Posted in Film Commentary

Review: The Batman Complex

I apologize for not posting a review this week, but I have been far busier than normal. However, to compensate I would like to get a little more personal. I am a huge Batman fan and would like to spend the next few weeks getting everyone ready for The Dark Knight Rises. I know it’s a little early, just stick with me on this one. Instead of a review, this week I have decided to introduce you all to a fan-made video I found on youtube last year. It is called The Batman Complex.

This video caught my attention for many reasons. First and most relevant to film in general, this is one of the best examples of re-editing films together that I have ever seen. Most youtube re-edits I have seen have simply combined the concepts of two different films, but this one uses a wide variety of films to tell a very interesting story. What if Bruce Wayne wasn’t actually Batman, but simply imagined he was due to a mental illness?  I honestly love this idea to the point that I wish it really was a full-length film, but I digress. By using a wide variety of films, the editor was able to use scenes out of context in a way that allows more creative freedom to tell his own story. As a parting gift for the week, I present you with two other versions of this story by the same editor.

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Posted in Film Commentary

Review: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Everyone needs a feel good movie that you can just pop in the DVD player at the end of a rough day, or even just a boring day, and enjoy. I have a lot of movies like this and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a prime example. I can’t say I absolutely love this movie, but it definitely does what it is intended to do: it inspires me to live a little while letting me laugh at all of the shenanigans Ferris and his friends go through.

One of the things this movie does really well is character development. The first scene where Ferris is being sick (and his acting is terrible on purpose) is a great scene establishing what we’re dealing with. The moment his parents leave the room only for him to sit up and say “They bought it”. We know what we’re in for. This is a kid that doesn’t take “you can’t do that” for an answer and runs the show. All it took for us to get to this point was one scene.

While we’re talking about one scene character development, I absolutely can’t forget to mention Ferris’ sister, Jeanie. She appears briefly while Ferris is pretending to his parents, and yet we get the full extent of her character right there. She’s young, a generally good kid but she has a bad attitude because of how Ferris can fool everyone so easily. Her character doesn’t change from this until the end of the film, and all it took to establish this was a few lines. However, I believe the best character development in the film is not even for Ferris, but for Cameron. Not only do we, the audience, have Ferris telling us about Cameron to our faces, but we have a first-hand view of what Cameron intends to do with his day off (sitting there being sick and feeling sorry for himself, making things out to be worse than they really are.

The only problem I have with character development in this movie is with Sloane. We actually are never told much about her character, other than that she is a junior, a cheerleader, and Ferris’ girlfriend. She’s pretty and she’s fun but not too ridiculous like Ferris, but this is all we get. I can honestly say I don’t understand why Ferris says multiple times that he would marry Sloane. The way she is presented in the movie makes her very replaceable by any other pretty cheerleader, so I wish they had done more with her character. However, I suppose the reason they didn’t was that they (the writers and possibly the director) didn’t want Sloane to push the audience away from focusing on the dynamics between Ferris and Cameron. She is the third wheel in this film, not Cameron.

Back to Ferris though. In this movie, we tend to side with Ferris due to point of view. Because the story is told through his perspective, we root for Ferris and hope he doesn’t get caught. It is established early on that he’s a cool guy, so having him be the focus of the movie as well as having him talk directly to the audience helps us feel like we’re cool, somewhat forcing us to accept everything he is doing. However, it is also clear that Ferris is not necessarily a great guy. Sure he’s got friends, but he harasses Cameron (despite claiming he wants what is best for him, he also refuses to take the car back and pushes Cameron to his breaking point). Ferris is not perfect, as much as he would like to be. Oddly enough, we are not left without voices of reason in this film, or at least logical voices. Cameron, Jeanie, and even the drugged up guy at the police station end up being voices of reason.

