Posted in Film Commentary

Review: Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Sorry for the late review, but I hope everyone enjoyed Thanksgiving and Black Friday! Instead of reviewing a movie that maybe had a Thanksgiving scene in it somewhere, or was completely devoted to shenanigans while trying to cook Thanksgiving dinner or something similar, I decided to review a film that reminded me of Black Friday. Thus, I present you with Dawn of the Dead from 1978.  This film had such a low-budget that it is relatively unfair to compare it to horror classics from its time, as the 70’s were an excellent time for horror films. Its predecessor, Night of the Living Dead from 1968, raised the bar for horror films of all kinds, and this film attempts to top it mostly by being filmed in color and being slightly more gory. That being said, I am not going to give this film a lower review because of bad special effects or cheesy acting. These are the kinds of things you get when a film has a budget as low as the one this film had (by the way, the budget was $500,000 for anyone wondering).

One thing that is interesting about this film is how irrelevant the plot is. The plot in this film is merely a device to introduce the audience to bits of imagery and social commentary. Whether that means scenes with white cops shooting African-American and Puerto Rican apartment residents while shouting racial slurs, or zombies wandering around a shopping mall much like the average consumer, the film does not place importance on how we got to these scenes, as long as you (the audience member), are paying attention to what matters.

The movie has some rather awkward ways of portraying its messages, but the points it gets across are important and are easier to digest in such a surreal, comedic setting. For instance, it’s funny watching zombies shuffle around a mall with perky music in the background, but it says a lot about our main characters who have locked themselves inside the mall for months when a biker gang comes to ransack the place and they pie zombies in the face. They aren’t even trying to avoid the zombies, they just zoom right past them most of the time. The desire for a materialistic lifestyle portrayed by the lavishness of the main characters is exemplified when we are shown just how easy avoiding zombies really is. The main characters are not hiding in a mall because it is their only chance of survival. They are hiding in a mall because it is their only chance of pretending nothing has changed.

Is social commentary all that it takes to make a movie good though? Of course not. What makes this movie a decent sequel to Night of the Living Dead isn’t the continued social commentary, but the improvement in cheap special effects. This movie does try to get extra scares by showing gruesome scenes instead of trying anything psychologically scary, but that’s pretty much the entire point of the film. It was hard to tell exactly what was being used for organs in Night of the Living Dead due to the black and white, and this film takes everything a step further. By being filmed in color, they couldn’t hide behind using roast ham covered in chocolate sauce anymore and went the extra mile on just-believable-enough special effects. The zombies may be an awkward shade of blue instead of actually looking dead, but you have to admit that watching a guy get his intestines ripped out is pretty creepy.

Overall, you have to be in the right mindset to enjoy this film. I feel like anything else I have to say would just be unfair nit-picking at the acting and other things caused by budget constraints. However, if you’re into social commentary, horror films, zombies, or all of the above I would recommend this movie. For the rest of the world, I would describe this movie as awesomely bad and suggest that you watch it with friends and be ready to laugh the entire way through.

It’s hard to find specific scenes from this film, but the whole film is posted at the moment. Enjoy!

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Posted in Film Commentary

Review: Memento

In the spirit of Noirvember, I wanted to review a noir film, but didn’t want to review something that people outside of film culture would be unfamiliar with. Thus, in looking for neo-noir films as options, I remembered Memento and knew I had my movie. This is only Christopher Nolan’s second feature-length film, but it’s also the one that earned him his place in the spotlight. It is mysterious, tense, and is most well-known for being “that one movie that plays in reverse”. Since this is the first thing people remember, why not start there?

So a lot of people remember that this film plays in reverse not because it’s awkward, but because despite telling the story backward it is relatively easy to comprehend. This is done through repetition and a dual narrative. Every time a scene is played in reverse, it stops just shortly after the one before it began, giving the audience something to recognize to mentally place the scene in a timeline. The dual narrative comes from black and white segments that play in a normal chronological sequence and would only be a few scenes in a normally structured film. These scenes are spliced in between the reversed scenes playing in color. This eases the transition between reversed shots by giving your brain a moment to comprehend what you just saw, while also telling you about a minor but important character, Sammy Jankis.

