CineMathematics or CinemaThematics. Your choice

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On Beauty In Cinema

I'm a sucker for a beautiful image. I'll often overlook problems others see in a film if there's one image that sticks out as truly beautiful to me. That was the overpowering force that led me to love The Curious Case of Benjamin Button so much more than all those people whose opinion I often agree with (see this take on the film). It doesn't even have to be a particularly ambitious or grandiose shot to take my breath away. In Benjamin Button, it was Tilda Swinton's face. There is a scene in Button where Brad Pitt and Tilda Swinton are about to consummate their affair. They take the elevator up to her floor. In this midst of this sequence, there is a shot of Tilda's face, the brim of her hat barely peeking into the frame. The shadow of the brim covers her entire face. It's the sort of sublime close-up that is just rarely seen. From that moment on, I couldn't say I disliked the film.

It is with this perspective that I ended up drooling all over Duplicity. You would think this should come as no surprise to those familiar with the works of Academy Award Winning Cinematographer Robert Elswit. This is the man who photographed each of Paul Thomas Anderson's films, as well as Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck. His previous work with director Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton, earned Gilroy and Academy Award Nomination. Though everyone remembers that final shot, with Clooney in the cab driving nowhere as the credits roll, there was another image that struck me. A board room. A few men enter from the right. It seems simple, but that sort of shot is entirely about compositions, angles, and the proper use of space. In most films, that would be a throwaway shot, one not worth working on. Here, it becomes a work of art, another morsel to tantalize the viewers who are truly willing to see it. Most people will not notice it, distracted as they are with the mechanics of the plot of yet another legal thriller. But that image is still there.

If there's one scene that perfectly exhibits what this film is about, it is the opening credits. Two private planes land at a private airport in the rain. The passengers of each plane climb down the stairways, until the two important people exit the plane. You know they're the important people because they're Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson. And as the credits begin to appear on the screen, these two Academy Award nominees begin to fight each other. This wrestling match is presented in slow motion, making this battle a ballet. You wonder at the beauty of these bodies flying through the air, the faces so extraordinarily stretched for comic effect. This is not a movie you should not take seriously. It is something you can sit back and enjoy, because you know you are in good hands. The ballet is rendered with such precision for the facial expressions and the portions of the screen left blank that you cannot help but stare in joyous wonder.

As you may have noticed by looking at a calendar, it is 2009. As you may have noticed by reading any number of film blogs on this here internet, that means it's been 70 years since the glory year of 1939. Of course, this gives us the opportunity to look down our noses at the modern film industry. The film industry we see in 2009 is nothing like it was 70 years ago, for better or for worse. The one constant in discussions of the old days is how great directors worked within the studio system to put their own individual marks on films with stars. In this way, Duplicity is quite possibly the closest we can get to the 30s. Gilroy and Elswit certainly know how to craft an image, and Julia Roberts and Clive Owen bring as much charm as they can manage to a light and breezy script. Forget the simplistically complex plot structure -- I need to give immense credit to Gilroy for stylistically separating each time period and storyline so easily and recognizably -- for just one second. This is a film more about the moment than anything else. As Odienator so perfectly stated about Ocean's 13, this is a film you should go to so you can have a good time. I think that was what did it in. People went in expecting a plot. The plot is there to adorn scenes of Julia Roberts in an American flag bikini and lines about how they finally managed to freeze pineapple for your pizza. The plot probably falls apart when you think about it too much, but I was too distracted to really think about it.

This is not a movie that asks you to shut your brain off. Despite what I said above, the film still asks you to think about what is going on in every scene and how it relates to everything else we've seen. The dialogue is amazingly witty, and I don't know if I've said enough about how this film engages your eyes before all else. But the film still works on multiple levels. You can focus on the images, the plot, or the dialogue. Whatever you want, this film has got it. This is the film I was waiting for all spring, and it's the film I never got this summer. It's a rare breed of film, one that shouldn't be lost to the discount rack of your local Best Buy.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

M. Tati's Holiday

I don't love M. Hulot's Holiday. I guess I like it. As far as comedies go, I've seen better. Maybe that is because it's just not my style. The slapstick is much more subdued than I've seen in any other movie. Without much of a non-diegetic score or dialogue, comedy moments just happen. Nor does the comedy really escalate. Gags never pile to create a greater comic effect. Hulot's car may be a bucket of bolts, but that never goes anywhere. Hulot may be a wunderkind at tennis, but it never goes anywhere after the original set up. Nevertheless, the film is truly wonderful and worthy of awe at every moment.

The most obviously noteworthy element of M. Hulot's Holiday is its sound effects. Like Chaplin before him, Tati knows the value of sounds when there is little dialogue. Hulot's car wouldn't be funny if it weren't for the puttering pops that erupt from the vehicle. The blaring noises from Hulot's record player and the wind coming from outside the hotel serve to comically annoy the normal guests at the hotel. Even the boinging sound of the door swinging in the dining room serves to comically underline every scene in the dining room. But sounds are hardly the only element of the film that deserves praise.

Immense credit for this film should go to cinematographers Jacques Mercanton and Jean Mousselle and (uncredited) editors Suzanne Baron, Charles Bretoneiche and Jacques Grassi. One of the primary visual devices involves multiple layers of action. One person is in the foreground, and something unrelated goes on in the background. This serves to teach the viewer how to watch this movie; every inch of the frame has something worth seeing. In fact, this film serves as a wonderful education to the young cinephile as to how to watch films. Everything is worth noting, and repeat viewings will invariably lead to the revelation of previously unnoticed details. But the cinematography would be merely a pleasant distraction without the brilliance of the editing.

Editing is supposed to bridge gaps. Good editing will create connections. In The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Fritz Lang combined sound with editing to make connections between the criminals and police. Here, Tati uses his chief cinematographic trick to transition between characters. Scenes on the beach transition to scenes in the dining room by presenting the audience with a shot of a couple in the dining room looking out their window at the action on the beach. Suddenly, the characters in the foreground have become the characters in the background, which gets at one of the major themes in the film: we're all part of the community. This idea is best presented in one great cut.

The first shot is of a man drying himself off. A beautiful girl walks past him, and he stares. His wife calls to him, but he doesn't respond. In one shot, Tati has set up and executed a wonderful little joke. There is no cut to the wife and her frustration. Only the man watching this girl. The cut is to a God's-eye view of the beach. The girl enters from the lower right side of the frame, but she is just one element among everyone else at the beach. That joke was merely one bit of humanity among a massive group of such interactions. The film may be titled Mr. Hulot's Holiday, but it's really about everyone at that beach resort.

Mr. Hulot's Holiday is one of the best examples of pure, plotless but beautiful and well-constructed filmmaking. Without a plot to distract the viewer, one can soak in the precision and beauty of the cinematography, editing, and sound design. If I were trying to introduce someone to the art of filmmaking, this would be one of the earliest films to teach them about the power of editing and how cinematography can blend with editing to create a rich tapestry of film. I just wish the film were funnier.

For a more modern take off on the character of Mr. Hulot, I present this:

He may not be as good at editing, but he gets the laughs in.

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Sundae Monday's Summer Just Got a Whole Lot Better

With the summer upon us, I have a lot of time on my hands. Fortunately, to fill a tiny part of that time, David Lynch has returned to us. Though he is not the actual director of this series (those would be David's son Austin Lynch and the mysterious Jason S.), Lynch's name and fingerprints are all over INTERVIEW PROJECT. Every three days for the next year, there will be a new video available at the above website. Each video will feature three or four minutes of an interview with a random person that was made on a cross country journey. Having only seen the video below, I think it falls perfectly in line with The Straight Story, Twin Peaks, and Wild at Heart in presenting Lynch's fascination with America with a capital-A. He has been focusing more on Hollywood lately, but he always seems to return to the world outside of his Inland Empire to examine where our country is. Where the project goes from here, and what sort of message, if any, we can take away from this, I can't begin to guess. Though the website has the higher quality video, it will also be available on YouTube. This is Episode 1: Jess

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sundae Tombday

Before I get into any shenanigans today, I want to point out a wonderful website for those of you who don't like your favorite videos being pulled from YouTube for copyright infringement. YouTomb is a searchable database provided by MIT cataloging every video that has been pulled from YouTube. It is an impressive piece of work, and they keep a blog for various findings, such as Warner Music Group's recent rampage through the internet. This is definitely worth checking out. And now, for no particular reason...


