3:10 to Yuma/Shane

27 09 2007

UMW Bullet, Sept. 27

3:10 TO YUMA

I have a confession to make: I’ve never liked Westerns. It’s difficult to become emotionally attached to a genre that essentially consists of only one film. Poor miner/farmer/townsperson is terrorized by outlaw/neighbor/ruthless businessman. Insert crying wife/kids/saloon girls. Valiant but morally ambiguous stranger turns up just in time to save the day. Wife/kids/saloon girls stop crying and end credits are accompanied by joyful, feel-good music.

So you can understand my initial feeling, no doubt, that in seeing 3:10 to Yuma I was taking one for the team. But oh! Ah! Once trapped in the darkness of the local movie theater with my least favorite genre on screen, something changed. I found myself being seduced by a plot that was new, and actors who did more than simply drawling out their lines and spitting grumpily at each other’s glittering silver spurs.

Russell Crowe and Christian Bale drive this movie, which is startlingly new yet still manages to maintain the cantankerous spirit of one of the old Westerns. As “badass” is not generally considered to be a legitimate film description, I suppose I’ll have to provide you with a secondary, more helpful one. (And you thought helpfulness was not in my nature after last week’s review of Brazil!)

Rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) aids in the capture of notorious and impeccably dressed outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) only to end up as one of Wade’s armed escorts to the prison train to Yuma. There are adventures! There is violence, mind games and explosives! There are scantily-clad saloon girls! This film even satisfies your cowboy and Indian cravings with a few well-placed Apache warriors. But through all this bloodshed and bravery there remains one key question: will they make the 3:10 to Yuma?

Balancing gravity and levity, 3:10 to Yuma jumps from shoot-outs and clandestine plotting to hilarious lines like “even bad men love their mommas.” And more brownie points are awarded for painting the outlaw as a sympathetic character à la Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This film starts out a little weak but builds steadily, arriving at a triumphant conclusion that should leave even the most fastidious filmgoers satiated.

SHANE

Shane is the kind of Western they just don’t make anymore, but probably should. Given its crystal clear lens of 1950’s optimism, it is unsurprising that this film is, very simply, about good and evil. When examined closely, however, Shane is anything but straightforward.

Joe Starrett, played by Van Heflin, and many of the neighboring farmers, are terrorized by local cattleman Ryker, who is trying to drive them off of their land. The situation is desperate, with Starrett readying himself to take on Ryker and all of his hired men, when a stranger rides onto Starrett’s farm. The man introduces himself as Shane, and remains with the family as a hired hand. They embrace him, despite various clues that hint at a mysterious and checkered past that he is clearly trying to leave behind. But when things heat up, Shane’s acceptance of his past may be the only thing that can save this family from destruction.

It is difficult to say whether this movie should be classified as adventure, drama, action, or even an elaborate exercise in character development. The cinematography is also a strong point, and this alone places it above many similar Westerns made in that era. But Shane’s main selling point has to be the dynamic characters. More than anything, this film is about relationships between people, both friendly and antagonistic, and inner conflict for these characters can be more real than even the most serious outer conflict.

Shane, played by film legend Alan Ladd, experiences this psychological turmoil as he battles with both past and present, all the while feeling emotional attachment to this new family that has been so accepting of him. In Shane, the protagonist is a real person, not just someone contrived to ‘save the day,’ as characters so often are. And that has to be worth something.

Ever obstinate, I still don’t like Westerns.



Stardust/Brazil film column

20 09 2007

My new film column, from this week’s Bullet. (Original version)

STARDUST, OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE FAIRY TALE

Sick of the onslaught of new Harry Potter movies? Can’t watch Legolas flip his hair even one more time? Do you sometimes find yourself wondering what the world would be like if fantasy characters, instead of wasting wishes on true love, requested acting talent or better screenplays? In this age of inverse correlation between special effects and depth of plot, it’s refreshing to see at least one new movie that sacrifices neither.

Based on the book by wizard author Neil Gaiman, Stardust is a fairy tale in the most basic sense, though not at all predictable. And like many great stories, the trouble begins with the fatal combination of a girl and too much alcohol. Tristan Thorn (played by Charlie Cox) is so smitten with the beautiful Victoria (Sienna Miller) that, during an evening of wine and star-gazing, he vows to obtain a falling star in exchange for her love. Leaving home, he crosses the carefully guarded wall between his village and the fairy world. In a rather inconvenient plot development, Tristan discovers that the star he’s seeking is actually a girl, Yvaine (Claire Danes). Our hero, though taken aback, is not easily discouraged and sets out for home with Yvaine in tow. (“Nothing says romance like a kidnapped, injured woman!”) On the way they encounter evil witches, princes (both of the living and non-living variety), a unicorn, confused peasants, and one delightfully flamboyant pirate in the form of Robert DeNiro.

While Stardust has an occasionally inconsistent pace, a few missing scenes along with some invented ones, and even the occasional unexplained plot gap (challenging for those who haven’t read the book), it remains faithful to the basic story and spirit of Gaiman’s creation. Fantasy films aren’t taken seriously often enough and are generally relegated to the realm of childhood entertainment, but this film does a wonderful job of avoiding this trend of oversimplification. Most of all, Stardust is driven by its spectacular cast, which includes Ian McKellen, Michelle Pfeiffer, Peter O’Toole and Rupert Everett. In fact, there are very few good actors who aren’t in this movie.

But perhaps the most magical thing about Stardust lies not in its actors or plot, but in its unwillingness to conform to standards set by recent predecessors like Eragon and Ella Enchanted. It’s funny, thrilling, multi-dimensional and surprising. And after all, who can resist Robert DeNiro in drag?

*For extra kicks, be sure to catch the laughably horrible trailer for Beowulf.


BRAZIL: NOT YOUR USUAL DYSTOPIAN CINEMATIC SCENARIO

What can you say about Brazil? This masterpiece about love, escape from reality, and bureaucracy gone horribly wrong has been confusing audiences worldwide since 1985. Perhaps we should examine its origins with director/writer Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python fame), who spent months struggling with the head of Universal Studios, who wanted the entire film re-cut and given a more marketable ending. Thanks to Gilliam’s persistence, however, Brazil (in its original, unaltered form) will continue to mystify filmgoers for generations to come.

So what exactly is this movie, this paragon of befuddlement? Jonathan Pryce plays Sam Lowry, an office worker living in a nightmarish world of inefficient technology, miscommunication, paranoia, government conspiracies, and ducts. Lots of ducts. In a dazzling juxtaposition of fantasy and reality, his dreams seem to provide the only outlet for escape. Yes, there’s a girl. Yes, Robert DeNiro and Michael Palin also star in this film. And yes, one of Brazil’s IMDB plot keywords is “Breakfast Machine.” If you’re not intrigued yet, consider this: you don’t even need to fill out a 27B/6. What more could you ask for?



There’s always the prefects’ bathroom.

11 09 2007

My friend just showed me this and I had to share 🙂

Enjoy!
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Rack focus.

19 07 2007

I can often be overheard declaring my passionate love for rack focus shots. (Why yes, I am a film geek.) But it wasn’t until recently that I really asked myself why. For those of you reading who may not know exactly what a rack focus shot is, I’ll explain it briefly. It’s basically a shot in which the camera focus shifts from one plane of the frame to another (i.e. foreground to background).

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(images found here)

If you think about it, a rack focus actually imitates our natural perception of perspective in the world around us by blurring the thing we’re not focused on and sharpening the other. (If you’re looking through a window, you’re focusing on the hill outside rather than the curtains.

But wait…there’s more!

A rack focus is not a simple shift of focus from one thing to another. In that case, why not a cut or a pan? Rack focus is a way to keep an eye on two things at once. Sometimes the true object of focus is not what the camera is focused on, but the other part of the shot. It allows the audience to shift between several images or ideas while still considering all of them at once. While most film shots tell you where to look, rack focus merely suggests.

And that’s why I’m in love.



Portfolio online now!

8 07 2007

Just a shameless plug for my online portfolio 🙂

www.serenae.com

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“It happened once, and so it will be forever.”

1 07 2007

Just finished Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin) and I feel like I need to watch it several more times just to catch everything that was in it. I’m not sure what I expected, but it was certainly more philosophical than I thought it would be. Some great lines, and the most extraordinary thing about it was that these amazing lines were just kind-of slipped in there. Not dressed up at all, not even much attention drawn to it. Just there to be breathed in by the audience. I want to watch it over and over until I understand every line, every symbol, every color, every conversation, every expression. I’m sure about 90% of it went right over my head the first time.

Beautiful film, and I’m not going to be done with it for years, I suspect. If ever.

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Creativity

28 06 2007

“All creativity can be understood as taking in the world as a problem.”

I know we already talked this one to death, but I’m feeling the need to explore it further. We explored the nature of the statement, but not really the statement itself. We asked what was meant by “creativity”. What qualifies as creativity? What is the connotation of the word “problem” in this context? Why is it phrased as “taking in” rather than “approaching”? Is it even possible to approach these question in a way that produces answers?

I think the only way I’m going to get anywhere with this–and the only way any of us can, really–is to use whatever interpretation that is meaningful for me personally. When I create art, in whatever form it takes, am I doing it because I’m trying to address a condition that is present in my world and important to me? I think Dr. C misinterpreted (only slightly) my intent with that question. I’m not really judging myself and my art by whether or not I’m “taking in” a “problem”. Rather, I’m simply asking myself whether or not that’s what I do, as a condition of my creativity. I’m not overly concerned with conforming to this statement or feeling guilty by not doing so. Just wondering if, somehow, that statement represents a basic intent that I was never fully aware of.

