Monday, February 19, 2018

The Academy's Bias Against Genre Films is Overstated

I often hear people lamenting the supposed bias that the Oscars have against genre films. Usually, this is in regards to things like horror movies and comic book adaptations, with science fiction and fantasy sometimes thrown in there as well. I won’t deny this bias exists entirely, but I do think it’s massively overstated. It's true that these types of movies rarely get Oscar nominations, but do they necessarily deserve it? I love horror and superhero films, but I hardly ever find them to be among the best of the year. Most film critics, when they release their end of year lists, rarely include a lot of these genres, so if the Academy does have a bias, its one they share with many critics.

It’s well known that most of the movies nominated for Academy Awards are realistic dramas, often about social issues or historical events. When you look at the films considered to be among the best of all-time, you usually see stuff like The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia and The Shawshank Redemption. These examples are all relatively realistic, dramatic works. Of course, there are a few genre films that rise to these levels, but they are few and far between, and when they do the Academy often recognizes them.

Even just looking at this year, they gave tons of nominations to two films that at the very least had strong horror influences, with Get Out getting 4 and Shape of Water getting 13, the most of any film. The science fiction movie Blade Runner 2049 got mostly technical nods but did get a cinematography nomination. I personally thought it should have gotten nominated for Best Picture, but I think missing out on it may have more to do with its financial failure than its genre, especially considering there was a sci-fi Best Picture nominee just last year in Arrival.

The superhero genre was even represented as Logan got in for Best Adapted Screenplay, but some thought it should have gotten in for Best Picture as well. I do think it’s better than a 1 or two of the actual Best Picture nominees, but I can think of several I’d put in before Logan, so I don’t think of this as a snub. A lot of people were calling for Wonder Woman to get a best pic nomination, but to me, that’s a bit silly.

It’s hard to think of too many superhero films over the years that got snubbed for Oscars. Obviously, The Dark Knight is the commonly cited example, but while it missed out on a Best Picture nod, it did get a major win in Best Supporting Actor and a Cinematography nomination among others. The Dark Knight has significant flaws and I can easily see not putting it in your top 5 of the year. And that’s one of the very few superhero movies that even comes close to a legitimate claim of being snubbed.

It’s true that horror films haven’t gotten a ton of Oscar love, but when they do excel they can get Best Picture nominations as we see with things like Jaws, The Exorcist and arguably The Sixth Sense and The Silence of the Lambs. Rosemary’s Baby, Carrie, and Misery have gotten major nominations as well.

One notable horror snub was The Shining, but Kubrick was tragically underappreciated by the Academy in general, so I don’t know that you can blame that one on genre.

Similarly, Psycho surely should have been nominated in 1960, but Hitchcock also didn’t get the Oscar attention he deserved, especially after the 1940s and Psycho did get major nominations like Best Director and Supporting Actress. Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director five times, but three of those were in the 40s and never won despite being one of the most respected and influential directors ever.

His movies got nominated for Best Picture four times, but all four of those were in the 40s despite his most impactful work coming in the 50s and 60s. So Psycho missing out on a Best Picture nomination isn’t that odd as classics like North by Northwest and Vertigo did as well.

Even the most influential classic horror films like Halloween, The Omen, and Night of the Living Dead aren’t quite good enough to say the Academy completely disregarded them just because of the genre. Also, those movies gained a reputation over time, so these could just be one of the many examples of the Academy looking wrong with decades of hindsight.

And recent horror films like The Witch, The Babadook, and It Follows were all excellent, but again, not so good that it’s some great tragedy they were ignored during award season.

I think the fact that top-level actors, writers, and directors don’t often work on horror films is likely a much bigger factor in why they don’t get any Oscars than any bias the Academy might have.

A science fiction film has never won Best Picture but many have been nominated. It’s an absolute travesty that 2001 didn’t get at least nominated, but it was much more experimental than your typical Oscar fare and like The Shining it may have been more of a Kubrick thing than a genre thing.

Like with horror, a few of the classic science fiction films that are considered among the best movies ever did get a chance to compete for the top prize, including Star Wars, A Clockwork Orange, and E.T. However, in recent years many more sci-fi movies have done so, including District 9, Avatar, and Her.

