Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Blurring of the Lines...

It seems like over the past decade or two, the lines between television and movies have become more blurred than ever. Back in the inception of television, most TV shows were shot with a simple three camera set-up, like I Love Lucy, in essence similar to a stage play. Back in those days, movies had longer, more languid shots, that often engaged the viewer more so into the story, rather than just presenting the information for the viewer to be able to comprehend what is going on (after all, television was on a small screen, and movies were on a large screen). Now, the lines have become blurred, with television becoming more like movies, and a devolution of movies to become more like television.

We're in a day and age where televisions just seem to get bigger and bigger each and every year, with greater clarity of the image than some movie theaters can even present. As well, with the ever rising movie ticket prices, we are now seeing more and more moviegoers waiting until movies come out on DVD, and watching big budget Hollywood movies on their big screen TVs at home, rather than in the movie theaters. Adversely, as televisions got bigger, and the images clearer, the style of TV shows got more daring and started trying to be more like movies.

TV Shows started actively engaging the viewer more so into the story, using tropes like the Over the Shoulder shot, even Point of View shots, to create an active viewer out of their audience. Even still to this day, there are no-nos in TV that just aren't done and have been staples of many movies since the early days of cinema, such as long shots and less cuts, with television favoring multiple cuts in a scene to keep audience attention, and TV shows also never really use fade-to-blacks for creative purposes because that usually signals to a TV viewer a cue for commercial. And on the flip side, movies have started transitioning over the past decade or two to become more and more like TV shows and less like movies.

The filmmakers of this generation are among the first filmmakers to be raised on high quality television as much as they have been raised on high quality movies, and sometimes even more so. A TV show, you can watch anytime it comes on the air, sometimes if a show is in syndication, every single day, where as a movie is an event that you have to pay money for, either to see it in a theater, rent it, or buy it on a DVD. What I feel, is so many filmmakers of this current generation have become so indoctrinated with television culture at an early age, that they are devolving movies to, in essence, longer TV programs. You are seeing less and less movies that try to create the creative visuals of the Old Hollywood movies with long shots, beautiful dolly moves or crane moves that sweep the viewer away, and favoring the TV idea of taking as many shots of an individual scene as possible (known as coverage), and just cutting them together with as many cuts as possible in a scene to maintain a viewer's interest.

In a way, this is not a bad thing. As it is, so many people watch movies at home nowadays that this more TV style of making movies can often make these movies easier to watch on a smaller screen, but they lose their cinematic quality that make movies an "event" and not just an easily accessible entertainment like TV. Now, I am not knocking television, I am one that can admit that a well made TV show can do way more in terms of storytelling than a two hour movie can, but they are in essence two sides of the same coin. While they are both visual mediums that represent video or film work, they are meant to be two separate things. It's like comparing an individual graphic novel (a novel in comic book form) to a comic book series with a new issue each month. One has an ongoing story, and the other has a finite story, these are two separate entities, and while both are part of the comic book industry, they cannot be compared in my opinion, as is the same with movies and TV.

A monthly comic, like a weekly TV show, is meant to be an easy, consumable form of entertainment that will entertain you, but they can be read (or viewed) passively. The opposite goes for a graphic novel, or movies. These two things are meant to be read (or viewed) in their entirety and seen as such, and not part of a larger menagerie of things, but as a stand alone story. When it gets right down to it, movies and TV shows, while sharing similarities, are two completely different animals and should be seen as such, rather than running together. If movies are essentially two hour long TV episodes, then what makes them special and worth shelling out ten bucks for to see them in theaters? In all honesty, there is nothing special, which is why I want movies to become cinematic once more.

There is a reason ticket sales are lower than ever, and I think it's not because of the price, there's just no incentive to see movies on the big screen anymore, because movies are no different than a TV show nowadays. 3D isn't a solution, it's simply getting movies back to their roots and making them cinematic once more.

