Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

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Zombieland

October 11, 2009
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Zombieland

For a certain niche of b-movie enthusiasts, Zombieland is a dream come true. The film’s premise is that the entire globe is overrun by zombies, and few lone survivors remain in the mostly destroyed wasteland to kick ass and take names with giant vehicles, shotguns and a nearly endless supply of ammo. Let’s face it guys, and I’m talking to you fellow zombie flick fans here, you’ve wanted to be in a situation like this for your entire lives, and you have all of the plans written out in your head already. You know which neighbors have guns, you know where you would run to, and you have the rules of zombie busting remembered by heart. The characters in this film mention these things in an almost obligatory way, but for you, it goes without saying.

Part of the fun of the flicks which Zombieland plays off of are their predictability. People can draw mental prototypes about them because they have seen the elements hundreds of times, and rules like “Check the back seat” and “Double tap” are the kinds of things you wish you could tell characters in most zombie flicks. But these characters know them and, unlike most other zombie flick characters, are actually relatively smart, although they make a couple decisions that even the casual movie-goer would easily recognize as a bad idea (Doesn’t fleeing from zombies by riding the Giant Drop sound like a terrible idea the second you read it?).

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How can you not love this shot?

But that’s just about the only thing that sets them apart. These characters are built up well but also build from other familiar character prototypes: The soul-seeking youth, the southern tough guy, the independent babe and her spunky little sister. They have surprises, but like zombies, they are reliable and seem doomed to their lonely existence. All named after towns and cities in the U.S., the characters spend an awful lot of their time traveling, but find time to enjoy the little things in life, like building couch forts, bashing ghouls’ heads in with banjos and a never ending quest for Twinkies.

Actually, all three of those activities are primarily enjoyed by the aforementioned tough guy Tallahassee played by Woody Harrelson, who just steals the show in this film. His acting here reminds us of why he is a great American actor; his cool composition carries through his characters so strongly that when he does irregular things like have a temper tantrum and break all the windows on a random car or break down crying when he remembers his lost son, we are shocked but accept the vulnerability unconditionally. However, it does help him that he is sorely out of place among the other amateur actors here, namely Jesse Eisenberg (who is essentially Michael Cerra with a shorter resume), Emma Stone (who is essentially Megan Fox with a longer resume) and Abigail Breslin (who just might be the most hyped child actor since the Olsen twins). The only really solid acting to accompany Harrelson comes with the film’s jaw dropping cameo appearance, which I won’t spoil.

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Harrelson, designated badass/goofball since White Men Can't Jump.

…But I’ll level, everyone here brings the giggles more than a dozen times. Did I mention this film is a comedy? And it’s hilarious? I know many of you are probably die-hard Sean of the Dead fans and might imagine if another successful zombie spoof is possible. While Sean of the Dead was hilarious, it also had some subtly observant things to say not just about zombie movies but about people. The zombies in Zombieland might have a meaningful existence, but they need not justify the film. By now, zombies are as much a legitimate part of culture as vampires are, and we all know how current vampire appeal is.

Yes, Zombieland is also a satire, and this is good, because we laughed about elements like these when they weren’t even supposed to be funny. But when Eisenberg’s character Columbus wakes in the morning to find the cute girl from down the hall that fell asleep on the couch with him has turned into a flesh-eating monster, we giggle, and then full out laugh when he narrates to us: “The first time I let a girl into my life, and she tries to eat me.” He says it with some tired acceptance, as if it isn’t even a surprise. That’s hard not to both laugh and nod at.

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One of many of this film's moments which leave the audience screaming, for whatever reason.

But director Ruben Fleischer takes the elements of zombie film and runs with them, shamelessly having fun. Which is another thing zombie fans love: a little bit of unaddultered violence. For this reason it is more than a comedy with some of the funniest material you have heard all year. It is also an action flick, and there are more heads rolling (as well as doing other gross, over the top things) than there were in Sean. Within five minutes, the film earns its stripes when Columbus begins a long list of zombie busting rules over small vignettes of innocent bystanders getting munched, as well as his own ridiculous attempt at escaping two zombies at a gas station.

What makes this film a success is that it manages to be both familiar as well as surprising, funny in addition to cathartic, without losing its momentum. Yeah, there’s the obligatory bunt to first base and other such calculated cheese, but isn’t that something we see road films for? Why can’t this film be both of those, too? It earns all these rights somehow, be it through its funny writing, shameless shock tactics and a biting self-awareness. You’ll come out of Zombieland having experienced one hell of a synthesis of contemporary film, and it’s likely that you’ll be willing to see it again and again until you can cheer and recite the lines by heart.

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32. Enjoy the little things.

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Ponyo

August 17, 2009

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Often times, films are marketed as “family movies,” and most times these films put the parents to sleep and only keep the kids marginally entertained. Ponyo, the latest film from Studio Ghibli director and legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, couldn’t have had everyone’s eyes more glued to the movie screen. Granted, my family consists of Studio Ghibli fans, and maybe it was our adoration of Hayao Miyazaki’s previous work that kept our eyes as wide as the film’s characters throughout our movie experience. But no one in my family that attended Ponyo was under nineteen. The children in the theater, however, were the real judges. And this is reasonable; children are the target audience here. As important as our “oo”s and “ah”s were, their interjections were key, ranging from laughs, sounds of surprise, questions, and if it could make a sound, their amazed silence. I’ll bet close to the same emotions were running through my head as well. Miyazaki’s films often have a way of making a child out of everyone; everything you see is new.