I also think that whatever bias does exist will likely disappear over time as younger Academy members are more used to genre films being mainstream.

Part of the reason the conventional wisdom regarding the Academy exists is because many more casual film fans focus more on blockbusters and may not have seen the smaller dramas that often get nominated. They may not have a complete understanding of just how difficult it is to get Oscar buzz and how stiff the competition often is.

They also may not realize how differently the various craftspeople that make up the academy view films and that they don’t just consider entertainment value.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The History of Live Action TV Shows Based on DC Comics

DC comics have been adapted into live action television for over 6 decades now, with dozens of shows on several different networks.

The story begins in 1952 with Adventures of Superman, the first television show based on a comic book (not counting comic strips). The syndicated show was shown in black and white and starred George Reeves as the title character. Reeves was mostly known for his work as Superman and tragically took his own life at age 45, although the exact circumstances of his death have been hotly debated.

Despite the efforts of the producers, the series did not survive the death of its star and the final episode was broadcast in 1958. There were 104 episodes over 6 seasons.

It featured the famous description of Superman as "faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound" as well as the lines "It's a bird, it's a plane, it's Superman!"

Adventures of Superman's special effects may look silly by today's standards, but for the time, and especially for a television program, they were actually pretty impressive. At first, they made the scenes of Superman flying by suspending Reeves from wires, but during the first season, they broke causing him to fall and be injured, so a safer method was devised. In season three, they started filming in color, even though the episodes were still being broadcast in black and white and this coincided with a more lighthearted tone aimed at younger viewers.

Some comic creators even worked on Adventures of Superman, like Mort Weisinger, who served as story editor.

They attempted a pilot called The Adventures of Superpup in 1958 with a main character named Bark Bent, but it was never actually aired. Similarly, The Adventures of Superboy pilot three years later also went nowhere.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Experimental Films of the 1950s

In the 1940s the experimental film scene was thriving due to the increased availability of filmmaking equipment and production programs at universities, and this trend continued in the 1950s. These films were also seeing greater exposure due to the rise of festivals like Cannes. A lot of the key avant-garde figures of the 1940s continued their work, but there were several notable new faces as well.

The most important experimental work of this decade was Hiroshima Mon Amour, from French director Alain Resnais, who was a key figure in the French New Wave of the late 1950s and 1960s. As opposed to the slightly more mainstream directors associated with Cahiers du Cinema like Jean-Luc Godard and Fran├žois Truffaut, Resnais was part of the Left Bank group that also included Agnes Varda and Jacques Demy. The Left Bank was more associated with leftist political views and made films that were less referential than the Right Bank.

Hiroshima Mon Amour came out in 1959, and along with Truffaut's The 400 Blows that same year, basically started off the French New Wave as a movement.

At the time, Resnais had only made documentary shorts, most notably 1955's Night and Fog about the Holocaust. Hiroshima Mon Amour was his first feature-length movie as well as his first fictional work, although it did start out as a documentary short no longer than 45 minutes that grew bit by bit into a feature.

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Influence of David Lynch

Despite being highly experimental, filmmaker David Lynch has had a far-reaching impact on not only films and television, but other forms of art as well, such as music and video games.

One of the most well-known directors often cited as being influenced by Lynch is Quentin Tarantino. The most commonly used examples are Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart and this isn't surprising as they portray violent criminals having trivial conversations. However, Tarantino is clearly a very different filmmaker and I definitely can't see him making something like Mulholland Drive or Inland Empire.

Tarantino's work has a very different tone and is much more meta and referential, and the Lynchian elements were more prominent in his early films like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and True Romance. He was most notably connected to Lynch by one of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace.

Wallace considered the cutting off of the ear scene in Reservoir Dogs as a blatant reference to the severed ear of Blue Velvet. He also referred to the "long, self-consciously mundane dialogues on pork, foot massages, TV pilots, etc. that punctuate Pulp Fiction's violence" as textbook Lynch, as well as the "creepy/comic stylization" of the violence. He even went as far as to say that Tarantino's films wouldn't exist without David Lynch.

