61 Days of Halloween- The Haunting in Connecticut

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment, I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

It happens rarely but every once in a while a film will come along that not only has a great trailer, but lives up to the potential that its trailer promises. Such is the case of The Haunting in Connecticut, which is one of the best horror films I’ve seen in quite a long time. It may seem strange to begin the analysis of a film with its trailer; however, films more so than any other art form are inexorably linked to their marketing. Before the work itself can be discussed, a few more pieces of marketing must be quickly touched upon. First, the film’s MPAA rating, PG-13, which is generally the kiss of death in the horror genre. Just knowing a horror movie is rated PG-13 has deterred me from viewing the film. Fear not – blood and gore wouldn’t make this film better, it flat out works brilliantly without need for the violence, vulgarity, gore and gratuitous sexual content we come to expect from lesser works in the genre. Second, the film is “based on a true story.” If you know anything of that true story, as I do, please don’t expect a documentary, or even a faithful re-telling based on fact. I always take the assertion “based on a true story” with a grain of salt. The truths in this film are the circumstances surrounding the family’s life, their rental of a house that formerly served as a funeral home, and some of their supernatural experiences. However, the true story doesn’t allow for a tidy ending or a very linear plot, so liberties have been taken. Many things have been embellished or created, and all brilliantly executed.

Haunting is a film that excels on many levels. Most importantly it never forgets that drama is the foundation of all other genres and thus you must build characters and make the audience care about their problems. Not that these are the most complex or dynamic characters ever created, but they are developed enough such that we can engage and have an interest in their plight.

Another manner in which Haunting excels is its utilization of all the techniques at its disposal to create a chilling tale. Many weaker efforts in the genre only achieve scares with overly-loud effects. The entire soundtrack of Haunting is subtle and beautifully mixed allowing you to hear voices, footsteps, and rustling in parts of the house unseen. The sound levels are great. Sometimes you could barely hear what was going on, making your anxiety greater. The score is solid and highlights the fright. The editing not only allows for great jolts but also tells the story in a fascinating way cutting from the present to the past, seen and unseen, using L-Cuts (dialogue continuing from scene which is no longer being shown) to move the story along and quick cuts to black. There was a wonderful sense of symmetry, as several situations repeat themselves with different results, like the game of hide and seek for example.

Perhaps the best thing about the film is its relentlessness. It hardly if ever seeks to cut the tension but seeks to keep the baseline pretty high, leaving the audience anticipating the next jolt. And the jolts are fantastic. One was done with the clever use of misdirection. There appears to be a bird under the bed that we can’t see and as it is to be revealed the jolt comes from elsewhere, and it is purely visual. The film is very visual and uses its dialogue wisely.

The performances are spot on. Elias Koteas has never been better. It’s also Virginia Madsen’s best turn in the genre. I can’t say that Madsen’s performance in Candyman excels over Haunting because I understood this character better. Kyle Gallner is cast properly and plays his character perfectly.

I personally judge each movie on its own merit and take it for what it is, for example I will never say “Well, this was no Casablanca or Citizen Kane so I can’t give it such and such a grade” – that’s bunk. The Haunting in Connecticut makes no pretensions about what it is, and does its job incredibly well. It was the most transfixing horror movie experience from the beginning to end that I’ve had since The Exorcist re-release in 2000 so having said that I give The Haunting in Connecticut a score of 10/10.

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That Movie Sucked: Trailers That Give Too Much Away

I had a recent Twitter conversation with Larry Richman, after he had attended an advance screening of Someone Like Us, and he had some interesting thoughts on the film. I told him I was glad to hear some of them after having seen the trailer. When he watched the trailer he confirmed what I feared: The trailer essentially gives away the entire movie.

I am doing my best to forget the details of said trailer before seeing it and won’t link to it here, but it does raise the point about why trailers feel the need to be so spoiler-laden. Now, there are certain realities I know and acknowledge, such as: I believe (and correct me if I’m wrong) it’s mainly the marketing department (in a studio) in collaboration with the producers who select highlight type moments, good footage and shop them out to companies who specialize in cutting trailers together. They usually get two or three different versions and choose one. Essentially, it’s a sub-contractor relationship. However, this outsourcing of the job isn’t the only reason that over-sharing in trailers occurs, if you ask me. The first part is that some involved with the film select segments to supply the bidders. So the selection has to be a bit more guarded.

What is going to compel me to see a movie is not necessarily knowing the synopsis, not that synopses are innocent of giving away too much (far too often on the back of a film you are told not just the first act break but the second also). What will compel me is getting a sense of the tone of the film with some compelling images that make me wonder “What’s that about? I have to see that!”

Some notable examples of this for upcoming films are:

Les Miserables (Teaser)

The Road (2012)

Even way back when in the Golden Age and before when audiences were not as sophisticated in certain respects as they are now, trailers disseminated information through voice-over and text but not too much of the story was seen and heard through actual footage:

1930s

Dracula (1931)

When I went to YouTube I just typed in the very generic search of “1930s Trailer” and sure enough I got more or less what I expected. A presentational pitch with hyperbolic text, grandiose announcements and key images that intimate what the film is but give very little real information. A lot of times with older films you were allowed to see a piece (sometimes a large piece) of a scene play out but you had little context by which to understand it. It was all just supposed to be enticing.

