Saturday, September 19, 2009


The first few entries on the W.I.L.I. list will be THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. I don't know if I am notorious for this thought, but this trilogy - taken as on cinematic narrative - is my favorite of all time. In the future, this series of movies will be viewed in a similar context as the original STAR WARS trilogy.

While FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (FOTR) was in theaters, it probably received about $80 dollars of my own money. I even made a special trip to a midnight showing further in its run only to see a preview of second installment: THE TWO TOWERS. I've been maybe about 8 or 9 times in theaters and the over-under on how many times I've seen it since?. At least triple that amount. To make a bet that I like these movies, is a safe one.

A running theme throughout this post is the trilogy's ability to convey the immense sense of history within this world (created by author J.R.R. Tolkien). THE LORD OF THE RINGS is by no means the beginning of this story. There are many histories - elf, dwarf, hobbit, and others - that stretch back many years. For the purposes the movies, a history of the ring itself is necessary. Thus, director Peter Jackson and fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philipa Boyens use a prologue to orient those not familiar with the novels.

And it begins creepily with a blank screen and an ominous voice-over delivered by Cate Blanchett (or is it Galadriel? a fair question I think!). Both elvish and english languages are used immersing even the uninitiated. Even though this is just a prologue and we know that a bigger more urgent story follows, this 8-minute opening builds tremendous tension and anxiety. This is quite possibly my favorite sequence in the entire trilogy.

Related to the prologue, is how the filmmakers convey a sense of the history of this world. Production designer Grant Major and costumers Ngila Dickson and Richard Taylor assist in channeling the history. Take the hobbits homeland, The Shire. The production team began building about a year before shooting so as to allow the environment to exert its influence and make the environment look more natural. Compare this with the synthetic, yet geometrically pleasing city ruins of the dwarves. Not only do we understand something about the history of each race, but about their personalities as well.

Some of the details are hardly noticeable, but when you do recognize them it only helps the trilogies believability. Notice the White Tree of Gondor on Boromir's (Sean Bean) gauntlets. Notice the intricate threading patterns on Arwen's (and many of the elves) cloak. While these design choices on their own may not mean anything, the attention to even minute details lets audiences know that these filmmakers mean business. In the extended version of FOTR, there are explicit mentions of history through dialogue, but its interesting to find these trinkets of the past in the architecture and costumes.

While music plays a big role in the entire series, the music - composed by Howard Shore - is at its best in this first film. Three themes are established in this film: The Ring Theme, The Fellowship Theme, and The Isengard Theme. In college my friends and I developed this tradition that whenever you hear the Isengard theme, you must pound your fist in the air in sync with the melody. A little geeky, but it speaks to the power of the theme. I remember thinking that the music on the whole was especially energetic. There is so much choral in this scoring and as the film progresses, it seems to only get bigger (adrenaline inertia?).

However, in the final battle against Saruman's Uruk-Hai the music settles nicely, but not without loss. For me, Boromir's death is one of the most emotional moments in the entire trilogy and the music only helps this moment. Perhaps its because what directly preceded this battle: a confrontation with Frodo about a selfish strategy regarding The Ring. As far as the trilogy has played out so far, Boromir's represents the first casualty that has succumbed to the power of The Ring, trying violently to wrestle The Ring from Frodo. Boromir's role for the rest of the fellowship is to show just how dangerous this little thing can be. He showed his vulnerability and not too long after, he shows his courage in protecting the halflings. The arrows that pierce his body appear to have a diameter of quarter. We feel for him because we know that perhaps we would fall to the power of The Ring too.

More importantly in the music department is the use of new age artist Enya as the feature musical act. Not only is her presence invaluable, but Enya - perhaps best known for "Orinoco Flow - knows and appreciates the Tolkien creation herself. On her album SHEPHERD MOONS, there is a track titled "Lothlorien," a forested haven for the elves and Galadriel. In watching the touching moment between Arwen and Aragorn, there is a sense that Enya's voice so belongs in Middle Earth which might make you wonder if Enya comes this world organically.

So, just some thoughts on why I like FOTR. There'll be an update on THE TWO TOWERS coming.

Why I Like It or W.I.L.I.

Pronounced "Wee-Lee," this is a new section coming to your favorite drive-thru station. Not so long ago in my undergraduate career, one from up north told that there are no guilty pleasures. Be proud of what you like and don't apologize. You've heard this before. Additionally, I have heard from mentors that as a critic, one needs to know their likes and dislikes. If you've read this blog recently, you know that PULP FICTION is on the severe dislike side.

However, there is a list of movies that sit on the other side of the line. In short, it's the W.I.L.I. list. Look for future entries under this umbrella.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER: A Second Look

My friends in LA (specifically those that are not my movie friends) don't understand why I go see movies more than once.

"Isn't your money better spent elsewhere?" - Why would my money be better spent elsewhere?
"Because you've already seen it." - True. But you buy movies don't you?
"Sure." -But you've already seen it, right.

Now, my friends (and family) have slacked off on this complaint and/or criticism since attending and returning from NYU. Is it that my five repeat visits to THE DARK KNIGHT, two visits to ADVENTURELAND, and my now two visits to (500) DAYS OF SUMMER are now legit given my extensive study of visual media? I guess.

"This is what he does. Okay, now there must be a valid reason to see something twice. He knows what he is doing. He has a Master's degree."

After seeing (500) DOS once, I knew that I needed to see it again in order to give it a fuller analysis. It is especially this kind of movie that paralyzes my analytical brain and therefore jumpstarting my analytical heart. I loved (500) DOS! Just loved it! It's about relatively young people succeeding and struggling with relationships (I probably should not use the word love when talking about this movie). It's about the relationship honeymoon when one might have an extra spring in their step. I am predisposed, betrothed to this movie. My liking of this movie is completely out of my hands - it's in my genes.

I realized about halfway through my second viewing of (500) DOS that I can use this movie to counterbalance my argument about PULP FICTION's lack - consistent coherent narrative. Many counterarguments come my way about my severe dislike for PULP FICTION which is generally regarded as Quentin Tarantino's pinnacle. Yes, I do enjoy the vignettes and specific portions of dialogue. The flaw is in the narrative hijinx. There appears to be no reason why Tarantino is playing with the narrative structure, other than to just play with it. It's as if he shot the whole thing in order and then told his editing crew to just chop it up and that'll be that.

My friend V (no, not you Veronica Mars, unfortunately) and I had a long discussion about PULP FICTION. V helped me come to the conclusion that I strongly prefer my movies to have their style motivated by the narrative and NOT the other way 'round. PULP FICTION allows the style to motivate the movie and its narrative. Some people may see this as a good thing, but I do not. The filmmakers need to make promises to me, about where they are taking me.

Don't misunderstand this. I am not saying that the filmmakers need to telegraph things. I just need to prepared for the events unfolding in front of me. Both PULP FICTION and (500) DOS are narratives that feature disjointed narratives. The difference is in narrative promise. PULP FICTION does not provide me with an expectation - only scenes loosely tied together. But with (500) DOS, I know where I am going and to some extent I know where I am coming from.

(500) DOS begins in the middle with the break-up. I know what the story is - it's the telling of the rise and fall of the relationship. I know that the relationship has to end. And yet, the narrative jumps around. (500) DOS's narrative disjunction has motivation. I understand why director Marc Webb pushes me forward and why he pulls me back to particular instances. It is either to explain what has come before, or to facilitate a smooth transition to the next scene.

But I needed a second screening to make the connection from (500) DOS to PULP FICTION. Is it a difficult pairing to make? No, and that only speaks to why multiple viewing are critical for me, and perhaps others. I am reminded of a line from the terrific Gus Van Sant film, FINDING FORRESTER: "You write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head."

It's the same thing with analyzing a movie. The first watch is an emotional experience (the aforementioned analytical heart). Did I enjoy the film? On a very rudimentary level. Subsequent viewings are an inquisitive experience (the aforementioned analytical brain). As always with me, the question remains: to which organ do I listen?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

MAD MEN Titles: If some is good, more is better!

In a recent post, I discussed the female significance in MAD MEN using the pilot episode ("Smoke Gets In Your Eyes"). I'd like to take another look at the opening title sequence, examining it for additional grist for my MAD MEN mill. It is entrancing, perhaps too much so in that I find myself staring at the falling 2D man instead what he falls from, around, and into.

In the beginning, he has arrived at his office, set down his briefcase, and then his office crumbles around him, until he finally begins his descent. Descent into what? Into advertising of course (wait, isn't that what his office is anyway? talk about spinning your wheels.). But what are these advertisements?

They look like advertisements, but mostly they look like smiling women and butterscotch pudding legs. Certainly, there is the occasional image of a lowball glass containing the contents of (hopefully) an Old Fashioned (a cocktail which this blog vehemently endorses). The unknown man falls around and ultimately straight into advertisements until the final image of the man sitting comfortably in a chair or on a couch.

Let's begin in the office a place that for the moment appears stable - and why not? The office is man's escape from his wife where he fantasizes about his secretary and drinks with the boys. But as history showed us, this is not to last for women are hiding in the weeds, or at least lurking around their secretary desks. Let's not take for granted the timing of the credit sequence. Jon Hamm's name appears when everything is stable. Elizabeth Moss is next and if you pay close attention, you might notice that the office begins to crumble with the display of her name. This is not so surprising given her character's progression through the series at this point.

Then the man begins to fall into a seemingly bottomless pit of female advertisements with a few speckles of male-centric delights. I can only see this section as a comment on advertising in general and who and where it is best aimed (perhaps only in the MAD MEN period, but perhaps not). As MAD MEN tells it, men run the advertising world. As the MAD MEN title tells it, men run the advertising world, selling things to women. Graphically speaking, the man falls all the way down one woman's leg, into the lowball glass, and it appears that the a woman crossing her legs might kick the falling man.

A quick moment just before the shot of the man on the couch reveals what he has fallen into: female advertising. Seemingly, these are the people who read the advertising and for whom advertising is targeted and most successful. Does advertising play on women's emotional tendencies or is it something else? Do these mad men think that women only exist within these advertisement photos and thus subject to their linguistic and artistic manipulation?

Let's look at a simple narrative example. "Babylon" (from the first season) chronicles an account dealing with lipstick marketing. The men on the account have trouble and they enlist the female sector of the office to help. And this is their (the men) first mistake. Don't allow women a sliver of hope into thinking they can intrude on men's arena and this is exactly what they did. Sooner or later a woman was going to come along and figure out that she CAN do this job. What a thought, a woman knows how to better market a product to women? These are the consequences. The women were already lurking at their secretarial desks and now they have been let in to their world. Or is it even their world...anymore.

But at the end of this title sequence narrative - and it is indeed a narrative - where does this man end up? I think we have to assume it is the same man. We see him sitting comfortably with cigarette. So, in the end, if he has landed comfortably, what are the consequences, if any?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Defining Great Movie of the Decade?

None of this post is original. This all comes from a podcast from ESPN's The Sports Guy (Bill Simmons). He generally writes about sports, but incorporates select pop culture into his articles.

During a podcast with Chris Connelly (yea, the MTV guy!), Simmons brought up that this year - 2009 - is the last year of the decade. Think about it! Where is the 2000s retrospective! Is this the lost decade?

Anyway, Simmons asked Connelly what he thought might be the best movie of the decade with 3 helpers - excellence, watchability, and originality. I think there might be a fourth signifier: pop influence. At first, Simmons went with ALMOST FAMOUS, then began to think about THE DARK KNIGHT as a possibility. Basically, they couldn't come to an answer.

But Connelly brought up an interesting point. What if the conversations' defining media is actually television? An interesting point. THE SOPRANOS (I don't like it), THE WEST WING (I love it!), THE WIRE (never seen it), and maybe MAD MEN (I love it, but are we too close?).

Anybody have any thoughts of either? Movies or television, or if you care to weigh in on the TV versus MOVIE debate.

Review: (500) Days of Summer



Wednesday, July 29, 2009

MAD MEN: What You Already Know

What I'm about to tell you, you already know...if you watch MAD MEN. Women are the crux of this show. How do I know this? I just re-watched the very first episode.

In the first ten minutes here's what we know: Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is an ad man and must come up with a pitch for Lucky Strike. After his night at the bar, he knocks on the door of his friend Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED). They chat about his day and her day and he spends the night. Relationship? Check!

Introduced next is rookie secretary Peggy Olson (Fred Armisen's wife, Elisabeth Moss). Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) shows her how to play the office game, with considerable attention paid to Peggy's attire and how she can better herself so as to be more attractive for the office's men.

This pilot episode chronicles two accounts for the ad firm Sterling Cooper. One, the aforementioned Lucky Strike, and another for a department store headed by Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff). The Lucky Strike account is settled, not without some drama, but ultimately settled. The Menken department store account is most certainly not, with confusion over how to market the brand in an already-saturated department store market. The two have obvious chemistry and its not out of the question to see a relationship brew over a cocktail meeting. While the Lucky Strike account settled relatively easily (with men only), the Menken account is anything but.

Peggy is the object of attention in the new office, purely by being "the new girl." Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) apparently likes what he sees and is evidently interested in Peggy sexually, as per his 1950s acceptable language toward her in the office. Oh by the way, Pete has his own wedding to attend this weekend. He knocks on her door (ALL THE WAY IN BROOKLYN!) and invites himself in. And she lets him. (Is this normal for a woman in the 50s?)

Finally, at the end of the episode we see Don arriving at him home in the suburbs. He kisses his wife Betty (January Jones) and says goodnight to his kids. Up until this point there has been no mention of him having a family, especially with his already-established relationship with Midge, and his on-deck relationship with Rachel. The final shot shows Betty standing at the doorway to the kids room watching her husband say goodnight. And in typical MAD MEN fashion, the episode ends with temporally appropriate music.

This final shot could have ended without Betty appearing at the door, but it does. And let's not take this for granted. Men at work is taken for granted. But as the series progresses, it becomes (sometimes painfully) clear that women rule the roost. The men just happen to be living in it.