Sunday, November 8, 2009

Scary Movie Month Ranking 2009

SMM09' has concluded, and it was the best year yet!

4/4 Slashes

  1. Trick ‘r Treat
  2. Altered States
  3. Black Sabbath


  1. Dead Alive
  2. Black Sunday
  3. The Burning


  1. The Changeling
  2. Amityville Horror
  3. Time of the Wolf
  4. Repulsion
  5. It’s Alive
  6. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death
  7. The Crazies
  8. Intruder


  1. Eyes Without a Face
  2. The Tenant


  1. Night of the Demons
  2. Tombs of the Blind Dead


  1. Wizard of Gore
  2. I Spit on Your Grave
  3. Masters of Horror: Cigarette Burns

AVERAGE RATING for 2009 – 3/4

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Burning: NOT Your Run of the Mill Sister, Sister Slashhh(er film)

Coincidentally, The Burning was released one day short of what would be the one-year anniversary of Friday the 13th. At first, it seems like a nearly complete rip off the Jason franchise; a masked killer attacking a children’s camp. Yet while Friday the 13th’s story involves a mother avenging the death of her child who was neglected by the counselors’ sexual escapades, The Burning contains a story more along the lines of Scream/Urban Legend/I Know What You Did Last Summer. The custodian of the camp, who supposedly is an abusive alcoholic custodian, is accidentally set on fire during a prank gone wrong and after five years of recovery, returns to the camp for revenge.

First off, compared to the handful of notorious Slasher films – Halloween I and II, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream - I think Friday the 13th is pretty terrible. The dialogue and acting is torture to the senses and the theme of irresponsible teenage hormonal overdrive is obnoxiously explicit.

In fact, in the behind the scenes documentary of The Burning, I learned that Tom Savinni considers all of the subsequent Friday the 13th’s after the 1981 version to not be “real” additions since Jason was legitimately killed within the first few minutes of the original film. I agree in some ways, but considering the grasp of the series and what it became - with a remake that ignores the drowning of young Jason altogether - I’d say the first movie of the series doesn’t belong to the rest. There are ELEVEN movies that contain Jason, ten of which contain the infamous mask. So while I’d like to agree with Tom Savinni, I feel he has it backwards. When a remake is better than the original – as the ’09 release was – it proves how comparably bad the original was.

And where Friday the 13th got it wrong, The Burning got it right. First off, the cast is superb, featuring the sickly scrawny Fisher Stevens and hilarious Jason Alexander. These two individuals are part of a five-person group with such a great and realistic dynamic that when the first one of them is murdered, it almost drew a tear. Likewise, the group of girls also have a phenomenal relationship. Unlike Friday the 13th, The Burning doesn’t revolve around the horniness of teenagers in the woods, but rather the friendships between the campers (and their complimentary horniness in the woods). Like most horror films, it has a great amount of exposition that hooks the viewer into empathizing with the characters rather than immediately killing them off.

I’d even say that other than Scream, The Burning best captures teenage personalities, romance and sex better than any other slasher movie. In fact, even if there was no vengeful killer looking in the woods, I think this would have made a great coming of age/summer of love story.

Also, contrary to most Slasher film conventions, approximately half of the group survives in the end. For instance, after the canoes have gone missing, both girls and boys board a homemade raft, and they equally get butchered for doing so. There is no reason some of the people board the raft and others don’t, it is not about who is tough or scared or courageous; it is meaningless. And just when the film seems directed toward establishing a message through revering Aflred (a nerdy kid who is constantly made fun of) as he is about to apparently destroy the killer, the lead counselor, Todd, steps in and lends assistance.

This is not a film about a virgin female who will be the sole survivor in the end. If anything, it is completely absurdist; there is no psychological subtext regarding feminist values or sexual repression, there is no formula as to why some survive and others do not.

The only message to be analyzed is the choice of using a summer camp; a location of vast popularity during early 80s horror. But, this is another blog that I’ll probably never write. Or at least until Scary Movie Month '10.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Stupid and Pretentious

I’ve seen Joy Ride at least a dozen times since it first came out in 2001, however, I don’t recall this vacuous bit of trivia added to imdb last time I checked. Considering imdb trivia is usually added by members, I can't stop wondering kind of person would add this ridiculously subjective observation..

“During the course of the movie, watch the LED signal strength indicator lights on the brothers' CB radio. The first four indicator lights change colors in nearly every scene, including bright green, dark green, yellow, red, and crimson. This is obviously intentional and not a series of continuity errors.”

First off, this is completely untrue as the photos show...

1. First Contact with Rusty Nail (~11:00)

2. The Hotel (~17:00)

3. “You should really get that fixed…Your taillight.” (~32:00)

4. Apologize as Car is Crushed (~45:00)

5. Look…in…the…trunk…Lewis (~1:00:00)

6. Corn Scene (~1:15:00)

Yeah, um...I don't see the first four colors changing from anything but yellow.

Now, even if this were true, what is the point of submitting this bit of trivia? After all, even if this person was correct, is there ANY visual theme, image or motif that is NOT intentional? We can look at the close-up of the CB radio as being no different than a close-up of a face; emphasizing the importance in both detail and attention. Like the mask motif in slasher films, the CB Radio is acting as a mask but through taking on a different form. For instance, while we see the white mask of Michael Meyers who's the killer, we hear/see the CB radio of Rusty Nail who's also the killer.