Jeanie is constantly talking about how it’s not fair that Ferris can get away with everything. Of course it’s not fair, and she does have a right to be upset about it. Hating Ferris for it is a little extreme, but that’s just it. None of the “voices of reason” in this film are balanced. They are all just unreliable enough to make the audience shrug it off and continue to root for Ferris. This goes back to that good character development thing I was talking about earlier. If these characters didn’t have obvious flaws, we would be too eager to believe them and wouldn’t care whether or not Ferris got caught, but I digress. Jeanie has reason to feel that it is not fair that Ferris gets away with everything, which brings us to drugged up guy. He is also a voice of reason by telling Jeanie that while she may not like that her brother gets away with everything she shouldn’t hate him for it and should try to loosen up and live a little bit more herself, instead of locking herself up with anger at her brother and living her life believing she is a victim (advice she takes pretty much immediately when the two start flirting and then she helps Ferris at the end of the movie). Of course, this brings us to Cameron. He says multiple times the things that we would all say if we had a friend like Ferris: “I’m too sick to go anywhere” “We can’t take the car”, etc. But because these ideas are presented to the audience through Cameron, who is established early on as someone who worries too much, we choose to ignore him even though what he is saying makes perfect sense. In case you haven’t been able to tell yet, Cameron is my favorite character.

This movie is fun and ridiculous, and a great movie for a much needed break. However, we can’t quite forget the expectations of the real world due to how often they are repeated back to us by characters trying to knock some sense into Ferris. This movie helps us escape the real world for a little while without letting us fully forget that we all have responsibilities. We get to feel like a teenager again, if only for a couple of hours.

Favorite Scene:

Posted in Film Commentary

Review: Casablanca

I was going to hold off on the heavy classics until I got more settled into writing these every week, but this film was sort of presented to me as a request. So here we are, Casablanca. I must admit, I have not met a single person who has not liked Casablanca, so I feel like reviewing it might not be the best use of my time, nor would it do this film the most justice. Thus, I’m going to give you a few reasons as to why this movie is great that, I feel, are also reasons movies like this aren’t made anymore.

To anyone who has seen this movie it is an understatement that it is heavy on the dialogue. This is not a bad thing, and this movie does not necessarily make you think philosophically. However, if you miss a few lines of dialogue chances are you will miss an important plot point or two. Many people today like to go to movies to relax and forget about their stressful day at work/school, but Casablanca forces you to pay attention. Also, most movies today have at most five good, iconic lines. Casablanca is literally filled with memorable lines to the point where there were just too many of them to go “mainstream” in the collective conscious that is pop-culture. My favorite example of a line everyone should know but probably doesn’t: “I like to think that you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me” (spoken by Captain Renault). While I can’t say movies don’t have great lines anymore, it’s very hard to find a movie where all but a few lines are this memorable.

Another thing about this movie you don’t see a whole lot of anymore is the noir style. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for this, but I can’t help being nostalgic for a time in films that passed before I was even born. The use of shadows to frame people, shots, or even fill negative space is always intriguing to me, and I wish it could be pulled off better in color film. There are various films that have tried (like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare…*shudder*) but it doesn’t have the same effect due to the diminished contrast of color film. Scenes like this in color film feel like gimmicks rather than shots used to set a mood.

Shots like this just don’t work as well with color film, and I have met far too many people who refuse to watch black and white movies simply because they are old (note: just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s bad). Sure, the occasional experiment film ventures back to older techniques, but creating a film like this for the typical film viewer of today and not the film snobs (like myself…at least I own up to it) just doesn’t work anymore.

While I can’t really say this next bit is something films don’t TRY to do anymore, they certainly don’t do it well. All the drama of Casablanca is set up to occur within the first half hour. Ugarte gives Rick the exit visas, Rick makes the bet with Renault about whether or not he will help Victor Laszlo escape, we are told (and shown) that Rick doesn’t care for the women in Casablanca, and then at the twenty-five minute mark Ilsa walks in with Victor and she and Sam look at each other extremely awkwardly before she starts asking about Rick. We know because of this that there is a history between Rick and Ilsa, Rick has reasons for not wanting to help them get out, but he is also the only one with the means to do so. There are plenty of movies these days that try to set up the plot all at once, but usually doing this ends up getting messy because it is not made clear to the audience that something will become important later, or filmmakers give up and decide to bring in a side-plot about halfway through. I really wish more movies would come in more “neatly wrapped packages”, if you will, but there is a huge gap in film-making these days between films made for the sake of money and films made for the sake of film/art/storytelling. Films made for money tend to not care, I suppose, about whether the story is solid. Casablanca works because the story was cared about by the filmmakers, especially considering that it’s a World War II movie released during WWII so everyone had something at stake (see: http://www.cracked.com/article_19693_5-amazing-performances-from-actors-who-werent-acting.html).

