Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Film School of Life - Chapter 1

A Velociraptor from Jurassic Park
About two weeks ago I started writing a book on the blog titled The Film School of Life.  It's essentially a collection of essays and memories associated with movies.  My intentions aren't really to make a book that is groundbreaking or even one that super publishable, it's simply my telling the story of how movies have impacted me.  As I said before, I don't know why I feel that it is important for me to share of all this, but I just feel deep down that it is.  So if you're just now tuning in, you can check out the, "Prologue," to the book before diving straight into, "Chapter 1," below.  Now, onto, "Chapter 1," of The Film School of Life.


Chapter 1
“Earliest Movie Memories”

Raphael was squatting behind a pile of rubbish in a junkyard, alongside him was his human friend and pizza delivery boy, Keno.

I think before I go any further, I must clarify that I am talking about Raphael the teenage mutant ninja turtle, not the renaissance painter.

Both Raphael and Keno were looking upon a shoddy shack made out of various scraps of metal. They had found the new hideout for the villainous Foot clan, a clan of thieving ninjas they had thought to be completely disbanded. Then, out of the depths of the shack, they laid eyes upon a man Raphael knew to be dead.

There covered from head-to-toe in spiky armor and chain mail, with his trademark mask that was a cross between the grill of a car and a mechanical shark fin, stood Shredder, the ninja turtle's archnemesis.

The year was 1991, the place was the Malco movie theater in Tupelo, Mississippi. I was not even a year old yet, but this image of Raphael, Keno, and Shredder, was my very first movie memory. As a matter of fact, this might be the first memory I can actually recall in vivid detail.

As we so often did back in those days, we had gone to spend some time at my Grandmother's house in Tupelo (the birthplace of Elvis Presley), with our favorite pastime being going to the movies, or the show, as my Aunt Jane still calls it. My Mom and my Aunt Jane had taken me and my older brothers and sister to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. I say they took me to see it, it was more like they took my older siblings and I just went along for the ride, because who expects a ten or eleven month old to sit and watch a movie? All I can say is that I must have been well behaved for my age. I cannot say if that was the definitive moment where I fell in love with movies for life, or if it just so happens to be a random memory that makes little to no sense, whatever it's true significance is, it's a moment I have never forgotten.

From the earliest age possible, movies have been a part of me, speaking to me in ways I could never describe in words. It truly is a mystery why I fell so hard for movies. Being a fan of Spider-Man, I've always thought that I should have had one of those classic great power moments where I had a realization or something that changed my life, but there was never anything like that. As far as I know, I was simply born already fascinated by the moving picture.

I was born May 11, 1990, in Birmingham, Alabama. In so many ways, Birmingham, Alabama, is about as far from Hollywood as you could get, and yet I might as well have been living in a movie projector itself. Through my parents, Rick and Sheila Sutton, I learned to appreciate movies, and discovered so many movies that fellow kids my age had never even heard of. This is a large part of the reason why I say I had the best parents in the world, and still do, because they are as much to credit for my movie love as anything else. Through them showing me as many movies as I could consume, and through my Dad's job working in television at the Eternal World Television Network (EWTN), stationed just outside of Birmingham, visual storytelling was simply a way of life for me.

In the years that followed my first movie memory, more and more were created. I can recall seeing Disney's animated classic, Aladdin, at the historical Alabama Theatre in downtown Birmingham, when I was maybe two or three.

The Alabama is one of the last of the great movie palaces from the Golden Age of Cinema. Built by Paramount Pictures back in 1927, and known worldwide for its one-of-a-kind Wurlitzer organ that rises out of the stage, there are few movie theaters left in the world that are quite like it. It is large, featuring a mezzanine and a balcony with more seats than you can find in any modern movie theater, and it easily rivals the class and sophistication of any of Broadway's most storied theaters.

On this particular occasion, my family and I were sitting in the mezzanine, the most contained area of seating in the whole of the theater, and perhaps the most envious to get a choice seat in. Looking back on it, I think the main reason my parents so often chose to sit there is because it was the place where it was easiest to take one of us kids out if we were being too disruptive, aside from the fact that it was also easier to keep an eye on all four of us due to the confined parameters. No matter why we were sitting there, it is easily one of the more magical areas of the whole theater to be in for viewing movies.

