Monday, April 28, 2008

Movie Review: Futurama: Bender's Big Score

Like so many other members of the ever-growing geek culture, I was stricken with sadness when Matt Groening's animated sci-fi satire Futurama was pulled from the airwaves. If there was one show that succeeded in mocking the absurdity of the genre while still honoring it, this was surely it.

So when I discovered that Groening was reviving the show in a series of direct-to-video releases, I was overjoyed at the prospect of watching the antics of Fry (a modern day human trapped in a futuristic world), Leela (the cycloptic but strong-willed alien woman), and Bender (the wisecracking, alchoholic robot) once again.

Unfortunately, the first feature-length release from the show, Bender's Big Score, proved to be somewhat of a let-down in my opinion. The premise (a group of nudist aliens plant a virus in Bender that compels him to travel through time and steal all of the most priceless artifacts in history) was interesting, but there have been countless episodes of the show that proved to be more entertaining and much more clever. Overall it appears that Futurama is still capable of producing an entertaining viewing experience, but its first experience with a feature length format showed considerable signs of growing pains. Some of the gags suffered from running far too long (with Bender's frequent travels through time being the primary example of this), and there were times that the story itself fell flat.

That is not to say that this was a poor film; in fact, most of the film was highly amusing. This series has amassed much of its audience by parodying science fiction while also honoring it, and that trend continued in this film. One of the best running gags in the film concerns a ridiculous product named "Torgo's Executive Powder" that is used for everything from seasoning to delousing to the care of patients who have undergone head transplants. This is an obvious reference to the infamous science fiction film Manos: The Hands of Fate, which is notoriously hailed as one of the worst feature films ever made (and having seen the picture, I must stand in agreement with this title). There are also a number of other homages to the genre, with perhaps my favorite being Bender's re-enactment of the first Terminator film as he attempts to locate and destroy Fry. But the film does not completely rely on these allusions, for it has a number of funny moments on its own original merits. The nudist aliens provide a number of comic moments, as does the always reliable cast of characters. While I certainly had issues with the film, and would certainly place Groening's recent attempt at a Simpsons movie high above it, the film still proves the series has a long and fruitful life ahead of it.

Does the film have its problems? Certainly. Is it a masterpiece of animated satirical cinema? Certainly not. But in the end, it is still Futurama. It still manages to provide much more comedy fodder than most of what is currently on television. And while I think Groening and the rest of the creative team were met with some difficulties when transferring to the longer format of direct-to-video film, I have faith that most of its flaws were a result of this transition. I look forward to the next feature, The Beast with a Billion Backs, with great anticipation.

Manos: The Hands of Fate and the Necessity of Awful Films

One of the most amusing moments in my college career concerned one of my English professors and his frustration over a key scene in Dead Poet's Society. The scene in question was the one in which teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) tells his students to rip out the introduction of their English textbooks, for he views it as a poor example of writing. When I asked the professor why he took this particular scene to task, he told me that it was just as important to analyze poor writing as it was to analyze excellent writing. Otherwise, how could we have a full appreciation of the greatest works of literature if we did not have substandard writing to compare it to?

Ever since that theory was first presented to me, I have come to accept it as a logical practice. And the world of film can be greater appreciated by applying this practice to the medium. Which is exactly why I have always suggested to my friends and fanatical devotees of film that the film (and I use that term quite loosely) Manos: The Hands of Fate is required viewing. Since its severely limited release in 1966, the film has been widely hailed as one of the worst films ever created; and honestly, the film has truly earned this moniker.

The plot, which involves a couple staying the night in a sinister-looking house, only to be attacked by a devilish cult, is preposterous. The actual development of the film was also very poor; the film was completely shot with a hand-held camera that could only film for approximately 30 seconds at a time, and resulted in the film being one of the most poorly edited features ever shot. In addition, the entire audio track of the film was overdubbed by only three people. The acting didn't salvage the film either; not only does the audio track poorly match the actual individuals in the scene, but it also appears the actors have no concept as to how one emotes in a tense situation. Many people try to claim that Plan 9 From Outer Space and the rest of Ed Wood's filmography should be considered among the worst films ever made; but in all honesty many of those films are highly entertaining. Manos is such a failure of a film that it is actually monotonous and quite painful to watch.

