CineMathematics or CinemaThematics. Your choice

Monday, May 28, 2007

Sundae Monday

This will be the last Sundae Monday for a while. Complications mean that I won't have access to a computer on Mondays for a few weeks, so I'll be moving it up to Sundays.

One of the foundations of my childhood was eating dinner with my family and watching Match Game on GSN. And really, there were only four people who mattered on that show. Brett Somers, Richard Dawson, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Dumb Dora. That girl was so dumb . . . well, you know the rest. So it saddened me greatly to learn that Charles had died on Friday. Though the rest of his career consisted almost entirely of cameos, he will be missed and remembered for his incredibly flamboyant persona, and his brief stint hosting Match Game . . .

And after what he's done on Match Game, he couldn't possibly be embarrassed to be the spokesman for Bic Banana Ink Crayons.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Double Dueling

This is an early entry in the Star Wars Blog-A-Thon over at Eddie's Blog-a-Thon Board. Head over to the hub for some great writing on that greatest of Original Trilogies and not quite greatest of prequel trilogies.

It is the quintessential duel in Star Wars history. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. Two duels in two films that capture the essence of their respective trilogies. It's only fitting that Anakin must fight Obi-Wan at the end of Revenge of the Sith 28 years after Obi-Wan must fight Darth Vader in A New Hope. The duel is a bookend, in terms of the films' releases, though chronologically they stand next to each other. Each one is, at least in my mind, the best lightsaber duel its trilogy has to offer.

The battle between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader, which I still believe is the best scene in the entire series, attains greatness through its simplicity. Unlike the prequel trilogy, this fight features no acrobatics or spinning. It is simply a duel. Master vs. Student. Good vs. Evil. This is closer to the Medieval legend that the original Star Wars trilogy reached for.

The duel helps to develop the characters, showing both Vader and Obi-Wan as aggressors in the battle, and it foreshadows later developments in the series. It holds emotional weight, since we, like Luke, have come to love and respect Obi-Wan. Alec Guinness plays Obi-Wan as stoic, without any emotion. This can only make sense within the context of the Force and the previous duel. The first time around, Obi-Wan was emotional over the loss of his prodigy. He cries and he screams, but Anakin won't respond to his emotions. This kills a part of Obi-Wan, leaving only the calm center of the Force to guide him. Obi-Wan has risen above the use of emotions, but only because he learned, far too late, that his emotions could never help things. The transformation is shown all too clearly in Obi-Wan's cool reason.

The first duel is the culmination of the entire prequel trilogy. Everything has been building up to Anakin's turn to the Dark Side and the resulting duel. Like the lightsaber battles of this trilogy, it is designed to awe. We marvel at the wonderful visuals that George Lucas can create, giving us a molten volcanic world for the set of the climactic duel. The volcano is the perfect symbol of Anakin's turn to the Dark Side. Lava is merely liquid rock that has come to the surface. When it settles, it forms a whole new entity of land, like in the creation of a new island. Anakin's hatred is like the lava above which he fights Obi-Wan. He is finally letting his hatred come to the surface, and when it settles, he will become Darth Vader.

The visuals are spectacular, as is the choreography, but that was true of every duel in the prequel trilogy. From Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn against Darth Maul to Anakin and Obi-Wan against Count Dooku, this was a trilogy of lightsaber battles built on martial arts and spectacle. What makes this final duel so great is that it has emotional weight to it as well. When I saw Qui-Gon die at the hands of Darth Maul, I felt nothing, because I didn't feel for him as a character. Obi-Wan's vengeance may have been righteous, but I didn't care about Obi-Wan at that point. However, as he developed as a character through the trilogy, I came to care for him to the point that I felt his pain at the end of the duel with Anakin. This emotion, which is abundant in the lightsaber fights in the original trilogy, was lacking from anything before this duel. Everything else was just a visual wonder meant to stupefy me. This time it was meant to show the character development (and stupefy me).

Another element that elevates this duel is the color of the lightsabers. This may not seem like much, but it holds significant relevance in the meaning of this battle. In the original trilogy, every fight with lightsabers was red versus blue. Evil versus good. Everything was easily delineated, just like the earlier battles in the trilogy. This was the first time that a blue lightsaber was used by an evil character. This time is was blue versus blue. Brother versus brother. Emblematic of the civil war going on in the galaxy, though the outcome is very different. This duel combines the beauty of the prequel trilogy with the gravitas of the original trilogy. It may very well be the best lightsaber duel in Star Wars history. I still prefer Alec Guinness and the voice of James Earl Jones, though.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Bringing the Grindhouse Mainstream

This is my contribution to the Misunderstood Blog-A-Thon. Go over to Culture Snob for a great amount of misinterpretations.

