Category Archives: Film

Deconstructing a New Criticism

 

Willie Osterweil declares the Hollywood system dead. Long live the Hollywood system.

Film editor Willie Osterweil proposes a new type of criticism on The New Inquiry,  one that is more egalitarian and eschews  the director/marketing complex of  an industry that sells movies like Juno the same way it sells movies like Transformers. Except, the concepts hes puts forth aren’t new, or that his jabs at sacred cows undermine his delivery of the message he’s making, along with the message itself.

1.

He starts with a classic film student break play.  It starts with a Cahiers du Cinema pass, a couple of dribbles from Herzog to Kar Wai Wong before setting up for his kill shot, his “film current” idea. This is his description of the concept:

“A manufactured zeitgeist, a false urgency sustained by the barrage of advertisement, conversation, and criticism about a movie that creates a sense that films reflect their cultural moment.”

He bemoans the way the current’s whitewater crushes any ounce of true criticism due to marketing tricks blinding critics and moviegoers. It’s a bloated idea that is best dissected using the word zeitgeist. By saying that there exists a constructed “spirit of the age”,  he assumes that the ones before it were completely organic structures or that the entirety of moviegoers then were any less easily captivated by mediocre or bad films as they are now.

 

His attempt in convincing us to destroy the use of film critics shows how much farther down he is in the currents of reality, let alone a film one. His choice of letting the people choose and comment on a movie instead of the experts is a foolish one. People are easily swayed in the age we live in now. He should read up on how companies in other industries use Search Engine Optimization and social media to go past the critics and drive their marketing at the doorstep of the consumer. Criticism is, in many respects, a dead thought killed by the crowd-sourcing reviewers Osterweil is hoping will come (Hint: they’re already here, and they give us homogenized crap).  He needs to read up on Christopher R. Weingarten’s attacks on the new democratic system in music criticism today.

2.

On to the manufactured part of his idea – Crash is a mediocre movie at best.  Whether by marketing ploys or by undeserved accolades, he thinks it’s a no-brainer to see its flaws. His complaint is a nicer way of saying, “Here, here! This is bad!, Why are you watching it?”

That is a complete waste of time.  To think that Crash made every single review on the movie, and by effect on race relations, have merit or effect is asinine. You can go through forums throughout the internet and see comments on the movie that boil down to “This movie portrays white guilt!” or “This movie shows how racist you are!” It sounds eerily similar to the way sports fans or political junkies talk. That is how human nature works, Mr Osterweil, through mob mentalities that aren’t going away anytime soon.

As far as his beloved “sheeple”, at this point of Crash’s legacy, it is already showing signs of general disdain and is easily forgotten. This is not only from critics, but the masses as well. Go ahead, Google “most overrated Oscar winners”; I’ll wait.  As for Slumdog Millionaire, we’ll see how well it fares in a few years. With critics like Salman Rushdie at the top of an already large number of Indians slamming it for its depiction of poverty tourism, that will wash away like anything else in his current, with almost no trace of it left behind. The bears will always catch and eat the weakest salmon, no matter what part of the current they are at.

3.

He then takes a  stand in rooting for the entire production crew of a movie instead of the director, a  form of  Marxist theory with a spotlight on the real Hollywood proletariat instead of the cinematic one in, say, Battleship Potemptkin.  Another example at an attempt of creating a new form of criticism, the Schreiber theory proposed by David Kipen, barely any meat to it as well.

As for his use of statistics to show the horrible disconnect between the working masses behind the sets and the uber-auteur, let’s go back to music. The BLS has their total at 240,000. Another industry, Authors, writers, and editors have 281,300 . Now, off the top of your head name as many as you know in each profession. I’m sure it will be as comparable to the 200 Osterweil mentions in his manifesto. He’s making exceptions for an “exploitative labor relation” that happens in many industries, which makes his pseudo- “power to the people” idea very stale. Don’t bring numbers to a fact-checking fight.

4.

It is true that many directors develop a cult of personality using the umbrella of the auteur mystique without really deserving them. What he fails to see is that directors themselves eventually lose their power, just like the rest of us. Film-makers like Scorsese keep theirs for longer while others like Shyalaman grind it away outright.

Osterweil concentrates on Nolan as his sacred cow/red herring to slaughter. His mention of Batman Begins as “a historical footnote” makes no sense in that Nolan’s use of an existing intellectual property in a different way led to The Dark Knight, one of the best action movies in a long time. That led to the casting of great actor (in this case Heath Ledger as the Joker) whose performance blew away almost all iterations of the character. To see a skilled actor like Ledger work on The Dark Knight and putting his all into it is a testament to both men, not just the director.

He also blames Nolan in failing to use his clout to push the envelope. Nolan is not as powerful as a producer/director like Steven Spielberg, who can do whatever he wants. His studio might have wanted to cast DiCaprio instead of someone Nolan thought fit the role better and lost that fight. They might have attempted to release the movie in 3D and hastily slap them in the shots and he won that one. No one is completely invulnerable to an industry owned by five major companies that have ruled the industry with an iron grip since day one. That’s why the indie film scene exists, Mr. Osterweil. If you don’t like being put down by the cinema “Man”, there are other ways of appreciating and hyping the movies that you like. Go use some of that newfangled social media idea to go around the big studios.

5.

His comparison to Nolan with Michael Bay is clearly made to make a false polemic. That’s when you can start to notice his internet trolling at work. Read his article on technology enslaving us. He writes fourteen paragraphs to say what my high school chemistry teacher said on my calculator use: The machine is only as good as its user. All the small bites he makes in both his manifesto and that article show a severe lack of perspective on his part and a propensity to develop a florid, grandiose way of presenting incredibly simple ideas. All he wants from the reader is to make an educated response to make his criticism relevant to the discussion. It isn’t, mainly because it’s full of tired gripes and poorly used tactics on people who really know what they’re talking about. Osterweil needs to learn from Armond White: If you’re going to troll, do it right.

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What I Really Want To Do On My Birthday ( A Self-Indulgent Wikipedia Facts Poem)

Saludo al coraje de los hombres de Puebla en esta dia,

But what I really want to do today

is go to Saint Helena  and throw a party in Napoleon’s cell,

and just to piss his spirit off,

 fly back to the States,

  and throw an original Memorial Day in our Waterloo.

When I get tired, I’ll make the trip international,

go to Ethiopia, see the second coming of  Haile Selassie,

have him lend me a few minutes to sit on his throne

  as he puts Kublai Khan’s crown on my head

while Marx takes my oath of office with my hand over On the Origins of Species,

before I throw it at William Jennings Bryan’s head before his opening statement.

Once I become a one-day king,

I’ll send a package of loaded Iranian guns to Oliver North’s house

snitch on his ass and laugh with my friends

as  the ATF arrests him on Fox News.

After the antics, go bar-hopping with Kierkegaard

 in a free West Germany,

get arrested with Sacco and Vanzetti after too many drinks,

and if I get too rowdy, take a caning on the ass by Singaporean dancers.

I want to start a one-man riot in Greece

just to get an article written by Nellie Bly and Bryan Williams.

I want to rock out to a band with me on guitar,

 Ian McCulloch and Adele on vocals,

 Bill Ward on drums,

and have the album produced by Delia Derbyshire.

I want to take acting lessons from Roger Rees,

 John Rhys-Davies, and Lance Henriksen

just so I can kick Henry Cavill out of his Superman gig.

And then, right before I go to sleep,

wave at Alan Shepard along con mi familia

as Mercury-Redstone 1 blinks its way  across the night.

– Note: I just wrote this and cleaned it up five minutes before midnight West coast time while  sober. Go me.

Top Five Go-To Sci-Fi/Fantasy Actors/Actresses

Science fiction and fantasy in TV and movies are always going to have your mainstay actors or actress who connect with the story and the fans and constantly get gigs in those genres. Sure, sometimes they get typecast, but many are just so damn good at that one spot, it doesn’t matter. Let’s get started on the Top Five “Go-To” SF/Fantasy Actors and Actresses:

Sigourney Weaver –  Weaver was James Cameron’s first pick for the Dr. Augustine character in Avatar,  years after they made Alien together back in ’79. It doesn’t stop there: she’s also been in other greats like Ghostbusters and Galaxy Quest. Hell, add the voice work she’s done on other sci-fi shows and movies like Wall-E and Futurama, and you can’t deny that she’s still the reigning queen of sci-fi.

Sam Rockwell– Full disclosure time: Sam Rockwell was kinda the reason I came up with this after he basically admitted he was playing Bill Paxton’s character in Aliens for the aforementioned Galaxy Quest. That aside, he’s been in Moon, Iron Man 2, The Green Mile, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and even a head thug in the live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie from ’90. He’s also in the upcoming Cowboys and Aliens movie, so it’s not like he’s shying away from the sci-fi anytime soon.