1940s

Casablanca (1942)

Approximately a decade later the formula was still pretty much the same. The hard thing is watching trailers for films you’ve seen already, for some the edit seem to be giving away a lot of the story because you know it, but it’s really not. Think of the moments in Casablanca that became iconic and none of them are here the farewell, “Louis, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship…”, “…shocked to find that there’s gambling going on in this establishment”, “As Time Goes By,” etc. Yes, this trailer is selling the adventure and danger much more than it is the romance but it’s not shying away from it either. The ethos is still similar in these two examples compelling images, backdrop, genre, stars but not the whole film.

1950s

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

My favorite professor in film school, Max Simkovitch, was not only great at planning double and triple features but also at screening clips and trailers. Therefore, even if something didn’t quite make it on the syllabus, we were made aware of it and tempted to see it. His horror/Sci-Fi class was where I first got a glimpse of Suspiria and then I had to track it down. We also watched The Invasion of the Body Snatchers there and while I can’t argue that this is a brilliant trailer, it is fragmentary enough in the ethos of its time to succeed. There is the frame of panicked reaction. First, you assume insanity then as images compound you think there’s more to it. The best part is the impact of the film is far greater than the trailer and the trailer doesn’t show it all, or intimate it all either. The bad part is that it doesn’t show you just how very good this movie is.

1960s

Psycho (1960)

Now, I will grant you that there are many things that allow this trailer to be as unique as it is. Firstly, you’re dealing with Alfred Hitchcock one of the greatest directors to ever walk the face of the Earth. However, he was also by this point a TV personality too. So his pitching his own film in an extended trailer is not so odd. However, what’s really brilliant about this Psycho trailer is how it seems to be telling you everything but there is so much misdirection and trickery afoot.

1970s

The Exorcist (1973)

Now, this is absolutely brilliant. There is next to now visual information revealed. There is one high contrast shot of Regan, no clear indication of what many of the shots mean and you don’t see the face of the exorcist. That creates the reaction you want. It gives you the emotional tenor of the film and compels you to want to see it. The voice-over works in conjunction with the images and scenes as opposed to presenting them. This is a clear indicator of the evolution of movie trailers. However, this sophisticated near artistry will in the course of the next forty years of film history will lose its restraint and start to give away too much information.

1980s

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Granted here’s another case where you’ve got a lot going for you as you set about creating a trailer: this is the follow-up to the most successful box-office smash of all-time as of this trailer’s debut, you have John Williams’ score and incredible visuals. Yet the temptation could exist to overplay your hand but it’s laid back. You have an exciting kinetic montage, with no information of any kind divulged really and the voice-over only comes in at the very end for one line. Perfect.

1990s

Jurassic Park (1993)

I tried to get a Spielberg film on for the 80s, I couldn’t because I thought of E.T. but the trailer I found had an incessant narrator who wanted to delineate every emotional beat in the whole film. With this short, if not brilliant Jurassic Park trailer, I think I re-affirm my point. Spielberg’s images are always strong. Here the story does a lot of the selling anyway, so just briefly touch upon what the chaos in the park is and make it a short, quick sell.

2000s

Peter Pan (2003)

For quite a bit of time I thought of Peter Pan as a standard-bearer of shorts. It had been some time since I had seen the trailer but I remembered how it had set the expectations very high for me, and then I saw the film it lived up to or exceeded practically every one of them. However, it also is a great illustration of how treacherous a game the cutting of trailers is. For above, what you have is the second version of the trailer. Multiple versions of trailers existing is nothing new, but what struck me as most interesting is that the minutest of changes could have such a drastic impact. When I found the #2 trailer I knew pretty quickly it was the one I liked for it seemed a more fragmentary and tonal presentation of this vision of the story whereas the #1 (below) felt a lot like a demonstration “Here’s this part of Neverland and this part and that part.”

The Present

As for the newer crop the trailer fo Dark Shadows is bad, but does contain a similar tonal dissonance to the actual end product. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an excellent trailer.

Dark Shadows (2012)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

A recently compelling one, that convinced not only me, but many people to see the bad movie being hocked, was that of The Devil Inside.

It’s widely acknowledged that the marketing job done by Paramount to make this film a financial success while thudding with critics and audiences alike is astoundingly good. Another recent Paramount win was the viral marketing effort, the introduction of the “Demand It” concept prior to the release of the first Paranormal Activity film. However, regardless of whether you liked the film or not, the trailer is practically all the highlights of the film. Watch below…

Now, I will readily admit that I, as someone who frequents multiplexes and art houses alike and have a tendency to be quite early, such that I watch not only the trailer but the pre-show, will view these more times over than the average spectator. However, the success of the studios, the box-office both domestically and globally relies on everyone, and trailers are one of the best methods to repeat your business. You have a captive audience, a packed auditorium for the latest tentpole, all the big movies want to advertise in front of it. Whereas sometimes commercials work better because they can give less away, a trailer gives you anywhere from 90 to around 150 seconds to give your best pitch. So please try and tantalize not bore.

When a short film of mine Suffer the Little Children got into Shockerfest, we were afforded the opportunity to buy commercial time on local cable airwaves to advertise our screening. With only 30 seconds and my proclivity to tease rather than over inform, this is what I decided to do:

Here you’ve seen quite a few of the major plot points in the story, however, without knowing the Stephen King short story upon which the film is based you don’t necessarily know the context or the significance of the events. The shots come at you quickly, with juxtapositions that are apropos of nothing and little dialogue is heard. You are given the tone of the piece and some allusions as to what it’s about but you are not told everything. That’s as it should be I feel, even given more time to play around.

Far too often, after seeing a trailer, I will snidely say to myself “That movie sucked.” Now, of course, I’ve learned that the trailer is never a good indicator of what the film is. However, while I do want to be compelled to see the film by the trailer I don’t want to feel like I watched the movie. I felt John Carter, despite other marketing missteps at least attempted to compel with images first and not giveaway all the plot intricacies therein. The removal of the qualifier ‘of Mars’ from the title, the reticence to be upfront about the literary pedigree of the tale right off the bat likely had more to do with its failing, than a trailer that didn’t spoon-feed absolutely everything.

I think above there are plenty of examples of how to do it and how not to do it, and I hope that we get more good than bad in the future. However, in the meantime caveat emptor, buyer beware is definitely a motto to live by. Most recently I heard warnings to stay away from the trailer for Sinister. He is correct. The movie does look very good but there is much information in the trailers. So happy viewing but try and avoid spoilery trailers.

Review- Dark Shadows

With a film like Dark Shadows I have to spend a bit of time discussing where I’m coming from here and couching it. While I cannot claim to be an expert, I am a fan of the show and do have quite a fondness for it. Having said that, there will be no armchair direction or writing here make no mistake of that. I will gauge the film based on the direction and manner it was interpreted not how I would’ve preferred it, and I will be explicit in explaining why it still doesn’t work.

From the moment I saw the trailer I had a sense for what this film was going to try to be. It’s a rare case of a trailer being true to the tone of the finished product. What you get in this film is a very uneasy balance between horror elements and attempts at humor and self-parody. Essentially, it tries to be The Brady Bunch films, which are true to the tone and spirit of the show but poke fun at the show too.

What makes this different and not as successful is a disharmony in tone. It goes from a facsimile of a horror scene to forced humor. I should’ve counted attempted jokes for the percentage of success was very low. I literally laughed out loud thrice, once was a suggestive joke David (Gully McGrath) made about Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz). With the Brady films clearly it was always silly. How this would’ve worked better is either of two ways: One, be the kind of over-the-top horror the show was, which is humorous to some, or two, play it straight dramatically and tongue-in-cheek comedically. Instead, you could feel the gears shift and the sudden impetus “Must try and be funny now.” It’s one of the more forced comedies I’ve ever seen in that regard.

There are many Tim Burton movies I have loved. I am among the many who still have enough fondness for much of his work such that I will still come to see what he’s done. However, I’m not really angered by this turn so much as disappointed. Granted it’s not an original piece but I thought Dark Shadows and Tim Burton, what could possibly go wrong? The following did: The complete lack of tonal cohesion, the near glacial movement of the plot when there’s not an over-abundance of things going on, the thinness and simplification of characters.

Why is this one frustrating and not infuriating? I did like the performances for the the most part. Again, this is divorcing expectation and examining the actual content. However, it comes down to the milieu within which the players played. When the film is straight-up gothic-style horror it’s rather breathtaking. Those moments are few and far between but it shows the potential of the narrative had there been a sort of balance or reversal of tone.

Johnny Depp, who in his now long renaissance, is at times too big and too much the center of attention in certain films does well here. His Barnabas Collins is his own and I don’t begrudge him that, I just feel the performance would’ve been augmented further in a tale more worthy such an awesome vampire. For even in this rendition Barnabas deserves better.

Touching upon the Brady Bunch notion again there is the fish out of water aspect; the concept of the Brady films was that it was the 1990s and they were very much still stuck in the 1970s, while here Barnabas was in the 1970s after being interred in 1752. It plays the fish out of water but the film tries so hard with musical cues, other pop culture references and an Alice Cooper performance that is not up to his “Feed My Frankenstein” in Wayne’s World 20 years ago; that they just become tired, then trite and finally bothersome. We get it, it’s the 70s. Moving on.

Contrary to divorce where it’s only the children who suffer in a movie that’s bad it’s really only the kids who leave unscathed: Chloe Moretz doesn’t really have a lot to do here but shows a more mature side of her persona, which is easing and accelerating her transition from in-demand child actress to eventual A-List leading lady. Gully McGrath in sparing moments plays one of the more rounded characters in the film and shows a glimpse of his talent. Bella Heatcote, though not a child actress, is new talent who likely has much more to show in a more rounded role.

An example of a wasted, underdeveloped character in this film is that of Willie Loomis. Aside from being a weirdo his only other functions are being a stooge and a driver. Wonderful, really needed the new Freddy Kreuger for that part.