Everyone's wondering what happened to grindhouse movies. It's not that hard to see. They've been accepted into the mainstream. The Saw films have been major successes, and grindhouse staples like The Hills Have Eyes have been remade for mass consumer tastes. The prevalence of the grindhouse in the mainstream is embodied by the massive success of 300, the modern grindhouse film. 300, despite a reported budget of $60 million, uses a flimsy plot to show the audience extreme violence and some gratuitous nudity. It's almost as if 300 is the movie Robert Rodriguez wishes he had made for his half of Grindhouse.

To be fair, there was only one image in 300 that I didn't find hysterical. "Breathtaking" images, like Leonidas kicking the Persian messenger into a bottomless pit, were so sudden and ridiculous that I couldn't help but laugh out loud. The first conflict between the 300 Spartans and the Persian army, with its constant shifts from slow-motion to normal speed and back again, reminded me of Viewtiful Joe, and the hat that Ephialtes receives for betraying the Spartans to Xerxes struck me as very similar to that of the Sorcerer's Apprentice. It was simply too ridiculous to take seriously. And then it hit me, after 2 months of hearing the political interpretations and the gay interpretations. The movie is too shallow to have a message. It's purely bread and circus.

In so doing, it rejects the Dawn of the Deads and the The Hills Have Eyess of the world and their political statements while accepting the viciousness of Lucio Fulci's Zombie and the spectacle of Dario Argento. It is pure grindhouse, resisting any other sort of interpretation. Any political reading is muddled. The Spartans' homefront makes King Leonidas look like George W. Bush, but it is the evil Xerxes who tries to invade the pure state of Sparta and impose his own view of life. Though the sexual interpretation holds more water, we cannot forget that all the emphasis on the Spartans' rock hard bodies forgets that the only nudity we get are from Queen Gorgo and the prophet atop the mountain. All that remains is excessive decapitations and blood, gawking at strange creatures, and a little nudity.

It's also worth noting that the sex scene between Leonidas and Gorgo appears to be very similar to the beginning of the sex scene in Planet Terror. Rodriguez' film has a post-modern distance that prevents the fun and humor that 300 has in such abundance. 300 remains a bunch of fun, as all good grindhouse films should be.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

IFFBoston: The Pervert's Guide to Cinema

It certainly seems to be Slavoj Zizek's moment in the sun. His recent take on 300 as well as his new documentary The Pervert's Guide to Cinema have thrust him into the spotlight of film criticism (relatively speaking). One can only hope that a film like this can elevate the discussion of film.

The first thing to consider about this film is its very construction. Zizek has taken film criticism, almost entirely done in writing, and put it on the big screen in an attempt to take his unique view to a broader audience. The effort must be applauded, no matter how you feel about his particular views (I for one think he's dead wrong on 300, but that's a topic for another post). The film is also divided into three chapters. This is a clear reflection of Zizek's particular beliefs. Zizek, as he demonstrates throughout the film, is a strong advocate for Freud, so it's only appropriate that he should divide his film into three sections, for the ego, id, and super ego.

The Pervert's Guide to Cinema is based around the argument that cinema doesn't reflect our desires; it creates our desires. Zizek often strays from his argument, leaving less of a general impression and more of a collection of small impressions. He provides some wonderful insight, such as his view of the Marx Brothers, but the overall impact of his argument is lost in the details. Not that it really matters. Zizek is engaging enough to make the two and a half hours fly by. The ideas are provoking and he raises numerous intelligent questions. I hope people really get a chance to see this one, as it makes people think about the way they see movies. I'll never see the Marx Brothers the same way again.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

IFFBoston: Black Sheep

There is a very simple test to find out if you will like Black Sheep. If the phrase "mutant zombie weresheep" brings a smile to your face, then you will like Black Sheep. If not, then you can just skip ahead. You won't need this post.

Black Sheep bears an uncanny resemblance to Shaun of the Dead. Both attempt to use horror cliches in seemingly normal circumstances in an attempt to undermine the very cliches they use. And, of course, both eventually succumb to a more straightforward use of the cliches. Unfortunately, Black Sheep lacks the sort of connection we get to Shaun and Ed. By the end of the film, we don't care for Henry and Tucker except as people fighting off mutant zombie weresheep.

Nevertheless, the film is very effective in its original use of the cliches. A simple shot of two sheep in the road becomes absolutely hilarious because of its context in horror history. The first half of the film is very effective, and a great amount of credit for that must go to the Weta Workshops, who ratchet up the gore without turning it into Hostel. And somehow they make very believable mutant zombie weresheep (I'm sure that phrase will get old by the time the film actually comes out), effectively putting a werewolf in sheep's clothing (rimshot please). The gore is, I suspect, a gratuitous cliche for all the wrong reasons, though it does get a reaction from the audience.

There is no better way to watch this film than in a packed midnight showing. Without a bunch of strangers surrounding me echoing my emotions, I would have seen Black Sheep as a much worse film. Some movies just need the crowds, like Rocky Horror or Snakes on a Plane. This is one of them. If you're thinking of seeing it, make sure that you get to it with a group of people. Otherwise, it's just not as good.