Keith David Most geeks will remember him as a go-to for John Carpenter flicks, playing the irritable Childs in The Thing or beating the crap out of Roddy Piper in They Live, but if you look deep in his IMDB file, you’ll see that he has been ridiculously prolific in both genres, especially in voice work. I mean, he’s he voice of Goliath from Gargoyles, the cat in Coraline,  and numerous characters from DC/Marvel animated movies and shows. Go down the video game path, and he’s the voice of The Arbiter from the Halo series, Cpt. Anderson in the Mass Effect series, and his voice is even in the first Fallout game. he’s textbook “go-to” if you want a commanding voice for a character.


Tricia HelferOh, Number Six. She’s definitely done other things since BSG, but since she made her big break on the seminal Syfy show, she hasn’t stopped making moves in the genre. Like Keith David, she’s done voice work for Halo, Mass Effect, and comic book-based media, but she’s also jumped on as the voice of Kerrigan for Starcraft 2. Hey, if you’re gonna need someone to play a sci-fi femme fatale, she’s the one getting a lot of calls now.


Jeff Goldblum Oh c’mon, you knew this was coming. While he’s doing the genre stuff as much now, Goldblum was seriously owning it from ’78”s Invasion of the Body Snatchers to ’97”s The Lost World: Jurassic Park. He’s been an entomological freakshow and an alien-beating hacker. All Hail Goldblum.

Honorable Mentions

Joe Morton
Chiwitel Ejiofor
Peter Mensah
Kurt Russell
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Bill Paxton
Sam Neill
Milla Jovovich
Michael Dorn
Hugh Jackman
Claudia Black

Panels to Popcorn: A Look at Comic Book Movie Adaptations

At some point, whether it’s been you or someone you know, this scenario has occurred after walking out of a theater after watching a movie adapted from a deeply loved comic book/graphic novel: Arms are up in the air.  Ham-fisted lines from the movie are repeated, dripping with sarcasm and ridicule. Every other sentence starts with “But in the original…” and “He (or she) could have been so much better if…” and it continues this way until eventually the disappointment and rage culminates into a long moan, decrying that the  Hollywood machine has again torn apart and whip-stitched together their favorite story and placed nipples on it, or worse.

This, of course, isn’t new to the average bibliophile; even at the literary novel level, nerds as famous as Salman Rushdie weighed in on why so many books don’t  make for good movies. But for many it seems like it should be different with comics, as they are a visual medium by design, and many filmmakers like to see them as ready-made storyboards for a movie. There is more to it however, and by looking at a couple of examples you’ll see that there are many ways to tackle this type of production.

The first thing to mention is that most moviegoers have been tricked: they’ve seen more comic book adaptations than they care to admit. Sure, not all of them are cape and tights affairs like the Spider-Man and Batman movie series, but there has been accolades for movies like A History of Violence and The Road To Perdition, the latter being an adaptation of one of comic-book writer Frank Miller’s favorites, Lone Wolf and Cub. Even on the more fantastical and blockbuster approach, there have been movies like The Crow and Men In Black, both originally comic books, which have become so wildly popular from their movie adaptations that most fans don’t even know that there was a source material.

On the topic of source material, the idea of the letter and the spirit should be, in theory, what drives any adaptation to a certain degree. Omissions or artistic liberties for the sake of cost or vision will occur, like in any other movie production. It is only in keeping to the comic that the chances a movie becomes another serious misfire like Batman and Robin, CatwomanThe League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Fantastic Four and Ghost Rider is diminished.  These are all movies which, when viewed, look as if they threw the source material out the window in order to appease a miscast star actor or to fulfill some sort of fan-fiction fantasy in celluloid form.

With that in mind, let’s go back to Frank Miller. He’s gotten a bit of buzz outside the comic world since he and Robert Rodriguez made what was a shot-by-shot remake of his own Sin City comics on the silver screen to rave reviews on all fronts. However, Miller being Miller, he didn’t stop there and tried his luck with adapting Wil Eisner’s seminal The Spirit. Like his own most recent comic work, it was not well-received, mostly because he forgot that unlike Sin CityThe Spirit wasn’t ultra-violent noir, but a pulp comic. You would think that he, being good friends with the late Eisner, would know that, but it seems like his own ego got in the way of making a good movie.

That’s not to say that a movie made slavishly panel-by-panel from the comic is a guaranteed critical success on either front. For example, look at Watchmen. Director  Zack Snyder was incredibly faithful to the comic, from the visual production that literally took notes from original artist Dave Gibbons down to the use of songs in particular scenes, placed in reference to Alan Moore’s own use of music in his own work. Snyder’s previous movie had also been a shot-by-shot comic-book adaptation, 300, one that fit his hyper-stylized visual style and use of slow motion action scenes.

While that was enough for a sword-and-sandals movie, Snyder could only use that to cover the ultra-violent slow-motion action scenes in Watchmen, while his attempt of  faithfulness to the comic still missed a good deal of the characterization and a depth that Moore filled his story. Instead, it seemed as if he padded it with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for a Snyder-styled sex scene and a whole slew of inappropriate soundtrack bites in his attempt make it true to the source. Despite the mixed reviews on both the film and comic critics’ fronts, the movie has been a success, but it does go to show that no matter how devoted to the source material a director is, they will still make decisions that are not congruent with the source.

Adapting a story from its core and omitting certain parts, when done in the right hands, can prove to make the better decision. Going back to A History of Violence, the screenplay written by Josh Olson is a vast departure from the graphic novel (director David Cronenberg hadn’t even heard of the graphic novel until later in production), yet still keeps to the basics of a man hiding from a horrible crime-ridden past and its effects on his family in a small Midwestern town. The movie also gets a lot of casting decisions right with Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, and Ed Harris who all make great performances. Then again, this movie is one of the lucky ones, as the graphic novel’s obscurity and ability for wide cinematic appeal make it a rarity.

How do you do that for comics with either the potential for wide appeal like Kick Ass or the fan boy credibility of Scott Pilgrim? Those two are of course pointed out because they have been recently released and are widely different comics to boot. First, let’s look at Kick-Ass. Despite comic writer Mark Millar’s own over the top pandering, he actually made a smart move by going a route similar to that of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick when they made 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Millar worked concurrently with director Matthew Vaughn, writing the script and the comic at the same time. Clearly this was always part of his plan, as he optioned the comic  to Universal before  the first issue had even hit comic book stores. Say what you will about the comic (Chris Sims over at ComicsAlliance is definitely not a fan), the movie actually takes a story that is basically heroic violence porn and made enough changes in the source material to make a fun, humorous take on the superhero genre.

The story is the same for Scott Pilgrim vs. World, as writer/artist Byran Lee O’Malley helped Edgar Wright and Michael Bacall with their adapted screenplay while he was still working on the Scott Pilgrim series of graphic novels. What actually makes this production interesting is in how O’Malley took lines from the screenplay and put it in the comic. Even the Gideon Graves character in comic was heavily influenced by Jason Shwartzman’s portrayal of him in the movie. The word “organic” is used far too many times when describing creative processes, but in this case, it’s a pretty accurate description.

When reality sinks in, however, both movies had a mixed box office reception at best (at least of Kick-Ass), or in the case of Scott Pilgrim overshadowed by movies that grab a wider audience or by ludicrous criticisms of sexism. No matter how someone makes the movie, most comic-book adaptations only get as successful as Ghost World or the Hellboy movies, which barely made enough to cover its budget, but became a cult hit to a niche audience. While it does make perfect sense to make an indie movie out of an indie comic, the truth is most studios are trying to make the next The Dark Knight. With the amount of comic-book adaptations that are on their way, there’s a good chance it might happen, but the law of averages can easily make it so that one movie will send us all back to Schumacher country again.

What is a director/producer/writer to do to make sure that doesn’t happen?  There are two options available now. One is to take an existing A-List character from the Big Two and hope to God that they can find the balance between making a fun movie and a faithful one, lest they get destroyed by both fan boys and the public. The other is to find an indie comic and work under-the-radar to make something unique, and maybe get some critical and financial success, but live on as a 3AM TV favorite for small audiences. New filmmakers need to find a real third option where both of those two are executed. Some are already trying it now, but as moviegoers, we need to support the good ones. That’s the only way we can make more of them happen.

Top Fives Movies That Need A Sequel

Most people complain about the ridiculous measure of remakes and reboots modern movies in the last decade, but they always overlook another of the classic annoyances: the sequel. There have been hundreds of movies that have had sub-par or downright god-awful ones that some people go so far as to forget they exist (I’m looking at you, Matrix sequel denialists). However, there are some that you watch and you hope that someday, someone with a last name  not Lucas will come and continue the story. Read the rest of this entry

Heavy Rain and the New Cinematic Experience

My friends and I watched Quantic Dream‘s latest, Heavy Rain for the last couple of days. I say “watch” for this, a PS3 game, because in reality only one of us played it while the rest watched what happened on the screen. This is not an entirely new phenomenon in my group of friends; we had done the same for games like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Batman: Arkham Asylum. what made this one much more interesting to me was that, as a lover of film and the way the medium works, it was really amazing to see how work normally used for film-making could really be applied to video games, and how that in turn can change the way we as gamers play games. Read the rest of this entry

Top Five Guilty Pleasure Movies

Normally I run the entire show for my T5s, taking in suggestions and going through it myself. This time, however, called for an expert in the matter, someone far better than myself. Enter my friend, Chris “Toph” Puglia. Mr. Toph has towers of DVDs taller than him filled with movies of very questionable caliber, which I  have criticized him for in the past. A week ago I called on him to give me his kingly advice on this from the throne he has now made with his movies. Without further ado: I give you Toph (Big warning: this article is heavily laden with profanity and one borderline use of a racial slur):

When Jesus asked me to do a guest blog entry on my Top 5 Guilty Pleasure Movies, I was excited. Declaring me the “King of Guilty Pleasure Movies”, I wasn’t sure whether to be honored or offended. I’ll freely admit that I like a lot of movies most people would consider BAD. I like to think that it’s because I can see the good in movies while ignoring the bad. Or I just have horrible taste in movies, I’m not sure which. Read the rest of this entry

Movie Review: Avatar

So the time has finally come and 2009 is letting out one final push this weekend with James Cameron’s Avatar.  Let me first start this off by saying that I have been waiting  for god knows how long for him to submerge from his underwater adventures and finally get back to do the thing we all wanted him to do,  which is making movies. Well, I’m glad he’s back, because Avatar was honestly a good return for him and a good movie for the masses. Warning, minor/major spoilers ahead.

In case you don’t know the story, let me break it down in a way that you can picture it: imagine the premise of The Last Samurai mixed with some Fern Gully and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Our protagonist, Jake Sully (played decently by Sam Worthington)  jumps into an alien/human hybrid in the stead of his dead brother. Then, he gets lost and captured by the Na’vi, the dominant alien race filled with warriors and hunters and alien horses that still look like horses, oddly enough. In the  line of Kevin Costner and Tom Cruise before him, he takes to their ways and fights back against the evil military/corporate  goons that are trying to destroy them to get to a mineral deposit ( that they literally called unobtainium in this movie. Wow.) Truthfully, this movie’s story and plot is a B-, at best. The only thing going for it in this department is that everyone plays their part competently (in the case with  Worthington and Zoe Saldana  as Neytiri) or downright good ( Sigourney Weaver as Dr  Grace Augustine. and  Giovanni Ribisi as Parker the slimly corporate goon).

Honestly, where this movie really shines is, undoubtedly, in the visuals. I watched it in 3D, with some trepidation mind you, as I don’t really see how it adds to the experience for most movies. Cameron went out of his way to make sure that it did, however. Halfway through the movie I stopped noticing it and was just engrossed by how well done it was integrated into the movie. Pandora was stunning, although the wildlife was a bit peculiar at times (you can definitely tell what the director has been  doing for the last couple of years). From the Hallelujah Mountains to the Home Tree, the  locations created were an incredible sight. The true centerpiece was how well the capture was done on the actors when in their avatar forms. Granted, other movies have also done great work, but it does take something else to make 8 foot tall blue people move and look real. This is definitely true for when Dr. Augustine is in her avatar form; Weaver and Saldana really do  pop out from under the CG work.

As far as the Na’vi themselves, the aforementioned capture work made them very watchable, but thematically they weren’t too astounding. The Native American/African vibe they gave off was a bit overdone, and did add to an overall cliché feeling of this being just a space cowboys versus aliens epic.  I can understand why going with something that goes off the monoculture that hard would be good for a worldwide audience. Again, I think a more alien approach would have been more interesting, but with a 2 hour 40 minute run time, I don’t think the crowds would have enjoyed a treatise on Na’vi culture.The one interesting aspect of the world in of itself was the neural connectivity bit for the trees, but it gets treated more like an environmentalism trope than it does a cool alien concept.

Speaking of message, others have already been mentioning the whole imperialism/ white guilt fantasy aspect of this movie. I have in the past bemoaned the fact there is s severe lack of ethnic love in the sci-fi genre, but truthfully, I’m not going to go angry brown man on this movie. It would just seem silly to when the movie clearly doesn’t care about cultural divides anywhere past the “he’s a demon, kill him!” and “you are not one of us” lines. I’m not expecting sociopolitical insight from popcorn movies.

Overall, I’d have to say that Avatar was a movie that despite the tired story and plot, was completely saved and uplifted by amazing effects and an well-done world building. I am really interested in seeing the behind-the-scenes of this movie when it comes out, I want to see all the ideas and tricks involved with making this work. Whether this movie will be as revolutionary as they want it to be is anyone’s guess, but it will definitely get other studios thinking about the possibilities.