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Which is not to say that every Miyazaki film is for children. 1997’s Princess Mononoke, rated PG-13, was intense even when I was thirteen (I feel sorry for all the parents who thought they were bringing their kids to another Disney Princess movie). 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle was often times violent and melancholy, and probably went over most kids’ heads. Even Miyazaki’s commercial breakout and one of the best children’s films ever made, the 1988 film My Neighbor Totoro, was sometimes a drama about difficult emotions and problems associated with growing up. Ponyo is a bonafide children’s movie, although it may contain some moments that have bigger consequences that children may only understand the basic ideas of (a complexity of relationships, unconditional acceptance of others and a subtle environmentalism among them; and really, who doesn’t like their kids to learn from a movie?). The film, about a small boy named Sosuke and his newly found pet goldfish Ponyo, plays out and even looks like a children’s book, with colorful landscapes and objects that explode with pastel and crayola-esque animation. The story, like that of many children’s books, is basic and fundamental, and yet completely new; I never had any idea what would happen next, and was delighted by each turn of events.

Sosuke (voiced by the youngest, least well known Jonas brother Frankie Jonas) lives in a pretty normal world, in a house on a green cliff by the sea with his mother Lisa (Tina Fey) and sometimes his father Koichi (Matt  Damon), who is a sailor and spends most of his days out at sea (to the great distress of Lisa). Sosuke spends his days at school while Lisa works at the retirement home next door, which is inhabited by perhaps the most charming set of old ladies in the history of old ladies. Once Sosuke finds and subsequently loses the little human-faced goldfish Ponyo (voiced by Noah Cyrus, yet another teen pop star’s younger sibling), his world floods with excitement. It turns out that Ponyo is the daughter of an undersea wizard-type figure named Fujimoto, and thus Ponyo isn’t exactly a normal goldfish. Her character is, like Miyazaki’s other great characters, electrifying and vibrant and can’t help but leave the secondary characters in the dust, as compelling and real as they are. When Ponyo licks a drop of blood off of a cut on Sosuke’s finger, everything changes: Ponyo begins to transform into a human girl, the sea rages with Fujimoto’s search for his daughter and the moon draws closer to the earth, causing a massive flood. Ponyo sets out to find her new friend Sosuke again while a storm brews behind her.

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Visually, Ponyo may rest at the top of Miyazaki’s animation achievements. Like virtually all of his other films, Ponyo is done completely by hand and contains no computer animation whatsoever, a labor of love. According to IMDB, the first twelve seconds of the film contain over 1,600 hand drawn frames and I can believe it completely. The grand total is approximately 170,000 separate images, a record for Miyazaki’s long career. This may seem like a colossal amount of material for a one hundred minute film, and it is, but many of the images are charmingly simple, more than any other Miyazaki film to date. Sometimes frames contain mostly solid colors and well defined lines, and some other times the animation rivals the startling complexity of his most involved works, particularly the incredibly detailed Howl’s Moving Castle. Already an expert in the animation of nature, Miyazaki has the entire ocean to work with here, and he does wonders with it: thousands of jellyfish, prawn and amoebae float freely in the water, crabs ranging in size from tiny to humongous sidle along the ocean floor, enormous whales swim slowly through the ocean, waves represented as giant fish terrifyingly crash into the shore and hundreds of Ponyo’s young sister goldfish act both in synchronization and independence.

Ponyo has a startling amount of material and yet feels somehow quaint, like an elongated short film. For that reason, it resembles the surprisingly short 2002 Studio Ghibli film The Cat Returns (another kids film), more than anything. Even at one hundred minutes, it feels like forty tops, and you’ll be on the edge of your seat for most of it regardless of your age. The plot contains a few head-scratchers for Western audiences. Koichi prays to the goddess of mercy, Ponyo relieves an infants cold by rubbing her face against his, and unlike other children’s fantasy films, the adults here seem to be in on the magic too. These hitches probably need no explaining or hard thinking for their homeland audience; we need to remember that Ponyo comes from the other side of the planet. Miyazaki rightfully refuses to compromise his home country’s way of life or his vision for the sake of commercial viability. For that reason alone, Ponyo will likely never receive the success or acclaim that other undersea kids films such as The Little Mermaid and Finding Nemo have, at least in the West, though it stands tall by them in quality. But perhaps these few alien concepts are all for the better. They may only reinforce that Ponyo, like Miyazaki’s other work, is like nothing you have ever seen before, except maybe only somewhat like his other work. Half of everything children see is brand new. We often take this for granted, and even forty odd years into his career, Hayao Miyazaki can still completely engross everyone in the theater, and in the process even the adults are reminded of where they came from.

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Oscar Thoughts: Slumdog Millionaire Deserves it All

February 23, 2009

I made a bit of a big deal out of the Academy Awards last night, and without much reason, really. I barely saw any movies last year, at least compared to previous years, so I could not fairly make judgements on most of what was nominated. I am a bit embarrassed to say that I did not see four out of five of the films nominated for Best Picture last night. The only reason I made such a big deal out of it, and why I invited all of my friends over to our dorm room to watch the event, is because I wanted to see the performance of a single film and all of those involved with it.