And if a director is going to use one of the most significant and important aesthetic film techniques – the close up – would there EVER be a case where a noticeable visual change is not intentional? I’m not talking about obscure ultra low-budget movies where the amateur production values can lead to strong continuity errors. I’m discussing professionally directed and produced films. Whoever made this comment might as well go through the work of all great film auteurs, stating that their choice toward changing visuals is definitely "intentional.” But maybe not, because as the photos demonstrate he was completely wrong in the first place.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Philmosophical Revolution

Scary Movie Month 2009 has officially begun and is off to a great start. I just finished Midnight Movie, a film I wouldn't have watched if not for finding it for $1 at a garage sale while visiting my Aunt’s cottage in rural Indiana. It’s a low-budget winner of the 2008 Chicago Horror Film Festival, which starts out pretty great and then, come the third act, falls into shit.

The movie got me thinking about this Digital Revolution we’re in. George Lucas declared it would change the face cinema; the Blockbuster Bubble would break, and on account of easier and cheaper productions, viewers would begin to demand more independent, and therefore personal films.

Well, this day has come and passed, and it’s when I think of American Movie that I finally understand why. I cannot imagine having to deal with film and analog editing systems while making my first short film. Having to deal with high development costs, lighting, delayed dailies and analog editing systems seem like few of the many obstacles that would filter my passion and drive towards achieving my final product. In the end, after all of incredibly laborious work, I believe I’d always ask myself, “Was it worth it for this?” Thinking about my first short film, although I knew quite a bit on how to organize scenes and let the story flow, it was only when I was done with the project that I realized how terrible I was at writing, condensing story and visualizing the editing. I know that my next film will be better, but I also realize the inevitable consequence of hating it upon completion. After all, if a person isn’t hating their project when its done, I imagine they probably aren’t learning too much as a filmmaker.

However, its only through making more films that a person can get better, and the idea of having to go through such a horrendously laborious process back in the day of analog systems and film is enough to make me conclude that the end result would rarely be worth the labor, and that the high costs and large doubts of the next project would quickly force me into throwing in the towel. Mark Borchardt spends thousands of dollars on Coven and although I haven’t seen it, I’ve been told it's pretty bad. How could anyone continually spend extravagant amounts of money only to be disappointed in the end? It's when I think about this that I realize the pioneers of the independent FILM movement of the 70s, 80s and 90s are the true cinematic heroes; whether they made it or not, they gambled far more than any of us ever will.

This brings me to the conclusion that just because more people can make movies doesn’t mean that there will more great movies. Look at the Number One slots at the box office, easily reserved for the most high tech or visually pleasing texts (though Zombieland’s current position is impressive). All the digital revolution did was make it easier to enact highly stylized modes of storytelling. Remember the steady cam shot in Goodfellas being the be all, end of all of steady cam shots? Not anymore, since Children of Men took this method the very extreme of perfection. The same goes for special effects; nowadays, there are absolutely no limits to the imagination. Its as if we’ve reached a point of trying to replace substance with style.

Strange enough, this is in direct accordance with our present culture. In this age of instant gratification, when no one can save a dime and everyone wants everything immediately, the world of entertainment maintains the same principles. Think of youtube; commonly if a video is longer than two or three minutes people will avoid watching it. In terms of children’s books, there are now super-short stories less than ten pages long. Reality shows allow us to avoid the bore of day to day life and witness the interesting portions.

All the digital revolution achieved was catering to the arenas in which its quickness and durability would benefit audiences. Thus, reality shows, youtube, and porn have all adopted the technologies successfully while George Lucas’s prediction of a new generation of independent filmmakers has failed.

The problem is that while a thousand people might be able to get their project completed, there are still only a handful of people who can actually tell stories. Just as literature could not rely upon laptops and the Internet in order to discover new voices, we cannot foolishly believe that better technologies necessitate better stories.

Whether spending thousands of dollars and countless years on a project, or minimal money and days on a project, it all comes down to the story, and if it’s terrible from its inception, it will be terrible upon completion. While Mark Borchardt had enough determination and drive for thirty moviemakers, his movie simply could not deliver through its inadequate and contrived story. Midnight Movie and other low-budget movies should be an inspiration to us all. If this terrible horror film can get financed, then maybe, in order to achieve develop a voice, we should all forget HOW we’re going to shoot our stories and focus on WHAT we’re going to be shooting.

The film revolution will never come from technology, but from an era in which our studies expand beyond the walls of film school. In the last hundred years film has undergone an immense change, from suggestive sex to oral sex, from no blood to fetishized violence. I have full faith that if people watch enough films they will see and absorb the proper way to make a film; there is no need to teach the 180 rule, parallel editing or the three-act structure when these rules could be learned through an individuals passion for watching films. What is needed is a change to the story itself, a way in which to deepen what has thus far been told countless times before. STORIES have only changed due to the modern technologies which have allowed STYLE to change. It's through the meticulous visual austerity of Kubrick, Scrosese, Hitchcock, Cuaron and numerous other directors, along with watered down censorship, that stories are reaching the peak of HOW they can be told. What is needed now is a focus upon WHAT is being told; thorough examinations of philosophical, scientific and psychological ideas in order to provide expert commentary on new and revolutionary stories. Instead of film aficionados pretentiously calling out stolen shots, they will begin calling out stolen ideas, themes and characters. If scholars are going to seriously analyze film in terms of feminist, sociological, psychological and philosophical ideas, then filmmakers should approach and include these topics with an equal degree of seriousness.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Less Starbucks in Seattle

Alienation in a digital age, questions of morality and suicide, and in depth examinations of fate and compatibility; Sleepless in Seattle is a film vastly ahead of its time and quite possibly one of the greatest films of the 1990s.

Looking back ten years ago, it was easy to understand the literal message of You’ve Got Mail. Could fate pierce itself into the fabric of cyberspace? If you can’t remember the story, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks meet in a mysterious chatroom, begin emailing each other, his corporation kills her small business and then they fall in love. Although the structure is immensely contrived and uninspired, it's reliance on the internet is an interesting plot point.

Rewind five years to Sleepless in Seattle, a film far predating the days of AOL and spam filled mailboxes. Although not immediately apparent, it is clear that this movie also would have failed if not for its reliance upon the Internet. As will be discussed shortly, Annie (Meg Ryan) depends on the Internet in order to tread deeper into enacting her fantasy of Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks). Even further, the film takes two different ages of technology – radio and the Internet – to comment on our cultures growing reliance upon this technology. It is only through the naïve mind of a child, Jonah, who upon listening to the radio, understands the benefits of technology (via radio psychologist Dr. Martha Fieldstone) and pushes his father into portraying the benefits of our digital age.

However, it is when we discover Annie listening to the radio that we gain our first glimpse into the world Annie and Sam inhabit. Annie and Walter (Bill Pulmann) drive separately. Although one can assume that this is commenting on a post-feminist age, where a justifiable tension has been created between men and women; a refusal on Annie's part to be the expected passenger than driver. I will not elaborate on this possibility, but regardless of the interpretation, these two individuals are separated not just physically, but emotionally. We continually ask why this couple thinks their relationship should be solidified in marriage. Whatever the reason, Annie's estrangement from Walter forces her to drive and find comfort in the radio rather than her fiance.

Near immediately, Annie becomes absorbed into the story of Sam Baldwin. And, as indicated by Annie’s pit stop at the diner and the following day at the office, there was a ridiculously large audience for the radio program. This would mean that countless individuals were alone on Christmas, and rather than watching televison, they listened to the radio. How else, or why else would there be such a large audience?

This seems to be subtlety commenting on the alienation that people are feeling in this culture. Yet it gets stranger. Even if there were a host of lonely people on Christmas, why would they be listening to the radio and not watching television? I find this the most interesting point. My only conclusion is that like the Internet, the radio contains absolutely no face to go along with the voice or information being heard (or read in the Internet’s case). Returning to You’ve Got Mail; the reason the movie worked is precisely because they didn’t know what the other looked like. I refer to this plainly as an incomplete sense experience. That is, the radio only provides a voice, and the Internet only provides the written word. The radio has difficulty in formulating meticulous and carefully constructed words, but the Internet contains no voice to go along with those written words. And amidst a culture that has grown to value beauty and money over intellect and knowledge, it seems this is the most pure from constructing a significant relationship.

In fact, this motif of the incomplete sense experience is reflected throughout the film. Jonah calling Sam at the restaurant with minimal purpose, Annie talking to Becky about Sam who sounds disinterested, Annie seeing Sam without saying a word, Jonah’s friend using acronyms in order to express herself (strange how this absurd form of communication is common in this day of texting and instant messaging) and, specifically, Annie’s use of the internet.

As Annie becomes more obsessed with “the voice” to the point of fantasy, she visits her brother who is a professor at John Hopkins. He is of the rational mind, believing that there is no fate or metaphysical attraction between two individuals, to the point of complete ambivalence in regards to his wife. He got married because he had to get married, facing the alternative of his wife leaving him. How strong can love be if someone is willing to leave the other if marriage is not an option? Or, how strong can it be if that person doesn’t feel any connection to his wife as Annie’s brother seems to subtlety indicate? It is clear that whatever connection being sought after by Annie, and has been acquired by Sam, this man does not have it.

Likewise, Becky’s failed relationship with Rick paints another portrait of failed connections. Although we never get the entire story, we discover that she cheated on her husband with the tree man. Yet, she qualifies it by specifically stating she did not fall in love with the tree man. This then indicates not just escaping a failed marriage for a more passionate individual, but a complete disconnection with all forms of partners.

The most obvious example of this lies in the relationship between Annie and Walter. It’s not just that they do not have a connection, but I found myself wondering what they liked in the other person at all. It seems a relationship of necessity rather than desire. Necessity in that - like the statistics that a person is more likely to be killed by a terrorist than married after forty - Annie and Walter need each other to prevent such an occurrence.

Finally, considering that Sam and his wife were the only individuals with a true connection, it seems that her death was a metaphor for the times. The age of genuine connections, in a culture that values beauty and money, is dead. This can also be proved in the first scene when Annie's mother talks to her about the "magic" of relationships. Annie has no idea what it was. Thus, the "magic" once existed, but is now dead.