Partially to expiate the film its slowly moving, thin plot there’s some randomness thrown into the end of the film, which while are hat tips to the show are also slightly foreshadowed and only serve to prolong the cacophonous silliness that is the climax.

In the end, whether I agreed with it in principle or not, Dark Shadows made an attempt to do something different and it failed there also.


4/10

Review- Being Flynn

Robert De Niro and Paul Dano in Being Flynn (Focus Features)

If one watches the trailer then a lot of Being Flynn is revealed. This is not an uncommon phenomenon in this era of film, but it was enough to convince me to watch this film, and it also illustrates the major hurdle the film has. The film deals with what occurs when Nick (Paul Dano), a youth seeking direction in his life, starts to work in a homeless shelter and sees his estranged father (Robert De Niro) there.

It’s a plot in the trailer that makes it seem like a very unlikely chance encounter. In actuality, the leap of faith needed to believe this scenario is not nearly as large. There are furtive awkward reunion attempts prior to fate intervening as it does. This is a very good thing indeed and it allows all the baggage the two characters have to be dealt with when tension is at a boiling point.

The film does use a good deal of voice over narration and what’s more it has two narrators, father and son. Voice over is always a treacherous balancing act but this film does rather well with it and gives additional insight into these two not completely dissimilar characters. Voice over can be looked at as a story-telling bridge, bridging the gap that a visual cannot for editorial or aesthetic reasons. The key is to build footbridges not suspension bridges, to build them intermittently and this film does that.

That does not mean this film is devoid of visual signature and style quite the opposite there is quite a bit of visual interest, which is mainly added through the edit. The film has quite a few flashback sequences that mainly serve to illustrate Nick’s upbringing and the impact his father’s absence had. The film enters these passages creatively and more often than expected but always with great results and it really resonates.

These flashes aside from giving us very good fragmentary performances from Julianne Moore, shades of her turn in The Hours, and Liam Broggy as Young Nick, also help establish the tonality of the film. The sequences aren’t juxtaposed as much as they are forerunners to the twists and turns of fate in the present day. There’s a bittersweet quality as it shows what was, with hints of what could’ve been and eventually there are echoes of the past in the present that seem equally unavoidable.

Yet as dour as the film is at times there is a certain balance of emotions at play. There is some humor to it when appropriate and certainly tenable drama not just voyeurism, you feel this movie not only watch it.

This is the kind of film that for all its other merits hinges on its performers and with these two the film excels. This is the kind of challenging emotional and engaging work that Paul Dano does frequently and that Robert De Niro doesn’t do nearly enough of anymore. They work brilliantly together and regardless of the frequency with which either does this kind of film it’s great that they do it here.

Since the Weitz brothers have stopped working exclusively in tandem they’ve done some rather interesting work, and this film is no exception. While this film takes its unexpected turns and ends well but a bit loosely but is very good and worth seeking out.

9/10

Review- Mr. Popper’s Penguins

Carla Gugino, Maxwell Perry Cotton, Madeline Carroll and Jim Carrey in Mr. Popper's Penguins (20th Century Fox)

You may not be expecting much when walking into a film like Mr. Popper’s Penguins. While it certainly won’t blow anyone away it does have some surprises in store and it really is quite good.

There is a quick backstory montage with some flashes that establishes who our protagonist is and what his relationship with his father was like. This sets up our expectations for what he will be like as a grown man. While this set up can have us assuming certain things how they come about is a bit unexpected.

Perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film is Jim Carrey’s performance. Here you get what I call a hybrid of his two very distinctive styles, both of which I like. It’s a homogenization of his over-the-top comedy and his dramatic persona much more so than Liar Liar, which is very much the former.

This film also sets up several standard situations but avoids trapping the film in overly-familiar gags and goes about things differently. There are Needing to be Two Places at Once, Apparent Defeat and Ulterior Complications that are to an extent necessary and accepted handled briskly and with a twist such that they’re not stale.

This film by doing those stock things in a slightly more inventive, fresher way does end up being rather funny. There is a good dose of slapstick and verbal comedy thrown into the mix such that it’s balanced.

Comedy aside it is a family film and so the family unit has to be strong in terms of performance and chemistry and this film does that perfectly. Aside from Carrey you have Carla Gugino as his ex-wife and Madeline Carroll and Maxwell Perry Cotton as his children. Though she’s played other roles Gugino since Spy Kids is the prototypical uber-mom charming and appealing to all ages. The kids have very different tasks and handle them brilliantly: Carroll as a teenage girl whose emotions are always teetering on the edge and Cotton who plays the younger brother wise beyond his years. They make fantastic foils and allow Carrey to play drama and comedy at times simultaneously.

The children and the family story ultimately bring out the biggest surprise in that while packaged as a goofy animal film it is a sweet, heartfelt story.

While his dialogue does get a bit repetitive the film does adequately turn the man from the zoo into a serviceable villain. There are also secondary threats to the penguins conditions that never over-intrude but make their presence known.

The CG work that’s done, when it’s needed, in this film is also well-rendered and never too obvious.

Mr. Popper’s Penguins is one of the better surprises I’ve had at the movies in while. Which just goes to show that just as you can’t judge a book by its cover you can’t judge a film by its trailer (or its poster for that matter).

7/10

Review- The Hangover Part II

Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galiafanakis in The Hangover Part II (Warner Bros.)

If you read my review of The Hangover you’ll know that I was quite a fan of the original installment of the film. It even cracked my Top 15 Films of 2009 list. It remains, regretfully for the follow-up, as one of the best comedies of the past few years.

Part of what works so well in the first, and what I didn’t quite articulate then, is that when you’re dealing with a story wherein your characters seemingly irrevocably messed up their life in the course of one night of binge drinking and partying and did crazy things, add to that they cannot recall what they did and you can have almost anything happen as long as it hangs together when it gets explained. This should be an extraordinarily freeing experience for writers and filmmakers instead it became a case of variations on precisely the same thing.

As the trailers for the film started rolling out I started to get a Home Alone 2 vibe form it, meaning that while it may be funny it would be essentially the same film but relocated. Little did I know just how many things would be pretty much the same as they were the first time around and what compounded that is that it wasn’t even that funny. At least Home Alone 2 was the rare film in the course of my life that made me cry from laughter.

One perfect example of how identical they decided to make this film is that the one new character who they bring along with them on their night of partying, Teddy (Mason Lee), is the one who vanishes and must be located. So it’s the same triad as the first time. Doug stays behind and does damage control. So the dynamic is similar but a little more unbalanced than it seemed last time. Zach Galiafanakis has been the one who has most benefited from the first film career-wise and it seems like the film was designed to give him even more moments both organic and inorganic than prior. While Helms is still very funny he seems to have fewer chances to take over scenes.

There were long passages of this film where I barely made a sound, which is rare for me in a comedy but to be fair this film does have its moments. Two very noticeable ones are musical in nature, one is original to this film a parody of Billy Joel’s “Allentown” and the other which rehashes a cameo from the first in a very humorous way.

While one cameo which was sort of a re-run works another, that of Nick Cassavetes as the tattoo artist, just falls completely flat. As unpopular as he is now, Mel Gibson would’ve been funnier in the part, which was how it was originally cast.

In the film there are a few things that spring to mind that kind of make you wonder a bit too much and over-thinking is the enemy of a comedy. Firstly, Alan recites many random factoids about Thailand throughout and one of them ends up being a key event. So kudos to an extent for giving us expository information without us necessarily knowing it. There are two other head-scratchers, however, that are harder to overlook: one being how avoidable the chaos that ensued was this time. Second is the consequences a few of the characters face are a bit too serious too be laughed off lightheartedly and takes away some of the intended comedy.

Practically all the complaints listed above are story-related, which is in and of itself a shame because you do have the same talented core doing their best in this one also but this time they have substandard, stale material that they cannot coax enough laughs out of to salvage this mess.

The sad reality is that pretty much everyone who saw and enjoyed the first film, which were many, went out to see it opening weekend and gave the film a record opening (for an R-Rated live-action comedy) so there will be a third film. Hopefully the mistakes of this installment are learned from and addressed.

5/10

Review- That’s What I Am

Ed Harris, Chase Ellison and Andrew Walters in That's What I Am (WWE)

In a somewhat similar vein to Alabama Moon, That’s What I Am is a film whose distribution path deserves a little bit of attention. The only place I heard of this playing was New York’s Quad Cinema and it was for one weekend only. Considering that I was going to be in New York that weekend I tried to shoehorn it into my plans but alas could not.

I later found out that it would shortly be available for purchase exclusively through Walmart. As if that’s not enough quirks it’s also a release from WWE, yes, as in World Wrestling Entertainment. For those of you groaning: aside from having a wrestler play a small part (Randy Orton whom I was glad to learn is also a producer for the film) there’s no wrestling involvement in the story.

That’s What I Am is a film in several ways that is sold and seems to be nothing more than a standard coming-of-age tale. However, there’s a bit more to it than meets the eye from the trailer. The film’s journey, as seen through its protagonist Andy (Chase Ellison), is the narrative of a formative time rather than one singular incident. The fact that the incidents that pervade this film are balanced relatively well gives this film a quasi-European aesthetic, why it doesn’t quite reach it will be shown later.

The trailer would lead you to believe that there are two main thrusts to the tale: not judging a book by its cover and discovering what one is, in short tolerance. Yet there’s far much more more to it.

Perhaps the most unexpected is the narrative strand that dominates a lot of the film is the allegation that the ever-popular uber-teacher Mr. Simon (Ed Simon) is gay. Considering that it’s set in the 1960s this is a perfectly legitimate grounds for termination (according to society) and it sets up a lot of the conflict and brings up the theme of tolerance in a different regard. Ed Harris is wonderful as usual and his initial denial to even respond is fantastic. I’ll not give away how this strand ends but he does eventually answer the question definitively in private and I wish he hadn’t. I think a stronger statement is made by his steadfastly saying “It doesn’t matter, I’m a good teacher.”

That serves to highlight the inconsistency in writing. Some of the dialogue isn’t as sharp as it needs to be and on occasion stumbles into the bad range but overall it is serviceable. There is plentiful voice-over by Andy as adult reflecting back which brings to mind Stand by Me because he is a writer but it nowhere near as strong.