Finally, there is the “problem” of Rick as a protagonist. We are told rather than shown that he is a good person that has done good things in the past, which makes it somewhat hard to believe (but not impossible). What we are shown is that he will “stick his neck out for no one”, especially the woman who ditched him at a train station even if it would be tremendously helpful to the rest of the world if Laszlo were to escape Casablanca…until the end of the movie. Films today seem to have a problem with the protagonists not being entirely “good”. If they do want their protagonist to seem less than perfect, they give them an addiction or a skewed view of the world that doesn’t help the viewer sympathize with the character. The only reason these traits are added is to point out that the character is not perfect. Rick however, is far from perfect yet we still sympathize with him. He is a man with a heart, though he’s not always willing to show it because his heart has been broken from being too trusting in the past. Thus, his actions are not surprising and while we may not like him telling Victor “why don’t you ask your wife”, we can understand why he is doing it and even feel bad for Rick. Thus, the ending of the film is made even greater when we see Rick stand up for “the greater good” in giving up Ilsa despite his own feelings. Yes, it is martyrdom, but it shows that he understands that there are more important things than his own happiness. Protagonists these days seem highly wrapped up in their own problems and even when they are trying to do something bigger than themselves, they always seem to get something out of it. Rick’s only gain from letting Ilsa and Victor leave is a better relationship with Renault, but that sacrifice is what makes him such an iconic character.

I could go on for ages about the cinematography, lighting, dialogue, amazing writing, and the acting, but I won’t. I also feel like saying “this movie is amazing and you should go see it” would be preaching to the choir. However, if you consider yourself to be the typical contemporary film viewer and you’re looking for something different, don’t sit there wishing and hoping that something better will come. Something better came a long time ago.  Here’s looking at you, kid.

Favorite Scene:

Posted in Film Commentary

Review: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

 I chose this film for this week because 1) I was in a hurry 2) it was a favorite of mine in middle school and high school but I had never sat down and analyzed it, so I figured going back and actually considering what is REALLY going on in this film would probably be a good idea, you know, because reasons.

            While I can’t really say that this film has a lot going on, due to its setting (fictional Endora, Iowa), there is more going on under the surface than is apparent at first. For now though I will start with the most glaringly obvious bit of this film: Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Becky is a good character, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t say I knew in high school what a Manic Pixie Dream Girl was. Thus, having been enlightened (or jaded, your call) by college, I could not help but notice just how well she fit that stereotype as a character. For approximately the first half hour of the film, all we see of Becky is her popping in and out of shots around town, generally being a pretty pixie that gets everyone’s attention.

 It is as though the film is trying to smack the audience with a two-by-four that reads “SHE’S IMPORTANT, PAY ATTENTION!” without actually giving her anything to do. Her grandmother has better character development at this point than she does, what with showing up the mechanic and all.

Once we do finally get introduced to Becky, she is the super laid-back, humble, understanding, patient, do I even need to go on? There is literally nothing wrong with her. I suppose this isn’t entirely a bad thing, but I do have issues with the way women are written in films (often times, not always, of course). Being someone who does not appreciate the false expectations set up by rom-coms or other love stories in film, to be honest, I’m probably not the best person to be writing about this. However, if you can’t write a female character to be anything except a love interest, you’re doing it wrong.

            End rant, ok. Moving on. This film is, in my mind, the epitome of “slice of life”. That being said, it actually kind of surprised me that I had never noticed before how many scenes have quite literally no transition. This film constantly cuts to a completely different scenario in the blink of an eye, and it works. In most other films this would be jarring and uneasy, but it works for this movie. Due to the “slice of life” nature and thus semi-documentary style, it does not feel we are missing anything by suddenly finding ourselves in a completely different scene. When scene transitions are used, they’re pretty minimal to prevent messing up the previously stated slice-of-life feeling. There are fades to black occasionally, and there is one scene that makes use of fading into another sequence as a montage, but that is about as fancy as it gets.

If this film were to make use of fancy transitions, it would completely destroy the humble, down to earth nature of the film. Another thing that is interesting about the way this film simply cuts to completely different situations is where we are placed in the scene. For most scenarios, we are dropped into a scene in medias res, but we never feel like we’ve actually missed anything. The conversations have almost always already started, but we are only given the meat of the conversation and thus saving time. This is another thing that would possibly make an audience uncomfortable in other kinds of films, but is immensely helpful with this movie and its style.

            Speaking of things this film does not do a lot, there is also very minimal music in this film. Music is used incredibly sparingly, and is only used to heighten emotional scenes. Most films use music as ambient noise, but again, due to the style of this film it would be unrealistic and would disconnect the audience from the film. Thus, the music is always simple, used sparingly, and never too much.

So how is this movie not eerily silent most of the time? There is always some kind of ambient natural noise in the background, like crickets in outdoor scenes or when all else fails, Arnie talking. Not only would having music more often create a disconnect, but it is crucial that Arnie talks as often as he does by character definition, so adding music to this would be too much to process.

            This film is the very definition of minimalist, and the same can be said for the voice-over narration given by Gilbert. Voice-overs are only present in the beginning and the end of the film, simply to establish the setting and the perspective through which we should view the environment. Other than that the film is left open to interpretation relatively free of character bias, aside from hating Ellen. Everybody hates Ellen.

By introducing the story through voice-over from Gilbert, we are being put in his shoes and have a better understanding not just of the environment he is stuck in but also how he views that environment. This would not be all that important, except that throughout the film we are easily able to pick up subtle clues about what Gilbert could really be thinking because of how he felt about his life in the very beginning of the film. Gilbert never addresses his feelings to his family, and very rarely mentions how he feels to his friends, but through facial expressions and other mannerisms, it is easy to tell Gilbert is reaching his breaking point.

            Gilbert’s breaking point is not the end of the film itself, however. This makes the ending to the film bittersweet, as throughout the film we have been lead to believe that Gilbert is a simple man doing all that he can to get by without much support. Thus, after he snaps and the film ends with him making things right with his family, it seems almost backwards. Gilbert was brought to this breaking point due to the lack of appreciation his family had for all he was doing, and yet he snaps once and has to apologize and promise not to hurt them ever again in order to get back in his families good graces. If his sisters and mother had been more supportive and understanding from the beginning, he would not have had reason to snap. I do realize this is a rant, and I digress.

            I find it rather strange that I used to consider this one of my favorite movies. It has glaringly obvious plot holes, mediocre character development, and an idealized view of personal relationships. While I can’t say I hate this movie now, far from it, I am glad I watched it again with critical analysis in mind. I would still recommend this film to kids no older than seventeen, but as an adult making my transition into the real world it did not do much for me.

I could not find my favorite scene online, so I leave you with the trailer:

Posted in Film Commentary

Review: Thank You For Smoking

Let me first start by saying that I have pretty much only had one day off between posting my first commentary and writing this one, so I chose this film specifically because I wanted to watch something relatively light-hearted.

First things first, we sympathize with Nick Naylor for many reasons but the most important and most prevalent is this: we always sympathize with the main character. Because the film follows his perspective, we might not like him but we damn well understand and sympathize with him. Obviously, we care about the tobacco lobbyists in this film because the film follows Nick. The film introduces Nick by showing him on a talk show that seems similar to Jerry Springer or Maury. Due to this set up we cannot help but expect something emotional and dramatic to happen. By having Nick blow his competition out of the water on the show right after his voice-over explanation of his job, we are given the sense that Nick is like a walking train wreck: we don’t always want to look because we don’t agree with him, but we can’t look away.

By the way, the film pulls a fast one on us in the opening sequence. You know how Nick fast-talks his way out of the screwed up situation on the show? This scene, along with the voice-overs filled with short shots and fast talking, force us as viewers to quickly take in what we have just observed and move on, rather than try to mentally fight back against what we are being told. Yeah, we know tobacco lobbying is terrible, but we go along with it because the film doesn’t give us time to argue back in our minds, much like Nick doesn’t give Ron Goode time to argue back on the television show.

