Saturday, February 24, 2007

Rules of Thumb

Looking for something to watch tonight? I'm going to be constantly updating this checklist so you know what to avoid. Add your Rental Rules of Thumb to the comments section, as well!


1. Avoid anything with Meg Ryan

2. If the movie stars Forrest Whitaker, pay close attention to his right eye. You can gauge the quality of the film based on how lazy his eye is. If it's super lazy, then you know it's a stinker. Sometimes it gets lazier as the film progresses; that means the movie is just going to get worse.

Note the laziness of Forrest's right eye in this still from Joel Schumacher's Phone Booth. That means this film blows.

3. Avoid these directors.

4. Avoid films that haven't been screened for critics. Most modern film criticism isn't worth shit these days, so if the distributors don't feel like wasting their time, you shouldn't be wasting yours.

5. Avoid films that feature Chris Cornell on the soundtrack.

6. Avoid anything my Grandparents recommend.

7. Avoid anything this guy recommends (with the occasional exception).

More Rules coming soon!

Spielberg: 30 Years of Blockbusters part II

Both Jaws and War of the Worlds revolve around the concept of an ‘other’ invading and threatening the American way of life. Spielberg uses this ‘other’ in two ways: 1) to outline a political hierarchy, focusing specifically on the everyman in relation to familial themes, and 2) to generate escalating amounts of excitement with the aid of special effects. Essentially, if one were to boil the Spielberg blockbuster down to a formula, this use of the ‘other’ would stand as the crux of his films. In the case of Jaws and War of the Worlds, it acts as the template for plot design.

Jaws centers on the small beachside community of Amity, a town that relies on summer tourism to create revenue. When a Great White shark threatens the town’s shorelines, Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is faced with a dilemma – pressured to keep the beaches open by local businessmen and politicians, he must decide between jeopardizing public safety or destroying community income. Without ever drawing our attention away from the problem of the shark, Spielberg hints at the generic Americanization of Amity through the use of a non-star cast, subtle visuals and dialogue. Visually, Amity is characterized by white-wash buildings, wooden docks and picket fences. It is no mistaking that one scene takes place in front of a parade, another at town hall. And when we hear locals complain to Chief Brody about “kids’ karate chopping my fence”, “sick vandalism”, and “parking violations”, it only serves to remind us of the nonspecific American setting. Similarly, the destiny of those who ultimately take on the shark reflects Spielberg’s affinity for the average man; Quint (Robert Shaw), the right-winged macho shark hunter, is killed, while Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), the intellectual left, is impaired, leaving Brody, the everyman cop, to successfully destroy the shark (Biskind 279). Ultimately, this works to effectively produce the true ‘horror’ aspect of the film. Spielberg’s assertion of the main protagonist as the generic everyman creates a direct connection with the spectator. When audiences see the Great White tear apart a young child near the beach, they realize that the people on screen are easily substituted: we place ourselves within the film.

War of the Worlds attempts to establish a similar sense of blue collar ambiguity, but ultimately fails to do so for several reasons. The film begins on the Jersey City docks, introducing protagonist Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise). Like a modern Fred Flintstone, Ferrier operates a large crane, stacking loading boxes near the water. He looks grungy in a pair of jeans, a flannel shirt, and workman gloves. Dialogue establishes that Ferrier works long hours, and that he belongs to a workers union. This scene lasts about two minutes until a cut shifts to Ferrier’s small ranch style home, where he meets his kids, products of a failed marriage. This is followed by about seven minutes worth of character development which demonstrate that 1) Ray neglects his kids and 2) the kids do not like Ray. Spielberg isn’t working very subtlety here; unlike in Jaws, where the blue collar-ness weaves in and out of the story, War of the Worlds very bluntly places its small-town emphasis right at the beginning, failing to resonate throughout the rest of the film, resulting in a lack of connection between the film’s characters and its audience. In addition, the presence of megastar Tom Cruise detracts from the believability of the story. One of the highest paid actors in the world, Cruise generally portrays upper-class aggressors (Eyes Wide Shut) or pretty boy action heroes (Mission Impossible, Top Gun). With this iconic connection already firmly planted in the audience’s mind, it makes it difficult to see Cruise as a dead beat union worker, negating the effect audience alignment with characters in the film.

Part III Coming Soon!
Check out Spielberg Part I!

Review: The Host

A Chungeorahm Film/Magnolia Pictures release 2007

Directed by Joon-ho Bong

Writing credits:
Chul-hyun Baek
Joon-ho Bong
Won-jun Ha

A mutant emerges from Seoul's Han River, attacking people and dividing a family.

When it was released in its native country of South Korea back in summer of 2006, The Host quickly became the highest grossing native film of all time. It was also one of the most expensive, running somewhere around 10 million (which may seem petty by Hollywood standards but was a big deal in Korea). I would say it was worth every penny. The Host is easily one of the best monster films of the past decade, and will certainly gain its proper place amongst fans of the genre, as well as casual moviegoers. Director Joon-ho Bong has crafted a unique film that is both tense and witty, with a political conscousness to boot. While not all of the story elements or special effects are quite perfect, the film is effective in drawing suspense out of the lurking presence of the monster, rather than through quick shocks or visual gross outs. The result is a little page out of the Jaws textbook; fear comes from what you can't see, not what you can.

The movie also has some interesting politics. Normally monster flicks align our viewership with the media, military agents or special-ops teams. In The Host, government media and the military are not only ineffective, but actually worse than the monster itself. The film depicts a world in which the average middleclass citizen is succeptable to all sorts of interruptions, intrusions, and invasions from Big Brother figures not only from the homeland, but foriegn as well. Though not too heavily fleshed out (I mean, it's still a monster movie for christ's sake), the film's message remains relevant and clear: goverment needs to learn to work for the people, not against them.

Though it ultimately may be a B-movie, The Hostis a highly entertaining and thought-provoking film. It further proves that Korea is a new hot-spot for cinema. I whole heartedly reccomend it.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Spielberg: 30 Years of Blockbusters part I

The 1975 release of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws coincided with the arrival of the New Hollywood, a golden age of American film production in which creative power transferred from studio heads to film directors. Despite being a product of this artistic flourish, Jaws represents several milestones in Hollywood business practices. By twisting its now legendary shooting fiascos into hype, saturating theaters through wide release, and expanding promotional advertising beyond traditional print and radio into television – an advertising medium still in its infancy – as well as commercial tie-ins, Universal Studios formed the archetype of blockbuster advertising out of Spielberg’s action/horror hybrid (Schatz 24). The resulting success not only set the precedent for current modes of movie marketing, but launched the career of director Steven Spielberg.

Thirty years later, Spielberg released War of the Worlds, a high octane special effects extravaganza based on the classic novel by H.G. Wells. LikeJaws before it, War of the Worlds served as summer popcorn fare, escapist cinema functioning solely to entertain, excite, and encompass audiences in the wizardry of special effects. Unlike Jaws, however, which was generally praised for being an effective thriller, War of the World met several detractors, dismissing it as one of Spielberg’s lesser films, a soul-less “exploitation of tragic iconography” (Stephen Whitty, Newark Star Ledger). What, if anything, about Spielberg’s cinematic approach differs between these two films? In analyzing the thematic and stylistic content of both Jaws and War of the Worlds, one notices that, though the formula remains the same, subtle disparities make a World of difference .

Before I begin to closely examine these films, it is necessary to explore the circumstances surrounding their individual productions. The production of Jaws revolved around a novice director, a cast of unknowns, and unreliable, untested special effects. Spielberg resisted casting any star power, acquiring actors whom he felt reinforced the realism of the story. According to a quote attributed to Spielberg in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, he “wanted somewhat anonymous actors to be in it so you would believe this was happening to people like you and me” (Biskind 265). Similarly, Spielberg’s visual aesthetic reinforced this idea of realism. Refusing to work within a studio, production moved to the open sea, where technical problems and production delays pushed the budget well beyond the initial projected $3.5 million. Ultimately, shooting went 104 days over schedule and nearly $7 million over budget (Biskind 267). Alternately, War of the Worlds quick production reflects a confident, assured director. Initially set for a 2007 release date, the film was abruptly green-lit in August 2004, and released summer 2005. Unlike with Jaws, the presence of megastar Tom Cruise was crucial to getting Worlds off the ground. Spielberg shot the film within four months on a gargantuan budget of over $132 million. Pre-publicity for the film focused on the large budget – an August 18th 2004 article on reported “Steven Spielberg's upcoming movie War of the Worlds is poised to make history in Hollywood as the most expensive film ever made - surpassing Titanic's $198 million budget... No expense will be sparred” – as well as the large profit Spielberg, Cruise, and the studios stood to make from the film’s success (

These two radically different productions reflect a director refocusing his priorities despite making similar movies. Spielberg’s budget problems and production delays onJaws rose out of the need to tell the story realistically and effectively. His choice to use unknown actors and real sets reinforced the blue-collar, everyman feel of the movie. Contrarily, Spielberg used budget and star power to the extreme while producing War of the Worlds. He ignored the stigma surrounding actor Tom Cruise, and focused his attention on the extravagance of effects, producing aesthetically different results.

Spielberg Part II Coming Soon!

Horsefucker Movie Poster

I can not wait to see this movie.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

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

Another way that Nickelodeon created brand image was through animation. By the late 1980s, animation dominated children’s programming on the major broadcast networks. Through limited animation, produced by such studios as Filmation Associates and Hanna-Barbera Productions, networks found they could create shows based around pre-sold concepts that would appeal to advertisers. Programs like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Garfield, Fat Albert & The Cosby Kids, G.I. Joe, and My Little Pony worked off of previously conceived properties, such as books, toys, or movies, that were instantly recognizable to children and sold as product tie-ins. In some cases, these shows were merely half-hour commercials for the products they featured. Limited animation was economically sound enough to produce sufficient quantity to fill a four-hour time slot, as compared to live-action programming, and such cartoon blocks became quite profitable (Simensky 87-9).

However, these cartoons also received a lot of critical backlash, both from parents and the production community. They were clearly gender divided (He-Man for boys, Care Bears for girls, etc.), promoted little in terms of racial diversity or education, and were typified by violence. Likewise, characters and storylines were shaped by the demands of merchandise licensing. Lobby groups like Action for Children's Television appeared in the late 1960s to voice their concerns about the presentation of violence, anti-social attitudes and stereotypes in Saturday morning cartoons. By the 1970s, TV networks felt compelled to lay down strict content rules for animated programs. Critics and animators have complained that this proceeded to the point where the very basic elements of drama and suspense were severely restricted and artists were left with few avenues of expression. Even more disconcerting was that the prohibition against the depiction of anti-social elements often prompted conformist stories, such as in the Smurfs series, where almost any individual initiative often resulted in trouble for the group and therefore had to be avoided. Aside from the award-winning Muppet Babies program, Saturday morning cartoons continued its legacy as a haven of insipid sitcom rip-offs and hapless reruns (Sandler 46-7).

In order to maintain its kid-parent friendly, non-violent image, Nickelodeon took to creating its own original animated programs, called “Nicktoons”, in 1991. This was revolutionary for several reasons. For one, animation was a costly process and it was rare that a network would produce shows with original characters. “The decision to have original characters made perfect sense in that it would allow Nickelodeon to differentiate itself from the broadcast networks” says Linda Simensky in her essay The Early Days of Nickelodeon (93). “For the most part, the broadcast establishment had little interest in original characters, instead opting to play it safe with easily recognizable marquee characters” (Simensky 93). Also, cartoonists were given creative control, rather than writers and marketing teams, as cartoons had previously always been pre-sold with licensed products in mind. Network shows rarely kept the creator attached to a series for very long because it tended to make the production process slower and harder to manage, but Nickelodeon wanted creator-driven cartoons; they “believed that the best characters all lived inside the heart of their creators” (Simensky 92). By creating it’s own group of characters and allowing cartoonists to do their own work, Nickelodeon could create its own animated identity, as well as its own backlog of programs which could be aired at any time, justifying the production costs. Ultimately, these cartoons were a huge success and have since become the networks staple programming. The creator driven cartoon process has since been copied by almost every major kids network, including Cartoon Network, the Disney Channel, Fox Kids, and Kids WB.

Since its inception in 1979, Nickelodeon has not only become the number one children’s channel, but a household name. The network produces movies, magazines, toys, and all sorts of other licensed products. However, what separates it from previous forms of children’s television is its commitment to quality – putting kids first. Both parents and kids know that Nickelodeon is a fun, safe place to be a kid, and this image extends to every product Nick creates. In such a way, the network is a great example of the way corporate branding functions on cable television. Likewise, Nickelodeon’s radical new forms of approaching children’s programming have had a lasting effect on the children’s entertainment industry, influencing everything from show design to production to basic philosophies. In short, Nickelodeon was the best thing that could have happened to TV for kids.

Check out the whole article!

Gore, Chris. "Cel Out- The Plot to Kill Cartoons”. Wild Cartoon Kingdom #1, 1993
Hendershot, Heather. “Nickelodeon & The Business of Fun”. Nickelodeon Nation. Ed. Heather Hendershot. New York: NYU Press, 2004. 1 – 14.
Hutsul, Christopher. “Ren and Stimpy creator tries an online end-run to get back in the game”. Toronto Star. 6 Apr 2006.
Langer, Mark. “Ren & Stimpy: Fan Culture and Corporate Strategy”. Nickelodeon Nation. Ed. Heather Hendershot. New York: NYU Press, 2004. 155 – 181.
Nakata, Hiroko. “Exporting animation a huge Japanese success story”. The Japan Times. 7 July 2004.
Pecora, Norma. “Nickelodeon Grows Up: The Economic Evolution of a Network”. Nickelodeon Nation. Ed. Heather Hendershot. New York: NYU Press, 2004. 15 –44.
Sandler, Kevin S. “A Kid’s Gotta Do What A Kid’s Gotta Do: Branding the Nickelodeon Experience”. Nickelodeon Nation. Ed. Heather Hendershot. New York: NYU Press, 2004. 45 – 65.
Seiter, Ellen and Vicki Mayer. “Diversifying Representation in Children’s TV: Nickelodeon’s Model”. Nickelodeon Nation. Ed. Heather Hendershot. New York: NYU Press, 2004. 120 – 134.
Simensky, Linda. “The Early Days of Nickelodeon”. Nickelodeon Nation. Ed. Heather Hendershot. New York: NYU Press, 2004. 87 – 107.
Stuart, Audrey. “Animation remains all-powerful in kids TV”. Agence France Presse. 18 Oct 2005.
Stuart, Audrey. “Comedy creeps back into kids TV”. Agence France Presse. 6 Oct 2005