Slumdog Millionaire dominated the Awards, winning eight out of the nine Oscars it was nominated for, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score, in addition to the four Golden Globes and countless other accolades it has recieved, and earned completely. Watching the massive cast and crew on the red carpet as well as accepting the awards and having a great time was an incredible feeling. It makes me extremely happy that this film has gotten the recognition and appreciation that it has, because I honestly believe it is one of the greatest movies to be released in years, and an all around inspiring and incredible film experience.

I first saw the film when I was in a very bad spot. I won’t say exactly what was on my mind, but it was that kind of agonizing feeling that someone just can never shake immediately. Slumdog Millionaire didn’t get rid of that feeling, but it certainly reminded me that my situation was natural and a part of a bigger picture. As you probably already know, the film is combination of many genres including drama, comedy, coming of age, adventure, romance, and perhaps an element of fantasy. I can scarcely say anything about it that hasn’t already been said, so I won’t even try. It is probably the best looking film that I can remember seeing, gorgeously filmed and directed, by the wonderful Danny Boyle, no less. Musically it is a revolution, a beautiful combination of Indian classicism and modern music from A.R. Rahman. The acting is superb, from an enormous cast, some of which are well known Indian stars, and the child roles handpicked from a school in Mumbai. But the script is what really stands out. The storyline and the characters in it put so much at risk, everything that they have, in fact, and the results are nothing short of stunning, a celebration of the trials and rewards of living.

If you haven’t seen Slumdog Millionaire, make a point to do so immediately. I will in turn see Milk, Frost/Nixon, The Wrestler and the rest of the films who recieved the recognition of not only winning Oscars but also nomination as soon as humanly possible.

Also, a huge congratulations to everyone else who won last night, especially to Wall-E’s win for Best Animated Film and Heath Ledger’s win for Best Supporting Actor.

Much love all around.

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Favorite Classes

June 15, 2008

I am now officially done with high school. I have taken a grand total of 32 classes plus a couple doubles through the years (gym and orchestra). Some of these classes have been very good, and some of them have been very bad. I want to take some time to talk about my favorite classes from high school. I could never have the time or will to talk about all the good ones. Every year I had at least one or two classes that I liked, but classes that I loved were rare treasures. I could also talk about classes I hated, but I’m not here to do any bashing. That isn’t right. I won’t remember the classes I hated. I will remember the classes I loved. All of these classes seem to be in the area of English and Social Studies. Science has never been my forte, although I have had some decent teachers, and Math is something I am marginally good at but can never really get myself to be inspired by. Hopefully in a year all of my classes will be as excellent as these select few.

From Freshman year through Junior year, I was in Orchestra every day, fourth hour, conducted by Mr. S. There are two Orchestras in the school, the lower Strings Orchestra and the higher Chamber Orchestra. I never made it into Chamber Orchestra, but then again I never tried out. I guess I knew I could not have been good enough, and lacked the willpower to do anything about it. For a long time, there was some kind of resentment towards the Chamber Orchestra, probably to mask jealousy or insecurity. Despite my hidden anxiety, fourth hour was always a period I looked forward to. All respects to Mr. S, the class was not really about the teaching. It was about the music. Picking up my violin every day and letting my fingers do the work that they were so good at while my mind wandered was one of the only things that could really lift any anxiety I had, and I almost always had anxiety. The Strings Orchestra played myriad music, of more variety but lesser difficulty than the Chamber Orchestra. The Chamber almost always showed us up at concerts, besides once or twice when the Strings played marvelously on interesting songs while the Chamber unluckily got stuck with some more boring pieces. It was not about competition. It was about making music with your hands. By the time I left Orchestra Senior year to take AP Music Theory, I had spent half of my life playing the Violin. I made friends I’ll never lose and stimulated myself artistically to a degree that I doubt I will ever achieve again. Although the violin is not my passion, it is a part of myself I will never be able to remove.

The first truly great class I encountered that was in the vein of a traditional curriculum was my AP US History class with Mr. R Sophomore year. In many ways, looking back on that class is to me like viewing my ideal of what a High School social studies class should have been. Everyone needs to take US History and pass the Constitution test, but I felt like US History was less of a requirement and more of a privelage. Yes, I had my typical problems of motivation that prevented me from working to my full potential. There will always be worksheets I am too lazy to do, pages I am too lazy to read, and tests I am too lazy to study for. But I was always more motivated to work, read, and study for US History than any other class. This was due almost completely to Mr. R, who is nothing short of a brilliant teacher. The man could be a speech writer for christ’s sake. He stood in front of the class every day and delivered lectures that I will always remember for their passion, and the way he led class involvement was through full class and small group discussions about whatever issue in US History we were covering. His delivery was concise. This is what happened, these are the factors and questions we need to consider, let’s have a discussion. My notes for that class are defining of my personality. A tornado of notes, footnotes, drawings, thoughts, and feelings. I’ll remember US History not just for Mr. R, who might be my favorite High School teacher, but for how it felt like genuinely the first class in higher level education, as most everything in the previous year was BS.

Another class that I took sophomore year that I believe was a real higher level class was Debate with Mr. D. Every sophomore follows the same sophomore English program. For one semester, a sophomore takes a standard English class where literature is studied by varying curriculum. The other semester requires that the student take either a speech or debate class. I chose Debate, and I found myself sitting in Mr. D’s room. Mr. D is a man I will never forget…With the towering appearance of perhaps a lumberjack, or as he put it, Hagrid, he was a man of presence. When Mr. D talks, you listen. Debate was a lot of work. I’ll remember how silent the class always was when we were not actually debating, and then how each presentation lit the room on fire for just a few seconds only to have the flames die down again. It was not a fun class to do work for. There was a lot of paperwork, but there was also a lot of group work. We were forced to work together in studying difficult issues and learned how to create coherent arguments about any given topic, on either side. Mr. D is an extremely leftist individual, but surprisingly enough, he was able to keep his opinions balanced. I will never forget his speeches on gun control, wellfare, taxes, war and countless other issues. I will also never forget going up on stage, desperate for points, after the school macho man who had just made an extremely organized speech on something or other, and receiving a massive amount of points simply for stating my opinion and how it was in conflict with his. It taught me that just being there and speaking out really means something. This class more than achieved its goals.

