Friday, September 19, 2014

SPECIAL EDITION: "BURKA AVENGER" INTERVIEW! A DISCUSSION WITH ADI ABDURAB, THE HEAD OF WRITING FOR "BURKA AVENGER", PAKISTAN'S BIGGEST SUPERHERO.



I've always been willing to discuss anything regarding the entertainment world on this blog, although I didn't particularly imagine that would include children's superhero cartoons, that originate in Pakistan. That said, I try not to pass up too many opportunities and when I had the chance to discuss "Burka Avenger", the groundbreaking and award-winning TV show with the show's Head of Writing Adi Abdurab, I took advantage. What him, and the rest of the crew on the show are doing, is quite amazing with the first 3-D animated superhero in Pakistan, "Burka Avenger". She (Yes, a female superhero) has become famous worldwide, as a symbolic answer as Abdurab puts it "to extremes of the world". A powerful message especially in a county where such extremes like the right to women having an education is still being fought. For this SPECIAL EDITION blogpost, I got the opportunity to take some time and talk with Adi Abdurab, about "Burka Avenger", his journey and role on the Peabody Award-winning program, and what the future might hold for the series. We talked through instant messaging on Facebook, we were acquainted with each other through a mutual friend, and the conversation below is corrected from the original for grammatical reasons, as well as to present the interview in a more smoother way, with only brief, irrelevant and/or uninteresting exchanges between us taken out from the original discussion.  


ME: I'll just start with an easy one, who is "Burka Avenger"? 

ADI ABDURAB: There is a simple answer and a slightly longer answer, which would you like first?


ME: Start with the simple than go to the long.

ADI ABDURAB: The simple answer is that Burka Avenger is Pakistan's first superhero. She is a girl who has no super powers, is a highly trained martial artist and the answer to the extremes of the world. The long version is that Burka Avenger is the answer to a bunch of questions. Can women be superheroes without the revealing clothes? What role has education battling extremes, can a message designed for a specific country spread across the globe and can all of this be presented in an easy to digest package for children in such a way that they influence their environment. "Burka Avenger" talks about issues that are not common in the mainstream environment, women's right to education, not becoming a runaway, child labor and freedom of choice in how we live our lives. And, as a former business student, I feel works as a case study on how a show can come up from nothing (from the last place you'd expect) and take the world by storm because it hit all the right touch points at the right time. Does that answer your question?

ME: Very much so. It also leads me into my next questions, what are your responsibilities on the show, and how did you get to work on it? In other words, how did you get from business student to "Burka Avenger"? 

ADI ADBURAB: I had my own insignificant little blog where I used to write jokes and create random comics. It was mostly hit and miss. I was an IT manager for about 6 years at the time. A friend of mine was in the animation business, at the time, we talked about working on something together and I wrote some stories for him. He liked the ideas, none of them made it to film unfortunately. He was called in for an interview at Unicorn Black Animation Studios (then called Mango Animation). He did no take the job, but when asked if he knew a writer, put my name in for recommendation. I was called in for an interview along with other writers and we were all given this outline on which were to fashion a story. The outline (in summary) was that there are these extremists who are going to threaten a girl's school. There must be kids, there must be side-kicks, funny little characters and menacing villains.


ME: Is that the one that became the first episode? 

ADI ADBURAB: Sadly no, my first draft was rejected because I introduced 20 characters in there and the production pipeline was not ready for that many assets. But they liked where I was going with it and hired me. Then after a few meeting with the other writers, we whittled down the story to what you saw on TV.


ME: Ah. Yeah, 20 characters in an animation cartoon, that can be a bit much. 

ADI ADBURAB: At the time, I just had ideas for stories; I didn't even know the technical aspects of writing a script. But, some reading and research, I picked up on all that and I nailed it by the 4th draft. After two episodes, they liked my work; the made me the head of writing. They tried out a few people for sound direction, then they trained me in heading up pre-production and here we are.


ME: Oh wow, you do a lot on the show. 

ADI ADBURAB: I'd like to look at it as doing everything I can.


ME: That's a great way of putting it. How many writers does the show have, and how many episodes have you written? 

ADI ADBURAB: The show has 1 other writer and one consultant. The other writer is primarily responsible for gags, you can look him up, he's famous on Facebook "Comics by Arsian", the consultant was a part-time writer, she used to fine tune some of our scripts, such as going overboard with comedy or action. She'd remind us that we're not making "Simpsons" or "Legend of Korra" (who was an inspiration for some of out characters), and helped steer us back...-


COMICS BY ARSIAN LINKS ARE BELOW:
http://www.comicsbyarslan.com/ (BLOG/HOMEPAGE)
https://www.facebook.com/comics.by.arslan (FACEBOOK PAGE)

ME: You've practically beaten me to my next question here; so since this is Pakistan's first superhero, does "Burka Avenger" have any superhero influences, and in Pakistan in general, just how popular are superheroes/heroines with the public, or is this a very new concept there? 

ADI ADBURAB: Yes, "Legend of Korra" had just come out when we started work and saw it as our benchmark of a strong female lead. We also looked at the darked themes of "Batman" to design some of our shots. Our head of animation, a huge Batman, TAS, and Justice League fan, used to watch their action sequences all day before coming up with a storyboard. It is a bunch of ideas assembled from similar shows. So super heroes in Pakistan aren't exactly a new thing. There is a Commander Safeguard, who is basically a mascot for a soap, but they created some very interesting animated shorts featuring the adventures of Commanders Safeguard. We also used to get cartoon regularly, so the audience had been well educated since the days of "Voltron", "Thundercats", "Silver Hawks", etc. We didn't have such an uphill battle with the idea of a superhero.

ME: Wow, "Voltron", that brings me back.

ADI ADBURAB: It does us all. The ones with the cars was ridiculous; I remember laughing about the gags they made on "Robot Chicken" about that "Voltron".


ME: I never liked the one with the cars either. I'll have to look up the "Robot Chicken" one through, I haven't seen that one yet. I've seen others, but not the "Voltron" one. 

ADI ADBURAB: Do check it out, you might like it.


(Adi sent me the link to the "Robot Chicken" "Voltron" parody, and I watched it as we continued talking; it was pretty funny. The link is below.)
http://www.adultswim.com/videos/robot-chicken/voltron-force-assemble

ME: Moving on, the show's creator is Haroon, a very famous pop star in Pakistan, how hands-on is he with the show and what's he like to work with? 

ADI ADBURAB: He is very hands on, sometimes, short of taking the computer from you and doing it himself, he does it all. Sometimes it presents a challenge to fully create, but at other times, it makes things easy. Having been a pop star, he had some great ideas for soundtrack and that still happens to be one of the show's highlights. He is a very understanding person; I've seen people storm off after huge fights, but he never made it personal. "Mixed feelings" is the most apt phrase to describe that relationship. Being Head of Writing, most of my job involves going back and forth between him almost all the time. 

ME: I see. Well, the music for the show, is very prevalent, it's also very catchy and iconic already, so it's definitely impressive. 

ADI ADBURAB: Yes, the music is definitely the highlight; it's lead into the launch of another Black Unicorn project called Taazi.com, a platform to hear music legally for free. It's picking up nicely in Pakistan. 

ME: Oh, very cool. You talked a bit about the education aspects; it's a core theme of the show. It's obviously very important for you and the show, why is that, and just how prevalent a message is that on Pakistani television, especially compared with other animated/children shows? 

ADI ADBURAB: There is a mentality common to the Southeast Asian Sub-Continent that still holds on to the notion that women are inferior being. This is limited to the underdeveloped areas of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. To counteract that, we that "Burka Avenger" would present an opportunity to influence these minds both directly and tangentially, and hopefully it will help the cause of making education available to everyone. Other shows speak of generic issues of empowering women, which is great, but we felt that, with this, we need a new approach and we realized that there is no greater asset to a nation than literacy. I hope that answers the question. I feel like I may have repeated myself a few times there. 

ME: You probably have, but it does bare repeating. Especially is Pakistan, just looking up the statistics on literacy, especially among women; it's a bit startling for a westerner, so it's a very big message you're sending out. 

ADI ADBURAB: It is heart-wrenching for us as well. 

ME: I can kinda imagine, but not quite. Just a couple more questions, how long does it take to produce an episode? 

ADI ADBURAB: It depends on a few things, such as number of assets, the locations and backlog. Sometimes it takes 3 weeks, sometimes 6. The quickest we have done an episode was 2 weeks, which was basically a recap episode. 

ME: You also mentioned wanting the show to spread across the globe, in a way it's done that already, but are there any prospects/chances that "Burka Avenger" will start airing on U.S. television soon? 

ADI ADBURAB: Yes, there are definite wheels in motion to bring the series stateside. Insh-Allah, we will solidify a plan and announce the big news,... soon. 

ME: Hmm. Very interesting. We will keep an eye out for that. 

ADI ADBURAB: I'll be sure to let you know as soon as something solidifies. 

ME: I'll be waiting. Well, that's all the questions I had, thank you very much for doing this with me.

ADI ADBURAB: Not a problem, I'm happy to talk about "Burka Avenger". 

ME: And congratulation, on the many awards and accommodations the show has received, especially the Peabody, big congratulations on that. 

ADI ADBURAB: Thank you very much, it was a surprise for us, as well as a humbling reminder that anything can happen to anyone. 

ME: Thanks again for granting me this time. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

CANON OF FILM: "FITZCARRALDO"

FITZCARRALDO (1982)

Director/Screenplay: Werner Herzog



There's been numerous legendarily troubled movie shoots over time. “Apocalypse Now,”'s for instance was documented famously in the documentary "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalyspe", Katharine Hepburn wrote a book about the shoot for "The African Queen", just to get her frustration out of her system, "Heaven's Gate", the numerous failed attempts by Terry Gilliam to do "Don Quixote" but with all those, there’s one movie whose legendary shoot might just have everyone beat, and to absolutely no one’s surprise, the director in charge of that shoot, everyone’s favorite psychopath director, Werner Herzog. Les Blanc's award-winning documentary called “Burden of Dreams,” about the making of “Fitzcarraldo,”, shows these unbelievable lengths Herzog and everyone else inevitably went through to make the film. For starters, 40% of the film was shot when its star, Jason Robards, fell ill and had to back out of the project, then when Herzog was out looking for a replacement, Robards’s co-star Mick Jagger had to leave to go on tour with the Rolling Stones. With nowhere else to go, he ended up having to write Jagger’s role out completely, and stuck with his old frienemy, Klaus Kinski having to play Fitzcarraldo, both of whom would try to hire hitmen to kill the other during the shoot. Then he had to relocate the film production 1200 miles down the Amazon after his film got caught in the middle of a local tribal war, and this was only the first year of this four-year odyssey.