The reason this film works so well in reverse is not simply due to good editing. Because the protagonist of this film cannot remember what happened to him before this moment, playing the film backward helps place the audience in his mindset. We are forced into his situation, trying to figure out what happened to him before so we can understand what he has already done.

The format this film is told in really had the potential to make or break this film, and through proper execution it absolutely made this film perfect. By telling us the story in reverse and making us work to understand what has happened, the story becomes absolutely heartbreaking toward the end (which is really the beginning). Realizing that everything Leonard does in this film is set up and not actually beneficial toward his goal is awful. In the end, this movie turns out to be less about him, and more about how two people on opposite sides of a conflict used him to their advantage.

On a completely different note, I thought Carrie-Anne Moss was great. She changes her attitudes in an instant. I get chills watching the scene where Leonard hits her and she comes back in the house telling her how Dodd did it to manipulate him into helping her. It’s so perfect because while she does legitimately change attitudes at the drop of a hat in various scenes, she doesn’t seem as convincing when she comes back in to talk about Dodd. This is great because her character is supposed to be lying and therefore won’t act out the scene as easily as she would, and she is making it less believable on purpose.

Another actor I thought did a great job was Stephen Tobolowsky playing Sammy Jankis. He got the part because he has personal experience with amnesia after he agreed to take an experimental painkiller for a surgery. This is very clear in the film, as Stephen was able to pull off these facial expressions that are hard to fake. A lot of people say you can tell an actor is good when they can cry realistically, but I’ve always found that something harder to fake is naïve innocence. Stephen pulls this off extremely well in playing Sammy, which makes watching Sammy’s story unfold more tragic and heart-wrenching the more it’s told.

Ultimately Guy Pearce’s performance made the film, and his portrayal of Leonard not only convinces us to feel sorry for him due to his inability to truly cope with his condition, but shows just how agonizing this disorder would be. Pearce is able to pull off looks of pure confusion, complete lack of recognition, and subtle embarrassment without overdoing it.

To be honest, this is one of the movies that got me interested in film in the first place. It came out when I was ten and it was the first movie I ever watched that left me with a feeling more than “that was fun, what can I do now?” This is the first film that got me into thinking about how films are made and why people tell stories the way they do. Thus, I understand that I am biased in saying that this is one of the best movies of the past twenty years, but I’m going to tell you that it is anyway. I absolutely love this movie for the structure, the acting, and for not adding too many elements outside of those two most necessary. There are a few scenes with cool lighting effects, and a couple of scenes with some music in the background strictly as ambient, mood-intensifying noise. Nothing in this film calls attention to itself unless necessary, and I love the way this movie is balanced. I highly recommend this movie to everyone, especially if you want to analyze story structure.

Favorite Scene (WARNING: This is the end of the film! If you have not seen the movie, PLEASE do not watch this scene!): 

Posted in Film Commentary

Review: Election

As an American, I wanted to pay tribute to our recent presidential election by reviewing a film about politics. However, as is the case with most of my fellow Americans, I am completely sick of talking about national politics, fictional or otherwise. Thus, I decided to pay homage to our country by reviewing a film about an election that has nothing to do with our nation! Election is a film that I have a hard time pinning down. Starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick, it is a film about an election for Student Body President at a typical high school that goes very, very wrong.

The absolute best thing about this film is the character development. In the beginning, not even four minutes go by before you know exactly what Mr. McAllister and Tracy Flick are like. Their entire personalities are laid out before you in a matter of minutes without a word of dialogue.

If you have ever taken a creative writing class, one of the first things they teach you is to show, not tell. The same goes for film and it is surprising how many movies try to explain situations or characters using dialogue instead of actions. This film does not fall into those traps and anything you need to know about the film is usually told through physical expression, not dialogue. In fact, one of the reasons this works so well for character development is due to the contrast of imagery and the character narration. It is made very easy to see that what the characters think of themselves and what is actually happening are two extremely different things.

Not only are Mr. McAllister and Tracy Flick easy to understand through their actions and narrations, but so are many of the other characters. When the film introduces Tammy Metzler, it is easily understood through what we are shown that she is a bit rebellious and codependent, despite believing herself to be simply sentimental and emotional. This movie does a near flawless job of making sure you know exactly who the characters are, but not necessarily from just their opinions of themselves.