Monday, March 16, 2009

In Praise of Season 3

This is supposed to be a movie blog, but nothing's really happening in the film world, and this is too big to pass up.

It may not have the best line of dialogue -- Starbuck's "Bitch took my ride" from Season Two's "Scattered" -- or the best episode -- still for my money Season One's "33" -- but Season Three of Battlestar Galactica still holds up as the best of the show's four seasons. It gives us an entirely new perspective on the universe we have been watching for two seasons. It opens with one of the series best plot arcs, and it concludes with a pair of revelations that put major parts of the series in a whole new perspective. In between these we finally get to see how the other half lives. This was a season to expand the universe we knew, and at the same time it gave us some of the show's most memorable moments.

Admittedly, Season Three has two definite clunkers -- "Hero" and "The Woman King" -- but even those have something to offer the series. "Hero" reminds us of some of Admiral Adama's worst moments, foreshadowing Lee's impassioned speech in defense of Gaius Baltar in the season finale "Crossroads: Part 2". "The Woman King" reminds us that these people come from twelve separate planets and that these people still discriminate. Throughout the series, we have been given brief glimpses into the sort of people from each planet -- people from Geminon are more inherently religious, people from Saggitaron refuse normal medication. "The Woman King" reminds us that the world outside of the major characters features the same sort of discrimination that still exists in our own world. This theme is revisited in "Dirty Hands," when Baltar reveals that he changed his accent to hide the fact that he was from Aerelon. There has always been overt hostility to the Cylons, as best represented by the mutiny arc of Season Two, but the discrimination between people from different colonies is rarely represented. This part of the fleet could only emerge in Season Three.

Season Three also seems to know what to do with Baltar better than any other season. Baltar began the series as a womanizing self-centered bastard, something which essentially continued until he was elected President at the end of the fleet. The first half of Season Three sees him as a prisoner of the Cylons, while the second half keeps him as a prisoner, but this time of Humans. The first half of the season allows Baltar to serve as a filter, allowing the audience access to the Cylons and their way of life. Baltar is not a character who does anything but observe. During the second half of the season, Baltar's storyline returns its focus to the all-important Baltar. As a prisoner, Baltar begins to get sympathy from various people in the fleet. He begins to become some sort of combination of Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler (or Martin Luther King Jr, if you want your prison writings in a less controversial style). He begins to change. It's almost as if all the bizarre and terrible things forced upon him over the course of Season Three forced him to better himself. Of course, this all comes crashing down in Season Four, but we can still dream in Season Three.

Season Three is the season that fills out the characters that we thought we knew so well. Some characters, like Karl "Helo" Agathon, will never change, and some, like Caprica Six, change so far in the background that we don't notice until their arc is almost through. Caprica Six, in particular, seems to have little purpose recently except to show how much Baltar hasn't grown. However, the major characters of a television series traditionally go through changes, especially on a show about the end of humanity. Episodes like "Unfinished Business" give us a way of actually seeing important moments that create these changes. The will-they-or-won't-they romance between Lee Adama and Kara Thrace was finally consummated in a flashback. In a later flashback, Kara has married Samuel Anders, giving us an actual reason to care that he is a Cylon (what kind of relationship happens between a secret Cylon and a woman who just came back from the dead?) as well as giving us a deep look into the character of Kara Thrace. These sorts of major character moments appear throughout the show, but in Season Three, these moments come to the forefront, giving the feeling of a much expanded universe.

The New Caprica arc is often cited as the series at its best; it features the unparalleled special effects work of "Exodus: Part 2", and it allows the viewer to draw easy comparisons with modern day issues. It was the show at its most relevant, before it burrowed back into its own mythology. Battlestar Galactica has always been more than a simple sci-fi show. The miniseries features a monologue by Admiral Adama questioning whether or not the human race deserves to go on living. Of course, this is quickly put to the test, and the show continues probing difficult philosophical and practical questions. The arrival of the Battlestar Pegasus in Season Two provides a stark contrast with Galactica's humanitarian view of the universe; Pegasus stripped civilian ships of their usable parts so that Pegasus was better equipped to fight the Cylons. Season Three gave the most prevalent relevance to modern society, but it also featured the end to the relevance.

