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.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The History of Video Game Movies (Part 5: 2015-2017 and the future)

At this point, Hollywood had been adapting video games for over 20 years, and despite a few financial successes here and there, none of them managed to combine that with pleasing critics and fans.

Unfortunately, this trend is still going strong as of 2017 and there still hasn't been a quality video game movie.

The first example of this era was 2015's Hitman: Agent 47, inspired by IO Entertainment's stealth series that began in 2000 and is still active.

This has the worst Rotten Tomatoes score of any film in this article at 8% and it's easy to see why. Hitman: Agent 47 is dull and uninteresting in every way and doesn't even do the audience the favor of being bad in an entertaining way.

Perhaps the film's most unforgivable sin of all is that it doesn't even have good action scenes, partly because of the overly quick editing. There' are also some dodgy special effects at times, although nothing blatantly obvious.

Basically, there's no reason for anyone to watch this ever. Regardless, it was moderately profitable, making over $80 million worldwide and costing $35 million to produce. Director Aleksander Bach has not worked on a film since according to his IMDB page.

Skip Woods, the writer from the first Hitman film from 2007, returned for this, but it's a total reboot set in a new continuity.

2016 had four big video game movies and the first came out in April. That was a lackluster CGI animated film called Ratchet and Clank, adapted from the platformer and shooter series of the same name. It began in 2002 and the most recent entry came out in 2016 and was exclusive to the PlayStation 4. The style of the film was pretty close to that version of Ratchet and Clank.

Friday, September 15, 2017

What Makes for a Successful Film Franchise? (Part 1: Keeping Cast and Crew Consistent)

Film franchises have been incredibly influential and great at making money for the big studios. But what makes for a good one, not only in terms of financial success but also critical acclaim?

This is far from an easy question to answer and there are many factors that can make a difference.

These are some of the factors that I'll analyze over the course of the series and see how they may or may not apply to various well-known film series.

  • Keeping the cast and crew consistent throughout
  • Planning the story out ahead of time, or making it up as you go along
  • Staying true to either the source material or the original film
  • Waiting a long time between sequels or rushing out the next film
  • How much continuity is kept between films and if each film works on its own
  • Keeping the series fresh and introducing new elements or characters

First, let's look at keeping the cast and crew the same throughout the series, and how much effect that may have on the quality of the films.

Often sequels are criticized as a cynical, unnecessary cash-in if they don't have the original creators and cast members involved. If the directors, writers and/or stars return it can lend it an air of legitimacy.

Bringing the creators back for sequels should theoretically make it easier for them not to stray too far from the tone and intent of the franchises' beginnings.

Obviously, losing cast members can alienate audiences who may be upset to see their favorite characters played by a new actor or absent entirely.

The Star Wars franchise is an interesting example. For the original trilogy, the cast was very consistent. Of course, the main three actors and even a lot of the supporting cast returned for all three. It might have been quite odd for audiences to see a new actor portraying Luke, Han, or Leia and I think the movies definitely would have suffered from a major recast or writing out a main character.

When it came time for the prequels, most of the main cast was new as it was set decades prior to the original films. This was definitely something fans complained about as the absence of Ford, Fisher, and Hamill was sorely felt, especially in comparison to the much-maligned performances of Jake Lloyd and Natalie Portman.

However, they did attempt to bring back cast members whenever possible, such as Anthony Daniels as C-3PO and Ian McDiarmid as Emperor Palpatine, with this undoubtedly being to the films' benefit as they provided a necessary link to the original trilogy. 

Obviously, Star Wars was, at least at one point synonymous with George Lucas, who wrote and directed the first film. This gets a bit complicated as he didn't direct the next two films. He got a story credit on The Empire Strikes Back and wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay on Return of the Jedi. Lucas was a very influential producer on the sequels and the success of the original trilogy is often greatly attributed to him. However, it's worth noting that The Empires Strikes Back was actually directed by Irvin Kershner and that is considered to be as good, if not better than the original by many fans.

For the prequels, Lucas would write and direct all three. Usually having the original creator back in control is seen as a positive thing. If they had been made by some other director it may have been seen as an unnecessary addition solely made for money.

Unfortunately, the films ended up causing an extremely divisive reaction among the public and this shows that having the original creator back for the new installments is far from a guarantee of artistic success.

In fact, this may have actually been a negative since there are plenty of filmmakers who could have made better prequels given the chance.

Once Disney bought the IP, many new directors were brought in, while still keeping on some Star Wars veterans like Lawrence Kasdan. Many actors returned to reprise their roles, but the main characters were pretty much all new faces, especially in Rogue One, which brought back a few known characters in small parts, but with new actors, sometimes aided by CGI. This didn't seem to hurt as the new films were box office hits and generally well-regarded among fans and critics. This was one case where the fanbase was ready for new filmmakers due to the original creator having already made polarizing additions to the universe.

It's not surprising Star Wars could still be popular without the original cast, as it was never hyper-focused on a particular actor, especially compared to series like Indiana Jones, Die Hard, or Rocky. Sure, Luke was clearly the main character of the OT, but many lesser characters ended up being fan favorites as well, even ones that didn't say anything or have more than a minute of screentime.

A lot of people love the franchise for the overall world and not just any one actor or actress. Because it's a whole galaxy with thousands of years of history it's much easier to tell stories in that fictional world that don't even feature the same characters, much less the same cast. The animated shows are great examples of this, like Rebels that focuses on new characters and the voice actors who have been in Star Wars before are mainly relegated to supporting roles.