Thursday, January 28, 2010

Decade Retrospective Re-Run

On Sunday, January 31, Sounds of Cinema will rebroadcast the special decade retrospective episode, in which I count down my picks of the twenty-five films that defined the first decade of the twenty-first century.

You can find the list of films and rationales for them here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Frozen River Film Festival

The Frozen River Film Festival begins today in Winona, MN and will go until January 31st. This year's theme is "Food."

The program has expanded to include "Fringe Fest" on Friday, January 29th, which is a mini-festival that includes film screenings but also local artists, demonstrations, and tours.

You can find out more about the Frozen River Film Fesitval, including event schedules and ticket information, at the website:

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

New Website Design

Sounds of Cinema's website has been given a significant face lift. Hopefully the site will be a little easier to use. The Review Archive remains the same for now, although it to will also be given an overhaul in the near future, using a similar layout to the rest of the site. Enjoy!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Seven Lessons from "Legion"

A full review of the film Legion is forthcoming, but in the meantime, viewing the film has prompted me to write the following list of "don'ts" that storytellers and filmmakers can learn from the film.
  • Don't go into a story without a coherent sense of metaphysics.
    Whether it is ghost story, an epic fantasy, or a science fiction piece, a story must establish what reality is and stick with it, not make things up as it goes (i.e. your possessed husband explodes and his bodily fluids are suddenly acidic.) Even The Lovely Bones followed this one.
  • Don't throw around religious iconography with no respect for what that iconography means.
    Using images or symbols ironically is fine, but realize the meanings of a cross (or an inverted one) and who would use them or why. It's not that this misuse of religious symbols is blasphemous, the problem is that it's lazy, thoughtless, and confusing.
  • Don't expect to get away with delivering the same old cliche-ridden story with cosmetic changes.
    Audiences are usually smarter than they are given credit for and will realize when they've seen something before. Just as Avatar is Pocahontas with name changes, Legion is Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight without Billy Zane (and it's worse for the lack).
  • Don't swap out traditional good guys (i.e. angels) for bad guys unless you're prepared to address the political implications.
    Making villains out of characters in "heroic" roles can work just fine; police dramas do it all the time. But the successful ones also address the relationship between the cop and the criminal and how the distinctions are greyed. A movie about angels facilitating mass genocide is not necessarily a bad idea but the story must deal with what that says about the disposition of god and angels.
  • Don't use prophesy in a story about free will unless you plan to play on that tension.
    Prophesy and messiahs are popular in epic science fiction fantasy from Star Wars to The Matrix but they risk putting on the veneer of false significance. And who made the prophesy? Should they be trusted? And if the prophesy is true, is it self fulfilling or are greater hands at work? And if so can the heroes really work under their own volition? These are important story questions that, although not absolutely necessary for the film to answer explicitly in the course of the story, the answers should at least be known by the storyteller.
  • Don't use possession as a solution to the free will problem.
    This goes for demonic possession or "secular" possession (mind control devices, chemicals, etc.). These devices can be used in a story but they cheapen the drama. If no one has a choice in their actions that ruins the ethical imperative of the characters.
  • Don't pretend that just because the story is about god that you can get away with a "deus ex machina" ending.
    Occasionally a deus ex machina ending works; Spielberg has done it a few times (Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and gotten away with it. But it is still a cheat that robs the hero of his or her heroism.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Was 2009 the Year of the Woman?

This article at The Daily Beast by Nicole LaPorte ponders the success of films directed by women, staring female leads, or aimed at female audiences. Films like New Moon, The Proposal, Julie and Julia, and The Blind Side did extremely well at the box office and The Hurt Locker has become a serious awards contender.

My, what a difference two years makes. Last fall, newly installed Disney Studios Chairman Rich Ross declared that one of his missions was to make movies for women. Two of the biggest upcoming summer movies are Sex and the City 2 and Eat, Pray, Love, based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s chick-lit sensation, which stars Julia Roberts. And when The Blind Side recently crossed the $200 million mark in domestic ticket sales, a Warner Bros. executive told one producer that if he could cast any movie star in a movie right now, it would be Sandra Bullock. “That’s extraordinary,” the producer said. “He was including men!”

Considering that even when women are “hot,” they’re rarely selected over (or paid nearly as much as) stars such as Will Smith or Brad Pitt—particularly, when, like Bullock, they’re 45 years-old—the statement was, indeed, extraordinary, and is the reason many in Hollywood have come to consider 2009 The Year of the Woman.
La Porte is reserved in her proclamation that the industry has turned some sort of corner, as she she should be. Although these films were well received, most of them weren't very good (yes, Blind Side, I'm looking at you) and did not present anything empowering or groundbreaking about their stories (that's you, New Moon). But what this year's successes might do is allow female directors and producers to get films made that they might not have otherwise by proving that there is a female audience out there that will pay to see films made and marketed to them.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Best and Worst Films of the Year

On today's episode of Sounds of Cinema I counted down my list of the best and worst films of the 2009. Here's a rundown of my picks:

The Best:
10. Anvil: The Story of Anvil
9. Up in the Air
8. The Road
7. Precious
6. (500) Days of Summer
5. The Hurt Locker
4. Where the Wild Things Are
3. District 9
2. The Girlfriend Experience
1. Up

The Worst:
10. The Uninvited
9. Amelia
8. 2012
7. Sorority Row
6. Dance Flick
5. New in Town
4. The Box
3. Land of the Lost
2. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
1. Obsessed

You can find other end of the year material including honorable mentions and rationales for each of the films listed here.