There is also a romantic subplot in this film but what is refreshing about it is that it doesn’t dominate the narrative and it’s not a puppy love or I’m-gonna-die-if-she’s-not-mine crush it’s an attraction and the girl has a reputation, which lends some humor to it. In the Big G (Andrew Walters) subplot, the one that kicks the film off, wherein Andy is paired with him for an assignment, his being mocked for his appearance and nerdiness is only part of the equation. The other facet is that he never hesitates to be who he is and not be afraid of ridicule, meanwhile, his best friend Norman (Daniel Yelsky) is obsessed with blending in and they fight over this issue a few times.

Despite a few weak spots in the adult nucleus this film is buoyed by the strong performances of its young cast. Namely Chase Ellison, an actor whose had many strong turns either in small roles or smaller films, is a very effective “Everykid,” in this film and unlike many other films of its ilk doesn’t necessarily strike you as awkward trying to play awkward and seems to relate greatly to the part. Andrew Walters does a very effective job being the stoic, picked on Big G and I was glad to learn that in his big scene at the talent show he did his own stunt, so to speak. Daniel Yelsky is also convincing as the neurotic and fearful foil to Big G and Mia Rose Frampton plays a toned down, sweeter version of the character she is in the funniest scene in Bridesmaids.

There are a few instances in which I wish this film handled things more deftly or differently but ultimately I was quite pleased with indeed. This is a film that’s worth seeking out and is suitable viewing for the family, keeping rating in mind of course.

That’s What I Am is also available to stream on Netflix.

8/10

Review- Meek’s Cutoff

Michelle Williams in Meek's Cutoff (Oscilloscope Pictures)

Note: Spoilers within.

The first thing that bears mentioning with regards to Meek’s Cutoff is the trailer and it does connect to the film in a very real way. After watching the trailer you’d get the sense that while this will be a dramatic western and one with a journey but it’d be more uptempo. As soon as the movie starts, however, you will learn that exactly the opposite is true. This film has a very deliberate pace, which includes one of the slowest dissolves I’ve yet witnessed.

This is not to say that the pace is negative but just a warning that as a viewer it would behoove you to read a review, whether it be this one or a few others also before deciding to go out and see it. You really need to make sure you want to commit to seeing this movie because the trailer is selling a false bill of goods to an extent.

To be more explicit about the pace the polite word would methodical, and methodical paces can be trying if there is no reason for it but there is reason here. The tale that’s being told here is a part of a journey. There are a group of seven migrant people and a pathfinder looking for a new beginning. You don’t see their beginning but only the plight they currently face, which is mainly that of thirst. When the threat of dehydration and exhaustion are ever-present it can’t really be communicated in a quick cutting smooth flowing narrative context.

That’s just one aspect of the narrative conflict which is at work. This is the kind of film that actually has more going on than you realize on the surface because it doesn’t comment much on its issues and when it does so it’s only in a rather superficial way that belies its depth. The first struggles these travelers face is with with their pathfinder, played very well by an unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood. They doubt he can really get them where they want to be, where there’s water and so do we after a point. This conflict precedes the one that dominates the second half of the film.

The major conflict of the second half of the film is both deciding what to do when they capture an Indian, Rod Rondeaux, and if they should follow and trust him. The film does well to not completely overlook its first conflict and places Meek (Greenwood) at odds with the traveling party about what to do with the native, there is some debate and they decide to spare him and hope he can lead them where they want to go.

The conflicts and intrigue continue here as not all the travelers are in agreement, some are scared of him and some see no alternative but to trust him. Stakes also get raised when much of their supplies are lost when one of their wagons crashes after making it down a steep grade.

The film only ever really goes over the top with some of its politicized dialogue. Almost any Post-Studio Era Western will have its debate on the true nature of the Native American and ostracize the racist White man who seeks to kill him- so that’s expected but it’s a bit much. Aside from that the drama is played rather close to the vest a lot of the time and doesn’t boil over too often. There is religious despair intimated by readings from The Bible, doubt and mistrust cast in glances and subtext.

There’s a stark isolation to the landscape and the framing of the characters that imbues itself in the celluloid and it’s a refreshingly cloistered tale wherein not only are there merely nine characters but you will even see them all at once. It’s a rare true ensemble piece where not only do all the actors get their moments but they frequently all play in a single shot.

It’s the kind of film you watch and feel like not much has happened but then when you reflect back on it there was more than you thought and to address the pace again I was caught off-guard by the ending because it didn’t quite feel like 104 minutes had passed. To comment on the ending I’m not sure it makes or breaks the film. It is open but if you consider the two most likely possible outcomes for the tale would those have been more dramatically satisfying? I think not, so this works just fine.

7/10

The Effect of YouTube

YouTube of course is one of the most used and most important websites on the Internet. As will be displayed below there are many ways in which YouTube has already effected the film industry and many more ways in which it can and should in the future.

Self-Shooting and First Person

The image of an arm disappearing off-frame where it is holding the camera is not uncommon in digital photography and not unheard of on YouTube. Some films have been shot first person meaning the film was self-conscious and aware and the person filming is a character, like The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield and Diary of the Dead.