Season Three of Battlestar Galactica presented the biggest step forward in the overarching plot up to that point. The discovery of New Caprica led to an interesting arc, but it ended at the same place it started. The revelation of four previously unknown Cylons placed things in a different light. The beginning of Season Two featured Colonel Tigh taking over the fleet, which looks very weird with the knowledge that he is a Cylon. The vast majority of the show consisted of events that never had a permanent effect on the fleet. Pegasus came and was destroyed in "Exodus: Part 2". Helo was abandoned on Caprica until someone came to rescue him. Chief Tyrol got married and had a kid, but then his wife died and it turned out the kid wasn't his. Nothing became permanent until the revelation of the Final Four Cylons. This is the sort of change that came about in Season Three. Before Season Three, this was a show without a direction; things would happen, but this was a show that could go on for years. In Season Three, it became a show with drive and a direction.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Dan Eisenberg, Published Author

I disappeared. I kinda had to. Things have been rough lately, and very very busy, leaving no time. But I'm back, at least for now. The special occasion is my first published review of a film. My take on Synecdoche, New York can be found here. Apparently the editor really liked it. Meanwhile, I'm scoping out actuarial positions. Those two don't quite mesh, do they. Oh well, contradictions abound. As a little welcome back, I present my current thoughts on the extended holiday season.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Sundae Monday's (Hopefully) Back From Summer Vacation

I didn't go anywhere this summer. A year in London was enough for me. Alas, lately my mind has been departing from this world and entrenching me within the world of pop culture. Well, mostly past pop culture. Along with keeping up with Mad Men, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, in the past week I have consumed or am in the process of consuming Paul Sherman's Big Screen Boston, Watchmen (the only thing on this list I haven't finished yet), the first season of The Sopranos, the third season of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Monsieur Verdoux, La Strada, Hoop Dreams, The Takind of Pelham One Two Three (can you tell I've been watching way too much Hulu?), Halloween (the original), Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Fahrenheit 9/11, and the film to which the clip below belongs, An American in Paris, all while listening to The Velvet Underground & Nico, OK Computer, The Bends, Unknown Pleasures and Modern Guilt all for the first time. I hope to write something about any one of these in the near future (most likely Halloween or Big Screen Boston). But on to the clip.

This clip comes from the final dance number in An American in Paris, which lasts 18 minutes. It is quite simply stunning, both in Gene Kelly's choreography and in E. Preston Ames and Cedric Gibbons' art direction. The scene takes place entirely within the daydreams of Jerry Mulligan (Kelly) after he has lost the love of his life (read: our little boy has a crush on his best friend's girl), and it has the feel of what we would see in the heads of Robert De Niro or Julie Christie at the end of Once Upon a Time in America or McCabe & Mrs. Miller, respectively. Those two characters, depressed by their worlds, escape through opium and the films end with them lost inside their heads. If they were musical in nature, their minds would look like Mulligan's dreams. However, the film pulls back from Mulligan sinking into his mind by pulling an It's a Wonderful Life: happy endings for everyone (except that other guy who loves Lisa. What a loser)!! It's a testimony to the power of this dance scene that I went from desperately wanting Lisa and Jerry back together to wishing Jerry's pain would never end. That may sound sadistic, but it's hard not to want pain when it's so beautiful and well crafted.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Gary Busey Attacks Sundae Monday

Gary Busey is insane.

Gary Busey is brilliant.

Gary Busey has made insanity a good marketing tool.

Gary Busey can play guitar.

Gary Busey makes absolutely no sense.

Gary Busey is the man.

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Remeber Two Years Ago...

...when X3 had the biggest opening weekend ever?

Yeah, me neither.


That No Talent Ass-Clown

Will it ever be possible to see Roberto Benigni and not hate him? I found myself asking that question as I watched Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes, the opening scene of which features the above "comic" "actor" alongside personal hero Steven Wright. The whole thing felt off, and I want to blame Benigni. The scene opens with him drinking coffee, and that just annoyed me. He's Roberto Benigni! He doesn't need coffee, especially with that much sugar. That instant filled me with dread. Watching Benigni fidget as he stirs in more sugar felt wrong. But I know I can't blame this on Benigni, especially with Jarmusch's awkward script. That doesn't mean that the situation was awkward, but that the awkwardness that should have arisen needed to feel more natural. Jarmusch nails the right tone in later segments, particularly "Twins" and "Renee", but here it feels as if Jarmusch saw some great talent to work with and couldn't find the right words to put in their mouths. The same thing happens in "Cousins", which features a conversation between Cate Blanchett and Cate Blanchett. "Cousins", at least, derives some humor from the visuals it presents; the normal checkered table or tablecloth is replaced by a checkered pattern on the coffee glasses and the staid room that does not allow smoking works as a better foil for Blanchett's Shelly than Blanchett's Cate.