All of these factors add up to commenting on the fact that there is a fundamental problem in the way people - as alienated individuals - disingenuously connect with their partners. Returning to the incomplete sense experience, the radio is a metaphor for these relationships. People have an understanding of the ideal love, reflected through the radio via “the voice” as the way love ought to be. This is also explicated through the inclusion of the film An Affair to Remember. Both when Annie and Becky watch it, along with Jonah's friend, it is commented that the type of love expressed by Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr is not possible anymore. In other words, people strive for the ideal of love, failing to connect with other individuals as a result; they want what is defined by others, not themselves. All in all, it seems that love has been commodified. Dr. Marsha Fieldstone, the host of the radio program that sets this film in motion, clearly wants ratings and therefore exploits Sam’s problems for her own personal benefit. Or put differently, she exploits the genuine love he experienced.

In the end, however, Sam and Annie develop a complete sense experience, avoiding any fragmentation. They do not live through movies, social expectations or the radio, they seek real compatibility. They can hear, see, touch, feel and taste the other unlike the radio, phone or Internet. This is most clearly indicated when Sam sees Annie at the airport, he has no basis or reason for developing his instantaneous love for her, but his reaction clearly expresses such. Conversely, though not wrongfully, Annie is in love with Sam for his embodiment and ability to possess genuine love. In other words, these two individuals reflect an escape from the commoditization of love.

So, how did Sam and Annie reach this point? The answer lies in the Internet. Only when her obsession reached unbearable dimensions did Annie finally look into Sam’s life via the Internet. She then faxed a Private Investigator to take photographs. Likewise, the only reason Sam and Annie met at the Empire State Building was because Jonah’s friend booked him a flight through the Internet. Thus, it was through cyberspace that a genuine connection was created.

Now, what is the one arena of our culture the has relatively minimal regulation and corporate control? The Internet. It is a destination where free minds can express their ideas and problems without the filtering process of what will derive the highest profit margins and maintain the status quo. Becky, Rick, Annie’s Brother, Walter, all of these characters rely on being told what love is, rather than trying to discover this for themselves.

Fair wages, unionization and paid overtime have allowed us to escape the chains of factory labor, but we still remain the cogs of a massive corporate machine. Endless mergers, buyouts and acquisitions have minimized the ability for the simple man to start an independent business. Want to start a record store? Good luck competing with Best Buy. Want to start a coffee shop? Have fun trying to overcome the Starbucks located on every street corner. Bookstore? Sorry, but Barnes and Noble and Borders has the best selection and lowest prices.

Although free-market thinkers like to preach about the benefits of capitalism and its ability to let individuals freely choose their occupations, I think its extremely clear that more and more entrepreneurial enterprises are becoming increasingly difficult to startup and rightfully compete with the massive enterprises. Recently, CVS merged with online pharmacy Caremark. They will begin controlling approximately 30% of the pharmaceutical market. This means that if you choose the honorable profession of pharmacy, you have a 1 in 3 chance of working for this chain. Considering that this company along with Walgreens will probably offer the best pay and benefits, it doesn’t seem too likely that individuals will come out of school with much choice. But hey, as free-market thinkers say, you can freely choose your job. Just so long as it doesn’t interfere with the corporate models.

Thus, the Internet still allows radical and revolutionary ideas to take place. It is the only means of escape from the totalitarian corporate models that have continued to wipe out independent competition and entrepreneurial wherewithal. Annie and Sam embody and encapsulate this massive change.

Perhaps this is a good thing. Now, the person who loves to read will be forced to take his knowledge and create a book for the shelves of Borders. The person who wants to open a record shop will be forced to make his own music and have it displayed in the aisles of Best Buy. While we may have to accept that the independent specialty store is dying, the responsibility and motivation to create is now upon us. I have no doubt that once these corporations reach a certain level they will censor the works of many who criticize this model. In such an instance, only the internet can provide the proper outlet. Cyberspace is not just for alternative information, but for an alternative reality.

So what is the point of Sleepless in Seattle using radio and internet without television? Well, once upon a time there was no regulations on radio. Anybody, with the right equipment, could fill the airwaves with what they wanted others to hear. Yet, it didn't take long to regulate this mode of communication and have those with the money drown out those with little. Some say the internet stands the same risk of corporate control, but I remain hopeful that those who use it will prevent such a thing from ever happening.

NOTE: While Annie is on the phone with Becky in her hotel, the background shows what looks to be a Starbucks cup on the table; predating the plethora of this chain and yet predicting its soon-to-be function.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Halloween in August; Makes Sense

What the fuck did the white horse have to do with anything? All the audience receives is a definition from some obscure dream book (no author provided) followed by an instantaneous handheld cut to young Michael Meyers and his mother in a mental institution discussing his situation with a white toy horse situated on the table (yeah, it was pretty deep). Considering my hope and excitement for this movie was huge, I attempted to pardon this immediate and stupid inclusion toward explaining the history of Micheal Meyers. Unfortunately, moments after the first kill of the movie, Zombie returns to this asinine motif as Micheal observes his young self and mother standing next to a white stallion silhouetted in the distance. From that moment, it was clear that I was in for yet another let down by Mr. Zombie and his attempt to redefine the Halloween series.