With so many vlogging and freely adjusting the camera while rolling it is an image that the people are now used to, and will accept this kind of image, and it wouldn’t be surprising if it started getting incorporated into narrative features more often than it is.



Viral Marketing

Several films have already taken to creating footage to be used only for their viral marketing purposes – most recently and notably a “leak” of footage for Cloverfield 2.  The buzz surrounding Paranormal Activity was also aided in part due to its trailer being on YouTube.

When original content was first created a few years ago solely for the purposes of promoting a film you knew that it was going to be, and it continues to be, a crucial part of marketing a film. Even if not creative no major release leaves either YouTube or Apple’s trailer site out of their promotional plans.

Jump Cuts

OK, so jump cuts are nothing new and have been a somewhat tolerated part of the language of film since the French New Wave but it is truly only through the fictional narratives created on YouTube, both crude and refined, that people have en masse truly accepted the fact that continuity is a contrivance which can be forsaken for effect, if necessary.

Even the music video, which planted this seed, never fully communicated this because very few have a coherent narrative. So it was really only when the everyman got on their home video camera or webcam and started to edit that the jump cut became not just acceptable but almost preferred.

Granted the jump cut isn’t predominant in feature films, however, films don’t feel the need to justify or feel timid about using them when they need to.

Mash-Ups

This is a concept original to video sites in their way. It takes the audio and visual associate with a song and presents an alternative to the remix and ultimately creates a new song. Yet the phrase mash-up was quickly re-appropriated to merely mean combining ideas and not so specific to music so it’s not inconceivable that the idea can be used to conjoin disparate ideas in one motion picture.

In a Hollywood littered with prequels, sequels, remakes and reboots it’s certainly within the realm of possibility.
 
Trailer Recuts

Another popular YouTube trend is to recut a trailer with carefully chosen dialogue and different music to make it seem like it was created for another genre altogether. One of the most famous examples is Mary Poppins as a horror film.

Now while this is usually just film enthusiasts having fun again we are in an age where executives are looking to repackage, re-brand and recycle wherever possible and considering the studios own the depictions of these films they created on screen it is not out of the realm of possibility that they go with an idea they find online, pay off the viral editor and go off and turn The Shining into a family film.

Pre-Makes

A recent trend in which modern era movies are spoofed as trailers from the golden age splicing footage from those old films to make it seem like the older star appeared in the newer film. A for example: Indiana Jones cut as if it was a 1950s serial or Ghostbusters in the 1950s.

An even more literal interpretation of this concept of using a bygone star in a modern idea could be accomplished through motion capture or 3D animation and a deal with the estate. If that sounds a little crass keep in mind Gene Kelly has posthumously danced with a vacuum cleaner so sometimes money does outweigh legacy unfortunately.

Handheld

Handheld imagery is already well accepted by modern audiences. However, the YouTube influence is that people will become so used to seeing wildly unsteady imagery that there will be less and less concern about stable images and Steadicam.

This could be a very bad thing in the case of Quantum of Solace the combination of handheld camera work, editing and rapidity of the fight render the action nearly incomprehensible.

The positive could be an added element of realism where a film would not feel the need to cut to a more stable image or a different angle and want to exploit the sense of realism the lack of cuts would create. Images don’t always have to be pretty so long as they are effective too many modern films fail in their hand holding on both accounts.

Video

It’s kind of obvious but needs saying regardless: save for the rare loon, such as yours truly, people are rarely uploading digitized film projects on to YouTube. They typically are all native to video in one form or another. So proponents of the digital revolution in the late 90s were indeed correct only premature.

Video is getting better looking all the time and people are used to it and will accept it unquestionably. Being consistently bombarded by video that’s in a resolution less than ideal on the Internet has aided the transition.

Fred

There are no history books likely to be written about what was the first video that was considered to have gone viral and even YouTube with its statistics keeping would be hard-pressed to quantify many statistics anymore considering how widespread usage of the site has become.

However, it was recently was announced that Fred, a YouTube persona created by teenager Lucas Cruikshank was optioned to a feature film. Should it come to fruition it would be the first concept to go from YouTube to a feature film. A few instances exist of YouTube inspiring commercials but nothing like this.

This would likely be a litmus test for other YouTube sensations in the film world (the music world has already been notably affected with Justin Bieber’s career owing its existence to YouTube popularity) but more than likely a few better, if not as popular people might get deals because of this and it would obviously be the most direct influence of YouTube on cinema: content.

Recently, a Uruguayan filmmaker signed a deal on the strength of his YouTube Short.

Casting

Troye Sivan in X-Men Origins: Wolverine


YouTube has already notably played a part in the casting of a major Hollywood motion picture. Troye Sivan gained notoriety on YouTube mainly just by singing a cappella and gaining attention including that of a casting agent. The agent got in contact with him and gauged his interest in acting and sent him out on a series of auditions. The first of which was for X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

He landed the role, played Young Logan and the rest is history. It is not likely the last story of that kind which will occur.
 

Photo Montage

Another popular motif on YouTube is that of the still picture montage. It is rarely a tag but is a very frequently used technique that could be effectively used in film because in an art form predicated on the moving image to stop the motion whether through a freeze frame or a still is a very powerful maneuver.

