Friday, March 7, 2014
One of the goals with my writing this year is to avoid extreme statements that represent an absolute point about a film. This is especially true on the negative end of the spectrum. It’s too easy to call something out with terms like “terrible”, “awful”, or “worst” to deride a movie that doesn’t work for me. So many different elements can lead to a performance that falls short or directing that seems to miss the mark. After reading Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies, I’m even more convinced this is the right approach. This excellent book explores the countless facets that make up the completed movie. Given all those aspects, I’m amazed that we even get as many great films as we do. Factors completely outside of the director’s control can derail a project or make it truly original.
Lumet is well-known as the director of classics like Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and Serpico during the ‘70s, but he was quite prolific over a more than 50-year career. He also shot the courtroom dramas 12 Angry Men and The Verdict. There are many films that I know little about from his background. This book offers anecdotes from across the spectrum that give valuable details into his thought process. He isn’t afraid to speak candidly about difficulties when it’s necessary but never resorts to cheap shots. The offenders go unnamed while talents like Katherine Hepburn, Sean Connery, and Al Pacino get justifiable praise. This is hardly your typical behind-the-scenes piece about working in Hollywood. The title says all you need to know about Lumet’s goals with this book. He’s giving us a look behind the curtain about each step of the process in putting the pieces together to make a movie.
Written in 1995, Making Movies arrives at a time before digital projection had taken over the industry. It’s interesting to note how we’ve moved past some of the practices described with celluloid. It still applies to modern cinema, however. Lumet talks frequently about working with actors from the opening reading to shooting daily on the set. I’ve rarely read a book that so vividly captures what it feels like on a movie set, at least in theory. His writing is down to earth and gives movie fans a chance to get a clearer grasp of the process.
An intriguing chapter focuses on style, a term frequently used by bloggers and film critics. A common idea of “style over substance” often appears, particularly when looking at big-budget films. Lumet describes style as the way you tell a particular story and doesn’t side with the idea that it’s separate from the content of the movie. This concept hits home and makes sense, though it may not apply to ever filmmaker. It definitely fits within his work, which isn’t known for visual flourishes. Paddy Chayefsky’s Network script gets plenty of attention, but it only works if Lumet can sell it. This chapter is interesting because it says so much about his movies. It doesn’t mean that I agree with all of his points. It’s rare to get such a specific perspective from a director with so much to say about the medium.
The final section covers Lumet’s tricky relationship with the studio and the challenge of test screenings. I’m frequently amazed by the contentious ways that executives deal with directors. It’s a commodity-based medium with profits as the sole goal, and that atmosphere’s only increased since the book was written. Lumet gives previews a fair shake, but it’s clear they’re difficult for a guy who comes from a different era. Making Movies offers plenty of insights into his thoughts process and is a surprisingly easy read. I need to see a lot more of his work, especially movies he cites repeatedly like Prince of the City. I’ll be curious to read this book again after seeing those films. Given all the material that’s packed into it, there should be a lot more to learn from such an accomplished filmmaker.
Thursday, March 6, 2014
Today is my amazing wife Erin’s birthday, and she’s a lot more creative than a guy who just writes about movies. Happy birthday Erin! She makes art and has started an Etsy Shop called e.e. heatie designs. As part of the celebration, she’s offering a cool 20% off sale today with the code BIRTHDAY at her shop that you should definitely check out right away. A striking example from her Music Faces collection is included in the above photo. Saturday is also the first birthday of our daughter Etta, so this is quite a festive weekend. I also completely missed this blog’s third anniversary, which happened on March 1st. Good times.
Here are some interesting blogs and podcasts that are definitely worth your time:
The Oscars happened last Sunday, and reactions have dominated movie and pop culture sites. I was glad to see that Roger Ebert made the In Memoriam tribute, though it reminded me of how much I miss his work. On Friday, his wife Chaz wrote on Roger Ebert.com about Ebert’s approach to the Oscars and the way he covered it like a journalist. The heartfelt piece offers a reminder that he was still a reporter and loved that side of his job.
I’ll admit that seeing Kim Novak on stage made me cringe due to her plastic surgery. Plenty of other viewers were much nastier and bombarded Twitter with snarky comments about her looks. This goes way beyond the line and disregards the difficulties for actresses as they get older in Hollywood. Farran Nehme at The Self-Styled Siren did an amazing job in providing a context for Novak’s appearance and reminding us that it’s hardly fair to take shots at her.
