Working in Movies

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by Jeff Mitchell

 

Tumble out of bed, and I stumble to the kitchen.  Pour myself a cup of ambition and yawn and stretch and try to come to life.   Jump in the shower, and the blood starts pumping.  Out on the street, the traffic starts jumping with folks like me on the job from 9 to 5. 

- “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton

 

Ms. Parton’s lyrics - from her 1980 hit song - should ring true for just about anyone who has grabbed their lunch pail, left their residence and clocked into work.  Of course, in 2017, the way we work has changed.  Metal, oblong lunch pails are generally devices of the past.  Instead of driving 45 minutes in rush hour traffic, some employees log into their PCs from a home office, kitchen table or coffee shop.  One could easily name about another three dozen work evolutions, but with more competing demands pulling on the average 21st century adult, the 9am to 5pm workday has transformed. 

 

The aforementioned 8-hour workday might break down into a bizarre 10-hour shift of: 7am to 10am, 12pm to 4pm, and 7pm to 10pm. And with the service industry job explosion and new global workplaces, early mornings, late evenings, weekends, and holidays are not necessarily off-limits either.  (Wow, what would Fred Flintstone think?) The point is that work composes a significant portion of our waking hours, and since movies can reflect our lives, the workplace plays a sizable role in the world of cinema too.

 

Now, just about any movie - outside of My Dinner with Andre (1981) or 127 Hours (2010) – features someone earning a living in some capacity, but here are some notable films from several genres that center around the workplace.

 

 

Blue-collar work

 

Outside of the comfort of temporary walls, break rooms, air-conditioning, and coworker birthday celebrations, blue-collar movie-heroes put in an honest, hard day’s work for a day’s pay. Their bosses, however, may not view the world with the same sense of fair play.  The average employee sometimes fights uphill battles.

 

One of the best movie-examples of this is On the Waterfront (1954).  Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) knows something about fighting, because this ex-boxer – turned longshoreman - battles Johnny Friendly’s (Lee J. Cobb) operation at the Local 374.  Johnny is rolling in dough, but the men earn a mere pittance while unloading pallets of bananas or Irish whiskey from a constant stream of incoming ships for long, long hours.  In Brando’s iconic, Oscar-winning performance, he brings a sincere and endearing humanity to Terry, who takes a stance against inequitable conditions.  He stands up for what is just, even when he feels personally inequitable.  He believes that he “earned a one-way ticket to Palookaville” and “could have been a contender”, but we know that Terry is certainly more than an ordinary contender.

 

Whether or not one agrees with his politics, there is no denying that Oscar winner Michael Moore stands up for the little guy.  Moore won the Best Documentary Oscar for Bowling for Columbine (2002), but his movie career started with the groundbreaking, matter-of-fact documentary, Roger & Me (1989).  Growing up in Flint, Mich., Moore watched as General Motors closed nearby factories, so he decided to grab a camera and confront GM CEO Roger Smith.  Twenty-eight years later, actions like GM’s have repeated in every state in the union, but hey, Moore did warn us.

 

Working behind the register of a New Jersey convenience store would appear to be a stress-free job, but no one warned Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) about his upcoming day in Clerks (1994).  In director Kevin Smith’s absolutely hilarious first feature – filmed in black and white on a shoestring budget – Dante deals with a constant stream of oddballs looking to buy cigarettes, candy and milk, while his ex-girlfriend drops by and two harmless drug dealers loiter outside.  Highly conversational, Smith’s picture paints the struggles of directionless 20-year-olds, as Dante and his best friend, Randal (Jeff Anderson), opine about the original Star Wars trilogy and pornography and also plan a street hockey adventure.  No, Dante’s work is not overly laborious, but he was “not even supposed to be here today.”

 

Honorable mentions:

Silkwood (1983), Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and Men at Work (1990), but only because it has the word “work” in the title.

 

 

Downsizing

 

Although office employees do not endure physically strenuous roles, modern-day corporate environments certainly provide their own forms of duress.  Office Space (1999) is the most frequently quoted and referenced film of the last 18 years that wonderfully captures carpet dwellers’ ecosystems, and rightfully so.  In addition to looking for staplers and producing TPS reports, downsizing rears its cost-cutting head in the picture as well, and that practice has been a staple for many movies over the years. 

 

In Up in the Air (2009), Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has spent years firing people, and in fact, he has built his career around it.  Spending most of his waking hours flying to various locales, he gives unlucky employees their walking papers with a humane, but firm hand.  With so much experience in delivering horrible messages, he has developed a panache for offering advice to outgoing worker bees.  In one particular scene, he suggests to Bob (J.K. Simmons), a frustrated middle manager, to perhaps pursue his dreams in the culinary arts.  Bob absorbs the message but realizes that he will only pull in $250 a month in unemployment while chasing this aspiration.

 

   

 

 

Bob may eventually accept his fate, but William Foster (Michael Douglas) in Falling Down (1993) takes an altogether different approach.  Let go from his defense contract job and stuck on a Los Angeles roadway, William leaves his car and walks across the city sporting a short-sleeve white-collar shirt, a tie and glasses last seen in a 1950’s elementary school classroom.  He is angry about his losing his job, losing his wife in a divorce and now he begins losing his temper during encounters with his fellow Southern Californians during a stifling hot day.  His sense of purpose is lost, and his journey in this urban minefield offers a highly metaphorical experience for the viewer.

 

In Two Days, One Night (2014), Sandra (Marion Cotillard) copes with two figurative minefields as well.  She is taking a temporary leave of absence from her job at a Belgian solar panel company due to depression and anxiety, but management might permanently remove her from the company payroll in order to cut expenses.  Actually, management offers other employees a choice:  keep your bonus or keep Sandra employed.  In a truly fascinating look at the human condition, Sandra approaches each of her coworkers over a weekend to ask for their vote of confidence, and her colleagues respond in various – heartbreaking and sobering – ways.  The Academy rightfully nominated Cotillard for a Best Actress Oscar, as she masterfully captures the internal churn of potentially losing one’s job, while her character attempts to discover her self-worth.   

 

Honorable mention:

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

 

 

THE Working Man – Michael Keaton

 

Tim Burton raised a few eyebrows by tapping Michael Keaton for the role of the Caped Crusader in Batman (1989), but the Beetlejuice (1988) star donned a black suit, mask and cape and successfully delivered critical and box office praise with a serious, brooding persona not seen by Adam West’s version of the character.  In the end, casting Keaton’s no-nonsense approach made perfect sense, and this Pittsburgh native has enjoyed a career by playing industrious men.

 

In Mr. Mom (1983), Keaton’s character, Jack Butler, actually loses his job at an auto plant and switches daytime roles with his wife, Caroline (Teri Garr).  Jack becomes a stay-at-home dad, while Caroline gets a job to support their family, and Keaton serves up about one thousand quotable lines in this memorable comedy written by John Hughes (e.g. “Yea, 220, 221.  Whatever it takes.”).   Admittedly, the film loses steam in the last act once Jack gets it together at home, but not before he hilariously struggles with shopping, changing diapers, operating several household appliances, and more.  

 

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Three years later, Keaton starred in Ron Howard’s Gung Ho (1986), and this comedy confronts cultural differences between the U.S. and Japan.  A Japanese auto company buys a closed Pennsylvania auto plant and attempts to introduce efficiencies not practiced in America. Keaton’s Hunt Stevenson is a slightly bolder, crasser version of Jack Butler, who would make a great weekend-softball team captain, when he is not tirelessly attempting to turnaround the plant’s fortunes.

 

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Keaton traded in auto company work for the newspaper biz in a pair of very notable films.  Ron Howard signed on Keaton again in The Paper (1994), and the film captures the tension between financial pressures of the industry with journalistic values, and the opposing views are championed by Glenn Close and Keaton’s characters, respectively.  Howard juggles several intriguing plotlines with an all-star cast including, Robert Duvall, Marisa Tomei, Jason Robards, and Catherine O’Hara, but the movie’s lifeline comes down to a war of wills between Alicia (Close) and Henry (Keaton).

 

   

 

 

Whether or not director Tom McCarthy saw Keaton play the city editor in The Paper, he made a master stroke in casting Michael in his Best Picture Oscar-winning film Spotlight (2015).  Keaton plays Robby Robinson, who leads The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team.  A small, tightknit group of journalists, the team deeply dives into lengthy investigations, ones which absolutely need plenty of time, space and resources to find resolution.  Spotlight recreates the Globe’s efforts in uncovering extensive child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the greater Boston area, and Keaton’s Robinson presents a steady hand and support for his journalists (Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James). 

 

Spotlight is one of four terrific films that Keaton has enjoyed during his recent comeback.  Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), The Founder (2016) and Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) are the others, and naturally, he plays hardworking entrepreneurs in these movies as well.  Who knows if Keaton is the hardest working man in show business, but he might be the king of contemporary working men on the big screen.

 

 

Women in the Workplace

 

In 2017, one of America’s great mysteries is that women still do not earn as much as men.  Depending upon the study, one might find that the average woman earns 70 to 90 percent of a typical man’s wages.  Not only do women continue to fight for equal pay, but treatment too, and these campaigns have been reflected on the big screen. 

 

Commercially, no other film resonated with the public more than 9 to 5 (1980).  It was the second highest grossing film that year ($103 million and second only to The Empire Strikes Back), and it addressed an unfair workplace for women in a comedic and empowering way.  Judy (Jane Fonda), Violet (Lily Tomlin) and Doralee (Dolly Parton) plot against their boss, Franklin Hart (Dabney Coleman), after his repeated sexist slights in the office for years.  The three wind up running the company, while keeping Mr. Hart indisposed in a most bizarre way.  All three leads are especially good and very likable, and Fonda offers the biggest surprise with her understated performance.  Arriving in theatres during the height of the women’s movement, the film – and Parton’s song - struck a chord with audiences, especially with women who were impacted by discriminating office environments in their own lives. One can imagine packed 1980 movie theatres bursting out in laugher and emotional release when Doralee threatens Mr. Hart by saying, “I’m gonna get that gun of mine and change you from a rooster to a hen in one shot.”

 

For Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), she feels like she is trapped in a hen house with packs of aggressive wolves within her place of work, a local Minnesota mine.  In North Country (2005), this single mom has no other way to support her two kids and realizes that the work would be demanding but had no idea that she would become the victim of an avalanche of sexual harassment and emotional/physical abuse within a male-dominated environment.  From the beginning of her daily shift, Josey and other women live a nightmare, and while watching this movie (taking place in 1989 and based on a true story), it absolutely makes one sick that this type of chauvinism existed just 28 years ago.  Somehow, Josey wills the strength to face seemingly impossible odds while toiling with her own vulnerabilities.  Theron and Frances McDormand rightfully earned Oscar nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively.  

 

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Speaking of Oscars and McDormand, she and Sally Field won Best Actress Oscars for playing strong women in the workplace.  In Fargo (1996), Brainerd Police Chief Marge Gunderson (McDormand) – carrying a folksy persona and a future baby (as she is very pregnant) – pulls all the right strings to untangle a kidnapping plot.  Chief Gunderson is the smartest person in every room, and her calm and temperate approach to crime fighting proves just as effective as forceful police roles that audiences are used to seeing. 

 

Field captured her first Best Actress Oscar with Norma Rae (1979) by playing the title role.  Like the female-trifecta in “9 to 5” and Josey in North Country, Norma clashes with the system too.  She works in a North Carolina cotton factory, but rather than fight for female rights, she stands up for all the workers against unfair conditions.  Defiant and altruistic in her beliefs, Norma is a leader, and the words “stand up” can be taken literally and figuratively in the picture.  When she raises a sign (with “UNION” written on it) above her head, every pair of eyes - on-screen and in the audience - become completely focused on her.     

 

Honorable mentions:

Holly Hunter in Broadcast News (1987), Melanie Griffith in Working Girl (1988), Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby (2003), and Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae in Hidden Figures (2016)

 

 

Government Bureaucracy

 

According to a June 23, 2015 Forbes.com article, Walmart and McDonalds employ 2.1 and 1.9 million people, respectively, and although this business publication does not list Starbucks, drive five miles from your home in any direction, and one might conclude that this mammoth coffee house cannot be far behind, right?  Perhaps Starbucks skyrockets to 5 million employees during pumpkin spice season, but I digress.  Walmart may have cornered the market on worker bees in the private sector, but yes, the government is the world’s largest employer.  In fact, the same article stated that the U.S. Department of Defense provides jobs for 2.3 million people.

 

Over the years, movie houses have filled theatre seats with films about the government, and Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) particularly stands out.  Now, politics has become a figurative combat sport in recent months, but after watching this Jimmy Stewart classic, one realizes that the fight has endured for decades and decades.  Jefferson Smith (Stewart) is a brand new senator and arrives in D.C. with a squeaky clean image, as a colleague tells him, “This is no place for you.  You are halfway decent.”

 

This movie certainly is leaps and bounds above decent, as Capra engineers a timeless David vs. Goliath film.  Senator Smith does not even own a slingshot, but his inspiring principles certainly aim true.  

 

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Director Stanley Kubrick aimed true and landed on target with his wild, weird, unsettling, and hilarious dark comedy, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).   Peter Sellers plays the President of the United States (and two other roles, including the infamous Dr. Strangelove) and is joined by an extensive cast, whose characters are hunkered down in a war room trying to prevent a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union.  Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George scribe a bureaucratic mess in which phone calls and side meetings emerge as fairly useless, because red tape and regulations did not account for one of its base commanders going “a little funny in the head” and ordering a strike on the U.S.S.R. 

 

Dr. Strangelove, of course, contains one of the most iconic images in cinema with Maj. King Kong (Slim Pickens) riding a nuclear bomb like a horse and waiving a cowboy hat in fulfilling a morbid date with destiny.  As satirical as Strangelove feels, another film arrived in theatres that same year with a similar premise, but with much bleaker tones. 

 

Director Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe (1964) - a deadly-serious picture with a Twilight Zone-feel - features U.S. military leaders desperately trying to call back six bombers from unleashing a nuclear assault on the U.S.S.R.  The President of the United States (Henry Fonda) attempts to avert the crisis, and everything hinges on his call with the Soviets.  Men with lots of stripes and badges litter the screen, but they also work in shadows.  Within the confines of sterile control rooms and office spaces, Lumet often places various scenes within real shadows that symbolize the ironic practice of protecting American lives by actively participating in military buildups.  In one particular frightening conversation, one argues that 60 million Americans killed in a nuclear attack is significantly better than 100 million.  Fail-Safe may not be a pleasant trip to the movies, but it stands as one of the most frightening thrillers in cinema and a perfect companion piece with Strangelove.

 

Honorable mention:

No Way Out (1987), Lincoln (2012) and I, Daniel Blake (2016)

 

 

Work Should be an Adventure

 

These films about blue-collar jobs, downsizing stress, women in leadership roles, government bureaucracy, and a few others starring Michael Keaton are all centered around the workplace.  These cinematic gems, however, do not offer arduous experiences for the viewer, but tales of caution (Fail-Safe) or celebration (9 to 5).  Certainly movies can be wondrous escapes from reality, but catching a movie about real life – and in this case, a film in which its lead protagonists clock into the office for a full workday – can be just as rewarding…and/or inspiring. 

 

For anyone who has wanted a career change, watch the quirky, bizarre but highly inventive Joe Versus the Volcano (1990), in which Joe (Tom Hanks) quits his downright awful job in a dim, dank office and launches into a most unexpected, colorful adventure.  Movies can be a reflection of our lives, and since life should be an adventure, that includes our time between 9 to 5.  The next morning that you “tumble out of bed and stumble to the kitchen” in preparation for the workday, I hope that you are sporting an authentic smile or formulating a plan to eventually get one.  It’s not impossible.  It’ll just take a little bit of work.

 

Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.  Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giallo: The Italian Influence on the Horror Genre

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by Matthew Robinson

"I'm Dario Argento, and my style is something recognizable I think by the audience."

A unique film import seeped into American cinemas in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s: Giallo, an Italian subgenre of horror consisting of extreme bloodletting, stylish filmmaking, and an attention to musical placement. This style of film was so distinct that it forced film scholars to examine the wave of filmmakers coming out of Italy at the time. Giallo’s influence is alive today with filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Brian DePalma making direct reference to this lush style of horror. But to fully understand Giallo, one must look at a film's overall style, form, and thematic elements, as well as some of the major works within the genre.

 

WHAT IS A GIALLO FILM?

Suspira (1977)

Suspira (1977)

While it is difficult to specifically pinpoint what constitutes a Giallo film, there are some identifying aspects of the subgenre that help define it. The first is the film’s overall feel and style, the cornerstone of all Giallo films. Many Giallo films focus on extreme bloodletting during death sequences, which play out as operatic and ornate centerpieces and are labored over on a technical level. Acute attention is given to the sets, props, cinematography, and editing of these bloodletting scenes, making them feel intricate and surreal to the viewer. In contrast, today’s horror films tend to focus on shocking viewers during death scenes through quick jumps and rapid thrills.