Friday, January 8, 2010

End of 2009 Wrap Up Coming 1/10/10

On this Sunday's episode, I will be counting down my picks of the best and worst films of 2009. I'll also make note of some of the trends throughout the year and play music from some of the highlighted films. Tune in to see if any of your favorites made the list.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

L.A. Times - 'Avatar' arouses conservatives' ire

According to this article in the L.A. Times, conservative pundits are upset with Avatar and see it as a piece of liberal propaganda. An excerpt:

To say that the film has evoked a storm of ire on the right would be an understatement. Big Hollywood's John Nolte, one of my favorite outspoken right-wing film essayists, blasted the film, calling it "a sanctimonious thud of a movie so infested with one-dimensional characters and PC cliches that not a single plot turn, large or small, surprises. . . . Think of 'Avatar' as 'Death Wish' for leftists, a simplistic, revisionist revenge fantasy where if you . . . hate the bad guys (America) you're able to forgive the by-the-numbers predictability of it all."

John Podhoretz, the Weekly Standard's film critic, called the film "blitheringly stupid; indeed, it's among the dumbest movies I've ever seen." He goes on to say: "You're going to hear a lot over the next couple of weeks about the movie's politics -- about how it's a Green epic about despoiling the environment, and an attack on the war in Iraq. . . . The conclusion does ask the audience to root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency. So it is a deep expression of anti-Americanism -- kind of. The thing is, one would be giving Jim Cameron too much credit to take 'Avatar' -- with its . . . hatred of the military and American institutions and the notion that to be human is just way uncool -- at all seriously as a political document. It's more interesting as an example of how deeply rooted these standard issue counterculture cliches in Hollywood have become by now."

* * *

There are tons of other grumpy conservative broadsides against the film, but I'll spare you the details, except to say that Cameron's grand cinematic fantasy, with its mixture of social comment, mysticism and transcendent, fanboy-style video game animation, seems to have hit a very raw nerve with political conservatives, who view everything -- foreign affairs, global warming, the White House Christmas tree -- through the prism of partisan sloganeering.

In an odd way, I find myself in at least partial agreement with some of these conservative commentators. In particular, Podhoretz's comment that Avatar is "an example of how deeply rooted these standard issue counterculture cliches in Hollywood have become" because that is exactly what Avatar is: cliche. As this amusing piece points out, Avatar is Pocahontas warmed over. There is very little in this film that hasn't been seen in "revisionist" Westerns like Dances With Wolves or Soldier Blue or other science fiction films from Planet of the Apes to District 9.

Ultimately, the film is drawing harsher criticism because of its popularity. Both Battle for Terra and District 9 had similar political messages, and said them more interestingly, but neither made as much money as Avatar.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Blu-ray and Older Film

David Kehr has written this very interesting article for the New York Times about Blu-ray DVDs and older movies. In particular, Kehr argues that the clarity of digital technology is actually a problem for older films because it exaggerates their flaws.

For bringing the latest Hollywood blockbusters into homes, Blu-ray is without parallel. But it is less friendly to older films, foreign films and films made with antiquated technologies (like 16 millimeter and analog video).

For Blu-ray to look its best it requires picture and sound images of the finest, most pristine quality. That’s not difficult to come by in a contemporary release like “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” (the best-selling Blu-ray of 2009), but is somewhat more problematic for a film made in Germany in 1926. Blu-ray exaggerates the faults in older material: the dust specks and scratches caused by decades of wear and tear, the softness of detail or harshness of contrast caused by duplication from sources several generations removed from the film that actually passed through the camera.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Films of the Decade: 2000 - 2009

On today's show I presented my picks of twenty-five films that defined the decade. Rather than a list of best films, these are the pictures that, in my view, captured what the past ten years were all about.

25. Scary Movie (2000)
24. United 93 (2006)
23. Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2004)
22. The Hurt Locker (2009)
21. Children of Men (2006)
20. 1 Night in Paris (2004)
19. Gladiator (2000)
18. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
17. The Bourne Identity (2002)
16. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)
15. Juno (2007)
14. Moulin Rouge! (2001)
13. Shrek (2001)
12. Loose Change (2005 – 2009)
11. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
10. Transformers (2007)
9. The Lord of the Rings (2001 – 2003)
8. The Passion of the Christ (2004)
7. Saw (2004)
6. Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)
5. The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005)
4. 300 (2006)
3. Team America: World Police (2004)
2. The Girlfriend Experience (2009)
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
You can find a full rationale for each film here.

And here are some other decade-themed lists from around the web: