Thursday, February 15, 2007

Revist: Coal Miner's Daughter

A Universal Pictures release 1980

Directed by
Michael Apted

Writing credits:
Loretta Lynn (autobiography)
George Vecsey (autobiography)
Tom Rickman (screenplay)

At only thirteen years of age, Loretta Webb (Sissy Spacek) marries Doolittle Lynn (Tommy Lee Jones) and soon becomes country sensation Loretta Lynn.

Over two decades before Ray, Coal Miner's Daughter presents the same tride and true Oscar-baiting form of musical biopic, only this time it's a country star. These movies never go out of style, apparently; never have and never will. Nominated for six Oscars, with one win for Sissy Spacek as Mrs. Lynn, Coal Miner's Daughter is exactly what you expect from Hollywood. Sure the performances are great, and it's cool that they sang their own songs, but haven't I seen this before? Thanks for making the template for a ton of crap films, Apted. I guess you get some credit for being first.

Just For Me: An Exploration of Nickelodeon, TV’s First Network for Kids part III

By 1992, Nickelodeon was beginning to see competition from broadcast channels such as Fox, UPN, WB, as well as cable channels like the Family Channel, Cartoon Network, Discovery Channel, and the Learning Channel. While many of these networks struggled to maintain ratings, Nickelodeon viewer ship steadily rose, making it the number one network on cable and the highest rated children’s network by 1996.

What made Nickelodeon so special? For one, the network had the advantage of brand association before any other kid’s network could develop. In his essay, “A Kid’s Gotta Do What a Kid’s Gotta Do”: Branding the Nickelodeon Experience, Kevin Sandler writes, “promoting specific prosocial elements such as diversity, nonviolent action, appropriate levels of humor, and guidelines for success – all without ever talking down to kids – characterizes the brand attitude of Nickelodeon” (45). In other words, Nickelodeon offers kids the chance to be kids, while still under the approval of adults – something broadcast networks could not provide.

Nickelodeon accomplished the creation of this image in several ways, namely by gaining the attention of kids. When the show You Can’t Do That On Television introduced ‘slime’, a sloppy green goop used for making messes, in 1984, it became the networks trademark, appearing in commercial spots and other programs such as the hit 1986 game show Double Dare. As a visual message, ‘slime’ resonated with kids, showcasing the network at its goofiest; messy and out of control, yet in the spirit of good, wholesome fun. Other trademark visuals, such as the orange splat logo design, worked to reinforce the kids-first attitude of the network (Sandler 48-9).

Likewise, Nickelodeon live action programs proved that the network had a sensitive, relevant side to it as well. Shows like Hey Dude, Welcome Freshman, Fifteen, and Are You Afraid of the Dark? dealt with teenage issues in mature ways. This was attractive not only to kids, but parents who were tired of the violence and stupidity that ran rampant throughout kids programming (Sandler 49). It also opened the floodgates for sensitive teen dramas, like Degrassi and those that air on WB.

Nick bolstered this kid friendly image by being one of the first networks to destroy gender and ethnic myths that plagued children’s programming. Before Nickelodeon, almost all children’s shows were divided by sex, with white males being the dominant focus group. Broadcast networks featured action adventure shows characterized by slapstick violence that catered to young male viewers, counterbalanced by cute, colorful programs for girls. Female characters were often stereotyped, or eliminated from children’s shows entirely. Most networks assumed that boys did not watch girl’s shows, and vice versa (Seiter & Mayer 122).

However, Nickelodeon shattered this concept by casting female leads in shows like Clarissa Explains It All and The Secret World of Alex Mack while still maintaining a strong male audience. These shows worked because they focused on topics affecting all kids – parents, school, friendship – and were not gender specific. At the time, many TV executives saw this as a bi-product of the cable market: “the message was that it worked for cable, and for an all-kids’ network, but was unrealistic as a business strategy for network kids’ shows” (Seiter & Mayer 123). However, the success of these programs proved that entertainment was genderless, and laid the foundation for future cross-marketable programs, such as the WB’s Animaniacs and Disney Channel’s Lizzie McGuire.

Nickelodeons approach to ethnic diversity was similar to its approach to gender. Most broadcast networks would throw an ethnic character into their programs simply to be politically correct, but shied away from programs featuring ethnic leads, but not Nickelodeon. From its pre-school morning programs to late night teen shows, Nickelodeon programs portrayed many diverse characters. Shows like The Brothers Garcia, a sitcom about a Latino family, The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo, a mystery show about an Asian spy, and My Brother & Me, another sitcom featuring an African American family, showed that programs involving race could be universal, and broadened Nick’s appeal as an “all kid” network. As a global network, Nick caters regional programming to fit the culture of the area, while allowing other distinct cultural voices the right to be heard. Like other Nickelodeon programming, these programming philosophies opened the market for other ethnically driven children’s shows, like Disney’s The Proud Family.

Part IV coming soon...

Check out Just for Me Part II!
Check out Just for Me Part I!

Revisit: Breakfast at Tiffany's

A Paramount Pictures release 1961

Directed by
Blake Edwards

Writing credits
Truman Capote (novel)
George Axelrod (screenplay)

A young New York socialite (Audrey Hepburn) becomes interested in a young man (George Peppard) who has moved into her apartment building.

Sure, Mickey Rooney's character is strange and racist, but that ^ is the greatest scene in the history of romantic films. I think it speaks for itself. See this with someone you love, if you haven't already.

Just For Me: An Exploration of Nickelodeon, TV’s First Network for Kids part II

In the mid 1960s, it was discovered that satellite distribution allowed cable services, originally designed to improve reception in geographically difficult areas, the ability to host channels beyond the normal broadcast stations. By the late 1970s, cable offered super stations, pay-TV and other specialty programming. With these new services, industry revenue grew annually by about 15 percent (Pecora 18).

At the time, the three major broadcast networks – ABC, NBC, CBS – dominated the ratings for the two- to eleven-year-old demographic. Early children’s programming had been relegated to the Saturday morning timeslot, where shows like Howdy Doody were often used as springboards for marketing products. In fact, most networks hadn’t paid attention to kids programming much until the mid-1960s, when CBS introduced Saturday morning cartoons, which only acted as cheap substitutes for live action programming. Realizing the potential for profit in the specialization of children’s programming, Warner Cable Company launched the Pinwheel Network (later changing it to Nickelodeon in 1981) on April 1, 1979 with “hearty, wholesome programming that will delight PTA’s, community groups, and just plain anxious parents… as well as the kids” (Pecora 16).

The network worked to champion the idea of cable television to wary adults. Whereas children’s programming was restricted to certain times before, children and parents could now turn on Nick at anytime of day and know they would find something to watch. By reinforcing a ‘kids only’ image, Nickelodeon could lure suspicious parents into purchasing cable TV through their children. In turn, the growth of Nickelodeon as a network is inextricably linked with the growth of home cable access (Pecora 21).

When Nickelodeon went on the air with programming exclusively for children for the first time in 1979, there was nothing else like it. The network relied entirely on subscription fees, and aired mostly low budget programs, such as game or talk shows that were either produced by (Kid’s Writes) or featured kids (Mr. Wizard, Livewire). While this early programming worked to entertain kids in a pro-social, non-stereotypical way, it also earned the channel the reputation for being the “green vegetable network” (Pecora 23). In other words, the shows were good by adult standards, but not exactly what kids wanted to watch. In order to create new programming and maintain costs, the channel introduced advertising in 1983. That year, Nickelodeon turned a profit for the first time in its history, allowing for the development of original programming (Pecora 23).

Part III coming soon!...

Check out part I!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Revisit: White Heat

A Warner Brothers release 1949

Directed by
Raoul Walsh

Writing credits
Virginia Kellogg (story)
Ivan Goff (screenplay)
Ben Roberts (screenplay)

Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) is a sadistic gang leader afflicted by terrible headaches and fiercely devoted to his 'Ma'(Margaret Wycherly). When his top henchman attempts to have him killed while in jail, Cody is saved by an undercover cop (Edmond O'Brien), who befriends him and infiltrates his gang.

In his last gangster flick, James Cagney gives one of the greatest performances of his career as a crime boss who is double-crossed by basically everyone he knows. White Heat is a genuinely exciting caper-film, one that is carried not only by the strength of it's lead actor, but by it's pacing and script. While perhaps not as brutual and linguistically clever as something like Pickup on South Street, the film casts a great dynamic between Cagney's psychologically deranged gangster and O'Brien's nervous wreck of an undercover agent. The last scene, involving large gas tanks and Cagney screaming "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" is an absolute classic. Worth a look.