Recently, a very effective still picture montage was used at the end of The Hangover, which showed the audience the digital photos from their wild forgotten night.

Structure

This could be the way in which YouTube has the most potential to revolutionize conventional narrative cinema as we know it. Unless a user is uber-popular and they become a “content provider” you are limited to 10 minutes or less. Flow varies and structure is unheard of, however, that does not keep many videos from being quite entertaining and creative while not traditionally structured.

However, at this day and age what has traditional structure really gotten us anyway? At this point, in many cases, all structure does is facilitate unoriginal plotlines that are made in cookie-cutter forms. When something new and original comes along it typically at least bends if not breaks the rules of narrative form so it is not far-fetched to consider that the YouTube videomakers of today could be the cinematic mavericks of tomorrow.

Therefore I call upon the YouTube generation to continue shooting, editing and telling tales the way you want to tell them and the world will listen. If not now, soon.

Conclusion

These are just some of the small ways in which YouTube can affect films. Considering how slow the learning curve is in Hollywood the effect can still permute in the years to come and let us hope that it does. It may create fascinating if not always brilliant work. At this rate it is the only current forum that can be considered a vox populi. It is a movement in and of itself even if not self-conscious of it. For that reason alone the impact is likely to be felt because as studios seek to emulate the viral style they will think it was their idea in the first place but really it was ours and that would be the greatest victory of all.

A Recap of Super Bowl Film Commercials

The Super Bowl this year, as it is many years was replete with ads that either advertise films or referenced them. Here’s a quick recap.

Captain America: The First Avenger

This is the first look I’ve really gotten at Captain America. At least in terms of a trailer, this seems like a rather good glimpse at at least some of the highlights of the origin of the character. Playing the tale as a period piece is also likely to work to this film’s benefit.

Fast Five

A continuation of The Fast and the Furious series. This installment takes place in Rio de Janeiro, there will be a Brazilian theme. What is most humorous about this one is that our heroes will drive through favelas and mess up hardened criminals and likely walk out unscathed. Very realistic.

Super 8

This was, hands down, the best trailer of the night. Oddly enough, esteemed publications like The Hollywood Gossip ran a headline which reads “Super 8 Movie Trailer: What the… ?!?” Now granted the article does admit it’s somewhat excited for the release but why complain about being confused. Super 8 first released an even more arcane teaser months ago and now about four months prior to its release we see a little more. This is how trailers used to work. You see just enough of a film to be intrigued into watching it, instead now sometimes you feel like you watched a whole movie. I finish seeing many and say to myself “That movie sucked.” because I feel like I saw the whole thing. This gives us just enough to want more and I’m even more amped for it than I was before. Bring it on Abrams and Spielberg.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Another example of why less is more. The original trailer while it was a little annoying when you found out what it was for was a little more mysterious.Now you see more than before and it gets silly from the get go and that’s just annoying.

Thor

While this ad made me giggle because I randomly thought of re-writing the song “War” and inserting “Thor,” it is decent. Not nearly as effective as the theatrical trailer as this one shows some possible chinks in the armor but not bad.

Rango

This is literally a film that has been overexposed and again reiterates the brilliance of the Super 8 strategy. I have been seeing trailers and commercials for this for so long I am fatigued of it and the worst part is the concept was only borderline in my estimation to begin with.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Nothing could be less appealing to me than another Pirates film considering that they have fallen off precipitously and I literally fell asleep during the last one, which was fine by me save for the fact that I needed to be woken up because I was snoring. This ad actually presents the film in a better light than does the full-length trailer.

Cowboys & Aliens

This is the kind of film most people already have an opinion on based on the concept. You either think the combination of two disparate entities such as these is ridiculous or inspired. The fact that the director of this film is also responsible for Elf, Zathura, and Iron Man won’t sway you. Aside from the much hyped ‘seeing more of the alien craft’ not much to be gleaned here or to change one’s mind.

Limitless

Not much to see here. a condensed version of the trailer. The concept has potential but it seems like it gets pushed to extremes. Interesting to note that it’s one of the few films coming out in fairly short order that shelled out the big bucks for a Super Bowl ad. It will be interesting to see what it does.

Rio

It’s a short 0:15 spot but even here you get to see some of the unfortunate aspects of the film: Hispanic actors subbing in as Brazilian and inaccuracies of beach life in Brazil such as the overly-large bikini cuts. While there is some promise in the concept of a film about the birds of Brazil it seems like it might not quite hit in this rendition.

Now some websites are mentioning The Adjustment Bureau, Just Go With It, Priest and Battle: Los Angeles, the last one I saw pre-kick-off. Others I didn’t see in-game. Maybe I was on a health break but I only count kick-off to final whistle and those were the ones I counted. Did I miss them?

There were also a few ads inspired by or referencing films such as the Bud Light Product Placement ad, Budweiser Cowboy singing “Tiny Dancer” reminiscent of Almost Famous, Volkswagen Mini-Darth Vader and Hyundai Sonata a bit callously referencing silent films.

To see all the ads go here.

What was Your Favorite Film Commercial During the Super Bowl?
(polls)