The Newsroom is a Screwball Comedy and You Should Give it a Chance

Hello moviedebaters, I’d like to write to you about that silver screen that’s shrunk down in your living room and/or bedroom. That’s right, this is an article about television. In particular the fireplug television show that is The Newsroom. I’m writing this piece a few months after the last episode of the first season to eliminate spoilers but be advised: if you haven’t seen the show don’t read this article. Continue reading

Chris Marker 1921-2012

I have many filmmakers that I count among my favorites, but there are a select few that I count as my inspirations. Chris Marker was one my inspirations, even though I’ve only seen one film, which is only 26 minutes long, and consist of three elements: still photographs, sounds/musical score, and silence. The film, La Jetée, is everything that is amazing about experimental cinema and a textbook on the of the power of narrative simplicity.

La Jetée*
Even though it’s available online, seeing it on a big screen (or at least a big tv screen) with a good sound system is key to the film’s power. Fortunately Criterion has packaged a Blu-Ray and DVD version of La Jetée with Marker’s feature length Sans Soleil.

If you haven’t spent time in the world of Chris Marker, you are truly missing out.

*If you’re thinking that this feels familiar, you’ve probably watched 12 Monkeys, Terry Gilliam’s pseudo-remake of this same film.

Josh E.

Set Your DVR: TCM Remembers Ernest Borgnine 7/26

Ernest Borgnine has to be one of my favorite movie stars. I wanted to alert MD to the marathon of Ernest Borgnine films being shown on TCM on 7/26. For those with particularly full DVR’s (like myself) the can’t miss titles of the marathon are Marty, The Wild Bunch and Bad Day at Black Rock. Trailers are below. Happy DVRing!

Marty

The Wild Bunch

Bad Day at Black Rock

Enjoying the Deriviative

I want to elaborate on something I touched on in an earlier post. I said we live in a world of fan fiction and I think that’s hard to deny. As a recent relocatee to the New York City area it’s impossible not to be bombarded by ads for the next big thing, be it a new movie, TV show, website or play/musical. It’s hard not to notice how the biggest pop cultural events are derivative works. Broadway has been dominated by derivative works including the near-flop Spiderman musical. Not to mention all the revivals and film to Broadway adaptations now playing. The hottest book of the summer 50 Shades of Grey is literally a piece of fan fiction, written by James initially as a piece of Twilight fan fiction. Not to mention the mashups of classic novels and zombies/sea monsters/ aliens/ what-have-you.

The biggest and most impressive derivative work of the summer is the Avengers, which has made all of the money in the world this summer. It’s a whole mess of derivativity. The Avengers based on a comic book story that was based off of previously established characters (fan fiction defined). Not to mention it is the sequel to 4 superhero movies: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and Thor. Iron Man had it’s own sequel and the Avengers features the third actor to play the Hulk/Dr. Banner (after a remake of a poor adaptation by Ang Lee). After all this the Avengers comic book was Marvel Comic’s response to DC’s successful Justice League comic. Can one film get any more derivative? The short answer is yes. Loki and Thor are reestablished characters taken from Norse mythology. There’s hardly a frame of the Avengers that’s not derivative.

Hulk says movie is good.

This by no means these projects to be poor in quality. I enjoyed the Avengers and think it’s one of the better summer blockbusters in recent memory due to its playful tone and wonderful escapist quality. It means that as a criterion for cinema (in terms of quality) originality can’t be the deciding factor. I’m not going to argue whether or not we can be original in the post modern era, that’s not the point Originality is just not en vogue. As artists we should be focusing our attention on a much more important criteria of what is good–enjoyability and transcendence.

It should come as no surprise that movies are more than just entertaining things to watch. Some films cause emotional responses (be them repulsion or joy). We should let these be our guide. I have two different viewing experience when I watch the Avengers and when I watch Win Win, but that doesn’t mean I can’t watch them both. These films are both enjoyable, but in my opinion only one of them gets the emotional response that I want to have out of a movie. If you are satisfied with the pure adrenaline rush and fun laughs during the Avengers fantastic. I’m going to enjoy that film but it won’t be on my top ten list at the end of the year.

What do you think? Are there better examples of film that transcend the viewing experience or films that don’t need that because they are just that enjoyable?

Josh E.

Moving Beyond Genre

I am a Mad Men fan. I have tried to explain my Mad Men fandom to multiple people with no luck because Mad Men is such a specific show, it resists a one line explanation. Now I direct people to this great NY mag piece by Matt Zoller Seitz about what Mad Men is about. In a flustered attempt to catch up on Mad Men this concept kept coming back to me Mad Men is the without a genre.