As crazy as the behind the scenes actual film of “Fitzcarraldo,” you practically gotta see to believe. Kinski plays Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, a rubber manufacturer in South America at the turn of the 20th Century, who’s tried parlaying his work into other projects, all of which had failed. His passion however is opera, particularly Enrico Caruso and Sarah Bernhart and his dream is to eventually build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon and have Caruso to perform there. In order to partake in this dream, he gets his wife (Claudia Cardinale) to finance him on a voyage up a river to an area where there’s numerous rubber trees still unclaimed because of the difficulty of getting there, along with the unfriendly natives, in combination of a second river, near the area that’s too rapid to travel back. His idea is to start claiming the land and building a city along an area where the two rivers nearly cross, and literally move the rubber by having a three story steamboat dragged from one river to another, oh, and in this scenario over a mountain! Here’s the real-life part that makes this a must-watch: Herzog, decided to actually pull a four-story story steamboat up the fucking mountain. There are no special effects, this is actually what he does, and then, during one incredible sequence, that was both shot for the film and went into the documentary, careens the boat into the rapids, and shoots while he’s on the boat. Believe it or not, this story is actually loosely based on a real guy who actually tried something like this, although that guy took the boat apart before dragging it to the other side of a mountain, Herzog left it intact, and in fact injured a good number of Natives, and destroyed a few boats while trying this. Herzog believes, maybe more than anybody that one must sacrifice and do anything and everything possible, in order to make the movie, which to him, making movies is the ultimate artistic challenge, and the fact that his characters constantly challenge the unbending, unyielding limits of nature, show a man obsessed with the metaphoric struggle of having to live a life in a world that is so clearly not designed by man. (Not insinuating it was designed by God or any other higher being). Fitzcarraldo, might be Herzog’s most obsessed, and strangely enough, his most clear-thinking one. His idea is not bad, and in fact is fairly creative, and in many ways successful, up until the very end. The images of this steamship coming up through the Amazon with a gramophone blaring Caruso and fascinating the Natives is one of the most incredible images in film, and there’s numerous other ones in this film. It’s certainly not Herzog’s best film, it’s way too long, and the plan is so far-fetched and impossible, it’s hero, well not surprisingly, is constantly bordering on seeming mad. Maybe of course that’s the idea, but even if it wasn’t, I doubt it could’ve ended up any other way. Either way, Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo,” is a symbol of the incredible lengths people go for achievement. How far one will go for their dreams and Herzog is an incredible symbol to the lengths one will go to for their art. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

THE TEN GREATEST MOVIES OF 2007! Sorry for the delay, but this is seven years later, and

Man, looking back, 2007 was an incredible year for film. I was finally wetting my feet into Film for my career, and this is the first of these I've done where I can legitimately see about 50 or so movies making a Top Ten list from the year, so this was a particularly tricky list to make out. In fact, this is one of the few times that over-the-years, I've switched out my number one. Not now, but awhile ago. I've noticed people talk about stuff like that, like on Facebook or something, like it's a huge friggin' announcement. It's not a major announcement. It's like telling everybody you won at computer solitaire, really. Anyway, as you can tell, by my infrequent posts of these lists, I've started to grow more and more tired of them myself, plus, I do have other work outside of my blog that I'd prefer to work on, but I don't like to start something and then not finish, if possible.

If you're wondering what i'm talking about, several months ago, I started doing this regular blog series, where I go through each year of the previous decade, and list the Top Ten films from each year, we started with 2000 and we're at 2007 now, if you missed the previous lists, here's the recap and linkslists underneath:

2006
1. INLAND EMPIRE
2. Children of Men
3. United 93
4. The Departed
5. The Lives of Others
6. The Puffy Chair
7. Babel
8. Sherrybaby
9. Hard Candy
10. An Inconvenient Truth
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-ten-greatest-movies-of-2006-funny.html

2005
1. Munich
2. Good Night, and Good Luck.
3. Brokeback Mountain
4. Mysterious Skin
5. Sin City
6. The Upside of Anger
7. The New World
8. Crash
9. Saraband
10. Capote
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2014/05/ten-greatest-movies-of-2005-halfway.html

2004
1. Sideways
2. The Incredibles
3. Before Sunset
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
5. The Aviator
6. Kill Bill: Vol. 2
7. The Five Obstructions
8. A Home at the End of the World
9. Million Dollar Baby
10. Hotel Rwanda
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2014/04/the-ten-greatest-movies-of-2004-man.html

2003
1. Lost in Translation
2. City of God
3. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
4. Love, Actually
5. Monster
6. The Fog of War
7. Dirty Pretty Things
8. The Twilight Samurai
9. The Barbarian Invasions
10. The Shape of Things
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-ten-greatest-movies-of-2003-year.html

2002
1. Adaptation.
2. Minority Report
3. 25th Hour
4. Spirited Away
5. Y Tu Mama Tambien
6. Bowling for Columbine
7. Frida
8. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
9. Lovely & Amazing
10. Far From Heaven
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-ten-greatest-movies-of-year-2002.html

2001
1. Mulholland Dr. 
2. Dinner Rush
3. Waking Life
4. The Royal Tenenbaums
5. Gosford Park
6. Monsters, Inc.
7. Amelie
8. Audition
9. Ghost World
10. Memento
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-ten-greatest-movies-of-year-2001.html

2000
1. Almost Famous
2. Amores Perros
3. Traffic
4. Requiem for a Dream
5. Chocolat
6. Best in Show
7. Wonder Boys
8. High Fidelity
9. 6ixtynin9
10. Cast Away
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-5-obstructions-blogathon-objective.html

Well, sorry for taking so long to get another of these, I know they're more popular than they are with me, but let's get to it. The Ten Greatest Movies of 2007!

THE TEN GREATEST MOVIES OF 2007

10. SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET



I played around with the entire bottom of my list here for awhile; I started writing and rewatching "No End in Sight" at one point, and I have 10 or 12 other films basically to five 4 or 5 spots I was arguing against (The top of this list was far easier for me to fill out) but, in the end, I finally chose Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" as my number ten, and has their ever been a more perfect pairing of director with material? Now I'm somewhat known for having not been a particularly big Tim Burton fan but I've always contested that he's better when he's not creating the material himself, 'cause he to sometimes think visual elegance alone tells the story, but when he's got material already there to work with his best film "Ed Wood", he can be amazing. Here, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's gruesome musical, based on the Christopher Bond re-imagining of the original , famously called the bloodiest play to ever hit Broadway, is faithfully adapted, and Burton's fascination with the beauty in gore and death, is used to incredible effect here. As always, great production design, and cinematography, but the real key is that the musical is strong to begin with. Filled with amazing music, and special performances by Johnny Depp, who got an Oscar nomination for the title character, and Helena Bonham Carter as a somewhat dubious pastry shop owner. The key to the musical and why it's far superior to most other versions of "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (There's actually two films with that exact title, the other dates back to 1936) is that this was one of the stories that portrays Sweeney Todd as somewhat of a wronged man, who's out firstly for revenge, having first been wrongly accused of a crime, and then the judge, (Alan Rickman) taking his daughter while his wife went crazy. But as great a bloody musical "Sweeney Todd..." is, the real reason I rank it so high is that it's just a bloody fun time of a film. Burton's sensibilities, knowing to keep the material as is, and just let his amazing visuals enhance the movie actually reveals a rare piece of restraint that we don't normally see in his work, and as a film, it's just full of this great pulp fun that the cinema oozes and gushes for. It's a film that loves the macabre and embraces it to it's fullest extent and the fact that it just happens to be a great musical is a bonus. Not, the best musical of the year, but we'll get to that.


9. THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY



He's more of an artist than a filmmaker, Julian Schnabel, and on the latter, he's been somewhat inconsistent over the years when he's chosen to dive into this field, but from a filmmaking perspective, it's tough to argue against his incredible ability after watching "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly". The movie's not so much based on the novel by Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Almaric), although it is based on his autobiography, but based on the incredible circumstances under which the former editor of Elle Magazine in France, ended up writing it, and how. Bauby suddenly suffered a massive stroke while driving one day, and was then diagnosed with something called locked-in syndrome, which basically paralyzes your body into the position, and Bauby was left with only the ability to use his left eye. He's conscious the whole time, and we hear his thoughts, and most important and amazingly, we see the world from his point of view, lying on the bed, only able to see from his eye, and then inevitably able to blink his requests, letter by letter, inevitably, publishing his autobiography that way. He wasn't exactly the greatest person, even in his paralytic state, he makes comments about the nurses. A bit of a playboy who left his wife for his mistress, Dauby's life was one of the more superficial it seems, but now in the depths of reality, he manages to regain a sense of purpose, in forcing his novel through. (He passed away days after his book was published. One of the last shots we see of him, is of his being read the reviews from his nurses. Schnabel's occurring theme through his works is usually the struggle of the young artist to get his art created, and we saw that in his other biopics "Basquiat" and "Before Night Falls", but perhaps if was the subject matter that encourages the filmmaker in Schnabel to really take some chances and challenge himself as an artist in the medium, and the result is one of the more impressive directorial efforts in recent years. The film earned five Oscar nominations, including for Schnabel for Best Director, despite the film not even being France's Foreign Language Oscar submission (More on their film pick later), "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" really expands itself from the novel and creates a truly unique filmmaking experience, and a true journey through the human consciousness.


8. PERSEPOLIS



Nominated for Best Animated Feature Oscar, as well as being chosen as France's submission over "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" for the Foreign Language Oscar "Persepolis", Based on Director Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novels, the movie looks and feels like a gorgeous black-and-white graphic novel, and tells her story her personal story of growing up, and inevitably finding a home for herself in Paris, to the story of her home in Iran, as the country continues to decline, first glimpsing us a look at the life in Tehran under the reign of the Shah, 'til the overthrown by the Ayatollah Khomeini, and the numerous continued losses of democracy that overtook the country over the years. Meanwhile, she's sent to Vienna with relatives, to not get into too much trouble with her rebellious nature, but the freewheeling Europe teenage world makes her a little too uncomfortable, and her inner struggles between these two conflicting universes she experiences. The title refers to the name of the ruins of the old Persian capital found, in Southern Iran, as we see the modern-day Tehran begin it's fall into ruins. But let that fool you, this is a fun, exciting, insouciant film, filled with pop culture references, and the funny-yet-tragic travails involved with growing up becoming a strong-willed independent woman. There's a lot of growing up in this film, and what "Persepolis" really is, is this beautiful mosaic of all these incredible inspirational sources with which Marjane has engulfed over the years, and it's really this amazing little diary, I guess of all these amazing experiences put together, telling an amazing story, in this beautiful black and white animation. It's really amazing to see just how fun this film is. Sometimes, it's really, just somebody having an interesting life, and then allowing us to experience it.


