17 September 2009

It Can't Be Any Clearer, Can It?

The first job I ever had that I would actually say I LOVED was working at a store called Video Express. It was a local chain with three stores within a 15 mile radius. It was 1997 and some films, like Heat and Casino, came to the store on two VHS tapes. Our bread and butter were porn and children’s films-we must have had the entire Nickelodeon collection. Oddly enough, both types were the only VHS tapes that came in red and orange.

The new films would come in on Monday nights and I would take one of each home and dub them onto blank tapes so when I got back to school I’d have days and days of free content to watch. To maximize the number of films in the total collection, I recorded everything on SLP so I could get three films onto each tape. Those of you old enough to even know what SLP (and dare I say it, even VHS) means are probably cringing at the thought of the picture quality.

I’ve moved at least a dozen times since making these compilation VHS tapes (I’d say I had at least 70 or so), and for some nostalgic reason I’ve actually held onto a few of them. Last month, it was time to clean out the basement and make room for baby #2. In order to justify keeping the remaining tapes I popped in one into the VCR/DVD combo and watched and entire film that hadn’t physically been played in a VCR since the early 00’s. It was a compilation that included The Dreamlife of Angels, The Funeral and Wendigo. When was the last time you had to adjust tracking when watching a film?

Flash forward to last weekend. I ended up drunk in Justin’s living room and he asked me if I wanted to check out his new “entertainment system”. I think he actually called it “his new best friend”. It contained a Blu-Ray player and the most obscene television I’ve ever seen-a 40something inch Samsung LCD TV. Now, I’m not a big tech person at all. I still watch a 19” Apex tube television with one speaker and the aforementioned VCR/DVD combo. The thought of spending over a grand on a television actually makes me a little nauseous. Justin popped in The Dark Knight and I’d swear you could zoom into office windows during night scenes and see office furniture.

I’m mentioning this contrast not to rave about the picture quality, there’s nothing to argue about (as I mentioned in Episode #17). It’s unbelievable. And this is the point of the contrast. It’s too damned good. It’s better than human vision good. It’s unreal and takes me out of the film. This is the point. Back in the late 1990’s when I was renting pornography and Nickelodeon VHS tapes to customers, no one ever complained about the poor picture quality and how they wish something would be invented that was crisper and clearer than human vision.

But Samsung (or whoever) did it. And now my question is, what is next? I’ve read rumors about 3D televisions coming out (I’ll be the movie studios and theatres are doing everything they can to slow that down). But, what is next for picture quality? Are we done? Are plasma and LED televisions then end? How can it get any crisper and clearer? And why is The Dark Knight to Blu-Ray what The Matrix was to the original DVD players?

21 August 2009

Inglorious Basterds (2009)

My first reaction to Inglorious Basterds is to say I take back everything I said about Quentin Tarantino. To recant to those who never left his side and to take back with me those who had left when I did and vowed to never get excited about his films anymore. To those souls I say, “Trust me, it’s time to come back”.

I adopted the same mentality for Mr. Tarantino that I have towards Woody Allen-I’m glad they are both making films and I will catch up with them eventually…but there is no rush. Well, now there is a rush.

But here’s the thing, I’m not taking back anything. I still can’t watch Kill Bill again (I’ve tried) and I have yet to finish his Grindhouse film. So, I’m not the recanting critic. Instead I’m the re-enthused critic who is once again looking forward to many more films from the mind of Mr. Tarantino, especially if he makes another period piece - and Inglorious Basterds is a period piece.

First, my biggest criticism.

Mr. Tarantino is a lot like George Lucas. They both clearly have an encyclopedia of films knowledge. The problem is that their films end up feeling like they are made to exist inside of the film world they live in. That’s confusing.

Their films are so full of references, either by characters talking about films or by plot or characters just being from other films, that they feel like a copy of a copy. I mean, Martin Scorsese figures out how to integrate his obscene database of film references seamlessly into his entire body of work. And this only bothers me as much as it does, at least in the case of Mr. Tarantino, because I know he can write and direct a phenomenal scene (ex. anything in Jackie Brown that doesn’t contain Bridgette Fonda)

Second, the reasons to see this film.

The opening scene is such a textbook example of tension and suspense that I was smiling from ear to ear as I watched the interrogation that didn’t feel like an interrogation. Actually, it’s not textbook in a number of ways, which is why I loved it. A seemingly gentle farmer in the French countryside with three daughters is visited and questioned by a high ranking Nazi.