Just For Me: An Exploration of Nickelodeon, TV’s First Network for Kids part I

It’s a fact: children love television. According to Neilson research, the average American child between ages 2-17 will spend about 19 hours and forty minutes in front of the TV screen per week. Approximately 99% of American families own at least one television – 50% own at least three – and 45% of parents say they use TV to occupy their child when they’re too busy. Likewise, 54% of 4-6 year olds say they would rather watch TV than spend time with their parents. 56% of children ages 8-16 have a TV in their bedroom.

It’s a fact: television loves children. In one year alone, the average American child will have seen over 40,000 TV commercials selling a vast array of products. Advertisers spend approximately $1.3 billion on ads directed at young children per year, and almost 97% of American children age six and under own products based on characters from TV shows. In fact, most kids can develop brand loyalty by age 2!

So what do these numbers mean? It is clear that television plays a huge role in the social development of the modern American child, but how does this happen? Who controls it? What makes TV safe for kids?

This next post series will explore the history of Nickelodeon, the number one television network for children, and show how kids went from being completely ignored to the most desirable demographic in all of TV. They will argue that the formation of Nickelodeon in 1979 was crucial to the advent of cable, and will establish that through branding, animation, and other progressive programming, Nickelodeon managed to create a ‘quality’ television environment for children, approved by parents: the perfect example of positive corporate branding on cable TV.

Revisit: High & Low

A Toho Company release 1963

Directed by
Akira Kurosawa

Writing credits:
Evan Hunter (novel)
EijirĂ´ Hisaita
Ryuzo Kikushima
Akira Kurosawa
Hideo Oguni

Akira Kurosawa’s High & Low presents a specific social duality – namely class difference, though other tensions exist as well – and uses it as a springboard for an intense reading of Japan’s socio-economic conditions and struggling nationalism. The film examines the events surrounding a kidnapping in three parts: a permutational representation of the wealthy victims’ response to the crime in a single space, a chaotic, splintered chase to catch the destitute criminal across multiple settings, and a final confrontation between victim and criminal. (The possibility of dividing the film into almost five parts is perhaps more accurate, but for reasons of clarity, I’m going to keep it at three.) The concept of poor acting out against rich culminates in the final scene in which the two protagonists, kidnapper and victim, meet for the first, and last time in a holding cell. Separated by glass and wire, the two sit face to face. “Why are you so convinced that it is right we hate each other?” Gondo, the victim, asks Takeuchi, the criminal. Takeuchi laughs at this question, declaring his lack of regret or fear of death, but it becomes clear that he is bluffing as his body trembles and he ultimately breaks down, screaming and grabbing the wire. As the criminal is dragged away by prison guards, a shutter falls over the wire and glass, and Gondo is left sitting alone, staring at his own reflection.

The two texts on Kurosawa by Stephen Prince and Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto offer approximately three interpretations of this ending. Prince writes, “Social reality, the existence and structure of class relations, is veiled, mystified to the sight of both an executive living at the heights of society and a criminal who is aware of profoundly unequal standards of living” (196). He concludes that the two men remain unchanged and separated at the end of the film, and that Kurosawa’s formal operations support this division. Yoshimoto agrees that the division is exists, but rather writes, “What is important is not necessarily heaven or hell by itself but the contiguity of the two and the various kinds of boundaries – spatial, ethical, class – between them” (325). Yoshimoto dismisses straightforward political and humanist interpretations of the film as falling short, and offers his own interpretation: that Gondo’s actions are a means of “reconstructing the identity and unity of the Japanese nation” (331).

I mention these ideas because I feel there is a lot of worth in them, while simultaneously they do not account for all of the thematic implications of the film. (In particular, I am partial to Yoshimoto’s reading of the film; he digs much deeper than Prince and pursues more complicated ideas.)

Like many Kurosawa characters, Gondo and Takeuchi exhibit many similar traits that act to implicate a connected duality – a refusal of sentimentality, certain aggressiveness and drive to achieve what is desired. Yoshimoto writes, “To some extent, Gondo’s frustration comes from the fact that he confronts his own double, who has outsmarted him at his own game” (315). And yet, the divisions between Gondo and Takeuchi could not be more clear; morally, socially, and physically the two are kept separate. The end of the film supports this conflicted representation both formally and in content. The two characters are clearly separated by a large panel of wire and glass, yet Kurosawa’s camera occasionally allows the reflection of each to overlap.