My final entry about the Oscars comes from Matthew Brown, who wrote an intriguing, nuanced piece about the show in his Destroy All Monsters column at Twitchfilm. He digs into the idea of “moral seriousness” at the Oscars and how it’s essentially flawed. He also covers Cate Blanchett’s wonderful speech given the controversy around Woody Allen.
Despite the fact that we’re already in March, it isn’t too late for an overview of the films of 2013. Dennis Cozzalio of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule’s post takes an epic look at his favorite 20 movies plus the top performances. He’s a big fan of The Great Beauty, which took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film on Sunday. There are familiar titles in his list, but others will surely surprise you.
Shifting gears, I used to listen to sports talk radio yet grew sick of how the hosts rarely went beyond the surface. They made a few obvious points, got in arguments with listeners, and were constantly shilling for advertisers. I found a remedy with Slate’s Hang Up and Listen podcast, which takes an intelligent approach to both the games and the issues surrounding them. I’ve been listening to hosts Josh Levin, Stefan Fatsis, and Mike Pesca since the beginning, and they keep improving the format. Their latest episode covers statistical analysis, concussions in soccer, and the NFL’s mishandled attempts to combat racism in football. It’s another great discussion from a show that’s always interesting.
Disney World fans were dismayed by another price increase up to the hefty rate of $99 for a one-day visit at the Magic Kingdom. They also increased ticket costs across the board. This inspired a great piece from Amanda at Nerds in Wonderland about what’s really sad about the changes at the park. The price increase is just a symptom of a larger problem, and I’m totally on board with her conclusion. I’ll close with this lengthy quote from her post that sums up my feelings about what’s happening at Disney:
“Quite frankly it doesn’t bother me in the least that the ticket price is going up by four dollars. It doesn’t bother me that Walt Disney World is a business. What bothers me is that a company I grew up on — one that actively encouraged me and all of us to hold it to the high standards it set for itself — is abandoning its historical business philosophy in favor of short-sighted board pandering and greed. It bothers me that thoughtful executives who loved themed design and entertainment have been replaced by MBA graduates who are beholden only to the bottom line. It bothers me that middle class American families are being priced out of a vacation experience that — like it or not — they are socially conditioned to strive for, and used to be able to afford. It bothers me that Disney PR representatives have become a little too good at spinning half-truths into exciting nuggets of joy they think we’ll swallow like obedient children. It bothers me that maintenance and infrastructure investment are relative afterthoughts. It bothers me that I’m effectively being told by certain people that ‘good enough’ is, in fact, good enough, when I know this company is capable of so much more.”
Have you read or listened to anything remarkable that you’d like to spotlight?
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
I grew up in the ‘80s and witnessed the rise of home video from the early days of the VCR. My parents got their first machine when I was a young kid, and it was a gigantic device with only basic features. That didn’t matter. They made copies of Star Wars, Superman, and a few other movies, and we wore them out with repeated plays. I still know every line in George Lucas’ classic and have barely watched it recently. Video stores were frequent stops for me as a teen in the early ‘90s, and there were few things more fun that browsing the aisles for a discovery. Before the days of the Internet, even well-known films might have never captured my attention. This trend continued through the DVD era, but the tide had clearly shifted. Netflix’s arrival was just around the corner, and the days of VHS and independent video stores were numbered. It’s so easy today, but is that a good thing?
Josh Johnson’s Rewind This! chronicles the wide range of people whose lives were changed by home video. It begins with a collector roaming a flea market and searching for obscure VHS tapes. While everyone may have the two-tape edition of Titanic, there are gems to discover within the stalls. There are many blogs and podcasts today devoted solely to watching terrible films, and they have a good friend in VHS. The demand was so large that even low-rent titles would earn major profits through the medium. Collectors also seek out these movies with ridiculous covers and low production values. This film is a fitting choice to begin my Niche Culture Marathon, which will include documentaries covering small but dedicated groups focused on a specific aspect of pop culture. Video stores are disappearing, but they created an interesting niche with passionate fans keeping the hope alive.
Rewind This! – Directed by Josh Johnson; Starring David Gregory, Don May Jr., Zack Carlson, Drew McWeeny, Atom Egoyan, Casandra Peterson, and Caroline Frick
What are the primary themes of this film?
