Sunday, May 29, 2016

A Look at War Films

In observance of Memorial Day, the second half of today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema featured music from war films. Here is a recap of the movies discussed on the program as well as some additional titles.

M*A*S*H (1970)
Dir. Robert Altman

Most war films are somber affairs, and rightly so, but there is also the subgenre of the war comedy. These films usually have a mordant sense of humor such as Good Morning, Vietnam or Catch-22. Among the most popular war comedies is Robert Altman’s 1970 feature M*A*S*H. Set during the Korean conflict, the staff of a military hospital use humor to cope with the horrors of war. The film was spun off into a series that was one of the most successful programs in television history. Fans of the show are often surprised to find that the movie version of M*A*S*H is darker and meaner than the television program.

Patton (1970)
Dir. Franklin J. Schaffner

Patton was a biographical picture about General George Patton, focusing on his campaigns in North Africa and Europe during World War II. Patton was a colorful and controversial figure and the film explores his complicated legacy with intelligence and nuance. The movie opens with a speech that has become one of the most iconic moments in American film.

Platoon (1986)
Dir. Oliver Stone

Although he made better films, Platoon is the defining title of Oliver Stone’s career. The movie captures his skill as a storyteller and it critiques the mission in Vietnam, one of the filmmaker’s obsessions, but it also displays Stone’s tendency toward hysteria. As a dramatization of the Vietnam War the movie is flawed but as an expression of a veteran’s feelings about his experience, Platoon is a passionate success.

Top Gun (1986)
Dir. Tony Scott

One of the most popular military films—both among the general movie-going public and among military recruiters—was 1986’s Top Gun. One of the essential titles of the 1980s, Top Gun was a huge hit that established Tom Cruise as a movie star. This story of elite fighter pilots was also extraordinarily successful as a recruitment film and many young filmgoers enlisted in the United States Air Force following its release.

Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Dir. Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick is not necessarily renowned for his humor but if you are tuned into Kubrick’s mordant sense of the absurd, Full Metal Jacket is one of the funniest war films ever made. Set in the Vietnam era, the first half of the movie takes place at the Parris Island Marine Corp training camp and the second half occurs amid the 1968 Tet Offensive. Kubrick’s vision of humanity is sardonic and bleak and Full Metal Jacket makes an interesting companion piece to Dr. Strangelove.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Dir. Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film Saving Private Ryan was widely praised at the time of its release for the opening sequence that re-creates the D-Day invasion at Normandy. This movie redefined the visual style of the war film and the gritty handheld cinematography and the intense violence of the D-Day scene have been frequently imitated.

The Thin Red Line (1998)
Dir. Terrence Malick

Released the same year as Saving Private Ryan, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line was an adaptation of James Jones’ novel. Malick’s movies are less stories and more cinematic poems and The Thin Red Line is a mediation on combat, meaning, and mortality set during the Guadalcanal campaign of World War II. The Thin Red Line got lost in the hoopla over Saving Private Ryan but it’s a beautifully made movie.

Band of Brothers (2001)

Following the success of Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced the miniseries Band of Brothers for HBO. Based on the book by Stephen Ambrose, Band of Brothers was a dramatization of American soldiers in the European theater of World War II. The team behind Band of Brothers reunited for the companion series The Pacific, broadcast in 2010, which focused on Marines fighting the Japanese.

Black Hawk Down (2001)
Dir. Ridley Scott

Following the lead of Saving Private Ryan, Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down applied the same gritty style to a dramatic retelling of the 1993 firefight between American soldiers and Somalian militants. The movie is an intense and bloody affair and at the time of its release it was controversial with detractors arguing that it dehumanized Somalians and simplified a complex situation.

Flags of Our Fathers & Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
Dir. Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood released two war films in 2006: Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. The former was about the American experience in the Battle of Iwo Jima while the latter told a similar story from the Japanese perspective. While Letters from Iwo Jima was the better film, they were both smart stories about what warriors symbolize to a culture and the lasting consequences of warfare after the battle is over.

Generation Kill (2008)
Directed by: Susanna White and Simon Cellan Jones

Based on the book by Evan Wright, Generation Kill was a miniseries set during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Wright embeds with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion of the Marine Corps in the early months of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The series immerses the viewer in the invasion of Iraq in a way that makes us look critically at what Americans did there but Generation Kill also helps a civilian audience begin to understand the veterans’ experience.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Unpacking the Reaction to 'Ghostbusters' and a Reply to the Angry Video Game Nerd

Earlier this week, James Rolfe, better known as the Angry Video Game Nerd from the web series produced through Cinemassacre, posted a video rant titled “Ghostbusters 2016. No Review. I refuse.” As the title indicates, Rolfe used the video to take a stand against the upcoming remake of Ghostbusters saying that he would refuse to watch or review the movie.

This comes amid a broader pushback against the film. As soon as it was announced that the new Ghostbusters picture would be helmed by Bridesmaids and Spy director Paul Feig and star Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones, rather than the original male cast, the film was the target of vicious sexist attacks by online trolls. Things got worse for the movie with the premiere of its first trailer, which was soon voted the most disliked movie trailer in Youtube history.

The press has characterized the reaction to the trailer as primarily a sexist response. As the headlines have it, the hate for the new Ghostbusters film comes from misogynist trolls who can’t stand the idea of a woman wearing a proton pack. There’s certainly good reason to believe that and there’s no denying that sexism is a major motivator of the hate directed at the movie.

But that’s not all of it. The Ghostbusters trailer wasn’t very good and it was criticized on its cinematic merits by people such as filmmaker Kevin Smith, online commentator Comic Book Girl 19, and new Ghostbusters star Melissa McCarthy. Lumping this criticism in with the ravings of misogynist knuckle draggers is disingenuous and lets Sony and the makers of the new film off the hook.

There’s another aspect to the preemptive hate against 2016’s Ghostbusters. For over a decade, Hollywood has been cannibalizing its back catalog with remakes and reboots. This started in horror with remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Dawn of the Dead and has since become a major part of Hollywood’s release slate with new versions of everything from Star Trek to Evil Dead. And then there is the more recent phenomenon of the “soft reboot” in which the new movie is in continuity with the original film(s) but for all intents and purposes is a new beginning such as Creed and Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. While some of these movies have been very successful they have also been a source of resentment, especially among Generation X viewers, who see titles important to them and to their childhood being crassly exploited and artlessly rehashed.

This is where James Rolfe’s commentary comes in. To be clear, there’s nothing sexist in Rolfe’s comments. His whole shtick as the Angry Video Game Nerd is rooted in nostalgia. He reviews classic video games and retro movies and as angry as his online persona may be, that anger is rooted in his passion for something that he loves.

Unfortunately, passion often leads to stupidity and Rolfe’s commentary is short sighted and idiotic.

Let’s start with his claim that he isn’t going to review Ghostbusters. Fine, but then he should stop there or limit himself to explaining his reasons. But Rolfe doesn’t stop there. In fact, he reviews the movie based upon the trailer. He calls the remake ”awful” and “a disaster” and says that everybody is going to “go see the movie and then talk about how bad it is.” He also impugns the film based on the content of the trailer: “The jokes make you cringe, the ghost effects are on par with the live action Scooby-Doo or Disney’s Haunted Mansion.” Rolfe is making a determination about a feature length movie based on a two-and-a-half minute montage of random clips. That’s no way to review a film.

Rolfe seems to acknowledge that problem when he says, “Maybe the actual movie is better than the trailer. Maybe it’s good. It’s a possibility.” Yes, it is. And it could also be terrible. But neither he nor I nor anybody else will know until we see the movie. And by refusing to see it, Rolfe has surrendered his privilege to hold an opinion about it.

Among Americans’ favorite platitudes is the cliché that “Everyone is entitled to their opinion.” That sounds nice but it’s not true. Opinions, at least good ones, need to be earned. Any opinion that is worth a damn is informed and at the very least an opinion about a film has to be rooted in actually seeing it.

It’s worth noting that Rolfe isn’t alone in his error. Youtube is full of “reaction videos” posted by fans and critics and many otherwise serious websites have published articles dissecting trailers and evaluating films based on the marketing materials. Like a lot of content on the internet, these pieces are all worthless twaddle and a desperate effort to create click-bait.

But the bulk of Rolfe’s Ghostbusters rant isn’t about reviewing a film he hasn’t seen. Instead, it is about his objection to the fact that the new Ghostbusters film isn’t the movie that he wanted, which is to say a third movie with the original cast. Here again, the same rejoinder applies. How does he know this isn't the movie he wanted? Or, could the new Ghostbusters be the film that he didn’t know he wanted?

This is also an inappropriate way to approach a film. Complete objectivity is impossible and past experiences with actors and filmmakers set up certain expectations (good and bad) but critics must approach each movie with as clean a slate as possible. Condemning a movie because it isn’t the story that you wanted isn’t fair to the filmmakers and it makes for lousy criticism.

But on this angle, Rolfe reveals his true objection with the new Ghostbusters movie. His persona as the Angry Video Game Nerd is based on nostalgia and nostalgia always looks at the past with rose colored glasses. For instance, his claim that the special effects of the original Ghostbusters “are still amazing after all this time” is not true. Some of the mechanical effects remain impressive but a lot of the matte work wasn’t very good even in 1984.

Nostalgia also frequently goes hand-in-hand with contempt for the present and for the younger generation. This comes through in Rolfe’s condescending remarks about the younger audience, that they will “see [Ghostbusters 2016] without feeling like there’s any prerequisite of having to see the other movies.” His use of the word “prerequisite” is revealing. The older generation typically sees itself as cultural gate keepers fending off the insurgency of youth culture. As Rolfe sees it, the new Ghostbusters isn’t just an inferior movie; it’s an assault on the cultural dominance of Generation X.

What’s most ignorant about Rolfe’s tirade is that he speaks as though this is something new. He makes a big deal about the title, wishing that the Ghostbusters remake were given a subtitle that distinguished it from the original picture and he complains that some of the original cast will allegedly appear in cameos but not as their original characters. But both of these qualities are true of many other remakes, including titles that were good: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Cape Fear (1991), Scarface (1983), The Fly (1986), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Casino Royale (2006), Star Trek (2009), and King Kong (2005). None of these remakes overwrote the original version. They exist in companionship with them.
There’s a lot to say—good, bad, and otherwise—about this trend of remakes, especially when they are lazy or made for the wrong reasons. And I must admit that I wasn’t particularly enthused by the Ghostbusters clips released thus far. But James Rolfe’s non-review of Ghostbusters didn’t shed light on any of this. It didn’t help his audience understand the remake or give them constructive ideas to frame their ideas about it. Rolfe’s commentary was just a middle aged man having an online temper tantrum.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Twelve Years of Sounds of Cinema

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema marks twelve years on the air. In that time I have produced 594 episodes and reviewed over 1700 films. Not all of those movies were good but it has always been a pleasure to review them on the show and each week I've tried to produce what I hope has been an entertaining and informative mix of music and commentary.

Many thanks to the listeners and the staff of 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, MN and 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, MN.  This program continues to be something I am very proud of and I look forward to the shows to come.