I had a notion, which was confirmed by an interview I forced myself to ingest, that Zombie hoped to create a “realistic” portrayal of Michael Meyers. Michael would no longer be part of the supernatural, but rather a deranged psychopath; dealing with problems of the psyche as manifested through the youthful, overly cliché, slaughtering of animals. Moreover was Zombie’s choice of camerawork - a handheld documentary feel. While both of these approaches were original in theory, Zombie failed by combining realistic elements with highly HIGHLY stylized visuals, all while attempting to recreate a cinematic legacy spanning over twenty-five years. Additionally are the horrendous changes Zombie implemented: Dr. Loomis has now become despicable, Laurie Strode is completely weak and offensively pitiful, Michael does not kill for pleasure, but rather to acquire another white horse fantasy, and the list goes on. While this might have worked for those unfamiliar with the series (though I doubt it), Zombie particularly failed by expecting Halloween fans to abandon the old, horrific storyline in favor of a new, realistic one. Like a child being asked to welcome a new father after the recent death of his own, no one can replace the diabolical Meyer’s legacy by getting rid of the most gripping aspect of the series.

Why is Michael the way he is? Fine, Michael killed animals as a child, had issues with a white horse (seriously, what the hell doe this have to do with anything), and was subsequently incarcerated into a mental institution. But this still does not explain why he is the way he is. In fact, it provides absolutely no further information than Carpenter’s version. It's as if I'm driving from Central Illinois to Chicago and instead of going straight North, I head west into Iowa, up into Wisconsin and then down into the city. Either way, I'm going to same place. And Zombie's rendition, while trying to be different, arrives at the exact same conclusions as the original except with lengthy and needless explication.

Zombie’s painfully boring psychological labyrinth does no more to explain Michael’s evil than the original movie. We may know more regarding Michael’s youth, but it begs the question as to why then is the YOUNG Michael so diabolical. A lot of kids have broken homes growing up or issues with their mothers, and very few become serial killers. What is Zombie trying to say? That Michael is deranged because of his childhood? If so, why did Michael develop murderous tendencies at such a youthful age? The only explanation is that he is evil, and all examinations of the past and psyche are completely superfluous toward explaining this evil.

Are we really to expect anybody to reach a different conclusion than the original Dr. Loomis? In his brief, but powerful words, “I met him, fifteen years ago. I was told there was nothing left. No reason, no conscience, no understanding; even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face and, the blackest eyes... the devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply...evil.” In no more than two minutes of screen time, Loomis provides all of the explanation the audience needs. He is evil, plain and simple. All Zombie did was take us on a needless thrill ride which did nothing more than to destroy the series.

The best movies are the ones with the most efficiently compressed stories. If something can be explained in one minute why take five? Specifically, the best scenes in cinema necessitate every single second. Think of the work of Tarantino. I just saw Inglorious Basterds and although the movie was 2:36 every single scene is ingeniously necessary and perfectly compressed so that the audience becomes completely absorbed into the story and time breaks down. Rob Zombie wasted HOURS in two movies for what has already been perfectly explained in two minutes from the original. Is anyone really going to walk away defending Michael Meyers as a “sick” individual rather a diabolical character? Is anyone going to change their interpretation of this legendary figure? Has his position with Freddy, Jason or Leatherface changed because he has ridiculous hallucinations? No. And for that reason, Zombie has failed in his approach with a movie no different than Jason X. But hey, even the Friday the 13th remake was pretty damn good.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Effective Narrative Strategies of In the Bedroom

For the last two years In the Bedroom has been one of my favorite movies; the longest a film has remained in this slot.  This does mean that I think it's the greatest or even one of the greatest films of all time; strangely, such a list is completely different from my favorites list.

The difference between the greatest films and my favorite films lies in latter’s ability to be watched again and again, rarely ceasing in its initial seduction and constantly revealing things unnoticed from the previous viewing.  More profoundly, I think that a favorite movie differs in its ability to elicit a much deeper connection with the viewer.  While Citizen Kane has the most revolutionary and exciting of cinematic techniques, I do not relate to either the story of Charles Kane or any of the other characters; likewise, although the characters are extremely well developed and psychologically realistic, there are hardly any moments in the narrative that cause me to feel a connection.  

In the Bedroom, however, revolves around a family that is extremely similar to my own.  The dad is an extremely intelligent and caring person, while the mother is a bit overbearing and quick to judge.  Frank, on the other hand, is a kid struggling between continuing on with a relatively successful lifestyle and abandoning it for the passionate love he feels for an older woman.  Maybe Frank’s struggle between love and his parent's expectations were similar to a choice I once struggled to make.  Maybe because the Fowler's are so similar to my own family, I connect that much more with the tragic story.  Regardless, there are countless movies which could fit the same dramatic category and pose similar questions, and it is for that reason that In the Bedroom’s narrative style and cinematic mood far exceed anything I have yet to see. 

The following is a list of effective narrative strategies Robert Festinger implemented within the screenplay.  As I have said countless times, the key to a great movie is its ability to compress the narrative, letting the audience sort out the details at a later time.

As a quick summary, Matt and Ruth Fowler’s son Frank is on the verge of leaving for college with a degree in architecture, continuing on with the Ivy League legacy both of his parents had accomplished.  Currently though, he has fallen in love with Natalie Strout who has two kids and a husband, Richard Strout, who is violently hesitant to let his gorgeous wife leave him for a younger guy.  Eventually this erupts into Richard murdering Frank, and due to the lack of witnesses, is only charged with manslaughter.  The rest of the movie then deals with Matt and Ruth struggling with the lack of justice along with the deterioration of their relationship.