7. 12 



It was nominated for a Foreign Language Oscar in '07, but curiously "12", was not released theatrically in America 'til two years later, Not only because it's director, Nikita Mikhalkov is actually a fairly well-known and established name; he had won an Oscar years ago, for his great film "Burnt by the Sun", but more than that, here he's remaking one of the greatest and more classic of American films, Sidney Lumet's "12 Angry Men". That's a film I'm incredibly familiar with, and there's no bad version of "12 Angry Men", whether it's the original "Studio One" teleplay by "The Defendors" creator Reginald Rose (Whose got a screenwriting credit on this remake) or even the recent cable adaptation on Showtime back in the late '90s, was quite good. Here though, Mikhalkov takes the base of the story and then expands it greatly, putting new wrinkles into the story, fit for a country that's still getting used to the Justice system, while also dealing with it's own history of judicial shortcomings, along with the modern-day troubles amongst the Russians themselves. In this case for instance, we see from the defendant's point of view, a young Chechen teenager accused of killing his stepfather, shortly after they arrived in Moscow to escape the Chechen Civil War. This interesting dynamic between the numerous different ethnic groups inside Russia alone is something we haven't seen. We also see each of the jurors, give fascinating monologues explaining their choices and decisions along the way, as the arbitrate in an empty school classroom while the jury slowly turns from what seems like a surefire guilty verdict to a struggling not guilty one. They deal with some of the more famous scenes in the original movie, like the debate over whether or not the old man with a limp could've gotten to the door to see the kid run off in time, but then they also skew from the facts of the case, sometimes ignoring them completely and just voting and going off their own personal experience, and taking other factors into account, like the inner workings of modern-day Moscow, and the way the new democratic Russia controls the town and how the city has responded. Mikhalkov, who also plays the jury foreman, Juror #2 in the film, could've actually made a pretty straight-forward remake and it probably would've worked, but he transported the story and turned a quintessential American film, into a truly Russian one. Forcing a closer look and a keener eye on his own society, not trying to integrate someone else's values into it.  I/We know this story almost by heart in our country, and we thought we knew everything about it, but here is an entirely new perspective, one that we didn't know until now.


6. INTO THE WILD



I hadn't been overly enthused after Sean Penn's earlier directorial works, but he took great care with "Into the Wild". Not only directing, but writing the script, adapted from Joe Krakauer's investigative book on the late Christopher McCandless, a young man, who became obsessed with the idea of giving away all of the pleasantries of modern technology and foregoing all of civilization to go out and live and thrive in the wilderness of Alaska. McCandless (Emile Hirsch) was a law student at Emory College and had good grades, but- while not disenfranchised with the modern world per se, he felt like his true calling would be the freedoms of nature, so he cashed out his fund, gave most of his possessions and money away to charity, and determined to find himself up to Alaska through his own ways. He see him arrive out to Alaska, where he makes an abandoned bus his home, while he struggles to hunt and feed himself in the rigid climate, inspired by the works of Jack London, and of course, Henry David Thoreau's "Walden", which inspires the most civilized of box people to want to fight it out and seek the peace and tranquility of nature for a minute. On the way, we see McCandless, who renames himself Alexander Supertramp, as he encounters numerous people on his inevitably doomed journey. Despite getting acclaim from most awards, "Into the Wild" only received two Oscar nominations, one for Jay Cassidy's editing, and the other for Hal Holbrook, who at 81 years got his first and only career Oscar nomination for the film. (A fact that seems amazing in hindsight, especially considering how small his role actually is) But the film remains enchanting and even inspiring, even at it's most tragic and misguidedly heartbreaking. The gorgeous score and Golden Globe winning songs by Eddie Vedder, give the film much weight, and provide this idealistic backdrop for this most idealized adventure. We can see the mistakes that McCandless makes, as he's making them, but we can't help but at least appreciate the dreamer of Supertramp that led to them, and that's really an incredible filmmaking feat.


5. GRINDHOUSE



Speaking of crazy and misguided ideas done with an incredible amount of romantic idealism, one of the most fun and enjoyable cinematic experiences I've ever had, was seeing "Grindhouse" in it's original theatrical run. Although the films were released separately outside North America most places, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's double-feature extravaganza, didn't so much try to replicate the original '60-'70s "Grindhouse" experience of seeing an exploitative low-budget double feature at those out-of-the-way dingy and messy old theater houses, than as to be inspired by them and those films in order to create a modern-day homage to those kinds of films and those filmmaking styles and experiences. Rodriguez's film "Planet Terror", is more of a traditional over-the-top zombie infestation film, after some bio-experiment gone wrong, turns a South Texas town into zombies, while a group of survivalists led by a stripper, Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) and a mysterious non-local named Wray (Freddy Rodriguez). It's a bloody, gory, violent parade of zombies, guts, blood, even sex for a second, before the entire reel is skipped as it inevitably missing for some reason. The second film is Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof", about serial killer Stunt Man Mike (Kurt Russell) a former Hollywood stuntman who kidnaps and kills young women using his car that's been altered by Hollywood to be death proof for the driver, but deadly, for most everyone else he meets at a grungy, dirty, sexy watering hole where daisy dukes and smoldering sensuality are still in style, but the tables get turned, when he runs into some stunt and movie girls of their own, months later, he begins to meet his match, in the worst Russ Meyer of ways imaginable. While great pop iconography and genius involved in Rose McGowan having that chainsawed leg, and the gorgeous guitar-grinding score from Rodriguez himself, that's sure to be a favorite at strip clubs and acid-laced orgies for years to come, "Death Proof" alone, would've damn-near made this list; it's one of Tarantino's most underrated masterpieces, and I think it's one of the greatest films ever made, that's about a car chase. (Notice the wording, "about" a car chase) Yet, the whole butt-churning experience that is "Grindhouse", is pure eye candy for the cinema lover, let's not forget, the fake trailers for other movies, including Rodriguez's first introduction of what would become Danny Trejo's iconic "Machete" character, but also Rob Zombie's "Werewolf Women of the SS", Edgar Wright's "Don't" and the best of these, Eli Roth's "Thanksgiving", which alone, the movie is worth watching for the one trampoline shot/sequence alone. (Also, in the Canadian version, a fake trailer for what would become John Eisener's "Hobo with a Shotgun") Altogether, "Grindhouse" at well over three hours of pure cinematic pleasure and overabundance from two of the most enthusiastic of cinephiles, and it's pure pleasure in seeing their work, even in this ungainly and confusing form that's rarely viewed anymore. The parts might be a little greater than the whole, but as an experience, it's a crowning achievement for all who endured it.


4 THERE WILL BE BLOOD



I remember it seeming somewhat strange to me that people would be befuddled or confused by the ending of "There Will Be Blood"; it was noted as one of the strangest and most controversial in recent years. I couldn't help but think, "Really, stranger than 'Magnolia'?" Of course, it wasn't, and it in turn wasn't that strange. I think most people will try to figure out a way to put "There Will Be Blood", number one on this list in the future, or even today. I understand that urge, and despite the great quality of films this year, I think this is one of only four films that I think a really strong argument can be made for number one. Paul Thomas Anderson's very loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair's "Oil", is overblown expressionistic ambition, from Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis's Daniel Plainview and from it's director who hardly seems right when he's striving for anything less than that. Plainview is a conman, an oilman, and entrepreneur, all the worst aspects of Capitalism rolled into one. His "son" becomes useless to him when he becomes deaf and sends him away, and his excessive grab and control for money is only matched by the actions of his incessant desire to make sure that his enemies have none. His enemy seems to be a preacher, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) who's land in a relatively small but growing community, has oil in it, as Plainview been told by Eli's brother Paul (Dano, again, in an unusual casting choice) and despite some early schemes working together, Plainview works on orchestrating his destruction ways, right in plain sight, of everyone but Eli, as the industrial age starts to sweep through the country and oil becomes the new steel. "There Will Be Blood", isn't so much a movie as it is an exuberant piece of self-expressionistic art, spread over the length of a film. This grandiose film about this grandiose man, who's shocking lack of empathy, sympathy, hell, humanity, just intrigues and fascinates us. Strange for what's essentially a character piece, especially one that's a long Conrad-like journey into a character only to find, not much there, but maybe that's the point. Or that's there simply beauty and elegance in excess and superficiality, and the dirtier the oil, the greener the money becomes. Or the redder the blood.


3. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN



I've given up determining what the Coen Brothers best film is; just when I feel like the argument for "Fargo" or "The Big Lebowski" is the strongest, then they'll do something like "Inside Llewyn Davis" and screws up my thought process on it again. But their Oscar-winning Best Picture "No Country for Old Men", has to be considered among their very best. I was a little confused after my first viewing, especially since, I remember this clearly, the Netflix package I had, had mislabeled the time length on the film, as having 20 more minutes, and the ending really came as a surprise at the time for me, because of that, but I made sure to watch it a second and third time, knowing that the Coens never do anything so thin that one viewing is enough to catch it all, and I was taken back by the intricacy of the amazing story. Based on a Cormac McCarthy novel (and a very good one I might add, this is a very good adaptation of it) at it's core, it's a chase movie, a thriller, involving $2million dollars in a black suitcase. First, it's in possession of Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who found it, after some kind of mess that left several dead, and some injured that he happens to stumble upon. He sorta knows the kind of screwed up situation he's walked into, but soon, it starts approaching, in the form of pure evil, Anton Chigurh (Oscar winner Javier Bardem). He moves patiently-yet-deliberately as things continue to escalate, and Chigurh will clearly not stop 'til he's got the money, no matter how well Llewelyn manages to outsmart him and play his game. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) narrates the film originally (Some chapters in the book seems to just be first-person monologue fascinations with the evil in the world he reads in the paper or hears about elsewhere, just considering it) but takes onto the investigation, always a few steps behind and knowing it, but just unable to completely fill all the missing pieces to the puzzle. In the middle of this chess game-like thriller more and more characters and perspectives come into play, and the film, molds this elegiac quality into the thriller plothole, leaving us with an inevitable conflict between chance and destiny, for everyone to consider. Sometimes it's their lives at stake, other times just a flip of a coin. Some like Ed Tom, just have nothing else to do, but sit at the breakfast table, retired, hearing everything he's ever heard, seeing everything he's ever seen, and just consider. I always thought it was so interesting that the whole movie is essentially about how Sheriff Ed Tom reacts and see everything that happens, and yet, he's the one who's never given all the information, but the Coens do give it to us, and even after piecing it together, wer're still not sure how or what if anything else could've been done. It's a truly beautiful and haunting film, that grows with each viewing, and every nuance, and is more delicate than it appears. One wrong note could've ruined everything; the film is truly an incredible achievement.