Yet, somehow, even with all of the film representations I’ve seen of Nazi’s and how much immediate hatred the swastika conjurs up, I found myself really looking forward to seeing what this character was going to do after this interrogation. I was literally on the edge of my seat as Col. Landa drank a glass of milk and then smoked his ridiculous pipe.

All the more terrifying to find out that the gentle farmer was in fact hiding his neighbors family in the cellar and then to watch the floorboards decimated with machine-gun fire. The fact that the farmer never looked guilty and that Col. Landa never really looked overtly evil speaks not only to the performers, but to the writer and director.

This just in: Brad Pitt is not the main character. I’m warming up to him as a performer, and as much as I laughed at his Lt. Aldo Raine, I was much more thrilled with the story of Shosanna Dreyfus, the woman who escapes from the celler and Col. Landa in the first scene and continues on with her life. After that ten minute opening scene, I want to know what this character is going to do.

So the way I saw the rest of the film play out was a battle between Col. Landa and Shosanna Dreyfus. The Basterds were in the film the way a romantic sub-plot will pop up in films, except, the Basterds were a much more welcome sub-plot. In looking at the film this way, the scene where Col. Landa discusses the logistics of the theatre with Ms. Shosanna (especially her reaction once he leaves) is absolutely devastating.

One last saving grace to the film is the period piece element. Mr. Tarantino is writing about a time period and events he never lived through, and I think that helped. There are still pop culture conversations about the movies of the day, but in the normal context in which that would pass as conversation. There is still a lot of musical cues, but not the “hey aren’t I hip” musical selections I felt were throughout the Kill Bill films. The dialogue and the music had to fit the period and they did.

More to come…

16 July 2009

The Context of Stars

So, my Dad loves to drag me to the big summer movies. I like drinking with my Dad so I go the movies with him in the summer with the caveat that we hit our favorite bar (Groucho's) beforehand. It’s located right near the most hideous of all the local multiplexes (a 16 screen Cinemark located inside a mall) so the experience is entertaining, even if the film is not. Knowing we were heading in to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, I ordered shots with our first beers. The quality of the movie is irrelevant to this conversation (as anyone who listens to the show knows my feelings about Mr. Bay) so the only thing I’ll say is that I found myself taking a walk down the cinema’s hallways trying to kill time after a bathroom break because trying to take a nap in a theatre showing that movie is impossible.

Cinemark, at least the ones in Cleveland, have an odd decorating style that ended up getting me to think about the context of stars in a way that I hadn’t. I’ve come of age watching films in an era that is arguably a low point for the art form-with the exception of the late 1990’s. There has been more and more product every year with less and less quality. The so called Golden Age of Hollywood has such a nostalgic tinge to it that I just assume that people going to the cinema on a weekly basis were having a blast watching the classics we now enjoy via DVD or the rare repertoire screening.

But were these films classics when they came out? Did people in the 1950’s look at Cary Grant the same way people look at Matthew McConaughey today? Some love him, some hate him and still others just don't care.

This is what Cinemark got me thinking about. In the hallway, there are posters up on the walls for all of the upcoming films of the summer and early fall. In between these are frames stills and headshots for stars of the past. So there is a poster for Battle for Terra next to Audrey Hepburn and Harry Potter is next to Sidney Poitier and GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra is next to a picture of the Rat Pack.

The combo that stopped me and sucked up ten minutes of my drunken thoughts was the combo of the poster for Ghosts of Girlfriends Past next to a nice headshot of Cary Grant.

My god, is Wooderson really comparable to Dr. Huxley?

The more I gave it some serious thought; I began to think that Cinemark was right. When my Grandma tells me about seeing Bringing Up Baby or North by Northwest, she never tells me about their box office success or failure. Mr. Grant was simply an actor who did some romantic comedy work and some action pictures and some thrillers and so on.

When I got home that night I looked at their IMDB profiles next to each other and became convinced that I actually had learned something by going to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen at Cinemark night. It’s all about context. I’m growing up with Mr. McConaughey the way my elders grew up seeing Mr. Grant. Just another star up on the screen entertaining us with their antics. The older ones have more of an untarnished image to people my age because all we know of them is their screen persona, not the awkward interview they gave to Jimmy Kimmel or that fat picture that was printed in US Weekly.
But, to my son, they will all be the same and he’ll have a new Mr. Grant/Mr. McConaughey that I’ll be bitching about.

