Thursday, September 20, 2012

Compliance, the film and the need for challenging art.

There's one more chance to see the film, Compliance, at the Hyland Cinema tonight and I have a tough time deciding what is harder to get through: the film's story or the reactions of audience, both local and elsewhere, to this film.

For those who need a summary, the film depicts an barely fictionalized actual crime when a fast food restaurant manager got a phone call from a man claiming to be a police officer who has a complaint that a young female employee has stolen something.  Without asking one meaningful question about the caller's credentials or the evidence against the girl, the manager unthinkingly follows his instructions to detain and then strip search her.  This leads to her being sexual humiliated by the staff and the manager's fiance who unquestioningly follow the instructions of this voice on the phone.  Only after the janitor walks in on this does anyone realize that this is a sick hoax and the police are left to investigate this disgusting crime that has happened more than 70 times in real life.

From what I heard, this film has sparked vociferous complaints at film festivals and the Hyland staff has had complaints and demands for refunds for a film that dramatizes a true event.  From what I gather, it was the film's disturbing sexual nature which too many are apparently making them write off the film as a kind of badly written pornography, as if the film ratings signs on the poster and at the ticket counter was not warning enough.

However, the fact is that the events of this film happened in real life and here is a 20/20 report that depicts this crime with the actual security footage.

As you can see, Compliance is hardly making up any of the core details such as the perversity of this crime that actually happened, including the follow-up interview by the former manage who is caught in a open face lie about her complicity.

So why are people complaining?  This film is the definition of a challenging work of art where your assumptions about human nature of purposefully questions. It has been said that art should be asking questions, not bellowing answers and there is a need to depict this crime in drama that simply seeing the security camera footage cannot show.

For instance, drama is needed to show the full perspective of the people involved, including their emotional responses and perspectives.  Like the famous Milgram experiment that showed what too many people are capable of when faced with authority, we need artist creations like this to ask where fully grown people doing all this abuse at the orders of a unknown stranger of the phone. With drama, we get to see a greater element of the setting of the crime and the mentality of people in such a environment that could have encourage people to act like this.

As Roger Ebert has noted in his review, "The walk-outs aren't because it's a bad movie, but because it's all too effective at exposing the human tendency to cave in to authority."  In other words, this film is rubbing people the wrong way because it is touching on an inconvenient truth that they don't want to face. 

I myself found the film rough going, but a worthwhile experience to learn about human gullibility and the fallout of it and I hope that I could react better in that situation. I would have hoped  all the patrons of the Hyland Cinema in my city could appreciate a film brave enough to do that.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Bad Propaganda and Worse Overreactions

Behold,the "courageous" director, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula
It's been more than a week, but that moronic video, The Innocence of Muslims, is still causing trouble, even after some Americans were killed in a mob storming of the American Embassy in Libya, including the US Ambassador,  Christopher Stevens, who was perhaps one of the most savvy about the region in America's diplomatic corps.

And all of this for a piece of stupid propaganda that the cast have claimed was created under false pretenses. The fact that the creator has is a meth dealer and is now in hiding after causing this bloody furor is enough proof of how much of a sniveling coward he is.

Considering what we know that  the US Government has commissioned in the past through the CIA like the first film version of Animal Farm would never make something this ridiculously heavy handed and shoddy.

In this case, the CIA apparently underwrote this British animated film to adapt the classic George Orwell novel behind deep cover under the noses of the British animation studio to make it feel legitimate. As it is, the only point that could feel like blatant manipulation with the happy ending at the end to further the propaganda point while the filmmakers could believably claim that they were wanting to make the depressing story bearable to a general audience 

Furthermore, if you want to see how the US really handles propaganda nowadays, click here to see the classic Canadian documentary film, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the MediaThis is truly how the US, and most of the Western powers handle such media control and never trying for an emotional response without a real discernible goal.

On the other hand, seeing those rioting thugs blaming the innocent in the name of Islam is hard not to see them as bloody idiots.  For instance, how many people would have heard of the film without this violence and what do they really expect the US government to do about a private citizen's constitutionally protected stupidity? Furthermore, the calls by these mobs for the US to have the filmmakers put to death is so despicable just like when Sudanese mobs once in 2007 demanded a British teacher be executed for letting her students call a teddy bear, "Muhammad". Emotions are running high with image of Muslims going wild yet another insult and attacking all the easy targets when a hour's research about the USA and its free speech laws for private citizens could have told them otherwise. The mobs who attacked the Germany and British embassies because of this American film further encourages the raw feeling and easy condemnation.

Yet, I know this fuss is created by a very small portion of the Islamic community, many of whom are no doubt horrified at both the violence, the fanaticism and how it makes their religion look.  Furthermore, I am aware that this is just the latest excuse by a hardline core leadership who regularly search online and media for any excuse like this to further their political agendas with a religious veneer.

And the worst part is that the only way to beat this will be education, savvy foreign policy by the Western powers and patience to try to curb the worst of this to develop a real understanding.  Unfortunately, that is going to be quite an uphill battle for some to come.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

9/11 Anniversary Thoughts

In retrospect, I should have had my musings the September 11, 2001 attacks on Tuesday, but I didn't think that I had anything to contribute. However, I have reconsidered even if we should also commemorate Augusto Pinochet's bloody, and US supported, coup, which also happened on September 11, but in 1973. 

When I first heard about them, I thought the first collision was a pure accident like when that B-25 bomber crashed into the Empire State Building in 1945.  However, the clear weather of that day and the second plane hit the other World Trade Center tower made horrifically clear that this was no accident.

When that revelation sank in, I had only thought, "Please, let these attacker be another Timothy McVeigh." That is, I was hoping that a native white American militia organization was responsible for this horror like they were in the Oklahoma City Bombing, because if it isn't, then President George W. Bush would able be exploit this for anything he wants to do. Unfortunately, it turns out that Osama Bin Laden was responsible, and Bush and his cronies got to pursue anything they wanted.

I was actually hoping that this incident could have led to Bush and company reexamining US foreign policy to realize what provoked this.  Yes that was a naive hope, but it was all I had to cling to.  Instead, we were subjected to deceptive blandishments like "They hate our freedom" and stupid appeals to shop

That has led to among other things, the glorified gulag of the Guantanamo detention camp, making a volume of lies and exaggerations for the 2003 Iraq invasion and the draining chaos that followed including the sickening abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. You know, there was a time when the US was famous for their comfy POW camps that were better quarters for many enemy soldiers than their own side's barracks. Furthermore, that policy paid off in World War II with encouraging surrenders, minimizing inmate trouble and getting them to blab any secrets they had. It's just like Bush and company ignore American history and simple common sense from that to do something right in a war.

Finally, whatever the other causes of our economy's turmoil, the trillion dollar public expense has got to have been a contributing factor to our biggest trading partner's troubles.

After all, only a ideological idiot like Bush and his gang would cut taxes during a war; however, I would just love to see what they could have done if they had the chutzpah to do a war bond drive like they did in World War II like this cartoon.  This may be violating Godwin's Law but a big reason why Nazi Germany never went for war bonds was that they didn't wanted the German public to have a safe means of criticizing their policies by boycotting them.  Regardless, Bush and co. were in no mood to listen to basic sanity anyway.

So, that's at least part of the legacy of 9/11, an attack we are all still paying for in all the miserable ways.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Thoughts on DreamWorks Animation's 2013 feature film slate

DreamWorks Animation has announced their upcoming slate of films and so far, it's largely more proof that it has become truly the most exciting American feature animation house in my eyes.

For instance, whereas all Pixar has to offer next year is a Monsters Inc. prequel, Monsters University, while Disney Animation Studios will be offering a more promising film with Frozen, DreamWorks will be offering three films next year.  Better yet, in defiance of the stereotype of the company, two of them are original and another takes a revisit of another Jay Ward classic series from his Rocky and Bullwinkle franchise.

The first film will be The Croods about a prehistoric family searching for a new home.

Seeing the initial images, I can see that  most of the characters have designs that will have to grow on me and the initial premise sounds a lot like a human version of Disney's mediocre 2000 attempt to enter the computer animated feature field, Dinosaurs. Like the reptiles and lemurs in that film, this family will be forced to make a hazardous migration after a natural disaster for a new home.

However, the film is going to be co-directed by Chris Sanders of Lilo & Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon and co-produced by Kristine Belson who produced the latter along with Jane Hartwell who produced the first and best Shrek film.  That is a crew pedigree that is enough to convince me that something special out of this familiar premise.