Beyond the sadness of the demise of the video store, Johnson is also exploring the way we connect to movies. From an economic standpoint, the rise of home video expanded the audience and created the culture of obsessives that exist today. Would any of us be writing about movies and so involved if we didn’t grow up with home video? There were film lovers before this change, but the number was much smaller. The access also created niches devoted solely to a specific genre. It also gave filmmakers a chance to sell their products without the assistance of a gigantic studio. The distribution model changed and democratized the business since profits were available without theatrical distribution.
A good example is Frank Henenlotter, who directed exploitation films like Basket Case and Brain Damage in the horror arena. The low-budget productions had a limited audience but still earned him plenty of money through VHS sales. A fan like Dormath can get obsessed with those films and even create an entire attic based on horror. His fandom grew because there were so many inventive titles. A guy like Chris Strompolos can even shoot a remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark on video because of it doesn’t cost a fortune. These aren’t rich kids playing with money; they’re regular people obsessed with movies who are taking advantage of the technological advances. Their work may be terrible at times, but there’s a sense of fun that’s often missing from blockbuster productions. A guy like David “The Rock” Nelson creates really bad films, but it’s endearing to watch him take a shot and produce something.
How does this niche connect to the trends in modern culture?
It’s intriguing to compare the rise in home video with the current shifts toward watching movies online. Johnson wisely makes this connection and doesn’t just honor the past. Fans that would have traded video tapes of the Winnebago Man or something similar are putting them on YouTube or using file sharing. The physical medium is gone, and it feels much different to work in the electronic sphere. The ease in connecting with like-minded fans is a benefit, however. Those bonds give someone like Zack Carlson from the Alamo Drafthouse the ability to screen the videos and draw crowds. We’re responding to the sense that these forgotten gems are more “real” and aren’t market tested for the middle.
The question of quality also comes up frequently when thinking about streaming movies through Netflix and other sources. They lack the clarity of Blu-ray, but they’re accessible at a moment’s notice. The section looking at the format wars is interesting because VHS was inferior from a quality standpoint. One difference that helped it win was the length of the tapes, and that usefulness outweighed the beauty. Making films more accessible allows aspiring filmmakers to learn from the greats and develop their craft. When that’s combined with cheap video cameras, it changed the game. We’re seeing a similar trend now with effective digital cameras and iPhones that limit the costs of making movies.
Does Josh Johnson find an engaging way to explore the subject matter?
Beyond exploring interesting themes, Rewind This! is also great fun. The segment on rare discoveries was hilarious, especially the Bubba Smith workout video. He loves you and wants you to get healthy until it hurts. We see the typical collectors and fans, but it stays fresh because Johnson covers a wide variety of material. If you missed out on the VHS era, there’s still enough to charm movie fans. Carlson’s visit with a reseller shows the ways video tapes remain a source of revenue. They won’t get the same resurgence as LPs because of technological limitations, but the fans are there. Johnson looks at a time when home video reached its peak, and it feels like we’re missing something today. Movie lovers have moved to a new venue, but time will tell if they’ll have the same nostalgia 20 years from now. The technology is changing so rapidly, and the next phase is just around the corner.
Next week, I’ll look at a time when pinball machines ruled the world in Special When Lit.
Monday, March 3, 2014
We’ve all seen this type of guy working at an art museum or movie theater. He’s middle-aged and much older than the other attendants, yet he’s thrilled to have the job. His presence becomes a component of the institution and a welcome part of each visit. Johann (Bobby Sommer) fits that role at the Kunsthistorisches Art Museum in Vienna. He observes the very different types of visitors and has great appreciation for the stunning works on display. The museum is his daily sanctuary and brings him joy despite limited personal connections away from work. Johann’s relaxed visage brings such warmth to Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours yet is just one element of this intriguing picture. He often drifts into the background, yet his presence remains during each successive interlude.
The story takes place in and around the museum and takes its time, yet there’s a freeing sense that anything can happen. Cohen follows Johann’s growing friendship with Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), who’s visiting Austria because of a sick relative. Their conversations about art and life are the movie’s core, yet they merely set the foundation for a much larger project. The museum and Vienna become characters in their own right and live and breathe right before our eyes. Calling the city a character is an overused cliché, yet it fits because there’s so much vibrancy on display. Cohen shoots the action from odd angles and rarely takes a conventional approach to what’s on the screen. Johann may be discussing something important, but the perspective shifts instead to the wall behind him. It’s initially off-putting yet forces us to really engage with the images on the screen. We can’t just sit back and passively observe the interactions between Johann and Anne. They’re likable characters yet never dominate our perspective.
I enjoy visiting art museums, yet the vast array of images can sometimes be too much to grasp. Getting beyond the beauty and delving into themes behind the piece require a greater participation from the observer. This is also the case with films, especially those that challenge us. Cohen presents the friendship of Anne and Johann as a starting point, and that’s enough to sustain our attention. Even so, there are multiple layers beyond that experience if we’re willing to take the leap. A striking scene follows a discussion about nudity and paintings. Several visitors stroll through the gallery and then are seen again without their clothes. It’s a striking moment because they seem so comfortable with the nakedness. You could read these shots multiple ways, but I see them as showing the feelings of home inspired by the museum. They can let down their guard and just experience the works on a personal level, and they essentially become art from this perspective.
A crucial sequence presents an art expert (Ela Piplits) giving an extensive lecture on the work of Pieter Bruegel to some visitors. She delves into the ways he shifts our attention away from the expected center piece of the painting. The title may focus on the apostle Paul, but Bruegel focuses more on the other characters in the piece. Johann observes this lecture, so it connects to our main story. It’s a tenuous relationship, however, so why does Cohen stick with this scene? It’s not a stretch to see that the Bruegel approach sheds light on what’s happening in this film. The perspective frequently shifts towards everyone but Johann and Anne and often just observes daily life in Vienna. A dim-witted listener doesn’t agree and can’t see beyond the painting’s title. Earlier, we caught a glimpse of the guy checking his phone during her lecture. It’s an obvious shot at limited perspectives on art, yet it still hits home within this film.
It’s the brief examples of warmth and surprise that lift Museum Hours above an interesting experiment. Blink and you’ll miss a brief shot of a visitor smiling at the camera before we cut to the next scene. That moment could take us out of the film but instead reminds us it’s still a construct. Like the art in the museum, Cohen is showing a particular view of reality crafted to make specific points. It’s designed to evoke a reaction yet allows for unique interpretations. We might disagree with the lecturer on Bruegel, and that’s just fine. Circling back to Johann and Anne, their relationship works because it’s formed on a love of art. How many of our friendships revolve around adoring movies, music, or another pursuit? It’s this passion that makes us human and brings depth to every connection. That nuanced enjoyment rings true and builds an intimate connection with this intriguing film.
Amber City (1999)
A perfect companion piece to Museum Hours is Amber City, a 48-minute short film directed by Cohen in Italy. It depicts an unnamed town and its residents as they go about their daily life. We also catch glimpses of museums, unique art throughout the city, and inventive shots of the streets and places where people meet. Voiceover narration gives insight to what we’re seeing, but it rarely provides the typical exposition. It’s a quiet, refreshing film that could irritate some with its mellow tone. It’s the type of original movie that could work in an art installation yet still offers plenty for a home viewing.
Anne Truitt, Working (2010)
This 13-minute film documents the work of Anne Truitt, known for creating Minimalist sculptures during the mid-20th century. Cohen documents her in 1999 at the Yadoo Artist Colony and in her D.C. studio several years later and presents some of her work. I’m not familiar with Truitt’s art, and she gives some interesting details about how it functions. Shot in both color and black and white, this short provides glimpses of her pieces close to the end of her life. This glimpse isn’t thrilling yet puts you inside the mind of an original artist.
Museum: Visiting the Unknown Man (1997)
This silent, black-and-white short offers an eerie look at the sculptures on display and the visitors that explore the untitled location. Cohen focuses specifically on the eyes of the pieces, and the blurry outlook creates a sense that they’re staring right through us.
Note: These three short films are included with Museum Hours’ DVD release and Blu-ray releases, along with a 24-page booklet with essays about the movie.
Friday, February 28, 2014
Tomorrow is the auction draft for my big fantasy baseball league with a group of friends and former co-workers. I’ve read through many strategy posts online, and they all start with “nominate players that you don’t want.” If everyone reads these ideas, the hive mind will adjust and render this approach useless. Someone has to want the players that are up for bid (in most cases). This situation connects to the predictions leading into Sunday’s Oscar ceremony. Movie fans read predictions and often base their own thoughts on those picks. That creates a consensus that all chooses the same movies. This helps to make the awards predictable, and the past few years have gone according to the expected trends. Will that continue this year? If it does, this will be another snoozer that offers few surprises.
Fortunately, there are several contenders that have a solid chance to grab the top prize. Will a front runner emerge and sweep most of the awards? It’s possible there will be a split where nothing wins more than four or five awards. That would be interesting and seems likely given the wide range of winners in awards from guilds and other associations. Tom Hanks might be a strong pick for Captain Phillips, but he wasn’t even nominated! There’s a frustrating lack of depth to the options, which are spread mostly among a small group of movies. That distribution could lead to the awards falling to three or four movies, however. There are some obvious categories like Best Supporting Actor, while others seem wide open.
This is the first year in a long time that I haven’t run an Oscar pool. After struggling to watch the show and tabulate all the results last year, I decided it was time for a break. I’m excited to just sit back and not be staring at a spreadsheet after each award. Of course, this could inspire a lot of boredom. I’ve joined a few online contests to at least have some involvement with the winners. My study in making these picks has included countless days minutes devoted to the pursuit. I also still need to see a lot of the films, so the choices will often not focus on the actual quality of the movie.
Best Picture – 12 Years a Slave
The general consensus is that we have a three-team race for Best Picture with Gravity, American Hustle, and 12 Years a Slave as the top contenders. By the time this award is announced, I expect that we’ll have a pretty good idea about where it’s heading. While all three could win, I have a strong feeling that the voters will go with Steve McQueen’s depiction of the horrors of slavery. The others will likely win some awards, but this has the sense of being the fitting winner.
Actor in a Leading Role – Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Fans and critics really like McConaughey, and voters seem ready to reward the guy for changing his career path. He’s handled the attention so well and has delivered so many great performances over recent years. This role also includes massive weight loss, and those moves can sometimes charm the Academy.
Actress in a Leading Role – Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
All the indications point to Blanchett being a shoo-in for this role, though controversy towards Woody Allen has removed some of the luster from it. I’m unsure when the voters submitted their ballots, and it may have been prior to the scandal resurfacing. Regardless, I don’t see it taking away from her victory.
Actor in a Supporting Role – Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Leto’s dropped off the map until this point, so his emergence is stunning. This feels like the most certain of any of the categories, and I’d be shocked by a different result. Bakhad Abdi did a remarkable job in Captain Phillips, but upsetting Leto doesn’t seem likely.
Actress in a Supporting Role - Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
There’s a strong chance that Jennifer Lawrence will take this award despite winning last year. Even so, I’m not expecting American Hustle to grab any of the major categories. Nyong’o has earned raves, and her chances seem best from the actors in that film.
Directing – Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
The technical achievements in Gravity are incredible, and it’s clear there’s a definite vision behind it. Using CGI effectively, he builds a world that promises death around every corner. From the other contenders, David O. Russell and Martin Scorsese have plenty of fans, and Steve McQueen could benefit if 12 Years a Slave takes a lot of awards. Even so, I still believe that Cuarón is the most likely candidate to take home this prize.
Animated Feature Film and Original Song – Frozen
Given its rampant popularity with audiences and critics, I can’t see a scenario where Frozen doesn’t win the Animated Feature Film award. “Let It Go” also has a similar vibe to “Skyfall” and is the most recognizable from the group. I’m less convinced about Original Song, but it’s the obvious choice.
Cinematography, Film Editing, Visual Effects - Gravity
Although it may not win Best Picture, I’m expecting Gravity to end the night with the most awards. The reason is the technical awards, which are made for this type of movie. Visual Effects is a no-brainer, and the editing is designed to maximize the intensity. Cinematography is interesting because such a computer-driven film might not seem like the right fit. Even so, that didn’t stop Life of Pi from winning last year.
Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Original Score – Gravity
I’m most convinced about the two sound categories, which stand out because it plays such a key role in making the scenario believable. Original Score may be trickier, and the acclaim for Her makes me wonder if that’s the better choice. Even so, it’s hard to pick against Gravity with any of these.
Costume Design and Original Screenplay – American Hustle
Given its four acting nominations, there’s a chance that American Hustle will end up winning a lot of awards. That said, it still feels like most of them are going to other movies. I’m picking it for Original Screenplay as the consolation for not grabbing top awards. Costume Design feels like a shoo-in, though The Great Gatsby’s could grab that prize.