Is it irresponsible to blame Roberto Benigni for his work in one of the worst scenes in Coffee and Cigarettes? Of course I would get away with it; after Life Is Beautiful, Benigni has been decried as a terrible actor, and one whose very presence can take down a movie. How does he look in his other collaborations with Jarmusch, the much lauded Night on Earth and Down By Law? His presence was a major bringdown to Coffee and Cigarettes. Is it possible to overlook his most famous role when watching him elsewhere?

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Monday, July 21, 2008



Monday, July 14, 2008

L'Sundae Monday C'est Moi

I would be posting more, but I'm reading my annual book (73% Baby!). This year it's Paul Sherman's Big Screen Boston. I plan to give a thorough treatment once I get through it, which shouldn't be too long. It's certainly a good read. But I want to take a moment to celebrate this glorious day in French history.


Sunday, July 13, 2008

...But With Computers

Viewed 20 years out, Jumpin' Jack Flash holds up remarkably well. This primarily stems from the fact that the advanced technology of the film is instant messaging. If it were remade today, Terry Dolittle would have been contacted on her Blackberry. But if it were remade today, there would be excessive emphasis placed on the technology and super-smart hackers. Jumpin' Jack Flash remains refreshingly simple and straight-forward because it is about the human relationships here.

There are two classic films which have a significant influence on Jumpin' Jack Flash: North By Northwest and Laura. The influence of Laura can be written off as mere coincidence -- both films spend considerable time following someone falling in love with someone they might never meet -- but direct references to Hitchcock's cameo and the auction house scene beg comparisons. Now, Jumpin' Jack Flash is no North By Northwest, and Whoopie Goldberg is no Cary Grant. However, Flash has a much better handle on its comedy. Throwaway lines like "It's time for Gilligan's Gulag" pepper the film and add necessary relief to the spy action.

The suspense is generally the film's weakest point, primarily because it focuses so much on the actual plot. North By Northwest glides so easily because it knows that the plot is just an excuse to spend time with Cary Grant. Jumpin' Jack Flash actually wants us to care about the espionage and the British Consulate. Besides an enjoyably creepy performance from John Wood, the main thrust of the plot was unnecessary and deterred from where the film succeeds so well. That and the fact that the Consulate's henchman is Jim Belushi. That was just cruel.

One of the best aspects of Jumpin' Jack Flash is the way it manages to make Terry's scenes alone with the computer compelling, primarily through the use of Jonathan Pryce's voice for Jack. This device only arises after Terry goes to Jack's apartment and hears his voice, which tells us that we are distinctly seeing things from her perspective and hearing the conversations in her head. Most films don't give us such privileged access to our protagonist's minds, and this works greatly to the benefit of the film. Also, giving Whoopie Goldberg a voice to act against gives a way to show her come to care and eventually love Jack without it seeming exceedingly creepy. We all hear the sensual British voice that Terry does, and we all grow to like Jumpin' Jack Flash.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Stuff that Films Are Made Of

This is definitely not an entry into the Bizarro Blog-A-Thon over at Energetic Eye Theatre. You should not go there, and you would be a fool to read any of the horrible entries by other people. I hope you hate this post.

Hicks. Spaceships! ZOMBIES!! Could anyone ask for more from filmed entertainment? It's a simple collection of scenes that are helpfully explained to us by a narrator. The special effects are lovingly analog, and any inconsistencies in lighting are hardly noticeable next to the overwhelmingly strong acting, particularly by Martin Landau as the old man. The set design is evocative and contributes significantly to the overall mood of absolute terror. I don't know how else to properly analyze this scene. It's an example of just what the movies are capable of accomplishing compared to that, this

is embarrassing. Reading? That's why they made books. Zombies are why they made movies.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

But I'm Not Wearing Any Sundae Monday

This week is going to be all over the place because there's a lot going on right now.

First, I want to mention the passing of George Carlin. He will be remembered for his roles in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Dogma and Shining Time Station. But he will be best remembered for his stand up comedy. Carlin is held among the highest ranks with Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce. Enjoy those Seven Words:

If you haven't seen it yet, you should go and see The Animation Show Year 4. I think that The Animation Show is extremely important in the world of animation for giving a decent release to a collection of short films, something which is sorely lacking from the rest of the film world, except that time in February when the Academy Award Nominated Shorts get their own program. But The Animation Show attracts a different sort of audience. Hopefully someone like Judd Apatow can curate something similar for live action shorts. A man can dream. Some films from this year's lineup are available online.

Finally, I want to share this for those of you who did not see it this past Thursday. Stephen Colbert has spent over two years trying to find what he terms a formidable opponent. He finally has.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Another 100 Movies...

It's that time of year again: AFI has unveiled another collection of 100 movies, this time partitioned into collections of 10 by genre. First, we need to remember that comedy and romance both have their own AFI lists. Genres such as Fantasy, Gangster and Western seem like they would make good lists, but Epic? Is Epic a genre? I always thought of it as a scale. Animation is a medium, not a genre, but I guess I'll take it for my beloved Fantasia. Even the definitions of the limitations of each genre are questionable. Field of Dreams has about as much baseball as Jerry Maguire has football. It seems that the genre of Fantasy is more about simple wish fulfillment than what most people think of as a Fantasy film. This could have been a wonderful opportunity to showcase some of the work of Ray Harryhausen, but AFI preferred to let Jimmy Stewart talk to a non-existent rabbit. Where is the fantasy in Harvey? But I don't want to just gripe. There are many things that went absolutely right about these lists.

This is most apparent in the creations of the Gangster and Western lists. Both lists are able to combine undisputed classics (Stagecoach, White Heat) with genre revisions (The Godfather, The Wild Bunch). Of course there are wishes that loose genre definitions could have broadened the Gangster list to include crime films like, say Night and the City (if The Third Man and Lawrence of Arabia count as American films, than so does Night and the City), but that is a minor quibble in the face of the solid lists produced here.

This praise also goes to the Romantic Comedy list with entries ranging from It Happened One Night and Adam's Rib to Annie Hall and Moonstruck. But when raising what is now considered a predominantly feminine genre, I can't help but raise the call of the Siren: where's the melodrama? Surely we could have been spared the Courtroom Drama list and all the A Few Good Mens that come with it. Musicals would also be a pleasant addition to this list of genres, if only because it would give us a reason to look back on Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire again.

If there is one genre which didn't need the representation here, it is Animation. There are lists without surprises and then there is this one. Every list should have at least one entry that makes you look twice and adds a bit of interest to the list; that entry that's obscure enough to make you want to put it on the top of the rental list. Fantasy has The Thief of Baghdad, Western has Red River, and even Science Fiction has Invasion of the Body Snatchers (oh to see the '78 remake on that list instead). Animation by its nature has no obscure great films; well, at least none that could make this list. Classic animation is naturally equated with Disney from very specific periods. There aren't any films between Cinderella in 1950 and Beauty and the Beast in 1991. There are four films from the first Disney Golden Age (1937-1942), and two from the second Golden Age (1990-1994). Even in the similarly limited scope of the Gangster genre, there are films that aren't as noticeable on other lists, such as White Heat and Scarface: The Shame of a Nation. The only thing worth noting in the Animation list is the inclusion of Shrek, the only non-Disney film and itself a parody of Disney fairy tales.

Once again, we are given a list with 100 movies from AFI. Though many will dismiss it as too predictable, the inclusion of films like The Godfather and Lawrence of Arabia should be taken as givens. What makes each list exciting are those odd selections that you can't expect and inspire a reevaluation of that list of movies you need to see. This inspires me to seek out Red River and National Velvet, and that is all I can ask of a list like this.


Sundae Monday Had a Birthday

This past week marked my birthday, so everyone gets some Cake for Sundae Monday:

mmmm...that was tasty. And now that part of the Cake where it starts to turn a bit bitter:

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Threatless Summer?

This summer's action films seem to lack urgency. With the exception of Lord of the Rings: Prince Caspian, which I didn't see, villains in action films don't really pose a threat to people other than the hero. Of course this will change, judging from the massive destruction on display in the trailers for The Incredible Hulk and The Dark Knight, but I want to take the opportunity to savor a strangely personal slant to the summer so far. The prime examples are Iron Man and Indiana Jones and Insert Joke Title Here.

Iron Man is merely the latest superhero movie to hit theaters, but it is also one of the most unusual. It goes through the typical superhero motions (origin story, testing powers, showdown with villain), but it puts the most emphasis within this arc on testing powers. It also doesn't hurt that Robert Downey Jr owns the movie in a way few actors do in any movies, nevermind superhero movies. When people think about the exciting part of the movie, they don't think of the battle between Tony Stark and Obadiah Stane; they think of Stark's first experiments with the Iron Man suit. The thing that struck me most about that final confrontation was how it almost felt as if Stark and Stane weren't fighting in a city. There was one car thrown, but there was never a strong threat that if Stark were to lose, then Stane would go on a rampage destroying the city. Stane, by manner of being a businessman, was acting in self-defense. He wanted to be able to sell his weapons to whomever he desired. Granted, those people are terrorists, but that fact never really gets enough attention as a way that Stane is a horrible person. The impact of selling to terrorists would have been amplified has the terrorists used their newly purchased Stark Industries weapons to attack the Western World in some way. When Stark returns to Afghanistan to take vengeance on those who attacked him to start the film, we see the terrorists using the new Jericho missile to level mountains in Afghanistan. We don't see this as an attack on our troops, and the missile seems to be far from any actual people. So where's the threat? If we're supposed to hate the terrorists and Stane for providing them with weapons, then we need to really see the impact.

Speed Racer wants us to hate the evil corporations, embodied by the character of E. P. Arnold Royalton. Royalton is the greasily seductive power of wealth and privilege before he is spurned by the Racer family. Then he turns to destroying Speed, both physically and mentally. It is in this attempt at mental degradation that Royalton reveals the threat to greater society that he and other corporations pose. When Royalton explains to Speed that the results of every race is fixed, he briefly mentions that this is why some company has a monopoly on the production of some motor product. I forget the exact details, but this does constitute a legitimate threat to the free market and society as we and the Racer family know it. However, this tidbit, which adds much more malevolence to the character of Royalton and all he represents, is largely forgotten in favor of the popular line we use with Barry Bonds -- he's ruining the purity of the sport! I know this is a kid's movie, but they could have at least put a little more in how Royalton is actually harming the world.

Indiana Jones has a long history of fighting terrible people, and preventing them from becoming unstoppable terrible people. Though we don't learn until the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark what the ark actually does, we know that the Nazis want it and that it's probably some sort of weapon. And that picture at the beginning showed lightning bolts coming out of it. We know from the very beginning of Last Crusade that the Holy Grail gives eternal life. That doesn't sound very threatening, but think of it this way: think of the film Downfall. Now think of what Downfall would look like if Hitler and his top advisers were immortal. What the Hell does the Crystal Skull do? We don't know, but at least it's super-magnetic, which is to say that it attracts multiple metals, including gold, as if they were iron. I'm going to forget for a second just how weird it is to look at the skull and see its magnetic powers seemingly turn on and off throughout the movie. But I don't even really get what happened at the end. The Crystal Skull was just another piece in a puzzle that allowed an alien to come back to life so it could leave Earth? Then why not just let the Commies take it? Add to that Shia LeBeouf in the major action set piece as Errol Flynn and Tarzan King of the Apes and you've removed all the tension from the film. Of course, this film tried to compensate by vastly increasing the deadliness of its creepy-crawlies. Where the first three films had snakes, bugs and rats for simple gross-out phobia-inducing purposes, this one features both a scorpion and massive CGI red ants that will eat a man alive. Come to think of it, the scene with the scorpion is the perfect symbol for this movie. We think that there may actually be a threat to Indy and the Kid, but it turns out to be harmless.

