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Are Movies Better Off Without the Internet?

….that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art

– Walter Benjamin

This question came to me recently as I pondered the relevance of a “news” story I read about the production of the remake of Stephen King’s horror novel, It. The article purported to reveal the new look of the infamous villain, Pennywise. Being slightly interested, I clicked on the article. What followed was a report on a series of Instagram posts by the film’s director, Andy Muschietti, teasing images synonymous with Tommy Lee Wallace’s original television adaptation, as well as the film’s logo on a director’s chair, and then the money shot: a crude pen sketch of a demonic head on the front of a marble notebook.

The article goes on to say that this drawing may have no correlation to the film or the character whatsoever, but, man is it scary looking!

(Editor’s note: since I wrote this the studio has released an promotional image of the character. It looks nothing like the sketch, which is here. You can see the promotional image here)

This got me thinking, did I need to know this information? Don’t get me wrong, I know the article was meant to generate clicks and nothing more (kudos, you got mine!) but I still have to question its mere existence. Film speculation, fan theories, and teasers are firmly entrenched in the digital space of film coverage. These tactics are used by websites to generate traffic, and also by studios to manufacture interest in their properties. In this instance, the website gets the clicks of curious genre fans and the studio gets positive attention cast upon its troubled production (the original director attached, True Detective helmer Cary Fukunaga, left the production after disagreeing with the studio’s vision for the film).

The same could be said of the recent reveal that a Star Trek character, Sulu, will be openly gay in the newest film. Did I need to know this before seeing the film? It generates interest, but at what cost? Think of how much power the revealing moment just lost by informing the audience before they see it. 

No matter the intention of the coverage, this type of article affects the aura of the film, which in turn influences expectations.

This begs me to ask another question: what would my expectations be if this information was never written? I’m aware the all-consuming masses don’t regularly visit film sites that report this news on a daily basis, but with the far-reaching arms of social media wrapping around the whole of the population, most people are bound to find out sooner or later.

Think about the effect Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho had on the audience when they first saw it. The shower scene was a shocking experience that truly scared audiences. And I have to think part of this is because people had no idea what to expect, aside from another suspenseful film from the master of suspense. The scene had a different kind of teaser, which was revolutionary at the time. The trailer for the film was a 6-minute Bates Motel walk-through with Hitchcock, himself. He took a tour through the motel and the Bates’ house and ratcheted up tension by pointing out the locations of the murders, important places within the two buildings, and areas where revealing clues might be found. The end of the trailer teases the shower scene perfectly without the revealing anything but a moment from the scene.

Here’s the trailer:

Consider that. How many directors could tell the audience exactly what was going to happen in a horror film, but still manage to scare the bajeesus out of everyone who saw it? Filmmakers forget it isn’t the horrifying act, necessarily, that makes things scary, it’s the action plus the way it’s shot, written, scored, lit, and acted.

So, I ask, what would our movie experience be like if we didn’t have the internet to spoil things for us? Modern trailers (most of which appear online before television) show most, if not all, of the story and beats of the film. Genre films tend to show the audience exactly what they are about to see: we know who the villain is and what they look like, the major action set-pieces, the climactic battle, etc.

The worst example of this is the conventions such as the San Diego Comic-Con, and Disney’s D-23 Expo. All of the major studios book presentation Halls to literally give away parts of their most coveted films, most of which gets published on the internet shortly thereafter for all to criticize see.

Imagine if audiences went into Captain America: Civil War not knowing Spider-Man was going to show up, or not knowing which heroes were going to choose to be on Team Cap or Team Iron Man. Every trailer showed some footage from the big fight on the airport runway, as well as the Bucky-Cap vs. Iron Man fight at the end. If they just teased us with the concept that Cap and Tony were going to be on opposite sides of a fight and the rest of the heroes were going to have to choose a side, wouldn’t that be enough? Hell, my girlfriend and I saw that movie wearing matching shirts with the hero line-ups of both Teams. Spoilers are marketable now.

Those action scenes are still gloriously fun to watch, and they get away with it because the action is so well shot, but they lack an element of authenticity and true awe from the audience. There’s a restlessness in the audience who expects to see these familiar moments, as opposed to an excitement from an audience that doesn’t know what to expect. Psycho audiences had the luxury of being in the latter camp.

I understand completely that trailers are a major marketing tool and they’re used to generate excitement, which has been monetized in our digital age. Writers, websites, and studios make a living off of this type of marketing. The earlier they can get the excitement going, the more money can be made. But, this monetizing has stripped film of a different kind of aura: we know what to expect, how to expect it, and when to expect it.

Think about sitting down in a movie theater on September 18th, 2017. The title card pops up: Stephen King’s IT. In our age of mass media consumption, you will have seen countless trailers, read dozens of articles, set reports, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and possibly even seen whole scenes well before the film opens. In Hitchcock’s day, you’d be dying to know the answers to questions like: how terrifying is Pennywise going to look? What crazy shit will he do? How is he going to terrorize these kids? What will he sound like? Who is going to get killed? How will they stop him?

How does this process go in modern times? After you’ve seen all the promotional material the internet has to offer, you’ll sit down knowing the answer to most, if not all, of those questions and you’ll only have one question left: Any chance this lives up to my expectations?

Where’s the fun in that?

Who Holds the Snob Crown: Artist or Critic?

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Finger-pointing goes as far back as the middle-school playground when you could count your age on one hand and tattle-tell with the other. These instances usually included two or more guilty parties, yet the blame was cast in the direction of one suspect.

“He did it!”

“Nuh uh, she did it!”

Parents, you feel me, right?

If you think the blame game stops when a person reaches a certain point of maturity, then you clearly have never seen an artist and a critic turn their noses up at one another in a truly eye-rolling series of pokes and jabs.

The artist is the paradigm of the creator: they invent or adapt a story, a character, a look, or a performance from their years of experience and training in their field. The critic is meant to acknowledge and legitimize the creation. Their writing and analytical skills are intended for the betterment of the medium and to inform the masses. The tension between these critic and artist has been palpable for centuries and has been the subject of many plays and films.