With that said, I truly believe anyone who admires the art of film should consider it required viewing. Not only does it stand as the awful movie against which all other awful movies must be compared, but it will also compel you to notice the beauty in wonderfully crafted films. The way the shower scene is edited in Psycho will never look more fantastic until you have seen the poor editing of the nauseating driving sequence at the beginning of the film. The virtuoso tracking shots of the best Scorsese films will be even more breathtaking after experiencing the the abyssmal framing of the shots throughout the film. The legendary performances in a film like Casablanca or Lawrence of Arabia will never seem as masterful as they will after watching John Reynolds in his cringe-worthy performance as the satyr Torgo in the film.

I have since developed the opinion that viewing a true failure of a film will train one to focus on the construction of a film more intensely, and develop an even healthier respect for film as an art form. To provide an artistic comparison, would one truly recognize the brilliance in the works of Van Gogh if they had never seen a poorly conceived piece of art? I believe that it is doubtful. As a society, we all can recognize that some things are inherently beautiful; however, we have a greater perception with beauty when we are exposed to something that is truly heinous and grotesque. We cannot fully appreciate the wonders of love without having been exposed to the horrors of hate. We cannot truly enjoy the fruits of laughter as much without ever having experienced the pains of sadness. By this rationale, we also cannot exalt brilliant, masterful works of film without having been exposed to truly awful examples of the form.

It is no secret that having to suffer through a truly bad film is a considerably frustrating and disgusting task; I felt intensely uncomfortable last year as I suffered through the horrors of Hannibal Rising and Happily N'Ever After. But the miserable experience of viewing such films made me even more appreciative when I viewed films like Juno and No Country for Old Men months later. Therefore, to those who share my love and passion for the beautiful form that is film, I implore you to expose yourself to the horror that is Manos: The Hands of Fate. Just remember to view it with extreme caution...

Movie Review: Rope

(previously published on Whenever the fine art of film editing is discussed within the confines of film classes or critics' circles, it is not uncommon to hear the name of British director Alfred Hitchcock. Many of the most beautifully edited shots in film, such as the scene in North by Northwest where Cary Grant is pursued by an airplane, or the infamous shower scene in the horror classic Psycho, are attributed to Hitchcock.

It is for this very reason that his 1948 suspense film Rope is something of an anomaly among Hitchcock's works. Rather than achieve suspense and simulate visceral action through the use of advanced editing techniques, Hitchcock chose instead to craft a solid mystery that abstains from hardly any editing and instead relies on strong performances to supply the tension.

The plot of the film is rather morbid, especially for its time. At the start of the film Brandon Shaw and Phillip Morgan, two intelligent (but naive) young men who exist in the upper echelon of most social circles, choke one of their colleagues to death with a length of rope. Afterward, they place the deceased inside a large chest, so that the guests they have invited for dinner that night do not discover the body. In an act of either macabre humor or blinding arrogance, they decide to place a dining room cover on the chest and serve their guests on top of the makeshift resting place of the corpse.

One of their guests, their former teacher and intellectual peer Rupert Cadell, gradually suspects that something is awry, and the two young men begin to fear that their secret might not be as safe as they presumed. As the film progresses, the two young men become more and more concerned that their vicious act will be discovered, and Rupert finds himself closer and closer to the truth that is hidden in the chest.

Hitchcock's skill in creating a nervous tone in his film that exists within the viewer as well as the film is done very effectively throughout the course of Rope. The performances in the film, especially those of the two young men (John Dall and Farley Granger), create an atmosphere of paranoia and throughout the film it feels as if the truth is just one moment away from being exposed to all.

Often Hitchcock created this type of emotion in his films with masterful editing techniques, but this film is perhaps his sole exception. The entire length of the film is composed of a mere ten edits (in comparison, the shower scene alone in Psycho has nine times as many cuts), and Hitchcock joined the scenes together in a way that made them appear to be one long take. This is achieved using a number of clever techniques, such as zooming into someone's back until the lens goes dark, and then zooming back out; such a scene appears to be one long take, but in actuality it is a split shrouded by the darkness. This required Hitchcock to create a pacing that would carry the film, for the technique that usually supplied this effect was extraordinarily minimal. Therefore the entire story is told in real time, and the audience is allowed to watch the events unfold as they happen. Furthermore, this effect succeeds in creating somewhat of a first-person perspective of the film. Whenever Brandon and Phillip feel a tinge of fear over the suspicions of Rupert, the audience is allowed to experience those emotions as they occur. The fact that the audience knows of the crime that has been committed and yet is seemingly a part of the action allows each viewer to have a slightly voyeuristic point of view.