If there's one thing that Kung Fu Panda has going for it, it's the genre of the Kung Fu Movie. Like Iron Man before it, this is a rather unadventurous genre movie, but it goes through the motions with solid execution. The Kung Fu Movie also includes various anime, allowing the opening to be visually splendid in the style of a show like Samurai Jack, which completely disarmed me and put me at ease for the rest of the movie. The only problem with the storyline is that the Kung Fu Movie is always a personal one. There may be some spy elements to Enter the Dragon, but those are minimized in favor of Bruce Lee's personal stake in the tournament. Similarly, there is an attempt to make the threat of Tai Lung more than it really is. When news comes that Tai Lung has escaped from his prison, the village is immediately evacuated. This stands in contrast to the explanation for why Tai Lung would come back so angry in the first place. Tai Lung is looking for personal vengeance on Po and Master Shifu simply because he couldn't fulfill what he believed his destiny would be. He never mentions anything about the village, and there is no reason to believe that he would harm those who are in the village. In this light, such important emphasis on the safety of the village seems silly.

This summer has been a strangely personal one so far in Hollywood. Tony Stark must destroy his mentor, while Po and Indiana Jones must protect theirs. The outside world hardly matters to these heroes, and it is rarely shown to the audience. All of this leads to a feeling of less tension and fear regarding the villains and the possibility of succeeding. These movies don't have a temple collapsing around dozens of people while Indy reaches for the Grail. There is no train running to the center of Gotham that will spread Ra's Al Ghul's fear drug to everyone in the city, nor has Doc Ock sent a train hurdling toward its doom that only the hero can stop (I think the real question is: Where is Iron Man's train system?). We simply have one guy in a mechanical suit fighting another guy in a mechanical suit in a parking lot. A collapsing temple that threatens 5 people, one of whom is too greedy to see that there is a collapsing temple around him. You know there's serious trouble when we need M. Night Shyamalan to come around and threaten the whole world.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Where's My Sundae Monday

This is an addendum to last week's Sundae Monday. This week is solely focused on the work of the Pixies and unofficial videos to be found on YouTube. This first one is one of the most frightening videos you're likely to find on YouTube. Enjoy Tame:

Next is a video for Where's My Mind composed of footage from its most conspicuous use in pop culture:

This is a video for Hey made from Enigma videos:

I'll leave you with the official video for my favorite Pixies song:

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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Sexism v Racism

I haven't seen much of Sex and the City; I caught a few episodes with my flat's feminist in England. I thought its use of voice-over was much better used than in a show like Grey's Anatomy. By placing each episode within the framework of Carrie Bradshaw's column, the writers found a way to center the episode on a certain theme without it feeling overly contrived. We view things from Carrie's perspective, so she picks what to include or exclude from her column, and so what we see. I have nothing against the show. If I were channel surfing, I would gladly settle for it, though I would never actively seek it out.

I haven't seen the Sex and the City movie, nor do I plan to in the foreseeable future. Though they had little effect on me, the reviews, combined with the expected large box office gross, raised an important question: Does this film deserve its success? At first glance, the answer is a resounding no. But we must also look at the broader cultural context into which this film is being released. I don't think of myself as a feminist, but I do believe that there should be more films about women and for women, if not for everyone. Looking at the releases of the past months, only Baby Mama stands out as something with a female name attached as something more than the love interest or victim. This is a film made for an underserved portion of the audience, and there should be more. In order for there to be more, we need more films like this and Baby Mama to succeed at the box office. Therein lies the dilemma presented whenever a film like Little Miss Sunshine breaks out for indie film: Is it a good thing for indie film (or films starring women in this case) if a bad one manages to become a big success?

Before you answer this, consider an additional dimension to this problem. One of the first things I read about the film was that they had cast Jennifer Hudson in her first post-Oscar role as Sarah Jessica Parker's personal assistant. This strikes me as simply wrong. In the midst of this glorious ode to feminism (I'm not going into the politics of the show. Armond has done enough in that regard) sits the ultimate symbol of the racial divide in the city and this country: a black woman practically a slave to a white woman who is obsessed with shoes. If we're talking about gender equality with a film about four women, then we need to talk about racial equality and typecasting the only prominent black woman in the movie as a personal assistant.

Given this summer's lineup, I would be inclined to give Sex and the City the benefit of the doubt. We have no films between now and The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants 2 coming out in August that feature a woman as the main attraction (where is the original entertainment? But that's a whole other rant). Should we settle for mediocre product simply because it is centered on female characters? Buying a ticket suggests I am comfortable with more bad movies about white women and don't mind the casual racism apparent from the advertising. Not buying a ticket indicates that I don't care if Hollywood doesn't give us another female oriented film for months. What is a boy to do?