Adapted Screenplay – 12 Years a Slave
I would love to see a victory for Before Midnight in this category, but I don’t get the sense it has enough support to pull the upset. The winner will probably come from one of the major players, and the obvious candidate is 12 Years a Slave. If it wins Best Picture like I predict, it should also grab this category.
Documentary Feature – The Act of Killing
I’ve enjoyed both 20 Feet from Stardom and The Square and would be happy if either won. I’m thinking they’re going to play second fiddle, however. The set-up for The Act of Killing is stunning, and getting killers to re-enact their atrocities should push it over the top.
Foreign Language Film – The Broken Circle Breakdown
This is one of the trickiest categories to predict given the love for three of the contenders. The Great Beauty feels like the front runner, but this category frequently surprises. There’s also plenty of love for The Hunt, but my choice is The Broken Circle Breakdown. Despite its difficult subject matter, plenty of viewers have really taken to its story and music.
Makeup and Hairstyling – The Dallas Buyers Club
This one seems pretty obvious.
Production Design – The Great Gatsby
If nothing else, Baz Luhrman can deliver in the realm of production design. His films always look amazing and go way over the top in this area. Assuming the bombast doesn’t turn off voters, it should be destined for victory.
Short Films – Get a Horse!, Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn't Me), The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
I’ll admit that I’m following the trends here. The general approach is to choose heavy subject matter and expect it to outweigh all other concerns for the ultimate winners.
What are your picks for surprise Oscar winners this year?
Thursday, February 27, 2014
Last week, I ventured to the St. Louis Art Museum for a quick visit during lunch. It helps that it’s only five minutes from work. There was plenty to see like always, but one exhibit stood out as something remarkable. Marco Brambilla is known by movie fans as the director of Demolition Man, but he’s spent most of his career doing visual media for art exhibitions. His short film Evolution (Megaplex) combines images from more than 150 movies into a collage that’s truly groundbreaking. The continuous three-minute loop shows visions of war and conflict to present our history through the movies. They’re combined to create a seamless and beautiful collection that is more than the individual clips. Sergei Prokofiev's “Dance of the Knights” plays in the background of the darkened room, and its triumphant theme adds to the criticism of the glories of war. YouTube videos don’t do it justice.
I’ve also become a blogger for Rob Has a Website, the awesome reality TV site for Rob Cesternino that goes along with his podcast. I’ll be writing my extensive thoughts about each Survivor episode on Sundays and can’t wait to get rolling this weekend. Last week, I joined the other bloggers for a video podcast with Rob to give our predictions for the new season. It was a great time and my first experience in getting my face on the screen for a podcast. Last night’s two-hour premiere was a strong start for the show, and I’m hoping the positive momentum continues throughout the season.
Here are some other interesting posts and podcasts from the past week:
I’ve recently started following The Musings of a Sci-Fi Fanatic, and his posts frequently are right up my alley. I wasn’t a huge fan of Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46, but I may need to give it another shot. The Fanatic makes a convincing case that there’s more to it than I remember. His posts delve into movies and TV from a fan’s perspective and are accompanied by attractive screen shots to support the writing.
It seems a little odd to include a link to another post with links, but this is no ordinary example. Jandy at The Frame does incredible work putting together The Roundup, which covers interesting stories from around the online world. She does more than simply include the links and adds quotes to give an effective summary of the writer’s points. I’ve discovered a lot of intriguing essays through Jandy’s suggestions.
I’m glad that Stevee Taylor is back writing regularly at The Cinematic Paradox. She’s a force for good in the universe. Her latest post covers both Side Effects and Blue Jasmine from the perspective of characters who’ve lost their economic stability. It’s part of the Motifs in Cinema blogathon and takes an engaging look at another side of two interesting characters on the screen.
Alex Withrow from And So It Begins… is doing more than just writing excellent pieces about movies on his site. He’s making them. This week, he participated in the 48-hour film project and directed Wait at a bar in North Hollywood. The seven-minute short film is a lot of fun and definitely worth your time.
The six recipients of the Sundance Institute’s Roger Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism are killing it right now at Roger Ebert.com. A prime example is Mary Sollosi’s post about books converted to the big screen. She talks with writers and filmmakers about this process and the challenges they face when translating the material to a much different medium.