The lip of the balcony extends at least a good thirty feet beyond the cut off of the mezzanine, creating this feeling when you're sitting there of being in your own world, looking at the movie screen through a funnel. There was no one else in the audience for all I knew. The laughing and cheering might as well have been a sitcom laugh track, because I never saw anyone other than who was in the mezzanine with me. It was in that setting, that I can recall seeing Aladdin and Jasmine singing, “A Whole New World,” for the first of many in my childhood. As Aladdin and Jasmine flew from Agrabah and beyond on Aladdin's magic carpet, the animators of the film might as well have been inside my brain, etching those images into my visual cortex for all of eternity.

Another important memory occurred maybe only a year later in that exact same setting. Now, before anyone thinks poorly of my Mom, the first thing I must point out is that I had already been to see Jurassic Park once against her wishes. While I do not remember the first time I went to see Jurassic Park with my Dad and my siblings, I have been told a great many times over the years how upset my Mom was by my Dad taking a three year old to go see such a violent and adult movie. Was I scarred for life? Not in the slightest, I absolutely loved it. Maybe it was because my older brothers were obsessed with the movie and I loved whatever they did, or maybe I just had a high threshold for violent subject matter at a young age. Who knows why I loved such a movie, but I did. Naturally, when our family went to see the movie at the Alabama Theatre for a second time, I was allowed to come along and enjoy the experience once more.

Sitting in the same exact spot in the mezzanine as we did for Aladdin, I experienced Jurassic Park in all of its Spielbergian majesty. The same as with Ninja Turtles and Aladdin, I know I enjoyed the whole movie, but all I can remember from that day is one moment, one image, the image of the velociraptor in the jungle right before he eats gamekeeper Robert Muldoon. I just remember seeing the image of this incredibly real-looking giant lizard with sharp teeth, surrounded by all sorts of flora and fauna, ready to pounce on its unsuspecting prey. At that moment, I can recall believing that dinosaurs still existed, and of course I think even at that age I new dinosaurs were extinct, but for a moment I was fooled. Subconsciously, I believe that was the first moment where I truly realized the magic of moviemaking and why dreams were so important.

Through all of these early movie memories, little did I know then, but I was already being groomed to be a moviemaker. When I was at home playing, I could recall the shots from the movies I had seen as if I was still in the theater watching them. I could see everything from the faces of the actors to the colors that were onscreen. I even had times where I dreamed at night, reliving or creating new scenes to movies I had seen in theaters the night before.

I cannot tell you how many times I woke up in a cold sweat dreaming I was the kid drowning in the whale tank from Free Willy, or when I had a dream after seeing Batman Forever where I dreamt that Chris O'Donnell's Dick Grayson/Robin found Bruce Wayne's slide from his office to the Batcave. This scene was nowhere to be found in the actual movie, but I could have sworn it was in the movie after dreaming it. I had directed my first scene, albeit completely through my subconscious. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Film School of Life

Me with a bust of Desi Arnaz at Disney World
Hello, to anyone new to this blog, my name is Christian Sutton.  I am an independent filmmaker stationed just outside of Birmingham, Alabama.  I graduated from the University of Alabama-at-Birmingham with a degree in film, and I am so eager to be a major Hollywood writer/director, I could nearly bust wide open.  

Dreams are important, but life is why we are all here on Earth to begin with, and that is in a nutshell why I have decided to start writing a book.  I don't know if you could call it an autobiography, or a series of essays and memoirs that add up to something larger, but this book is the story of how one boy obsessed with movies has become a better man through movies, rather than without them.  I have chosen to title the book The Film School of Life.  It only seems appropriate, because as I go on to explain in the opening of the book, my knowledge of filmmaking did not come purely from a four year education at college, but from life itself.

Starting today, I am going to release a new chapter at least every other week, till I have covered every single topic and story that I desire to cover.  Maybe this book will someday actually get published, but if it doesn't, I wanted it to be published somewhere where others could read it.  I don't know why this fire has been lit inside of me, I just know that I am being called to share my experiences.  Perhaps there is someone who will read this and will be inspired by it, or changed by it, or simply entertained by it.  I am happy with all three outcomes, or any other outcome that may emerge from this experiment.  All I can say is that I hope you will join me on this journey and have a good time, so let's start the book.  The first piece of business is the foreword, or what I have deemed the, "Prologue."