2. JUNO



If I had made this poll back in '07, I probably would've most likely said "Juno" as my number one. It didn't fall, it's just that over time, I realized one film was even better, but as some of you will remember I had "Juno" on my Top 100 Movies of All-Time List, that I was requested to do a few months back (And if you go back to that blogpost, you should be able to guess what my number one is) and the film remains as smart, witty and charming as ever. It's the one of the very best scripts I've ever written, especially a first script, and it introduced us not only to Ellen Page being one of the best actresses around, but also to Diablo Cody, one of the most inventive and distinctive voices and writers alive. Page plays Juno MacGuff, a 16-year-old who decided to have sex recently with her best friend Paulie (Michael Cera) and ended up pregnant. After first trying abortion, she decides to have her child adopted by a loving couple, Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), who are more desperate for a child, but Juno likes them and especially Mark for being a musician who stills seems to be trying to rock despite his wife's more Martha Stewart house. She had already started the planning of this, before even telling her parents (JK Simmons and Allison Janney) and in one of the many surprises, they're not stupid or obnoxious, and like most of the characters, including Juno, they're incredibly smart and observant. Better yet, the script is smart and observant to know exactly how to tease us, and know exactly the correct moment and ways to make it seem like we're going down a predictable, and then, take it in a completely different direction, more honest, more real than most movies would ever try to be. To hear a defeated 8-months pregnant Juno reflect that "I've been dealing with stuff way above my maturity level", it's so charming and refreshing, to realize somebody is smart enough to understand that, and know exactly how to back away. The whole movie could've been so many bad cliches, and instead it insists on finding a new insightful way of approaching this material, creating these characters that we haven't seen for. It's just stunning work. It was the second film directed by Jason Reitman, Ivan's son, he had done a very good movie a few years earlier called "Thank You for Smoking", a sharp satire based on the Christopher Buckley novel, and with this film, and later with "Up in the Air" and the Cody-penned "Young Adult", he quietly become one of the interesting directors out there, who finds a way of telling surprising human stories of very complex and thoughtful characters that we haven't seen before. He uses interesting tricks like the animated opening sequences, and really smart music choices, but they don't overtake the film with his style, he's more delicate than that, and instead he gets what seems like very simple stories on the surface, but let's them have so much more depth to them, that the more we watch, the more stuff below-the-surface their is, and when it comes from a teen comedy of all things, you really have to stand back in awe of what they accomplished with this one.


1. ONCE


As much as I adore and am absolute awe of "Juno", over-the-years one film has simply grown more and more viscerally into my conscious and subconscious. One that continues to impress and inspire in numerous forms and find an ever-growing wider audience all the time. One that transcends it's basic story and turns film, not just into poetry, but into the highest of all arts, music. It's also the only film, where I've posted a Canon of Film post of a film, on two separate occasions, the latest one, is below:

http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2012/05/canon-of-film-once.html

Number one, is "Once". From Writer/Director John Carney, "Once" is the tale of He and She (Oscar winners Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) a Irish guitarist who fixes vacuum cleaners and a struggling Czech pianist with a toddler, and when they come together in a Dublin music shop, something special happens. Shot in 3 weeks, and for about 180,000 pounds, it's a beautiful musical, about the rare brief moments these two musicians have, both with music, and with each other, before life pulls both of them apart. Like great music can transport you into a place and time, the music of "Once" transports us, back to this place and time for these two to remember. It's appropriately one of the biggest sensations since, including breaking almost all the records at the Tonys when it this small little gem was transported to the Broadway stage. It's may be "Once" but it's beautiful and perfect no matter how many times you see it, and it's the movie I've most watched since, from watched since from this year, and it'll be the film I watch most often in the future. It didn't fall slowly, it just rose and rose up my list, "Once", the Best Film of 2007.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

TV VIEWING 101: CLASS #3: SITCOM STRUCTURE: LONG-FORM AND SHORT-FORM!



(As I walk into class)
Hey Everyone. (Long pause, louder) Hey, everyone! (Class motions slightly, some random "Hey"'s and "Hi"'s, barely vocal) I know it's been almost two weeks and we're still on Emmy's hangover here, but, you were supposed to yell, "Norm!" All of you, five points deducted today. Oh, don't grown to me, if you had been prepared you would've known to catch it.

Alright, we've been talking about sitcoms, and today we're talking structure. How is a sitcom structured? And we're gonna talk about this, is the short-form and in the long-form, because I find too many people, who do not understand, sitcom structure. And nothing pisses me off more when people don't get it. I hear this one, all the fucking time, for instance, "I hate 'The Big Bang Theory'. It's the same jokes all the time. Sheldon's crazy, Leonard likes Penny, Raj is Indian, they're all nerdy, it's always the same!" Like, the next week, we're gonna it's gonna turn into "Breaking Bad" or something. And Sheldon's a meth cooker in his spare time, or something, and suddenly Amy's an actress or whatever. You see, there so used to modern dramas and HBO sitcoms, and they're good, let's not pretend they're not, but they're under this horrible delusion that sitcom have to continually move forward and have a serialized story in order for it to make any sense?

Really, the same jokes? I could say the same about "All in the Family"? Couldn't I? Archie, a lovable bigot, he argues with Meathead over politics or modern culture, Gloria's caught in the middle, and Edith is a dingbat, isn't that every episode of that show? Or better yet, "M*A*S*H". Hawkeye's a lousy letch, drunk, an thoroughly unmilitary, Trapper and BJ we're his comrades in arms, so was Col. Blake and then Col. Potter. He fought with Frank and Hotlips, and then Winchester and Hotlips. But that show changed over time didn't it? Yes, it did, went from a straight dark comedy to a realist dark comedy, and to a dramedy altogether. Character left and changed, the amount of focus on the characters change. Tone changed, types of episodes change, reason for existing constantly change. You see it's not new that a sitcom changes over time, but- what stayed the same? What was the constant? Anyone? Hawkeye, he was the constant. He was always the drafted goofball surgeon performing meatball surgery, and fighting for the lives of the kids he performed on, even when combated against incredible odds, not the least of which the ineptness of the Armed Services of the United States. He, was a smartass, he was always funny, he was always drinking, he wanted to go home, he was always going after a girl, he was always telling jokes, he was always doing the craziest things he could things he can think of in order to keep his sanity intact. 11 seasons, of him, being the same brutal, realiable, funny, Hawkeye Pierce, and then in the very last episode, where is he? Dr. Freedman's office. Taken out of the war, for psychiatric treatment, having gone crazy. 11 years they built that up. and 106 million people in the U.S., 60% of the country, something, even the Super Bowls that finally broke that number-of-viewers mark, couldn't come close to getting today, wondered "What the fuck happened to Hawkeye?!" So, the same jokes, right? Really? If they had done that, in season 3 or something like they would've done in most than it wouldn't have lasted that long. Yeah, things happened during the series, characters slightly changed, sometimes they majorly changed, and many times, things that happened affected them greatly, including Hawkeye, but not like that.

Believe it or not, sitcom structure, is not that different from the structure of any other piece of literature. It's basically, 3 acts, beginning, middle and end. They're not reinventing the wheel, they're not claiming to. What some people don't understand is that, the changes have to be minimal most of the time, even when they seem to be huge changes in their lives, long-term changes, and they're in all sitcoms too, even before Lucille Ball got pregnant with Desi Arnaz Jr., but much of the time, a sitcom is weekly. Once a week, we get to look inside the lives or homes of some other people, and see what's going on, and you know what? People don't change that much from week-to-week do they? No, they might do one, or two new or interesting, and they might get into a little pickle or conundrum or quandry, but nothing earth-shattering usually, nothing out of the ordinary of any kind. Well, out-of-the-ordinary for the show anyway. So, that's really the key, you're writing, not, one long story through the chapter device of episodes, the way a modern cable drama seems to do, or a soap opera does, but here you're writing episodes, which are essentially, able to be contained within that half-hour, usually, but are then however, pieced together, when done correctly, they do make a coherent story. This is what's a bit tricky, 'cause that part, really originated accidentally. For many years, it really did, just use to be half-hours that weren't exactly, treated more like sketch comedy. There were still long-running gags and quirks. Take "I Love Lucy" for instance, Lucy always scheming to try and find her way into the show, or be famous, that never really changed, that desire, Ricky's Cuban accent, they couldn't exactly hide or pretend that wasn't there, so they used it, in many ways, sometimes he actually spoke Spanish. This led to comedy. The Mertz's were the neighbors and landlords and their best friends, they're partners in trouble, these are the essential constants, but then Lucy got pregnant, (Which they couldn't actually say at that time, they had to use more euphemisms than "The Contest" episode of "Seinfeld" back then) so, she's pregnant for awhile, and then they have a kid, and then there's a whole new dynamic and more material for comedy in the show, and the show begins evolving. Then, they do other things like leave their home and apartment for other places for prolongued period of time and so-on and so-forth in that regard and so-on,... and btw, I'm using "I Love Lucy", as an example to really show, just how long this basic concept of trying to formulate a half-hour that makes sense, and will satisfy the audience for a week, just long enough for them to come back and watch again.

And for the most part, that half-hour, average sitcom, it starts with a teaser, some people might call it a cold open, but it's a two minutes or so opening bit or joke that establishes the characters, the locations, give you a sense of the show and usually the episode, might hint towards a beginning to one of the, usually two storylines each episode deals with. There's usually an A, and a B storyline, even in some of the most progressive of television shows. Think "Will & Grace," for this, main story involves Will and Grace, and then Jack and Karen are usually off in their own subplot world, their could be more too. "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" often has more, or less plots sometimes. Anyway, teaser, then commercials, usually some kind of credit sequence either before or after the teaser, which also in many ways, stands as, a guide to the exposition of the show. Sometimes, the theme song lyrics, just told you all the backstory, eh, the visuals in the opening credits are great. The opening of "Sex and the City" tells you everything you need to know about the show going in, and it's just Carrie Bradshaw, walking down the street in New York, and then a bus with her picture splashes her. Brilliant, simple, no words, you established locations, you established the main character at least, and set the tone for the show, perhaps giving an indication of what that particular episode might be about. Occasionally that might involve a "Previously on" opening, but that's more with drama than sitcom, usually other than that, exposition gets established through the dialogue and actions.

Then the first act, about eight minutes or so in length, and these are rigidly timed, they have to be to take commercials into account, btw. And in case you're wondering, I am looking off some notes for this, I'm getting this at this webpage below, but it's the format I learned when I was in film school, and taking classes from a professor who wrote on numerous sitcoms, and I've written in this format, many times myself, yada, yada, yada...:

http://everything2.com/title/Standard+sitcom+episode+structure

Anyway, Act I, after the teaser, about seven or eight minutes, (Time may vary but not much) Three scenes (So do scene counts btw) but we get the main protagonist, runs into a problem with his main storyline. Somebody shout out a TV sitcoms? Doesn't matter which one. Not, "Louie", cause he usually doesn't have a secondary plots (Well, he does sometimes, actually but...) oh, "Arrested Development" perfect, there's dozens of secondary plots in that show. So Michael, runs into some problem, probably involving his mother and his father, or whatever, this is the core conflict, meanwhile, there's some other conflict, involving, either Gob or George Michael or maybe Lindsay or Tobias, or maybe Maeby. Sometimes there's two or three, and usually they're in some way interconnected. Now normally, Michael will come up a reasonable way of solving the problem, that will inevitably blow up in his face, after refusing to solve, or badly solving most everybody's else's problems, but that's not important, mostly, Michael's solution blows up in his face, that's the main issue. We get it to the point, where something blows up and then we get to commercial and then to Act II.

Okay, so Michael, in Act II, which Michael tries to find another solution to the original and/or also find a solution to the new problem. Meanwhile, let's say Lindsay, searches for her ridiculous solution to problem, something which definitely won't work even if it ever did come out as planned for once, it would probably never work. Then Michael, finally sorta figures out enough to at least solve the problem for now, in other shows, it might be for good, but this is "Arrested Development", and we usually arrive, hopefully at something, reasonably satisfying for the ending, 'cause while, it is a good tool, to bring people in, next week, you actually don't want to keep leaving up in the air, eventually audiences, especially for a sitcom, they tend to get tired of shoved, so even for a more profoundly serialized sitcom like "Arrested Development", you need a satisfactory piece of closure to the end of episode. It's any other kind of screenwriter. Begin with the current stasis, change/catalyst arrives, screws up the stasis, solution inevitably found, but there's a new stasis, usually similar to the old one, not always though, usually. There's a normal to go back to something close to it, 'cause A. the situation really changes so dramatically, and frankly it shouldn't, okay. I love "Roseanne", but c'mon, never should've made them millionaires. (Even though the last episode of the show, if you ever got that far, did actually find a way to make it makes sense in the overall story of the show.) We're not looking, for the drastic, science teacher becomes meth cooker change with sitcoms, changes like that, 99% of the time, far more gradual anyway, and B. those subtle changes of characters are way more interesting anyway, and they play better for television storytelling anyway. You want to establish the characters and establish them well, one way, and that way, when suddenly, Chandler and Monica are in bed together in London, or Sheldon, suddenly meets Amy Farrah Fowler, Hawkeye, finally going crazy.

That doesn't mean characters don't change, or that even the show can't change, but it's knowing exactly when to change and how to change that really separates the good and great shows. Knowing when Samantha on "Sex and the City" should have an episode about a one-night stand or two, or whether she's having a far more prolonged multiple-episode/season relationship with the guy that played Dexter's father. Even when you're doing a serialized sitcom, you gotta understand what can change, when it can change and how, and why. And don't mistake, the necessity involved in staying consistent with sitcoms not needing to change, sitcoms do need to change over the years. It's a balance, but things need to remain consistent, while other things need to change. You know where this really comes into play, any show with children. 'Cause they friggin' grow up, you know can't keep a kid the same age forever, you gotta get the show to evolve. That's why so many kids shows have short lifespans of quality. You know, I don't know why all of you were watching, "Glee", I'm like "2 years, tops and it's not even good, why is everybody watching?" Most of you, got caught up in it, I went, "High school's four years, musicals never last on television, the only interesting character is Jane Lynch, and she was already famous,- Nine, ten strikes against the show, from the beginning. Wasn't gonna be "The Wonder Years", or "Malcolm in the Middle", or even "Blossom" or "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air", it just wasn't. "Family Matters" evolved the second Jaleel White stepped on the stage, and then they kept at it. They didn't particularly evolve well, but they evolved. "Married... with Children", eleven years, kids grew up. "Modern Family"'s doing it now, "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet", 14 years, they did it back then. Grew from kid to Rock'n'roll pioneer. Gary Coleman was ten forever, while his siblings were drugged and robbing video stores, so "Diff'rent Strokes" not that good a show. These infinitesimal changes of a TV show and character, over a long term, because we get so used to them, doing those same old things every time, they're more noticeable and they mean a lot more to us, than if we had just seen them change. Dramas, I love, do this all the time, they spend their characters through the ringer of these dramatic events, and they're completely altered, but we barely get to know them to begin with? So, were not as engaged, naturally, than we would with a sitcom. Especially since, most typical dramas nowadays are so, intent on being so primarily focused on a serialized story structure.

Now of course, like any typical rule or structures, in film, television exceptions, some good, most not-so-good, but it's the distinction between the long-form structure and the short-form, parallel structures, I really wanted to focus on, 'cause, first of all, when you're trying to write or get on a sitcom writing staff, first thing they look for is a spec script of the TV show that your writing for, which is basically an average episode of the series, that will probably never get aired, but you write it to make sure you know the tone of the show and understand how to write a sitcom. In fact, you're specifically not supposed to change the sitcom significantly in a speck script. So, if you wrote, hmm, an episode of let's say-, let me find a current show, "Mike & Molly" and you write them an episode where Mike & Molly break up, you'll never get hired. The show's about them trying to be together, so that would defeat the whole purpose of the show. If a show is about the sexual tension of the characters, don't write the episode where they get together. But besides, most of the time, the structure is God, and frankly the best shows, have been using all the successful and best structures forever.

Girl is a TV producer who's always fighting with a headstrong, overbearing male boss, while struggling to deal with all the other crazy personalities around her, just to get a TV show on the air, and hopefully have a full and active social life, even though it always comes second to her work. Did I just describe "30 Rock" or "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"? Or course you don't know, it's the same show; it's the things that are different that separate it. There's no reinventing the wheel, it's just in how you decide to make sure it rolls. Everything circular, we keep going back to that, everything on TV, everything's still on TV, everything's referential to the past, which is still the present. Gotta know where a show comes from, how it's made, how it's structured, formatting, what it's about! That's a big one; I think a lot of people miss those some times. I hear that now, people complaining about "How I Met Your Mother"'s finale, and how, supposedly, it turned on the audience, didn't give us the ending they wanted, 'cause it wasn't about inevitably, how the guy met the mother. Really? Was it about that? If you weren't paying attention for nine years, you might think so, but it was not about her. It's a good storytelling device, but it was actually telling other's stories wasn't it. It was good, we were sad, that's why it was good, but you know, if you pay attention, not about the storytelling device; shouldn't have been that pissed at the end. It's not what's it's about; it's how it's about it, and most people mistake the how, for the what. The how, determines whether the show's good or not, the How's is why "2 Broke Girl$" sucks, but why "Laverne & Shirley" still holds up in reruns.

So, your final HOMEWORK, for SITCOMS! Take a favorite sitcom, past or present, tell me, EXACTLY, what it's about, how is it about it. Take an episode from that show, and give me the structure of the episode, according to the format given at the link above. You're going to be dissecting a sitcom episode. Also, if it's a newer show, what other shows, what past shows, are they borrowing from? And how are they borrowing from them, and what distinguishes what they're doing, from what the previous show did. If you pick an older sitcom as your favorite, do the opposite. Find a newer show, preferably a sitcom, that's clearly inspired by the older one. Any "Barney Miller" fans, might want to catch up on "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" for a bit, for instance. Or on "Car 54, Where Are You", if you still consider "Barney Miller" recent. Even the original-seeming ideas have roots somewhere else, if I made you really go back all the way, we'd be talking about the Comedia Dell'Arte, so be thankful, we're only talking, about a 60-year window or so, so be happy.

Anyway, next week, we'll discuss a little more of your homework, see if you really understand sitcoms and how to consider, watch and analyze them better. And then, hopefully, we're gonna start on TV dramas series, when they became serials and before when they were more structured like sitcoms as well. We'll Intro to Dramas, so alright. If you missed an earlier class where the hell have you guys been?! Anyway, links to the previous two classes, both primarily on Sitcoms are below, and one of those includes a loose syllabus btw, of exactly how this will sorta hopefully go. That's about it, see you all next week.

CLASS #1
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2014/08/tv-viewing-101-class-1-syllabus-intro.html

CLASS #2
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2014/08/tv-viewing-101-class-2-sitcoms.html

And Hey, let's be careful out there. And you better all know what that's from next time btw, I'm still pissed nobody got "Norm", from the beginning.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

CANON OF FILM: "THE FOG OF WAR"

THE FOG OF WAR (2003)

Director: Errol Morris



As most of you know, I've pre-written many of these Canon of Film posts, some of them years earlier, and this one, I wrote, this one for "The Fog of War", perhaps, eight or nine years ago, maybe earlier, and looking it up now, I'm struck that I wrote "...Not only should the Bush administration watch the film, it should be mandatory viewing for every Secretary of Defense, including and especially Rumsfeld." Of course, thinking back on Morris's latest film, "The Unknown Known", which is essentially a pseudo-companion piece to "The Fog of War", only through the barely knowledgeable words of Donald Rumsfeld as he stumbles and bumbles his way through his experiences, mainly orchestrating the Iraq War and the numerous post 9/11 blunders he and the Bush administration oversaw and ordered. It was clear, although I was also informed by Morris that Rumsfeld had not seen "The Fog of War" until he was preparing for the interviews, and while "The Unknown Known" is certainly a compelling watch for other reasons, this sobering insider perspective on the Kennedy and Johnson administrations as well as the sharp eyewitness accounts of an 80+ old McNamara, are simply compelling. A diagram and model for the kind of person and knowledge that's required for that job, which makes the mistakes they made, help us realize just how fragile us, our country, our military, our government, and that most entrusted of positions as Secretary of Defense, truly is. 