One of the greatest joys of watching any Hitchcock film is seeing how Hitchcock attempts to try something unique and unconventional with each film. Unlike many directors who choose to rely on the same techniques that have repeatedly brought them success, Hitchcock constantly sought to change his style, sometimes to a dramatic degree. It is apparent that with this film (which also marked Hitchcock's first foray into color film) Hitchcock continued his penchant for taking unimaginable risks in the hopes of making another bold and groundbreaking cinematic statement.

5 out of 5 stars

Film Analysis: The Last Temptation of Christ and the Human Perception of Christ

(previously published on Whenever a filmmaker decides to pursue the topic of Christianity for the purposes of making a compelling film, it's often met with strong controversy. This is likely because those who are strong in their faith have preconceived notions as to what is correct and what is incorrect in relation to their beliefs. As a result, any idea or opinion that may be in opposition of those preconceived ideas is often greeted with apprehension.

Legendary director Martin Scorsese had some experience with this mentality when he released his long-gestating passion (no pun intended) project The Last Temptation of Christ. Adapted for the screen from an equally controversial novel by author Nikos Kazantzakis, the book portrayed Jesus Christ in a more human context than many previous films. It brought forth the suggestion that Jesus Christ faced all of the same doubts, fears, and inner conflicts as the people for whom he died, and yet still lived a life free from sin. The consistently brilliant Willem Dafoe portrayed Christ in the film, and Scorsese regulars Harvey Keitel and Barbara Hershey portrayed Judas Iscariot and Mary Magdalene, respectively.

The performances in the film are, for the most part, very strong (with one exception being David Bowie as a rather stoic Pontius Pilate), and the technique and presentation of the film is astounding. However, this article is less about the presentation of the film, and is more about the ideas and concepts presented therein. While the film received strong critical acclaim (even securing another best director nomination for Scorsese), many religious organizations objected to the portrayal of Jesus in the film as a man with very human struggles. However, I would contest that many of the scenes that were looked upon as heretical may in fact present a more intriguing view of faith and Christian understanding.

One scene in particular that drew the ire of fundamentalists groups was a sequence where Satan comes to Christ while he is on the cross, and he presents Christ with a vision of what his life would be like if he did not perish on the cross. During the sequence, Jesus is shown marrying Mary Magdalene and producing children, and leading an average domestic life. I have always found the rejection of this concept to be quite peculiar. I myself possess a strong belief in the existence of God, and the sacrifice of his son for the sins of man. And if anything, many of the ideas in this film provide me with an even greater respect and admiration for the Passion of Christ. The text of the Holy Bible repeatedly informs the reader that Christ was 100% God, but he was also 100% man. In so many portrayals of Christ, it seems the emphasis on Jesus as God repeatedly overpowers the fact that he was also a man of flesh and blood.

Many cinematic portrayals of Jesus make it difficult to remember that he was tempted by the same sins that all men face. Scorsese succeeds in presenting Jesus as a man who constantly faced the temptation to turn away from his purpose as the Messiah, but ultimately never rejected it. It is hard for many people to believe that Jesus would have any longing to marry and produce children rather than be the savior of mankind; but in many ways, doesn't this make his sacrifice more meaningful and beautiful? I for one prefer the idea that Christ was tempted to forsake his purpose and live as one of us, with a normal domestic life, a normal occupation, and a normal family life. For me, it makes his sacrifice even more meaningful, for not only did he sacrifice his life, but he sacrificed the joys of a normal human existence as well.

Another element of the film that prompted much contempt was the portrayal of Judas as a more honorable character in the film. I will confess, this is a hard concept to come to terms with, but it also presents an interesting argument as well. If Jesus was meant and destined to perish on the Cross for our sins, was Judas not in some way an integral part in our ultimate salvation? If Judas did not betray Christ, would Christ have died for our sins? Or would we as people still be nothing more than filthy rags in the eyes of God, still unclean with sin that was never forgiven? And if God is indeed an omniscient, omnipotent entity, would that not suggest that it was already known and decided upon that Judas would be the catalyst to the Passion?

Overall, I believe Scorsese was attempting to create a film that sought to help us better understand the challenges that Jesus faced by making him a more human figure than any other film had attempted before or since. In doing so, he perhaps made one of the most accessible and fascinating portrayals of Christ that has ever been committed to film. The actors in the film do not speak in the cadence of the King James Bible, but instead speak in a modern style, which makes it much easier to relate to them, which only adds to the appeal. Many have argued that the film is wildly inaccurate, and provides a poor representation of the actual crucifixion. Those who make such decrees are missing the point of a film such as this; it is not meant to present a documented account of what actually occurred, but instead is attempting to present new ideas and concepts concerning a very familiar event in our history. If that was Scorsese's ultimate goal with this film (and I believe it was), he succeeded on a monumental level.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Movie Review: Ratatouille

In recent years, the world of animated film has had a drastic increase in quality and acceptance by a wide audience. The genre, which seemed exclusive to children and the young at heart, has evolved into a form that can express ideas that both juveniles and adults can identify with. And the famed animated studio Pixar is likely the most responsible figure in this transition.

With their recent computer-animated feature Ratatouille, it would appear Pixar has taken an even greater leap ahead in terms of crafting an amazing story that can appeal beyond the typical family-friendly audience. It stands as a wonderfully fun tale about the potential for greatness in anyone (or any rat). I was further surprised to discover by utilizing the cooking process in a symbolic sense, director Brad Bird also says much about the process of composing and directing a film.

The plot of the film concerns a confused but intelligent rat, Remy, who has an unusually sharp palette. This fact causes him to seem drastically different than the rest of his rat family and friends, and feels alienated from the rest of his rat family. When an unfortunate accident separates Remy from his family, he finds himself at an upscale French restaurant named after his late cooking idol, Gusteau. He quickly befriends a young man who has just gotten a position at the restaurant, and their secret friendship enables the man, Linguini, to achieve massive fame for Remy's work in the kitchen. Yet as the friendship continues, Linguini becomes more unappreciative of Remy's skill, and Remy becomes more disenchanted by the fact that his appearance is requiring him to be hidden from the rest of the restaurant employees.

This is director Brad Bird's third animated feature film after The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, and like those two previous efforts, this film is an animated masterpiece. The first thing that is very apparent is the visual style of the film; not only does the art of computer animation continue to become finer and more enchanting, but Bird takes the technique further by utilizing very skilled live action camera techniques for a number of the animated sequences. This provided the film with a live action feel in many scenes, despite the fact that it is an animated feature. But the film's appearance is not its only strength; story has always been the driving force to Pixar's success, and this film continues that trend. Bird was likely intrigued by the subject of cooking by its parallels with directing; it requires seeing a final result that has yet to exist, and directing a number of unique and different elements to make the final result successful. Can Fellini's 8 1/2 be remade with a rat serving as the protagonist? With Brad Bird at the helm, it might be a possibility.

Whenever each new film is announced from the studios of Pixar, I have always felt that for film lovers, this is a joyous occasion. Pixar has yet to truly fail the general public with one of their films, and if Ratatouille is any indication, they actually succeed in raising the absurd expectations of their fans even further. Perhaps the most amazing fact is that they have made a series of films that are appeal to the parents of children as much as to the children themselves.

4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Movie Review: Auto Focus

There is a substantial amount of brouhaha that is made concerning the decadence of Modern Hollywood, and many have argued that they long for the innocence of Hollywood. But can that assumption about celebrity life really be constructed when there are so many examples to the contrary? Silent film star Fatty Arbuckle was suspected of sexually assaulting and murdering a woman with a piece of ice. Errol Flynn was an alcoholic, a womanizer, a brawler of Russell Crowe-like proportions, and had a number of arrests, one for statutory rape. Countless other celebrities have proven to have less than reputable personalities when the layers of their characters are peeled away.

In the film "Auto Focus" directed by Paul Schrader (who, having written the films Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Bringing Out the Dead, obviously has a skill with darker material), we are invited into the private life of "Hogan's Heroes" star Bob Crane (skillfully portrayed in this film by Greg Kinnear). Crane built a strong reputation during his tenure on television as a family man and a likeable role model that charmed television audiences worldwide; however, Crane was also a man consumed by very disturbing personal demons. When he encounters an excitable video technician on the set of "Heroes" named John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe, no relation to the horror director), Carpenter brings him into a world of strip club, pornography, and orgies that begins to consume everything else in Crane's life and slowly begins to draw his career into a downward spiral as well.