First off, this whole idea of coverage and multiple cuts belongs in television, not in movies. While there are times when multiple cuts in a scene can help create suspense or another emotion in a movie, cutting to keep an audience's interest is a TV trait, but it is something you see in movie's over and over again. Personally, I have fallen victim to both of these things, such as getting coverage on a scene, shooting the two reverse shots and the master shot (a shot that shows all of the action). While this is all fine and dandy, watch most movies from the masters: Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, etc., and see how little they use the standard coverage; while they use it from time to time, they let the emotions of the scene dictate the cuts, or the changing of shots, rather than the cuts simply existing to move the scene along. That is cinematic, there is a difference, and it is a noticeable difference as an audience member.

As I said earlier, TV is meant to be an easily consumable form of entertainment, where as movies are meant to be stories that only movies can deliver (in other words, something that moves and involves the viewer in the story). While channels like AMC, HBO, and Showtime, are starting to challenge many of these notions, it still does not change the fact that these two mediums are just that, two separate mediums, separate for a reason, and as a filmmaker I myself would like to see movies separate themselves from TV once more and become "cinematic events" rather than passive entertainment. In other words, filmmakers need to be proactive, dictate the emotion through shots, and not simply default to the simple camera set ups just because it's easier than dissecting a scene and figuring out what it is really about and which character is most affected by what is going on. I just wanna cry again! Like I did when I first saw E.T. So that is my rant for today, and my proposition for a new kind of "active" entertainment.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Movie Review: "Captain America: The First Avenger"

As just a kid from Brooklyn, Captain America makes a name for himself in this extremely entertaining and engaging superhero flick. Like Superman, Captain America is Marvel Comics answer to the Red, White, and Blue, and while this movie could have been a simple set up to Marvel's The Avengers, it manages to be its own movie. Part of this is because it takes place first in the timeline of all of the Marvel Studios' movies, so there are fewer references to the other heroes who come later down the line, but this movie also focuses on showing the transformation of Steve Rogers, from scrawny kid getting beat up in the alleys of Brooklyn, to the symbol of hope for America in World War II.

The movie is almost entirely set in the 1940s, featuring the Greatest Generation in all of its glory, with this movie somewhat playing as a love letter to that simpler time where evil was evil, and good was good. When a small fry guy named Steve Rogers gets rejected five different times to be enlisted in the Army, he gets a lucky shot from a military scientist, Dr. Erskine, who tests an experimental super soldier formula on Rogers, and voila! We now have a superhero. But it takes more than muscles to be a true hero, and even though Rogers managed to impress Erskine with his compassion, fortitude, and morals, he must do the same for the big guns at the military if he wants to see actual action aside from being a part of song and dance numbers and movie serials to sell war bonds.

Director Joe Johnston plays around with the 1940s setting, with the whole movie filmed in sepia tones evoking the look of the pop culture from the period. The story plays like one long Saturday matinee serial, filled with tons of pulp and improbable science fiction, but those were stalwarts of the adventure stories of the time. What Johnston does best though, is mastering Rogers' journey from zero to hero. As Captain America, Steve Rogers uses his compassion, fortitude, and morals, to do near impossible missions, as is seen in a scene where Rogers saves over 400 prisoners of war all on his own, proving to the Army that he should be on the front line of the war effort and not helping with morale back home. Throughout the whole movie, Rogers bonds with an American agent named Peggy Carter, winning her heart through the same inner heroism that made him Captain America. Carter is a pin up girl in looks, but a girl who can show up the boys in attitude. Add on to this all, a great maniacal villain in Red Skull (played by Hugo Weaving in some of the greatest make up work in a while), and you have a solid adventure yarn.

While the final scene left me scratching my head a bit, feeling tacked on, and the scene before giving the real closure to the story, I think Marvel was trying to pump up The Avengers even more, so I get it, though it still deterred from an otherwise emotional ending. Even with this small bump in the road, it's really the only blemish in this extremely well made and polished superhero flick that doesn't reinvent the wheel, but neither breaks it. Solid, entertaining, and heroic, everything a good superhero movie should be, which is exactly what this movie is.