Before we get to genre-less things we should try and get a handle on what genre actually is. Genre is often thought of as a way to classify films, after the fact. However it’s important to note that every viewer has a rolodex in their mind of genre conventions. We use these conventions in our mind to sort through elements of the movie. When a film that doesn’t follow these rules it is exhilarating because in part, it breaks with genre. An audiences acumen to accumulate rules is grand.

Genre is something that used to be easily defined: monster movies were horror films, funny films were comedies, and serious films were dramas. As audiences became aware of these genre became specific: the comedy got the romantic comedy and the screwball comedy and the generic ensemble comedy’ the scary film got separated into the sci-fi film the horror film and the thriller; and the serious films were separated into period pieces, and the normal dramas.

Then something happened. Genres began to (for lack of a better word) mate. It’s easy for me to say that we went entered the modernist/post-modernist era but that does leave out a lot of the practical side of the movie business.

This isn’t the first example of a genre bending film but it’s an example of an extremely profitable genre bending film. It was top ten in 1982. Audiences enjoyed the melding of action and comedy because it defied expectation. However Hollywood isn’t about defying expectation. The movie business is a business of copycats–because the combination of Eddie Murphy and your typical cop movie worked more of these genre bending films appeared. Including some action hits:

It also spawned wise-cracking cops in the 1980s actions scenes. Eddie Murphy continued with BHC1-3 and Bruce Willis joined the party as John McClane in 1988. This trend continued and evolved as audiences got bored with the buddy cop dynamic the industry started to blend other genres together:

From Dusk till Dawn is an excellent example of how genre bending can work and create an interesting movie and how limited it is. The first plays genre against you, which is what Tarantino does all of the time. It starts as a action/thriller with a relatively unproven George Clooney (first real film lead role) and Tarantino himself as cons running for the border when they stop at a vampire infested biker bar. The film blends the action comedy (buddy cons instead of cops) with the horror film. I enjoy this film but it’s jam packed, any more genre bending and it would cease to work. Some didn’t like it when they saw it because it was too strange or too sudden of a genre change.

This leads to today: we’re at a point where genre has been almost thoroughly exhausted. These categories don’t mean anything anymore. Let’s look at the weekend’s box office as an example.


Avengers

It’s a film about a group of people fighting crime (action film). They have super powers (comic book film). They jockey for position in the group and make fun of each other (screwball comedy). They fight a Norse God and an army from outerspace (sci-fi film).


Men In Black III

It’s a two cops, one plays a straight man one is a “comedian” (buddy cop action/comedy in true 48 Hours tradition). They investigate alien mysteries (sci-fi film).


Snow White and the Huntsman

A princess freed from captivity by a supernatural queen leads an army against her to save her land. There’s a love triangle too.(fairy-tale, supernatural, romance, epic, action, adventure…) You catch my drift.

We are in an age where potentially anything goes in cinema, which is in one sense freeing and the other sense incredibly debilitating. The problem is that audiences demand new and different and exhilarating and the business model of the industry is the back of a shampoo bottle. Debut existing property, see if it makes money, repeat (sequels, prequels and spinoffs). That’s why there seems to be a ho hum feeling coming out of many movies these days. You know that “it was okay” instead of awesome or brilliant.

If we let go of conventions can we still be exhilarated by it? The answer is yes, at the end of the day a good story is a good story or a good performance is a good performance and audiences will flock to see good stories. Cinema is evolving away from convention and genre itself and moving toward real life. This is what has already happened in television and why Mad Men and Breaking Bad will continue to have audiences and be the water cooler talk. These dramas (the Emmy category only) are able to breach multiple genres because they are being written as stories with real human characters in unique situations. This is what cinema has to try to do. It has to focus on stories that are intriguing and original not massive and filled with set pieces. Nothing against large tent-pole pictures and set pieces, but until cinema realizes that it’s fallen behind tv as the best drama around.

Josh E.

Set Your DVR: 70s Sci-fi Extravaganza 4/21

It’s a treat when I get to talk bout my favorite period of filmmaking the 1970s and it’s a dboule treat when I get to talk about my favorite genre in my favorite era of filmmaking. This Saturday Night on TCM (April 21) there is a must watch block of Sci-Fi from the 1970s. This block contains 5 movies starting at 8:00pm that are must see if you haven’t or must rewatch if you haven’t watched in a long time. It’s a long block so unless you plan on sipping on Jolt cola all night you’ll need to Set Your DVR.