Ultimately, communication is never established between the two characters. Despite his best efforts, Gondo can never understand why Takeuchi acted as he did, nor can Takeuchi understand Gondo’s position. This is another division between the characters that Prince chalks up to being representative of economic disparity – the ‘high’ unable to reconcile with the ‘low’ and vice versa. However, this interpretation positions each character on an equal playing field, that the audience’s understanding of each places them as similarly desperate, destroyed figures. I do not think that this is completely accurate. Economically, Gondo and Takeuchi are placed on similar planes – after all, Gondo momentarily faces a life of destitution. But although Gondo is removed from the latter half of the film, sympathies lie in his plight at the end. His ‘humanist’ act destroys his career and economic standing, but simultaneously makes him a martyr in the eyes of the public media, an unexpected result of Takeuchi’s actions. Consequentially, Gondo is offered his job back, although he refuses with hopes to start his own company. The film loses sight of Gondo as a main protagonist precisely at the point when his economic standing is unclear, but public and media (as well as audience) sympathies for his situation has reached a new high. It can almost be assumed that Gondo will succeed in the future after a bout of poverty, thanks to his found popularity from the incident.

Thus the ending of the film treats Gondo sympathetically. Though he ultimately cannot understand his rival’s position, it is no coincidence that he makes the only attempt at reconciliation. Formally, Kurosawa dwells on Takeuchi throughout the final scene, using POV shots from Gondo’s perspective to slowly unravel the criminal’s madness. In an interesting side note, Takeuchi was a medical student studying to be a doctor, the irony of which acts to further implicate his mental instability. Nor is the opportunity for sympathetic alignment allowed with Takeuchi, despite his economic conditions, because of the constant negative visual representation of his character.

Yoshimoto writes, “Gondo’s action is a means of reconstructing the identity and unity of the Japanese nation” (331). He supports this idea with evidence of Kurosawa’s formal construction of the character and paradoxical use of distinct Japanese symbols. I think that in understanding Gondo as a sympathetic, rather than humanist character, this interpretation is further supported. Gondo’s transitory poverty will eventually place him both on the ‘high’ and ‘low’ ends of the economic ladder, and it will be up to him to regain his status. In such a sense, Gondo could represent Japan as a nation, struggling to come to terms with its post-war woes. It would make sense, then, for sympathies to lie with Gondo. The question now becomes of what to make of Takeuchi. Perhaps we can also look at Gondo and Takeuchi as opposing mental capacities, i.e. sane versus insane, rather than strictly as economic opposites. Either way, I support Yoshimoto’s claims that the film is an attempt to reconcile modern Japan as a nation, while I also feel it is not completely true to the presentation of Gondo as a character.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Shitlist: Five of Hollywood's Worst Working Directors

Hollywood gets its fill of fleeting successes, would-be winners, and directors who disappear after making a momentous debut, but for some reason it always seems like the worst filmmakers manage to stick around the longest. Why is it that these guys get the billion dollar budgets when someone like Darren Aronofsky or Spike Jonze can't get funding to save their own lives? Chalk it up to 'marketability', I guess..

Here's a list of directors who I wish would simply go away:

Michael Bay
Crimes as a Director: Bad Boys I & II, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, The Island, this summer's Transformers movie
Crimes as a Producer: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, The Hitcher remake, The Amityville Horror remake, and a slew of other unnecessary classic horror flick remakes that no one wants.

"I make movies for teenage boys. Oh, dear, what a crime." - Michael Bay

Michael Bay is a bad director because he feeds off audience stupidity. You can tell you're watching a Bay film by these tradmarks: excessive explosions, lack of a coherent narrative, scantily clad women, curt one-liners, and a complete disregard of logic, historical fact, or the laws of physics. The majority of his movies make absolutely no sense. Take Armageddon, for example: the film hinges on the astronautical training of a group of oil drillers. Of course it would have been more logical to teach astronauts how to drill, but Bay doesn't need logic to make a movie work - just an audience with a strong willful suspension of disbelief. He's also managed to destroy almost an entire genre via 'modernized remakes'. All of his movies (except The Island, no one gave a crap about that) have passed the $100 mil mark in box office reciepts, so don't expect him to disappear anytime soon.

This video is one of my favorite examples of Bay working in high gear. It doesn't matter that it's in spanish - explosions are a universal language.