What made me think of this childish conundrum was some recent articles from Cannes about Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s reaction to, well, the reaction to his most recent film, It’s Only the End of the World. The critical consensus was in the negative (and the generally salty Cannes crowd tends to squeeze some lemon juice in the wound as well) and Dolan took it personally. In response to one critic who equated self-pitying at the heart of the film directly to Dolan’s personal life, he had this to say:

This is not journalism. It’s gossip. It’s pretending to be a sophisticated analysis, but really it’s cheap psychology.

“You’re a whiny baby!”

“Yeah, well, you’re a stupid face!”

Dolan is not used to negativity since most of his films have received high critical marks, so his salty retorts could possibly be chalked up to his lack of experience in dealing with professional rejection. That being said, his quote in The Guardian is most apt for my argument. The publication gave one of the few positive reviews of his film, so perhaps he let down his guard a bit during the interview, but his words shine a light on the elephant in the critical world.

He starts off by nailing the first issue of current criticism, in reference to knee-jerk Twitter analysis, saying it breeds…

a sort of instantaneous harm and culture of hatred, which the festival seems to be sinking into.

This is an obvious truth that is the effect of the internet age of blogs and online critics. The only way to stand out is to do 1 of 3 things: be the first to have an opinion, be a troll and have a dissenting opinion, or have a click-bait column with a click-bait title. The former is fed by Twitter. Many critics, especially at film festivals where the films that screen won’t be seen by the majority of the public for months or even years, have a tweet ready to send before the credits roll. Nowhere on this list is the quality of the content. It pays to be first, not to be good.

But what kind of analysis is that? Your first impression after seeing a film is rarely the most accurate description of your opinion. The way you feel after seeing a movie is important, but I would say the movie doesn’t really take shape until after you’ve dissected it in your mind, through conversation, and/or by writing it out. Maybe you know you didn’t like the movie before the lights turned on, but do you know exactly why you didn’t like it? I know, for me, there has been several times where I had no idea what my critical opinion of a movie was before I started writing about it. You sit down to figure it out, thinking you have nothing to write and, suddenly, your brain starts to analyze and thoughtfully characterize your opinions. Twitter is the opposite of that.

Now, to get to the second part of the quote I’d like to highlight.

If the guy who gives Creed five stars and Fast and the Furious four stars and-a-half is saying that Marion Cotillard is a bore in my movie, then it really is the end of the world…….And you wonder what the fuck he’s doing here.

The end of the world!!

I love this. It’s melodramatic and illuminating all at once. Dolan truly is an artist.

However, the comment brings the ever dubious critical scale to the forefront. The obvious retort is, using the star rating system is ridiculous and anyone who creates art should brush it off. But, especially for smaller films, it sadly matters in an economic way. The more stars, the more likely people are to seek out a movie. This isn’t always true, as is the case with critic-proof blockbusters and horror movies, but a small movie with bad reviews doesn’t stand a chance. It’s such an insanely binary and limited scale with which to pass judgement and I don’t use it. It really isn’t that dissimilar from Twitter reactions in that, the critic is attempting to make their opinion known in the shortest, most visible way possible. People open up an article and at the top they see 4 1/2 stars, then when the movie comes up in conversation they can say, “I read that movie was good” without having actually read the critic’s analysis.

In what way is it good? 4 1/2 stars for a unique film such as Tangerine is vastly different from the 4 1/2 stars for a franchise movie like Fast and Furious. So what good derives from assigning stars when there is no weighted value for each star? The answer is in the text, not the stars. Personally, I hate and rarely have ever used stars to rate films. If anything, films should be rated on a 1-10 scale, or a grading scale (A+ through F). There’s more leeway for variations in films and opinions.

P.S. I’d like to point you to my Critical Manifesto, which I think every critic should write and have handy. I think something like this helps place a value on a particular critic’s reviews.

Now, we get to the good stuff!

In response to Xavier Dolan’s comments in The Guardian, The New Yorker film critic Richard Brody shared this tweet (oh, the irony):

Zing! The “last paragraph” part is a reference to Dolan’s latter quote about the star rating and such. Apparently, Mr. Brody does not like Xavier Dolan very much.

I engaged Brody on Twitter when he sent this out and asked him if he thought it was snobbery or disgust with Twitter film criticism, to which he replied that Creed is a fine film. This I don’t disagree with, but it certainly didn’t answer the question. This is no different than a sports fan tweeting something demeaning about their team or the opposing team in the heat of battle. In this case, Dolan attacked critics (Brody’s team) and Brody retaliated with a derisive remark that holds no weight, but I’m sure it felt good to write. I’ve been there, buddy. My Twitter feed has had its share of scathing, in-the-heat-of-the-moment posts.

But here we are, back to the crux of the issue. Dolan thinks critics are presumptuous and illogical, and Brody finds Dolan to be a snob. Who’s right?

One cannot exist without the other. The critic seems more expendable than the artist because they don’t create the art, and it is the art that the masses consume. But criticism, when done right, should be considered an art-form. It is rare to find a critic nowadays who can reveal the truth of a film, illuminate the highs and lows, and relate it to the world. The world lost its preeminent film voice, Roger Ebert, as well as Pauline Kael, and criticism the way James Agee wrote is obsolete. If you read Brody’s reviews you’ll find average criticism inflated with 10 cent words and all things New Yorker-ish. (Here is his review for Central Intelligence, you’ll see what I mean).

At this time I’d like to refer you to the definition of the word “snob”:

(noun) a person who believes that their tastes in a particular area are superior to those of other people.

I believe this definition applies to both of these gentlemen in some way.687474703a2f2f7374617469632e6769616e74626f6d622e636f6d2f75706c6f6164732f7371756172655f736d616c6c2f31342f3134313430322f323432303930352d726963685f736e6f622e6a7067

Recently The Playlist posted a list of the Top 50 Best Foreign Language Movies of The 21st Century So Far. It’s a solid list with lots of obvious inclusions if you follow foreign cinema at all (In The Mood For love, Cache, A Separation, Volver, City of God, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Pan’s Labyrinth, Y Tu Mama, Tambien). Also featured on this list was Xavier Dolan’s Cannes favorite, Mommy. If you have a cursory knowledge of contemporary foreign cinema you’ll be pretty happy with the list.

However, if you wish to prove that your knowledge of foreign cinema is vastly superior to that of the staff writers at The Playlist, like Richard Brody, you concoct your own list, aptly titled, A Response to the Top 50 Best Foreign Language Movies of The 21st Century. Note that this is a counter to someone else’s opinions; it is not simply his own list, nor is it an extension of the previous list where he offers alternatives to an already established list. Brody directly relates his assessment of the initial article: “I found myself in instant disagreement with most of the titles included”.

Instant disagreement! Sounds like a job for Twitter, no?

So, right off the bat, he is rewriting the list. Nowhere in the article does he deride the The Playlist‘s writers, except to refer to their article as “the list in question” and simply stating the film sitting atop his rankings is “the best of the century so far”.

Again, I’d like to turn your attention towards the definition of the word “snob”:

(noun) a person who believes that their tastes in a particular area are superior to those of other people.

pipe-snob

The titles you recognize from the first list are totally absent from Brody’s list (save for Leos Carax’s Holy Motors), but most tellingly is the non-inclusion of a single Xavier Dolan film, despite the critical love of Mommy, Laurence Anyways, I Killed My Mother and Tom At the Farm. It would appear Mr. Brody has a personal grudge against the Canadian filmmaker.

So, what have we figured out? Both critics and artists are babies. It seems like the artists that try to make something unique and different, like Dolan, take it more personally when critics don’t like or, as I’m sure they feel, don’t “get” their work. Filmmakers like Dolan make films for festivals, which are critical beehives (if not a hornets nest), so the legitimization of their work rests on the shoulders of critics. The critic is aware of this, which is why they feel an over-inflated sense of importance at these festivals. I imagine it’s not much unlike a court room, where the filmmaker is the defendant and the critic is the judge and jury (with delusions of being the executioner). But the goal of criticism has been reduced to getting your opinion out the fastest or playing the role of contrarian. It has to be out quick, under 140 characters, or be different. Being a good writer is passe. The worst example is the degradation of criticism at film festivals, where you’re allowed to have one of two reactions: loud boos or a standing ovation. And a snappy tweet. Which is followed by:

“You’re just a snob!”

“No, you’re a snob!”

Ahhhhhh. Children, children.

Review: Captain America – Civil War (2016)

Cutting to the chase, the MCU’s latest superhero extravaganza is rich in action, circus-act set-pieces, and rife with conflict, both political and emotional. It’s the combination of these elements that make the film a stand-out in the realm of superhero cinema. The film isn’t without flaws but the Russo Brothers deftly manage a smorgasbord of plot, character, and action in a way that few could, and that alone is an achievement.

Warning: there may be spoilers below. Proceed with caution.

rotten-tomatoes-captain-america-civil-war

I’ll start with the flaws. The main complaint with the previous MCU films has been its inability to tell a complete story. The stories here are culled from decades of comic books, which as a medium is defined by its serial nature. This week’s issue is a continuation of last week’s while also being the precursor of next week’s. Film has never really been that way, unless there were planned installments (i.e. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek). The arc created in previous installments is rarely concluded within a single narrative context. In other words, comic book superhero narratives are longer than your typical narrative. They are resolved over the course of several issues, or films, while only black-and-white struggles get resolved. The actuality is, these films prove it is much easier to vanquish a physical enemy than it is to get rid of a metaphysical one (i.e. Steve and Tony’s internal struggles linger long after their enemy has been killed or imprisoned at the end of the movie). So the problem we run into in films such as Captain America: Civil War is one of a structural nature.

What I’m working towards is the reason for the inclusion of characters and moments that don’t necessarily complete the narrative we’re watching, but they add to an existing narrative outside the confines of the current story, or they are planting the seeds for another story to begin.

The most obvious example is the massive shoehorn the Russos employed to wedge the MCU’s returning hero, “Spider-Man”, into Cap’s adventure. When Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark goes to Queens to recruit the high schooler with the superhero abilities, it brings the Civil War storyline to a grinding halt. I am aware that “Spider-Man” was present in the comic book version of the Civil War storyline, but he existed within that world long before the big battle takes place. In this film, he is brought in for three reasons: to give Tony Stark a moment of levity in an otherwise emotionally vulnerable story for “Iron Man”, to provide some humor and fun to the heavy-handed proceedings, and to introduce “Spider-Man” into the MCU. Narratively speaking, he serves no purpose. He doesn’t choose a political side or fight for a reason. He fights because his idol asked him to, which is most dubious considering how well and how long the film sets up the emotional and political reasons for all the characters to fight for their side (except maybe Paul Rudd’s “Ant-Man”, who seems to fight for almost the same reason “Spider-Man” does, albeit on Team Cap).

There are conflicting ideologies at work that truly elevate the story in a way that no Batman v Superman ever could. Both films deal with the collateral damage inflicted upon civilization and the consequences thereof. Where Civil War succeeds is in creating grey areas for the characters to exist within. Steve Rogers understands the ramifications of civilian casualties in the process of stopping the bad guys, but he also understands the agendas of those that would force him to or keep him from taking some necessary risks. Have we learned nothing from the scheming Hydra agents from Winter Soldier? Imagine if they had final say in where, when, and under what circumstances the Avengers were sent into action?