While watching the film, there are a number of things that becomes very apparent about Schrader's filming techniques: first of all, while he doesn't begin to match the technical virtuosity of his frequent colleague Martin Scorsese, Schrader is no slouch, and knows how to structure a film correctly in an a visually intriguing way. However, to focus on technique alone would be a disservice to the performances and story of the film. The basic plot, based on the Robert Graysmith book of the same title, is paced quite well, and progresses in a way that quickly delves into Crane's decadence and yet still doesn't feel forced or unbelievable. Part of this can be attributed to Schrader, but the main credit for this can be attributed to the acting, especially award worthy performances by Kinnear and the always reliable Dafoe. Granted, this film is not for a mainstream audience; if you were pleased by the wholesome quality of "Hogan's Heroes", this is undoubtedly not the film for you. However, if you are interested in a thoughtful commentary on how fame corrupts even the most seemingly decent of men, the film provides an interesting yet unsettling film experience.

4 out of 5 Stars

Movie Review: M

The number of films that have been composed concerning the notorious exploits of serial murderers has been pretty substantial since the inception of the art form. Some of the films, such as Silence of the Lambs, have been absolutely sublime; others, in fact many others, have been forgettable and dull. The ones that do succeed usually do so because they try to achieve some form of human element with the topic at hand, rather than simply exploit the surface trappings of the horror inherent in the situation. This has been true since the beginning of this sub-genre.

This fact is further supported by one of the earliest films in the genre, the 1931 German classic M. The film, which was directed by German film legend Fritz Lang and starred famed character actor Peter Lorre as a child murderer (predating his Casablanca and Arsenic and Old Lace fame for a number of years), tells the story of a pedophile who is terrorizing the streets of German town. When the whole town becomes terrorized by the actions of the criminal, law enforcement begins to infiltrate every element of life to pursue him. This causes the criminal underground of the town to feel threatened, and they too stage their own attempts to hunt the wanted man down. This creates a very intriguing shift in the film, for when the criminal element of the city joins the search, the terrorized denizens of the town no longer seem to be the threatened entity. Instead the child murderer that paralyzed the city with fear is no perceived as a hunted animal, and in a stroke of moral ambiguity, a more sympathetic figure.

The concept of the film, especially the idea of the criminal world staging their own efforts to solve the crime, were unique and original for the time, and a strong film with the same theme has yet to be made since; of all the horror films that seem ripe for a remake, this one is it. The film boasts a strong level of emotional power, despite the black and white appearance and the flaws in the sound (this was filmed during the early day of sound mastering, and therefore a mono recording track is used for the majority of the film, and many of the scenes are actually silent). Director Fritz Lang also proves why he was one of the greatest cinematic voices of Germany; many of the overhead shots were pretty daring for the time, as well as the ominous lighting for a number of the scenes. The sequence where Lorre is being pursued by the criminals and police of the city in particular was very impressive; the chase begins in an open environment, and as the chase continues, the scenery becomes smaller and more enclosed. It is as if the very city walls themselves are conspiring to trap this murderer like a caged animal.

Very special recognition must be given to Lorre for a tour-de-force performance as the murderer; the final scene where he pleads his insanity before the townspeople and the criminal underbelly of the town is still mesmerizing to this day. It is also slightly embarrassing when you reflect on the number of films portraying murderers and child molesters today. So many of these films portray these figures as nothing more than another hackneyed stock character, and here in its infancy is one of the most amazing portrayals of a murderer ever committed to film. He succeeds in the early stages of the film in really being an unnerving and sinister figure (and his whistling of Peer Gynt Suite No. 1 predates the ominous breathing sounds in Friday the 13th by over 45 years). At the conclusion of the film, it is hard to comprehend whether or not the petty criminals or the child murderer are the more honorable figures of society. Such dualities only enhance the brilliance of this film.

The ever-popular "serial killer" genre in film had much of its origins in this film, which is pretty amazing. What is even more amazing is how much better this film continues to be than most of the films in the genre that have been released since. Many will likely be turned off from the film because of the subtitling and German language, and that is a shame. Despite these differences, this is an amazing film that continues to be an entertaining watch even 70 years later.

5 out of 5 stars