21 June 2009

New Forms of Com-Docs

So Netflix has finally gotten their shit together and allowed us Mac users to watch films online, instantly! Actually, they started allowing us to watch instantly about 5 months ago. However, I've only really started to abuse this in the last few months. What has Aaron been spending his time watching? Never Forever? Cocaine Cowboys? Deliver Us From Evil? Back Door to Hell? Bad Guy?

Nope. I've been watching a type of documentary commonly called the concert film. Stand-up comedy concert films. I started out watching the old Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce and have moved onto current comedians (with the idea of catching them live next time they are in Cleveland). Doug Stanhope, Doug Benson, Joe Rogen, Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, Maria Bamford and the current king of stand-up (in my book) Zach Galifianakis.

In watching a few of these documentaries I began to notice a few trends that are different from the earlier concert films. Mainly the name of one man who is working behind the scenes as a director; Michael Blieden. Specifically, he directed the Doug Benson film Super High Me, the film & TV versions of The Comedians of Comedy and Joe Rogen: Live.

Super High Me has three parts. Part one, stand up comedy film showing off Doug Benson's style of comedy. Part two, behind the scenes in the "Alternative Comedy" scene. Part three, a look at the issue of partially legalizing pot in California. Joe Rogen Live is exactly what you'd expect-a live show of Joe Rogen's act. The enjoyment of this films is 100% predicated on whether or not you enjoy Rogen's sense of humor (which I don't), but is still a quality piece of documentary filmmaking.

The Comedians of Comedy documents the tour that Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, Maria Bamford and Zach Galifianakis did in the fall of 2004. Instead of playing in comedy clubs (with drink minimums) or on stage at theatres, they took their comedy to smaller venues/clubs that normally host indie label musical acts. The entire audience is standing for the whole show and the ticket prices are more affordable. This film is a favorite of mine as it mixes clips from their stand-up, skits that were performed off stage while on the road together and some insider scenes about how these four go about writing their material.

The film is Blieden's best work because it breaks new ground in Com-Doc filmmaking. If you are following around four comedians on the road, there is an interesting dynamic that I haven't seen in too many other Com-Docs. There is a form of friendly "one-upmanship" that takes place in several scenes, most notably when the three guys go out to eat at a local diner and take turns upping the ante on lame puns involving a bear (the sign that starts it says "Talk to the Paw").

So you get the standard behind the scenes, performance and hanging out footage, but, you also get a great skit show kind of comedy as well. It helps that all of these comedians are doing great and unique comedy. I just hope this format catches on.

25 May 2009

Outrage vs. Tyson vs. Anvil: The Story of Anvil

As listeners to the show are aware, I'm a documentary fanatic. In fact, when we transitioned the show from public access television to the Interweb air waves, there was a brief debate of reworking the show to only cover documentaries as I've never run across a podcast with that format. Justin told me to "go fuck myself" and that was the end of the debate.
So last week I as in my element when I got to see three press screenings in one day of upcoming (at least for the Cleveland area) documentaries, Outrage, Tyson and Anvil: The Story of Anvil. Outrage is Kirby Dick's latest project. Tyson is James Toback's second documentary. Anvil: The Story of Anvil is the directorial debut of Sacha Gervasi. All three are quite different and I couldn't help but think of Episode #4 where I tried to hash out documentary genres with Justin.

Outrage has the feel, look and style of an investigative journalism project. Kirby Dick just happens to use a video/film camera instead of a computer. He interviews columnists, bloggers, friends, lovers and co-workers about closeted politicians who vote against their own best interests. Larry Craig and Charlie Crist are the main subjects of the film, but there are a host of others in the mix. There is even a fascinating, if brief, look at what the wives' of these men go through. By far the most intriguing interview subject is former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey and his ex-wife. Jim McGreevey held a press conference (in 2008 I think) in which he not only resigned as Governor, but came out of the closet too. The film has the feel of a prime time news show that you will never see on any channel (and this lack of coverage in the media is addressed as well) and keeps you watching for the sheer exhilaration of "I had no idea!" and "Who's next?". It's the film equivalent of reading a really well written blog/article. It's not The Celluloid Closet caliber of filmmaking, but it is close. This film falls into the Journalism Documentary category.