But we are also shown the toll that the events of the previous movies has taken on Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr. is fantastic in this film). The amount of damage resulting from the existence of the Avengers is tremendous and Tony doesn’t want the burden anymore. I’ve seen people writing pieces about the reversed allegiances and the backwards ideologies of the two main characters. This is where that notion of incomplete storylines and serial narratives comes back to bite the MCU. What do we know about Cap? He’s a soldier who fights for truth, justice, and the American way. And we know Iron Man is an arrogant, stubborn loner who revels in the attention of being a superhero and billionaire playboy. So how is it we got to the point where Cap becomes a government outcast and renegade fighter while Iron Man fights for the rights of the government to control the actions of superheroes? You have to read (see) last week’s issue!

The best parts of this film are character moments: interactions between Anthony Mackie’s “Falcon” and Sebastian Stan’s sympathetic, dangerous and conflicted “Winter Soldier”; “Spider-Man” interacting with everyone he meets from the Avengers; Chadwick Boseman’s intense performance as the grieving, vengeful king of Wakanda, T’Challa (A.K.A. the “Black Panther”); Paul Rudd’s what-am-I-doing-here comedic shtick (as well as an amazingly fun action sequence centered around his “Ant-Man” abilities); and one of my favorites, the insecure and frightened performance of Elizabeth Olsen’s “Scarlet Witch”, who carries the burden of causing the catastrophe that sets the story in motion as well as the being the “outcast” of the group because of the intensity of her powers.

The joyous, huge action sequence between the two superhero teams is a much-deserved payoff after we are given ample reasons for each team to fight for their cause. This is why it pays to set-up, set-up, and set-up some more. By the time we have reached the fight, the backstory of political ideologies and emotions have been firmly established. Of the two main fights in the movie, this is the political struggle narratively created into an actual fist-fight, complete with humor and over-the-top action beats. The climactic battle between Cap, Iron Man, and the Winter Soldier is equally rewarding, if not moreso, because this fight embodies the emotional baggage of each character and succeeds in embodying the sheer intensity of an emotional fight. The explosion of emotion that ignites this battle is lit literally from the very first seconds of the film. The fact that we have to wait until the very end to get the payoff makes it even more satisfying.

When we are served a superhero film that combines this many characters with this level of thought and planning, we are all lucky customers. The inherent structure of superhero films begs for the creation of a thousand think-pieces about the nature of story and cinematic narratives, but I’ll leave that to much smarter people and enjoy the ride the Russo’s have given us.

Mini-Review: THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

I just got out of the 27-hour Marvel movie marathon (11 movies straight), which concluded with The Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’m not sure it’s necessarily the Age of Ultron as the title says, but the villain serves as a decent backdrop to a more serious narrative about the team of superheroes. Unfortunately, most of these franchises have failed to come up with a great villain (only Loki and maybe The Winter Soldier are exceptions), and while James Spader lends an interesting persona to the character, it still is merely another robot the team has to fight.

But fight they do, and spectacularly at that. The action sequences are lengthy and brutal, highlighted by a “chaos cinema” style of camera work and action framing. Having watched all the Marvel movies in a row lends an interesting perspective on the style of the films, seeing as how many of the action beats are nearly identical to each other as the films methodically follow a pattern which has worked for Marvel so far.

I’m a little loopy from my experience and I’ll have more to say at a later date, but suffice to say the film is very satisfying from an entertainment perspective and builds upon the ideologies set forth in each of the franchises.

My 5 Predictions for THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

I’ve mentioned this on the podcast recently, but for those of you that don’t know I’ll be out of town for the rest of the week, partly due to my girlfriend and I attending the Ultimate Marvel Marathon. This event is composed of every single Phase 1 and 2 Marvel movie played in chronological order, starting with Iron Man and culminating with The Avengers: Age of Ultron.

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That’s right, folks, all the flicks. It will be a grueling 27 hour stretch of back-to-back films and we’re psyched for it. Of course, the ultimate excitement comes from seeing Age of Ultron, which has been building in momentum over the last month or so as the big premier weekend approaches. Considering all the news and rumors popping up around superhero movies these days it’s pretty difficult to keep anything about these films under wraps for very long. I, myself, have avoided all trailers and online featurettes from the film in an attempt to see it without any pre-conceptions.

All I have is my knowledge of the previous films and a smattering of facts about the Phase 3 films and where the MCU arc is headed. So, I figured I’d come up with 5 predictions before Thursday night and see how close I came to seeing any of them happen in the film. Here goes:

1. No major character, aside from Ultron, will die

Most of these actors and their characters are scheduled (re: contracted) to appear in more films, and considering Marvel has already announced a 2-part sequel to this film plus several stand-alone films and cross-over stories I would have to imagine the entire cast would return, though I would say all bets are off for The Avengers: Infinity War.

2. Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Tony Stark (Iron Man) will not see eye-to-eye.

This film will likely see the beginning of the government regulations that lead to Tony and Cap feuding, which serves as the plot to Cap’s next sequel, Captain America: Civil War. They bickered a bit in the first Avengers flick, mostly about Cap’s naivety concerning S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secrecy and Tony’s arrogance/selfishness, but it’s likely that the tables will turn and those ideologies will reverse as the two find an important government matter to disagree upon for their own reasons.

3. Black Widow will be involved in a love triangle.

The first Avengers film hinted at a back-story between Black Widow and Hawkeye and an emotional connection between the two. However, that seemed to be a distant memory a mere 2 movies later considering the presence of sexual and romantic tension in Captain America: The Winter Soldier between Agent Romanoff and Captain Rogers. It seems likely that, with the entire team assembled, there will be some mixed emotions and jealousy between the two men at some point, though I would put my money on Hawkeye being the jealous one.

4. Dr. Banner (Hulk) will go into hiding or be missing at the end.

This film has an Empire Strikes Back vibe going for it as we head towards the opening. It just seems like things are going to go wrong and some characters are going to turn away from the team in the end, unlike the first one. My guess would be Dr. Banner, who was the least inclined to join the team as a fighting member originally, so I think it would be suffice to say that if anything goes horribly wrong (and I’m sure something will) he may turn his back on the whole thing. Or…..he gets physically removed from the team in some way.