Another style aspect of the Giallo subgenre is the film’s shooting location and the actors’ wardrobe. Many Giallo films feature Italian landmarks and other famous scenery to promote the film’s Italian origins. Actors wear costumes reflective of the era’s fashion. The film’s killer almost always dons a black trench coat and black gloves with a covered face. The setting for the film’s murders is often tied to the film’s fashion as well. The dresses and makeup worn by the women within Giallo films tends toward the highly stylish.

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

Giallo films use several elements of form including gorgeous cinematography, stylized editing, and the important placement of music. Visual flare characterizes the elaborate death scenes and adds beauty to the locales. The moody lighting and slow camera moves lend an atmosphere of fear and dread. Many Giallo films deal with mental illness and visually contain surreal and psychedelic flares. Technically, the camera moves are intricate and precise, often using mobile framing. Several Giallo films, such as Dario Argento’s Opera, are noted for long tracking shots and extremely daring crane shots. The editing is highly stylized and features quick cuts that create a frantic feeling during murder scenes, often in stark contrast to the languid pace of the rest of the film’s narrative. The editing may include jump and non-linear cuts to help create the aforementioned surreal and psychedelic moments.

The music of Giallo films plays a vital role. The film’s killer is often given his own theme music, and murder scenes may feature the same song played over them. The use of rock music was unique at the time these films were first produced. Dario Argento most famously worked with Goblin on several of his films by weaving their unique and heavy electronic rock sound into his murder scenes.

Tutti i colori del buio (1972)

Tutti i colori del buio (1972)

Several thematic elements can be found within all Giallo films. The male killer and lead female protagonist may suffer from mental illness. The female lead is often the only witness to the film’s murders, which causes her psychotic episodes or the mention of seeking or needing therapy. Giallo films may also contain disturbing dream sequences or hallucinations. Tourism is another common element. In addition to the use of Italian landmarks and/or other famous site locations, the lead character is often a tourist in an unfamiliar setting. In some instances, the films will take short asides to highlight this, such as a day-trip to the countryside. Finally, repressed childhood memories frequently drive the killer to murder others, and this may be repeatedly shown throughout the film in broken flashbacks.

 

An Introduction to Giallo

While there are many ways one could get into this sub-genre, I will suggest three films to begin with as well as some further recommendations. While these three films do not all represent the best that Giallo has to offer, they do offer a well-rounded entry point into the works of three prolific directors (Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, and Dario Argento).

The following films exemplify the signature traits of a Giallo film: Blood and Black Lace, Don’t Torture a Duckling, and Opera.

Blood and Black Lace

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Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964) is often credited as the first Giallo film, and its influence is evident a decade following its release. The film opens with a beautiful young model being murdered by a mysterious masked figure outside the fashion house where she works. When her boyfriend is suspected of her killing, her diary, which contains incriminating evidence linking her to the killer, vanishes. The masked killer goes on a rampage, killing many of the models in the fashion house to find the diary and keep his identity a secret. With its overwhelmingly stylish and chic design and its attention to beautiful women falling victim to a black gloved, sadistic lunatic in a trench coat, Blood and Black Lace is a first of its kind film. However, Bava throws the film’s plot and characters too far into the background, from which the movie suffers. While individual scenes are visually fantastic -- primarily the kill scenes due to the film’s effective pacing and dynamic visuals -- the film as a whole lacks any real mystery. The story is too thin to allow the audience to play along in figuring out the murderer’s identity. However, the film does deserve credit for defining the Giallo killer’s appearance. The black gloves, masked face, and trench coat worn by the killer are particularly effective. Bava frequently directs the killer to emerge from the shadows, using colored gel lights to cast a burst of red onto the murderer. This effect is eerie and creepy, and one can quickly see why it had such a defining influence on the Giallo subgenre.

Dont Torture a Duckling

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Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) is one of Lucio Fulci’s best movie titles as well as one of his better films. The film deals with the mysterious deaths of three children in a small, rural town. The opening shots of Fulci’s film are gorgeous panoramic views of the rolling hills of the Italian countryside. After these initial opening shots, Fulci’s camera pans over to a woman who is desperately clawing at the ground, unearthing the skeletal remains of a baby. While the meaning of this scene is vague, the audience soon discovers that several children in the town have gone missing. The town is ready to take action to find the kidnapper. Fulci creates a “whodunit” that is interesting and far from dull. Don’t Torture a Duckling is a fantastic Giallo; it maintains its mystery by lingering on clues and revelations just long enough to make the film’s horror moments effective. It’s also one of the rare instances where Fulci seems to care for his female protagonist, in stark contrast to his more misogynistic films like New York Ripper (1982). There is an influential scene in the film where a woman is beaten to death by chains and sticks. The film’s brutality is juxtaposed nicely with the serene countryside on a sunny afternoon, and energetic soul music plays on a radio overhead. This mixture of violence and contemporary music feels fresh, and it's clear that this film has significantly influenced other directors, notably Quentin Tarantino.

Opera

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Dario Argento’s oft-overlooked stunner Opera (1987) features the director’s most daring camerawork and dynamic pacing of his impressive career. Opera contains a number of astonishing technical achievements. In fact, one incredible, “How did they do that?” crane shot circling the large opera house flying over the patron’s head is truly something that must be seen to be believed. The film follows Betty, an understudy who gets her big break when the play’s lead is run over by a car. But after her performance, a masked and gloved killer forces her to watch him as he murders someone else. Betty becomes paranoid with fear, and her sanity is questioned over the duration of the film. A detective begins searching for the killer, and Betty continues to be forced into watching the murders of everyone around her. Argento’s style is in full form here and the film is both effective and a technical achievement. The camera constantly creeps around the opera house, a perfect setting for Argento, using dolly shots to suggest the killer is omnipresent. The setting also allows for a lavish display of costumes and set design. The film is a visual feast for viewers. Colored lighting is heavily used to suggest Betty’s sanity slipping and is one of the director’s trademarks.

 

Giallo's Influence

Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill (1980)

Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill (1980)

Giallo films had a relatively short lifespan in the 1960s and 1970s, but out of that time came some truly original work. Directors like Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Lucio Fulci took risks, stylizing their films with chic costumes, grand sets, and bold camera moves. Their influence can be seen today in directors like Quentin Tarantino and especially Brian De Palma. Giallo may be a subgenre relegated to cult status, but its influence is widespread. The American slasher film would not exist, nor would Italian thrillers contain as much style without these films. The elements that make a film Giallo also make them stand out today as films that deserve more attention. While the genre holds its fair share of treasure and trash, Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling, and Dario Argento’s Opera are three of the finest examples of the subgenre.

Other Key Giallo Films:

A Bay of Blood or Twitch of the Death Nerve

Short Night of Glass Dolls

All The Colors of the Dark

Deep Red

Lizard in a Woman’s Skin

The House with Laughing Windows

What Have You Done to Solange?

Tenebre

Dressed to Kill

The Master: George A. Romero

By Monte Yazzie
 

It's Halloween night, 2010, and the costumed kids were beginning to dwindle in the neighborhood. I remember repeatedly asking my wife throughout the evening to check the time. Why do I remember this evening so clearly? Because it was the premiere of The Walking Dead. In 2010, zombie pop culture was already bustling with popularity because of recent films like Shaun of the Dead (2004), Resident Evil (2002), and Zombieland (2009). However, it was a television show, based on a comic book, which would take zombies from genre fare to mainstream icons. Now, people talk about zombies the way they talk about Disney characters, in fact many people are both unabashedly fans of both.

 

But none of this -- all the films, television shows, video games, books, and toys -- is possible without one key element, an independent horror film made in 1968 called Night of the Living Dead directed by George A. Romero. While not the first film to establish the zombie mythos (that credit goes to the 1932, Victor Halperin-directed, Bela Lugosi-starring White Zombie), Night of the Living Dead is the most important zombie film ever made. It established the rules for the genre, the why and how zombies are the way they are. It defined that zombies eat the flesh of the living, that they are reanimated corpses, that they are immune to injury, and that the only way you can kill a zombie is to destroy its brain. It's a character mythology that has become so defined in the culture that going against it brings arguments from film fans, to the extent of having people ask in the description of a zombie film whether or not it's a "Romero-zombie". It also defined important aspects for the filmmaking process: specifically, what was possible for filmmakers, how one would make an effective movie on a budget, and, unbeknownst to Mr. Romero, how a genre story would garner social implications for the casting of an African-American man in the lead heroic role.  It's undeniable that the world, not just the world of film, would look a whole lot different without George A. Romero's influence on it.

 

Birth of the Living Dead

 

The progression of Mr. Romero's career was predicated on the shoulders of Night of the Living Dead, but before his monumental movie, Romero's career started with short films and commercial work. With a group of friends, and inspired by Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, a horror/science fiction crossover that focused on a plague that turned humanity into vampire-like creatures, the director started a production company and began work on Night of the Living Dead. It's easy to see how these stories by Romero and Matheson resemble each other on the surface, but they also hold greater meaning when looking at the social commentary working underneath the monster movie characteristics.

What both stories imply is the notion of revolution; whether it be one man in Matheson’s novel or a group of people against insurmountable odds in Romero’s film, the world is trying to impart its influence by telling the people resisting to give into change. It seems all too perfect considering the social climate in the 1960's, that a film, let alone a genre film, would reflect some of the changes in the world. Though social implication, such as hiring an African-American actor, was never a direct choice by Mr. Romero but rather a choice to do what was best for his film. Actor Duane Jones was cast to play a role that was initially written from a Caucasian perspective. George did not change a line of dialog but left the role as it was written. It was a moment in cinema history that would have profound effect on the future of race in film. Night of the Living Dead was a success, though it would be ten years before Romero would revisit his zombie world with the horror classic, Dawn of the Dead (1978).

 

Romero's second film took a different turn, a romantic comedy turn, about a young man who returns home to Pittsburgh and meets an older woman who acts in commercials called There's Always Vanilla (1971). It's a film heavily influenced by the sentiments of the middle-class perspective in the 70's, specifically how the world was changing for middle-class people in America.

 

Merely a year later, Romero had another film in production, a horror drama involving murder and witchcraft called Season of the Witch (1972). Far less of a straightforward horror offering than more of a drama with horror elements, Romero again explored the world that he was familiar with, defining clearly that Season of the Witch was about feminism and women's rights, as opposed to the occult aspects it promotes to the forefront. If there is one thing clear about Romero's style as a filmmaker, it's that the director understands the power of genre film in storytelling. Season of the Witch is at times a balancing act, taking the melodramatic aspects of a lonely and neglected housewife looking to unleash her desires and pairing it with horror elements like witchcraft and dark magic. The horror here simply serves as a medium for Romero to allow his character to break free from gender stereotypes.

Mr. Romero kept his yearly film streak going, this time returning to something far more reminiscent of his first feature with The Crazies (1973), a film about a small town infected by a military biological weapon that turns people into crazed killers. Romero plays on the anxiety and untrustworthiness that Americans were having with the world, and the government, at the end of the Vietnam War. He makes it hard to recognize the bad guy here; is it the faceless soldiers in hazmat suits or the depraved victims attacking people they once knew? It’s easy to see the connection the filmmaker was trying to make. The Crazies is one of the highlights during this space in Romero's career.

These films after Night of the Living Dead led Romero towards two seminal films, one of which would go down in history as one of the greatest horror films ever made, Dawn of the Dead (1979). But before this, Mr. Romero patented his skills on the superb film Martin (1978). Taking place again in Romero's home state of Pennsylvania, Martin is a film about a young man living in the suburbs during the recession, who believes that he is a vampire. Still encapsulating his social concerns, though more subtle and refined than his previous efforts, Romero explores post-Vietnam themes of drug addiction, poverty, and the forsaken nature of the government against its citizens.

Martin is a film that shows Romero near the pinnacle of his skills.  Here, the horror plays a stark contrast throughout much of the film.  The violence is uncomfortable, and the progression of Martin's inherent need to be a vampire is never directly stated but left to the conclusion of the viewer. It's seemingly at this moment that the director begins to fully understand how to make his vision as a filmmaker and storyteller come to life, and also recognizing the role the viewer will play in transforming and interpreting film. You can feel everything that will eventually influence and define the structure of his masterpiece.

 

Dead Rising

The middle period of Romero's film career is the most lauded and talked about. Dawn of the Dead follows a group of survivors who barricade themselves from the living dead inside a shopping mall. Romero’s film is bold and vicious, taking the special effects wizardry of Tom Savini and turning the violence into something gratuitous and comic. The story, at its core, concerns consumerism and the collapse of the American dream. The lumbering corpses aren’t necessarily the villains, they are merely operating within their nature. Instead Romero poses humanity as the depraved but also the righteous, the heartless but also the compassionate; these are the director’s most accomplished characters, which is why the film works on so many levels. Just as Romero changed the filmmaking game with Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead changed what was possible within the genre of horror.

Romero would finish his “zombie trilogy” with Day of the Dead (1985), which shows humanity retreating into a subterranean bunker to escape the “ghouls” that have taken over the world. Humanity continues to devolve while the walking dead grow more aware. It’s far less of a raw experience or a socially relevant satire but instead an unnerving, uncomfortable character analysis. Romero proposes thought-provoking questions about what the future of the world would look like if the characters in the film were allowed the influence. It’s interesting to see how fitting this story would be today.

Between these two films also comes one of Romero's lesser talked about movies, but it's one of the best of his career. Knightriders (1981) gives the King Arthur mythology a modern take.  Instead of horses, these knights ride motorcycles. It's an absurdist comedy that takes itself, like many of the director's films, completely serious. With a wonderful performance from future star Ed Harris in the lead role, the script tackles aspects of greed and stardom in the age before reality television stars.

 

The 80's and early 90's also allowed Romero an opportunity to collaborate with two iconic figures of modern horror: Stephen King with the anthology film Creepshow (1982) and Italian master Dario Argento with Two Evil Eyes (1990). Creepshow, based off the influential EC Comics books, would influence the world of horror and become the blueprint for anthology horror tales. Two Evil Eyes, adaptions of two Edgar Allan Poe stories, allowed Romero and Argento the opportunity to work on material from an author who was a significant influence on the work of both of the directors.

 

Mr. Romero's career wasn't without some hardships, as the director had a difficult time working within the studio system. Films like Monkey Shines (1988) and The Dark Half (1993) had studio interference that altered, changed, or ran out of money to support the vision that the director was trying to achieve. Even the smaller, independent film Bruiser (2000) found issues and was subsequently released straight to video.

 

The Dead End

In the end, Mr. Romero returned to the monsters he created, capping off a career with three continuing stories that further progressed the world of the living dead. Land of the Dead (2005) was the glorious return for the filmmaker.  After twenty years, the creator of the zombie culture returned to tell another story, all this in the midst of a world that had come to love the "ghouls" that George created so many years before. Again, this wasn't just a zombie film, the auteur had something to say. Land of the Dead focused strong commentary on the privileged and underprivileged, the poor and the rich, the have and the have-nots. It had everything those familiar with the artist's work could have expected.

Diary of the Dead (2007), a documentary-style movie that follows a group of film students who happen upon real-life zombies, and Survival of the Dead (2009), a modern western that pits two families on an island against each other while zombies roam nearby, would round out the film career of George A. Romero. These pictures still had the unique touch found in all Romero films, underneath the guise of a monster movie is a story that is reflecting the thoughts of a filmmaker and the emotions of the world that is influencing him. Whether the social injustice found in the world, the consumerism and greed that corrupts people, the imbalance of power felt within society, or the future of filmmaking for new generations, it's always been a socially influenced story for George Romero with zombies glued in afterwards.

George A. Romero died July 16, 2017 -- a visionary director who changed the landscape of horror and created a sub-genre of film that literally took over the world, just like he said it would in his first film. Though Romero's influence is much more than creating a monster, what he did for the American independent film landscape in 1968 cannot be completely described because even as you are reading this right now, his influence is still shaping and molding filmmakers pointing cameras at their dreams. Without Romero the film culture in America may not be as free as it is now. George A. Romero...the Master.

Are Film Critics Relevant?

by David Appleford

 

In one of the many recent on-line reports prior to the June 2nd release of Wonder Woman, one article published on Yahoo’s entertainment tab stated how positively the film rated with the critics as collected and evaluated by RottenTomatoes.com, the home of the celebrated "Tomatometer".  The article stated the Tomatometer showed a 98% positive result among the early film critic reviews.  In fact, at the time of writing this article, the current percentage sits at a comfortable 92%. That’s nothing to sniff about.  Except, many Yahoo readers did. 

 

Everyone's a Critic.