I think he might be overselling the connection a bit here, and I don't know that I agree with his characterization of Marcellus' neck bandage as Lynchian. But this article was written in 1996 and the work of the two directors has diverged strongly since then.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Experimental Films of the 1940s

The 1940s were a time of great growth in the world of experimental and avant-garde film, especially in the United States. This was partly due to the increased availability of 16mm film equipment and projectors and that universities were starting to have film production departments.

The most important experimental filmmaker of the 1940s was clearly Maya Deren, who was also one of the most significant avant-garde directors period. In addition, she's up there with the all-time female directing greats, especially in an era when there were so few women directors.

Maya Deren

Born in 1917 in Kiev, her work disregarded conventional logic as well as temporal or spatial continuity. Deren shot, wrote, and edited her own films, with her rhythmic, stream-of-consciousness editing style being especially influential and marking a strong contrast to Classical Hollywood Cinema.

Furthermore, Deren was a film theorist, dancer, photographer, and poet. She was very interested in Haitian Voodoo and filmed many hours of their rituals, even joining the ceremonies herself.

She was also involved in politics, specifically socialist causes as she was part of a Trotskyist organization in the late 1930s.

Deren is often lumped in with surrealists like Bunuel or Cocteau, but she specifically rejected European surrealism.

Deren began her career in 1943 with Meshes of the Afternoon, co-directed with her husband, Alexander Hammid, and they also starred in the film. Shot on a 16 mm Bolex camera and costing under $300 to make, it was silent, black and white, and lasted 14 minutes. There was a score added in the 1950s, so keep in mind if you watch this online, any music was added later.

Meshes abandons narrative and traditional concepts of causality and instead aims to give the viewer a dream or trance-like feeling, with techniques like double exposure, slow motion, and false eyeline matches. It features the iconic hooded figure whose face is a mirror, and this makes for a striking, memorable image.

Meshes of the Afternoon is easily one the most seminal experimental films ever made, and her experiments with time, causality, and identity strongly affected directors like David Lynch, as seen in his films Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, and his TV show Twin Peaks. If you haven't seen any of the films I mention here, start with Meshes of the Afternoon.

The next year in 1944, the husband and wife duo released another silent short in the vein of Meshes called At Land. Like in her first film, logic is thrown out the window and time and space are played with. Characters seemingly transport to another location in an instant and footage of waves is played backwards. Chess pieces move on their own and Deren herself crawls on the table at a social gathering. No one seems to notice her and this has been construed as a criticism of social norms.

A Private Life of a Cat was produced by Deren and Hammid around this time, with some sources placing it at 1944 and others in 1947. It features no humans whatsoever, just cats going about their daily lives. It does feature a pretty gross scene of a cat giving birth, which I wish I hadn't witnessed.

Other works Deren created in the 1940s include Meditation on Violence and A Study in Choreography for Camera.

A filmmaker whose impact would eventually rival that of Deren's began working in the 1940s, and that's American Kenneth Anger, who has cited her as an inspiration. Anger made several films in the early 1940s, but his earliest surviving one was the transgressive Fireworks in 1947, made while he was still in high school.

Kenneth Anger

Anger was one the earliest openly homosexual directors and Fireworks was among the first examples of a film with gay themes. This led to Anger getting arrested on obscenity charges, and the case eventually ended up in the California Supreme Court.

This isn't surprising given the social climate of the era and the fact that the movie isn't subtle or coded in its depiction of homosexuality. Unlike most of the other films in this article, there are moments of humor, and they're unsurprisingly sexual in nature. It's not quite as surreal as Deren's work, but Anger himself described Fireworks as a "dream of a dream", and it shows a clear influence from French surrealist director Jean Cocteau.

After Meshes, this is the second most important experimental film of the 1940s.

Two years later in 1949 Anger made Puce Moment, a six-minute dialogue-free color short, that is a fragment of what was intended to be a longer work called "Puce Women". It consists of a somewhat deranged looking woman getting ready to go out, choosing between dresses, putting on shoes, and then laying back in a chair and staring off into space. Eventually, she holds her dogs on a leash and goes for a walk.

