those that don't live this life and force the rest of us to live their way, much like the consumers force the rest into their way of life.

And the humans literally force the vampires to change. Elvis becomes an interesting character in that, not only is he cured, but his blood can be a source of cure for the vampires. If vampires bite Elvis, his blood cures them. This leads to a monstrous climax in which a group of vampires descend on a cured person, tear the person up for his blood, and then they themselves are cured. But just as they realize that they have been saved, they too are pounced upon and killed. It is a vicious cure. The only way to save humanity is to sacrificed those that are cured but cannot get way from the vampires. They will quickly become a snack, and start the cure-death cycle over again.

It is a dark ending, and suggests that there is no middle ground for any of us to stand upon. The battle between the consumers of the world and those who choose to opt out, cannot be won. The nazis tried to eliminate entire races and ethnicities as they spread their terror across Europe. They paid with a prolonged war that left millions more dead than the nazis themselves eliminated in the concentration camps. And where are the nazis now? There is no serious nazi contingent left in the world.

So what does this mean for us? Do the filmmakers intend to suggest that there is no middle ground between the conservationists and those who ignore conservation? Do they further imply that there could come a time when we will destroy ourselves even if a cure for our planet's ills are found? Perhaps. But I think their message is that people must become converts now before we reach a point of no return. Like the vampires of the film, if everyone would decide to give up their easy living the world could be saved before it is too late.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Future of Movies

The world of recorded arts is coming to an important crossroads as we enter the second decade of the 21st century. Film has been around for over 100 years, recorded music more than 75, and mass broadcast television for over 60. Even the "written word" is finding itself having to evaluate how it will survive over the next 10-20 years.

I'm not saying that any of these are in trouble. I'm not even saying that the way these arts are produced by artists is having issues. This discussion is not about the artistic side of filmmaking. It is all about the business of movies. And that business is rapidly changing.

In the not too distant past movies were only available as strips of cellulose run over a light and projected on a large screen with the help of a lense. This made movies only available to the people who had the means and the equipment available to project these films in a darkened room. There was no after market for films. Movies in the 20s were made and were easily translated for many countries because there was no soundtrack, these movies would play for years moving around the world to mass audiences in even remote places to earn a profit.

With the advent of television, movies could now be recorded to a video tape and broadcast over the air to millions of viewers who watched these images play through a cathode ray tube. Viewers not only watched movies, but they also consumed new, original weekly programming mimicking the radio programs popular in the 20's, 30's and 40's. They wouldn't have to save their pennies to go to the local theater to watch their favorite serial any longer. TV shows could give them the same type of entertainment and do it for free by using advertising to turn a profit.

When the film audience diminished because more of them stayed home to watch television, the movie studios fought back with color films, widescreen, and even flirted with 3D. These things helped to distinguish film just enough from television that audiences began to come back. Even when television introduced color the audiences would still go out to the theater to see the newest film.

That's the way the movie business has been for more than 50 years with relatively little change. As television improved, studios would pump more and more money into their releases, making bigger effects, hiring the most desired actors, and using television as a primary vehicle to advertise their films.

Today the buzzword in film and other recorded arts is digital. With music, we no longer buy record albums or even CDs. We're beginning to watch television at web sites offering video on demand services. Movies are being delivered to your home through the internet as well, but this still has yet to really catch on. The way we receive our media is changing, and changing fast.

Where does this leave the movie industry? In recent years, the industry has been bolstered by DVD sales. During the years when the profits from movie theaters declined, the movie industry could brag about home video sales. But in 2009 DVD sales dropped 13% from 2008. DVDs are no longer the cash cow they were 5 years ago.

Except for 2009 (which was a record year for Hollywood), box office has been flattening out throughout the first decade of the 21st century. This isn't to say that Hollywood has lost money; I don't know if they have or not. But ticket prices have risen faster than box office, which means Hollywood is seeing diminishing returns when you account for inflation.

This flattening trend is easy is easy to detect when looking at actual numbers. Avatar and The Dark Knight have been huge money makers. But if you dig into the details of the profits from those films, you'll see that when you account for inflation, The Dark Knight no longer ranks 3rd in all time domestic box office, but 27th. Avatar even drops more dramatically to 52nd (according to Box Office Mojo on the date of writing this article). This doesn't even begin to take into account the huge cost of these films incurred by the studios.