However, that is one thing that makes this film hard to pin down. The characters are developed extraordinarily well, but they are almost too realistic. Every character has good traits along with bad traits, and it becomes hard to like anyone due to how often their negative traits are portrayed. It is clear that you’re essentially supposed to be rooting for Mr. McAllister, but he abuses his power as a teacher to sabotage a high school election while simultaneously cheating on his wife, and hides knowledge of a teacher-student affair in the beginning of the film. Yes, Tracy Flick is mostly annoying as a character, but there are scenes that are quite redeeming for her. Toward the end of the film in a segment that could be described as “Where Are They Now?” Tracy reminisces about her affair with a former teacher and expresses how she misses their talks and wonders if he ever finished his novel. It is heartbreaking to remember that as uptight as she is, she is still just a young, lonely girl trying to figure things out. She even seems to regret her actions slightly as she walks alone, hair not as perfectly made as usual, watching other students get their yearbooks signed in the parking lot. She is annoying and uptight, but she’s also been raised by a mother who is living through her and has never been able to just relax and make friends.

A film wouldn’t be good at showing and not telling if it had no concept of cinematography or mise-en-scene, and this film has an excellent command of both. There were a few awkward scenes, like the scenes of Paul breaking his leg are actually three separate clips involving three separate people (first clip shows a man in a blue and yellow jacket with a pink hat, second clip shows someone with a red jacket, third clip is Chris Klein in costume wearing a grey and yellow jacket with a black ear-warmer/headband…thing).


While those seem to be cases where the incongruity was intentional (or at least not considered important enough to change), most of the film takes excellent care in how the shots are cut and framed. For instance, in introducing Tracy Flick, the camera freeze-frames on Tracy making ridiculously awkward faces to help influence the way you think of her.

These shots reinforce how much you are supposed to dislike her by making it easier to laugh at her. Her actions in the scenes following this freeze-frame are equally ridiculous, but this shot helps prepare you for what is to come. There are also tons of close-ups designed to make you feel uncomfortable, like a close-up of Tracy’s mother licking an envelope while Tracy describes all the great wonderful things her mother does for her, or yet another close-up of a wad of hair being pulled out of the sink right before Mr. McAllister begins his affair with his wife’s best friend.

As I mentioned before, Tracy and Mr. McAllister’s characters are described with near flawlessness within the first four minutes of the film. Establishing shots are some of the most important shots of any film, and this movie starts off with a shot so deceptively simple, that it implies not only how pathetic and trivial the characters lives are before they’re even brought onto the screen, but shows just how boring the town and school really are . Nothing exciting is supposed to happen here. How is this all showcased, you ask? By a simple shot of a field sprinkler.

The fact that so many expectations about a place, the people who live there, and what normally happens to and around them can all be translated through a single shot of a sprinkler (or any other simple establishing shot like this) is power I wish more film-makers would harness.

While the plot of the film is very character driven and revolves strictly around actions committed by one of the few major characters, there are plenty of themes to be explored through these simple human interactions, certainly more than I have room to discuss in detail. One of the most prevalent themes is ethics vs. morals. Ethics as defined by Merriam Webster are a set of moral principles, so acting unethically technically requires you to be acting immorally on more than one front. Many of the characters in this film act unethically only because their actions at the time are singular, so their actions (as perceived by them) are questionably immoral but not necessarily unethical. However, as the audience, we can see the larger picture and begin to realize just how unethical most of the characters are in their own ways. This illustrates just how easy it is to slip into casual, unethical behavior by our own justifications and perspectives.

Lastly, I realize I don’t often discuss acting in my reviews, as I normally am not so wholeheartedly impressed by any particular actor in a film that I go out of my way to mention it. This film is absolutely stolen by Reese Witherspoon, and it would not have been nearly as great without her. She steals the show and makes you hate her annoying attitude, but you still love her because we all knew someone like this in high school and she absolutely nails the part. It is not surprising that her career took off shortly after this film.

