Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Fish Frye at Mid West Music Fest

Mid West Music Fest will be held in Winona, MN from July 30th - 31st. Over eighty music groups from the region will be participating, playing at various venues in the Winona area.

Fish Frye, the official band of Sounds of Cinema, will be playing on Saturday, July 31st on the Winona State University grounds at 4:30pm.

You can find out more about the Mid West Music Fest, including schedule and ticket information, here.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Populist and Elitist Film Criticism

As a follow up to my previous post, here is an analysis of a rift between "elitist" and "populist" film criticism, embodied, respectively, by Armond White of the New York Press and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times. Things got ugly recently when White claimed that Ebert destroyed film criticism while Ebert has labeled White an Internet troll. Writing for Moviefone, Jack Matthews describes the difference between them and how that difference shapes their response to films and each critic's relationship to the audience:
The critics may quibble over those labels, but for this discussion, an elitist is a critic who believes his primary responsibility is to educate readers so they may better understand the film medium while a populist, using his knowledge and tastes, sets out to explain his responses to films. One assumes the voice of authority, the other assumes the voice of a confidant.

White is a classic, unapologetic elitist and one of the few to ever work for a general interest or mainstream publication. For good reason: As White's editors are being constantly reminded, the inherent insult to readers' intelligence by White's approach is risky business. His haughty, theoretical approach is the stuff of academia and film journals.

On the other extreme, there couldn't be a greater symbol of populism than a thumb being aimed up or down in judgment. If all popular criticism followed that example, White would be right in saying that Ebert destroyed film criticism. A simple up or down vote on any subjective issue obliterates all nuance, which is the essence of criticism.
One one hand, White certainly has a point. The abundance of amateur and online film criticism has created a surplus of voices (and I'm aware of the irony of writing that on a blog). And although it is great to see all of this enthusiasm for discussing film, the quality of many of those voices is questionable - just look at any message thread on IMDb.

I have some things in common with White both in education (we both have MFA degrees) and in critical aim (to educate readers about film and make them better consumers). But at the same time, I think its important to temper our expectations as film goers, which is where populist perspectives come into play.

But populist perspectives have their own pitfalls. With so many viewer's cinematic knowledge extending only as far back as the previous summer, the public's critical perspective is very shallow. A solely populist approach would not allow for films that are challenging or different and encourage endless sequels and spin offs.

To use a recent example, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is not The Godfather, but it isn't trying to be either. If we eat at McDonalds we shouldn't be surprised when we get fast food and there is no point in complaining that the dish is not gourmet cooking. But, to continue with the analogy, if all we eat is fast food then we might not be able to tell the difference. In reviewing a film like The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the critic ought to identify the film for what it is and evaluate it on its own terms but at the same time maintain a broad enough critical perspective to distinguish between disposable entertainment and cinematic art.

Monday, July 19, 2010

What We Can Learn From the Critical Reaction to "Inception"

Here is an article from the Los Angeles Times about the critical reaction to Inception. The first reviews to come out were extraordinarily positive, ranking Inception among the great Hollywood films of all time like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Vertigo. But later reviews were not nearly as positive. It's an open question whether these critics were reacting negatively to the film or reacting to the overwhelmingly positive response by their contemporaries and competitors. From the article:
Too much early buzz can stir contrarian feelings in those who see it later — even perhaps rigorously independent critics. "Any individual critic is going to say they're evaluating the movie on its own terms," O'Hehir says. "But I think in the aggregate this larger phenomenon does come into play, especially with a Chris Nolan or Jim Cameron [writer-director of "Avatar" and "Titanic"] who can divide critics. I don't know if it's conscious or unconscious, but I think there is this thing where some of us go into a movie spoiling for a fight."
This kind of evolving reaction is not new, and the article points to a long standing tradition in critical media to assess and then reassess a film over time and with the Internet, the process moves faster. (Here is a link to a similar article from The Daily Beast about fan reactions to Avatar.) But there are a few important points to this that audiences should bear in mind:
  • Don't listen to just one film critic. In times like these, when a dollar is hard to come by, audiences are going to spend their cash more selectively and will use film critics to help them make the best choices. If someone listens to just one critic, they might miss out on a film that is otherwise getting favorable reviews. This is why, on my show, I give my review but then I summarize what other critics are saying based on the score at the Rotten Tomatoes website.
  • Ask yourself about the source. Just like everyone else, individual film critics like or dislike certain kinds of films or believe that cinema should do certain things or appeal to certain ideals. For example, horror films don't do well with many mainstream critics because horror is usually contrary to their ideals about aesthetics and narrative. But if you can find critics whose ideals align with yours, then you can make better decisions about viewing choices.
  • Remember what the purpose of film criticism actually is. Although critics can have a very real impact on box office performance, it is not their job to cause the financial success or failure of a film. A film critic's job is to be a voice of reason, to make the audience think about the entertainment put in front of them and to give viewers some ideas about how to think about it.
I will air my review of Inception on Sunday.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

"Social Network" and "Middle Men" Trailers

Two films about web pioneers are coming out this fall and their trailers make them look remarkably similar.

The Social Network, due out in October, tells the story of the founders of Facebook. The film is directed by David Fincher and stars Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg.

Middle Men, due out in August, tells the story of Jack Harris, a web entrepreneur who helped turn the Internet into a profit machine, primarily through pornography. The film is directed by George Gallo and stars Luke Wilson as Harris. Embedded below is the green band trailer. You can find the red band trailer here (NSFW).

We won't know until the films come out but based on the trailers both pictures seem to have a rags-to-riches premise wrapped around a success-has-its-pitfalls theme. Both have the potential to be provocative and provide some vantage point to the way online communications have changed our culture and ourselves. Here's hoping they deliver.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Predators: Our Only Hope

Check out this article from the Today Show by critic and fan Dave White, who is looking forward to the new film Predators with a sense of desperation. The essay is a little tongue-in-cheek, but with the overwhelming number of high profile disappointments this summer, White has a point. Here is an excerpt:
I’m glad this time the Predators will be locking horns with humans only. That’s because “AVP: Alien vs Predator” (2004) and “AVPR: Aliens vs Predator: Requiem” (2007) were boring times two. Both films forgot that violence needs to be taking place on screen at all times and that when monsters fight it should be at the expense of all human life around them. These films should fade away, an insult to fans of monster-fighting the world over. I’d sooner watch "Godzilla vs Biollante" again. You know what Biollante was? A giant flower. So, yeah.

But mostly I have high hopes because I just flat-out love monsters. I want the best from them and for them. Aside from the Franken-bird-girl of the unexpectedly cool “Splice,” and aside from “Piranha 3D,” which technically isn’t really a monster movie, “Predators” is all we monster fans can expect from this summer. And in spite of their reputation as mindless entertainment, a good monster movie done well can be beautiful pop art. If you saw the recent Korean movie “The Host,” you know what I mean.
Predators comes out this weekend.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Controversial Films 2010

In observance of Independence Day, Sounds of Cinema celebrated freedom of speech by examining censored, banned, and otherwise controversial films on today's show. Here is a recap of the films discussed with some links and sources.

300, an adaption of the Frank Miller graphic novel, tells the story of the last stand of the 300 Spartans as they fight off an invasion by the Persian empire. A number of critics commented upon the film’s use of fascistic themes and imagery, and some scenes of the film do borrow or imitate the Nazi propaganda films The Triumph of the Will and Olympia, directed by Leni Riefenstahl.

300 was released while tension between the U.S. and Iran was swelling and the film provoked very angry reactions from both Iranian political leaders and citizens. In a country where public opinion and government policy are increasingly divergent, there was a unity between the two fostered by a shared offense to the way 300 demonized and distorted the Persian roots of their culture.

Disney films don’t usually suggest themselves as controversial but a few have raised controversies over the years. Aladdin was protested by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee based on racism and cultural insensitivity.

In the film, Aladdin and Jasmine are depicted as Western and even American; they speak with Western accents and their appearance downplays any Middle Eastern characteristics; Aladdin in particular looks like Tom Cruise. But the villains of the film are all portrayed as angry or conniving Arab stereotypes. Anger was directed at the theatrical version of the song “Arabian Nights,” which opens the film. The theatrical version of the song contained the line, “Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face/It's barbaric, but, hey, it's home"; the line was rerecorded for subsequent video releases and for the re-released soundtrack and changed to "Where it's flat and immense and the heat is intense."

The Basketball Diaries
This film is an adaption of the memoir by Jim Carroll. It was released in 1995 to no great fanfare but at the end of the decade The Basketball Diaries found itself back in the news following the Columbine High School shootings. The film includes a fantasy sequences where the teenage Carroll, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, enters his high school dressed in a black trench coat and begin shooting students. This image was replayed constantly during the news media’s coverage as politicians and pundits attempted to lay blame for the massacre on heavy metal music, video games, and violent media. Aside from the actual news footage of the event, this clip from The Basketball Diaries, taken without context or regard for its source, was key to shaping how we visualize and think about the massacre even though the clip had little to do with the way the attack actually played out.

Blue Velvet
David Lynch’s film about the sexual perversion lurking beneath the surface of suburbia mixes sexuality with violence, which is always controversial, and some film critics such as Roger Ebert found the treatment of Isabella Rossellini’s character degrading. But the styles and themes of this film have been echoed in a lot of later films such as American Beauty.

Cannibal Holocaust
Cannibal Holocaust was part of a trend of Italian cannibal films from the 1970s and 80s and is one of the most widely banned films of all time. The first half of Cannibal Holocaust follows an anthropologist into the Amazon as he discovers the remains of a documentary film crew that has disappeared and the second half shows what happened to them through the footage that they shot.

Cannibal Holocaust became an instant bombshell upon its premiere. The film features very realistic scenes of the characters being killed and even includes footage of the actors killing animals. The intent was to manipulate the line between what is real and what is not and make audiences think about news and entertainment. As it turned out, it worked too well and the director and cinematographer were arrested because of the cruelty to animals and upon the belief that the actors had actually been killed in the making of the film. As a part of their contract to help with marketing Cannibal Holocaust, the actors had agreed to lay low and stay out of sight and so the lawyers for the filmmakers had to scramble and bring the cast into court to exonerate the filmmakers.

Cannibal Holocaust remains a difficult and challenging film but it is also an important one and in the age of 24-hour news networks, sensational journalism, and reality television it has actually become more relevant.

Here is a video of metal band Necrophagia performing a song based on Riz Ortolani's score to Cannibal Holocaust inter cut with clips of the film.

A Clockwork Orange
A Clockwork Orange was criticized for intense violence mingled with sexuality, but the controversy was made worse by supposed copycat crimes in which gangs would recite the song “Singin' in the Rain” while committing violent offenses. After the link between the crimes and film was made public, A Clockwork Orange was yanked from theaters in the U.K. although that decision appears to have been made by director Stanley Kubrick out of respect for the family members of the victims. The film was not available in Britain until 2000.

Do The Right Thing
Sometimes a film is released just ahead of major cultural events that shift our understanding of the world and ourselves. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was released in 1989 and some of its observations and commentary about race relations were viewed as gross exaggerations and some critics feared that the film would incite African American audiences to violence, although that never happened. A few years later, the commentary on violence and racial tension was vindicated and even dwarfed by real life events such as the Los Angeles riots and the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

Last Tango in Paris
Last Tango in Paris was among the first mainstream film to get an "X" rating and go out to U.S. theaters with the rating rather than appeal or cut content to achieve an R, although it was cut for later re-releases. It was also the first film to be prosecuted under Britain's Obscene Publications Act although the filmmakers eventually won. In Italy, the film was banned and director Bernardo Bertolucci was given a 4-month suspended prison sentence for obscenity.

Munich is a fictionalized account of Israel’s retaliation for the murder of Jewish athletes at the 1972 Olympic games. Based on George Jonas' book Vengeance, the film encountered a troubled reception upon its release, in part because the reliability of Jonas’ book was questioned. But what hurt the film primarily was how it was perceived in regard to the Israel-Palestine issue. Munich drew a polarized response in the worst way; some saw the film as an anti-Israeli picture, such as the Zionist Organization of America, which called for a boycott. On the other side, Munich was dismissed as yet another film depicting Palestinians as terrorists. As a result, no one from either camp went to see the film or if they did, they perceived it through an ideological lens that skewed or ignored the complex moral and political questions that Munich presented.