 

It wasn’t the fact that Rotten Tomatoes had given the film a high grade, or that anything particularly negative had been expressed; it was this: not one of the contributors (a polite term for internet trolls) in the writer’s comments section could have cared less what a critic thought. None of them, and there were hundreds of comments. The first comment I read wrote, “I’ll judge for myself.” Another asked, “What would any of them know?” And then there was the eloquently phrased, “Who gives a flying F***K what those F******S think?”

 

And those were the polite ones. 

 

Clearly, with regards to the number of on-line hits yours truly is fortunate enough to occasionally receive, there are some readers who actually do give a "flying F***K", but the point is a good one.  As one who writes for both film and local valley theatre, I’ve realized something interesting that, on hindsight, should have always seemed obvious.  When it comes to writing for live theatre, readers are genuinely interested in what the critic thinks, and either use the review as a guide when looking for a little insight if they have yet to see the show or play, or use it as a point of debate if they have seen the production in question and would like to engage in a little further discussion.  When it comes to the movies, everyone’s a critic.  

 

Who's to blame?

 

When the advance word, usually created by the studio itself, has created a must-see glow around an up-coming, potential blockbuster, the last thing those excited by the prospect of a Transformers 17 wants to read from a reviewer is what a piece of garbage Michael Bay has once again delivered.  They don’t want the thrill of anticipation punctured.  In fact, they resent it. So they ignore it.  But oddly, what has now occurred, as evidenced with the response to the Wonder Woman reviews, even the good reviews are being ignored.  (For the record, if there is ever a Transformers 17 at a time when real reviews are a thing of the past, it will still be garbage.)  Important tip for critics: switch off the hype; difficult, but it can be done.

 

The Critics?

 

Actor Shia LaBeouf is credited for once saying, “Have you ever noticed how most critics disagree with the public?  That should tell you a lot about critics.”  Actually, that tells us more about Shia LeBeouf, but let’s keep calm and carry on.

 

So, who’s to blame?  The critics? Believe it or not, sometimes.  Writers should certainly refrain from sounding too lofty, writing in a way that makes them sound simply pretentious; using positive references to obscure movies that no one saw or ever liked; describing a movie as using "stereoscopy" when everyone else calls it "3D". It all turns the reader off.  Younger writers who like to form overly complicated sentences while using words such as "existentialism" or "egalitarianism" are doing no one, including themselves, any favors.  Such phrasing may sound significant when trying to impress a college professor, but when you’re supposed to be advising the movie-goer, it comes across as vomiting word salad. It gives critics a bad reputation. Plus no one knows what you mean.  Besides, whom exactly are you writing for, anyway?      

 

True, a critic of the critics could always say it’s just one person’s opinion, but if the critic is experienced and knows his or her stuff, it’s a qualified opinion, and that’s a major difference.  Taste is one thing, opinion based on knowledge is another. My father used to say that the problem with critics is they see too many films.  They know too much.  That’s like saying a musician practices music too often.  We don’t talk about the movies much anymore.

 

Here’s a brief look at certain types of film.  Personally speaking, most modern comedies are the worst, and there’s nothing more satisfying than ranting about their overall decline and how they’ve slowly descended into potty-mouthed, witless trite aimed at an age group that (if the suggested American rating code was ever followed) shouldn’t even be in the theatre watching it in the first place. 

 

But there are certain things a reviewer can’t say with certainty. 

 

For instance, a critic can never account for a movie-goer’s individual taste or what will make them laugh.  Laughter is personal.  So a reviewer can’t say that the reader will definitely sit stoney-faced throughout Pineapple Express, when clearly many loved it and found the mix of bloodcurdling violence and murder coupled with moron humor hilarious. (There’s no accounting for the taste of another). 

 

Neither can you say that a certain horror film has no scares when, again, many will cower in their seat. And you can use that for all genres. What didn’t thrill the reviewer in an adventure may well have the movie-goer on the edge of their seat.  All the reviewer can do is offer insight based on their knowledge; write why the film is lazy or derivative, give examples to support your theories, and try to guide the reader into thinking about the subject in a way they may have never before considered. But never say a reader won’t laugh, won’t be scared, or won’t be thrilled, because many will.

 

My dad actually thought A Night at the Roxbury was a funny film.  Again, we don’t talk movies much.

 

The Hollywood Studios?

Is the blame to be directed at the studios?  To a degree, but not completely. 

 

At a time when the Hollywood hype machine is in full gear -- when studios leak secrets well in advance of a release in order to start rumors, whet appetites, and get the conversation going, and when entertainment fluff is presented as news, including TV interviews and movie junkets that want all conversations with the press firmly positive -- does the average movie-goer even read a review? 

 

Studios are certainly happy with a good review, but they’re equally annoyed by a negative one.  That’s why not all new releases have screenings for the press. They know their product is bad, but they don’t want reviewers telling movie-goers the same thing.  Let the Friday night crowd find out for themselves… after they’ve bought a ticket.

 

Over the years, that well-oiled hype machine has developed to the point where a reviewer isn’t really required to help get the word going, and it’s the word of mouth where the real promotion begins. Hype can now create the word itself in a way it never did.  How often have you heard someone say, “It sounds great,” because they’ve seen the star of the film tell them how great it is on their promotional late night TV appearances such as Kimmel, Colbert, or that small-screen-hype-machine himself, Jimmy Fallon.  Being told a film is great by someone you like on TV goes a long way. Celebrity endorsement has always been an effective source of advertising, but now it’s celebrities endorsing their own work, and viewers still buy it.

 

How About Those Trailers?

 

Here’s something to consider:  the trailer is an advertisement -- a promotional tool. If the film is a large budget production, the studios will often leak a piece of info letting you know that the trailer of the blockbuster will soon be released on TV during a certain program, maybe a ball game or an awards presentation, and movie-goers should be ready for it.  Then, when anticipation is at its highest and that allotted TV time finally arrives (after several reminders that the trailer is coming) before the promotion is even shown, there’s a regular product ad sponsoring the event.  Think about it.  The studios have created an atmosphere where you’re now excited not about seeing the film, but about seeing the trailer -- essentially a commercial -- and there’s even another commercial sponsoring the showing of that commercial.  Don’t you find that bizarre?  And with all that in mind, how about the trailer itself?

 

Let’s be honest, unlike earlier days, only occasionally does that trailer ever truly reflect the film.  First, it’s not unusual that the music you liked in the promo is nowhere to be found on the soundtrack.  It might be a current hit from a rock band not actually in the movie, but its current popularity due to repeated radio airplay draws attention. The marketing department is banking on you liking the song, so in turn you’ll probably believe you’ll like the film.  By the way, whatever they’re using in the background to the TV trailer of the new remake to Murder on The Orient Express, I sincerely hope it’s not in the actual movie. 

 

And then there’s the movie clips flashing before you. They might be edited in a way that one character makes a remark in one scene, only to receive a comical sounding response from a character in another. Yet when you finally see the film, those moments with action and reaction have no relation to each other. The quotes could be over an hour apart and the two characters are not even talking to each other.  And in some cases, what you saw in the trailer wasn’t even in the film. Can marketeers be brought to trial for false advertising?  Another important tip for critics: avoid all trailers.

 

So, What’s The Real Problem?

 

Here’s what I think, and many who have kept with this article thus far may not like it.  The real reason why the average moviegoer neither respects nor cares what a reviewer thinks is because of the following: the average moviegoer does not know how to read a review. 

 

I’m not referring to the quick paragraph in, say, People Magazine where you get a quick synopsis followed by how many stars out of five the film earns. I mean an essay, an analysis, a real critique --  the kind that you find in The New Yorker or the quality press where an experienced writer knows what he or she is writing about and has to assume that the reader knows, too.  Like the story of the Texan art collector who admits he doesn’t know much about art but he knows what he likes, so it is with the average movie-goer.  The average moviegoer doesn’t know the construct of what makes a film work. He’s never studied film or taken courses, and probably cares little for foreign films with subtitles. The average moviegoer simply knows what he likes, and doesn’t get it when reviewers write why he shouldn’t like it.  He doesn’t understand what a critic is writing about, and it’s those movie-goers who’re writing those comments on Yahoo.

 

For reviewers who have another day job, ever noticed the look on the face of an office colleague who asks you what you a thought of a film, and what happens when you respond by basically paraphrasing your review?  They glaze over; their eyes become their monitor desktop picture; they have the look of a George Romero zombie. They don’t care about the ins and outs of Kubrick’s mise-en-scene (another tip: avoid using "mise-en-scene") or the nuances of a foreign-language version that makes it better than the American remake -- especially if they never knew it was a remake in the first place.  All they want to know is, did you like it.  That’s it.

 

What's a Critic to do?

 

So the answer to the question, "is a publishing movie critic relevant in a world where everyone’s a critic?"  Absolutely.  But are they required for the average movie-goer who just wants to know whether you liked it or not? Clearly, no, especially when another Yahoo reader’s comment on the subject of Wonder Woman stated, “I’ll wait until the audience reviews come in.” 

 

But that doesn’t mean to say it’s not worth doing, either.  Like those who distrust the mainstream press when reporting politics, especially if the report doesn’t reflect their party in a positive light, they’re not thinking.  A news reporter is the only buffer between the public and the politician.  Without them, there’s no questioning authority, challenging obvious exaggerations, revealing falsehoods, and holding accountable those who should be held accountable.  Without the press we’d eventually live in a world where political spokespeople experienced in avoiding the truth (think Presidential Counselor Kellyanne Conway) always had the final word, heaven help us.  As it is with the mainstream press, so it is with the film critic. They have to exist.

 

Those Yahoo readers making their comments can say whatever they want, but without a knowledgeable film review keeping check and telling everyone where a film is not even trying, filmmakers would get away with murder.  They often do.  Laziness and taking the easy route to the box-office is par for the course.  Look at the list of films you’ve seen in the last few years.  On average, aren’t they mainly mediocre?  But isn’t it great when you discover a small gem and have the forum to praise it and live in the hope that someone is going to take notice? 

 

Keep writing, keep reviewing, keep taking notes at screenings, hold lazy writers and directors accountable, and don’t worry about the troll in his mom’s basement calling you a "F*****R". 

 

Besides, for all we know, that might be my dad writing a personal note to me for seeing too many films.  No kidding, he even said that La La Land was one of the worst movies he’d ever rented.  For real.  Nope. We won’t be talking movies again.

 

 

Alien, Aliens, and Alien 3000

by The Massie Twins

 

Alien

In 1979, one of the greatest horror movies of all time could have been Prophecy - an environmentally-conscious thriller from veritable, veteran, master-of-suspense director John Frankenheimer (the man behind the pulse-pounding The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and sci-fi noir Seconds (1966)). But instead, because its plot was slow, meandering, and unfocused; its set designs were uninspired, incomplex, and simply not scary; and its monster effects were shoddy (the gawky, killer bear-thing mustered chuckles rather than screams), a different picture from 1979 took the opportunity to make its mark.

 

Ridley Scott’s Alien was, in many ways, set to fail in the same fantastic fashion in which Jaws could have collapsed under its own ambitions just four years earlier. From a director who was still learning the ropes to an ungainly, titular antagonist that malfunctioned regularly, Alien could have been a bumbling disaster - much like Prophecy. But in the acting, the environments, the photography, the sound, the tone of the film, the editing, and certainly the visual effects, Alien managed, perhaps miraculously, to look impeccable; everything somehow came out all right.

 

"You know, Sigourney, it’s better if you don’t look in the camera," the then 28-year-old actress was brusquely told by Ridley Scott, who himself had only one film to his name. Incredibly, the role was also originally written for a man. But this unlikely heroine became so striking, particularly with the earnest way in which she responded to all of the harrowing scenarios (Ridley purposely kept the alien components hidden from the crew, as much as possible, so that their reactions would be genuine), that she would remain the one true constant between three theatrical sequels.

 

"As soon as you accept a script like this, you begin to worry about what you’re going to do with the man in the rubber suit," said Scott, just as pre-production got underway, addressing a fear - and a failure - that became unfortunately realized by Frankenheimer’s Prophecy. Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger saved the day for Alien (despite being dismissed at one point by the producers, who thought his early concepts were far too repugnant) with his grotesquely erotic creature designs, crafted primarily from an existing painting entitled Necronom IV. Not only did Giger invent the alien itself, he also contributed to the derelict ship, the fossilized space jockey prop (a towering, 24-foot, behemoth sculpture), the uninhabitable planet, and the egg/facehugger combo (which was deemed so inappropriately vagina-like that the single-slit opening was censored/edited into a cross shape - much to Giger’s amusement, as one vagina essentially became two). It’s also difficult to dismiss the uncomfortably obscene nature of the facehugger, which commits oral rape to impregnate its victim, and the phallic shape of the chestburster, which mirrors the adult version’s cranium. "Giger did this black cockroach from hell," mused concept artist Ron Cobb. "When you saw the suit standing in this little bay where Giger was sculpting it, you would actually flinch when you walked in the room. It was really terrifying."

 

The story might not be the most original: a crew of seven are slowly picked off one-by-one in a haunted house in space (many critics of the time even likened several specifics to Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), which did conspicuously feature an oversized, mummified humanoid in a dilapidated ship). But if ever there was a film to take such a practiced premise and radically upend it through alarmingly advanced visuals, it was this one. From its claustrophobic, labyrinthine spaceship corridors, to the otherworldly, windswept planet, to the obvious set pieces of gore and mutilative attacks, Alien is very much a movie of significant, unforgettable, horrifying frames, hauntingly strung together to maximum effect. Although, upon its release, many of the more gruesome set pieces (primarily the chestburster sequence) would become emphases of conversation, the structuring of these moments is nothing short of archetypal. Perhaps what makes it all work together so well is that every second is handled with the utmost sincerity and severity; comic relief is virtually nonexistent and the cast members take their parts completely seriously.

 

The little details are also spectacularly winning: the casual, believable small talk between space truckers, mostly focused on monetary incentives; the Mother interface room, glittering with patterns of lights that are just off-putting enough to distract from the outdated computers themselves; and, of course, the macabrely hypnotizing, convoluted, biomechanical layouts of Giger's artwork come to life. Humidity also plays a prominent role as one of the most notable of the minor details (something elementary yet effective, which doesn’t find its way into enough low-budget pictures): oxygen/carbon dioxide is emitted from spacesuits and venting apparatuses in the form of heavy steam; obnubilating fog tumbles across the alien planet’s surface; the floors and walls of the derelict ship glisten with rigid beads of moisture; at some point, every character sweats indiscreetly; and the monster itself is so overloaded with viscid fluids that it salivates continuously.

 

The fact that the hapless explorers are commercial mining employees and not experienced archeologists or military rescuers, is also brilliant - as is the order in which the characters are dispatched, starting off with some of the more confident decision-makers and superiors in the chain of command. This ties into the use of problems that arise outside of the monster itself (an evil company unconcerned with safety protocols; unexpected betrayals; damage to the ship; faulty lights; and a lack of adequate weaponry) - a tactic employed by many of the best horror films of the era. Jump-scares also make an appearance, along with familiar but dependable gimmicks - like the graininess of camera feeds and the cutting out of video and sound during the planet's investigation, loudly knocking over a random item, or a blaring self-destruct clarion. Jerry Goldsmith's music must also be mentioned (it contains some nicely unforeseen, playful notes), along with the script’s superb use of foreshadowing (dialogue such as ...like he exploded from inside, and If we break quarantine, we could all die; the discovery of molted skin; and a deviously suspenseful motion-tracking device).

 

Aliens

Taking an astonishingly long time (especially by Hollywood standards) to churn out a sequel, James Cameron's Aliens (1986) would prove to be worth the wait. The tone and style shifted dramatically, as Cameron’s vision become something of a war-torn, Vietnam-like battleground of ill-preparedness (with platoons being outgunned and outmanned) in a hostile, foreign terrain, amplified by equal helpings of cockiness and skepticism. In this direct follow-up, plenty of time has passed, but the threat is chillingly familiar. Graduating from a single, confined location to a far vaster array of tunnels, sub-levels, vehicles, docking bays, and medical centers - and increasing the enemy from a lone infiltrator to an organized, established colony of more than a hundred - Aliens aimed to expand upon nearly every premise touched upon in the original. And it also added a pronounced amount of high-octane adventure, giving this entry in the franchise the rare distinction of being an action movie just as much as a horror film.

 

The alien eggs are more elaborate, gooier, and reveal more striking hints of the scorpion hellion buried beneath organ-like sacs of fluid. The facehugger, which was formerly a stiff, rubbery carcass after its throat-violating mission was accomplished, has become a spidery, lightning-fast assailant that lunges from lofty perches or scurries across floors on bony fingers. The chestburster now possesses arms and a greater range of movements, all while its entrance boasts inflated unease with the combination of a female victim who begs for a swift mercy-killing, more dismaying sound effects, and the body-horror of binding organic secretions. And the adult drones are now plentiful and flexuous, shot with altered frame rates to generate eerie, insectoid movements and behaviors. If all of these exaggerations in the xenomorph (a term coined for use on these singular extraterrestrials) life cycle wasn’t impressive enough, Cameron also designed a mother alien to lead her brood. Based on paintings by the director himself, legendary effects wizard Stan Winston crafted the imposing monstrosity (a marvel of animatronics and slime) that would be dubbed the "Alien Queen", which contributed to an epic showdown between the universe’s toughest female fighters. Lesser components are also conceptually escalated, including a motion-tracking device, an android revelation, and the motives of the deviously omniscient Company. It would seem that Aliens took everything to the next level - a level so high that future iterations had no where left to go (as painfully evidenced by Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection).

 

What these two seminal sci-fi masterpieces ushered in was a slew of derivations and rip-offs that plagued the ‘80s and ‘90s. But if an aspiring filmmaker was to copy another artist’s work, there really is no better place to start than with Alien and Aliens. The list of films that drew inspiration from these sources is virtually endless. Among them are wholly watchable, entertaining B-movies, as well as mediocre efforts and downright laughable works of plagiarism. Some of the better attempts include projects like Deepstar Six (1989), The Terror Within (1989), Leviathan (1989), Species (1995), Mimic (1997), Virus (1999), and even Life (2017). The tawdrier ventures include Parasite (1982), Contamination (1982), Xtro (1982), Biohazard (1985), Creature (1985), Syngenor (1990), Screamers (1995), Pandorum (2009), and Splice (2010). But, by far, the most despicable, contemptible, trashiest imitation of Scott and Cameron’s contributions to the genre is Alien 3000.

 

Alien 3000

If Alien is the ultimate haunted-house-in-space picture, and Aliens is the apex of action and horror united (and the epitome of an anti-space-opera), Alien 3000 is the absolute worst of each of those ideas combined. If it wasn’t bad enough that the movie is virtually irredeemable in its shabbiness, the advertising for it is something altogether, differently reprehensible. The DVD cover art actually depicts a creature from the wrong movie (it's from the 1997 film Breeders) and, unfortunately, it never makes even a guest appearance in this one. There's also not a single reference to the year 3000. This just might be the single most disastrous exploitation of the Alien legacy ever made. Despite countless derivations produced up to this point (it was released in 2004), and countless others manufactured afterwards, Alien 3000 is so bad that its dreadfulness just might never be topped.

The title graphics are oddly reminiscent of Alien: Resurrection, with glowing green text and glimpses of the model used for the starring abomination - which is so pitifully designed that it isn't even as articulated as a child's toy. The film then opens on a peeping tom with binoculars spying on a couple as they make out (he cringingly uses the phrase "little jack rabbits" as slang for the woman's exposed breasts). The three of them are actually all part of the same group, studying seismic readings in the area. When a 6.0 quake opens up a cavern in the side of a mountain, the threesome venture inside to discover ancient gold artifacts (including conquistador-like swords encrusted with rubies) and ominous shadows moving around in the back of the cave. Of course, the first creature to emerge is a tiny bat, scaring the shapely blonde - before a much larger, nearly invisible humanoid (very much like a Predator) swiftly decapitates her.

 

But it's all part of a nightmare, revealing that lone survivor Katie Simmons (Megan Malloy) - from a previous attack that unfolded identically to the opening scene - is plagued by graphic visions during her incarceration at the Thorton Psychiatric Clinic (a set that never gets more intricate than an apartment kitchen). When a park ranger stumbles upon the dead bodies of the hikers in real life, it's up to the Bureau of Paranormal Research to get to the bottom of it. Katie is then visited by BPR agents (technically called detectives from the Office of Paranormal Investigations), to whom she reveals that the brutal slayings are somehow connected to the cursed treasure in the cave - and that her precognitive abilities are linked to the mysterious monster. Somewhere along the line, the government hires mercenaries, led by Sergeant McCool (Christopher Irwin), to explore the cavern and, if possible, to capture the anathema.

 

The head of the BPR, Sheila (played by Priscilla Barnes), can't seem to deliver her dialogue clearly - perhaps because she refuses to remove the eraser-end of a pencil from between her lips. "I understand. I do have a Ph.D. in psychiatry," retorts lead investigator Carla (Shilo May), outlining what the filmmakers believe to be necessary verbiage for character development. The remainder of the supporting roles are counterparts for the Colonial Marines from Aliens - from the tough female fighter; to the cocky, expletive-spewing soldiers; to the calmer, controlled commander. One guy does nothing but sharpen his knife on a whetstone; another totes a paintball bazooka for anticipated downtime; and one of the indistinguishable troopers likes to spit or chew on a cigar.

 

The production is extremely low-budget, sporting all the trademarks of prohibitively limited resources and hasty filmmaking. The actors are terrible (Lorenzo Lamas, who takes top billing, appears for a couple of minutes and then vanishes, only to reappear for very brief additional sequences - wherein he does little more than pose with his shotgun or a pirate sword; he's very much a Z-grade action star in the first place, here also serving as an associate producer); footage is reused; the ADR is considerably off; the costumes and armory are all unmatched or misshapen; the soldiers' rations are just granola bars; and the mercenaries never go any deeper into the cavern than the entrance (presumably because the budget couldn’t accommodate an additional set). One of the characters even calls his companion by the wrong name, while another moment shows the exchange of hand signals - and then the spoken line, Did you see that? which, of course, negates the need for hand signals. To further make a mockery of all things sci-fi and horror, Alien 3000 includes panicky conversations getting broken up by the more level-headed members; weapons being dramatically loaded with ammunition; an unglamorous, comical sex scene; specialist Phoebe (Phoebe Dollar) cheering on the alien as it attacks a deserter; and Kate continually awaking from nightmares, screaming directly at the camera, on no less than six separate occasions.

 

Additionally stealing from Aliens, the characters must wait for a helicopter to return to pick them up (a dust-off), only to realize that the creature has climbed aboard, resulting in the vehicle's destruction; motion-trackers that have blips for movement (though they don't actually move) are hefted; there’s a suicide by grenade; and a military march plays subtly in the background. The movie even proceeds to defraud Independence Day, with an alien who communicates through the vocal cords of its human victim, and Predator, through the use of an invisibility cloak, infrared imagery for the monster's visual perspective, and green blood. And there are also sporadic flashbacks to an entirely different movie, which is never explained. However, this becomes clearer to anyone aware of the fact that Alien 3000 was previously released as Unseen Evil 2 (a loose sequel to the equally deplorable Unseen Evil from 2001, which was itself also released under the title The Unbelievable). In the case of this exceedingly shabby filmic endeavor, it would be far wiser to simply re-watch the aforementioned 1979 and 1986 contemporary classics; sometimes, it’s just not gratifying to seek out obscure copycats of beloved masterpieces. One can only hope that Ridley Scott’s 2017 film Alien: Covenant - his first official prequel to use the title Alien - can redeem (or perhaps erase) the plenitude of pitiable attempts at recreating the awe of his 1979 magnum opus.

In a Post-Truth World, Look to Cinema

By: Ryan Bordow

Has a movie ever fundamentally changed the way you think?

Fight Club

Fight Club

The first time a film hijacked my ideological process was somewhat stereotypical for a teenage boy. It was spring break, I was 16, and my cousin found out that I hadn’t seen David Fincher’s cult classic Fight Club. My parents — who were, at that point, fairly puritanical about what movies I was allowed to watch — were gone all week, so my cousin brought Fight Club over with the reverence that some have for religious texts. Off went the lights; on went the ritualistic rite of passage: a young man’s first engagement with the movie’s philosophical explorations of manhood and consumerism.

Fight Club

Fight Club

That day is largely responsible for two things: my desire to be a filmmaker, and my never-ending inclination to question authority structures (including those of capitalist systems, as the movie’s characters would’ve wanted). My young peers at the time were unconvinced that “a movie about men fighting in a basement” could prompt such a drastic sociopolitical conversion. Seeing art as a force for change was pretentious well wishing, a niche belief for the kids without confidence in themselves.

That attitude has pervaded into many adult lives. A host of filmmakers and actors have voiced outspoken political opinions lately, but they’ve been repeatedly shot down by cries of “they’re just Hollywood elites”, or — in the words of one Facebook commenter — “they work in make-believe and don’t live in the real world.”

But what if cinema has more truth to reveal than its dissenters (or even its supporters) expect? In the past few years, some of the world’s most powerful people have cast aside the pursuit for truth like it’s an inconvenience. Scholars have taken to defining the world’s current state as “post-truth”. Hopefully, I can convince you that the consumption of worthwhile art is an antidote to this acceptance of artifice. It’s more important than ever to sit down, turn the lights off, and watch a good movie — whether your authority figures want you to or not.

 

Is Cinema Just Make-Believe?

Arrival

Arrival

Documentaries aside, movies are typically fictional accounts. Even movies that are based on true stories are fictionalized to add a degree of entertainment or dramatic flair. So yes, on the surface, cinema involves a bit of “make-believe”. But there’s more to take into account.

One of the crucial pieces of advice given to screenwriters (besides “show, don’t tell”) is “write what you know”. If a filmmaker is going to commit the necessary time, money, and soul to tell a story in cinematic form, they’d better shape their vision around aspects of the human experience that they know well. We don’t want to watch movies lacking in conflicts or characters that we can identify with.

That's demonstrable. You may not have fought wars in space, but you might identify with the pressures of living up to a path already set before you. You probably haven’t battled mutant hunters with your adamantium claws, but you might understand the feeling of watching your old friends vanish from your life while you struggle for purpose. You definitely haven’t had tense conversations with a self-aware artificial intelligence, but you might have questioned what it means to be human.

Point is: whether filmmakers are expressly trying to make a point or not, cinematic storytelling echoes human experience, no matter how “make-believe” the outer narrative. It’s impossible for a film made by a human being to not have subtext — though the depth and intention of that subtext certainly vary.

Big Fish

Big Fish

This phenomenon is demonstrated with emotional resonance in Tim Burton’s masterwork Big Fish. A dying man’s estranged son visits home in an attempt to learn the truth about his father. Edward Bloom had raised his son Will on outlandish stories about his life, but Will is not satisfied with these unreal accounts and wants to hear his father’s actual history. Still, Edward and his surrounding community supply Will with stories of giants and werewolves and love stopping time — all visually rendered with colorful grace.

By the film’s end (spoiler alert!), Will discovers that the fantastical elements of his father’s stories were illuminating allegories for real personalities; real pain; real passion. Will then understands his father and the people around him more than he thought possible. The undercurrent of Edward Bloom’s stories was an attempt to capture otherwise indescribable feelings — and “make-believe” was the conduit that described them most truthfully.

 

Truth Behind the Scenes

Calvary

Calvary

So fiction presented cinematically is a vehicle for genuine human expression. Sometimes filmmakers wish to communicate their worldview, other times it’s a side effect of translating a human being’s vision into movie form. Where does “truth” make its grand entrance? What’s the key ingredient of Fight Club (or Ex Machina, or Calvary, or another film with especial life-changing ability) that can start a receptive viewer on a journey of questions and authenticity?

A screenwriting professor once told me “events have no inherent meaning”. If this is how the universe works, then truth is subjective: individual experience shapes truth, and cinema is crafted from parts of individual experience with which we can identify. Truth lies therein by definition. If objective truth guides this universe, then pursuit of it throws us in community with millions of other people whose individual experiences differ from ours.

Either way, the key ingredient is empathy. Empathy is not a partisan issue; empathy dissolves cultural divide; empathy refuses class distinction. If truth is subjective, empathizing with another helps us garner their truth; if truth is objective, empathizing with another helps us glean the advances towards truth that they’ve accomplished. Thankfully, movies envelop our mind and senses with the genuine expression of another. Cinema is empathy.

 

The Cinematic Commission

Boys Don't Cry

Boys Don't Cry

In a world of temptations to toss truth aside, our charge might be to engage with great cinema. But simply watching a lot of movies isn’t enough: we must seek out cinema that fathoms the difficulty of truth. Avoid movies that divorce conflicts and characters from reality in order to flaunt messages without nuance; look for films that weave understanding of the human condition into every frame. If they can entertain and engross all the while, even better (this is where the helpful opinions of film critics come in handy!)

An open mind is paramount. What truth can you find in Boys Don’t Cry if you’re not willing to empathize with the struggles of transgender people? What truth can you find in Arrival if you’re uninterested in the language of someone completely unlike you? When the lights go down, switch on a heart wide open and a goal to understand.

Look to cinema like that, and our “post-truth world” is going to be just fine.



 

 




 

Baseball in the Movies

A Tale of Two Pastimes

By Jon Hueber

 

It's spring here in Arizona, which means longer days, warmer temperatures, and MLB Spring Training. For six weeks, the valley plays host to 15 of the 30 MLB teams, as they train for the grueling season ahead. While baseball is on the minds of many, film lovers have a lot to be excited for too. Awards season is over, the Phoenix Film Festival is on the horizon, and Hollywood is just now starting to roll out some of its bigger offerings, as the summer blockbuster season begins earlier and earlier.

 

So here, in Arizona, we see a convergence of these two pastimes as baseball and movies seemingly come together to give fans the best of scripted and unscripted entertainment. But baseball and the movies have so much more in common than just the time of year.

 

Baseball has long been considered a sport of poetry or prose. The constant confrontation between pitcher and batter is a story in itself, with a good guy and a bad guy battling it out, depending on whom you're rooting for. There is high drama with every pitch, and the blockbuster eruption of a booming home run swing that can change a game much like Bruce Willis can change the plans of a bunch of thieves at a Christmas party.

 

Baseball and the movies go so well together that the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, has an entire exhibit dedicated to the convergence. The exhibit features costumes and props, and some really interesting facts about the films made about the beloved sport.

 

Here are some of the most iconic baseball movies, in no particular order, that really highlight how our two pastimes have come together to create magic.

 

Pride of the Yankees

Gary Cooper's turn as Lou Gehrig in 1942's Pride of the Yankees marks one of the earliest marriages between film and hardball. In fact, baseball players in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s were just as big as movie stars, with icons like Babe Ruth, himself the feature of more than a handful of movies, Joe Dimaggio and Mickey Mantle commanding the same level of attention as Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, and James Cagney. Pride of the Yankees used Lou Gehrig's diagnosis of ALS, and his subsequent retirement from the sport he loved, as the basis for the drama, and it worked on every level, creating one of the most heart-wrenching and memorable baseball movies ever, and most of it is based on true events.

 

The Icons

True stories of baseball icons have always been great foundations for movies. The Babe Ruth Story (1948) featured William Bendix as the Bambino, and the film covered Ruth's rise and reign over baseball, culminating in his mythical called shot in Chicago during the 1932 World Series. The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) actually featured Jackie Robinson in the starring role, telling the story of how he and Branch Rickey (Minor Watson) broke the color barrier in organized sports and changed not only baseball, but all sports forever. In 1952's The Pride of St. Louis, Dan Dailey portrayed hall of fame St. Louis Cardinal Dizzy Dean, one of the best pitchers of his era.

 

Damn Yankees

Not all baseball movies featured heart breaking, or inspiring true stories. Damn Yankees (1958) starring Tab Hunter, Gwen Verdon, and Ray Walston was a film adaption of a popular Broadway musical, with song and dance numbers and plenty of laughs, which showed that baseball could be fun too.

 

You're Killing Me Smalls

the-sandlot-20th-anniversary-1157_rgb.jpg

Baseball is a kids game, when it comes down to it, and Hollywood has tapped into that market multiple times with movies that feature the impact baseball has on children. The Bad News Bears (1976) featured Walter Matthau giving up drinking long enough to coach a dysfunctional little league team. The film was a huge success and created a franchise for a time in the 1970s. Skipping ahead a bit, films like The Sandlot , Rookie of the Year (both 1993), Angels in the Outfield, and Little Big League (both 1994) inspired a generation of young filmgoers. Seriously, mention the line, "You're killing me smalls" to anyone in their 20s or 30s and you will get a smile.

 

The 80s

The 1980s saw some of the best baseball movies ever. Robert Redford was The Natural (1984), Kevin Costner turned a cornfield into a baseball diamond in Field of Dreams (1989), and also took an inexperienced, but talented Tim Robbins under his wing in Bull Durham (1988), a film that many professional MLB ball players consider the best baseball movie ever. The 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal was the basis of Eight Men Out (1988), and Neil Simon wrote the story for 1985's The Slugger's Wife, starring Michael O'Keefe and Rebecca De Mornay. But the '80s also produced one of the funniest sports films ever with 1989's Major League.  The film features Tom Berenger, Corbin Bernsen, Wesley Snipes, and Charlie Sheen leading the sad sack Cleveland Indians to the pennant against all odds. Major League would get a sequel in 1994, and a third film was released, but by then, the series had gassed itself out.