I give Captain America: The First Avenger an A!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Movie Review: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows-Part II"

When the final frame of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows-Part 2 flickered across the screen, it finally hit me, there are no more adventures with Harry, Ron, and Hermione, this finale is it, and what a finale it is. This is a movie! In the best sense of the word. There just seems to be no time anymore to complain about what was cut, what was changed, and what wasn't included from the book. This adaptation succeeds in streamlining the story and turning it into a story that meditates life-and-death, awash with operatic tones and emotional heart tugging.

What more does anyone need to know, this is the final battle between Harry Potter and the evil Lord Voldemort, as the armies of Good and Evil collide! Their battlefield...? Hogwarts, of all places. Every actor and character gets their due, but with the movie being called Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe has the most emotional scenes to pull off, as it has been in nearly all of these movies. Radcliffe carries this movie's emotional nexus on his back and does so brilliantly. Though let's not forget Alan Rickman, as the good guy pretending to be a bad guy, Severus Snape. People have always loved Snape's drawling voice and utter lack of emotion, and seeing the flashbacks of Snape actually showing emotion and how he came to be who he is, was eye opening, and allowed Alan Rickman to deliver one of his finest performances to date. But this is not a movie about the actors, but about the story.

We literally see the grand castle of Hogwarts ripped to shreds, as spells, giants, and animated statues, tear through the rubble. With so much propulsive action, the movie is moving forward from the first frame, never looking back, moving with the assumption that if you didn't see the last few, then why are you here. We are always in the present, never having to be told what is going to happen or be explained what has happened, we just get to see what is happening in the present of these characters and allow the natural surprises that come with the territory, making the heavy emotional beats in the latter half of the movie really hit the viewer hard, and be presented with so much drama and importance. Though action is not what makes this movie important, it is the deeper ponderings of life-and-death.

Death comes for us all, and that being the true master of death is understanding how to greet it when it comes. Harry has to deal with death, as he literally marches to his own funeral with the spectral forms of his parents beside him, or when he reunites with Dumbledore in the after life. These moments are touching, thought provoking, and filled with so much raw emotion through the actor's performances that you will go through an entire box of Kleenex before you're through. The lessons of death change how we live if only we can accept it when it comes, like Harry does.

Simply put, when a movie is this beautiful and heavy with emotion, no amount of evil can keep our hero down. Looking back over it all, it's rare for me to feel so emotional over an ending, but these were my friends too. And they were the friends for countless millions of people around the world. Thanks Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

I give Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part II an A+!

Top 7: "Harry Potter" Movies

While this list is not complete, I like to do this before every Harry Potter movie to see where all of the movies sit from my least favorite to my favorite. As with each new installment, I always hope that it becomes my favorite, but as you will see as we get further in this list, and I rave about almost each installment, there is a ton of heavy lifting for Deathly Hallows - Part 2 to do in order to usurp my numero uno. All of these movies are of A- to A+ quality. Only one of these movies garnered an A- rating from me, and if you guessed that it is my number seven entry, you're right, as all of the other six have A+ ratings. So as the end is near, I still try to hold on to these movies as much as possible with this list from the weakest to the best of the Harry Potter movies. (P.S. For fun you should try comparing this list to those of my seven favorite books in the series. It's kind of interesting.) On with the list:

7. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Director David Yates' first foray into the wizarding world lacks the sense of adventure and just overall fun that the four installments before it had. While the story is a great, character centric piece focusing on Harry, it focuses only on Harry, and these stories are far bigger on the entire wizarding scale than just the boy wizard, and only certain moments hint at the larger picture going on in the world. Plus, when the longest book turns into the shortest movie, you know much was lost in translation. Regardless, it's a great character study that is serviceable to the series.

6. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1 (2010)

Without Part 2, this installment kind of feels lost in limbo on this list. The questions unanswered by Part 1, if answered in Part 2, may jump this individual entry higher up on the list. Regardless, this particular movie was highly entertaining, and as a fan, to see the lengths that the filmmakers took to remain faithful to the book, was extremely impressive. While this movie focuses on some of the more slowly moving pieces from the seventh and final book, this movie changes the characters into full fledged adults over its course and leaves all of the adventure and excitement for the final movie. As it is, this is just a pure set up for the real finale, but set ups don't get much more awesome than this.

5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

This is the crowd-pleaser of the series. No other installment has as much action or adventure as this individual installment, and it also may just be the funniest movie of the lot, with Rowling's quirky sense of humor in full swing during the Yule Ball sequence near the middle of the movie. While the movie cuts alot from the book, the thriller sensibilities that director Mike Newell injects in this epic story cut from the same cloth as The Lord of the Rings, is superb, allowing the emotional beats to be truly spine tingling.

4. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

In terms of faithfulness to the book, no other entry is as faithful. Very little, if anything was cut or changed, making this an almost literal adaptation of the book, which also hurts this simple mystery adventure when you realize that it is the longest of the Potter movies and has the least to say in the grand scheme of things. Even so, as a fan I love seeing how literal this installment is, and I adore Kenneth Branagh's take as my favorite Hogwarts teacher, pompous Gilderoy Lockhart.

3. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Director David Yates fixes the problems from the fifth installment, and gives nice character and relational developments to each and every member of the cast. As well, the action is exhilarating, and the filmmakers actually went on a limb, and this was the first time in all of the movies that it felt as if the filmmakers weren't simply changing, cutting, or adding anything just because, but they did it all because they were trying to make their own vision. This isn't a literal adaptation of the book, it is David Yates' cinematic interpretation, and when seen as such, one can be moved and thrilled by its awesomeness.

2. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Cinema maverick, Alfonso Cuaron, left an indelible mark while directing this installment of the franchise. Cuaron got to the core of these three main characters more so than any other director in the series. Never did you understand, Harry, Ron, or Hermione, more so than in any other movie. Cuaron explored these characters and added little beats in the actor's performances, such as simple reactions to what the other was doing, that no other director went to such detail to enliven Rowling's story. While the movie cuts alot, Cuaron's assuredness in direction and in his vision is seen in every frame of this movie. It may not be the most literal adaptation, but as a movie, it may just be the best made film of the series.

1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)

So how could I call Azkaban the best made film, but still call director Chris Columbus's first entry to the series my personal favorite, simply because it is. From a filmmaking standpoint, the direction is more artsy in Azkaban, but the entertainment value, the emotion, the popcorn thrills, are so great in this installment it makes it different than any of the other six movies. This is the only Harry Potter movie that can be watched on its own without watching any other, like the original Star Wars, this movie is simple, straightforward, and not the most artistic of the bunch, but it is the most fun, the most rewatchable, and the one that I find myself saying if I could only ever see one Harry Potter movie again for the rest of my life, this would be it. On a sentimental level, this is the Harry Potter movie that moves me the most, and it is one of those few movies in general that I can watch and not actually feel like a critic and a filmmaker, and just feel like a fan of movies. It is quintessential Harry Potter, and I love it so deeply I can't rave about it enough.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Top 7: "Harry Potter" Books

With the release of the final Harry Potter movie coming up, I've decided to run through the books upon which the movies are based, and rank them from my least favorite, to the book that I think is J.K. Rowling's number 1 literary masterpiece. As it is, all seven of these books are literary masterpieces, and in order to truly appreciate any individual tome, one must read all of the books, however as a fan who has opinions like anyone else, I have my personal favorite moments from the series, therefore this list of the Top 7 Harry Potter books! What is my favorite? Read on to find out:

7. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

This was the book that started it all. While it is still one of the more inventive books ever written, the concept is greater than the prose. J.K. Rowling's writing still had a ways to go in terms of creating visuals in the minds of her readers with descriptive text. Regardless, the characters jump off the page, and the concept kicked off the series. Fantastic, but there are more enjoyable reads to come later in the series.

6. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

This was when the books started to get longer and more adult, as teenage angst started to build up through the series. There are more allusions to death in this installment than perhaps any other entry in the series, and in terms of character development and richness of symbolism, this is one of the finer entries in Rowling's catalogue, but the story sacrificed the forwardness of plot and sense of adventure from the first two books for a more exploratory look at Harry and his past. Great, but nothing that really makes this one a good stand alone read.

5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

The attention to detail is dizzying, as this may be Rowling's most fleshed out entry in the Potter series. If any fault comes with this tome, is simply that it is the longest of all of the books. There is a ton of filler, that is colorful like all of Rowling's writing, but does not have any forward momentum. When it takes nearly 300 pages to get into the new school year at Hogwarts, you know it's gonna be a long ride. Superb, but extremely lengthy.

4. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Rowling's prose is livelier than in the first installment, she paints better pictures in the mind's eye of the readers through great descriptions, and also crafts an engaging and brisk mystery adventure tale that is as captivating and lively as they come. This is a great, fairly fast read, but looking back at the series as a whole, this is the installment that adds the least to the overall series in terms of character.

3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

The finale to any great series always winds up playing like a greatest hits album, reinvigorating why you, the reader, loved these stories to begin with. While the middle portions of the story drag, when all of the questions are answered in such a satisfyingly, emotional way, there is no way to not find this finale a must read.

2. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

The last hurrah at Hogwarts, since the trio do not return to the school in book seven, so this book kind of plays like "Fast Times at Hogwarts High" or something of the sort. The most comedic entry in the series, most romantic, and dare I say it, the most mysterious as the book also delves into Voldemort's past more so than any other installment. With a gut wrenching climax where Dumbedore falls to his death, this 650 page tome flies through your fingertips with no downtime in terms of entertainment.

1. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

The best of the series by far. This was Rowling at the top of her game. The comedy is crisp and precise. The moments of teenage angst are true. The mystery is clammy hand inducing suspense. And the sense of action and adventure, and just overall stakes, were never higher. This was also the first book over 700 pages long, the first novel that Rowling actually showed the full, worldwide expanse of the wizarding world beyond England, and the first Harry Potter book to end on a downer. Goblet of Fire is Rowling's greatest of her seven masterpieces and the most seminal moment of all seven books when Voldemort finally returns.

So that's it! Tune in Thursday as I rank the seven Harry Potter movies from my least favorite, to my favorite.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Remembering Harry...

It's sad to think that it is almost the end of one of the most beloved of all film franchises, Harry Potter. The books ended four years ago, but us fans still had the movies when the books ended, knowing that our adventures with Harry were not over. Now, with the final film hitting theaters this Friday, this is it, a farewell to a time of innocence and naivety for a whole generation.

If you were a child growing up in the '90s or the early 2000s, chances are the books that got you into reading were Harry Potter. After countless children's fantasy books trying to recapture the magic that J.K. Rowling managed to capture, there was only one boy wizard and no one can, or ever will again, be able to recreate that magic that Rowling did when she put pen to paper. Then, there were the movies, which just heightened the fans' love of these stories even more, giving faces of real people that fans could actually see and relate to, to this fantastical phenomenon.

For a whole generation of people, I would say maybe 15-25 years in age, the Harry Potter stories are the stories of our time. Like Star Wars, these are the stories that my generation will always remember, love, and recall. We are biased, we will never be able to look at these books and movies with a cynical idea, because these were our childhood. As it is, this does feel as if it is the end of an era for us of this Harry Potter generation.

It's the packing up of your bags and saying farewell to Hogwarts, saying farewell to childhood and embracing adulthood head on. From the age of 9 to 21, the Harry Potter stories have lived with me. There are many memories that are attached, or associated to these books or movies, such as seeing the first movie with my brother; and these memories often coincide in odd ways with these books and movies even when they aren't the center piece of the memory, such as when my brother busted open his chin playing hockey and I always remember it was the day the 5th book came out.

It's hard growing up as a child in this generation and not having felt the impact that these books and movies had on me, and I'm sure that there are many others out there who feel the same way. While everything must come to an end, this isn't just an ending to a fantastic series of books and movies, this is the ending to my childhood, where the memories are all that there are left.

Coming to the end here, it almost feels as if I'm writing a eulogy, but in fact I am not, for as it is, great literature and great cinema never die. Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter himself) said it best at the London premiere of this final film, and I'm gonna paraphrase, but the stories that we love will always live on in our consciousness, and whenever we wish to relive them we can just open the spine of a book or rewatch the movies. Poignant words from Daniel, and so perhaps this isn't farewell to Harry, just the start of a greater adventure... Adulthood.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Movie Review: "Transformers: Dark of the Moon"

After the complete let down that was Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, director Michael Bay is back with Transformers: Dark of the Moon, sans-Megan Fox, and while not as good as the original Transformers, Dark of the Moon manages to pack enough thrills and emotion into its two and a half hour frame to be more than Summer movie drivel.

In 1961, an Autobot spacecraft crashlanded on the far side of the moon, sparking the space race between the Soviets and the United States. While Dark of the Moon rewrites some history, the whole shebang gains some credibility when the real Buzz Aldrin makes a cameo to talk to the Autobots about the real reason him and Neil Armstrong went to the moon in 1969. As it is, this spaceship held ancient Cybertronian technology that, if in the hands of the villainous Decepticons, could mean the end of all humanity.

Meanwhile, we catch back up with Shia LaBeouf's lovable everyman Sam Witwicky. In the first Transformers, Sam went from being a boy to a man through his getting a car that just happened to be a transformer. Film two did nothing to advance the character further, but this film finds Sam fresh out of college, no job, no government clearance, even though he has saved the world two times in the past and has a medal from the President to prove it. Sam wants to do something that matters, like he did when he was working alongside the Autobots saving the planet. At least he has his new girlfriend, Carly, played by Victoria's Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whitely, who is ogled by Michael Bay's camera every chance it gets, however she surprisingly has some real acting chops and delivers a far more likable performance than Megan Fox ever did. The romance between Sam and Carly is actually portrayed believably through Huntington-Whiteley's hot attitude and LaBeouf's great sense of goofy comedic timing, making it logical that a girl like that would fall for a guy like Sam Witwicky. Together she helps him realize that through their relationship, that this is what matters, and not being a hero.

As it is, the action is all top notch, even through the final hour of nonstop explosions and metal crunching leaving little time to know what happens to these characters post-apocalypse rescue. Bringing us around to the length of this movie. Two and a half hours is a long time to watch transformers duke it out. I love that the humans got more to do this time around, but the movie really wears itself long, and could have been more impactful had some of the usual Michael Bay gags been toned down a bit more. Much more time was spent on gags, when that time could have been used to help flesh out the underdeveloped relationship between Optimus Prime and new badguy, Sentinel Prime. Even still, majority of the gags are funny, however Ken Jeong's whole character was flat out annoying, luckily he was only in the movie for three minutes, enough time to dispense a plot point and get killed by a Decepticon. As for other new cast members, John Malkovich as Sam's new boss ultimately goes nowhere other than a few unnecessary gags, however Frances McDormand is highly enjoyable as the government agent in charge of the Autobots, and Patrick Dempsey plays an intriguing human chameleon working for the Decepticons.

With everything said and done, Transformers: Dark of the Moon could have done with a little trimming of some of the gags that don't necessarily add to the primary theme of Sam's journey through this story, however the action is superb, and many of the gags are quite funny. As well, the movie emotionally involves you in the story between Carly and Sam, and the connection between Sam and his transforming car, Bumblebee, is just as poignant as it was when Sam tried to save Bumblebee from the government in film one; when the transformers fly off in their rocket ship and Sam and Bumblebee must part ways, it's gut wrenching! Even at two and a half hours long, viewers will enthrall to this adventure that blends metal with heart and makes for an enjoyable trip to the movies.

I give Transformers: Dark of the Moon a B!