Closing with something completely different, I’ve really enjoyed listening to the daily podcasts on fantasy baseball from the guys at CBS Sports during the past week. Adam Aizer, Al Melchior, and Nando Di Fino have plenty to say about the latest news plus guys that need to be on my team. I hope the advice helps me on Saturday.
Have you read or listened to anything remarkable that you’d like to spotlight?
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
In our fast-paced modern world, it’s easy to get tunnel vision and just focus on day-to-day life. I’m a husband and father of two kids, work a full-time job, try to exercise when I can, and hope to spend some free time with family and friends. There’s also this blog and other writing activities every week. Staying immersed in current events is tricky given the pace of each passing day. The ugly situation in Ukraine this week is just the latest example of turmoil that goes well beyond political squabbles. We often get riled up here in the U.S. about minor conflicts that pale in comparison to what’s happening around the globe.
A prominent recent example is the Egyptian Revolution that began in early 2011. Using social media as a tool to generate support, the demonstrators gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand the overthrow of government leaders. This led to the removal of President Hosni Mubarek, but the replacements did not fulfill the promise of this sweeping change. These pivotal moments are captured in Jehane Noujaim’s The Square, which offers a first-hand account of the revolution. She places us in the streets and presents both the joys and the devastation of a people trying to enforce their will to create a better government.
The Square – Directed by Jehane Noujaim; Starring Khalid Abdalla, Ahmed Hassan, Dina Abdullah, Magdy Ashour, Sherif Boray, Ramy Essam, and Aida Elkashef
Using hand-held cameras, Noujaim and her crew give us remarkable access to the events as they unfold. This isn’t a “talking head” documentary that offers insight after the fact. The moments feel so vital as the protesters stare down the military and influence change. We follow Ahmed Hassan, an idealistic young man who gets worn down by frequent setbacks. There’s a sense when Mubarek steps down that a great victory has occurred, yet it’s just another round of frustrations. Hassan’s glee shows the real stakes for everyone that go beyond political stage. They’re looking for a new way of life that’s drastically altered from the current one. Unfortunately, the forces in power aren’t going to exit the stage quietly. Creating a “society of conscience” may be a pipe dream, even in the best of circumstances. Watching Hassan and others keep battling is inspiring, despite the challenges in their way.
Another intriguing figure is Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who’s faced torture and imprisonment from Mubarek’s regime. His loyalty to the cause becomes difficult when his own brothers fall short while in power. Ashour remains committed to the Brotherhood yet has allies like Khalid Abdalla on the other side. His past has shown what powerful men will do to his group in the wrong circumstances. Do they deserve a chance to rule the land after facing so much persecution? When the elected President Mohammed Morsi is removed in a coup d'état, it ends the Brotherhood’s chance at power and makes them enemies of the state. It may be the right thing for the country, but it will be difficult for a guy like Ashour. This example shows the complexities that arise with every shift in power and remind us why it’s so challenging to bring about positive change in this landscape.
Noujaim also directed Control Room, a compelling 2004 documentary that focused on journalists covering the Iraq War. It gave an insider’s perspective and showed different layers of the issue through the participants on the ground. That approach works again with this film, which connects us with a wave that’s truly revolutionary. Despite the continued setbacks from new figures in power, there’s still a sense that people are coming together to ask for something better. The question that hangs over the protests is how to make it happen. One participant wisely points out that saying “no” only goes so far and won't create a real solution. Noujaim doesn’t answer that question but shows us enough to explain that the current situation isn’t working for many of the Egyptian people. The protests can inspire change, yet there are questions about who's really benefiting from the new regimes.
Some of the most impactful moments in The Square involve the violence that erupts when the government lays down the law. A tank runs down civilians purposefully, yet the military goes on television and denies the claims. Musician Ramy Essam is beaten brutally for performing activist songs within the crowd. We observe soldiers using live rounds and flee right alongside the people when chaos becomes the norm. The danger feels real, and that intensity brings a relevance to the material that’s impossible to manufacture. The situation remains tenuous in Egypt today, and this movie should help to educate people who are far removed from that struggle. Having Netflix on board as a producer will give a much wider access to Noujaim’s film, and the Oscar nomination will expand the scope even further. The difficulties remain in Egypt, but awareness is a mighty weapon in the ongoing struggle.