However, Nick is not the only character that we get manipulated into caring about. When Nick goes to meet The Captain, we respect him because of Nick’s voiceover about his accomplishments and the setting. The lighting is just bright enough to cast a warm, yellow glow on The Captain’s face, he is surrounded by rich deep reds and browns, and he is drinking a mint julep while speaking kindly and politely to (and about)Nick. This setting and the interaction that occurs in this scene just ooze with class. Even though we are told that this man started the agency that Nick works for (a company specifically designed to lobby for Big Tobacco), we can’t help but respect him.

Pictured: Class.

On the other hand, the very next scene introduces Senator Finistirre. We are shown his name (Ortolan Finistirre, super awkward), then his desk (cluttered with his maple syrup collection) followed by the giant Vermont Cheese sign over his desk.  The camera cuts to the Senators feet, showing him wearing Birkenstocks with socks and tapping his feet against his chair (again: awkward). If this weren’t enough to convince us that Senator Finistirre is a complete tool, he then goes on to give Ron Goode shit for not being able to argue back to Nick and blames part of the problem on the cancer patient teenager not being helpless enough. While all of this alone tells us a great deal about the character, it is important to note that not only is he cheesy, ridiculous, and douche-bag to boot, but he is in direct contrast with the classy scenery and attitude we just witnessed with The Captain, practically forcing us to give him less respect.

Not Pictured: Class.

Speaking of respect, this film does something very interesting with the tobacco lobby characters: you sympathize with them, but you don’t completely respect them. Despite the fact that you are following the tobacco lobby throughout this film, you never quite lose sight of what they are truly after. The most noticeable way this is done is through Nick, of course. For instance, we come to sympathize with Nick as a character, but we cannot fully respect him due to the things he does and says (like how he addresses Joey’s class in the beginning of the film).  There are also moments where the tobacco lobby characters say things that make us jump back for a moment, reminding us that these are people we probably shouldn’t be dealing with (like Nick saying the anti-Tobacco agencies want the cancer-ridden teenager to die). This may not seem too important, but without reminding us of what these men can do, we would be at risk of forgetting that we are supposed to sympathize with these men as people but hate what they do for a living.

I must say, I really love the dialogue in this film. While I cannot say that the dialogue is realistic, it is intriguing, entertaining, and over the top (in a good way, if that makes sense). Because this movie is primarily about Nick and how he talks his way out of almost everything, there are dozens of memorable lines from this film. Example: “Like you always said: if you want an easy job go work for the Red Cross”. You can tell the writing was well done when you can finish watching a movie and remember at least a fourth of the dialogue. Also, I feel it is important to note the strength of the voice-over use in this film. Not many films can pull off voice-over narration without making the audience want to strangle themselves, but Thank You For Smoking actually has a pretty good balance. Most of this is because not all of the voice-over dialogue is explanation (the kind that makes us want to strangle ourselves, as noted above), but rather continuation of the current conversation spoken over relevant imagery. While voice-overs tend to tell more than show, using the voice-overs in this way allows the film to show rather than tell.

However, in the same realm of character development and dialogue, there is one small thing that I keep questioning, and that is the character of Joey. While it is great that Nick is given a son to further the audience’s willingness to sympathize with him, Joey’s character seems slightly off. For instance, in the beginning of the film Nick has to explain to Joey that for his essay, he can pretty much say anything he wants because the question is so open-ended that as long as he argues his point affectively, he can’t be wrong. If this is just now being explained to him, why is it that only a few scenes later he is able to masterfully guilt-trip his mother into letting him go to California by arguing that she is using him as a pawn to get back at Nick? If Joey had just learned about effective argument, I highly doubt he would have been able to pull this off, especially to the extent that he perfected his argument in the scene. This is especially suspicious because Nick then gives Joey another lecture on how to effectively argue while they are in California (the ice cream scene). If Joey understands argument well enough to guilt trip his mother, why doesn’t he understand the idea that he doesn’t have to prove himself right, just prove his opponent wrong? Essentially, that’s what he did with his mother, as he has no proof that his accusations are accurate. Nick has been arguing with people for his career for years, so it is acceptable to have Nick spout these perfect one-liners, but to have Joey spout perfectly formed arguments while barely understanding the concept of what he is doing just seems overly cheesy, even for a movie like this.

Otherwise this film was funny (as it should be, considering it is a comedy) and enjoyable. It was well put together and the writing was excellent.

Favorite Scene: