Thursday, April 3, 2014

Foreign Film Garbage

The film 2013 film Stalingrad directed by Fedor Bondarchuk is a Russian film about the famed battle in the titular Soviet Union city.  The action-packed war movie is the highest grossing Russian film ever produced and was filmed in IMAX 3D.  The film follows a group of Russian soldiers in World War II who defend a strategic building in the city.  In the process, two Russian civilian women fall in love in the midst of the battle – one with a Russian soldier, the other with a German soldier.  With this effort, Bondarchuk set out to make an emotionally resonant film about the brutal realities of war, while concurrently providing exciting action scenes to engage the audience.  Although visually appealing at times, the film fails in so many other regards that it ultimately leads to the construction of something hollow and lifeless.
The story is really the film’s first and greatest failure.  The narrative is convoluted at best, with no clear protagonist, which leaves a lot to be desired.  Adding to that is the fact that the film is all told through flashback and the film is bookended by scenes from present time of a relief worker who recounts the story of his mother’s time spent in the war before he was born.  This serves as the most unnecessary plot device and unnecessarily complicates the narrative.  The film may have been better served if it lived and died all in the same time period, keeping it more contained and less muddled.  Take a bad story and fill it with flat, uninteresting characters and you have a recipe for a great film.
Wait, that’s actually a recipe for a terrible film, which this is.  The characters are all one-dimensional, and because there is no one obvious protagonist it becomes hard to root for anyone in this two hour and ten minute tale.  One could argue that the female leads were the most interesting characters, but the audience learns very little about them and they are hardly sympathetic.  Great war films give insight into the lives of the characters outside the war and how the constant stresses of battle have affected who they once were.  In Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg, 1998) for example, the audience learns multiple sides to every character throughout the film – who they were before the war, who they are now, and that is what makes an audience care for them.  The only example of a character with any real backstory is the musician who plays a birthday song for the female lead near the end of the film.  In large part, however, this film alienated its characters by giving them no context, and in the process alienates its audience as well.  This is a problem that bleeds into the rest of the film and makes other aspects flounder as well, such as the action.
Action simply does not work if the audience does not care about the characters. Take a great action movie such as Iron Man (Favreau, 2008).  Tony Stark is rude, arrogant, and egotistical, but he is also charming, charismatic, and likable.  When he’s in danger, the audience is on the edge of their seats because they care about Tony and don’t want him to get hurt.  If the audience does not care about the characters it makes no difference if they live or die onscreen.  This is most notable in Stalingrad in the scene where the blonde lead is shot in the head near the end.  There was not even a hiccup of emotion because she was unsympathetic and the audience knew nothing about her. Not only was the action unengaging emotionally, it was also poorly executed.
The action is all shot in such a way that it feels like a bastardized version of an American action film.  The over-cranked footage mixed with under-cranked footage using a Steadicam to circle around blood spews and explosions felt like a badly imitated Zack Snyder or Michael Bay action scene.  On an even smaller level, there were just a lot of missed punches and reactions that are only exacerbated by the slow motion and take the audience out of the film each time it happens.  The movie is undoubtedly intended to be a spectacle, shot in IMAX 3D, but comes across instead feeling like a B-movie ripping off the style of great American action directors.  The action is stylized and exaggerated to the point of exhaustion, climaxing with a scene so ridiculous the audience laughed.  This of course was when the Soviet Union soldiers intentionally shoot a missile at a disabled tank so that it ricochets around a corner to kill enemy troops.
This is not to say there were absolutely no redeeming qualities of the film.  The cinematography was beautiful at times and the production design was really striking.  The film used a nice color palette of cool blues and warm yellows and oranges.  These colors work together in a way that is not just cinematic but also symbolic of the harsh juxtaposition of a love story in the midst of a brutal war and one of the bloodiest battles in human history.  The camera movement and lighting all worked seamlessly in the slower, emotional dialogue scenes to a level that the action scenes could never achieve.  Similarly the production design was detailed and always felt authentic.  This was especially notable in all the exterior scenes in the streets, where the filmmakers undoubtedly used sound stages but the production design was so seamless that one could not tell the difference.  For a film that cost only 30 million (, the set design and execution is an extremely impressive feat considering the amount of [bad] action and visual effects the film had, which will typically suck up a production budget of that size with ease.  That being said, there were still a few missteps in the cinematography and production design departments.  There was an excessive use of day for night photography at the beginning of the film, which looks strange to the average viewer and completely takes an experienced viewer out of the scene.  It was used mostly at the beginning of the film when the boats full of soldiers are arriving on shore.  This is most likely because it is extremely difficult to organize such grand scale films on location with that many moving parts is extremely difficult to do in the dark.  Also, it seemed as if the soldiers’ costumes had just been pressed, even at the end of the film.  Their faces were black with dirt and oil, but even in the final scenes the soldiers were wearing suits that look as if they had just come from the dry cleaners (because they probably had). 

In all this film was a grand misstep for director Fedor Bondarchuk, and for Russian cinema as a whole.  The film failed on so many levels that it is difficult to say what the film did right.  While the cinematography and production design were on par with a typical American film, other aspects floundered.  The screenplay was one of utter confusion that was unnecessary and did not point to any clear protagonist.  Because there was no protagonist and all the characters were uninteresting and one-dimensional, the rest of the film suffered and especially the action.  Given that this is an action film from another country, one would expect them to do things differently or approach the material in a different manner. Instead Bondarchuk chose to imitate an American style, but with much less poise.  Despite all this the film still managed to make more than any other Russian produced film in history, although that would not make it the first terrible film to make money – ask Bondarchuk’s role model Michael Bay.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Bullying worse or technology growing?

A year ago this June a cell phone video emerged on YouTube of some middle school kids brutally tormenting a bus monitor named Karen Klein on the way to school.  The video gained national attention and over 32,000 people donated over $700,000 to Klein.  Had the bullying not been caught on video, the kids would undoubtedly continued to torture the poor woman, posing the question of how technology has affected bullying.

Growing up I was witness to all sorts of bullying in elementary, middle, and high school.  But cell phones and mainly cell phone video cameras didn’t gain mainstream popularity until the later part of my high school career.  Now more than ever there is a HUGE movement against bullying, with claims that it is at its worst.  Documentaries are being made, organizations are being established, and the general awareness for bullying has grown tenfold since cell phone cameras have come around. 

            The question is, has bullying gotten worse or is it just now getting exposed because of the technology that allows kids to do so?  I would argue that bullying has not gotten worse and that it’s just perceived to have gotten worse because now so many videos have surfaced of it.  The world hasn’t become a worse place; the media would just like us to believe it has.  When I was growing up I saw all sorts of cruel acts, but none were recorded on video for anyone to see.  My grandfather has also told me stories about bullies when he was growing up.  In fact, it could be argued that the archetypal bully is one created from old movies that depict bullies such as A Christmas Story, which recounts a man’s childhood in the 1940’s.

            So now there is this massive movement towards stopping bullying bullying because it’s seen as such a growing issue.  Not that it’s a bad thing that people are trying to stop bullying, but it’s just a result of technology being readily available to record it.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Thankless Stuntman

The job of the stunt coordinator on a film involves planning, budgeting, designing, and executing the complex action sequences.  It's a job that requires immeasurable creativity and leadership to achieve the mind-blowing action sequences in films.  Like the stuntman, it's a thankless job - and that's the way Hollywood wants to keep it, as they again denied requests for an Academy Award for "Best Stunt Coordination."

To give recognition to the stunt coordinators, stuntmen and stunt women responsible for executing Hollywood's most dangerous and exciting scenes would be to expose the magician's illusion for being just that - an illusion.  Most actors and filmmakers would love for audiences to believe that the people they see on screen are the ones actually risking their lives doing the stunts and that the stunts aren't an highly choreographed illusion, but an actual actor doing the action.  The sad part is that these are the same people who decide who gets recognized at the Academy Awards.

The truth is that most stunt people take pride in being the work horse behind the scenes.  They are truly the athletes of the film industry and love what they do.  Most people have a perception of stunt people as aspiring actors trying to make a living on their way to something better, and while there are some who wish for that, most have worked all their lives to become the best at a skill that they can capitalize on in the film industry by doing it on screen.  Most accept the fact that it is a thankless job, but the Academy has not done their part in recognizing the people who make up a large part of the film community - the part that is responsible for creating some of the most memorable moments on screen and filling theaters with adrenaline hungry audiences.

It's not that the Academy is not aware of this discrepancy in giving credit where it's due, or that the stunt community has not made it known.  Jack Gill, a renowned stunt coordinator has been working on the problem for over 20 years to no avail.  The first reason the Academy denied the request was because they said they don't want to add another branch (like hair/make-up, sound design, acting, directing, etc.) because it will make an already long program even longer.  So the stunt community offered to be on the untelevised segment; to walk the red carpet before the media shows up and to get an award at a separate event all together, but the Academy denied that request as well.

As everyone knows, the Academy Awards has been a program that has been going down hill for years now.  Someone always hates the host and everyone complains of the length of the program.  They are constantly making attempts to get a younger viewership by getting younger hosts, such as Anne Hathaway and James Franco, and recently Seth MacFarlane, but with little success.  Wouldn't adding a stunt category give the Oscars the exciting bump they need to keep things interesting while at the same time recognizing an incredibly talented group of people?

Please comment!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Student-Athletes Get the Short End of this Deal

 Huge schools like USC make millions upon millions showcasing their athletes on national television, selling their jerseys in student stores, and reaping the benefits of their performance on the grand stage, but the athletes get very little in return.  

A large factor for many people going to a school is not just their academics, but also their athletics. Students want to attend a school with an attractive athletic program because it creates a fun college atmosphere.  My sister is a high school senior and was just recently accepted into several schools around the country.  Of course academics is the most important factor to her her decision making process, but another large part of her decision is the athletics program at the school.  It's not that she actually cares about football or basketball, but a strong athletic program bredes a strong school spirit.  The so-called "Trojan Family" at USC is a result of the strong athletic program, but it reaches into the work place as well creating a strong student atmosphere. 

So they use these athletes to essentially bolster their school in every way, but don’t give the athletes any monetary reward for doing so. Scholarships are great but one of my best friends is on a full scholarship and he literally lives from stipend check to stipend check just to get by. He’s devoted his entire college experience to being an athlete. He became a kinesiology major because it was supposed to be easier to get through, which he now greatly regrets as a senior more interested in entrepreneurship and design. Because he is so consumed with practice, meetings, weight training, and occasional homework, he rarely has time to socialize with me or any of his other friends, and when he does he literally can’t afford to do anything because he is always so strapped for cash. It’s not that he is lazy and refuses to work, but actually doesn’t have the time for a job. Like every other athlete at a major university, his sport is his job, and the only one making money from his work is that same university.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Why Not Go Green?

     As a non-smoker of marijuana who favors the legalization of the drug, I feel obligated to express my reasons for my opinion, sort of in the way a non-gay person might support gay marriage, since this is one of those issues that seems not to greatly affect those not involved.  In a recent post, blogger Eric Matthews writes:

     "All the people who say [marijuana] legalization will help America are just ignorant and uniformed. Tax revenue would be offset by higher social costs, increased usage would be a huge burden on the criminal justice system and legalization would do nothing to stop drug cartels from continuing their operation."

     While this is wrong on so many levels, the quote itself is ignorant and uninformed, but as a supporter of legalization, I am neither.  The bottom line is that the law is not stopping anyone who wants to smoke marijuana from doing it.  If I wanted to light up I literally know several people I could call anytime to get it.  For the people who don't smoke, like me, it's not because of the illegality of it, it's most likely because they just don't like to smoke it for one reason or another.

     Everyone knows the staggering statistics that the state pays to combat minor crimes like possession and use of marijuana as well as the violent war on drugs to keep out Mexican drug cartels.  Why not make the drug legal, stop cartels, and make a little coin by taxing the hell out it while we're at it.  We arrest over 750,000 people a year just for possession.

    Legalization would allow American companies to step in and compete for the business, driving cost down and cartels out.  Teens who want to smoke marijuana already do, and I'm not encouraging that, but legalization would make teens less likely to use and sell marijuana.  The sheer illegality of marijuana gives it value among teens, allowing them to capitalize on the opportunity to sell it to their peers.  Of course teenage use of alcohol and tobacco remain serious public health problems even though they're legal for adults, but the availability of alcohol and tobacco is not made worse by providing kids with economic incentives to sell either one to their friends.

     The bottom line is it doesn't cost the non-user anything, and we only have positive things to gain from the legalization.  If you don't want to smoke weed, nobody will force you too, just like how you don't have to smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol. In fact, marijuana is less harmful than cigarettes AND alcohol.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Theaters are here to stay… for now

In the last decade as the entertainment industry has began a drastic digital transformation, constant claims have been made about how the theater system as we know it will vanish.  One bold blogger for The Wrap states,
 “Movie theaters are going to go away.  There are currently about 6,000 theaters in the U.S. containing nearly 40,000 screens. In 10 years there will be under 1,000 and in 15, under 100. And we won’t miss them… I choose to accept and embrace the idea that theatrical will be entirely irrelevant for studio films within 10 years. Especially for blockbusters. With no less speed and much greater impact than 3D, the coming metamorphosis will not only provide a superior and untethered AV experience, it will enhance the communal aspect of ‘moviegoing’ to an almost unimaginable level.”

-Mark Lipsky

I call bull.  There’s something people love about the theater as much as the film they are there to see, and that’s the experience of coming together with 300 strangers to go on a journey together.  In a way it’s like church – you don’t just go for the message you go for the community.  Indeed those messages, or movies, are getting weaker in some senses (see previous blog on Hollywood crap), but to say that the home audio-visual experience will be superior to the average theater with a 50-foot projection screen and 6 channels of professional surround sound is STUPID.  In the last ten years the only change in my home AV experience has been from a ~40” plasma screen in the living room to a 56” LCD TV that recently took its place.  Tell me how in ten years time that situation could possibly evolve into something better than the movie-going experience.

The next thing Lipsky spews is that this evolution will “enhance the communal aspect of ‘moviegoing’ to an almost unimaginable level.”  I can imagine a whole lot Mr. Lipsky, so given that I imagine that my TV gets transformed into my own private multiplex in the next decade, tell me how I’m going to cram 300 of my closest friends into my living room for a more “communal” moviegoing experience.  I’m not.  And neither is the rest of the moviegoing public, not in the next ten years anyway.

My last beef with this ignorant splurge is that Lipsky says that theatrical will be entirely irrelevant for blockbusters and other studio films.  In 2012 the box office grossed over 10.9billion dollars… UP 6.5% from the year before.  I’m curious to see how exactly Lipsky sees that number magically dropping to a number that is “irrelevant” for studios within ten years’ time. 

The road ahead for exhibitors isn’t all roses, but it’s not the complete transformation that Lipsky paints the picture of above.  Undoubtedly, theaters need to become nicer and perhaps start incorporating restaurants and bars in them to draw more of a crowd.  Sure YouTube, Netflix, and home theaters draw some mild attention away from the theaters, but I don’t know anybody rushing to their living room when they want a change of scenery and a show to get their mind off things.

Comment below!

Sunday, March 31, 2013

America: Land of the Free… to Watch 13 Hours of Television in One Sitting While Drinking an Entire Case of Beer and Eating Three Big Macs

Just over a month ago Netflix released its new 13 episode series titled “House of Cards” – all at once.  Finally, Americans can watch shows in the same way they eat their food and drink their alcohol – in droves. 

Many are claiming that this groundbreaking new release method is an attempt to change the way we watch television shows, while Netflix claims it simply allows people to watch shows at their own pace.  Regardless, the perceived result of this release model is that most people are watching several episodes in one sitting, coining a new term called“binge-watching.  

In reality, Netflix is not causing this style of viewing, but just rather the first company to adapt to it, since this is how many people watch television shows already.  This release model is fueling the even more concerning problem of the mass consumption habits of Americans.

            College students are undoubtedly dead center on the target demographic for a show like “House of Cards.”  The show, however, is also aimed at a much wider audience as well. This audience is one that doesn’t have time to set aside every weeknight to watch their favorite television shows when they air for the first time.  David Fincher, the director of the first two episodes and also an execute producer for the series, says, “The world of 7:30 on Tuesday nights, that’s dead.  A stake has been driven through its heart, its head has been cut off, and its mouth stuffed with garlic.  The captive audience is gone.  If you give people this opportunity to mainline all in one day, there’s reason to believe that they will do it.”  While a stake might not have been driven through that release model’s heart, it is a quickly evaporating audience who still waits for the weekly airing of their favorite show.  When I talk to my peers in college about what they did over the weekend a common response will be something to the effect of “I took it easy and watched two seasons of ‘Breaking Bad,’” or “I watched an entire season of ‘The Wire.’”  I indulged in the binge-viewing craze myself last winter break when I had a cold and watched the whole first season of “Game of Thrones” in just two days.

            Since the world has been introduced to streaming content, fewer people watch television in the traditional sense.  The writer of “House of Cards,” Beau Willimon, states: “Streaming is the future.  TV will not be TV in five years from now… everyone will be streaming.”  This furthers the statement that Netflix is not creating the binge-watcher, but rather perpetuating it.  They are the first to release all episodes of a major television show at once, but by doing so they are just fueling an over-indulgent American mentality that already exists.

            Netflix release model for “House of Cards” is essentially capitalizing on the perceived over-indulgent, “super-size-me-mentality” of most Americans.  By releasing all episodes at once, and making nearly 13 hours of content available in an instant, Netflix is banking on American’s inability to delay gratification.  This is a highly bankable idea considering the way Americans consume food, the way they consume alcohol, and the way they have begun to consume their media.  Some is good, more is better.

            Everyone knows the consequences of over-eating are becoming obese.  Binge drinking leads to poor decision making in the short-term and long-term health problems.  But in this 21st century, technology plagued time that we live now live in, what will be the effects of binge consuming media?  Netflix is not the first to put out potential commercial break advertisers by being subscription based like HBO or Showtime, they are certainly putting pressure on advertisers to become more creative in their attempts to reach consumers.  However, just because the streaming “House of Cards” is commercial free doesn’t mean it’s free of advertisements.  Apple, Blackberry, Sony, and Nike are just a few of the brands that I have noticed being deliberately placed in frame. 

            Apart from the advertising world, how will binge viewing affect the average Joe and Jane?  Of course excessive television can melt your brain, but what’s the worst that can come from occasionally zoning out for a few days to watch a TV series?  It seems many of the long and short term effects of binge-viewing have remained to be seen, but all I know is my roommate hasn’t come out of his room since last semester when he got a Netflix account… maybe it’s time to check on him.

Argue or contribute below – both are welcome.