Thus, here are the reasons why I think the narrative of In the Bedroom is absolutely perfect.

  1. I think the most obvious question upon the film’s conclusion is how did Frank and Natalie meet?  It took me until the third viewing to finally observe how ingeniously and subtlety this was explained in the movie.  But here are the explanations I have derived thus far:

    1. The opening credits are shot in the Strout Fish Factory.  Throughout the film, this factory will be shown in the background in order to emphasize it’s importance: for instance, when Frank, Matt and Jason are in the boat, when Matt is driving, and, most particularly, when Matt is eating with his friend Willis and the Strout Fish truck pulls into the window.  Because of this, we now understand how big this business truly is and how much political sway they must possess.
    2. At the BBQ Frank’s friend says, “So Mrs. Strout mentioned you again, said you were the best can packer she ever had.  Said you looked real cute in that hairnet.”  Cleary, Mrs. Strout is Richard’s mother.  This would then explain how Natalie and Frank initially met.
    3. In bed the night after the BBQ, Matt - in response to his wife’s question about Natalie’s intentions - says “She probably loves him, girls always have.”  This then would explain why Natalie had fallen in love with Frank in the first place.  This also explains the skepticism Ruth maintains throughout the movie; namely, why is Natalie so infatuated with her child?
    4. After the court hearing, when it is learned that Strout will likely be charged with manslaughter rather than homicide, Matt and Ruth’s lawyer mentions how the Strout’s family “…was prepared to put up a substantial amount of property as bail, that, and along with his ties to the community made it very hard to convince the judge that there was a serious risk of flight.”  This speaks volumes for why Richard is the way he is; the rich, spoiled kid who finally got screwed over and thought he was above the law.  It also further emphasizes the wealth of Strout Fish, which would equally explain why beautiful Natalie would ever be with goofy-looking Richard - money.

  1. When Richard randomly arrives at the BBQ, it is an amazingly awkward and extremely revealing moment of Richard’s character.  Although I cannot remember a specific moment myself, I’m sure many people can recall situations where a person who was either uninvited or unwelcome shows up to a party.  Immediately, they will find a NEUTRAL person to talk in order to avoid the awkwardness.  In this case, Richard goes to his son, Duncan, in order to take him fishing for his birthday; two hours before the agreed time.  After, Duncan calls his brother a “poo poo head” to which Jason hits him.  Richard yells at Jason, telling him to not hit his brother, however, he does not yell at Duncan for name-calling nor initiating the fight.

  1. I had never watched a preview for this movie prior to seeing it, so when Frank was shot I was extremely shocked; it was a great strategy to first have us immersed in a story of passionate love and existential crisis’s - allowing the audience to observe the interactions between Frank and his family – and then, upon him being killed, transition into a story regarding psychological struggle, the search for justice and hidden motives.  (Kind of like Psycho).

  1. When Matt and Willis meet in the basement, Willis makes the suggestion of Matt moving away.  They never discuss or even hint at the idea of killing Richard, and yet it is clear that this was when they developed the plan.

  1. When Matt takes Richard to his townhouse there are numerous pictures that his children drew lining the staircase walls.  Further, in the last scene, after killing Richard, Matt says the most interesting and powerful line of the movie; “There was a picture of him and Natalie on the wall…the way she was smiling.” This begs the question: Was Natalie actually in love with Frank, or was it only to get back at Richard?  As indicated in the scene when Natalie comes home with Richard waiting for her in the kitchen, we learn he had cheated on her.  He explains that he wants to move back home, defending himself by saying, “I know what you’re going to say, it’s different now.”  Later Natalie says, “As far as fucking goes, who was it answering the phone the other morning?” exhibiting a certain degree of jealousy.  Thus, did Richard really deserve to die?  What if when Matt mentions to Jason about the problem of getting two lobsters "in the bedroom" he is actually using the cage as a metaphor for love?  In other words, if two guys get “trapped” into loving the same beautiful, manipulative woman is it really either of their faults for fighting?  If this is true, then Ruth was actually justified for condemning Frank and Natalie’s relationship, along with slapping her regardless of any apology.  Also, when Ruth accuses Matt of living vicariously through Frank and his “piece of ass,” she is revealing what she thinks of Natalie; the woman Frank is thinking about dropping out of school for is not divorced yet, and she's heard many questionable stories about her escapades throughout the community.  
So that's what a perfect movie is; a story which changes and expands through each viewing.  I should emphasize that most of these observations weren't made until the third or fourth viewing.  Specifically, question five was something I never even considered until I watched the movie two days ago.  It makes me wonder of all the other movies I've seen only once and yet are probably so much deeper...



Friday, May 29, 2009

Back to the Cold War

Back to the Future; the gorgeous exemplar of summer time cinema. Lately, I have been reviewing the films I grew up with with a much more critical stance.  Examining it from a historical/social perspective of 1984/85 has made me raise questions such as: Why were time travel movies so popular during this time (Back to the Future, The Terminator, The Blue Yonder)?  In what way does the year 1955 correspond to the current state of affairs during its production in 1984?  Why were cold war movies suddenly popping up (Rocky IV, Red Dawn, 2010)?  In what way did Ronald Reagan's popularity affect film content and narrative? I’m not sure how this (or hopefully these) essays will be constructed, so bear with me as I try to make sense of this picture.

I’ll begin with the clock tower, its relation towards time travel and the interesting conundrum it presents.  

Come the end of the film, it’s clear that the predictive clock tower lightning is what rescues Marty’s doom of being trapped indefinitely in 1955, all while saving the entire “space/time continuum."  Because it was a human's ability to control nature via the development of the time machine, it could then be said that the lightning reflects man’s inevitable return towards relying upon nature itself.  This seems to be presenting the dichotomy towards that of controlling nature vs. letting nature control us.  At what point does our dependence upon certain aspects of the natural world get replaced with technology and vice versa?  Does this type of advancement demand an infinite progression?

Although Doc successfully demonstrates his ability to manipulate space and time, it is the natural occurrence of weather that allows this control to be acquired within a productive capacity. I say productive because if the individual time traveler cannot touch or interact with any sentient being due to the threat of destroying the entire universe, what is the POINT of achieving time travel? (I will come back to this question in a different essay).  Thus, time travel in BttF contained no productive capacity, and lightning was the ONLY conducive element in regards to the storyline.  The movie is NOT about time traveling; the film is about Marty getting stuck in the past and relying upon nature to get him out. That is, the movie is about a return to inferior technologies.

In other words, Doc may have been able to create a time machine, but it was his limited control upon insufficient fuel technologies (viz. plutonium) that caused his subsequent reliance on nature itself.  This presents an interesting issue of prematureness; are we as humans developing technology too fast?  Think about how this question is presented in The Terminator; we designed a machine with such speed that it surpassed our capabilities of technical production to the point of destroying us.  Considering Reagan was heavy on military spending, along with the growing threat of cold war nuclear technologies this seems to be illuminating the underlying anxiety throughout the world.

This is similar to Doc’s mind reading machine upon Marty arriving at his house in 1955; what is the purpose of this machine?  If a polygraph test is inadmissible in court, I’m sure this type of device would be too.  These type of absurd inventions serve no other purpose than to flaunt the capabilities of human intellect to overcome and dominate nature.  If we were meant to read minds, we would have been designed that way, and same goes for time travel. Because of arrogance and malignant desire, there is an inevitable reliance upon the natural world to help direct us - as creatures OF NATURE - back to our proper place.  In fact, the title Back to the Future does not just mean a RETURN to the future, but could also be indicating the expression, "I turn my back to the future."  As in the denial of any and all consideration for long-term effects based through advanced technologies.

The plutonium plot device presents an interesting paradox by Zemeckis; firstly, regardless of Doc's intellect, he for some reason is foolish enough to believe that the Libyan's would never find him and kill him. Secondly, while Doc is able to create a time machine, he is incapable of overcoming the reliance upon a naturally occurring, highly volatile nuclear substances. These issues are drastically similar to America's dilemma; we don't want anyone else to have nuclear weapons, but we can have them.  And when we take these bombs away or commit atrocities "in the name of freedom" against our enemies, we wonder why other countries threaten or attack us in return.

It should be pointed out that this substance is a decay product of Uranium, and considering that Marty is transported back to a massively dark period of cold war anxiety, it does not seem that this year was chosen arbitrarily; the element which was of dire necessity for time travel was most likely being formulated at massively high quantities through both Russia and America’s nuclear programs during the year of 1955 AND 1985.  This further adds to the humor when Doc states that, “I’m sure plutonium is sold at every corner store in 1985;” indicating his knowledge of the growing nuclear productions, while also exhibiting irony in the fact that 1955 should have been the premiere year to acquire such a product.  

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Burn the Ed Wood


      That guy from Saving Private Ryan.  That’s all I knew Edward Burns was until I saw his first film The Brothers McMullen.  It was good for a first film, obvious in its auto-biographical content, highly indicative of a introductory film.  His other films contained the same content; numerous characters struggling with life’s many problems and where they fit in.  Burns’ films seemed to be trying to achieve the wit, depth and humor of Woody Allen, but continually straggle far behind in all respects.  However, I do love his movies, and just today I finished The Groomsmen; containing a pretty good cast including Jay Mohr, John Leguizamo, Matthew Lillard, Donal Logue, Brittany Murphy and that girl from Brooklyn in You’ve Got Mail, Sheri Albert.  Yet, like his other films there was something off, bordering on cliché and bothering me since it concluded.

            Yesterday my friend and I went to an open-mic at some club downtown.  As usual, some of the comedians were good, but most were terrible. One in particular told a joke that I believe is fittingly analogous to Ed Burns movies. 

He says, “So my girlfriend gets mad at me because I fall asleep after sex.  But that’s the point of my day, what else is there to do?  Next day, I wake up and will pursue the same goal.” 

Yes, I know, this joke is not funny at all.  However, it does hold some potential. For instance, instead of limiting himself to the “me” of the situation he should have focused on the “us.”  As in, while I fall asleep after sex, she does not, why is there a difference between us? And then he could have proceeded into an analysis of why there’s a difference in approaching post-sex activities from men and women.  I don’t know what the joke could have been, that’s not the point.  The point is that he limited the joke to his view, rather than a broader philosophical view; think George Carlin.     

            This is how I feel about Burns’ movies.  Although they contain interesting subject matter, they never go deep enough.  For example, Donal Logue’s character is introduced as an alcoholic, who’s temper is always hanging by a thread.  Eventually, we discover that he is infertile, and because he feels his manhood has been called into question he has been exceptionally angry.  That’s it.  While Woody Allen’s characters contain of lot of depth and personality, Burns characters always seem to be extremely one-dimensional.  Matthew Lillard is a Dad who still acts like a kid, John Lequizamo is gay and estranged from his father because of it, Jay Mohr is 35 and still living at home with no girlfriend or family.  I can just see Burns playing a game of darts, corresponding a character trait to each number - 16 is gay, 20 is infertile, 11 is divorced, bulls eye is suicide and each script he writes involves just throwing a dart in order to choose his character's problems.  In other words, there is no development. 

            Naturally I ask myself who writes these kinds of pictures?  What kind of person so obviously avoids developing depth and personality?  What distinguishes Woody Allen, or even Paul Thomas Anderson for that matter, from Edward Burns?  The simplest answer I could muster is that Ed Burns is like my cousins.  I’ll explain.  My cousins are religious and successful individuals, who aside from life’s daily and typical problems, never really ask the bigger, existential questions or observe the absurdity and depth of other people.  To them a gay is a gay, while to PTA a gay man could be Philip Seymour Hoffman who dresses in ridiculous clothes, and is obsessed with a heterosexual seventeen year old kid, enraged half-way through the movie on account of admitting his emotional sentiments.  Ed Burns, on the other hand, seems like he would say, “He’s gay, and his father disapproves;” about as typical as you can get. 

            Regardless of all of this I will continue to watch his movies, and, in fact, I’ll continue to enjoy them.  I feel as if they are the Terminator’s of the dramatic genre.  You have Terminator and then you have Commando, you have Husbands and Wives and you have The Groomsmen.  

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Burton of Bricks

I thought I didn't like Burton as much as I do, but he's a cool guy, better than that Wes Anderson asshole.  So after finally seeing Sweeney Todd it's time for another ranking.

Although he seems to be getting progressively worse, I'm still extremely excited for Alice in Wonderland; what better man to do it?  (Though I said the same about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and that was a stupid POS).

1.  Ed Wood 4/4 - ‘94

I saw this before I even saw an Ed Wood movie.  Then I saw an Ed Wood movie and understood why this was made.  The opening shot is one of the best in the entire universe.

2. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure 3.5/4 - ‘85

This is just a phenomenal kids movie.  If I’m feeling bad about Metallica suing Napster, I just let this baby role and I’m good. The scene in the magic shop always gives me the nervous poopies. 

3. Batman 3.5/4 - ‘89

One of Jack Nicolson’s greatest roles, goddamn.  Is the movie set in the 1930s? Then why is Prince playing during the dinner scene?  Is this thing on? What is this thing?  You know a movie’s good when Six Flags can recreate a Burton world via a roller coaster.

4. Batman Returns 3.5/4 - ‘92

Ebert only gave this two stars?!  What?!  I know the new Batmans makes this movie look like Dorah the Explorer, but come on - Danny Devito amongst all those penguins, Christopher Walken being Christopher Walken and Alfred.

5. Edward Scissorhands 3/4 ‘90

For an original story, this is one badass fairy tale.  The commentary on surburbia tickles me so hard that it lights my face up like the color of the houses.

6. Beetle Juice 3/4 - ‘88

Between Michael fucking Keaton playing Beetle Juice and the final dinner scene, I like this movie, I like it a lot.

7. Corpsebride 3/4 - ‘05

I recently saw Coraline which was three-dimensionally amazing, I don't know why I'm mentioning this.  I always liked the idea of using CGI to create what looks like Claymation.  It’s a nice October-time flick.

8. Sleepy Hollow 3/4 - ‘99

I haven’t seen this movie since its initial release, but I’m going to go with my instinct on this one - it was pretty damn awesome.  Up there with the headless horseman Are You Afraid of the Dark? episode.

9. Big Fish 2.5/4 - ‘03

Every time I sit down to watch this movie I remember the first preview on television with Salsbury Hill by Peter Gabriel playing, thinking this was going to be amazing.  So I think, “You know, it actually is a great movie" - contrary to all the times I viewed it prior.  But time and again, it fails at delivering.  

10. Sweeney Todd 2.5/4 - ‘07

The last movie of Burton’s I had to finish.  I’m not sure why I didn’t like it, I don’t know what I would have changed.  I guess it just wasn’t my cup of tea...or blood? (cause there's blood and stuff).  

11. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 1/4 - ‘05

From the moment I heard that the writer had not seen the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory before writing the script, I knew this picture was doomed.  Its pretty much the exact opposite of the original: too many effects, not dark enough, no creepy knife salesmen, no Gene Wilder.  While Burton relies on atmosphere to create the world, Stuart relied on the story; damn farking right.

12. Planet of the Apes .5/4 - ‘01


13. Mars Attacks .5/4 - ‘96

Horrible attempt at recreating the sci-fi films from the cold war era.  Jack Nicholson, goddamn you.