Errol Morris is widely considered one of, if not the best documentarians in film history.  His first film, “Gates of Heaven,” about pet cemeteries was considered by Roger Ebert one of the ten best films, not documentaries, films ever made. His landmark film “The Thin Blue Line” used reenactments and many points of view to analyze a murder and actually got Randall Evans off of death row when he found the guy who actually did the murder and got him to confess. (Morris spent many years as a Private Eye when he couldn’t find film work) Other films of his include “Vernon, Florida” about a town where its residents are known to lose body parts at an alarming rate so they can collect the insurance money, “Mr. Death,” about a man who designs electric chairs and other such machines, "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control", about four people obsessed in different ways with controlling nature, and “A Brief History of Time,” based on the Stephen Hawking book. In 2003, he won an Oscar for “The Fog of War,” the best and arguably the most important documentary of the decade. Originally planned as a one-hour PBS special, Morris interviews JFK and LBJ’s Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, the man considered to be the architect of the Vietnam War for two 10-hour days, and at an alert 85-years old at the time, McNamara analyzes his entire life but also gives us shocking details about the confusion, misknowings and unknowings that went into the decisions that were made that during not only Vietnam, but WWII.

The films is subtitled “Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” and throughout the film, we're giving actual lessons and teachings from McNamara's life and work, all of which are crucial for war, but could easily be applied personally. (To contrast with the numerous moment in "The Unknown Known" where, Morris asked Rumsfeld about what lessons he learned from those experiences of his, and he could barely stumble out coherency, much less anything remotely related to advice, much less a "lesson" that he learned.) Lessons like, #6 “Get the data” and #8 “Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning,” are invaluable. Talking into an “interrotron,” Morris’s own invention which enables the interviewee to look into the eyes of the interviewer and the camera at the same time creating this strange and intense effect for us and his interview subjects, McNamara discusses the idiosyncrasies of Gen. Curtis Lemay, who not only was the one who basically ordered the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also orchestrated the constant and continual firebombing of Japan that murdered just as many, if not more people. When McNamara says that 50% of Tokyo was firebombed, is like saying 50% of New York City is firebombed, in a brilliant display, Morris compares all the firebombing of cities in Japan to cities in America to achieve full impact is both shocking and disturbing. McNamara moves on to discuss the Cuban Missile Crises showing just how lucky the world is to have survived those eleven days. He also goes into other details like his days at Ford, where he made seatbelts in cars mandatory. White House tapes that had never been released before show conversations with McNamara and Kennedy and Johnson in discussing the situations in Vietnam show both Kennedy beginning to back out of there before his death and Johnson fearing the domino theory true continually ordering to escalate it, especially after an attack on a U.S. ship, where tapes on board that ship show that an attack may not have occurred at all. Lesson #7 Belief and seeing are both often wrong. McNamara is a statistical genius and a thorough thinker and analyzer of information, what this movie shows is how even he, an Ivy League valedictorian eventually was unable to fully grasp of all the complexities that are involved in war that may or may not go into every decision that’s made. Lesson #1 “Empathize with your enemy,” is a rule that should've been stapled to Bush’s head, although Lesson #9 “In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil,” should be noted to all those who just blindly accept or dismiss everything the White House does. In the end, Morris tries to bait McNamara into apologizing, but he feels that such a gesture would be useless and mean little so long afterwards, that it’s not worth it. McNamara passed away in '09; he never did apologize, and after watching "The Fog of War", it's hard to blame him for that.

Lesson #11: “You can’t change human nature,” is ironically by human nature, what humans try to do. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

MOVIE REVIEWS #94: "12 YEARS A SLAVE", "HER", "PHILOMENA", "THE UNKNOWN KNOWN", "WALK OF SHAME", "GRAND PIANO", "THE INEVITABLE DEFEAT OF MISTER & PETE", "HANNAH ARENDT", and MORE!

Sorry for the long delay folks, but I've been getting some other work in outside of my blog lately and that's taken up more of my time than normal, and that's good; I like getting more film work when I can. Another good thing, I finally got my Netflix back and that means that I'm actually watching the movies I wanted to watch and reviews months ago, and I'm sure most of you were waiting to hear my thoughts on some of these titles. (I've had about five requests alone for a review of "Her", so glad to finally get that one out of the way.) Anyway, not much else going on, strangely enough. I said my peace on the Emmys. I'm going to try in the future to start doing some Google hangouts, and I might be advertising a few of those. I Participated in a few of them recently and I enjoyed it; I always love watch the GoldDerby.com guys do their award hangouts especially with all the-eh Emmys post-mortems still going on. In the meantime, Premiere Week's coming up, and we'll be working on that perhaps, and there will be more TV Viewing 101 classes very soon. That said, I can use a good antenna and a converter box if anybody has a couple of each, they're hard to come by.

Alright, we're off onto this week's RANDOM WEEKLY MOVIE REVIEWS! Starting with reviews of the Oscar-Winning film, "12 Years a Slave", and "Her", as well as Oscar-Nominee "Philomena".


12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013) Director: Steve McQueen

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The biggest shame of "12 Years a Slave" is that for many people, especially those like me who were a little too young to have seen "Roots" (And admittedly, I still haven't gotten around to it myself. I've missed some opportunities over the years unfortunately) that this will be the film that will show many people the true horrors of slavery. In that sense "12 Years..." is incredibly effective. The problem with it, if we can call it a problem, is that the film doesn't have the great sweep of a movie or an epic the way we'd hope. But that's because there isn't one in slavery. It is our great national sin, and for that, we've tried dozens of way to pretend to have eradicated the horrors of that time from our mind. It's easier without a surviving witness or footage like we still have plenty of with the Holocaust (Well, not "plenty" of exactly anymore but....) The movie seems like it should feels about one man's struggle to survive and outwit a system design to break him, but that would be a movie. Based on his autobiography which was published back in 1853, and played a forgotten-but-big part in shifting America's views towards slavery as we went headlong into the Civil War, Solomon Northup (Oscar-nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man in Saratoga, New York. He's a known violinist locally, and a respected citizen elsewise. His wife, Anne (Kelsey Scott) travels for a few months during the year for her work with the kids, Margaret and Alonzo (Quvenzhane Wallis and Cameron Zeigler), so he takes up an offer to go to Washington to work for a traveling circus. This, turns out to be a kidnapping, and soon, he finds himself on the slave market, chained and locked, beaten with a board until the board breaks, and then whipped. His name is changed to Platt, since he matched with the description of a runaway slave by that name. He's first bought by a plantation owner, Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) along with a mother, Eliza (Adepero Oduye) who's separated by her own children during the sale and is in a state of immeasurable grief. He earns the respect and admiration of Ford, even when he fought his plantation runner Tibeats (Paul Dano) after his constant mistreatment of him. He and two others end up hanging up from a tree, and in the movie's most brilliant shot, he's hang from the neck, hanging on the ground by his toes, just enough to keep himself alive for at least the whole day, and hardly anybody goes to help him. Owner, slave, somebody finally gives him a sip of water, but it takes at least until night until he's cut down finally. To save his life, Ford sells Solomon and his debt to Edwin Epps (Oscar-nominee Michael Fassbender) who owns a cotton plantation. He berates and whips his slaves constantly, all except his prized Patsey (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o) who picks well over 500 pounds of cotton today. Epps rapes Patsey constantly, much to the dismay of his wife (Sarah Paulsen) who refuses to give Patsey her cookies, and forces Epps inevitably to whipping her, and forces Epps to punish claiming his manliness is at stake. He also forces Solomon to do whip her too. There's a lot of brutality and nudity and generally treacherous behavior all through the film. At first, Solomon thinks and wonders about how exactly to fight back and find his way out of the inhuman situation, but inevitably, it's not to be. Eventually, Solomon, who's hiding his ability to read, tries to find a way to send a letter up north, but even that has to be timed, and lucked. There's no "Django Unchained"-like revenge or anything like that, the film, is about what life was like as a slave, and little else. Director Steve McQueen has always been a realist compared to a sentimentalist and that's hard-to-take for some, but imagine what it was for them. And think about this, this is a story of a free man's account of being a slave, for 12 years. 12 out of the hundreds of years of slavery- it predates America by 150 years or so. No movie could ever replicate that, that a traditional movie anyway, the same way "Schindler's List" could never give us an entire scope of the Holocaust. That said, that's what movies do best, give us a small glimpse, a small personal glimpse at what was truly a disturbing institution.


HER (2013) Director: Spike Jonze

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I'm now on my third viewing of Spike Jonze's "Her". It's not necessarily as original as some are making it out to be; it's clearly got influences. "Lars and the Real Girl" comes to mind for a recent film about a guy who has a relationship with something that isn't, for lack of a better term, alive. It's also got some of the insouciant wit and whimsy that the writer of Jonze's earliest features Charlie Kaufman, which films of his like "Eternal Sunshine..." and I even suspect that the personal poetry in his ex-girlfriend Sofia Coppola's work like "Lost in Translation" probably had an effect on him as he was writing this. Don't get me wrong, this is definitely a most unique and original film, and a truly great and perfect script. Maybe too perfect, but it works here. It's almost transcendentalist in tone. It's technically a sci-fi film, taking place somewhere in a near future. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) works at a surprisingly popular and busy job as a hand-written letter writer, where he is hired to basically play a Cyrano and write letters for other people, expressing their true emotions which most people don't seem to be able to do in a modern world where video games curse and talk back to you. Theodore is going through a tough divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara). He's become mopey since, barely able to even go out and talk to his friend Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband Charles (Matt Letscher). He signs up for an O.S., and Operating System that's designed to meet his friendship needs. She names herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) and they start developing a relationship and then later a romance. It's hard to explain exactly why this works so well. Communication is a common theme, or the lack thereof. When Amy's husband leaves her, he becomes a Buddhist month and vows six months of silence, choosing to refuse to communicate rather than accept his own failures and tribulations, or discuss them with a significant other who wants more. Theodore struggles with video games and porn, two other replacements for human contact, but only resorts to the O.S. when he loses all interest in human contact. And Samantha, the machine isn't treated as a machine. She's highly advanced, and the ying-yang of Samantha's new-found life, inspired by every new experience, and capable of machine learning and adapting, this is a tricky performance, but more than that, it's these incredibly thought and observantly well-written strings of dialogue, particularly between Theodore and Samantha that make the film truly special. You can actually just listen to this movie, like a radio play and be entertained. And while, much of the romance, doesn't actually tread into unexpected or new territory, it carefully observes a future world where relationship with O.S. or other digital people can be plausible and in some ways, a new a booming form of relationship surrogacy. That was the other movie, the film reminded me of "The Sessions" about a paralyzed man who employs a sex surrogate to become more comfortable with women. The movie is beautifully realized, incredibly elaborate cinematography and production design, it's harder to create a near-future than a distant one, and this feels like a believable near future, and the subtle score by Arcade Fire create a melancholy but hopeful undertone to this most unusual film. It earned an Oscar for Spike Jonze's screenplay, and he deserved it, 'cause the script is so intricately written it managing to turn this sci-fi romance, practically into a Linklater-esque subtle piece of banal poetry. Some movies take a premise and do nothing to it; "Her" takes it seriously, and yet still makes it fun and enjoyable.  There is real a poetic beauty to this film, that's really impossible to describe, and I love that I can't describe it.