The film, Turbo, is going to be quite a narrative stretch for its next film and a challenge to see if it can be worthy of DreamWorks' new standard

Obviously, the idea of a snail gaining superspeed and wanting to become a racer owes more than a little inspiration from Pixar's Ratatouille with a rat who dreams of being a Haute Cuisine chef.  However, whereas Remy the Rat is able to strive for his goal in secret, Turbo the Snail is going to have to do this in public in the competition since it would hardly be dramatic if he participates in hiding purely for his own personal satisfaction.  That alone will be intriguing to see this bizarre situation and how the macho racing world would react to this snail.

The main pitfall is that Ratatouille was written and directed by Brad Bird, one of the greatest animation directors of our day.  While the film will be co-written by Robert Siegel who wrote the great sports tragedy film, The Wrestler, the fact is that the director, David Soren, hardly has the career experience and reputation to encourage me.  However, since Bird has abandoned the animation field, then I hope Soren and other newcomers are ready to take his place like DreamWorks Animation has shone so far.

The final film of 2013 will be Mr. Peabody & Sherman, yet another adaptation of Jay Ward's classic cartoons. In this case, Mr. Peabody's pet boy will screw up with WABAC machine and the pair have a big repair job to the timeline.

So far, the track record of Jay Ward film adaptation's has been disappointing with the first George of the Jungle film having a Rotten Tomatoes score of 56% while The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle has 42% and Dudley Do-Right with only 14%.  It seems that so far, nobody has really been able to emulate Ward's intelligent manic wit even with his daughter, Tiffany Ward, as executive producer.

However, this film will be directed by Rob Minkoff whose track record includes
The Lion King and the fantasy premise of fouled up history can at least provide a fertile ground for an wacky story like a more erudite version of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.  If Robert Downey Jr. had stayed on the project as Peabody, then this would be something to really be confident about.

The big question however will any of these have the kind of soul that  How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda?  Will any of these touch into something deeper that I must experience again?  Madagascar 3 managed to do that this year, seeing Alex and friends come to learn what home really is after all their adventures and finding that they have become more than ever thought they could be. That is an artistic magic that Pixar's Brave had to struggle to achieve until after its first third while Laika's ParaNorman got it in an entire different way.

Regardless, I see DreamWorks striving forward from here with real artistic gambles.  Whether they work out is going to be an experience I look forward to next year.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Summer films of 2012 2: The Other Superhero Films

Now that digital projection rant is out of the way, it’s time for some more thoughts about the summer movies, in this case, the remaining superhero films.

The other two superhero films of the summer of 2012, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises,are entertaining enough in their own ways.  

I was as doubtful as most people at the idea of rebooting the Spider-Man franchise so soon, but this new film was more than adequate of getting the bad taste from the last Sam Raimi movie out of our mouths with all the executive mandate interference that killed it off. For one thing, Andrew Garfield was surprisingly good as the title character with his feeling of youthful impetuousness that temporarily hid his heroic nature. That helped the character get away from Tobey Maguire’s forlorn everyman style into a more individual creation.The problem is that while Garfield hides it well, the fact remains that is he is 28, which was older than Maguire in his first film.  The fact that the film tries to hide with an youthful athleticism with the skateboarding just seems seems to make the matter more obvious.

For his part, director Marc Webb still weaves a fun fast paced story that captures more of the spirit of the comic in his own way such as capturing Spidey’s agile and banter filled fighting while restoring fun details like the superhero’s mechanical webshooters. That last part is more significant than you might think; it helps make the character feel special on his own talents than just the luck of how he got his powers.  Furthermore, it makes him more relatable in that you know you can’t have his powers, but you can imagine having his wristguns. 

Yet, Webb’s deviations are surprisingly worthwhile such as focusing on Peter’s unwanted conflict with Capt. Stacy instead of J. Jonah Jameson. It allowed the story to have a fresher feel and enables to us to see Spidey’s relationship with law enforcement instead of the well trodden idea of idea of media hostility. On top of that, just the story’s focus on one supervillain this time itself is refreshing with Webb understanding the basic genre mistake from Spider-Man 3 and steering sensibility clear.

Unlike most people, while I found The Dark Knight entertaining enough in 2008, I thought it was harmed with a concluding act that felt more tacked on than anything. I felt much the same way with The Dark Knight Rises with writing that felt relatively disjointed and illogical compared to The Avengers’ trim narrative. 

On the plus side, Tom Hardy is fun as Bane, the mastermind revolutionary with the physical strength to match, although the whitewashing of a Hispanic character like him from the comics into a Caucasian is uncalled for, a racist Hollywood practice that Grace Randolph can explain better than I can. On a better note, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is enjoyable as the young detective who subtly acts as and becomes one of the central Batman characters in spirit while Anne Hathaway creates perhaps the best modern Catwoman ever. The action is reasonably well done, except when Bats and Bane fight, which seems too stiff even for the factor of Bruce injuries while the vehicle combat is as wild as ever.

However, I have a hard time seeing a Batman who simply gave up his war on crime just because of Harvey Dent’s fall considering how Bruce Wayne’s obsession with justice is such a central part of his character. Other stories like the comic series, The Dark Knight Returns, and the pilot TV episode of Batman Beyond provide more believable reasons like the death of his second Robin and when he had to resort to a gun during a heart attack in the field respectively.  Also, the idea of how Wayne lost his money doesn’t feel real to me, in no way could Wayne be held legally liable for trades that were obviously conducted during a terrorist raid on the trading floor.  Finally, the big plot surprise about Bane’s “trigger man” didn’t seem like much of one to me: the character in question was obviously benefiting step by step with Bane’s plot and it’s just a matter of paying attention. 

All in all, these films don't hold up against The Avengers, they certainly show that the ignorant condescension of the genre like Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin from 1997 is gone.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Digital cinema, a problematic transition

A film projector, cheaper and can be used for decades .
A typical digital projector, with an average usage of 5 years.
Before I move on to my further ruminations about this summer's films, it would seem more apt right now to comment about a looming technological business move in the movie theater business that is really hitting home in London; the conversion to digital film projection.

Apparently, Rainbow Cinema and Hyland Cinema are the final cinemas in London, Ontario that still primarily use 35 mm film stock for their projectors, and the former is apparently the last in whole Rainbow Cinema/Magic Lantern chain to not make the transition that the film companies are forcing on the industry.  However, the Hyland is an independent cinema and is not eligible for a corporate subsidy available to the chains to make the transition and now has to raise the $100,000 necessary for the projectors themselves through a public fundraising project.  So, if you like great films that often no other cinema here shows in this city regularly, the Hyland needs your help now.

For myself, this is a bittersweet transition on top of the financial element. For one thing, there some actually upsides in this move.  For one thing, Rainbow will be abandoning 3D projection once it makes the change and it can't happen too soon with nobody justifying the gimmick to me outside of DreamWorks Animation's great films like How to Train Your Dragon and Madagascar 3.  In fact, that has been a selling point for Rainbow to have a haven where people can see a film "flat" and for a lower ticket price. Furthermore, there will be the advantage of not having to deal with the inevitable scratches and other signs wear and the threat of mishaps like film breaks and fouling.

However, this still seems a stupid move for the film companies themselves. Yes, they will save a bundle from striking prints and delivering them around, but they are still changing the fundamental nature of the experience.  Digital projection is essentially a video projection, which makes the whole show essentially a  something like DVD at home.  In that case, when you make the viewing feel more like just like doing something you're already doing at home, the very point of going to the movie theater is diminished in the first place. When that happens, what's to prevent more people from just cutting out the middleman and wait for home video?

Essentially, all the movie theaters will have to compete against home viewing are newer films and a darkened room to see them without distractions. Yet, I go to the movie theater for the opportunity to get out of the house for something special and the cinemas will have to work harder to provide that and that's not having to deal with probable upgrades every 5 years while film projectors can last 30-40.  That will raise prices itself on top of the expense of this transition and that will harm the industry more. If digital projection could allow to ease the delivery expense of content, then maybe that would be worth if they could combine more variety with other suggestions I've heard like bringing back film shorts as a regular part of the programming.

All this is not even accounting for other costs like the projectionists losing their jobs in favour of this glorified projection TV, leaving less chance of a skilled expert to handle the situation if something goes wrong.  Then there is the problem of long term film preservation, the last use of film stock.  On that issue, Pixar found itself learning the limits of digital data storage the hard way when it started working on Toy Story 3 and found that their old files of their character from Toy Story 2 were essential inaccessible because they were outmoded with their current tech and they had to start from scratch.  When Pixar, the supreme masters of digital content gets caught short neglecting their own library storage like that, imagine what librarians and archivists have to deal with on far lower budgets?  It worries me that how our films could run a risk of having to be reproduced ala kinescope: filming the content from a video display with a huge loss of picture quality like TV producers had to do before videotape. That is a terrible step back we don't need.

I know the film theaters don't have any choice about this, but this is still a sad time for an industry and for its viewers in the long run.