In Junior year, I once again had Mr. R for a social studies class, this time Sociology. I confess, the only reason I signed up for Sociology was because I wanted to have Mr. R again. Luckily, Sociology was just as rewarding of a class as US History. I knew by Junior year that I was interested in pursuing Psychology in college. However, I had not yet taken a psychology class. I was hoping to take one over the summer before Junior year, but an irreconcilable road trip to Washington D.C. got in the way, and by the time class registration rolled about, there was no way to switch to Psychology from any other class. In Sociology, I was one of three Juniors in a class of Seniors. I felt somewhat like an outsider. However, the work and learning was still there. This was a good introduction to psychology because it worked with possibly the most applicable school of psychology right off the bat. It was a study of how societies and cultures worked, and also about specific societies and cultures, and their characteristics such as norms, linguistics, and taboos. The three Juniors were not outsiders in practice…We participated in class discussions that Mr. R was so wonderful at setting up. But in spirit, we were observers, which was probably the best thing we could have asked for. It seems like implausible irony, but the Seniors were in constant conflict and there was always some kind of drama within the class. The class was not a microcosm to aid our study, but I did feel like it was an exploration in social psychology that helped me appreciate Sociology much more. Particularly memorable was a discussion on class conflict that brought an individual to tears. Possibly the height of my social studies experience in high school.

The Junior English curriculum also allows for some options. In fact, now that I think about it, the English department might allow more options than any other department in the building, save perhaps Social Studies which matches its versatility. One could opt to take a Junior English class known as Interrelated Arts which was a study of just about every kind of contemporary art form, taking advantage of the great city of Chicago for lots of the studying. I however opted to take Junior English Honors, and I ended up with Mrs. R (no relation to Mr. R). It was not completely obvious to me right away that the class was as great as it really was. I disliked a considerable portion of the class…There was a row of about five people that did not seem to be able to quiet themselves and always drew unnecessary attention and distracted from the class. Mrs R was late to grade many papers and at first came off as irresponsible, which is an assumption that I now cringe to think about making. The truth of it was that Mrs. R was a full time mother of two as well as a full time teacher, so she had more than a full day of work to deal with within any 24 hour block of time. My other English classes before then, save Debate, were aimed toward the studies of classic works, some of which were enjoyable and some of which not so much. Yeah, I enjoyed reading The Lord of the Flies in Freshman year, but beyond that, none of the readings in High School had truly inspired me until Junior English. We studied myriad short stories of both the romantic movement and the realism movement. This alone was a breakthrough for my learning. I never really knew what it meant to be romantic or realistic in literature before then, so it was wonderful to be able to learn one of modern literature’s most important concepts straightaway. We also read the wonderful book The Great Gatsby, a fantastic combination of romanticism and realism, Hamlet, and The Scarlett Letter. Admittedly, I hated reading the Scarlett Letter save the odd chapter that would inspire me (A Flood of Sunshine makes no sense in the course of the book, at least in terms of its brilliance compared to the inconsistency of the rest of the book), but I learned a lot from reading it about myself and my tastes. Also very memorable was our experience with a Kindergarten class in the district, in which all of us found pen pals. Every few weeks, we would receive and write letters to our pen pals who were learning to read at the time. The act of discussing things with them was part of their reading and writing education, and by the end of the year, I definitely saw improvement in my pen pal, and was very happy to visit him and the rest of his class. I had never really experienced teaching firsthand before then. It gave me a good idea of what it really means to teach, and made me consider how different teaching Kindergarten and High School must be. An infinitely rewarding class despite its shortcomings.

By the time I took Psychology in Senior year, I had already decided I wanted to be a Psychology major. Maybe it was due to the fact that I was just starting to figure out how my brain worked that made me interested in psychology. It just seemed like such a basic, important study to me… The study of people. Taking Sociology the previous year only encouraged my interest. Lucky for me, my first Psychology class was perfect to start me off in the subject. The class was taught by Mr. G, a smart, fast thinking, smooth talking teacher who seemed to have captured the hearts of many of my female friends at the time. He was not fluff. His teaching style worked because everyone listened to him. Yes, there was a fair share of psychology videos, and nothing substitutes for reading the book thoroughly, but Mr. G always did the best he could to explain the main concepts as best as he could within class time and was always available to go in depth if we needed him to. I also loved the multitude of projects we were assigned within the semester. I loved the development project we partook in which made us explore our own development in particular. And I’ll never forget my own involvement in the teaching of classical conditioning…I was seated in front of the entire class. Mr. G read off a list of words. Whenever he said the word “can,” I was squirted in the eye with water from a spray bottle. I guarantee I will never forget the principles of classical conditioning. But I think what really made Psychology fun and memorable for me was the subject itself. I love Psychology, and learning the subject from the ground up was very rewarding.