5. Ultron will not fulfill his goal of world domination….but he will do enough damage to change it significantly.

Again, things are going to go wrong, but what have we learned from these movies? They’re serials and the most important element isn’t necessarily the actual villain our heroes have to fight, but what kind of damage the villain does to them and the world on an ideological, psychological, and political level going forward. That is what pushes the universe forward. The villain has to die so it doesn’t become too stale, but there has to be an after-effect that sends a ripple through the rest of the cinematic universe and starts another chain of events. My guess is the government becomes more involved in superhero doings as a result of the creation and destruction of Ultron, and there is a fall-out from that.

So, those are my 5 predictions. We’ll see how they play out later in the week. Feel free to comment your own predictions at the bottom!

Oscar Nominations, Selma Controversy, and more

134-Films-Officially-Enter-the-87th-Academy-Awards-Documentary-Feature-Category-Race

The nominations were announced for the 2015 Academy Awards, and shockingly there are some upset people.  First, here are the nominees for the major awards:

BEST PICTURE

  • American Sniper
  • Birdman
  • Boyhood
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Selma
  • The Theory of Everything
  • Whiplash

BEST DIRECTOR

  • Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman)
  • Richard Linklater (Boyhood)
  • Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)
  • Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
  • Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher)

BEST ACTOR

  • Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)
  • Bradley Cooper (American Sniper)
  • Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)
  • Michael Keaton (Birdman)
  • Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

BEST ACTRESS

  • Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night)
  • Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything)
  • Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
  • Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)
  • Reese Witherspoon (Wild)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

  • Robert Duvall (The Judge)
  • Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)
  • Edward Norton (Birdman)
  • Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)
  • J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

  • Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
  • Laura Dern (Wild)
  • Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)
  • Emma Stone (Birdman)
  • Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

  • Jason Dean Hall (American Sniper)
  • Graham Moore (The Imitation Game)
  • Paul Thomas Anderson (Inherent Vice)
  • Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything)
  • Damien Chazelle (Whiplash)

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

  • Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo (Birdman)
  • Richard Linklater (Boyhood)
  • E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman (Foxcatcher)
  • Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
  • Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler)

Most of these were predicted, though some of the push behind American Sniper has been a recent development (and surely the PR people at Warner Bros. are getting a pat on the back today). The major omission, according to people who know everything and are in charge of letting everyone know it, is the exclusion of Selma director Ava DuVernay and its star David Oyelowo. Naturally, as every year, the discussion surrounding DuVernay’s snub has been focused on gender inequality in Hollywood and especially in the Academy. The issue started earlier in the week when DuVernay was left off the ballot of the Director’s Guild Awards in favor of old, white, Republican Clint Eastwood. Go figure, the know-it-all’s attacked the Eastwood nomination immediately. Now with her exclusion from the Oscar ballot as well as Oyelowo’s, the conversation has turned to race. Hasn’t it?

Sadly, no. The sole conversation has been to focus on the indignity all women have suffered by DuVernay not being nominated. Melissa Silverstein, a women’s advocate for “gender equity in Hollywood” (Seriously, look it up. It says that in her Twitter bio), has even asked for women to boycott the Oscars this year. In this article she argues that Selma is a powerful and resonant enough film for our society that DuVernay should be recognized. The film is nominated in the Best Picture category, though it was shut-out of the other awards except for Song.

This is the argument I have a hard time with:

Selma is that powerful. And yet, its director was overlooked. This snub feels like a kick in the teeth to women directors everywhere. She ticked all the boxes. Made a movie about a historical figure whom people know. Made a movie about a man. Great reviews. Great lead performance. I don’t know what else Ava DuVernay could have done.

So, apparently Ava DuVernay followed an Oscar template that was supposed to get her a nomination. The argument should be, why should anyone have to follow a template to be recognized? Is that actually in the best interest of the art form? Did BoyhoodThe Grand Budapest Hotel, or Birdman follow a template? No, because the singular voices behind each film are unique and that was apparent in each of these films.

Another argument she makes is that the Reese Witherspoon film, Wild, was not nominated for any major awards because, well….read for yourself:

I am convinced that it is because it is a movie about a complicated, strong woman that was feminine and feminist — even though it was directed by a man. It feels like the Academy folks are afraid of movies where the leads are people with vaginas.

That’s it, people. The “snub” has nothing to do with the quality of the film, but rather because it was about a strong woman.

She goes on to cite several statistics in her article about how few women get nominated. Is this really the best way to go about asking for equality? She has noted in her Twitter feed that only 4 women have ever been nominated for Best Director. So, according to Melissa Silverstein the path to equality is through Oscar recognition. However, I think we’re looking at the effect of the problem instead of the cause. Is it more important that we single out one woman, or that we call for there to be a larger pool of female voices behind the camera? I say the latter.

The argument for Duvernay’s snub is a subjective one. From the list of directors nominated, I’d like to ask, who do you remove in her favor? That’s simply a matter of taste. Is it fair to Bennet Miller to be removed because DuVernay is a woman and it’s more important for her to be recognized despite the fact that Miller also made a quality film that critics praised? It’s no secret that people went bananas about Eastwood getting the DGA nomination because he’s a known Republican and Hollywood is dominated by Liberals, so I chalked that argument up to biases and political nonsense that has no business in the realm of art.

Are we saying that, despite artistic merit, Duvernay should be nominated because it’s good for women? I have a problem with this.  If the number of films directed by women, particularly with the major studios, were to steadily increase because of one nomination, then I’m all for it. Though, I think it’s fair to point out the number has not increased in the few years following Katherine Bigelow’s historic win.