The way the movie industry has operated for 100 years seems to be coming to a close. The rise of high definition television and internet distribution may just be the nail in the coffin for multiplexes around the world. There are already many people who wait for the Blu-Ray release of Hollywood blockbusters, and with the advent of HD internet distribution more and more will choose to consume movies at home.

There also seems to be a trend towards a loss of older theater goers. The latest interest in 3D is being driven by younger movie consumers. The studio films seem to be skewing younger and younger. Just recently Sony studios decided to re-boot Spider-Man, a billion dollar movie franchise, and put the hero back in high school. There can be little doubt that the studios' main concern is to grab the younger viewers since they're the ones consistently spending money at the movies.

With younger people being the driving force behind box office, movies are in real trouble. Younger people are not the ones with the money, their parents are. At some point, as a night at the movies increases in price, parents may become less willing to shell out $20 to $30 for a movie and some snacks. Younger audiences also tend to be more fickle than older ones, meaning the income from younger movie goers could dry up quickly if movies become passe to a younger generation.

Movie studios, like the music industry, are going to have to take notice of streaming their properties over the internet in the very near future. Internet distribution will become the primary way that a majority of entertainment consumers will watch film and TV. Ticket and popcorn prices will continue to rise further spreading the consumer entertainment dollar thinner and thinner. The movie studios' only option will be to compete for the crowded home market, which will also include competition from smaller companies taking advantage of the easy distribution model the internet offers.

Obviously this trend will not occur overnight. Movies like Avatar show that people are still willing to pay the prices (even the "3D tax") being demanded at the box office. But devices like the Roku player, the latest video game consoles, and HD televisions and Blu-ray players that access internet content, will continue to eat into the profits of big box office productions.

History is filled with analysts predicting the end of movie theaters. Somehow, movies have always found a way to keep ahead of the curve and continue to rake in the cash. But with the high quality and lowering prices of HD televisions, and the easier distribution of HD content over the internet, the movie industry is about to face it's most difficult challenge. It will take a long time for this to occur, of course, but like any technology avalanche, once it brgins, there will be no stopping it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Be Kind Rewind

Be Kind Rewind is a little movie from 2008 written and directed by French filmmaker Michel Gondry that got a good bit of buzz, but didn't do so well at the box office. It's a strange movie, especially because it is set in a VHS rental store. Yes, VHS in 2008. It's a strange conceit, even from the director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But it is an attempt to portray our characters and their neighborhood as an almost charming throwback to the late 20th century. In other words, these are not people who are in the know, nor can they financially afford to be.

The story is about a couple of goofs named Jerry (Jack Black) and Mike (Mos Def) who attempt to save the crumbling Be Kind Rewind video store from the hands of the evil city council of Passaic, New Jersey. When Jerry accidentally erases the tapes in the store, the two decide to begin re-filming all of the movies themselves and renting these new versions of popular movies to the customers, and hopefully save the store in the process.

From the beginning there is an odd B story about Fats Waller being born in Passaic, even born and raised in the building that now houses the video store. The movie opens with poor quality black and white film clips about Fats Waller. They aren't documentary films of Fats Waller, but re-creations. And bad ones at that.

The Fats Waller story rears its head every once and a while throughout the film giving the audience tiny snippets of information. Sometimes it is the store owner, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) who tells the story. But it seems that, more often than not, it is Mike, who holds up Fats as a sort of a hero. And this hero worship is the driving force for Mike to do just about anything.

But it isn't just Mike who gets caught up in the Passaic Fats Waller story. His friend Jerry is also enthralled. At one point they are even painting a fairly impressive mural under the bridge on the main thoroughfare past the video store. It's a giant ad for Be Kind Rewind, but Fats plays a prominent role in the mural. Even though others in Passaic don't even know who Fats Waller is, Mike is not deterred in his quest to make Fats the most prominent historic figure in Passaic history.

The section of Passaic that Be Kind Rewind serves is itself is an odd mix of characters that seem to be divided into 2 simple categories: African Americans, and eccentric Caucasians. Every causcasian, from the guy wanting to "swede"(what a request to re-make a movie is called) Rush Hour 2, to Mia Farrow's Miss. Falewicz keeping a somewhat prudish eye on the store, to Jack Black's Jerry and his pre-occupation with conspiracies, are all strange characters that are almost overly eccentric. Jerry is especially strange, and is the source of most of the movies odd-fitting humor. The only other prominent caucasians in the movie are the bad guys who want to tear down the store for a new development, and the other bad guys who represent the film studios who threaten to sue the store for intellectual copyright infringement.

The African Americans, however, are a much wider mix of different characters. They don't seem to be either good or bad, but average people who are trying to get by like anyone else. Its a strange choice, especially since it all feels so planned. The message seems to be that white people can't be trusted, which would be a fine message except it clashes so badly with the moral of the film.

There is no hint of outward race problems in the movie, however. It would have made much more sense for a character to decry the negative racial relations in the town rather than just depict the white people as crazy or bad. It would have added depth to the film, and would have especially made the ending that much more poignant.

The moral of the film is that movies can bring people together. After the evil film studio lawyers confiscate and destroy all of Jerry and Mike's oeuvre, they decide to make one last film in an attempt to raise money to try and save the store. Mike's hopes are dashed by the knowledge that all that Mr. Fletcher has told him about Fats Waller is untrue, but they decide to make a movie about Fats' life as it started in Passaic, history be damned.

This choice is an interesting one, in that they decide to be explicitly dishonest about the actual biography of Fats Waller's life. They decide to go throughout the community and get everyone involved in telling Fats' life story in Passaic. Letting people make up stories about Fats suggests that the filmmakers believe that the act of filmmaking itself is a process worth doing. It doesn't matter that the movie is patently false, or that the film is of atrocious quality. All that matters is that the community comes together to make a film together and, in the process, learn what it is to be a community.

This emphasis on the process of filmmaking is further accentuated since, throughout the film, the equipment is out of date. The camera they use to record with is a VHS camcorder. They record audio on cassette tape.  They decide to show the film at the end on a small, 13 inch black and white TV. It's almost quaint to watch the two would-be filmmakers struggle with make-shift effects and camera effects that were out of date 15 years ago. But it it all adds to the theme of community filmmaking. It is against all of these obstacles that the community completes the film and comes together.

In the end, the entire neighborhood shows up to watch the film that Mike and Jerry have made on the life of Fats Waller. There is even a quick scene where one of the city representatives stops by to remind Mr. Fletcher that he was supposed to be out of his building hours ago. Against all Hollywood cliche, Mr. Fletcher accedes to the town's demands, admitting they weren't able to raise the money to save the building. This same man later congratulates Mr. Fletcher on the Fats film, shaking his hand surrounded by other community members. But the audience is left a little in the lurch, because there no realization that the city was wrong. There is no realization by the city representative that they need to save this important landmark store in the community. Instead, Mr. Fletcher and Mike are moving to the projects, and their film premiere is a good-bye party.

The ending suggests that you can't always beat "the man", but the goal is to try. Jerry and Mike make a movie that leaves the community rolling in the streets with laughter and enjoying an evening of camaraderie. For one week the neighborhood comes together to support the store through film, and that seems to be the important lessen. Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn't set up a story in which the community needed to come together, or that Jerry and Mike needed it to. Without some greater rift in the neighborhood, the ending rings a little hollow, and leaves one wondering what the film was really about, and what character needs were truly met in the end.

Friday, January 8, 2010

3D or not 3D, That is the Question

I think I'm through with 3D movies.

Okay, I know that's not true. Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland releases in March and I am an unadulterated fan of is. Also, have become a nice activity that my nephew and I do together, and the kids' movies coming out seem to all be in 3D.

But I think that when I can, I will avoid 3D.

If you read (and beleive) all the reports, the  big movie studios are in trouble. The rising costs of making movies with the decreasing number of ticket sales, they tell us, is making it more and more difficult to turn a profit by simply making movies. (This is hard to buy, mainly due to huge hits like Avatar and The Dark Knight listing among the top money makers ever.) They also tell us that DVD sales have plummeted, and this is forcing them to make more audience-pleasing (i.e. unoriginal) films than ever before.

One of the schemes they've come up with is to offer 3D films. 3D isn't new, of course. We're all familiar with the photo of an audience from 1950s staring at the big screen through their red and blue spectacles. But they say that the technology today is better than ever and that the world should prepare because the 3D revolution is here.

For most of its history 3D has been a novelty. The red and blue days of the 50s produced some dreadful 3D horror films. When seen today, the 3D doesn't even seem to work properly. One finds themselves staring at a distorted picture while looking at the person next to you and asking, "Do you see the 3D yet?"

The 1980's were a lot better for 3D. I remember seeing a 3D movie as a young child and reaching my hand out in front of me trying to grab an asteroid floating in the air. But people complained that the 3D gave them headaches and made them ill, so that 3D era died a quick death.

Now 3D is back and we're supposed to believe that all the kinks have been worked out and that 3D will become as synonymous to audiences as surround sound. We're also supposed to anticipate the coming of 3D televisions, and ESPN and the Discovery Networks are ready to go with their version of 3D entertainment.

I'm not one to predict whether 3D is a permanent fixture in our multiplexes or not. Others will argue that sound was considered a passing fancy to critics and filmmakers of the 1920s. But, given its track record, I think this current run of 3D may prove, once again, to merely be a novelty, even one that lasts longer and does well financially the next few years.

The main reason I dislike 3D is the strain that 3D tends to put on the eyes. While some younger readers may not feel it, 2 hours into Avatar my eyes began to tire of trying to focus on the ever-changing 3D image. had a good article explaining why our eyes attempt to focus on the 3D image projected on a 2D screen. (The Problem With 3D)

Something different happens when you're viewing three-dimensional motion projected onto a flat surface. When a helicopter flies off the screen in Monsters vs. Aliens, our eyeballs rotate inward to follow it, as they would in the real world. Reflexively, our eyes want to make a corresponding change in shape, to shift their plane of focus. If that happened, though, we'd be focusing our eyes somewhere in front of the screen, and the movie itself (which is, after all, projected on the screen) would go a little blurry. So we end up making one eye movement but not the other; the illusion forces our eyes to converge without accommodating. (In fact, our eye movements seem to oscillate between their natural inclination and the artificial state demanded by the film.) This inevitable decoupling, spread over 90 minutes in the theater, may well be the cause of 3-D eyestrain. 

I also believe that the higher cost of films today are going to be detrimental in the future of marketing 3D. Currently, the consumer of 3D movies is charged a "3D tax" of between $3-$4. Once the newness of the 3D blockbuster phenomena wears off, will people still be willing to spend that extra money? What about taking the entire family and buying popcorn and drinks, which are also quickly inflating in price? The rising cost of a night out may make people think a little differently about their movie choices when the difference in cost between a 3D and 2D blockbuster is almost $20 in 3D tax alone.

In television the difference in cost between 3D and 2D will be a major block to 3D. The public has only now begun to think flat screen, high def televisions are within acceptable prices for the masses. What will they think when buying a TV that is even higher in price? And how much will 3D channels cost through the local cable company as well?

And we haven't even begun to discuss how dorky we all look in those uncomfortable glasses. I really believe that 3D may take off when we aren't subjected to the punishment of wearing cheap pieces of plastic that hurt the sides of our head for 2 hours. Can you imagine doing this at home for 4 hours of TV and movie watching?

No one can truly predict the future of this kind of technology and its impact on the industry. Obviously people are not completely adverse to 3D or else they wouldn't spend the money to see movies like Avatar. But it also raises the question on whether that particular film may have been better if there was a little less focus by the filmmaker on the visuals and 3D and a little more on the script.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Sherlock Homes

Let's get one thing out of the way right now. I have never read a Sherlock Holmes book. It's not that I don't want to read them, I just haven't gotten to it due to the ever-grown list of books I keep stashed away in a notebook on my bookcase. This means I cannot tell you how close the movie is to the books, and I cannot add anything to that particular discussion. This also goes for the previous Holmes movies as well, but I at least know some of the ideas and iconography behind them, like the tweed suits, the weird hats, and his penchant for playing the violin.

In the new movie starring Robert Downey Jr., all of these iconic symbols of Sherlock Holmes are thrown out the window. Even his violin playing is boiled down into his plucking the strings when in the midst of thinking.

And he does a lot of thinking. Almost too much. This version of Holmes is almost manic, bordering on insanity. Because that this is a big budget action adventure film meant to appeal to a mass audience, we only get a small slice of his mental health, which is especially questionable when he has no case to follow.

After an exciting opening scene that feels a bit like the heart-pulling scene in The Temple of Doom, we find that Holmes has sunk into a kind of depression. He has locked himself in a room for the two weeks following the completion of his previous case, and is only talked out of his depression by his partner John Watson.

Locking himself in a dark room with the curtains drawn is only a hint of Holmes' depressive tendencies. Throughout the film, when Holmes has nothing to occupy his time, he obsesses on minute details. His gift and his curse are his talent for noticing the tiniest facet of information. This also leads to an almost obsessive-compulsive dwelling on the minute at the expense of the world around him, and including his own sanity.

This tendency is best exemplified in two scenes. The first is when he finally agrees to meet Watson's fiance for dinner, and rising to a challenge from her, he proceeds to deconstruct her by looking at her, her jewelry, and physical characteristics, like a missing ring on her ring finger. He revels in this chance to show off, and Downey lets a look come into his eyes of an almost supernatural nature, like a man looking into an other world. But he is so used to being the smartest man in the room, that he shuns all decency aside and mistakenly tells her that her previous fiance left her in the lurch, when in reality he died, and he receives a glass of wine to his face as his punishment. He is still satisfied with his performance, however, since he proceeds to eat, even after his companions have walked out on him. It's not an arrogance so much as a realization that he has returned from his depression into the world again. This one "game" seems to break him, momentarily, from living inside his own head.

The other scene that shows his manic tendency is after a brutal fight in which Holmes uses his remarkable reasoning ability to win the fight. After Holmes' win, Watson discovers him in the upstairs of a bar, obviously on some kind of substance, staring at flies he has captured in a jar. He has spent the last six hours playing different sounds on the violin and observing the flies reactions to his plucking and coming to meaningless conclusions.

Watson is the only person that seems to be able to pull Holmes out of these fits. He isn't impressed with his friend, and Holmes seems to respect him for this. It is a very close friendship, with Holmes even refers to Watson as a "brother". Watson is much more grounded, however, being an ex-soldier and now a doctor. There is no jealousy by Watson of Holmes' remarkable abilities, either. He enjoys Holmes and his company, and he knows that without him, Holmes could end up in a bad position, possibly a mental institution, or worse.

A third character of this movie is the music. It is a pulsating, rhythmic music that feels more like something out of a carnival in a Tim Burton movie. It is a mix of harpsichord and drums, and it haunts the movie. It is somehow fitting, though, in that it seems to remind you the remarkable brain of Holmes. Like him, this music doesn't stop.

In the scene I described earlier in the restaurant, before Watson arrives, Holmes' eyes are darting around, noticing every button, every conversation, and every nuance of the people who are dining. He pulls out a pocket watch and closes his eyes. He begins to focus on the ticking of the watch, slowly blocking the clamor that surrounds him. This is how the music of the film works. It is like that watch. It plays when Holmes' brain is occupied by the mystery surrounding him, keeping him occupied, able to concentrate on the matter at hand.

Sherlock Holmes is a fun movie and is anchored by two terrificly fun actors to watch. The tricks used to show how Holmes analyzes a situation before acting were a great surprise, and lots of fun. These tricks also hint a little of the madness lying underneath the genius that the people of London value.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

James Cameron's "Avatar"

I wasn't going to start out with a look at "Avatar", but it is quickly becoming one of the biggest money makers ever and thus will have a direct impact on our culture. I didn't take any notes, but as many reviews state, the story isn't all that difficult to digest, and the movie wears its heart on its sleeve.

I was fascinated by the racial undertones of the film, but the website io9 has already done pretty good job with its popular article entitled When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar? It is about "Avatar" being a racial fantasy of a white man becoming a better native than the natives.

If you don't know the story by now, let me do a quick summation. In the future, humans have run out of resources on Earth and are now searching for an extremely rare mineral with the unfortunate name of "unobtanium". This mineral is abundant on the alien moon Pandora, an world teaming with exotic life, including the Native American-like Na'vi. The Na'vi are 10 foot tall blue cat-like humanoids who commune harmoniously with the flora and fauna of their planet. They even have the ability to "plug-in" to the world and commune with other life forms like they belong to a living computer network.