The English department at my High School pulls something new out of it’s sleeves every year after the relatively standard Freshman English program. Sophomore year requires a Speech or Debate class. Junior year offers Interrelated Arts. But Senior year is the trump card, offering myriad options including Logic and Rhetoric, Creative Writing, Religious Quest, and my second semester choice, Film Criticism. My initial thought on Film Criticism was that it would be a rewarding class for me, an amateur writer and critic already, and I would be able to spend a class period a day enjoying one of my favorite mediums of art. I changed my mind soon after. Film Criticism started to sound like a disaster. A class full of second semester Seniors with little to lose, and little reason to do anything but screw off for an entire class period a day. The catch was that Mr. D, who was also my Sophomore Debate teacher, was the teacher for Film Crit. Like Debate class, Film Criticism had a massive, inordinate amount of paperwork. Yes, for about four days a week are spent watching movies, but as a student on the honors system in the class, I was required to read around five reviews or articles on a given movie per week, write extensive notes on the current film, read from my film criticism textbook, take a test on the odd day we weren’t actually watching a film, and write a report on each film. There was simply no time to slack off in the class, and because of how the class was built, we had to pay close attention to each film. Luckily, Mr. D was brilliant at choosing films and units of films to watch. We started off watching Minority Report, a light action adventure film with some deeper meaning that can be explored. The “Future Anxiety” unit continued, getting progressively more challenging, and the films in the unit got more ideologically complex as well as cinematically exciting. Even Mr. D questioned the quality of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, but it forced us to take sides in an issue that high school seniors just don’t think about very much. We also watched Blade Runner, one of my favorite films, and Mr. D’s commentary on the films style and themes was extremely enlightening. The films only got more and more challenging. The next unit was the “Gender and Power” unit, with films ranging from the brilliant Afghani independent film Osama to the cheap thrill ride of Thelma and Louise. Then, the exhausting, brutal six film war unit, including Dr. Stangelove, Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, and Path’s of Glory. Finally clinching the year with one of the most challenging films I have ever watched, Dead Man Walking. What was most impressive about Mr. D was his unfailing ability to provide insight on every issue in frank, nonbiased way. After every film, the class would sit and have a discussion. We were usually quiet, not so much because it was nine in the morning but because we might have been speechless, and nothing we could have said could possibly have held a candle to anything Mr. D said. The big trick with Senior Film Criticism was that it was essentially a philosophy class in disguise. This was just how Mr. D operated. He drew us in with the medium of film itself, but what the class was really about was issues that we have to deal with in our modern world. He provided support for every point of view, and the passion with which he spoke about film was inspiring, and he made it clear that there was nothing he would rather be talking about than the art of film. I hope I can someday be as passionate a teacher as Mr. D, perhaps even in the same class, but realistically I don’t know if it gets much better than him.

These are my favorite classes from High School which I singled out for their educational value, and I will probably never forget them. While the majority of my High School education was sub par in comparison, they made the whole experience worth it, and I can only hope to have as rewarding classes in college. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes once it comes to it.

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Cloverfield

January 27, 2008

Since it opened in theaters approximately a week ago, I have seen Cloverfield three times. The people who work at the theater must think I’m pretty weird, because having also seen There Will Be Blood, I have been to the theater four times in the past week. Such behavior is for me unheard of, considering the price of movie tickets nowadays. In fact, I have been seeing most movies in theaters twice lately (Juno, Sweeney Todd). But three times? The last time that happened was with The Lord of the Rings: Return of The King, which won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and was a movie event for the ages. Why, then, did I not have any problems dropping money on seeing a (comparatively) low budget monster movie not once, not twice, but three times? Either I really liked all the people I saw it with (an obvious truth), or this movie has had some kind of draw, some quality that I have never seen in a movie before.

The first thing you have to know about Cloverfield is it’s marketing campaign, which is among the most successful viral marketing campaigns ever unleashed. For around six months, the details of Cloverfield had been relatively unknown, all the way up until it’s release on January 18th. In fact, for over half of that time, the only thing that was known about it was what could have been inferred from a short, cryptic trailer. The movie was simply known by it’s release date, 1/18/08, and the title Cloverfield was not confirmed until a short time before release. All anyone knew was that it is about a group of people who originate from the same going away party for a guy in New York City named Rob, when a giant monster inexplicably decides to attack the city, and that the movie is directed by JJ Abrams. During those six months, marketing tie ins ran rampant, and information was slowly released about the film. What shocks me about it is that nothing significant leaked before the movie’s release. This is the nice thing about making a middle budget film. You have big time corporation backing so that you can’t be taken advantage of, but you are also working small and have the benefit of utilizing a creative campaign like this. Movie buffs and monster nerds anticipated the movies release, and the identity of the then unknown monster, until 1/18/08.

My initial assumption was that the final product would not meet the hype, but that didn’t stop me from being interested. I did lower my standards however, because I knew that it would be hard for a movie to match my inflated expectations, but little did I know that Cloverfield would rock my world. I’m not even sure that I quite knew how much I liked it until I saw it for the second and third times.

I walked into the theater expecting a monster flick. I’m a big fan of monster flicks. Old ones. It is a dying genre. The last monster movie I can remember seeing in the theater before Cloverfield is Godzilla 2000, and I don’t remember being impressed. But once we sit down and give ourselves in to Cloverfield, it flips everything we know about monster movies upside down and kicks them out the door. It is one of the most well written and well executed “flicks” I have ever seen, but it’s greatness is concealed, and it is either fortunately or unfortunately destined to be a cult hit.

The setup, as I previously mentioned, is simple and effective. The movie is filmed from the perspective of a handheld video camera, so we see what the characters see, and we know what the characters know. The trick is not new. The Blair Witch Project used it around the turn of the century, and it has been synonymous with that film ever since, but it is just as effective here. The screen is always shaky, and two of the people I have seen the movie with complained of mild motion sickness, but ultimately the shaky camera works, and we get a perspective on the film that is very realistic, and at street level. Cloverfield is not about the giant monster that is ravaging the city. It is about the people who are affected by it. And the characters are very realistic and believable. My father complained about how many scenes in the movie were not believable at all, but if you are looking for realism in a movie about a giant monster, you are fighting a losing battle. Most of the complaints were that even after the movie ends, the viewer knows very little about the monster or why it is destroying New York City. We are not supposed to know this. Ultimately, the only stock character in the movie is the monster itself, and it is very much a secondary character. Giant monsters don’t destroy New York or Tokyo for any particular reason, and if they do, it is stupid. I did not, however, hear any complaints from anyone about the characters themselves, except from a movie critic who said he was rooting for the monster by the time the movie ended. The only reason I can infer for this reasoning is to see more of the monster itself, but if you are even remotely paying attention during the movie, you will realize that this comment is utter bullshit.

The web of characters writer Drew Goddard creates is impressive to say the least. There is a small amount of cheese in the platter, but that is to be expected in a flick. But the character development is subtle, in fact almost unnoticeable, although anything but undeniable. The core of the movie is spent with six characters. Rob Hawkins, as we know him, is the representation of a youthful, passionate America. He may or may not be nonexistant, but in any case he is the direction of the film, as it progresses. His goal is to rescue the girl, which is a movie staple that we are more than familiar with. It is old, but it works. Also present are the dumb but loveable cameraman Hud, Rob’s brother Jason and his girlfriend Lily, and the apple of Hud’s eye Marlena. The final character is Rob’s love interest, Beth. The characters are set up with great precision at the party, and as the movie progresses, they show their true character, intentions, and flaws. Jason is among the most impressive. He is presented right away as a problem solver, a funny person, and a caring individual. He is the kind of person you would want to have with you should you ever need to escape from New York, and even within the first ten minutes of the movie, we come to love him. He is killed promptly. I don’t know if it was to tug at our heartstrings, to prove a point, or to leave our characters with something to be distraught about, but in any case we know that this is a natural part of the progression of the movie. We didn’t want him to die, but he did, not because he was an unfortunate victim of a roller coaster ride of a movie, but because he chose to lead the party to the Brooklyn Bridge. The only reason that the other characters were not killed is because Rob received a phone call from Beth, which he pulled aside to answer among the crowd of fleeing citizens. The other characters stay behind with him, trying to pull him along, when we see Jason perched atop a figure in the distance yelling, “WHY DID YOU STOP!?” At this very moment, a gigantic arm strikes the Brooklyn Bridge.

One of the most important scenes in the movie is when the party flees the bridge and is mourning Jason’s tragic, untimely death. We get a shot of Rob’s shocked, empty face in response to this. Michael Stahl-David plays his part wonderfully, and we see him break down, silently, before our eyes, after which he trudges off to an electronic store. Rob has realized that the reason he is still alive is because of Beth’s phone call, and if he doesn’t try to play the hero and rescue her, Jason’s death is in vain. So he walks away. His walking is key. For the rest of the movie, he walks in a delusional limp, and this is a very important detail.

But perhaps the most impressively executed (literally and figuratively executed) character in the movie is Marlena, “the bitch,” who the innocent, sweet Hud tries to hit on multiple times. We don’t like her. In fact, we want her to die, just because of how rude she is to Hud, who we love. Then, after she saves his life, she begins to crawl out of her stock character and turn into a person we love. And then she dies, almost immediately. Her last words, a yelp of desire for Hud, are genuine, brought to the surface only by her subsequent death. These characters are brilliantly written because they are natural and realistic, which is strange, because we don’t go to the movies to see realism. We go to the movies to see giant monsters. Camquarter documentations of tragic events don’t have good character development. And yet the character development in Cloverfield is good. Very good. By at least the second time I watched the film, I started to ask myself what I even wanted out of the movie in the first place.

Well, I wanted a flick. And I definitely got a flick. I got scared to the greatest degree that a movie could possibly scare me. This is a well made movie, but it is also a fright fest that reminds us of why King Kong and Godzilla entertain us. We do, in fact, get to see the monster, in several terrifying shots. We had to, because if we hadn’t Cloverfield would just be another Blair Witch ripoff. The evil needs to have a face. Cloverfield has some love, some heroism, and some terror, all woven within one another nearly seamlessly.

Why this movie is so scary, and why it left me shivering uncontrollably after the first viewing, is questionable. Some of my discussions with others about the movie have uncovered facts and opinions that I would have never thought of otherwise. When I asked myself, “why did this movie scare me?”, the only answer I had was, “because it was scary.” But it can be easily realized that Cloverfield is an indirect nod to 9/11. This movie scares us as the events of 9/11 did, or as much as a movie can in that respect. For seven years, America’s greatest fear is an unexpected situation like our characters in Cloverfield have to encounter and deal with. Widespread panic, mass hysteria, martial law. This fear has been relatively untapped in the film industry, except maybe for Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds.

Cloverfield scares the shit out of us because a low budget monster flick should not feel so realistic, or close to our fears. Later in the film, Rob holds the camera to his face and tells us that if we are watching this tape, we know more about the situation than him. What makes Cloverfield terrifying is that we really don’t know any more than him. In fact, we know EXACTLY as much as him, because we have been following him closely throughout the entire film. I would almost say that the main character in Cloverfield is the camera itself. The movie is a chain of events, but unlike those of most monster movies, it is a chain of events that we do not question. The fact that the movie is brilliantly written is obscured by the slew of highly memorable cinematic shots and realistic effects. It is well written, well acted (surprise), well filmed (bigger surprise), and it works on the interior and the exterior. An excellent movie experience.

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Sigur Ros – Heima

January 23, 2008

As Sigur Ros bassist Georg speaks in the tour diary included in the second disk of the Heima DVD, up until the release of this film, Sigur Ros fans had not really been given a visual document of the bands work and spirit aside from the album artwork, which is perfectly pleasant and beautiful on it’s own terms, but does not really give fans the kind of concert experience that they have always wished for. Heima is a film about Iceland, and the islands most popular band, Sigur Ros, on a short unannounced tour throughout the country. Heima means “at home,” which means that the band is in their most comfortable environment, their own home country with all of it’s beautiful, homely charms.

The majority of the film is presented in the form of live concert footage and footage of Iceland’s beautiful natural landscapes. It is divided into passages concentrated on different towns, villages, and cities, and personal concert experiences from each. The idea that this could turn into a dull, Discovery Channel documentary is immediately disproved, as the band proves that they are among the most innovative and consistently interesting performers in a long time. In fact, Sigur Ros turn what we know about documentaries, let alone music documentaries, upside down. Within the first fifteen minutes, we are shown live footage of the band performing one of the better songs off of Takk while completely silhouetted by an earthen cloth that takes up the entire expanse of a stage. The entire song is performed under shadow, reminding us that the music of Sigur Ros is as much about what is not there as what is there. This may seem pretentious, but we must remember that this is a band that released an album with blank pages in the sleeve meant for fans to produce lyrics of their own, a counterpoint for the fact that Sigur Ros vocalist Jonsi almost exclusively sings in a babel that does not belong to any language.

Almost every song is performed in a unique way or in a unique place, and although some of the performances do not add anything new to their studio recordings, they all resonate with warmth. This may be partially due to the inclusion of the band’s supporting strings section, the all girls band Amiina, that has served Sigur Ros very well within the past ten years and act as family both professionally and personally.

Another switch-up is employed very early on in the naturalistic segments. Footage of running water from streams and waterfalls is reversed. I could tell you that this represents Sigur Ros moving backwards in it’s own footsteps in the snow, back home, to where things started, but then I would sound like I’m looking for reasons to praise the bands every move. This kind of over-analysis from fans is what has given the band their pretentious reputation. What we need to remember is, water running backwards in gorgeous high quality just looks impressive. And the ideas of Sigur Ros are not always as complex as we may think. The band keeps their music close to the human condition, and closer to the human ear.

What Sigur Ros have done are bring us into their world, into their home, and showed us what their music is about. Heima is as much a testament to Iceland as it is to Sigur Ros and their live repertoire. Throughout the span of the film, the band play songs in desolate regions such as in the middle of a forest as well in a slew of other places that I will not mention so to leave the majority of the movie a surprise. These performances are either pretentious or completely genuine, and we struggle with this question until after the performance of the final song, when Jonsi describes an interesting family tidbit which I also cannot reproduce here, in risk of it losing it’s effect. We are also shown footage of the people of the different Icelandic villages living their everyday lives, as well as indulging in the concerts, which they seem only half as impressed about as we do. A local marching band accompanying Sigur Ros onstage seems to them to be completely natural, as unique as it is. Moments like these are not few, and I struggle to not reveal more of them because of how interesting they all are. But shots of the natural beauty of Iceland are just as important and moving as the happenings the people that inhabit it. This seems to be part musical documentary, and part natural documentary, both areas approached in lighthearted and honest ways.

Intricacies aside, Heima is a solid live concert experience. The songs are performed very well, although they do not differ much aurally from the original album cuts. The DVD is put together very nicely, but at times the interactive menus can get a bit confusing and tiring, despite their creativity of their presentation of an elderly map of Iceland, which are probably much more navigable to Icelandic people. The extras are quite interesting and are enough to keep fans’ appetites quelled until the band’s next release, whenever that may be. There are a couple different versions of Heima that you can buy, namely the standard two disk DVD as well as a deluxe edition with an art book, but both releases have the same two disks and are only cosmetically different. My complaints of the film are only in my desire to have seen some of my personal favorite songs performed, specifically Gong, Saeglopur, and Svefn-g-englar, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and none of the song selections here are wasted efforts. I was especially impressed with the performance of Meo Blodnasir, a magical little interlude on Takk that would not normally be seen as anything more than filler. Even for casual Sigur Ros fans, Heima is essential, and it is surely the apex of Sigur Ros’ career thus far. Easily the best music documentary I have seen, and a highlight of 2007 in both music and film.

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Snow

December 23, 2007

I have no better way to open a sentimental holiday post than with a simple fact. The weather here, in the Chicago area, is ass backwards. Last night at around midnight it was over thirty two degrees outside, I am completely certain. Everything was melting. It was one of those times when my town became a dripping playground of water. But the past few days since I got out of school have been generally very warm, but not quite as warm as yesterday. Yesterday, there was a thick fog blanketing the entire county. Driving in that weather is difficult. And it seems like everyone who is going well over the speed limit in thick fog also just can’t manage to turn their headlights on. This isn’t a hard concept. If you put a little snow on the ground, people drive like idiots. When it melts, that doesn’t seem to help.

This morning it is about fifteen degrees outside. It is frigid, but only because of the wind chill. Because so much of the snow melted yesterday, there is nothing but a thin, wispy layer left that flutters all around town in huge whirlwinds in the bitter wind. Tomorrow, it is supposed to get a little warmer, probably up to around thirty degrees, and I’m hoping that it will snow so that the Christmas snow isn’t quite so pathetic. I like having white Christmases. They are almost always white, so I guess the chances of it not being nice and snowy are unlikely. But now isn’t the time to get sentimental about snow. In February, I come out of my apartment on mornings like this in shock, because it feels like a heat wave.

I should be savoring this day. It’s an important day, to me anyway. It’s the last day before Christmas Eve, which is when winter inevitably starts to suck horribly. I love the holiday season. From about Black Friday to today, the world turns into something magical. I love that month… That is where you see the Christmas spirit. Windows at department stores, snow flurries, Christmas decorations, the shopping rush, warm clothing, the ever looming feeling of anticipation leading up to the day that the rest of the year has been leading up to, and that generally magical Christmas spirit. A lot of people don’t notice it, because they are looking too hard. And when someone on the radio asks you, “can you feel that Christmas spirit, Chicago?”, you really just want to blow your brains out. But it’s there. It’s definitely there. It’s subtlety is magic, and from Black Friday to today is my favorite time of the year, hands down.

And then there is Christmas, and the eve before it. I hate those two days. I hate them with a passion. Christmas is the most over hyped, corporate, disappointing holiday of them all. On Christmas, all those hopes and warm feelings are slaughtered in place of materialistic bombast. I’ll admit, I have never been an even remotely religious person at all, so maybe I’m missing half of the angle, that is the day of the Lord. See how I capitalized that “L?” Yeah, I did that for posterity’s sake. I don’t really care about what happened on the twenty fifth of December thousands of years ago. In fact, thinking about that just makes me grumpy. And following Christmas, as if that wasn’t bad enough, is another four months of dead, chilling winter. It’s not that this part of winter is so bad. It just lasts too long in Chicago, and you have to make it enjoyable on it’s own terms. It is usually depressing and lonely. I think the extreme cold does something to your neurons, and it makes one more easily disturbed by mundane things than usual. On a cold, two degree February morning, burnt toast scares me just as much as the walk to school, or the school itself. Etc, etc, etc. In any case, Christmas is worth it to me if just for the month that precedes it.

What I’m most glad about is getting off of school for two weeks. When I was a Freshman or a Sophomore, I might have felt a little differently, and I would have perhaps felt sad that I would not get to see the people I normally see at school for two whole weeks. But by now, I’m just sick of school, the workload, the social issues, and I just need a couple weeks off, which is exactly what I am getting, so as far as I am concerned I have little to complain about besides the inescapable grasp of the calendar. It feels good to not have to worry about English essays, or Calculus tests, or social strain. I’m getting a lot of stuff done that I don’t normally have time for. I am finally re-reading The Lord Of The Rings. My father gave me his nice copy of it, that he no longer uses, because he listens to them on tape. He has read The Hobbit along with the entire Lord Of The Rings trilogy approximately twenty times, maybe a little more. He would always make obscure references to the books when I was a kid, and in an attempt to understand them, I tried to read The Lord Of The Rings when I couldn’t have been older than ten years old. Horrible, horrible idea. I know I got to about halfway through The Two Towers, but only to such a degree that my ADD stricken childish mind could have managed. My eyes read the words, but my mind did not process the meaning. I finally gave up when I picked the book up in the middle of some long speech that Gandalf was making, the context of which I was completely clueless to. I say I have read those books, but I really might as well not have. And I’m finally doing that now. The volume that I read from now is red, ornate, and contains all three books, maps of Middle Earth and the appendices. I’m finally appreciating this literature for what it is. It isn’t just the source of story for the films, which I really did enjoy a lot. The Lord Of The Rings is the apex of fantasy literature, and it is fantastically written, and I am having tons of fun reading it now.

I also finally have the time to watch a lot of movies. It is an appropriate time of year to watch movies at home like Fargo, The Thing, and A Christmas Story. I watched Sweeney Todd last night. Whoo, boy. Now that one was fun. It rivaled Pan’s Labyrinth in terms of degree of disturbance. Lot’s of blood spilled. I like that every once and a while, and it’s alright because it was a great movie, but it was just DRAINING. Interestingly enough, there are a ton of movies I want to see in theaters now. Juno, The Kite Runner, and No Country For Old Men, particularly. But I really have to watch my cash. I’m really low on it, and I’ve been spending like crazy lately, for gifts and for myself. Hopefully.

As far as Christmas music goes, there is always that bombardment of tunes and jingles in storefronts, and on the radio. But in terms of albums, my ears have been particularly fixated on three chilling pieces that accompany the cold very well. Substrata by Biosphere, Treasure by Cocteau Twins, and Vespertine by Bjork. Expect reviews for Substrata and Vespertine in good time. I’ve already done one for Treasure that is sufficient.

Everybody have a wonderful holiday.

-Alex