Now, Tyson is a different kind of film altogether. I have zero interest in boxing. In fact, I've never watched an entire boxing/wrestling/mixed-martial arts match in my life. I also have zero interest in Mike Tyson. I watched this film only because Justin saw it at the Cleveland International Film Festival this past March. When coming out of the film, he told me nothing of the plot or structure, he simply said, "I cried three times."
My curiosity alone told me I had to check out this film. While I didn't cry during the film, I did have a roller coaster ride of emotions. Everything from this man is quite articulate to this man is an insane animal ran through my head. Mike Tyson narrates his life story with a mix of archival footage illustrating this story. Very simple and very engaging. This film definitely falls into the Biography Documentary category.
And now for one of my favorite films of 2009. Another Biography Documentary. Anvil: The Story of Anvil. I had the same emotions going into this film as I did with Tyson-I have zero interest in heavy metal music and on top of that, I'd never heard of Anvil. Turns out, anyone who shares those feelings will still enjoy this documentary.

It also provides an emotional roller coaster experience similar to Tyson. During one scene, I'm laughing at the ridiculousness of the Eastern Europe tour that Anvil is attempting. Then the next scene has me tearing up as the band members talk about their broken dreams and the hardship of being musicians whose chosen genre (Metal) is no longer in vogue. It's a breezy 89 minutes of film, but it packs quite a punch in that short length. If anyone reading this has seen Some Kind of Monster (the Metalica documentary from a few years back), you will love, love, love, love this film. Justin and I will be discussing this film at greater length on the show, so I'll save any more comments for that episode. Also, I think the less you know about this film, the more fun you'll have. My last thought will be this - keep and eye out for the This is Spinal Tap! references (I counted four), they are hilarious. This film falls into the RockDoc genre with a little bit of Biography throw in for context.

As you may have noticed by this point in this article, it is a companion piece to the previous one about The Other Summer Films. Take a break from the mindless popcorn action event of the week and check out some high quality documentary storytelling.

04 May 2009

The Other Summer Movies

Maybe it is the byproduct of working at an art house theatre and seeing the attendance drop off year after year as the "Summer Movie Season" begins, but I'm starting to get fed up. Regulars who come to the theatre week after week disappear for a few months as they soak up all the latest and "greatest" Hollywood has to offer. Once they finally return, conversations always take place about how bad these event films continue to be.

Sure, there are some exceptions to this statement, The Dark Knight comes to mind, but most of the "Summer Movie Season" goes through the same cycle year after year. It's similar to the "Fall Movie Season" in which there is buzz about how amazing and award worthy films are. Remember last year when The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Doubt were "shoe-in's" for all the major awards? All the hype leading up to X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Terminator Salvation telling us how huge and awesome they are going to be, I'm sure they will end up with terrible reviews and generate only a handful of die hard fans.

So, while the Hollywood box office is covered as if it were news and films grossing $80 million in one weekend are looked on as "disappointments", there are always great films that go by unnoticed. There is a whole host of interesting, if not downright amazing films, that are being independently released and not finding the audience they deserve, until the DVD's are passed around. Here are some recommendations that range from interesting to downright mind-blowing. They are sure to give you a much better film diet over the next few months.

The Other Summer Movies.

The Brothers Bloom
Away We Go
Lemon Tree
Anvil: The Story of Anvil
Food Inc
500 Days of Summer
In The Loop
Paper Heart
Dead Snow
The Hurt Locker
The Cove

27 April 2009

Contemporary Adult Cinema

If you look at the box office charts every weekend, which I do, there is one trend that is immediately obvious week in and week out. The bread and butter of Hollywood is the teenager with a part time job/parents with money who have nothing better to do that go the theater every weekend, sometimes more than once. Now also consider that when you hear a quick recap of the weekend box office on CNN or Fox News or where ever, you only hear about the top three, sometimes only the top film. The emphasis is on breaking records. If something breaks a record, it's reported on in a tone of bewilderment and amazement.

Enthusiastic female voice-For the third week in a row, The Dark Knight holds onto the number one spot at the box office as it heads into the history books as the top grossing film of 2008, possibly of all time.

Then there are some numbers thrown out about Titanic and Gone with the Wind (if they take the time to adjust the numbers for inflation) and how much more The Dark Knight will have to make to beat these records. There is a larger debate here about the need to report these number rather than report about the ACTUAL FILMS THEMSELVES, but I will save that for an episode of The World of Cinema, because I think rants work best when you can hear the person getting worked up and angry.