This film is wonderfully made, and I absolutely love it. However, I do still sometimes have to stop halfway through and relax for a little while with just how hard it is to like any of the characters in the film. It’s absolutely wonderful that all of the characters are so realistic and have good traits along with the bad, but as a viewer it is sometimes emotionally draining not feeling comfortable rooting for the person who is established by the film as the protagonist. I highly recommend this film, but I do not blame you if you cannot relate to any of the characters.

Favorite Scene:

Posted in Uncategorized

No Regularly Scheduled Review This Week

Due to my post about The Lorax yesterday, having recently moved, and now dealing with a cold, I will not be posting a regularly scheduled review today. I hope my rant about The Lorax can hold everyone over until next week! Although, I would like to hear everyone’s opinions about Disney buying Lucasfilm and intend to respond to any comments on the subject. Enjoy your weekend, everyone!

 

Posted in Film Commentary, Rants and Raves

Rants and Raves: The Lorax

I’m not going to sugarcoat this for you: this movie is terrible. It is quite possibly the worst movie I have seen all year. I used to personally boycott films made from Dr. Seuss books until someone showed me “Horton Hears a Who!” but now I remember why I held that stance in the first place. This movie takes everything that was good about the book and throws it away, leaving nothing to make the movie actually worth your time.

I’ll start with the first thing that sent me into an anxious tailspin, the “love” story. There is a huge problem in our culture that I like to describe as “nice guy” syndrome. Many boys and young men hold the belief that if they like a girl, all they have to do to get her to like them is do a few favors for them in return for their love and affection. This movie perpetuates this idea in the worst way, as the main character Ted does not actually care about the trees or the Once-ler at first, but instead goes to find out what happened to the trees because he thinks it will make the girl he’s crushing on like him. This is a movie intended for children, and thus it is teaching young boys that women are prizes given to them for doing “good deeds” and not equal people who should be respected.

There were plenty of negative stereotypes to go around in this film, but I suppose I will start with the stereotypical representation of the Once-ler family. Due to being the antagonists in a film about saving the environment, they are portrayed with Southern/Republican stereotypes such as being inbred, self-serving capitalists. While the Once-ler family was present in the book, they were not given any character development due to simply being needed to help run the Thneed factory. To add this characterization to otherwise very minor characters plants the association in children’s minds that southerners/ Republicans, no matter what their beliefs or background, are inherently bad. I’m all for bipartisanship when it comes to politics and don’t like the idea that someone having differing beliefs makes them inherently evil, but this film has no problem perpetuating that idea. One of the major political complaints I have heard over the last couple years has been that the two main parties in our country have no desire to work together, but movies like this plant the idea early on that it is impossible to do so, let alone a good idea.

This next point is relatively minor, but it did bother me to some extent. There is one barbaloot that is larger and stupider than the others. He is presented as comic relief by essentially being a stereotype of someone being fat and therefore stupid. Nobody’s weight gives any indication about what their IQ or educational background is, and this stereotype needs to go away. Since it was not a huge presence in the film, I will leave it at that.

Ok, now to the story itself. One of the reasons I appreciated “Horton Hears a Who!” was because of the care that was taken to keep the original storyline of the book. Yes, a few minor scenes were added to fill time, but overall the story from the book remained intact and relatively un-changed. This film, however, feels the need to create plot points that were not present in the original book to fill time. The most prominent case of this was with the O’Hare Air Company and The City of Thneedville. The story of The Lorax is dystopian enough with the destroyed environment present in the book, and thus there is no need to add an Orwellian dictatorship into the mix. Speaking of the Orwellian dictatorship in place, I should also mention how unoriginal the idea of bottled/canned air is. Does anyone remember Spaceballs?

These plot points are not necessary to the film. Even if the writers were to insist on keeping the “love” story, none of this extra dystopian  anti-corporate plot is necessary as it is all present in the original story from the book. All this shows is how incapable the writers were of extending the original storyline and keeping the message of the book present in the film.

As I said before, this movie is horrible. I would not recommend it to anyone, whether they loved Dr. Seuss or not. All I could imagine while watching this film was Dr. Seuss rolling and screaming in his grave, wondering how anyone from his estate could let something so shallow get made from his work. Please, respect Ted Geisel’s memory and do not see this film.