So, what’s the solution? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is over 90% White and over 75% male. In 2014, of all the films released by the 5 major studios, 3 were directed by women. So, where is the problem? That one woman got snubbed, or that hundreds or thousands of women and minorities still don’t have a voice? The argument should center around the inclusion of more women and minorities in the AMPAS as well as more films ABOUT women and minorities. Perhaps it’s regrettable that Ava DuVernay will not get to hear her name called during the Oscars next month, but the solution isn’t to sulk about one women, it’s to push 10 more women to do something unique that the Academy cannot recognize by checking off boxes and therefore has to recognize it for it’s originality.

I’m not arguing against Silverstein, as I am on her side about female representation in Hollywood and in film. I just feel her argument is counterproductive to the change that really needs to occur.

Anywho, here are the rest of the nominees:

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

  • Big Hero 6
  • The BoxTrolls
  • How to Train Your Dragon 2
  • Song of the Sea
  • The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

DOCUMENTARY (FEATURE)

  • CitizenFour
  • Finding Vivian Maier
  • Last Days in Vietnam
  • The Salt of the Earth
  • Virunga

FILM EDITING

  • Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach (American Sniper)
  • Sandra Adair (Boyhood)
  • Barney Pilling (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
  • William Goldenberg (The Imitation Game)
  • Tom Cross (Whiplash)

CINEMATOGRAPHY

  • Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman)
  • Robert D. Yeoman (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
  • Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal (Ida)
  • Dick Pope (Mr. Turner)
  • Roger Deakins (Unbroken)

ORIGINAL SCORE

  • Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
  • Alexandre Desplat (The Imitation Game)
  • Hans Zimmer (Interstellar)
  • Johann Johannsson (The Theory of Everything)
  • Gary Yershon (Mr. Turner)

ORIGINAL SONG

  • “Lost Stars” from Begin Again
  • “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me
  • “Everything is Awesome” from The Lego Movie
  • “Glory” from Selma
  • “Grateful” from Beyond the Lights

SOUND MIXING

  • American Sniper
  • Birdman
  • Interstellar
  • Unbroken
  • Whiplash

SOUND EDITING

  • American Sniper
  • Birdman
  • The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
  • Interstellar
  • Unbroken

VISUAL EFFECTS

  • Captain America: The winter Soldier
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Interstellar
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past

COSTUME DESIGN

  • Milena Canonero (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
  • Mark Bridges (Inherent Vice)
  • Colleen Atwood (Into the Woods)
  • Anna B. Sheppard (Maleficent)
  • Jacqueline Durran (Mr. Turner)

PRODUCTION DESIGN

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Interstellar
  • Into the Woods
  • Mr. Turner

MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING

  • Foxcatcher
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Guardians of the Galaxy

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

  • Tangerines
  • Ida
  • Leviathan
  • Timbuktu
  • Wild Tales

ANIMATED SHORT FILM

  • The Bigger Picture
  • The Dam Keper
  • Feast
  • Me and My Moulton
  • A Single Life

LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM

  • Aya
  • Boogaloo and Graham
  • Butterfly Lamp (La Lampe au Beurre de Yak)
  • Parvaneh
  • The Phone Call

DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT

  • Crisis Veterans Hotline: Press 1
  • Joanna
  • Our Curse
  • The Reaper (La Parka)
  • White Earth

Thoughts on ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (2013)

Lovers-3

For those interested, it’s a vampire flick that’s not really a vampire flick.  The horror archetype is used effectively as a metaphor and as a convincing device to show the passage of time.  In mythology the tale would have included gods discussing the days of yore and debating the merits of their contemporary society.  In this film vampires stand in for mythical gods: they’re old, they know it all, they’ve seen it all, and they’ve even likely been some of your favorite writers/composers/musicians/et al without you even knowing it.  The blood drinking requirement is the lone hold-over staple of the genre, but it too serves the metaphor.  The vampire of today’s world needs special, purified blood free of the contaminants existing in the blood of contemporary citizens. In other words, society has become poisonous. 

This statement is supported by the setting of the majority of the film: Detroit, Michigan.  An odd place to set a vampire story, but again this serves the thematic elements of the film.  Much like the ancient mythological landmarks and cities (think, Stonehenge or the Parthenon) Detroit is a city in ruin.  Once the mecca of automobile invention and creation as well as the center of the music world for a period of time, the city is shown as a desolate landscape populated by more wild dogs than humans.  

I’ve read reviews that describe this movie as “cool”, and I think the term applies.  There is something very cool about these vampires.  They don’t fight amongst each another, they value their privacy, they don’t pray upon humans, and they have spent most of their long time on Earth pondering the intricacies of humankind, expanding their knowledge, or furthering their interests.  Which is an existence that, perhaps, makes one lonely in knowing that their lives will never end unless drastic action is taken. They have extraordinary artistic talents and knowledge that can never be published or attributed to them, and in turn appreciated, lest they out themselves as vampires.  These metaphorical aspects of vampirism are what compel the overall mood and sadness of the film to be not only thought-provoking, but strangely entertaining..

These are the themes the film quietly ponders, and honestly, it is pretty cool.

Thoughts on “12 Years a Slave”

I tend to start my blog posts with a didactic statement about film, something I’ve learned about film that I want to illustrate with a particular movie, but this post will be different.  This is likely going to come off as pretentious, but perhaps at the end you’ll understand why.12-Years-A-Slave

This is the film.  I’ve read thousands of blog posts and critical reviews of movies over the years, some of them containing stories with accounts of the writer being rendered speechless or unable to move when the credits roll.  I’ve read columns where the critic was emotionally shattered by the end of the film, that their nerves were frayed and their minds saturated as they wandered out of the dark theater.  Call it my overly-cynical nature, but I always thought that kind of talk was hyperbole, that it came from the mouths of people who forget that they’re watching a movie, that they were somehow too stupid or emotionally frail to separate themselves from a fictional narrative.   I get it now.  For me, I say again, this is that movie.

The best stories are able to manipulate your mind, your feelings, and emotions in a way that makes you feel the movie as much as see it.  The different artistic mediums accomplish this in different ways.  Film’s strength lies in the juxtaposition of sound and imagery, but very few films accomplish the feat of combining the two in such a way that it feels, to use a common term of hyperbole, perfect. To me, 12 Years a Slave is perfect.  The compositions within and between scenes, the slow, steady camera, the sparse yet useful dialogue, and the mix of subdued and volcanic performances all blend perfectly to make a film that transcends the medium.  I understand this movie will not feel that way for everyone, and I would never expect it to, but for what I look for in movies (read my thoughts on that here) this film hits every single note.

This film is not Django Unchained, though it’s funny to note that director Steve McQueen has his main character referred to as an “exceptional n****r” multiple times in the film, same as Tarantino’s spaghetti western.  In my mind I’d like to imagine McQueen using that same terminology as a wink to QT saying, “You think Django was exceptional? Meet Solomon Northup”.  And exceptional he is.  The tale is a true account of a free Black man who was kidnapped from his family and comfortable New York life and sold into slavery.  In my opinion the best stories can be summed up in such simple terms: (blank) happens and we watch them live in these circumstances.  There are no expected beats in this film because it is not hindered by convention.  It’s raw, it’s in your face and it is captivating.  Having McQueen at the helm of this story is the ideal marriage of material and director.  He is one of the few people working in film who can combine story and visuals in such a masterful way; a true artist.  I seriously could not spot a single camera move or moment in this film that isn’t perfectly placed, timed, and executed.  Make no mistake, the way you feel and the way you think during this film are all engineered by McQueen. His use of color, light, shadow, long-takes, and shot composition are astonishingly brilliant (have I broken the hyperbole scale yet?) and are used to such an effect that it creates a world of the film that envelopes you.

I honestly had intentions of writing lots more about this film, and maybe I will in the coming days once I sort it all out.  Just know that this film needs to be seen, nay experienced, for any film that reduces a grown, 32-year-old man to a speechless ball of tears is something more than just a movie.

Short Essay: Sound in Film and “The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine”

This will undoubtedly be the least read blog post in the history of the internet, and yet I will write it regardless.

The transition of film from a soundless, purely visual medium to a truly visceral experience with the inception of recorded sound is the largest transformation film has made in its 100+ year history.  Not only did it change the viewing experience in a fairly obvious way, but it changed the way films were made.  Silent films depended on visual artistry, complex editing, and creative performances and storytelling.  Think about how silly Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd look  to a modern film viewer (note: they’re geniuses, I’m simply stating the common dictum that a contemporary film fan adheres to).  Or watch any silent film and notice the absurdity of the facial gestures and the camera tricks they had to use to convey a sense of comedy or suspense or drama.  Pre-sound filmmakers had to open a bag of tricks and invent ways to tell stories on purely a visual level.  Some theorists would argue that film was at its peak during the silent era as it displayed the qualities that made film unique from other artistic mediums.

However, like it or not, in the late 1920’s/early 1930’s the advent of sound films (‘talkies”) was a cinematic revolution that took off and changed film forever.  I recently watched a film, The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine, by a lesser known yet famed Japanese director, Heinosuke Gosho, that is considered the first successful sound film to be produced in Japan.  It’s a shorter-length film (64 minutes) produced in 1931 that seems narratively simple enough but possessesthe-neighbors-wife-and-mine several metaphors about the technological advances that were occurring during this time in film history.  The film follows a family that rents a home in a seemingly peaceful village so the husband/father, a semi-renowned playwright, can bang out a play and get paid in peace and quiet.  We quickly find out that the playwright is a major procrastinator, a bit of a drinker/gambler, and a  bit of an absent father.  The humor of the story lies in the fact that, while he moved his family to this village for peace and quiet, he finds the exact opposite and his writing becomes second-fiddle to the various disturbances that permeate his life.

The most telling, and important, is an incident for which the movie is titled.  As the man sits down one afternoon to write, he hears loud music coming from the neighbor’s house.  We must keep in mind that since this is an early experiment in using sound technology, the film would unquestionably feature music of some kind to display the power of sound use in film.  The first American film with sound was The Jazz Singer, so the connection to music was apparent right the start.  At the behest of his wife and his own annoyance, the man confronts the neighbor, who is an attractive woman wearing contemporary clothes and is the singer in (what else?) a jazz band.  Humorously, the man repeatedly attempts to ask the woman and her band to stop practicing, but he is interrupted at every moment and is ushered in to the practice party.  He reluctantly stays, has a drink, which leads to another drink, and before you know it he is tipsy and enjoying every second of the jazz band’s practice, and especially the gaze of his attractive neighbor.

Let us stop there for just a moment.  The introduction of sound and its personification cannot be ignored here.  Initially the idea of sound and music is a deterrent to the playwright’s normal life as he is unable to work with such noises interrupting his thoughts.  The argument could be made that the sound itself performs as an intoxicating agent since the man merely enters the room and is rendered almost completely senseless to the power of the music and the woman, who, as a singer, is a proprietor of sound and music.  The film is filled with moments of wonderful silence up until this point.  An earlier scene finds the man unable to work because he hears the cries of an alley cat slicing through the silence of his work station.  It’s not the sound that’s most important here, it is the sound as it interacts with the silence that came before it.

As the man stumbles home after the jazz band’s practice his wife greets him and immediately grills him on his trip to the neighbor’s house.  She questions his fidelity and his attraction to the “modern girl” who lives next door.  The man brushes off the accusations and starts to work.  His wife acknowledges the contemporary clothing of the neighbor girl, then quips, “I want you to buy me a dress like that”.  She persists and begs when he scoffs at the notion.  Here we see the metaphor play again.  The woman next door who sings and plays music represents modernity and  sexuality, much in the same way the invention of sound was viewed as a modern endeavor that was appealing to the masses.  With this scene Heinosuke Gosho satirizes the film industry and its absurd, almost childlike infatuation with modernity.

On another level, the very notion that the man happens to be a playwright figures into the metaphor.  He is attracted to the woman who represents sound.  Before sound in film, the theater was in direct competition with cinema as a form of entertainment.   Where film fell short (sound, spoken dialogue) the theater held the advantage, and where theater fell short (editing, proximity to actors, fixed entrances/exits) film held the advantage.  The inception of sound in films spelled the death of theater as the most popular form of  entertainment, so it should seem fitting that the man, who is desperately trying to pen his latest play, is interrupted by sound.  This interaction could be viewed as a filmmaker’s protest against the use of sound, as the director, Gosho, would have undoubtedly been forced to make sound films under the rule of the Shochiku Co film studio, which happened to be the most progressive studio in Japan during these years.  The man keeps with him the notice of employment that reads “Writer’s fee: 500 yen. Actions speak louder than words”.  These words are seen and spoken several times throughout the film.  It is not difficult to extract the idea that, to Gosho, what we see is more important than what we hear.  Our hero is a writer and the temptress is a singer.  The loss of visual storytelling by the inclusion of sound was something an early film artist was not willing to accept.

To cap it off I would like to recall the opening scene from the film and then the end of the film.  The playwright approaches the seemingly quiet village in hopes of finding temporary residence.  In doing so he comes across an artist painting a landscape from just outside the village.  The two men engage in conversation, each stating their profession, playwright and painter.  The conversation proceeds to go awry as each man believes himself to be a master of his craft while the other repudiates the other’s artistry.  A fight ensues, which eventually is broken up by the female jazz singer we meet later in the film.  Take a moment to pause there and realize that within a single shot in the first ten minutes of this film Gosho gives us the embodiment of all the major art forms (written words, images, and sound) engaged in argument.  The seemingly archaic arts, words and images, are engaged in a barbaric fist-fight while the modern, thoughtful art-form, sound, tries to get them all to be friends.  In the end the woman persuades the men that they are being ridiculous for fighting and laughs at them.  The advent of sound was engulfing cinema at this very moment, and it laughed at the importance people used to place on narrative and imagery.  Just as the final scene the playwright and his wife stroll through a field with their young daughter and infant child in a stroller.  A plane flies overhead and the couple begin to fantasize about flying.  Soon after they hear music coming from the neighborly jazz band.  They stroll down a dirt road humming along happily with the melody until their daughter interrupts their romantic fantasy and they realize they have left their infant daughter back on the path behind them.  With these simple scenes Gosho makes bold statements about his feelings towards sound in film.  If we continue to get caught up in the spectacle of this new technology we will lose what gives us meaning in film.  With a brief film that tells no important superficial story, we are treated to what used to be and, for better or worse, what was to become the future of cinema.  Sadly, I wish our current cinema would take note: ditch the spectacle and remember what it takes to tell a great story.

Thoughts on ROOM 237

I’m hard-pressed to find a reason not to call Room 237 a proper documentary, but it really fails to feel like one. You could ask film scholars and critics their thoughts on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and fill a warehouse with the various responses. The fact that The Shining is open to interpretation is not news to anyone who knows film or to anyone who has seen the film. It’s Kubrick, and as with any Kubrick film there are layers. Look at A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, and especially 2001: A Space Odyssey and you will see the depth of his style. A proper documentary would have culled the best, most trusted film minds and let them loose on The Shining. But Room 237 instead focuses on the theories of, well, nobody’s. The faces of the interviewees are never seen, credentials are never given, and, aside from some vague chapter titles, the order and flow of the ideas are scattered. I think the film would have been more successful with a shorter running time, more anonymous interviewees, and less depth of examination of the individual theories. I know that sounds crazy considering the surface nature of this film but let me explain.

The idea of the film, as I had understood from marketing materials, was to examine nine separate theories about The Shining in an attempt to bring to light some of the subtext that may have gone unnoticed. While it does do some justice to the examination process using slow-motion and some interesting visuals, the ideas themselves are simply whacked out, if you’ll excuse the parlance. And the conviction with which they state their thoughts is vaguely inspiring, and quite honestly a little creepy. One woman purports the theory that Jack Torrance is a human Minotaur. Because Jack Nicholson tilts his head down and glares like a beast (hardly the inauguration of that look), and for one short scene there is a poster behind one of the characters that, to this woman, looks like a Minotaur. But only if you relax your eyes and squint really hard at the same time (the poster is of a skier, period).  

Another interviewee conspires that the entire film is a visual hint from Kubrick that he worked with the United States government to stage the Apollo 11 moon landing. This man also believes he’s being watched by the government since he has successfully proven his theory, in his own mind anyway. Another believes there are subliminal messages and images airbrushed into the film, but he only gives us two examples. We have to find the rest on our own. Get it? These ideas are so convoluted that, even with a slow-motion presentation and a virtual freeze-frame of the photography I still couldn’t see it. Squint and relax the eyes.

To summarize some of the other ideas, another subject goes on and on about the impossibly-placed “magical” window in the manager’s office at the beginning, another about the assistant manager and his devious look, and yet another who superimposes the normal film over a presentation of the film in reverse and finds it interesting. Many of the ideas go nowhere and serve as more of a “isn’t that cool?” thought as opposed to anything with real depth. There’s way more than nine ideas being floated around and I think you get the picture by now. The theories lack any real substantive weight, thus disqualifying the film as a serious scholarly work. It is essentially an exercise in straw-grasping.

The one thing I think is great about this documentary is its ability to show what film can mean to different people.  It’s obviously as essay on post-modern film theory, as is slightly touched upon at the end of the film. The subjective viewer can ascribe meaning to any single moment of a film and have that drastically altar the entire film for them. The one woman thinks she catches a glimpse of a Minotaur and before you know it the film becomes a mythological metaphor. That’s post-modern film theory for you, which I think is good and bad, but that’s a topic for another time.

For my buck, this documentary falls flat. It starts out interesting enough and then just spirals into boredom over the course of its 102 minute run-time. The film is less an examination of The Shining and more of a example of what the subjective mind can conjure up.