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[S]He Directed That? THX 1138

At MovieDebaters.com Harrison and I are devoted to presenting the freshest, most innovative film discussion that our limited budget can provide. So we’re introducing a new feature entitled “(S)He Directed That?” which looks at the films that seem to stick out as oddballs in a filmmakers filmography.

Filmmakers are driven by particular themes, and their careers are often filled with work that follows that thematic thread. It is the purpose of this feature to examine that other film, the oddball picture in a filmmakers catalog that doesn’t gel with anything else. Sometimes it is a deliberate attempt by a filmmaker to do something new, it’s their early work, or it’s a project they took for a good paycheck. We think the film that doesn’t fit can teach us something about that filmmaker.

Today we’ll look at THX 1138 written and directed by George Lucas.


THX1138 Trailer
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Apocalypse Countdown 2012: Daybreakers

As a regular reader of our site or as a conspiracy nut you know, the looming Mayan apocalypse is only seven short months away. I’ve taken the tremendous task of preparing all of our blog readers by reviewing the best source of doomsday preparation literature on the planet: dystopian and apocalyptic films. This week I’ll be looking at a particularly bloodthirsty apocalypse: the vampire apocalypse as depicted in Daybreakers. Remember this is more than just a review of the film; this information could save your life.

Spoilers about the plot of the film will follow after the trailer and the break.


Trailer Continue reading

The Exploitation of the Moviegoer

First off, congratulations to Christopher Plummer, who became the oldest actor to win an Oscar at 82. He was definitely the best story (and might I add gave the best speech?) of the night that was not full of many surprises. He is a wonderful example of an actor who loves to work and isn’t afraid of doing traditionally lowbrow roles alongside the high drama.

I did want to talk about a another Oscar story that night. It was the nomination of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for Best Picture. It didn’t get very good reviews and many believed that the film was not just a bad film but transcended into exploitation:

“In the most genteel way the film has both its hands around your throat, forcing you to choke up.” – Michael Phillips Chicago Tribune

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Why Big Trouble in Little China is an Important Film

I hate to piggy-back on Harrison’s posts but last Tuesday he recommended one of my favorite films, Big Trouble and Little China. I know many of you are wondering why the “snob” of the site is backing a “strange and goofy” action from the 1980s? The answer lies in my mini bio. I can’t ignore the politics beyond the frame.

Harrison adeptly describes the film saying, “Kurt Russell plays the lead character, but he’s hilariously inept. He walks around with swagger and bravado, but the real hero is his sidekick, Dennis Dun. Dennis’ character is a nearly master swordsman who single-handedly takes on many of the threats they encounter.”

This is one of the reasons why I love this film. It takes a very traditional Hollywood convention and turns it upside down. You wonder what I mean?

You may be wondering what Avatar has to do with this. If you read an older piece I wrote about Avatar, you can see where the difference is between a movie like Avatar (or Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai) and Big Trouble in Little China. In the former, a caucasian man will assimilate with an isolated group, or tribe of people eventually becoming an accepted and valued member of the tribe.

This is important to note because that caucasian man will eventually save or attempt to save the entire tribe, just like Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in Avatar. It reinforces a weird Aryanesque mythology where primitive tribes need to be saved by a white savior. How does this work in Big Trouble in Little China? SPOILER ALERT. Don’t watch the tribute or continue below the video unless you want the ending of the film spoiled.

This Jack Burton tribute shows many scenes of Jack’s ineptitude. He misses Lo-Pan with the knife, he gets stuck underneath an armored swordsman, he knocks himself out by shooting into the air. Does he kill Lo-Pan? Yes, but only after missing first. I would have to go back and check the movie again but think it’s only the sixth person Jack has dispatched the whole movie. He doesn’t save the “natives” but rather himself. It’s clear that Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) would be able to kill Lo Pan if they got into a sword fight. Another thing that separates Big Trouble from other “gone native” films is that Wang gets the girl of his dreams and Jack rides off into the sunset in his truck. Sure, there’s an attraction between Jack and Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) but Wang is the one who gets the girl.

I don’t want to over emphasize the racial reading of the film. It’s also an early example of a genre bending Action film that includes martial arts, swords, gun play, an irreverent anti-hero and wonderful performances by both James Hong as Lo Pan and Victor Wong as Egg Shen. I just want you as a viewer to take a step back and realize that films are a powerful reminder of our culture. We need to realize that what happens in these films reinforce our cultural stereotypes and that the weird white man “out nativing the natives” plot line merits considerable revision.

Josh E.