I’m not sure if I can tell you whether the statement is true for me or not. I know my basic motivations for being creative, but do they somehow conform to this underlying principle? First and foremost, I create art because it makes me happy. Because it makes me think. Because I enjoy it. But what do I try to do with it? I think that every artist has the same basic motivations, though secondary motivations may vary. When you create art, you’re doing it to:

  1. Express emotion
  2. Affect others
  3. Reveal yourself

If you feel something strongly, you create. You draw, photograph, write, compose, sing, paint, think.

When you create, you want to inspire observers and show them something new, whether about the world, themselves, or others. If I create something and it makes someone look at the world in a different way–not even a significant, life-changing, “aha!”-moment way–I am satisfied. I want to show everyone something beautiful and inspire thoughts, or even just one tiny thought, that they never would have had otherwise. Even if they forget all about it the next second, it was there. And I think that’s important. Is that a form of “taking in the world as a problem”? I think so. Our OED definition of “problem” used the phrase “throw out”. I’m taking in the world as a problem, interpreting it, channeling it, and then throwing it back out for others to take in. Each resulting thought is a new interpretation of my interpretation, which is, in turn, an interpretation of the one that I’ve taken in, which probably also originated as an interpretation. Does it ever end? Can you trace back thoughts? Ideas? Problems? Inspiration?

Perhaps everything should just be under a Creative Commons license, because nothing is truly the work of one person. Everything I do, think, create, or feel is the accumulation of the thoughts, creations, and feelings of millions of people before me.

Most of all, in my art I show people who I am. And maybe it just so happens that who I am–and who we all are– is a composite of everyone else who ever thought, created, or felt in the entire history of the world. We don’t need to consider what it means to take in the world as a problem. It’s already what we are.



The Vanishing

22 06 2007

Working on a new post, but in the meantime I thought I’d post something I wrote for International Cinema about The Vanishing. Comparing original French and Dutch film to American remake. Possible spoilers. All numbers in parentheses are page numbers in the book Dead Ringers: The Remake in Theory and Practice by Jennifer Forrest and Leonard Koos.

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Read the rest of this entry »



Lessons, anyone?

10 06 2007

TWELVE ANGRY MEN… from a different perspective.

This is an assignment for my small group communication course, so I’ll be examining this film (which happens to be one of my all-time favorites) for its group problem-solving elements. Fun!

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Lesson One: The flaws of having appointed leaders

The most immediately apparent lesson involving functional (or, in this case, dysfunctional) small group decision making is the question of leadership and evolving roles of group members. Though there were many factors that contributed to the conflict of the jury members, one of the main complications was the fact that there was no distinct leader. This might have been all right if each member had respect for the others and their opinions, but in this case the leadership role was necessary for group progress. It is clear very early on in the film that the appointed leader, the foreman (Jury Member 1), is a little insecure with the role given him and lacks the assertiveness to maintain order in a group of this size and diversity. Even a simple exchange in the opening stages seems to make him uncomfortable with his status:

Jury member: “Should we sit in order?”

Foreman: “Gee, I dunno…I guess so.”

Even though the question isn’t a particularly important one, the way he handles it and later tries to enforce it reveals how little confidence he has in his ability to maintain this position and comfort with it. He’s fairly timid and consistently has difficulty getting the attention and cooperation of the other jury members. It seems as if he’d be much better–and happier– with an organizational role rather than a leadership one. He begins by offering different options for how to proceed with the discussion, but the reaction shots of the other members show that he’s not really viewed as a particularly authoritative figure. The type of initial vote that he decides upon is also not the best way of making everyone’s opinion heard. While preliminary voting is useful when determining very generally where the group stands, it’s important to remember that it is meant to be a starting point for discussion, not a decision in itself. When the other jury members are unhappy about the lone dissenting vote, he fails (yet again) to maintain proper control when everyone jumps on Henry Fonda’s character and it takes the group a significant amount of time to take the next step into discussion.

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Later he tries to enforce the decision of going around in a circle and letting everyone have a chance to speak, but he seems uncomfortable even asserting his own power: “Wait a minute. We, uh, decided to do this a certain way and I think we oughta stick to that way.”

The way this is going for him, it is practically inevitable that someone will challenge his authority, and a conflict arises over this. Annoyed, he says, ““You think it’s easy? You take over” and sits, facing away from the group and visibly upset. When another member asks him for his approval of a step being taken in the discussion, his only response is: “I don’t care what you do.”

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This continues, and in this way his role gradually shifts further away from a leadership one and more towards that of a moderator and coordinator, while Jury Member 8 (Henry Fonda) moves closer to being the leader. The bottom line is that the best way to establish a group leader is to simply let one emerge naturally. This is also true for each of the other group roles, and several very clearly developed roles become apparent as the film continues.

Lesson Two: Approaching the discussion with an open mind

The idea of being an unbiased group member is a pretty straightforward one, but something that many groups tend to forget, at least initially. The characters in the movie are fairly extreme examples of this, but it’s important to remember that even in a group that seems homogeneous, each person is always going to have a slightly different perspective. It’s completely fine to let this affect the way you approach the discussion and feel about the subject matter, but it’s quite another matter when personal prejudices interfere with the group’s progress and put a strain on relations between group members. Two jury members (3 and 10) illustrate this particularly well. Between them, they represent two different kinds of biases that can be found in a group like this. Through his speech about the unsatisfactory moral character of all residents of slums, Jury Member 10 reveals exactly how prejudiced he is. Not only does this impede discussion by creating intense conflict, but it creates feelings of antagonism between him and other members of the group, which is not at all conducive to the kind of teamwork they’re attempting to accomplish. Jury Member 3 has a personal agenda. He is upset about his own son, as he explains at the beginning, and this emotional anxiety he’s feeling leads to a desire to take out his hurt feelings on someone who is wholly unconnected with his real problem–the defendant. For him, it’s a personal vendetta, and the other group members have a hard time understanding and tolerating the behavior that results from this.

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He is the last, and most difficult to convince because his reasons for wanting to convict are based on emotion rather than logic. Although these characters are extreme, they serve as good representations of common mistakes groups can fall into. Everyone has biases, but when an objective decision is called for, remaining as unbiased as possible is vitally important. Members of a group like this should examine both their own motives and also take into consideration where each other group member is coming from. Mutual understanding and respect is something that most groups take for granted until it is thrown into question.

Lesson Three: Appealing to different learning styles

Henry Fonda’s character (Jury Member 8) is remarkably persuasive. Is this just because he’s a good leader? Is it because he’s unquestionably right? Or is it, perhaps, his tactical approach to the task of convincing his fellow group members? Unless all members of a group come from identical backgrounds and hold the exact same opinions and beliefs on everything, people are going to disagree. One of the most important steps of group problem solving is discussion, of which persuasion is an integral part. What exactly is it that Henry Fonda is doing from the point he casts the lone dissenting vote to the end of the film, when everyone is (at last) in agreement? He convinces all 11 of his group members, some of whom were vehemently opposed to his opinion, to change their votes. And the cool part is, he does it by employing a technique most of us (especially teachers) are very familiar with. He appeals to different learning styles. His three main arguments are each geared towards a different type of learner.

The first argument is the one involving the knife. By actually producing a knife identical to the one belonging to the defendant, he makes a very visual appeal to his group members. They can see the two knives side-by-side, and are forced to accept the possibility, however slight, that the boy’s father could have been killed with another knife.

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The second, the question of the train, appeals to more auditory learners, which is appropriate considering the auditory nature of that specific piece of evidence. He outlines clearly and logically the timing of the train and amount of sound it would produce. This is done in such a way that the other jury members can follow his arguments to their logical conclusion, one that they eventually accept as true.

The third piece of persuasion is the one involving the timing of the witness getting out of bed and running to the door. He appeals to kinesthetic learners by actually getting up and demonstrating the chain of events, even letting another group member time him. This exercise maintains interest through its interactive nature and is also a highly effective technique.

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Throughout his main arguments, he continually appeals to jury members for input, drawing on their personal experience and opinions. This also strengthens his arguments because they’re composed of elements contributed by other group members. Good persuasive ability is essential during discussions, and he manages to overcome extreme differences in the group through these tactics.

I think I’ve watched this film 4 or 5 times, but this is the first time I’ve noticed many things, probably because I’m approaching it from the perspective of a small group analyst rather than that of a film student. It’s interesting to be paying attention to possible group roles and organizational difficulties rather than camera angles and filmmaking techniques. But perhaps the complications of group interaction and their accurate portrayal is just as important to consider as all the other elements of film. This just reinforces the idea that film is incredibly versatile and multidimensional. I can’t wait to see what I’ll discover next.



Pirates 3!

29 05 2007

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So my carefully thought-out (ha) opinion of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End…

I’ve heard quite a lot of complaints about this film, but I think maybe the issue here is that their expectations were too high. I went in expecting it to be fun, not good, and my expectations were fulfilled. Honestly, do any of us really watch the PotC movies thinking that they’re going to be spectacularly amazing, life-changing cinematic works? Probably not. I expected adventure, good special effects, some funny lines, and the usual quirkiness found in the first two. It had all of these things. So no complaints 🙂

Also, Keira Knightley’s hat is truly ridiculous. And how can you miss that? 😉

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