Ron Howard
Crimes as a Director: Da Vinci Code, The Missing, A Beautiful Mind, Splash, Ransom, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, EdTV, Backdraft, Cocoon
Crimes as a Producer: The Alamo, Curious George, The Doors

"I'm not a caterer. I just have to stay with my creative convictions. At some point, you have to just get past the special-interest groups and do what you're there to do, which is make a movie." - Ron Howard

One of the most consistently mediocre filmmakers of the past three decades, Ron Howard has infiltrated cinemaplexes with his brand of bland for way too long. Sure, he may have been America's Favorite Ginger and star of beloved sitcom Happy Days, but those days are over and it's time to admit that his movies suck. There may be no other director in Hollywood today who could take such controversial issues as religion, racist meta-math geniuses, reality television or old people and make them so goddamn boring. I mean, of all the movies he's directed - A Beautiful Mind included - he has not done a single thing, directorially speaking, that is inventive, innovative, authoritative, or even interesting. Last time I checked, being barely competent at what you do doesn't get you an award. Except for in Hollywood, I guess.

Also, may I never see anyone slaughter a perfectly good children's book that already has a perfectly good animated movie version as bad as he has ever again. And, let's face it, his narration was silmutaneously the most distracting and tiresome part of Arrested Development.

This is a music video made from clips of Ron Howard's Backdraft. It too is in spanish. I hope it still can convey how bad this movie is.

M. Night Shyamalan
Crimes as a Director: Lady in the Water, The Village, Signs, Unbreakable,
Crimes as a Screenwriter: Stuart Little

"If you're not betting on me, then nobody should get money. I've made profit a mathematical certainty. I'm the safest bet you got. Except for Pixar, I have made the four most successful original movies in a row of all time." - M. Night Shyamalan

Most people don't know that M. Night Shyamalan wrote the screenplay for the Michael J. Fox version of Stuart Little. You remember, that crap with the computer animated mouse skateboarding and crap. Yeah, no one wanted to see that. He wrote it to fund his pet project, The Sixth Sense, which is, in all honesty, a pretty good movie.

The Sixth Sense works because Shyamalan gives us all the information we need up front, so that when the twist comes, he's not actually changing the storyline or adding anything new, but simply playing on how we interpret information and our assumptions as an audience. It's a smart trick, and pretty hard to pull off. Needless to say, it doesn't quite work in any of his subsequent films. Rather, Shymalan reverts to deliberate misinformation and coincidence to create his twist endings. Duping the audience is one thing; showing them something and then later saying that it's something completely different is just lazy.

This would all be fine if Shyamalan weren't such an ego-maniac. Newsweek once hailed him as the son of Hitchcock & Spielberg, and he totally played into the bit; I guess out-right stealing motif's from classic filmmakers is considered homage nowadays. When critics and audiences scoffed at his adult fairy tale Lady in the Water, he claimed people just didn't get it. Truth is, he can't write, he can't act, and he can just barely direct. Whatever his next movie is, here's to hoping it bombs.

A No Bullshit interview with Shyamalan. Good example of his character.

Uwe Boll
Crimes as Director: Alone in the Dark, House of the Dead, Bloodrayne, Postal

"You see what happens when people get hit in the head? They like my movies!" - Uwe Boll

Do I really have to elaborate on why this guy is so awful? I mean, really - look at those titles. It's like every videogame I thought was cool in like, 6th grade. Only worse, cause they're movies. Also, thanks to some screwy German tax laws, he makes more money off a flop than a hit. So he's actually trying to make bad movies. You can read all about the fight to stop Uwe Boll here.

In 2006, Boll challenged some of his biggest critics to a boxing match. Here it is.

Brett Ratner
Crimes as a Director: Money Talks, Rush Hour I, II, & III, Red Dragon, After the Sunset, The Family Man, X-Men III
Crimes as a Producer: Codename: The Cleaner, Double Take

"Why do I need final cut? Final cut is for artistes quote unquote--directors whose movies don't make a lot of money. Maybe Scorsese should have final cut because a guy like Harvey Weinstein or a studio might change it to make it a little more accessible or a little more commercial and he has a vision of what he wants it to be. He wants it to be four hours long or whatever." - Brett Ratner

Brett Ratner represents the worst of NYU Film alum - a crass, self-promoting whore who cares nothing about the films he makes except the revenue they bring in. He coasts from studio project to studio project, releasing high profile sequels that do nothing to improve upon their originals because he brings nothing to the table. There's no spark, no sense of care taken in his final products. At least Michael Bay has an aesthetic - Ratner lacks even the most simple of visual trademarks. One day he's going to have a 'vision' or whatever, and no one is going to care. I hope that day is soon.

Brett Ratner being a condescending douche.