The point of this piece is that, looking down this well publicized list, there are other trends besides the teen crowd making financial success out of lowest common denominator films. You just have to look past the top films that automatically get the headline story.

Tops Films at Box Office in 2009 (Past 6 weeks)
17 Again (PG-13)
Hanna Montana The Movie
Fast & Furious (PG-13)
Monsters Vs. Alien (PG)
Race to Witch Mountain

The point of this is also not an argument for the quality of any film. Just an under reported trend that I have been enjoying for the past few years, but without noticing it until just recently.

Contemporary Adult Cinema

I had a strong urge to see the film State of Play, because I'm a sucker for any film that takes place in a newspaper setting. Yes, even The Paper, even though I know I'm not supposed to mention any of his films (See the 2008 Yearbook episode for more information). Newspaper reporting is a job I was always interested in, attempted briefly in college, but didn't really have the skill set for. So I enjoy a film about it from time to time. Sometimes they are good, but mostly they are just average and forgettable.

Shattered Glass intrigued me enough that I went to see it opening day and watched it one more time that Sunday night. This meant that knowing its writer/director
, Billy Ray, was also a screenwriter on State of Play was enough to get my ass to the theater. I knew of Mr. Ray's involvement and that it was directed by the guy who made The Last King of Scotland and that he came from a documentary background, but I could not even remember his name before the film.

Once the credits came up and I learned not only who was in the film, but who helped put the film together. My brain started to make a fractal map, connecting together all the films of Billy Ray, Tony Gilroy and Kevin Mcacdonald together with State of Play in the middle. It began to expand on my way home to include other films in recent memory.

State of Play is like the Greatest Hits compilation of the world of Contemporary Adult Cinema. It's like the Adult Contemporary Music charts - full of crappy, unoffensive, pseudo ballads dripping with cliched, greeting card sentimentality. Films that fall into this category usually; are directed by men, based on a book or play, contain some strong central female character, contain a buddy relationship for levity, involve an "everyman" kind of character (the main male star), have the main character inadvertently caught up in a mystery beyond his control that he ultimately triumphs over by the end (although his death is not out of the question-usually in martyr kind of way).

I personally like a lot of the films I'm about to list because the last main element these films present is an elaborate conspiracy. Be it a corporate or government conspiracy, I don't much care, as long as rich white men are portrayed as evil people and trying to control us all, I'm on board (See the Zeitgeist and the Internet Documentary episode for more information).

As you read through the list keep the following in mind:
-Ignore the box office for these films, just look at content.
-Ignore the success of failure of the films source material, if it is an adapted screenplay.
-Most are PG-13 (in order to not loose any potential teen money)
-The R rating is almost always used as a form of street cred
-All of these films are aimed at working adults/parents (21 and up)

State of Play (PG-13)
The Last King of Scotland (R)
Flightplan (PG-13)
Shattered Glass (PG-13)
Duplicity (PG-13)
Michael Clayton (R)
The Bourne Trilogy
Proof of Life (R)
Lions for Lambs (R)
The Kingdom (R)
Blindness (R)
The Constant Gardener (R)
The Interpreter (PG-13)
Angels & Demons (PG-13)
Frost/Nixon (R)
The DaVinci Code (PG-13)
Charlie Wilson's War (R)
The Sentinal
Revolutionary Road (R)
Vantage Point
Body of Lies (R)
Milk (R)
Nothing But the Truth (R)
The Contender (R)

I encourage anyone to go to a matinee after the first weekend of any future films like this (Endgame is my recommendation), preferable at a huge multiplex in a mall. See who you are watching the film with. Middle aged women in small groups and lot and lots of seniors.

And me.

07 April 2009

Woodstock (1970)

I bought this film in VHS form when it was a two-cassette edition. I believe it was almost four hours long, according to the box. Unfortunately, a flooded basement claimed the tapes before I could watch them. Cut to 11 years later and I successfully check out the single DVD from the local library and watched the entire film, twice. This week.

This is one of those rare viewing experience that I know everyone has at least a dozen or so times in their life. Lets say you get about half way through a film, and you are really, really enjoying it. You're almost bouncing in your seat (I did that with this film). You hope it stays on course and finishes strong because it's already starting to feel like one of those films you will go back to again and again. One of those films you'll pass around to your friends telling them they're missing out if they haven't seen this gem. You are actually watching a film that you know is going to be one of your favorite films you've ever seen. That happened to me with Woodstock.

I'm admittedly biased towards liking this film. The late 1960's thru late 1970's is THE era that I wish I'd lived thru, so any kind of documentary about the culture, politics, music, film or literature from that era is going to catch my interest. This documentary also had a very young, very 'coked up', Martin Scorsese as an editor, so my interest is further piqued. It also is about four hours long, which speaks to the exhaustive nature of the coverage of the festival. It probably could have been nine hours long.

The cinematography is consistent thru all the performances, often capturing one entire song in one long take. A split screen (sometimes up to four and five images at once) is used instead of cutting away. This way we can see close up shots of Roger Daltry, Pete Townsend and Keith Moon all on the screen at the same time as they rock thru the two minute breakdown at the end of "Summertime Blues". If this was all one shot, it would have to be from such a distance that we (the audience) would get none of the detail that makes the whole performance so amazing. In three separate close ups, we see that Townsend can play the guitar literally with his eyes closed, that Daltry dances around in a musical trance and Moon is drumming so intensely that the sweat is literally flying off him and looks like a sprinkler.

Better yet, take a performance that is all about one person, Jimmy Hendrix. As he plucks away at what is now his famous psychedelic guitar version of the Star Spangled Banner, the camera is a tight close up of this fingers as they effortlessly slide from fret to fret. The split screen is still used, but this time it simply duplicates the same image in a mirror effect. The visuals become as trippy as the music itself.

This last comment is the essence of why this is not only one of my favorite documentaries I've ever seen, but on the short list of great films I've ever seen. I do not play music. I've tried. I've tried three different instruments for long enough period of time each that I have a great respect for anyone who can successfully play anything above a kazoo. In about 90% of the performances caught on film for this documentary, those performers are clearly at the top of their game. The film conveys a sense of wonder, because of the long and unedited takes, in the ability of the musicians to play as good as they are. I imagine that some of this has to do with the sound of half a million fans cheering them on. I've done some live theatre and I can attest to the power of 200 people, so I can't even comprehend what Joe Cocker must have been feeling when he sang, "Help from my Friends", but I can come close by watching it within this film.

30 March 2009

33rd Cleveland International Film Festival

I hadn't added up the years recently, but this was my 15th time going to the festival. It has only been on the rise, in attendance and in prestige, since the 19th festival was held in 1995. More films, more filmmakers, more screens of content, more people, more press coverage and more discoveries.
I have only visited the sites and in some cases ordered a catalog from a handful of other festivals, but I've only attended the one in Cleveland. The past three or four years I've gotten hooked on watching video blogs and youtube post that people have made about several festivals (mainly SXSW and Telluride).
Having confessed my lack of personal experience with the environment and atmosphere around other festivals, I do know lots of people who have been to lots of festivals. I've heard personal experience stories from people who both went with their film and who just went to see films at; Slamdance, Palm Springs, Ann Arbor, True/False, Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, Sundance and Cannes.
In talking to these people, a lot of them filmmakers that I met at the Cleveland festival, I've had my suspicions confirmed-Cleveland has a very quality festival, and it's only getting better.
The catalog is available on their website (www.clevelandfilm.org) and if you'd like some recommendations, Justin and I are recording an entire show about what we saw and what trends seemed to emerge in the next few days, so it should be released in early April.
The main beauty of the festival is the location. Right in downtown Cleveland (which I love) and all at one 11-screen theatre. If you have the money and the time and a backpack full of food, there are 4 days when you can go from film to film to film from 9am until the midnight round and catch seven films in one day. The other 7 days of the festival you can only get in a mere 5 films per day, without ever leaving the same theatre complex.
If you want to skip a round you can walk to a Cavaliers game or upwards of 20 local bars that have overpriced drinks. Not to sound like the Cleveland Tourism Bureau, but it's a sweet location and we always have a blast.
Here are some past discoveries at the fest (some when on to quite a bit of acclaim):
Slaves to the Underground
Small Time
The Debt
Last Resort
Amores Perros
Paradox Lake
Kira's Reason
House of Fools
The Weather Underground
Seeing is Believing
Open Hearts
Madness & Genius
In the Realms of the Unreal
Last Life in the Universe
The Future of Food
The Educators

03 March 2009

Measuring a Year

The awards season has come and gone for yet another year, and this time, I thought about them in a slightly different way. Each calendar year, I pick a different time period of film history to seriously study and for 2009 I've chosen the American New Cinema movement of the late 1960's and most of the 1970's. I'm trying to reach beyond the obvious and readily accessible films of the era. Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Taxi Driver, The Godfather, The Exorcist and all the big names that are easily found with a Netflix or Wikipedia search are obviously part of this movement and I have watched all of these films at least three times each. However, every time period, every era has so much more to offer. This is where the awards season has changed its meaning to me just a bit.

In researching the era for the past two months, and watching four films I don't think I would have ever found otherwise, I'm convinced that some of the great films of all time are being forgotten. The awards have their place and are a handy way to give the public a quick five to six film list of what it considered the best of the year, however, as a film geek, I find it hard to whittle down my yearly list to just the usual format of the top ten list. There are so many more than ten great films in any/every calendar year that any such list is going to leave out several very important works. I realize that of the 600+ films put out by American studios in 2008, most are easily forgettable, in a strict film geek sense, but there is an argument that films like Never Back Down and Stomp the Yard are just as telling about our current culture as the best we have to offer from this year.

This is why the awards season takes on new meaning to me these days. I'm beginning to like the idea of a film time capsule for each year. It's not just about the great films (in the traditional sense of the term) that came out, but the massively successful films that aim for the lowest common denominator, like Speed Racer as well as the easy to ignore midrange film that came and went in two to three weeks and made a modest profit, like Step Up 2: The Streets. I guess the goal of the awards season is to create a benchmark of what "quality films" were produced in any given year, but that is so subjective that even professional critics can't agree on what this means. Try a Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes search for the five films nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars and you'll see that they are not the best reviewed films of the year. Why not try for a film time capsule instead?

Now, I'm mainly looking back at and watching films from 1967 to 1971 this month, so I've got the benefit of over 40 years of hindsight to apply to these films and see what holds up and what doesn't. Comedy's with lots of social in jokes (The Boatniks) hold up about as well as I'm sure Date Movie will in 40 years. However, smaller films like Scarecrow and The Panic in Needle Park hold up remarkable well. So the question becomes, what is the Scarecrow of 2008?

14 January 2009

Summer of Sam (1999)

Every few years it occurs to me that I should catch up on Spike Lee Joints. He is a filmmaker who has a very clich├ęd public persona that I know I should be ignoring and just pay attention to his films. I learn this lesson every few years when I catch up on his films. Summer of Sam from 1999 is no exception. In fact, it is quickly becoming one of my favorites.

For the purposes of this entry, we'll refer to Entertainment Weekly, Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, Us Weekly and all of those types of shows and publications as the "Entertainment Press". So, in the Entertainment Press, Spike Lee is always referred to as a Black Filmmaker. This notion seems funny to me since Steve Spielberg is never referred to as a White Filmmaker. By adding the race before the occupation, there is added baggage to think about. It's no longer just a film that a filmmaker made. The film is now first ranked within the cannon of "Black Films" or films about the Black Experience, not in the overall cannon of "Film" in general. Now, some of Spike Lee's films are obviously asking to be placed in the "Black Films" cannon (Malcolm X comes to mind immediately), but not all of them. Summer of Sam is one of these.

I read an interview with Spike Lee after he made Clockers that the part he enjoyed most in making that film was that he got to work with Martin Scorsese (he was a Producer on the film). Spike Lee had always admired his work and acknowledged that he had in fact "stolen" a lot from Martin Scorsese's films over the years. This was the quote that made me first seek out Spike Lee's films, as Martin Scorsese is one of my favorite working American directors. The similarities jumped right out as I watched older Spike Lee films; Joe's Bed-Sty Barber, She's Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing and most obvious of all Summer of Sam.

Without giving away too much of this film (it's box office numbers lead me to think that not too many people have seen it), the rock soundtrack, the varied types of film stock, the slow dollying camera, the flash cuts, the Italian-American neighborhood (and the larger setting of New York City) all could just as easily describe several Martin Scorsese films as well as Summer of Sam. However, this alone is not the reason so see the film. It is the acting. John Leguizamo, Adrian Brody, Mira Sorvino (daughter of Martin Scorsese regular Paul Sorvino) and Jennifer Esposito all turn in performances unlike anything they've done before. In addition, the plot amps up the tension as the film comes to a close as there is a crazed killer on the loose and everyone in the story has a legitimate reason why they thing they will be the next victim.

Also, it's one of those films that after you've seen it, you'll stop and watch the whole thing anytime you're flipping the channels and it's on.