Natural Born Killers
The films of Oliver Stone have consistently caused political rancor but by far the noisiest response occurred over Natural Born Killers, a notorious satire of media sensationalism and violence. The film has been criticized for becoming the very thing that it was satirizing. I think the film works more than it doesn’t and it is still a fascinating film to watch. In the opinion of director Oliver Stone, the compromised theatrical cut is actually more violent because the excesses featured in the director’s cut version make the absurdity of the film more apparent. There were a number of copycat murders linked to the film and novelist and sometime lawyer John Grisham actually led a civil suit against the filmmakers but lost.

Passion of the Christ
I would guess that more ink was spilled attacking and defending this film than any other since the turn of the century. Most of the controversy was based on accusations of anti-Semitism but I’ve never felt that these accusations were convincing.

I do have issues with the film being violently pornographic – the film festishises torture. To illustrate the point, consider a sex scene in a dramatic film. In that case, the scene is part of an ongoing narrative context. That context gives the scene meaning beyond the act itself. When you pull the scene out of that context, then it becomes about the act. In this case, the film isolates the torture and execution of Christ, with an emphasis on the gore, and no context about Christ’s life or his message is given. While it’s true that a lot of Christian viewers will bring that context with them, in evaluating the film we have to stay within the boundaries of what the film presents, and The Passion does not provide context for anything.

Here is a panel discussion on the controversy over The Passion of the Christ:

The film Patton had unique circumstances for its release. The film tells the story of controversial General George Patton and was released in the midst of the Vietnam War. Those in favor of the war effort saw Patton as a patriotic and pro-war film but those in the antiwar camp viewed Patton as a satire and this great general as an anachronism. This of course led to very positive reception on both sides, which naturally translated into critical and box office success.

The film Patton has incurred controversy in the ensuing years. The film was supposedly a favorite of Richard Nixon, who screened it repeatedly at the White House and would watch it before making difficult decisions related to the Vietnam War. According to some, Nixon identified with Patton as he is presented in the film and after viewing it decided to go ahead with the bombing of Cambodia.

The screenplay for Oliver Stone’s 1995 film Nixon actually included a scene in which Nixon watches Patton and then makes his decision to bomb Cambodia. The scene was never shot because George C. Scott refused to allow a clip from the film to be used.

This is a remake of the 1932 film, which was also controversial at the time of its release. Brian De Palma’s remake of Scarface ran into trouble from the beginning of its production. The film was initially to be shot in Miami but when allegations spread among the Cuban community that the film would be a pro-Castro or anti-immigrant story, locals made trouble for the production company and forced them to relocate.

Scarface was submitted to the MPAA three times but they refused to give the film an R rating. Eventually the producers arranged a hearing in which they brought in a panel of experts, including psychiatrists and narcotics officers, to argue stated that the film was an accurate portrayal of the drug underworld. The producers won. However, De Palma felt that if the third cut of the film was judged an "R" than the very first cut should have been an "R" as well. He asked the studio if he could release the first cut but was told that he couldn't. But since the studio executives really didn't know the differences between the various cuts that had been submitted, De Palma released the first cut of the film to theaters anyway.

Scarface was not a big success at the box office in its theatrical run and was treated harshly by critics; Brian De Palma was nominated for a Razzie award for worst director. But over time the film has gained a grass roots following and is now considered one of the greatest gangster pictures of all time.

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut
South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut is an adaptation of the Comedy Central television series. The film is a political satire and a parody of Disney films and according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the film contains 399 curse words and 199 offensive gestures inside of its 81-minute running time. The story includes Saddam Hussein as Satan’s homosexual lover and supposedly Saddam was forced to watch the film while he was in the custody of the American military. The song "Blame Canada" was nominated for an Oscar for best original song.

The ratings process of South Park was rather interesting. According to filmmakers Matt Stone and Trey Parker, they submitted the film to the MPAA and received an NC-17 but instead of cutting out offensive material, they put more in and resubmitted it. The ratings board again gave them an NC-17 and Parker and Stone again put more offensive material into the film. This went back and forth and after six screenings the MPAA apparently gave up and approved an R-rating.


Thursday, July 1, 2010

Celebrate Freedom on Sounds of Cinema

This Independence Day weekend, tune into Sounds of Cinema for a look at banned, censored, and otherwise controversial films. Some of the pictures discussed include Cannibal Holocaust, Scarface, South Park, Natural Born Killers, and more.