PHILOMENA (2013) Director: Stephen Frears

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Stephen Frears's latest effort, "Philomena" earned a somewhat surprising Best Picture Oscar nomination this year, pushed a little bit by the Weinstein machine, but it is a strong film, and one that would could just as easily frustrate and annoy you if it weren't for the smart and subtle ways the films lightly bends around and hugs the corners of what we'd completely expect the story to turn into. The title character is Philomena Lee (Oscar-nominee Dame Judi Dench) as a rather simple yet religious old woman, who was one of the Magdalene Girls (If you've never seen the Peter Mullan film "The Magdalene Sisters", you should put it on your Netflix queue now.) who the nuns who would take girls who were pregnant or in some other way had sinned or were orphaned in, and basically makes them slaves until they could repay God. The kids, they snatched away from the teenagers and allowed them only an hour with them a day before they could be adopted by American parents. Jane Russell actually adopted one of her kids this way. Philomena's Anthony would be about 50 now, and while the Church keeps claiming the records were destroyed in a fire, it's clear there's something amiss, and that at least one evil nun knows the truth. After some reluctance, a former BBC reporter and political advisor who got ambushed in a scandal, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who was Oscar-nominated for co-writing the screenplay with Jeff Pope) takes up her investigation, doing this "human interest" story, he thinks originally to kill some time between his books on Russian history. There's two dynamics occurring, one is the investigation which leads them to America. The other is the relationship between Philomena and Steve as these two opposites from different universes try to co-exist while seeking out her long-lost son. Dench as always, is superb here, taking a seemingly simple character and making her far more observant and complex than we first think. The final confrontation with the church is perfectly scribed, and that's all I'll say about it, 'cause I'd be giving away too many details into the writing process and the film, other than to say that it perfectly balances both the characters and perhaps our frustrations with what happened to Philomena, but Philomena herself and her emotions.... Frears's is one of those directors who never gets enough credit. You can list his films, and go, "Oh, he directed that, and that, and that,..." but he changes genres and stories so often that you can't quite pin him down. He always manages to come up with something new that surprises us. I don't know if I'd put "Philomena" up as one of his very best, but it's definitely an admirable one.


THE UNKNOWN KNOWN (2014) Director: Errol Morris

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You get the sense from watching "The Unknown Known" that Donald Rumsfeld, once asked a question, has never really considered the question he's being asked before. He isn't dumb or necessarily foolhardy, but he hears the question, takes a few moments to think about the question, and then answer with "It's possible." Not necessarily because he hasn't dwelled on such thoughts as 'what would've happened if I had been picked by Reagan to be Vice-President and not George H.W. Bush', would he have been on the path to the Presidency', but that that's the logical answer and conclusion to the question. He spends a lot of time, thinking and pondering over those possibilities, he even studies up on history and other such incidents, but he doesn't seem to ever have any actions. And if you're like me, who can answer a question with "it's possible", but can't help but elaborate on most questions no matter the answer thinking that more things need to be brought up and mentioned or thought about when considering the question, and give one a look at our own thought process as we consider the question,...- in other words, I hardly ever answer a question with only two words. To me,  that's either that's a sign that you're hiding something, or that's a sign that you're just not capable of much more. Rumsfeld's clearly capable of both, but maybe perhaps very few things truly need such elaborations.

The more you know about the Iraq War, the more you'll benefit from the lack of insights found in "The Unknown Known". Errol Morris himself, thinks that after 33 hours of interviews with Donald Rumsfeld, he knows less about the War than he did before. How can this be, he ponders, and we ponder. Morris hypothesizes in an interview of him on "The Vice Podcast Show". that he is the most self-deceived person he's ever interviewed, and if you're familiar with Morris's career, that's a long list. (BTW, I highly recommend that podcast, the link is below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVvur6GundE

Morris has made some of the greatest of all documentaries, including his Oscar-winning film "The Fog of War" many years ago, where he interviewed the supposed architect of the Vietnam War, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. That film was an usually insightful and inside look at the Vietnam War from a person who personally formulated it, Here, this quasi-companion piece to it, we hope would be some other kind of in-depth look from the inside on the Iraq War. Rumsfeld, a former Congressman and member of the Nixon and Ford administrations, seems, like a...- like a lot of things really. The movie turns and becomes a look into this, apparently-otherwise strikingly smart and thoughtful man, who truthfully seems more than blissfully unaware of his own position in history the more you listen to him. He wrote 20,000 memos, dictating numerous things over decades, some of it is the most unbelievable pieces of irony ever imagined. Unbelievable to everyone it seems, but Mr. Rumsfeld. He often looks up the dictionary definitions of words, (from the Pentagon dictionary usually as he points out) It's not that he talks about wanting to not be place in a position and have a Pearl Harbor happen to him because he didn't have the imagination to think of the possibility of something like that happening, but he seems to barely understand that he was in such a position for, 9/11 happened. Or that the graphic torture techniques and behaviors of Abu Ghraib, weren't migrated from Guantanamo, even though he ordered the techniques himself. The title of the movie comes from one of his many strangle mystical tanglings of the English language, that we hear. Another is "The evidence of absence is not evidence of absence", which was his defense for attacking Iraq believing that they had WMDs despite the lack of having them. That phrase, I learned later that that comes from Carl Sagan, and was about his defense of the possibilities for extra-terrestrial life. (I doubt Carl Sagan would've used that same basis of evidence for much else.) "The Unknown Known", is aptly titled. Morris calls it a horror movie, as he's terrified at the supreme innocuous ineptness of Rumsfeld. By the end of the movie, Morris, almost at a loss screams out at him, "Why did you do this?! Why are you talking to me?!" his response is probably the last thing you'd expect someone in his position to say.

BTW, if anybody asks in the future:

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I'll call that my official rating, just so as not to leave the question mark up there alone, which is partially irony and wit on my part, but it's also a pretty accurate representation of my thoughts on the film as a whole however. I think it'll probably be a lot of people's as well, but either way, it's essential viewing.


WALK OF SHAME (2014) Director: Steven Brill

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There's a decent premise here, but not much else. Despite the amount of times I'm often seen walking around the greater Las Vegas area, I can honestly say that I've never had or been through a "Walk of Shame", at least I wasn't particularly ashamed, but-eh, then again I never had to go through Los Angeles is a skimpy yellow dress without a car or money. The movie begins with a series of mostly reenacted famous Youtube clips of mostly local news anchors. I once discussed the reasoning behind the seemingly insurmountable number of those clips, while dissecting the "Today Show" once, in my most searched for blogpost of mine, cause apparently lots of people search for the phrase "Today Show sucks" or some variation on that, but that's neither here nor there, because the entire movie seems to solely exist in a world where local news exists primarily of nothing but news bloopers. Meghan Miles (Elizabeth Banks) was in one of those bloopers in the beginning, involving cats. That last parts not important, but on the same day she doesn't get the job, her boyfriend packed up the house and left. So, Meghan and her friends Rose and Denise (Gillian Jacobs and Sara Wright Olsen) take her out, and for reasons that aren't worth explaining, she's wearing a skimpy yellow dress. I wish I could claim that the yellow dress she was wearing, was perhaps a thinly-veiled reference to the famous third section of the 3-part dance play "Contact" by Susan Stroman and John Weidman, but mostly it's because the outfit is relatively embarrassing to wear for an uptight professional news reporter, and because she can easily be spotted in it, especially by police officers (Bill Burr and Ethan Suplee), one of many people who confuse her for anything and everything except as a news anchor, despite her face being everywhere around town. Anyway, she meets a guy, then, she suddenly has to be at the studio that day, and be great for some National bigwigs as the person they were gonna give the job to fell through, but her car's been towed, no money and apparently she can't figure out how to go from A to B in L.A. without being harassed, propositioned, and numerous other humiliating things. Some of them were actually funny, and the basic idea of the movie, a woman getting on numerous adventures after a night out trying to get home, isn't a horrible idea, but it's basic existence is just a reason to shove together a lot of bad sketches that never amounted to much, and I forgot it the second I watched it.


GRAND PIANO (2014) Director: Eugenio Mira

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I'm almost tempted to recommend "Grand Piano" just for the assured ridiculousness of it. It was compelling to watch admittedly, although it's also essentially a parody of something like "Speed" mixed with "Phone Booth", just change out the sketch about the guy being forced to continuously type 50/words a minute or else the typewriter explodes, with playing a piano concerto at a symphonic Hall, playing every note perfectly or else, the sniper (John Cusack) will kill him, and/or his loved ones until he finally finishes the performance, and without playing a single note wrong. This includes, naturally playing a piece that known as "The Unplayable Piece" or La Cinquette, (Not a real piece btw, I don't know why they didn't just use Rochmaninoff, cause that would always work in that spot, but not a real issue.) a piece that he, Tom Selznic (Elijah Wood) had struggled through his infamous last performance over five years ago, as this is his rare comeback piece, one he probably wouldn't have made if not for his new wife Emma (Kerry Bishe) It's shortly after the concert begins does he find on his sheet music, these real threats to his life, and in his earpiece, the voice of his would-be assassin, shooting off silently other friends and family of his in the audience. He now has to manipulate while performing the killer, while also struggle to get others attention without getting them killed and inform them that something is wrong, (Or without him getting killed himself.) Such a ridiculous premise, it's almost intentional parody, but they play it rather straight, and it almost, for a while seems like it's actually happening, if it isn't exactly plausible. I'm not sure how serious they really wanted me to take "Grand Piano", but you know, this was close to being a nice piece of great trash, so I admired it, but it's too over-the-top to recommend. It's an interesting base though, the idea of man having to continuously play the piano, something like that concept's been done once or twice before, probably not like this. I think it's a better "SNL" sketch than it is an intense thriller. Wrong genre, but definitely an interesting and unique approach; I gotta admire the kind of balls it takes to do something that over-the-top.


THE INEVITABLE DEFEAT OF MISTER & PETE (2013) Director: George Tillman, Jr.

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I had many thoughts while watching the somewhat ungangly-titled "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete", one of which that kept crossing my mind was that this was one of the best films I've seen in a while, and that it involves some of the most under-appreciated performances of the last year. I also thought about the Italian Neo-realism that gets mixed somewhat with hope and injections of hope and fancifulness. I also thought about a few friends of mine who shall remain nameless who grew up with me, and had similar struggles like having a prostitute or a heroin junkie for a single mother. (Or both), like the hero in the film, Mister (Skylan Brooks). Mister, and that's the character's actual first name, lives in the Brooklyn Park Housing Projects. He's failed 8th grade, and his current reaction to anybody who seemingly gets in his way is to curse them out. You can't blame him, when you consider his mother, Mom Gloria (Jennifer Hudson). And I must say, in this very brief part she's in, this is probably the best acting I've seen from Hudson. She's a prostitute for a local pimp, Kris (Anthony Mackie) and when she's not doing that, she's at home, shooting up. She's not hiding it, or anything, she shoots up, as though that's the only way she can tolerate her world, and that includes Mister, and also Pete (Ethan Dizon) a son of one of her co-workers, who for reasons that aren't immediately shared by either Mom Gloria or by Pete, she's taking care of for the time being. That time being isn't long, when soon enough, cops, who had already raided the house apartment complex and she's arrested. It's not the first time, but Mister & Pete don't want to go to Child Protection Services. Since she's rarely out for longer than a couple weeks at the most, they decide to try and survive on what they got, which isn't much. A welfare card that's overdrawn, a few things to pawn, a few things to pawn when needed. Sometimes they have to break in somewhere or rob someplace. Mister figures that it won't be for long, as he found a flyer for an acting job in Beverly Hills that's he's pretty sure he can get. He loves movies, he has passages of "Trading Places" memorized by heart, and his monologue is from "Fargo". Why movies? The same reason everyone loves movies, escapism, a trip to another world, where everybody speaks with a weird accent and stuff like that. There's a few other hopes like an old neighbor, Alice (Jordin Sparks) who managed to find her way into a upper class townhouse, even if it included having an affair with a married man, who's willing to leave his wife for her, and actually mean it. I thought about some of the classic early French New Wave and Italian Neorealist films while watching "...Mister & Pete", and another film that crossed my mind was "Grave of the Fireflies", also about two young children forced to live in desolate situations after their parents' deaths. It reminded me of it, but another strange subtext of the film was the way of the neighborhood. Filled with erratic characters who's natural instincts are to mistrust, and even those who help out, Mister in particular feels there's always an ulterior motive. He teaches Pete to fear and run from the cops, and not to snitch on anyone else, especially to the police. Yet, as days turn into months we grow to know and care about these two young kids, and exactly what they've been through and why they think and act that way, and it just makes it all the more heartbreaking. If there's a flaw in "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete", late in the movie, the film tries to wrap everything up into a nice little package and bow, when it doesn't really need to, but that's okay. It didn't effect the film's pathos too much. The performances by Brooks and Hudson are particularly special, and Brooks and Dizon's give two of the best kid performances I've seen in a long time. The film was directed by George Tillman Jr., it's the third film of his I've seen after "Men of Honor" and the wonderfully good Biggy Smalls biopic, "Notorious", and I'm starting to look forward to his films, he always seem to make a good one, and this is one I'll be thinking about for awhile. Very powerful slice of realism.


HANNAH ARENDT (2013) Director: Margarethe von Trotta

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It was shortly after the Eichmann trials I believe, when Stanley Millgram first began composing his famous experiments. (Strange that Eichmann of all people comes up twice in this week's reviews, [I wrote my review of "The Believer" before I wrote this one.) Yous see, it wasn't just that he was "only following orders," it was the reports of his trial, most famous of which by "Hannah Arendt", (Barbara Sukowa) that depicted Eichmann, this most infamous of Nazi war criminals as this rather, underwhelming, average, this most mediocre of men, who sent hundreds of thousands to their deaths rather inhumanely. Arendt is the subject of Margarethe von Trotta's latest biopic. It's the first film of hers I've seen, and she's recognized as being one of the premiere feminist filmmakers around (Always she denies that title) and one of her most common themes are biopics of strong females throughout history who often fought society with their stances, not so much actions, but just by them being themselves at a time when probably it wasn't culturally expected of women to be so knowledgeable and outspoken. She's hired here by the New Yorker despite her more philosophical and abstract previous pieces like "The Origins of Totalitarianism" to cover the Adolf Eichmann trials in Jerusalem, she herself is Jewish, and she fled to America, although as a youth, (Friederike Becht) and also had an affair with a philosopher colleague at one point, Heidegger (Klaus Pohl) who later became a Nazi, and there's implications, eventually by everyone, especially after her controversial piece about how the Nazis weren't so much evil as they were pencil-pushers who were more interested in keeping their jobs then say, the real extinction of a race. The movie could be stronger than simply, this rather benign etch of the way Ms. Arendt saw the world and came up with these transformational theories. She's an intriguing character enough to watch a movie, and it's well-made enough to recommend, but you do sense a better movie is somewhere in there, but just doesn't quite come up. "Hannah Arendt" made me more interested in the main character than it engrossed me as a film, but that in of itself, it's still worth recommending, especially for the performances. Arendt is a character constantly for being at arm's length to emotion in her work, and I think the film reflects that well, but by being so far from the material, the movie also refuses to let us in as much as we'd like, so you kinda gotta balance that out a bit, that's really the struggle, but I managed to find enough balance in it for me.


THE BELIEVER (2002) Director: Harry Bean

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"He speaks well." notes Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane) as he and Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell) the surprising quiet, yet composed leaders of an underground Neo-Nazi group as they observe Danny (Ryan Gosling) one of their most intelligent and most devout of the members. They're right, he's certainly more intelligent than well-spoken than most Neo-Nazis I've met. There's even a twisted logic in his reasoning for hating the Jews, as well as the experience and thought process to back it up. He in fact is Jewish. That doesn't stop him from beating up any random person he sees on the street wearing a yamika. In "The Believer", Ryan Gosling gives one of his very best performances (And at only 22 years old at the time.) as the young Jewish man, who is both aggressive and violent in his hate, and desire to kill Jews, this despite being brought up in an orthodox house and upbringing. In flashbacks, we see him (Jacob Green) being taught the Torah in school, but he's constantly argumentative, particularly over the Abraham and Isaac story, one that has caused me and many others much grief. He also studied Eichmann, and the Nazis, and Hitler. "Did you ever read "Mein Kampf", Hitler did some of his best writing in prison." he observes after a street fight they start, and he's blazing a swastika shirt like Sid Vicious, only without the irony. Perhaps not-so-strangely, most of his colleagues haven't read Hitler. They especially don't know the Jewish traditions and customs. Some are Holocaust deniers, and after one altercations led to them getting talked to by Holocaust survivors, and one of the Neo-Nazis start claiming the Holocaust didn't happen, and he explodes on him. "Then why is he your idol?!" He exclaims. All that, and he killed, 200,000? The story is loosely influenced on the life of Daniel Burros, who killed himself in '65,  shortly after the New York Times, published his real identity as being Jewish. In "The Believer," we see a man struggling with his own identity and self-hatred, that's the kind of thing people look to appease in themselves that usually leads them to groups like the Ku Klux Klan or the Neo-Nazis. An ability to focus their anger on those who they deem insufficient to them, and history will tell us just how often The Chosen People get that disdain. Yet, he can't handle just how the Fascist, want to disregard race in exchange for a capitalist world run by money, and infiltrating the government and public world legitimately to promote their other ideas. As Danny becomes more and more disenfranchised by both sides, his struggles of himself becomes more difficult. He shows his girlfriend Carla (Summer Phoenix, who's also Lina's sister) how to write the Hebrew alphabet and writes the language with a delicate touch, just as opposite he teaches the Fascist perspective as viciously and eloquently as Malcolm X used to teach, in classes that he's convinced to begin teaching. "The Believer" is a truly haunting and mesmerizing film that takes an uncomfortable characters and subject matter, and allows us to engulf ourselves into it, while still keeping us appropriately at arms length of it, at least for those knowing and sober enough to appropriately consider the material while not embracing it, through a complex character study that's deeper and richer than it seems.


FIREFLIES IN THE GARDEN (2011) Director: Dennis Lee

1/2



I think I first started seeing trailers for "Fireflies in the Garden" back in '08, long before the film's eventually 2011, American release date, and that's especially rare for a Julia Roberts film, despite her rather limited role. Titled after the Robert Frost poem, I can see the film took so long to get to American theaters, and I can see why I pushed it off another three years on my Netflix queue. (And probably why, I've been doing everything possible to not write this review) The movie jumps back and forth in time without really any explanation, but it revolves around Michael Taylor (Ryan Reynolds as an adult, Cayden Boyd as a kid) and the drastic relationship between him and his father Charles (Willem Dafoe), and his vicious behavior and treatment towards him, as he was growing up, and in some ways how that behavior got passed onto him in the future, while Charles himself changed, first after a car accident that killed Michael's wife Lisa (Roberts) and then earlier when his behavior. That's basically the best I could describe the events in this undecipherable mess. I think it's out-of-order chronology is intended to emotionally effective, and really show how the passage of time doesn't effect our emotions even as we ourselves change, but frankly it was discombobulating and confusing. I can barely explain Emily Watson or Hayden Panetierre's characters at all, and they were fairly prominent in the film as well, but none of it- it's not so much it didn't come together, it was more like, they weren't really trying. Certain scenes work and were sorta powerful in of themselves, but trying to get any depth out of this film, is really just a struggle. It's hard to even get a story out, It's almost like, random sporadic memories sprung onto us, in rapid succession. I'm making it sound more interesting than it really is. This movie was like doing a jigsaw puzzle upside-down, you kinda know where you're going with it, but you don't know the complete, or whether or not you even have enough pieces actually, and whether or not they all actually belong to the same puzzle at all. Well, with most jigsaw puzzles, I usually get frustrated and bored and quit long before I finish, and emotionally I did the same thing with this film.