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IFFBoston: Death Trike

There are two ways to look at this film. You can see it very simply, or you can attempt to overanalyze it into greatness. I prefer the former, mainly for the reason that the filmmakers were there at the screening. Death Trike is a comic take on the slasher film, except the slasher is a tricycle. And so, for seven minutes, we get to watch the directors friends yell at a tricycle. I might have accepted this if we hadn't been able to see the pole they used to move the trike, or if there had been anything other than watching three people killed by a tricycle.

To overanalyze the film would be to say that the terrible acting and effects are a commentary on the current conditions of horror films and how the conventions need to be changed for the betterment of the genre. To see the film is to note that this was a vaguely humorous concept (that like most vaguely humorous concepts can never work in practice) that was executed poorly. No cliches are challenged, no boundaries are pushed, nothing is altered from a traditional setup except that the killer is a tricycle. And so the film quickly becomes the worst thing a horror movie can be: boring.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

IFFBoston: Eagle Vs. Shark

The pitch must have been easy for Eagle Vs. Shark. "Napoleon Dynamite has a crush!!" To be sure its oddity resembles Napoleon Dynamite. However, Eagle Vs. Shark makes most of its characters sympathetic, instead of just strange.

Eagle Vs. Shark is the story of Lily, who is in love with Jarrod. Though Lily is a bit awkward (she lives with her brother who does incredibly bad impressions), she is not nearly as odd as anything from Napoleon Dynamite. Where Dynamite centered on the oddballs in society (Napoleon, Kip), forcing us to oppose the norm (Summer Wheatly), Eagle keeps our point of view aligned with the norm (Lily), making us accept the oddball (Jarrod). This difference shows the difference in the directors' view of their characters. Jared Hess refuses to look at the world from Napoleon's perspective. He looks down on his characters, countering the viewer's supposed notions. Taika Cohen shows us the world as Lily sees it. He sees Lily as someone to be respected, and so we seek to understand why she loves Jarrod.

The surreal nature of Eagle Vs. Shark fits its subject matter better than Napoleon Dynamite. Eagle Vs. Shark is a story about love, that most irrational of emotions. And so many aspects of the film appear surreal. The oddities of the film make the emotions literal, bringing the irrational from the subjective view to the objective world.

Eagle Vs. Shark is not a perfect film. It sometimes goes for easy sentiment, but for the most part it's very well made. The pairing of Everything Will Be Okay with Eagle Vs. Shark, though it was the first pair of films I saw, ended up as one of the best pairs I saw in the whole festival.

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IFFBoston: Everything Will Be Okay

I know I have already covered this one, but it was also the first film I saw at the IFFBoston. Upon the second viewing, it has lost none of its intelligence and depth. What struck me this time around was the abundant humor. Even though it has a very somber message, there are moments of great humor, including a man with a pipe coming out of his chest and the attempted greeting "weh."

The timing of the humor is impeccably placed, often for the viewer's sake. It introduces the film on an awkward/funny note, and it manages to lighten the mood when all seems lost. The humor always feels natural, coming from the development of the story rather than feeling shoehorned.

I know I sound like a slobbering fanboy on this one, but I honestly feel like this is the closest thing I've seen to a piece of transcendent work in a long while. It touched me on an intellectual level, an emotional level, and a spiritual level. There is nothing more I could ask of from a film.

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Sundae Monday

I'm sorry I haven't been posting much. I will be posting more that my classes are done. Though the blogosphere's obsession with Spiderman 3 tells me it's summer, I'm still feeling a Film Fest Spring vibe. So I hope to cover the Independent Film Festival of Boston, three weeks after it happened, over the next week. This week's selection comes with a bit of a complaint.

Listening to the radio (albeit on a few stations) on Friday, I heard the following. They are all U2 songs, and these are only the ones I heard on that one day. I like U2, but this many gets to be a bit ridiculous. Enjoy the U2. I know I did until it drove me insane.

Now don't you wish you could avoid U2 for a week?

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Sundae Monday - Great Cinematic Speeches - Patton

It's been a while since either Damian or I have done one of these, so I thought I'd throw on a good one to make up for the lack of time. This one is almost self explanatory. George C. Scott does the George C. Scott thing, which is to say he's remarkably charismatic while never relinquishing even a hint of his brusque demeanor. And unlike other speeches, this one isn't hidden in the editing. We are put in the position of the troops as Patton riles us up for battle. It gets us excited for the rest of the film, and it introduces us to the central focus of the film. What more could you want from a speech?

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Sundae Tuesday?

Yes, it's possible. I got too busy, so I'm going to have to post a day late. Yesterday was my last day of classes, and my last day of attending films at the Independent Film Festival of Boston. I hope to post my thoughts on that soon. But for now, two videos. One for each celebration.

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