 

There's No Crying in Baseball

Tom Hanks and Geena Davis teamed up in 1992 for A League of Their Own, a film dedicated to the women who took up the sport during World War II while the boys were overseas fighting evil. The ensemble cast, which also featured Madonna, Lori Petty, and Rosie O'Donnell introduced movie lovers to an element of our nation's pastime that they may not have known before, and did so with laughs and tears and history. A League of Their Own continues to resonate nearly 25 years later, and is up there with the best baseball movies. Plus, it reminded us that there's no crying in baseball.

 

Now At Bat

Recent films about baseball have carried on the tradition, with some major league talent involved. Films like Moneyball (2011), starring Brad Pitt, Trouble With The Curve (2012), starring Clint Eastwood and Amy Adams, and 42 (2013), starring Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson, have proven that the marriage between baseball and film is still strong, and will continue to thrill fans of both -- or either -- going into the future.

 

This list is in no way comprehensive of the films about baseball. It is only meant to highlight how, for almost 100 years, the two pastimes have come together time and again to thrill and entertain audiences, whether they are in the stands on a warm June evening, or a dark theater in late July. Baseball and movies have a long and storied history together, and as baseball has been the backbone of our society for the last 150 years, film, too, has contributed to what makes America, well, America. Baseball and the movies are meant to go together like the battery of a pitcher and catcher, and while they don't need each other to succeed, when they work together as a team, fans are the true winners.


"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh, people will come Ray. People will most definitely come." - James Earl Jones' Terence Mann to Kevin Costner's Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams.

Where is The Final Girl?

by Matthew Robinson

Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” - Edgar Allen Poe

 

In 1992, Carol J. Clover wrote about the horror genre’s division among the sexes with particular emphasis on the female victim and male murderer. Clover designated the woman survivor of these films "The Final Girl" and noted that the survivor often embodied a specific set of qualities, such as being chaste and of sound moral character. Has this notion of "The Final Girl" continued to persist in the horror genre today, 25 years later, or have new patterns begun to emerge?

 

Who is The Final Girl?

From left: Olivia Hussey in "Black Christmas"; Marilyn Burns in "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"; Jamie Lee Curtis in "Halloween"; Amy Steel in "Friday the 13th, Part 2"; and Jan Jensen in "The Last Slumber Party."CreditFrom left: Bev Rockett/World Pictures Corporation/Warner Bros. Pictures, via Photofest; Bryanston Distributing Company, via Photofest; Trancas International Films/Anchor Bay Entertainment; Paramount Pictures, via Photofest; B. and S. Productions

From left: Olivia Hussey in "Black Christmas"; Marilyn Burns in "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"; Jamie Lee Curtis in "Halloween"; Amy Steel in "Friday the 13th, Part 2"; and Jan Jensen in "The Last Slumber Party."CreditFrom left: Bev Rockett/World Pictures Corporation/Warner Bros. Pictures, via Photofest; Bryanston Distributing Company, via Photofest; Trancas International Films/Anchor Bay Entertainment; Paramount Pictures, via Photofest; B. and S. Productions

 

As Clover outlined, The Final Girl carries a set of signifying qualities. She is an intelligent and levelheaded individual and is usually the first to sense that something wicked this way comes. The audience most closely relates to her character as both The Final Girl and viewers anticipate the horror that awaits them.

 

The Final Girl is pure, sexually inexperienced, and free of drug and alcohol use, vices that often lead other characters toward their deaths. The Final Girl may also lack gender-defining qualities and be, for example, a Tomboy, which allows for gender fluidity between The Final Girl and the audience. She may take on more masculine qualities as she seeks to defeat her villain, using phallic weapons such as a knife or machete to slay her demon. She is not a damsel in distress but a hero by the end of the film. She is someone that both male and female viewers can identify with and root for along the way.

 

Clover also urges viewers to approach the typical slasher film through a feminist lens. While the female heroin becomes masculine in her efforts to survive, the male killer thus becomes more feminine as the film unwinds. The viewer often learns that the killer has a stunted sexuality or physical anomaly, suggesting a damaged masculinity that ignites his desire to kill.

 

The Final Girl progressively transforms into a more masculine version of herself as she survives each encounter with the killer. This challenges the long-standing tradition of the male hero. But while the masculine qualities The Final Girl takes on are necessary for her survival, so is the need for her character to remain female to preserve the overall balance of the film.

 

The history of The Final Girl

It seems worthwhile to examine the horror genre up through the present day and highlight those films that continue to embody Clover’s theory of The Final Girl. The following examples trace the development of The Final Girl over time as well as the unique challenges The Final Girl presents to the male norm of heroism.

Leatherface and his chainsaw.

Leatherface and his chainsaw.

Clover regards Sally from Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) as the first major example of The Final Girl within the horror genre. Clover acknowledges that Marion Crane’s sister Lila in Psycho (1960) may be considered the inaugural instance of The Final Girl, but Lila is such a minor character that Sally seems a better model.

 

In Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a deranged family of ex-slaughterhouse workers terrorizes and kills Sally’s friends and brother before going on to torture Sally herself. Sally escapes and is chased by the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface along with another member, “the hitchhiker”, of the slaughterhouse family. Sally eventually reaches the highway and is saved by a passing semi-truck driver. The film ends with Leatherface swinging his chainsaw around in defeat.

 

Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis)

Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis)

Laurie Strode from the Halloween (1978) series is a second example of a classic Final Girl. Laurie exemplifies the qualities Clover lays out in her theory: she’s a virginal Tomboy and is the only character to first notice and understand the villain’s, Michael Myers’s, motives. She successfully outwits Myers’s repeated attacks and survives.

 

Stretch and her chainsaw

Stretch and her chainsaw

The character Stretch in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) symbolizes a unique turn in the horror genre. This turn is one of reflectivity as director Tobe Hooper openly addresses the gendered nature of the slasher flick. In the sequel, Leatherface and Chop Top terrorize a radio talkshow host. Although Stretch is not unsullied, she makes herself unavailable to suitors. At one point, Leatherface corners her in a radio station. With his chainsaw revving, Stretch begins to charm Leatherface, and Leatherface returns her seductiveness with grunting sounds of pleasure. As a result, Leatherface releases Stretch and in a sense protects her by leading Chop Top to believe that he has indeed killed her. At the film’s climax, a large explosion kills most of the family and only Chop Top survives. Stretch turns the tables on Chop Top by grabbing a chainsaw and slicing him in half. The film ends with Stretch waving her chainsaw around—a reference to the original film.

 

The way the two Chainsaw films end, Sally saved by a man and left screaming and then Stretch left yielding a chainsaw after saving herself, may be a mark as to the progressive nature of the horror genre and changes to the standard Final Girl formula.

 

Neve Campbell as Sydney Prescott in Scream (1996)

Neve Campbell as Sydney Prescott in Scream (1996)

Sidney Prescott in Wes Craven’s semi-satirical slasher Scream (1996) bends Clover’s theory a bit as well. The film famously lays out the rules for surviving a slasher film: no drugs, no sex, and never say “I’ll be right back.” Sidney is atypical of the classic Final Girl in that she has sex with her boyfriend, a man who is later revealed to be one of the two killers in the film. Although Sidney breaks the no sex rule, her sexual experience is still morally sound because she is in a committed relationship with someone she loves. Although Scream updates and modernizes Clover’s theory, the moral code remains in tact with the audience.

 

Alex, The Final Girl in High Tension

Alex, The Final Girl in High Tension

Alexandre Aja’s High Tension (2003) throws an interesting curveball into the slasher genre by featuring a killer who first appears male but is later revealed to be female. The film unhinges Clover’s theory a bit more by suggesting that the female killer, Marie, is driven to kill out of mad love for The Final Girl, Alex. This gender swap surprise re-envisions the classic slasher model into something more contemporary and perhaps marks the beginning of the end for the slasher film.

 

Amber Heard is Mandy Lane

Amber Heard is Mandy Lane

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006) continues the reimagining of gendered horror roles. In this film, a hooded killer appears to adhere to classic slasher rules. For example, a young woman performs oral sex on a young man and is killed moments later. However, in the end the killer is revealed to be two people: one man and one woman, but the woman eventually proves to be the real killer between the two of them.

 

In both High Tension and Mandy Lane, the slasher film is flipped on its head. Females take on both the masculine survivor and masculine killer roles. These two films openly play with the audience’s expectation to see certain roles portrayed within specific gender molds. The reason both films feel like they have twist endings is because the audience never expects the killers to be women.

 

The slasher film seems to die off to some degree at this point in time. The waxing and waning of the popularity of sub-genres is normal, especially in horror. Mixed into the early 2000s are remakes of classic slasher flicks such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Halloween. These remakes do little to change the classic formula and are not notable enough to spend time on here.

 

Today's Final Girl

More recently, two films have emerged that are post-Final Girl: they have a self-reflective quality and comment directly on the essential qualities of The Final Girl. The Final Girls (2015) and Final Girl (2015) openly acknowledge Clover’s ideas.

 

In The Final Girls, the daughter of an actress from a famous slasher film called Camp Bloodbath gets sucked into the film itself. Since her mother died in a car accident, getting sucked into the film gives the girl a chance to reconnect with her mom. She tries to keep her mother virginal and alive in hopes of bringing her out of the film and back into the real world. She knows the rules, the idea of the Final Girl, and actively uses it to her advantage.

 

In Final Girl, a young woman is trained from a young age to go after a group of college boys who murder women. Again the film plays with the notion of a Final Girl as defined by Clover by having its main character aware of the rules. Curiously, both films uphold what all slashers tend to: the feminine transforms to the masculine to defeat the killer.

 

Where does the transformation of the horror film now place the idea of The Final Girl and Clover’s brilliant analysis of the slasher flick? The slasher film has become self-aware due in part to the aforementioned 2015 films. As the horror genre cycles through different trends—such as the haunted house and supernatural phenomenon—it is interesting to ponder when the classic slasher will regain popularity. Will it return to its roots or be reimagined into something new?

 

Clover herself was careful not to give too much credit to slashers for showcasing empowered female characters. Gendered roles still exist in horror films today, but it does seem like the genre has progressed. One can look at recent horror films such a Robert Eggers’s The Witch, Gerard Johnstone’s Housebound, or Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane to find strong female characters that do not need to transform into masculine versions of themselves to overcome their villains. Instead, their femininity is viewed as the source of their strength.  

The Final Girl may today be a thing of the past. Looking at the year ahead in horror, the paranormal theme still reigns supreme with Insidious Chapter 4, Annabelle 2, and Rings as forthcoming releases in 2017. If the slasher does come back, one must imagine that the gendered roles Clover uncovered in 1992 will continue to morph and evolve. Until then, The Final Girl seems to be lying dormant like a masked killer waiting for its next sequel. Clover’s theory will continue to stand as a useful looking glass with which to trace the transformation of the female as a poetic victim to an empowered, masculine individual capable of surviving so many of the horror genre’s greatest stories.

The Future of Cinema isn’t Doomed… Yet

By Brent Hankins

 

Family members and acquaintances often marvel at the number of films I see each year, and although my 2016 total far exceeded that of any previous year (to be fair, I attended three film festivals), I'll readily admit that even in a “normal” year, I probably spend far more time staring at a theater screen than your average consumer. It's not uncommon for someone I know to discover how many films I absorb and to shake their head in bewilderment. "I don't understand how you do it," they might say. "There are hardly any good movies anymore."

 

I beg to differ.

 

This is an argument I've encountered with somewhat alarming frequency over the past few years, and not just from people in my personal life. You can throw a rock and hit any number of blog posts or editorials about the perceived decline of cinema, and even some of the fabled "Hollywood elite" are getting into the mix. In 2015, Dustin Hoffman told Vanity Fair that film is "the worst it's ever been" in his 50-year career, and Ridley Scott recently trashed the superhero genre and said he thinks "cinema mainly is pretty bad."

 

Admittedly, there's a part of me that feels inclined to cautiously agree with these sentiments, at least when it pertains to mainstream fare - but the beauty of cinema is that it doesn't have to be limited to the mainstream. Despite what trailers and Facebook ads and social media marketing accounts might have you believe, there are other options available.

 

Wandering off the beaten path

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

That's not to say that I have something against mainstream cinema as a whole - on the contrary, I loved Captain America: Civil War and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story just as much as the next person. But I also feel that films of this caliber tend to be the exception, rather than the rule, and in my experience I'm less likely to come away disappointed with a smaller film that was produced by a passionate team, rather than a major studio tentpole that was engineered to appeal to the widest conceivable audience and generate as much box office revenue as possible.

 

Moonlight (2016)

Moonlight (2016)

The thing about exceptional films is that you're often required to wander off the beaten path in order to track them down. For example, consumers probably encountered significantly more commercials and advertisements for Jack Reacher: Never Go Back than they did for Moonlight, despite the fact that both were released on the same date.

 

The difference is that one of those films had an expensive marketing campaign and opened on more than 3700 screens, and the other did not. But I'd be willing to bet that on the average, audiences who chose the latter walked away with an experience unlike anything they'd ever seen onscreen before, whereas moviegoers who opted for the former just got to watch Tom Cruise punch people for two hours.

 

Green Room (2015)

Green Room (2015)

The reality is that 2016 offered an impressive collection of stellar films, but many of them flew under the radar of the average consumer. Festival hits like Green RoomSwiss Army Man and Everybody Wants Some opened to disappointing numbers and evaporated from theaters in a matter of weeks, overshadowed by major studio releases such as The BFGLegend of Tarzan and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

 

And while some of these smaller titles may eventually find their audience via streaming services and home video sales, the truth is critical acclaim will never carry as much weight as box office performance. Opening weekend numbers are still the most widely used measuring stick of success, and Hollywood financiers are becoming increasingly skittish about ponying up their cash for projects they don't view as guaranteed hits.

 

We can save cinema

I know this all sounds a bit hopeless, but it’s time for some good news: the future of cinema isn’t set in stone, and as consumers, we have the power to course-correct. Now more than ever, it’s important that we give new creators a chance to see their stories writ large on the big screen, that we give new voices a chance to be heard amid the ever-growing cacophony of content.

 

The Handmaiden (2016)

The Handmaiden (2016)

In 2016, Park Chan-wook’s brilliant erotic thriller The Handmaiden explored themes of patriarchy, lust and classism against the backdrop of Japan during the Korean occupation, while Chad Hartigan used warmth and humor to relate the story of a black father and his teenage son adjusting to life in Germany in Morris From America. And Barry Jenkins crafted a complex, heartbreaking and beautiful tale of a young man from the Miami projects coming to terms with his sexuality in Golden Globe Best Picture winner Moonlight.

 

 

None of these films had multi-million dollar marketing strategies, nor did they open in thousands of multiplexes across the country, and you won’t find them anywhere near the list of top-grossing films last year. But they told new stories from new points of view, gave audiences something that didn’t feel like it had been done before, and did so with poise, grace and authenticity. Films like these are a shining example of why representation and diversity are so crucial, and the embodiment of these ideals is something that deserves our support.

 

Morris From America (2016)

Morris From America (2016)

So if you truly love this art form and want to ensure its survival, then take the initiative to stray from the herd and wander the road less traveled. Open your mind to new ideas and new perspectives by attending a film festival, or by seeking out smaller films that may not appeal to the masses, but might just connect with you in a personal way. And when you find something you love, something that speaks to you on a level that X-Men: Apocalypse or Independence Day: Resurgence doesn't, make sure you spread the word so others might have the opportunity to enjoy the same type of experience.

 

Cinema isn't dead yet, dear reader - but if we aren't careful, we just might kill it. And if it's all the same to you, I'd rather not see that happen.

A Hollywood Christmas

christmas films.jpg

by David Appleford

There’s something to keep in mind when looking back on the history of the Hollywood studio and its relationship with the Christmas movie.  Hollywood never liked them.  That’s not to say that those who run the studios were seasonal hating Scrooges.  Really, who doesn’t like a good Christmas movie when you’re in the mood?  It’s just that as a business, the studios never thought there was an audience big enough to warrant regular, yearly releases.  Strange but true.

Check the original poster 20th Century Fox used to promote its 1947 Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street. It shows Maureen O’Hara and her leading man, John Payne, dominating the foreground while Edmund Gwenn’s Santa is relegated to the back, the far back.  In fact, you can hardly make him out.  Studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck wanted his seasonal film released in May.  His argument was that more people went to the theatres in the summer, not the winter, and he was right.  The numbers were proof positive.  As a result, all indications of Christmas were immediately removed from the poster.  Miracle on 34th Street was considered a summer movie; the Christmas theme in the promotional hype was rarely mentioned. 

 

If you look at the broad yuletide spectrum of Hollywood and the big screen Christmas movie, you’ll see a pattern.  There’s a handful of classics from the forties and fifties, but it’s for the smallest of hands.  You know the films.  They’re shown every year on syndicated TV lead by the perennial favorite It’s a Wonderful Life, but here’s something interesting.  On its initial release, the Frank Capra directed classic struggled to find an audience.  Reviews were less than stellar.  One industry insider even reports that in 1947 the FBI became interested when it was asserted that the film was really Communist propaganda; it made the banker, Mr. Potter, the villain of the story.

 

Here’s a fast track through the decades.  During the sixties, you can look as much as you want, but in truth, there’s no real Hollywood seasonal movie interest to be found; the studios basically gave up the ghost of Christmas to TV where comedy specials, variety shows, Rudolph and A Charlie Brown Christmas reigned.  Even during the seventies, when it came to holiday entertainment, if it was a movie you were watching it was generally designed for the small screen, not the big.  But there was a definite breakthrough during the eighties.  (We’ll get to that in more detail in just a moment).  The nineties brought a steady stream of big screen holiday features to lure audiences away from the TV, even if, generally speaking, quality usually remained absent.  Then came the new millennium and Hollywood finally seemed to get a handle. 

 

Does Christmas = Christmas Movie?

Before we get to the specifics and a few recommendations, what would you say is the rule that constitutes a film to be a genuine Christmas movie?  Just because its setting is Christmas doesn’t mean that it’s a seasonal movie.  We all know that Die Hard takes place at Christmas, but be honest, when you first came out of the theatre during its original run did you really walk back to the car with the thought of sugar plums dancing in your head?  If the film hadn’t closed with Vaughn Monroe singing “Let it Snow!” over the end credits you’d have forgotten there was ever a Christmas tree in the Nakatomi building in the first place.

And, please, don’t call Brazil a Christmas movie, either.  We all know there are Christmas decorations in the offices, but, seriously, what kind of Grinch would gather the family around a cozy TV screen on Christmas Eve with everyone full of good cheer and hungry for more and then pop Brazil in the DVD player? 

Here are the rules, and they’re simple.  1) Taking place at Christmas is certainly important, granted, but not always required.  After all, guess what time of year Christmas in July took place.  The main aspect is 2) it has to be Christmas themed.   The 1970 musical Scrooge naturally qualifies, so does Disney’s One Magic ChristmasEven the obscure and hard to find Holiday in Handcuffs qualifies, though anyone who considers themselves a fan of film and would intentionally subject themselves to that has to be smoking something stronger than just a seasonal cigar. 

 

Scrooge

Accepting that Christmas movie audiences are first and foremost looking to be entertained and couldn’t care less about Oscar material, once you’ve got White Christmas and those other above-mentioned earlier classics out of your system, the 1970 musical Scrooge directed by Ronald Neame is a great beginning.  If you look at everything seasonal released during the seventies, this musical version of A Christmas Carol is the only big screen production that celebrated the season in the way we would want most Christmas themed movies to be.  Bright, brash, tuneful and – excuse me while I wipe something from the corner of my eye – a total holiday joy.  The film was made hot on the success of that other big screen Charles Dickens musical, Oliver!  In fact, without Oliver! there might never have been a Scrooge.  It was filmed on many of the sound stages used in the ’68 musical and many of those same sets were dusted and brought out of storage. 

 

A Christmas Story

Hard to believe, but it was as recent as the eighties when Hollywood’s attitude to the Christmas movie changed.  It didn’t necessarily change its low output, but it proved one thing: Despite a studio belief that no one would go to see a Christmas movie on the big screen at holiday time, the eighties saw a turnaround, and it was all because of a collection of short stories written for Playboy by satirist Jean Shepherd called In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.  Director Bob Clark had scored such a surprising financial success with his teen-sex comedy Porky's that the studio gave him the go-ahead to film A Christmas Story.  The truth is, without Porky's there would never have been A Christmas Story.  The story of Ralphie and his desire for a Daisy Air Rifle has become a genuine, modern day, American classic whose popularity shows no signs of diminishing.

A Christmas Story was first released in November -- just before Thanksgiving -- 1983 and had all but disappeared from theaters before Christmas arrived. Such was the unexpected popularity of the film that complaints were sent to both the studio and theater owners for pulling the film out of circuit too early.  Some theaters relented and showed the film on select screens until the following year.  And it was because of that turn of events that the Hollywood approach to Christmas film distribution changed.  The voice of the narrator, which is supposed to be Ralphie as a grown man, is actually the author himself, Jean Shepherd.  Shepherd can also be seen in the film.  Look for a brief cameo in the department store scene where an irate man tells Ralphie he needs to get to the back of the line if he wants to see Santa. That’s Shepherd.  Plus, for the benefit of trivia buffs, the woman standing next to him is his real-life wife, Leigh Brown.

Because audiences suddenly flocked to A Christmas Story and even demanded it return to theatres once distributors pulled it off screens, other Christmas themed films slowly emerged but with more regularity.  It would take another decade for the genre to get into full, theatrical swing, but the eighties continued to produce several yuletide themed movies that are still popular today.  If it wasn’t for A Christmas Story, Hollywood may never have given the greenlight to Bill Murray in Scrooged or the low-budget 1989 family favorite, Prancer.    

 

The dawn of the quality christmas movie

The landscape for Christmas movies looked completely different in the nineties than all previous decades.  Suddenly, Christmas became box-office.  Like an avalanche of seasonal snow, Christmas movies became an expected part of those November/December releases.  That didn’t necessarily raise the quality quota.  In fact, most were pretty bad.  Titles like Santa with Muscles didn’t help.  And even though that last one did not star body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger, he did put some muscle behind his own nineties Christmas comedy, Jingle All the Way, which didn’t really help, either.  But there was Home Alone and Home Alone 2 which dominated the box-office on their subsequent nineties release dates.

Now, here’s the good news as we move forward.  Not only did leaving the twentieth century on New Year’s Eve mean fireworks, parties and a rise in designated drivers, it also must have done something to the suits in Hollywood.  Quality finally came to Christmas movies.  Let’s be honest, trying to find an all-round, satisfyingly good Christmas themed movie during most of the previous decades was as unlikely as discovering a Macy’s gift card in that final demand from Scrooge & Marley.  But from 2000 going-forward, Christmas movie prayers were answered.

The problem now when looking for films to recommend is not what to put on a movie list but what to leave off.  There are so many we could be talking about them from now until, well, Christmas.  For example, who wouldn’t want to recommend the 2004 animated feature, The Polar Express?  True, the early technique of Performance Capture animation made most of the human characters appear like talking cabbage patch dolls, but the film’s scenery looked spectacular.  

However, not everything with a seasonal flair released after 2000 was first class.  There were still all of those made for TV movies where any creativity began and ended with a catchy title, such as Santa Paws, Holidaze or Karoll’s Christmas.  Never seen them, never will.  For all I know they could be perfectly decent, but I’d be suspicious of a 2007 movie called What Would Jesus Buy?  Not exactly sure what the producers might be thinking of, but if I had to take a guess, I’d say... socks.

Bad Santa

Bad Santa is definitely not for the family, but it still qualifies as a Christmas movie.   Both Jack Nicholson and Bill Murray were considered for the part of Santa but both had to pull out due to other commitments.  It became Billy Bob Thornton’s role and he’s great in it.  The actor is even on record as saying that if he could go back in time and re-live favorite moments of his life, there are two chapters that stand out.  Making Bad Santa would be one of them.  He also said that he was flat out drunk during most of the film and staggered around the set intoxicated.  (And there we were thinking he was doing some of his best method acting).  For the record, the other favorite chapter was when he worked for the Arkansas Highway Department.  That’s not a joke, by the way.  That’s what he said.

 

Love Actually

Finally, the film that appears to have captured the affection of Christmas movie lovers with no sign of its popularity diminishing is the ensemble comedy to end all ensemble comedies.  Released in the United States on 14th November 2003, Love Actually is a romantic comedy set in London at Christmas and revolves around not one but several different intertwining stories performed by an ensemble of first-rate character actors, including Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Keira Knightly and Hugh Grant.  For the record, the word 'actually' is spoken at least twenty-two times by various characters throughout the film.

You'll notice at the beginning and end of the film the setting is London's Heathrow Airport where several passengers who have just disembarked from their various flights are met by their families and loved ones. These were all real people acting naturally, their hugs and embraces caught on film.  Writer Richard Curtis, who was also given directing duties, sent a team of cameramen to the airport and had them remain there for a week filming anything that looked appropriate to the theme of the story.  Everyone who was caught by the camera was then asked if it was possible to use the footage for the movie.

 

Love Actually.jpg

Perhaps one of the most amusing behind-the-scenes stories is that of English actor Kris Marshall.  Marshall played the part of a young Brit called Colin, and Colin is convinced that the only way he can meet women who’ll appreciate him is if he flies to America for Christmas, which is exactly what he does. No sooner has he stepped off the plane and collected his suitcase full of condoms from the luggage carousel when he meets three young American women who are immediately attracted to his London accent.  They take him back to their apartment.  Yes, Christmas wishes, even Colin’s, can come true.  The story goes that Marshall had such a great time filming the moment when the girls undress him - a scene that required twenty-one takes until the actors got it right - that he actually gave back his pay-check for the day stating that because he had such a great time rehearsing the scene, he was willing to do it for free.  Personally, I’m thinking that in reality that might be one of those movie urban legends that grew with the telling, but then again, isn’t Christmas all about wanting to believe?  Let’s enjoy the story and just go with it. 

Those who have seen Love Actually talk of how the movie made them fall in love all over again; such is the power of this very funny and occasionally touching Christmas comedy. Though be warned.  If you have yet to see it and you’re thinking of a rental to help you get into the Christmas spirit, there’s one thing to keep mind; it’s adult in nature and earns its R rating. By all means enjoy, you'll have a great time, but keep the kids out of the room.

 

More than any other genre, ultimately the Christmas movie is something personal.  Like the same ol’ decorations your parents used to put up each year, it doesn’t matter if they’re tasteful or not, they’re what makes you feel warm and cozy in winter and represent what the season means to you.   Whether you have yet to find your favorite, maybe some of the films mentioned here will add to whatever brings you your own feelings of comfort and joy. 

 

So, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and here’s the really great thing about DVDs, Blu-Rays, rentals or downloads: Think about it, you don’t really have to wait until December to see them. 

 

 

Reflections on the Silver Screen

by Kevin Kittle

 

After a recent screening a number of critics, myself included, stood around discussing the film we had just seen.   While none of us had anything negative to say about the movie, our wide range of emotional reactions was surprising.  It was able to strike a chord within some of us, inducing misty eyes and a bout of the sniffles, but others noted an emotional distance from the characters.  Our discussion started down a path of technical analysis on the director’s choices but this was unable to explain our personal reactions.  Two critics could agree on the technical aspects of the exact same scene but would then disagree on how that scene affected them.  The knee jerk answer to this phenomenon is chalking it up to different tastes and opinions.  This is true to a point, but general preferences rarely evoke spontaneous emotional responses. It has to be something more visceral.  

PLAY IT AGAIN

This is a reoccurring subject in my mind, something I had first contemplated upon watching “Casablanca” a second time.  My original viewing was in my early teens.  I loved movies but had very limited exposure at the time and had not yet begun to appreciate all the nuances that made various films special.  I was a fan of Hitchcock’s popular library as well as various black & white Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne flicks so hearing Humphrey Bogart’s name often, I figured I’d expand my cinematic knowledge by watching that movie where he says “Play it again Sam.”  

It was… kind of boring and underwhelming.  The story, from what I could grasp, was very simplistic, there wasn’t enough action or intrigue, and he didn’t even get the girl!  I couldn’t understand the appeal.

Flash forward a decade or so, and I decided to give it another chance.  I had a better understanding of noir, had lived a little more, and both loved and lost.  The difference was profound. My pupils dilated, my heart pounded, and then ached. It was if I had watched an entirely different movie.  After I was done pondering the film, I began pondering the experience.  The reason why the experience was different was easy.  I had grown as an adult and understood not just the historic background of the story, but was also better able to identify with the character’s motivations.  What was, and continues to be, fascinating is how much of a change these life experiences had on my perception.  

EXPERIENCE = PERCEPTION

How we perceive a film is a reflection of our personal life, values, and experiences. As a viewer, our appreciation is increased when we can identify with someone or something on the screen.  This can be a specific character, an emotion, or a common goal.  We become invested when we can see ourselves within the story.  In many circles, it’s blasphemous to even think what I’m about to say: “Goonies” is technically not a great film.  But to nearly every child who watched it in the 80s, it’s a masterpiece!  Nostalgia certainly tempers our opinion of it, but that nostalgia was born from our desire to be those characters, or at least be included in their group.  Who couldn’t see themselves amongst these slightly awkward misfits, searching out adventure, and saving the neighborhood when others couldn’t?  It’s likely the same reason so many grown men love the entire James Bond series despite the rollercoaster ride in quality between episodes. (Admit it, you’ve tried ordering or making a Vesper martini at least once, haven’t you?)

Does our personal experience serve only to augment all films, good or bad?  Certainly not; it enhances our overall perception.  Things that ring true become more appealing and conversely we become more aware and critical of details that we perceive as inaccurate.  Some movies try to exploit subjects they don’t fully understand.  For example, if you grew up around an autistic child, a movie that gets certain details right or wrong will influence your overall opinion of that film, whereas others without that background will be unphased by them.  Visualize a married couple on date night attending the latest run-of-the-mill rom-com.  The wife loves how romantic the male lead is in the movie.  He chased the object of his affection through a busy airport, catching her in the boarding line, pleading with her, dropping to a knee and proposing.  The other passengers applaud!  How Romantic. The Husband can’t get past how ridiculous the scene was. How’d he get through security without a boarding pass?  How did he find parking in time?  The other passengers wouldn’t applaud, they’d be furious over the flight delay he caused!  Same movie, very different perceptions.

It’s also possible for a film to be extremely accurate, ring true, but trigger negative memories.  Be it a bad relationship, loss of a loved one, bullying, or bigotry, sometimes a scene can hit too close to home.  Depending on the subject, and how the film portrays it, this can render some films unwatchable.  Fortunately, as we all saw illustrated in “Inside Out”, there can be an upside to these unfavorable feelings.  Watching a relatable character overcome an obstacle, defeat adversity, or simply make a stand against an injustice can inspire hope within the viewer.  It doesn’t matter if the story is a work of fiction or history, as long as the performance is able to touch us emotionally, we believe that if they can succeed we have that possibility as well.  

WELL MADE FILMS OPEN MINDS

The juxtaposition of positive and negative reactions to a character can also be a path towards empathy.  For every different type of bigotry, there are people who are either inexperienced or ignorant of it.  It’s far too easy for someone to view a person through the stereotypes they are associated with if they have been sheltered during their more formative years.  A well-made film can open minds by first showing us how others are just like us, and go through the same pain and hardships as we do, often times to a greater degree.  The vague mention of bigotry and stereotypes immediately leads our mind to differences in race, religion, and sexual orientation as these are the subjects most commonly discussed but it can cover so much more. Consider also the womanizing bachelor (“Up in the Air”), the teenage mother (“Juno”), the single mother fighting depression (“The Babadook”), or the parents of an alleged terrorist (“American Pastoral’) If you’ve seen these films were they successful in broadening your perspective or triggering empathy?

The witticism that “you can learn a lot about a person by the movies they like” might hold more truth to it than expected.   It’s sometimes said that “eyes are the window to our soul.”  Perhaps the silver screen is our mirror?

Spoiler Alert: The pitfalls of two-minute movie trailers

 by Jeff Mitchell

On Oct. 13, 2016, the Star Wars YouTube channel released its latest Rogue One: A Star Wars Story trailer to an enthusiastic public who adores the iconic franchise. Apparently, Darth Vader makes an appearance which does not tug on my fanboy strings, but yanks on them like a  bungee cord hopped on caffeine.  

On the other hand, I will not watch this trailer.  I cannot do it.  No.  I will “somehow” patiently wait to see Vader’s next appearance in a feature film when I sit in my theatre seat and watch Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in December 2016.  There is a method to my “just-patiently-wait” madness, and the origin harkens back a few decades to my Worst Christmas Ever.   

 

Worst Christmas Ever  

My Worst Christmas Ever occurred when I was about 9 or 10 years old.  Now, I don’t remember the exact year.  I don’t remember if my mother baked a turkey or ham.  I don’t remember if it was snowing or not but knowing upstate New York in late December, it probably was so cold that the snowmen wore heavy coats and started campfires to fight the elements.   

Well, on this particular Christmas morning, I unexpectedly woke up at 3 a.m. and walked downstairs to the family room, where the Christmas tree stood.  Feeling anxious but also quite annoyed - because I had to wait three hours for my parents and two little brothers to rise from their Christmas Eve slumber before tearing into the piles of treasure - I hatched a plan!  

Grabbing a pair of scissors (and a fresh roll of Scotch tape), I meticulously cut the clear adhesive on all of the presents (that looked like toys) labeled “To: Jeff”.  With an impulse to discover the joyous matter covered in green and red paper, I carefully opened my presents, glanced at the contents inside and taped them back together before anyone woke up.  Mission accomplished!   

When my brothers rushed downstairs at 6 a.m. sharp with the exhilaration that I experienced just three hours prior, we immediately took turns opening our gifts.  While they enjoyed the wide-eyed wonder of ripping into paper, ribbon and boxes – not unlike the Parker family in A Christmas Story (1983) – I faked my enthusiasm during the 90-minute exercise.  

Looking back, I ironically cannot recall one present from that year (although I am certain that an Atari 2600 video game was a portion of the Christmas booty), but I do remember feeling miserable all day.  At the time of the great event, I had no surprises.   

I already knew.

These days, I walk into movie theatres about 150 times a year.  To me, experiencing a movie – in the comfort of a 250-seat theatre – is a gift but watching that film’s trailer ahead of time feels like “cutting the tape” on a cinematic present and glancing at its contents.  Many times, I try to avoid the trailers, because they can ruin surprises, sometimes big ones.

Trailers can ruin big surprises by revealing too much of the story.

 

Cast Away (2000)

The “best” example of a trailer ruining big surprises is the one created for Cast Away (2000), starring Tom Hanks and directed by Robert Zemeckis.  Hanks plays a Federal Express executive named Chuck Nolan who is stranded on a deserted island and desperately wishes to find a way back home to Memphis.  Hanks and Zemeckis hit all the right notes by offering a sobering, emotional tale of survival and difficult choices when life really, really gets in the way of your best laid plans.   

Now, if you had plans to watch Cast Away back in 2000, the film’s trailer completely sunk them for you.  Not only does the two-minute 20-second trailer reveal too much of the story, it walks the viewer through every major plot point that Chuck endures.   

In the trailer, Chuck’s FedEx plane crashes in the ocean, but he grabs a life raft and drifts onto a tiny island.  We then see Chuck sporting a long, blondish beard, which visually explains that he is stuck there for years.   Thankfully, Chuck constructs a raft out of branches and twigs to escape the sandy shackles. 

His escape is happily successful, because he then comfortably sits on a plane with an old FedEx colleague who says, “You were lost for four years.  We had a funeral, (a) coffin...”   

The icing on the give-away-everything cake are the words, “Where do you start when you have to start over?” which appear on the screen.  

These words then dissolve into the image of Chuck greeting his girlfriend, Kelly (Helen Hunt), at her front door.  The team who produced this trailer mind-bogglingly reveals the complete story arc of this modern-day Robinson Crusoe tale, but at least the audience does not know how long Chuck was lost.   

Oh, that’s right, four years.  Sigh.

 

What Lies Beneath (2000)

Six months earlier, another Robert Zemeckis picture hit theatres, a thriller called What Lies Beneath (2000).  Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer play recent empty nesters entangled in a creepy haunted house story.  Similar to Cast Away, this trailer gives away just about everything. 

Claire (Pfeiffer) hears strange noises inside her home, and items, like a picture frame, fall for no apparent reason, however, the trailer explains that the weird occurrences are due to a ghost.  Norman (Ford) then admits that their perfect marriage is a mirage, because he had an affair with a young, beautiful co-ed.  Claire then claims that Norman’s mistress is visiting them from beyond the grave.  

To entirely end any of the film’s ambiguities, the couple becomes affectionate in their living room, and Claire says, “I think she’s starting to suspect something.”  

When Norman asks, “Who?”, Claire answers, “Your wife.”   

The trailer discloses that Norman’s dead mistress comes back to life as a ghost and possesses his wife.   Well, I guess we don’t exactly know if his mistress is dating Casper the Friendly Ghost in the afterlife, but with so much time on her hands, she is most likely single.  

More recent examples

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

The film’s third trailer – published less than four months before the movie’s March 2016 release – inexplicably reveals that Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) creates Doomsday to kill Superman (Henry Cavill), because Batman (Ben Affleck) failed to do so.  Until this December trailer, the average moviegoer thought that Batman and Luthor were Superman’s only antagonists.

Room (2015)

Much of the film’s fascination is attempting to initially decipher why Ma (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son (Jacob Tremblay) live in a tiny room.   Did a nuclear holocaust occur?  Is this some bizarre science-fiction experiment?  Are they staying in cramped quarters against their will?   Well, the trailer explains that the two have been confined in a room for five years and against their own will.  Ah, the mystery is solved…in the trailer.       

 

QUEEN OF KATWE (2016)

This heartwarming, true story features an underprivileged Ugandan teen, Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), learning the game of chess.  One minute and 43 seconds into the trailer, we discover that Phiona becomes a gold medalist in a significant chess tournament, and crowds of people from her village celebrate her win, while she holds a large trophy.  Checkmate!  Okay, Queen of Katwe Trailer, I give up.

 

IT FOLLOWS (2015)

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell created the most ingenious horror film of 2015 by introducing a “thing” that simply follows a singular victim, wherever one is, wherever one hides.  The trailer, however, gives away that Jay’s (Maika Monroe) first date with a seemingly nice guy will horribly turn sideways, because he ties her up to a wheelchair and explains that “It” will now follow her instead of him.  While watching It Follows, an informed audience will unnecessarily realize – during the film’s first 15 minutes - that Jay’s date will end with her bound and cursed.

Additionally, at the 1:45 mark, the trailer also explains that “It” can look like someone you know, or it can be a stranger in a crowd. 

I do not follow the reasoning to reveal that intriguing detail.

  

Why do we have trailers?

It is no surprise that we have trailers.  Studios create them as effective marketing tools to entice audiences to see their pictures, and rabid and casual movie fans – almost universally – find them as enjoyable samples of upcoming movie releases.   

The American Marketing Association defines marketing as the activity, set of institutions and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.  

Studios create, communicate, deliver, and exchange an offering in the form of a trailer which carries value for a movie audience. The movie studios allow us to catch glimpses and flashes of future film experiences, and – best of all - the exchange between studios and fans is absolutely free.   

It is a most-welcomed trade.  

Trailers are convenient too.  Wrapped into informational, entertaining offerings, they help fulfill random, two-minute distractions in between filling out TPS Reports and managing email volleys during 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. workdays.   After the 120-second mental sugar high ends, we are thankful that God (or whichever deity you worship) invented YouTube.   

As much as I appreciate the easy accessibility of YouTube, I prefer trailers the old-fashioned way, on the big screen.  Trailers have become a rite of passage for two-hour escapes into “Movieland”, and what do we always say to ourselves or the person next to us when we feel that the theatre did not light up the screen with enough of them?   

“Hey, how come we only saw two previews?”     

We feel cheated, even though the two trailers were free, because they have value and are a prime example of the anticipated exchange outlined in Marketing 101.

Now, a movie is an organic event, made up of narratives, characters and the magic captured by a camera, and filmmakers do not have to follow “Textbook 101” instructions to create their own masterpieces.  Just ask director Alejandro Jodorowsky.  On the other hand, there are sensible rules to make an effective trailer.  

Charlie Lyne of UK’s The Guardian wrote a fun article in 2012 entitled, “Coming soon…how to make the perfect movie trailer”.   Among a series of helpful tips, he mentions that comedies should feature clips from five upbeat Katy Perry songs.  Dramas should include heavy-handed dialogue with shots of light streaming through trees, and action films should leave about 10 seconds at the end for an agonizing, slow reveal of the film’s title.   

 

“D  I  E    H  A  R  D    9:    B  A  C  K    F  R  O  M    T  H  E    D  E  A  D”,  perhaps?

 

Hey, there are rules.  Actually there are no official guidelines, but trailers – as we have seen - sometimes break the colossal, unofficial rule: revealing too much of the story.   

They also can create false expectations.

 

Trailers create expectations, sometimes false ones

Trailers do provide a valuable service by helping set expectations.   If a moviegoer plunks down $10 on a film, it is vitally important to understand the type of picture that he or she will experience.  

For example, one may have walked up to a theatre in 2015, looked at the title Mustang on the electronic movie list above the window and guessed that the picture is about a very specific, domestic muscle car or a horse riding across the grasslands.   On the contrary, Mustang is a Turkish movie that closely captures the struggles between five girls’ freedom of expression and family oppression in one of the best films of that year, and a simple view of its trailer could bring that clarity.  

Sometimes, however, the trailer does not closely align with its film, and then our expectations could skew our theatrical experience.  When I was a very new movie critic, this happened to me.  

 

In Bruges (2008)

Back in early 2008, I attended a movie screening for In Bruges, about a pair of low-level gangsters (Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson) keeping a low profile in Bruges, Belgium.  After watching the trailer, I expected a zany, hilarious caper, however - much to my chagrin - most of the comedic moments were captured in the two-minute preview.   The film actually took some very dark turns with an arthouse-like flair.   I walked out of the theatre disappointed and confused and gave the film 2 out of 5 stars in Arizona State University’s student newspaper, The State Press.

Fast forward to August 2016, and on a lazy weekend, I sat down in my living room and watched “In Bruges” again with a fresh set of eyes.  When writer/director Martin McDonagh’s movie ended, imagine my surprise as I appreciated Farrell and Gleeson’s characters, their journey and the artsy, dark turns that I dismissed eight years earlier.  Instead of simply judging the movie on its own merit, my 2008 review reflected the broken promises from the trailer, and also my original expectations and preconceived notions.      

A rookie movie critic mistake!

My key learning?  Significant differences in tone between a trailer and a film can greatly skew one’s experience.  

 

Going in blind

Over the last couple years, I have made honest efforts in skipping the trailers prior to walking into movies.  I am successful in managing my self-restraint roughly 71.7 percent of the time, and this practice is serving me well.   During a typical trailer-less movie trip, I may read a brief synopsis and catch a glance of the lead actors.  Sometimes, I blindly walk into a film by just scanning the movie title and genre, and that’s it.  

The results can be wonderful.     

I stepped into cineplexes to catch the previously mentioned Room and It Follows without watching the trailers and absorbed both films, as they were meant to be seen.  I did not know why Ma and her son were confined to a room in Room and had zero idea of the shape, motivation or basic makeup of “It” in It Follows.  

No previously seen images, no spelled out narratives, no preconceived notions, and - most importantly - no expectations.

Five minutes prior to watching a “going in blind” film, we can sit in a theatre (with optional bags of popcorn and drinks), stare at a blank movie screen and realize that it is a metaphorical blank slate, because we have no idea what we are about to experience.  

In a perfect world (as I stand on my soapbox), that is how a movie should be experienced.  

 

“In a world…”

Of course, we do not live in a perfect world, or as the late, great Don LaFontaine – who was the premier voice actor in countless movie trailers – would probably say:

“In a world with YouTube at our fingertips, billboards, television commercials, movie sites, and previews playing in theatres, it is nearly impossible to walk into a movie blind.”  

I am going to continue making efforts to avoid trailers, because I believe a critic needs to be as unbiased to the images, ideas, storylines, and characters as possible before walking into film.  Of course, my disclaimer is that I am only human, and quite frankly, I am awfully excited for the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 trailer….but I digress.

As a moviegoer, the equation is a bit different.

In order to help protect your $10 movie investment, some research is absolutely warranted. With popcorn, candy, soda, and movie tickets, one trip to the cinema can cost $80 for a family of four.   Under those circumstances, no parent should blindly walk into Jack and Jill (2011) expecting a kid-friendly flick about the famous nursery rhyme and end up watching Adam Sandler’s most unfunny film to date.  The same stance applies to the guy trying to find a clever, warm romcom for a well-planned second date.  By all means, do your research, because you want a third, fourth and fifth date.     

Yes, read the reviews from the Phoenix Critics Circle (http://phxcritics.com)  and watch the trailers, but just beware of the pitfalls that two-minute previews can bring.   They can reveal too much story, set up incorrect expectations or maybe all of the funny jokes are summarized within the two-minute packages.  Even worse, perhaps a trailer contains a key moment that should ONLY be witnessed in your theatre seat during the unfolding of an iconic movie.   

 

Remember April 16, 2015?  

On this day, the Star Wars YouTube channel released a Star Wars: The Force Awakens teaser trailer, and at the 1:33 mark, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) says the words – which permanently seared into my brain – “Chewie, we’re home.”  

As of October 2016, that trailer has collected 78 million views, and about 10 of them are mine.  My only wish is that I heard those words for the first time in my theatre seat during the actual movie.

That would have been a nice present, and I bet the moment would have felt like Christmas morning.   

Well, I guess it did…when I was about 10 years old.  

 

Jeff Mitchell – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.  Follow Jeff on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic.

 

 

 

 

The Master: Akira Kurosawa

by Monte Yazzie

You can learn a lot by listening.

As a teenager who would hang out at the local record store, the corner bookstore, and the video rental store on a consistent basis, I began to hear the random banter of store clerks passionately defending the best album of 1993, the seminal author of the last fifty years, or the greatest films in the history of cinema.

These encounters led me to music, literature, and film that were far outside of my maturity level at the time, like my utter confusion at 15 years old with Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” or the jaw-dropped look on my face at 17 after watching Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “El Topo”. To say that these films left an indelible impression on me would be an understatement. Fast forward nearly twenty years, and I still find myself listening in the middle of conversations, some onlookers may call them arguments between impassioned film critics either defending or attacking the validity of what was just screened.

Still, there are some films that reach the realms of “sacred territory”, and there are some filmmakers who, regardless of what their film may be about, are immediately granted the “must watch” label. It’s hard to question the validity of filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, a genius Japanese filmmaker who is responsible for many of the technical film forms, character compositions, and narrative structures seen in contemporary cinema and within works from acclaimed filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Ingmar Bergman, Francis Ford Coppola, Sam Peckinpah, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas. Or, as a film-loving friend of mine once proudly exclaimed, “Kurosawa is your favorite director’s favorite director”.

Mr. Kurosawa tackled numerous genres of film with fearless enthusiasm, starting his career with the character-driven martial arts saga “Sanshiro Sugata”, the noir-driven “Stray Dog”, and the war-time relationship drama “No Regrets for Our Youth”; these superb films all arriving before the monumental acclaim of the film that would make Mr. Kurosawa an internationally recognized auteur. Looking into the five different decades of Kurosawa’s film career will display a filmmaker who excelled in every aspect of the filmmaking process and a director who always sought to tell stories in innovative, inventive, and intriguing ways until the end of his career. While it would be easy to look at the films that have defined this legendary filmmaker’s career, “Rashomon”, “Seven Samurai”, “Ikiru”, “Sanjuro”, “Yojimbo”, “High and Low”, and “Throne of Blood”, I think it is interesting to look at where filmmakers of Mr. Kurosawa’s caliber started and where they ended.

 

The Beginning: 1943 - 1950

Akira Kurosawa began making films at the age of 26, working mostly as an assistant director. Young Kurosawa learned the process of filmmaking by working with one of Japan’s leading filmmakers, Kajirō Yamamoto. Many of Mr. Kurosawa’s early works were made during World War II, and the influence of the war can be felt throughout much of his early work, which sways heavily into structures of propaganda.

No Regrets for Our Youth

No Regrets for Our Youth

Postwar Kurosawa allowed more freedom for the filmmaker; look no further than his first film after the war to feel the director’s criticism of Japan’s involvement. Kurosawa did this with a story about a young girl struggling with life and love in the shadow of uncertainty for her country which is on the brink of entering a war. The film, “No Regrets For Our Youth”, also boasts one of Mr. Kurosawa’s only female protagonists in the exceptional performance of Setsuko Hara who plays a transforming young woman named Yukie.

Drunken Angel

Drunken Angel

All of these early steps were leading to the highlight film of the 1940’s for Kurosawa. In his amazing career catalog, the 1948 film “Drunken Angel” often times gets under-appreciated. This melodrama places two unlikely characters, a cynical alcoholic physician and a handsome mobster suffering from tuberculosis, in an awkward relationship that moves into something more complex than what is displayed on the surface. While at the core of the story is the common theme of good versus evil that would continue largely throughout Mr. Kurosawa’s entire career, the film creates something more multifaceted out of the relationship between these two men. Underlying themes of honor and sacrifice motivate both men into action but also promote changes that display the postwar sentiments felt by those looking to change the mentality of the past for Japan. It’s a fascinating relationship when analyzed through this lens of the culture at the time.

Takashi Shimura, who plays the boozing physician Sanada, exceptionally composes the character. Mr. Shimura is at one point unredeemable only to turn at another point in a completely different direction that makes his character filled with honor and esteem. It’s a complicated composition that Mr. Shimura deftly handles. “Drunken Angel” is often known for bringing Mr. Kurosawa and longtime acting collaborator Toshirō Mifune together for the first time. The team would eventually go on to make 16 films together throughout Mr. Kurosawa’s career. Mr. Mifune’s undeniable charisma and authority can be felt the moment he arrives on screen in this film as the ill mobster Matsunaga. The performance displays the power that Mifune can deliver just by walking on screen or uttering a line of dialog. With the mobster the actor builds a convoluted character, one that can see his ultimate fate and struggles to follow a code of honor that will display the weaknesses that he is trying to hide. These characters display Mr. Kurosawa’s ability with working a script; he forms these characters from simple representations into sincere characters challenged with difficult choices. The director would continue to demonstrate this ability as his career matured.

Rashomon

Rashomon

“Rashomon” is a film adapted from a short story by Ryûnosuke Akutagawa. It was the masterpiece that made the world pay attention to the Japanese auteur. The 1950 film details a single incident, the murder of a samurai and the possible rape of his wife, through the flashbacks of four different perspectives. It’s a mystery, a story that manipulates the truth. This theme of the perception of truth will also continue in different ways throughout his career.

From a technical perspective, this film was a painstaking effort for Kurosawa to complete. It’s a perfect example of the director’s uncompromising dedication to the vision he established. Kurosawa would wait until the natural lighting was perfect for the scene, he would also utilize the surrounding natural settings to build crucial elements fundamental to the film, everything was in the details. Take for instance one of the best scenes when a moving camera follows the mystery of the story into the woods. The use of ambient sound, the score written by Fumio Hayasaka, the editing structure, and the ingenious imagery combine to create a silent moment that speaks volumes. It would not be long for the world to take notice, as the movie would reawaken the world to Japanese film at the Venice Film Festival. It would continue to impress as it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

“Rashomon” challenged the way filmmakers were making films; it brought Japanese film to a new realization of possibilities and levied an expectation for Mr. Kurosawa’s next and later works.


 

Ran

Ran

The End: 1985-1993

In 1985, Mr. Kurosawa crafted another masterpiece with the film “Ran”, an interpretation of William Shakespeare’s “King Lear”. “Ran” is a grand spectacle, beautifully photographed to the point of being almost overwhelming; the film is influenced by everything Mr. Kurosawa did before it. From the sweeping samurai sagas to the complicated human dramas, the film is a constant metaphor for the changes of culture and political landscapes but also for Kurosawa’s life as an artist. You can feel the contemplation of the past but also the insecurity for the future, both for him and for the art. It’s a darker film unlike many in his catalog. This late career film of Kurosawa, who at this point in time was intermittently making movies, is at times pessimistic and cynical, a call back to the structure of an early character of the physician Sanada in “Drunken Angel”. Everything that has composed the samurai sagas for Mr. Kurosawa’s career is here, but it’s more honestly brutal and sided towards the worst characteristics in people.

In medieval Japan the elderly warlord Ichimonji is retiring, he is turning over power to his three sons. However, power comes with temptation and corruption and Ichimonji’s youngest son Saburo knows this and disagrees with the decisions of the group. Saburo is banished and control is given to the older sons, Taro and Jiro, who become selfish with power that leads them to broken promises and war. It is up to Saburo to save his family.

“Ran” is just one example of the incomparable filmmaker contemplating the future, much of the films made after 1985 have this deliberate theme in place. Working with symbolisms and metaphors to make personal statements about different philosophies, life lesson, and world perspectives completely inundated much of his late work. Kurosawa knew that with each new film it had the potential of being his last and final film. The director would become more intentional and thoughtful with his work, painstakingly planning out every scene with great detail. The intricacy is on full display in “Ran”.

Mr. Kurosawa is responsible for creating many of the camera movements, edits, and choreography seen in modern action cinema. The filmmaker placed the viewer into the middle of the action, dashing and sweeping across the screen with the actors and deliberately cutting the scenes to feed the appetites of the viewer with moments peaked with powerful anticipation and exhilarating payoff. However, in “Ran”, the style is different from his past work. The world is bigger, instead of showing the intimacy of battle, Mr. Kurosawa pulls the camera back and displays the world embattled and a humanity that is destroying itself. It’s a scenario that doesn’t try to showcase style but is still packed with substance from an artist trying to explain a perspective from his mind with images. It’s brutal and bold and beautiful.

This wasn’t the end for Mr. Kurosawa. Three more films prevailed after “Ran”, a personal fairy-tale that composes a majestic collection of Japanese folklore and the actual sleeping visions that Mr. Kurosawa encountered in the film “Dreams”, the heartfelt memories of an elderly woman struggling with the past and its effects on the present in “Rhapsody in August”, and one of the most poignant farewell films from any filmmaker in the tribute to Japanese writer, educator, and national treasure Hyakken Uchida in “Madadayo”.

In these final films, Mr. Kurosawa provides an insight into what is important to him as a person but also what was and is important to him as a filmmaker. He continued to compose brilliant imagery that was both realistic but also, unlike some of the middle-career earlier work, far more fantastic and filled with bold brush strokes from his imagination, such as many of the scenes composed during the stories in “Dreams”. These films display his political point of view with steadfast honesty. The contemplations of the government’s involvement in matters of war that distinctly emphasized themes in his early work in subtle ways are so much more defiantly and purposefully structured without words in his later work, for example, the pain of Hiroshima and the image of a playground’s melted jungle gym in “Rhapsody in August” speaks volumes.

Still, even though these latter works speak and compose subjects and characters that are different in tone than his early movies, in the director’s final film Mr. Kurosawa displays that characters are powerful tools capable of promoting significant change by simply providing an opportunity for someone else to experience happiness. Try and keep from smiling when you realize that one of the most influential and arguably one of the greatest filmmakers titled his farewell film “Madadayo” which when translated means “not yet”. The legacy of this master still lives on.

Seven Samurai

Seven Samurai

Oscar Snubs?

by Colin Boyd

There Are No Oscar Snubs

In 1942, Citizen Kane was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning only for Best Original Screenplay. Because it was perceived as a takedown of the all-powerful William Randolph Hearst (which isn’t totally untrue), the Hearst papers ran a smear campaign against the movie and its wunderkind creator, Orson Welles, in the lead-up to the Oscars. And it worked: The movie was booed whenever its name was called during the ceremony.

When the Oscar nominations were announced this week, there was immediate outcry about what did not receive nominations. “Why Ava Duvernay’s Oscar Snub Matters,” wrote Scott Mendelson in Forbes. “Oscar Snubs: Jennifer Aniston, LEGO Movie, Selma Director, More,” charges a pitchfork-carrying Hollywood Reporter. But what is a snub? Webster’s says it’s to “ignore in a deliberate and insulting way.” So let’s break that down.

Ignore

Did Oscar voters really pretend David Oyelowo did not exist? Or is it more likely that, in a stacked Best Actor category that also did not include Jake Gyllenhaal’s haunting work in Nightcrawler, which was probably better than the overlooked performance everyone is talking about this week, Oyelowo simply did not get the minimum number of votes required to be a nominee?

Deliberate

Reese Witherspoon in Fox Searchlight's Wild (2014)

Reese Witherspoon in Fox Searchlight's Wild (2014)

Reese Witherspoon, who produced two films with Best Actress nominations — her own (Wild) and that of Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) — saw neither up for Best Picture. Was this on purpose, some sort of punishment not just of Witherspoon but also of the actors, crews, and studios or distributors involved with their production? Or, is it more likely that, even though Best Picture is a broader category than the others in terms of total nominees, neither film received as many nominations as the four obvious front-runners (Boyhood, Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and The Imitation Game), leaving it fighting for the final few slots along with every other film that did receive a nomination and those that just missed the cut?

Insulting

“Where are the nominees of color,” they’ve been screaming. Well, unfortunately, even though African-American actors and others of color have done much, much better with the Academy Awards over the past decade than during the previous 75 years of the Oscars combined, there were no nominees in a major category this year. No actors, writers, or directors. So what does that say? Is it an open-hand slap in the face to those who did good work this year or is it more a reflection of an industry that still doesn’t make films for urban audiences in a proportional manner? And that, this year, there were not a ton of options for voters to even see. If there’s an insult, and there is, it’s that the studios don’t make enough movies for black and Hispanic audiences that rise above the easy opening weekend haul.

Here’s the deal

There are no Oscar snubs. There are no secret meetings of voters deciding whose work to eliminate because they’re black or a woman or anything else. This first got under my skin with The Dark Knight, a film nominated for nearly every technical award imaginable, won Best Supporting Actor, but was not nominated for Best Picture. The peals of disappointment rang through every message board: “The Oscars hate comic book movies!” This is an extension of the logic that the Oscars hate science fiction, because we haven’t had a space movie win Best Picture.

But think of the size of the conspiracy that would keep The Dark Knight out of a new 10-movie race for Best Picture. There are over 6,000 Oscar voters; they would have to be cagey enough to make sure the Batman movie was in the running in precisely the categories you’d expect but massage their ballots enough to purposely keep it out of Best Picture. Think, for a second, about how silly that sounds.

So, while there’s no good explanation for the absence of The LEGO Movie in Best Animated Feature Film, please remember that votes for anything provide all of the context you’re ever going to get. It’s yes, or it’s no. The assertion that Academy members are out to get this movie or David Oyelowo because he’s black or Reese Witherspoon’s movies because she’s successful enough as an actor and nobody needs her producing anything is asinine and totally unsupportable by the system against which everyone is railing and wailing.

Is there bias at play? Of course. Voting is inherently biased. It’s picking favorites! And there’s every possibility that members vote for names they recognize and admire without seeing every nominee (the list of people who see every eligible film is bound to be very short). But something nefarious, a system that ignores admittedly great work in a deliberate and insulting way? Put down the pipe.

Touch of Evil

By Colin Boyd

TOUCH OF EVIL

Starring: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles
Written and directed by Orson Welles
Universal, 1958
National Film Registry – 1993

 Touch of Evil made a small ripple as a seedy little crime movie in 1958, but since then, that ripple has become a tidal wave of appreciation for not just the film but also its director, Orson Welles.

Welles could never live up to Citizen Kane, his debut made as a 25-year-old maverick that would eventually be remembered by most critics as the greatest, most influential film of all time. It's doubtful that any director could match Kane, regardless of whether or not it was their first film. Welles had other obstacles, however.

He struggled both in and out of Hollywood for years trying to make one movie after another until 1957: First came the stolen ambition of his Kane follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons, which was notoriously re-edited by RKO. Then came an uncredited stewardship of the forgettable Journey Into Fear and the mostly average spy caper, The Stranger. The Lady from Shanghai, a bizarre noir, was his next film as a director, followed by a low-budget Macbeth. Before landing at Universal for Touch of Evil, Welles also made a film called Confidential Report, or Mr. Arkadin. Fans love it. Nobody else has ever seen it.

Welles recalled the unusual circumstances which lead to his involvement with Touch of Evil in an interview with director Peter Bogdanovich for the book, This is Orson Welles:

"I had just acted in the Jeff Chandler Western for Universal (Man in the Shadow), and they sent me another script -- a very bad one that took place in San Diego, with a crooked detective in it. And they said, 'Do you want to play it?' I said, 'maybe,' and I was still wondering whether I could afford not to make it when they called up Chuck Heston and said, 'Here’s a script -- we’d like you to read it. We have Welles.' And he misunderstood them and said, 'Well, any picture that Welles directs, I’ll make.' So they got back on the phone quick and said to me, “Do you want to direct it?' and I said, 'Yes, if I can rewrite it.'
“Well, they said they’d let me do that if I wouldn’t get paid as a director or a writer -- just my original salary as an actor. So I had about three and a half weeks to go before it began, and I locked myself up with four secretaries and wrote an entirely new story and script."

Based loosely on the Whit Masterson novel, Badge of Evil, Touch of Evil showed the undoing of a corrupt policeman of a Mexican border town. Comeuppance of the rich and powerful had always been a thematic element of Welles’ films (think of George Minafer Amberson’s just desserts or the fate of Charles Foster Kane); however, in Touch of Evil, the betrayal suffered by the powerful Captain Hank Quinlan was not as a result of a changing society — at least, not primarily — but rather at the hands of his close associate, Pete Menzies. This sort of personal betrayal was evidenced again with brutal emotional bareness in Welles’ Chimes at Midnight.

That theme so common in Welles’ films was mirrored eerily by his own personal and professional life. In the two-thirds of his life that followed Citizen Kane, Welles would never again approach the acclaim or attract the attention he did with his film debut. Instead, his career was an uncanny exhibition of missed opportunities and commercial failures. His own comeuppance came over the course of 40 years, a period during which Welles — regarded as one of the greatest of all film directors — could only navigate 12 films to completion, leaving about that many in bits and pieces along the way. In many ways, and to a lot of people, Touch of Evil would be Welles' last hurrah.

As for betrayal, it has been suggested that Welles wrought his abandonment by John Houseman, his closest associate through Citizen Kane, and by virtually every studio he ever worked for. Perhaps out of bitterness over what he perceived as disloyalty throughout his career, Welles began to professionally focus on the subject of a once-mighty figure betrayed by a close associate with The Lady from Shanghai, and that thread remained constant through even his multilayered documentary of art forger Elmyr de Hory, F for Fake. In Touch of Evil, Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia) betrayed crooked cop Hank Quinlan (Welles) after decades of looking the other way while Quinlan framed suspects in the name of justice. "The surface themes of Touch of Evil are easy to spot, remarked Roger Ebert, "and the clash between the national cultures gets an ironic flip: Vargas reflects gringo stereotypes while Quinlan embodies clichés about Mexican lawmen. But there may be another theme lurking beneath the surface."

Welles was never able to complete Touch of Evil in the way he would have liked. He claimed years later that Universal executives had barred him from the lot after viewing Welles' original rough cut of the picture, not allowing him to oversee final editing.

"I was so heartbroken when it turned out I couldn’t go on with it. I was so sure I was going to go on making a lot of pictures at Universal, when suddenly I was fired from the lot. A terribly traumatic experience. Because I was so sure. They went out of their way to compliment me every night of the rushes, and 'When are you going to sign a four- or five-picture contract with us? Please come and see us.' Every day they kept asking me to sign the contract.
Then they saw the cut version and barred me from the lot...the picture was just too dark and black and strange for them...there’s something missing there that I don’t know about, that I’ll never understand. It’s the only trouble I’ve ever had that I can’t begin to fathom. And I really thought I was home again, you know and, 'I’m going to be at Universal three or four years making pictures' -- the way they talked. Then suddenly I couldn’t get on the lot."

What remained, even in its initial theatrical form, was the stuff of a swaggering genius. Welles' famed opening shot, at that time the greatest tracking shot ever captured on film, established the entire setup as well as the protagonist (Heston) in just over two minutes of daring, swooping crane moves, accompanied by an unforgettable theme by Henry Mancini.

"I've always regretted that they put titles over it, because it was meant to be done in the clear, with the titles at the end of the movie. It's a shame to see stuff written over something that's important," lamented the director years later. Fortunately, the titles were removed for the 1998 theatrical and DVD re-release of the film.

Welles loved the opening, but was more enamored with a sneakier piece of uninterrupted filmmaking, shot on the first day of production. "There's, technically, a much more difficult crane shot...it runs almost a reel, and it's in the Mexican boy's apartment — it's in the three rooms where the dynamite is found in the bathroom and all that," remembered Welles. "It has inserts and long shots and medium shots and everything. We had breakaway walls."

The principal cast, terrific for a film of its budget, also included Janet Leigh as Inspector Vargas' loving wife, a damsel in distress, Dennis Weaver as a slightly askew motel clerk, and Marlene Dietrich, one of Welles' oldest friends in show business, as a broken down fortune teller named Tanya.

It's Tanya who delivers the classic line to Quinlan that many have also applied to the last quarter century of Welles' career: "You haven't got any (future). It's all used up."

When Touch of Evil was released as the B picture of a double feature in early 1958 in the United States, it had an unspectacular run supported by very little publicity. The film did win Grand Prize at the Brussels World’s Fair film festival and performed well in Europe. Said Welles, "It's made quite a bit of money, according to Chuck Heston, who owns a piece of it."

The little B movie that Universal was afraid of is today regarded as one of the best examples of American film noir ever made. In 1993, five years before the Universal restoration of the film that took into account 58 pages of Welles' notes on how the film should be edited, the National Film Registry selected it for preservation. That restoration, along with Hitchcock's Vertigo (also originally released in 1958), stand as the most valuable examples of the practice.

The new version of Welles' troubled noir gave it new commercial and critical life. The re-release finally made the film a box office hit. Time Out, the British publication, has since ranked Touch of Evil No. 8 on a list of the all-time greatest movies, while Sight and Sound, the publication that first heralded Citizen Kane as the greatest film ever in 1962 (a rank it held for five decades before dropping to No. 2 in 2012), has it listed at No. 26 on their most recent poll of filmmakers.

Touch of Evil was the last film Welles ever made for an American studio.