In the midst of this world is the humans who want to raze the Na'vi village for the large deposit of unobtanium under the Na'vi's ancient sacred tree and village. They have created Na'vi bodies called "Avatars" and humans can place their consciousness into them and become a Na'vi themselves for short periods of time.

Enter Jake Sulley, a soldier confined to a wheel chair who takes over for his deceased brother in the Avatar program. He finds himself being terrificly suited for being a Na'vi avatar, and is reluctantly accepted into the Na'vi village. Of course, this causes problems with the private military commander, Colonel Quartich. He wants to run the Na'vi out of Dodge and take the mineral by force, and he doesn't care who gets hurt in the process.

In some ways, the colonel is one of the more interesting characters in the film. The interest is not in his complexity, but his utter lack of complexity. He is a stereotype, and a bit offensive at that. You would think that in 2009 and the days after the economic collapse, the "company man" would be the bad guy. While the company man isn't a good guy, he shows a little hesitation in wiping out the Na'vi village. The colonel, on the other hand, has no qualms about wiping out the Na'vi as fast and efficient as possible, with no concern for the life of his savages.

It's an interesting choice, and is one that, I suspect, plays very well oversees. The colonel is definitely American, and even southern. Why make him southern? Probably because the cliche is that all southerners are racist, so it's easier to buy a gruff talking southerner as the violent military commander. Once again, interesting because this movie makes a big deal about understanding other cultures, yet has no problem with upholding this one old stereotype.

As I mentioned before, I find it interesting to make the military guy the bad guy. In the United States today, our military is still fighting 2 wars and supporting our troops has been a sticking point in the national conversation. Why make the military guy the bad guy? It seems to me that it would have been more relevant to place the company man in the position of uncaring baddie and make the solider more sympathetic.

The movie tends to play like a video game, with the hero Jake Sully having to complete a series of levels before being accepted by the Na'vi and participating in the final battle. Jumping from limb to limb, taming and riding exotic creatures, and understanding the ways of Pandora all smack of video game storytelling, which is becoming more and more of a trend in Hollywood. Once he completes one task, he can move on the next, progressively more difficult task. By the end, he masters the skills of being a Na'vi, and is rewarded for his ability to adapt. Roll credits.

There is no denying that the movie is stunning visually, and that the point of the movie to be an amusement ride. The shallow story has obviously not stopped people from marveling at the amazing computer generated imagery of the film. For some Americans, though, I could imagine that the movie may be a little uncomfortable due to the negative stereotypes that we have tried so hard to get past throughout our history. Overseas, however, may not understand the depth of these stereotypes, especially since (I'm obviously making a big assumption here) they may see the colonel as more representative of the U.S. in recent times.

While stereotypes and cliches aren't always a bad thing and can help to establish a character quickly, filmmakers may want to be aware of portraying someone in an offensive way. It's not even purely about being offended, but it can take the viewer out of the story and make them dwell on the negativity.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Film Review and Analysis


This blog is something I've been wanting to do for a long time. A few years ago I took a couple of classes in film analysis and really and truly loved it. Film is art, and as such deserves the same kind of treatment as painting, music, and dance. People should be looking at film as a way to describe the world around us. Its techniques, acting, and subjects, all can play a big role in teaching us a greater lesson about ourselves, our culture, and our history.

I also hope to do film review as well. It won't always be easy to go to the theater and do a full analysis. I won't always have a notebook with me, and taking notes is imperative to a good analysis. So I hope to also provide some reviews of film in the theaters.

The one thing I hope to avoid is being too academic about film. The one issue I have in most analyses I read is that they don't convey a sense of fun. I once had a music teacher tell me that music is meant to be enjoyed, and it is not supposed to be fun. He obviously never played jazz. Some films are meant to be fun, and that should be related in an analysis.

I also will try and analyze an eclectic mix of films. I won't just be doing Italian Neo-Realism or French New Wave. I'll also do modern popular cinema, including the biggest blockbusters and what they have to say. In my opinion, these movies are MORE important to analyze due their their overwhelming popularity. What are they teaching us, and what are they saying about us as a people?