In 1966, Anger added a noisy, folksy soundtrack that's pretty bizarre and experimental and does feel a bit out of place for something filmed in the 1940s. Puce Moment was originally set to opera music from Verdi, but as far as I know, it's not available to watch with this soundtrack.

The short has a 1920s feel as the dresses and main character's hairstyle harken back to this time period. Also, Anger used alternating camera speeds to give the feel of a silent movie. There isn't too much to Puce Moment, and it's not nearly as interesting as Anger's later work.

Anger would go on to make landmark experimental films in the 1950s and 60s, like Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and Scorpio Rising. He was retired in the 1980s and 90s, but is still kicking and has made films as recently as 2013.

His significance is undeniable, especially in avant-garde filmmaking, but also with more mainstream directors like Martin Scorcese and David Lynch.

Anger was very interested in the occult and was a follower of Aleister Crowley's Thelema religion.

A German animator named Oskar Fischinger made an early animated music video called An Optical Poem in 1938 and produced a similar work, often considered to be his magnum opus, called Motion Painting No. 1 in 1947. Like his earlier work, this is completely abstract and set to classical music, with this time the music being one of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos.

This 11 minute short is probably the most entertaining and accessible film in this article and features some vibrant, intricate animation. It was made by painstakingly putting oil paints on glass and took a whole nine months to create.

Motion Painting No. 1 is now in the U.S. Library of Congress' National Film Registry. This was Fischinger's last non-commercial work and he died in 1967.

A more minor example from this era is Moods of the Sea, directed by Slavko Vorkapich and John Hoffman and released in 1941. It's basically an early music video and is set to the music of 19th-century composer Felix Mendelssohn.

Moods of the Sea consists mostly of shots of waves crashing, but we also see animals and views of the sky. It's an interesting idea, but the execution really isn't anything special. It's mainly only worth watching from a historical perspective and doesn't justify its 9-minute runtime.

Other avant-garde films of the 1940s include Hans Richter's Dreams That Money Can BuyPacific 231, directed by Jean Mitry, and The Lead Shoes by Sidney Peterson.

Finally, I'd like to mention Lady of the Lake from 1947, which is much different than the other films in this article, as it was a mainstream, big-budget Hollywood production. However, there is one major way in which it was experimental, and that's how almost the entire film was shot in a first-person perspective. This leads to an odd look and feel and plenty of long takes.

This was done to mimic the first person prose of the novel by Raymond Chandler and as far as I'm aware, this was the first movie to be shot in this style. It's sort of gimmicky, but still interesting enough to be worth checking out, and overall the movie is pretty solid.

The only exceptions to the first person perspective are a couple of extratextual addresses to the audience and other than that, the protagonist is only seen in reflections.

Eventually, other movies would be made using this technique, like Hardcore Henry and Enter the Void.

That'll be it for this post, keep an eye out for my next one on the experimental films of the 1950s, where I'll cover more works from Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger, as well as films from directors like Stan Brakhage and  Chris Marker.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok Review

It's hard to believe, but we've come to the 17th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor: Ragnarok. I was anticipating this one being a significant improvement over the first two Thor movies, partly because of director Taika Waititi, having loved both What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

I wasn't disappointed a bit and Ragnarok is easily one of the best from Marvel Studios and a huge step up from the previous Thor films. The main thing that made the film so great to me was the stunning visuals that seemed to take strong inspiration from classic comics by people like Jack Kirby and Walt Simonson. It looked a lot more comic book-y than Thor 1 and 2.

The film is extremely colorful and the set and costume designs are creative and unique. There were even some trippy scenes with the Bifrost Bridge that were a joy to watch.

The action is great and the fight scenes are inventive. A lot of people have been hand-wringing over how much of a comedy this was going to be, but I didn't think it felt out of place in the Marvel Studios canon. There are plenty of dramatic moments as well and they struck a decent balance, but if you prefer your superhero films to be as a serious as The Dark Knight, this might not be for you.

The visual effects were overall strong, but there were a few moments that were just a bit dodgy. A fully CGI character like the alien Korg just wasn't quite there and I was always thinking about how he was computer generated. Having said that, Korg, played by the director, was probably the funniest character in the film.

He was just one of many entertaining new characters, and another one I really enjoyed was Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie.

Cate Blanchett is definitely one of the best MCU villains, and also the first main antagonist that's female. She's evil while still being playful and her costume and makeup are fantastic. Her character isn't actually that well-developed, but Blanchett sells it and she looks awesome.

I was a bit underwhelmed by Karl Urban's Skurge, as he never really does anything and is largely inconsequential to the plot.

There was lots of Hulk and his fight against Thor is among the most fun fights Marvel Studios has made.

Unusually for the MCU, which generally has serviceable, but forgettable scores, the electronic, synth-heavy music from former Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh is memorable and perfectly fits the neon-infused aesthetics of Ragnarok.

Since I had no major complaints and it does so many things well, I give Ragnarok a 9 out of 10. Critics are liking it as well and it has a 93% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which makes it one of the highest rated comic book movies ever.

The third Thor movie made $14.5 million on its opening Thursday. For comparison, the previous MCU entry, Spider-Man Homecoming made a similar $15.4 million on its first day and ended up with an opening weekend of $117 million.

That'll be it for the spoiler-free section, so stop listening if you want to avoid plot details.

Despite being relatively comedic, Ragnarok ups the stakes and has pretty serious consequences for the universe. Minor characters were killed like the Warriors 3 to make the threat of Hela feel more real.

The MCU hardly ever kills off even minor characters, so this was a nice change of pace. They even killed Odin, destroyed Asgard, and Thor lost an eye, which I definitely didn't see coming.

There were a decent amount of references to the greater universe without feeling forced, like Banner mentioning Sokovia and his romance with Black Widow from Age of Ultron, and of course the amusing cameo from Dr. Strange. This segment might have been confusing to people who hadn't seen his film, but they probably just went with it given all the other craziness in Ragnarok, and his sequence is one of the highlights of the movie.

There also seemed to be a clear setup for Avengers: Infinity War with Loki eyeing the Tesseract and them encountering a large spacecraft in the post-credit scene.

I was slightly disappointed by the way they used Surtur. His design was great but while he was important to the plot, he ended up being a bit of an afterthought. It didn't affect my appreciation of the film that much, but it was kind of a missed opportunity, given that we presumably won't see him again in the MCU.

I loved the Beta Ray Bill easter egg on Sakaar and I really hope we see him eventually.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Stranger Things 2 Review

The pressure was on for the Netflix original series Stranger Things 2 after the very well-received first season and fortunately they didn’t disappoint, as part 2 is just as good as the first. Everything that was so great about season 1 is still there and I’d have to imagine most fans would be pleased.

I watched all the episodes on the first day and it was addicting and easy to binge. There are multiple cliffhangers, so you’re always wanting to move on to the next episode quickly. I loved the design of the giant Lovecraftian monster and this led to a bit more usage of CGI. The special effects were maybe not quite as good as a big budget feature film, but still good enough.

The season was pretty consistent, with really only one episode standing out as worse than the rest. I’m referring to one later in the season that features only one of the main characters. It was an interesting experiment, but it was brought down by some one-dimensional, cheesy characters.

It wasn’t terrible or anything and it does provide important character development,  but it’s just not up to the series usual standards. And it ends up not being a big deal because the last two episodes delivered a satisfying conclusion. Additionally, this was helped by the fact that this is not a weekly show, but rather the episodes are all available at once, so you could quickly move on to the ending.

The best performance is given by Noah Schnapp as Will, who was barely in season one, but serves as the emotional core of season two.

There are plenty of new characters introduced and they’re just as fun to watch as the others. Sean Astin plays Joyce’s boyfriend Bob, and comes off as dorky, but likable. Paul Reiser also joins the cast as a gentler version of Matthew Modine’s character.

The John Carpenter-influenced score from Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein is fantastic and atmospheric as always. The soundtrack of 80s songs wasn’t quite as effective but I will give them credit, but not always going with super cliche picks, minus a few exceptions. One of those exceptions was “Runaway” by Bon Jovi, which was pretty on the nose for the onscreen situation.

That’s all for the spoiler free section, so stop reading if you don’t want to know what happens.