Should I or should I not go to film school?  That's the main question that drives most teenagers who want to make movies.  I know it drove me nuts.

Being from central Alabama, where the closest film school was hours away and out of state, I really didn't expect to get a degree in film where I was.  Sure, finances were a contributing factor as to why I didn't go to film school, but if I'm honest with myself, I was more afraid than anything else, afraid of moving away from home.  In many ways, I am still fearful of leaving the nest, and that's probably why I'm not rolling in the big bucks yet.  With that said, my passion and desire to make movies is just as strong now as it ever has been.

Taking that next step to being a paid filmmaker is scary stuff.  Leaving the comforts of home and setting up somewhere new is always going to be terrifying, but it's something that I know I am going to have to do someday if I want to make my dreams a reality.  It is those dreams that have taken me to this point in my life, where all of my hopes for the future, all of my regrets about my past, and all of my personal triumphs and struggles intersect.  Throughout all of this, there have been only a few constants:  family, faith, a friend or two, and the movies themselves.

I cannot remember a time where I wasn't obsessed with movies, but I know one thing, I would not be who I am today if it were not for the movies in my life.  Whether it be the movies I have watched, the movies I have made, or the movies that are still in my head waiting to be told, if it were not for all of these movies, I would not be the same person as the one who is writing all of this down.

Returning to that initial question:  Should I or should I not go to film school?  If someone younger asked me for advice, I'd not have enough time to adequately put into words all of my thoughts on the matter.

Yes, if you have the money and the confidence to completely uproot yourself, going to film school can only help you.  Not only will you learn the odds and ends of the technical aspects of filmmaking by going to film school, you will also learn how to better analyze movies on an emotional level, while also establishing invaluable connections with teachers and students that will only help you in getting jobs after graduation.  However, if you are like me, and are too afraid, or not financially able to go to film school, that does not mean you cannot make movies.

You know, I think so often young wannabe filmmakers ask the wrong question.  It isn't really whether or not you should or shouldn't go to film school, but rather is film school necessary to become a Hollywood director, screenwriter, or producer?  The answer to that question is no.

Hollywood is full of self-taught filmmakers.  Quentin Tarrantino, Christopher Nolan, Kevin Smith, none of those guys went to a formal film school and they are some of the more successful filmmakers of the past generation.  For that matter, Steven Spielberg wasn't even accepted to film school, and he's arguably the most successful filmmaker ever.  You do not have to go to film school to make movies, you don't even have to take film classes.  While I did eventually go to a college that had a small, yet growing film department, about ninety-five percent of everything I know about making movies came through what I call the film school of life.

Through my Father, reading books about how movies were made, making my own movies, and by simply watching as many movies as I could, I learned so much more than I ever could have in a formal setting.  I wouldn't go so far as to say I am a self-taught filmmaker, because that would be a lie, but I did not have to go to film school to be where I am today.  I was taught by my Father and so many other smart filmmakers who decided to write how-to books, but if I really had to say who the most influential teacher was, it would be the movies themselves.

Growing up watching movies, I never knew that they were there shaping my life.  Through movies, I have learned so much, not just about filmmaking, but about life and how to approach it.  There are movies that inspired me, movies that taught me, and movies that have changed my life.  I am a different man having seen every movie I have ever seen.

I often wonder what I would be like if I were born two hundred years ago?  I am not an outdoorsman, and I am not very much of a business-type.  In truth, the only job that I feel I am capable of doing from my heart is storytelling, but not stories told through words, but through visuals.  Storytelling is in many ways ingrained in my DNA, and I think I have always known that.

When visual storytelling is in your DNA, you cannot do anything else.  You see the world as one gigantic movie waiting to be realized on a large screen.  In my everyday life, I see moments for drama, humor, and fantasy, in the most mundane things.  I often think, if I were writing this, I would have had the struggling married couple, who have hardly looked at one another during dinner, put aside their differences by simply obliging to hold hands for one brief tender moment.  If it were not for my movie reel of a mind, I often believe life would be so much more drab.  However, learning from movies and seeing the world around you as one large movie, is only a portion of the education you get via the film school of life, the rest comes through simply living.

As human beings, we are constantly learning and changing.  The minute we become stagnant, that is the minute we have stopped living.  As a filmmaker, my life informs the stories I come up with.  My dreams, my fears, my morals, they all form what I create.  The experiences I have gone through, the hurts and pains, the joys and the highs, they all add to the way I tell stories in images.  I cannot force anything that I have not felt or experienced, for it would be false, but the things I do know are the things that I can use, and it is those things that are the most impactful for audiences.

So in short, why am I writing this?

First, let me clear up any misconception, this is not a how-to filmmaking book.  This book is simply the vast amount of knowledge I have learned in just twenty-four years of life, and how movies have played an integral role in that journey.  Throughout the course of this book, I hope you come to think about movies a little bit more deeply, learn a thing or two through my own experiences, and if none of that occurs, at least have fun.  This is the collection of all of my favorite movie memories, whether it be in a theater, thinking about them, or making them, and it is about how I came to be the filmmaker that I now am.  Who knows, maybe some day they'll be teaching this book in a film school somewhere.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Did we just see the same movie?

Have you ever seen a movie with someone, or gotten home and read a review of the film, and thought that the other person's opinion of the film was so vastly different from your own, that it feels like you didn't just watch the same movie?  Maybe I have too much time on my hands to ponder this question, I just think it's a point worth addressing.

I recently read Chris Nashawaty's review of Dawn of the Planets of the Apes in Entertainment Weekly (I've got a Books-a-Million discount card, so I get it every week), and upon reading it, I was left wondering if we had watched and reviewed the same movie.  While he did like it, and gave it a B+ rating, his main complaints were the human characters, citing the work of actor Andy Serkis as Caeser, as the only good performance in the film.  He even went so far as to say that Gary Oldman, "nearly pops a hernia from hamming it up so hard," and even criticized human lead, Jason Clarke, saying, "Clarke's melancholy eyes are so perpetually moist in his admiration of the apes, you want to offer a tissue."

Upon reading all of these complaints he had with the film, I couldn't help but wonder if we watched the same movie.  Now, I am not bashing Entertainment Weekly or its critics, I am just disagreeing with one of their critiques, wondering if me and Chris Nashawaty saw the same exact movie in theaters.  How could I give it an A+ and essentially feel it's a close to perfect film, and how can he give it a B+ and find characters and performances that I thought were deep and involving, slight?

Sometimes I feel major movie critics go into movies, especially blockbusters, with their minds made up on what they're already wanting to say about it upon seeing the trailers and stuff.  In essence, they only see what they want to see.  I am not saying that this is what happened here, but I am not sure he watched the film very intently.

For example, when Nashawaty calls Gary Oldman's character, "a tin-badged fascist whose mantra seems to be, The only good ape is a dead ape,"I can't help but feel that this is a poor reading of the character.  Did the reviewer go to the bathroom when Oldman's character looks at the pictures of his dead wife and son?  Or when it is inferred multiple times that most humans believed the apes caused the viral outbreak that led to this apocalyptic world?  There is subtext and meaning to everything that Oldman's character does in the film, and none of it is out-and-out evil.  While he isn't heroic trying to save the apes, never is he gunning every single ape he sees down, either.  It's only -- SPOILER ALERT -- after the apes have taken over San Francisco and killed a bunch of humans, does he concoct a plan to blow them up.  Then there was the fact that he accused Oldman of hamming it up, and his performance here is no different or more over-the-top than his performance in The Dark Knight trilogy, which critics loved, so why the hate on Oldman?

This is another thing that I often feel that a lot of film critics do, is I think Nashawaty let his personal opinions of Gary Oldman flavor how he saw the character, rather than letting the character speak for himself.  It was pretty clear after the issue of Entertainment Weekly two weeks ago, when they called Oldman a, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Jerk," after his fiasco when he said politically incorrect comments about Jewish people, that they are no longer fans of the man.  However, to let your own personal feelings of a filmmaker, or an actor, shape your opinion of the film at hand is not being an objective critic.

I am not saying I haven't ever done this before, because I'll be honest, I have.  It is hard for me to watch a Roman Polanski or Woody Allen film for similar reasons (of course, I didn't like Woody Allen's films even before I first heard of his whole scandal).  On the flip side, though, I give Mel Gibson films the benefit of the doubt, because I am more interested in the story than who the actor is helping to tell it.  I mean, I have long been a fan of director Bryan Singer, and even still after his being accused of sexual abuse, I still like his films.  To continue to like someone's work does not mean that you accept what they said or did, it simply means that you are looking at the work itself rather than who was involved in its making, because let's be honest, if you've never made a mistake, then you're better than the rest of us.

Overall, I simply think that Nashawaty didn't review this particular film as objectively as he could have, and I think that a lot of film critics do this to blockbusters simply because they don't want to ever admit that they actually liked something that was fun more so than an artsy movie.  Are there multiple great performances in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes?  Yes, so many more than just Andy Serkis as Caeser, and not to mentionToby Kebbell as Koba, who was the true scene stealer of the movie.  Maybe I just need to get off my soap box before I say too many more hypocritical things, because I know I have written similar reviews to this before (case and point, my initial review of Man of Steel).  I'm not perfect, but ever since my Man of Steel situation, I have tried to be more objective in my reviews, and I am going to continue to, even if I may stumble every now and then.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Happy Birthday, Harrison Ford!

Today is Harrison Ford's 72nd birthday.  The minute I got online and saw that, I knew I had to post something, because I have a long history with Harrison Ford.  No, I do not know him, and have never actually seen him in person, but I know the many characters he has played over the years.  To say I have a long history with him is entirely accurate, because he was the first movie star that I ever really attached myself to.

I can remember when I was graduating kindergarden, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up so that they could say that as I went up onstage to get my diploma.  My answer to that question was, "Harrison Ford."  Now, why on Earth would that be a five-year-old boy's answer?  Because of Star Wars and Indiana Jones.  Any man who could play two of my favorite characters of all-time had to be someone worth wanting to be.

As I grew older, I knew that I didn't really want to be Harrison Ford, but he still is one of my favorite actors of all-time.  While his acting output over the past decade-and-a-half has been lackluster to say the least, back in his heyday, there was no actor better.  I still optimistically believe he has a few more great performances in him, and he's already shown signs of his old awesomeness over the past few years in films like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, 42, and Ender's Game.  Here's hoping that Star Wars: Episode VII will be his true return to form.  Of course, being a day of celebration for him, this isn't about his future or even his recent acting output, but about honoring his legacy.

I've decided to list my 10 Favorite Harrison Ford Performances.  These ten performances are the ones where I feel Harrison Ford exemplified why I love him as an actor so much more than any other.  While I debated long and hard about whether or not it was right to bump a few performances off the list by including multiple performances by him as the same character in sequels, I decided that in the context of each film, it was a new performance worthy of notoriety.  So join me in celebrating Harrison Ford's birthday with my favorite performances of his.


10.  Jack Ryan, Clear and Present Danger
This was Ford's second outing as CIA analyst Jack Ryan, and is perfect proof as to why I wish he could return to this role and do some of the Clancy books that dealt with an older Ryan.  Unfortunately, Hollywood wants everything to be younger and hipper, so we may never see the President Jack Ryan storyline from the novels, but we do have this film and Patriot Games as perfect representations of why I love Harrison Ford.  One of the final scenes where Ford stands in the Oval Office telling the President that he is going to reveal the President's role in a conspiracy, is one of the finer moments of Ford's acting career.  He never breaks eye contact with the President, he stands tall with bravery and devotion to his morality and to his country.

9.  Dr. Richard Kimble, The Fugitive
"I didn't kill my wife," must be uttered or shouted by Ford at least a couple dozen times in this film, and yet each time I believe him.  The Fugitive is one of those movies where Ford often gets overshadowed by the role that had the better lines, being Tommy Lee Jones as the US Marshall chasing Kimble.  The funny thing is, though, if it were not for the fear in Ford's eyes as he's on the run from the police, and for the determination he shows in the character to prove his innocence, we would not care what happens one way or the other.  He allows the audience to feel empathy for this character and to root for him to prove that he did not kill his wife.

8.  John Book, Witness
To this date, this is the only role that Ford has ever received an Oscar nomination for, and for good reason.  This is arguably one of Ford's most human, most naturalistic performances of his career.  He isn't a superhero, he's just a man trying to protect a small Amish boy who witnessed a murder.  There is a tenderness that Ford brings in the scenes between him and the boy, played by Lukas Haas, and there is a romantic side to him in his scenes with the boy's mother, Kelly McGillis, that shows a more playful side than his usual gruff exterior.  That dance scene in the barn where he sings to Kelly McGillis's character is often cited as one of the more romantic scenes in the modern era of moviemaking, and I agree.

7.  Han Solo, Star Wars
This was the role that put Ford on the map, and is really the perfect example of why so many people love him as an actor.  The cockiness, the swagger, the ability to make a character who could have very easily been unlikable, likable, all thanks to Harrison Ford making Han Solo a charming human being.  There is only one other role in Ford's entire catalogue that I think is an even greater fit for him, but more on that at number six.

6.  Indiana Jones, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Ah, the role of Harrison Ford's career.  I could have easily filled up this entire list with his performances as Indiana Jones and Han Solo, but where would the fun be in that?  Even still, Temple of Doom is another knockout performance by Ford in his prime.  He has the charm and charisma that made him famous here, but it's in the arc for the character that really makes this film one of his finest performances.  Throughout the course of this Indiana Jones film, we see Indy go from being a man searching purely for fortune and glory, to being a compassionate human being (or as compassionate as Indy can be), saving the slave children and forgoing his fortune and glory to do the right thing.  While a good bit of this was in the writing, Ford sold this arc, and it's part of the reason why this is my favorite Indiana Jones film.

5.  Jack Ryan, Patriot Games
Looking back at this performance, you could almost call it the quintessential Harrison Ford performance.  Every trick in his book can be seen in this one movie, and yet all those tricks are so believable.  I think what I've always loved so much about Ford as Jack Ryan, is that he makes Jack Ryan this everyman who seems so unsure of himself when in action situations, which is in stark contrast to many of his other roles.  While I loved Chris Pine as the new Jack Ryan, no one will ever surpass Ford in this role, and Patriot Games, being the better of his two Jack Ryan films, gives it the higher ranking on this list.

4.  President James Marshall, Air Force One
If only there could be a real-life President as awesome as the one Ford played in this film, I would vote for him in a heartbeat.  I remember this film being the first R-rated movie I ever saw.  It had just come out on video, and my parents were going to let everyone watch it, but me.  I whined, like I so often did back then (hey, I admit it, even if I'm not proud of it), and they caved due to my love for Harrison Ford.  Now, my parents really are awesome and did monitor what I watch, but they made an exception for my seven-year-old self, though my Mom did cover my eyes and ears at rougher, or more foulmouthed parts, but as I said, I was seven.  I said all of that to iterate my nearly twenty year love for this movie, and my love for Ford in it.  Like with all of Ford's best performances, he took this role, that in lesser hands could have been an over-the-top action hero, and made it completely believable.

3.  Han Solo, The Empire Strikes Back
It's funny that Ford's performance in my favorite film of all-time only ranks at number three in my book of his best performances, but that's how the cookie crumbles.  Of course that takes nothing away from this performance, it only says more about the ones that rank higher.  However, time to get back on track.  This was Ford's shining moment as Han Solo, and it was his work here that really cemented the greatest qualities of the character for all of eternity.  As the legend goes, when Ford protested that Han would not simply say, "I love you, too," to Princess Leia when she professed her love, shows how well he knew this character.  Ford simply said what he thought Han would say, and as filmmaker Kevin Smith said in an interview one time, "And like a pimp, he said, 'I know.'"

2.  Henry Turner, Regarding Henry
Anyone who thinks that Harrison Ford is only capable of action heroes have not seen Regarding Henry.  He should have won an Oscar for this performance, because dramatically, this is some of the best work he's ever done.  In this film, he plays an attorney who has been shot in the head and has to regain not only his memory, but his speech and all of his motor skills.  This was one of the first films ever written by J.J. Abrams, and it's a perfect match between Abrams' writing, Mike Nichol's direction, and Ford's performance, to create a phenomenal film.  The way that Ford essentially reverts back to the mentality of a five-year-old for a good bit of this film, and does so in such a way that never feels like he's acting, is just truly remarkable.

1.  Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark
Okay, this is the performance of his career.  I don't think there is anyway that Ford could ever top his work in Raiders, he was just that perfect in this part, with this particular script.  Everything that Indy is supposed to be, Harrison Ford is all that and more.  He's charming, he's likable, he's the greatest movie hero of all-time.  I mean, what more can you say, other than wonder what this film might have been like had Tom Selleck been able to break his Magnum, P.I. contract and played the part instead.  That is one of the great what-ifs in movie history, and I have often wondered if the mustache would now be as iconic as the hat and whip, but the bottom line is, I don't think the film would have been the same hit it was without Ford.  While the script is amazing, and Spielberg was in tip-top shape here, the star was Ford.  He simply is Indiana Jones.  Every now and then, an actor will play a character that is more of a natural extension of themselves than even the writer's imagination that cooked the character up, and that is what happened here.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Movie Review: "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"

Sometimes there are movies that are simply awesome, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one such movie.

A sequel to 2011's Planet of the Apes reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up ten years after a manmade virus, spread via lab experimented apes, has killed most of the human population on Earth.  The small pocket of immune humans left find themselves coming into conflict with the genetically evolved apes, led by ape hero, Caeser, in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco.  To say anymore would rob you of the experience that this film has to offer, because Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of those movies that reaffirms why I love movies in the first place.

This is one of those rare films that actually transports you into another time and place for two hours and convinces you to invest in characters and struggles that are very different than your own.  It is through the magic of moviemaking that we are able to do this, but not every movie always succeeds in doing so, however Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does.

I think one of the best words I can use to describe the construction of this film is confident.  There is confidence in the way that director Matt Reeves chose to shoot many of the scenes in one shot, there is confidence in the way that the script foregoes traditional exposition for seeing rather than hearing, and there is tremendous confidence in the way that the filmmakers have used motion capture technology to realize the titular apes.

Everything about this film is phenomenal, from top to bottom.  All of the behind the scenes talent create this seamless science fiction world that is believable at every turn.  I believed for the two hours of this film that there really were talking apes and not just CG-layered men and women in motion capture suits.  A great deal of the believability is a testament to the folks at special effects house, WETA, for realizing the apes and creating texture in their hair and in their skin, selling the illusion.  However, WETA and the filmmakers could not have sold the apes without the actors portraying them.

While most people will talk about the noticeable human actors that play human characters at the fore (who are all awesome in their parts by the way), the real standout performances come from the human actors portraying the apes.  By wearing dots on their faces and special gray suits, flesh-and-blood people became flesh-and-blood apes through the magic of computer technology and animation.  Everything these actors did on set, their movement, line readings, and facial expressions, are all relayed in the ape characters, but it is the human soul behind the apes' eyes that really make these ape characters memorable heroes and villains.

Just like he was in the first film, Caeser is a sympathetic hero, conflicted by his former love of humans and his desires to keep his fellow ape safe.  Motion capture acting extraordinaire, Andy Serkis (Gollum from Lord of the Rings), continues to carve out what is quickly becoming his signature role here as Caeser.  While Gollum may have more scenery to chew on, it's with Caeser that Serkis is able to show the wells of emotion deep inside of him in ways that he's never been able to show in previous movies.  The fact that he got top billing in the credits made me extremely happy, and it's about high time the Academy recognized motion capture work and voice-over work as acting performances.

Speaking of performances worthy of recognition, actor Toby Kebbell very nearly steals the whole show from Serkis portraying the villainous ape, Koba.  Koba is the best kind of movie villain, one who is driven by more than a lust for power, but a deeply felt motivation of hatred for the humans who kept him in a cage and tortured him long ago.  Whenever Koba is onscreen, it's electric.  You don't know what the character is going to do, and that is all thanks to Kebbell's performance.  He turns Koba into a real live wire that easily rivals any recent movie villain like Loki, and if time favors this film like I believe it will, rivals the likes of Darth Vader.  When Koba and Caeser fight in a climactic battle at the end of the film, it's as awesome as any lightsaber duel or superhero smackdown.

So in case you haven't noticed, I am over the moon about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  It is the first movie this Summer that I actually felt like had transported me, and that's what I yearn for from a good sci-fi or fantasy film.  Of course, not only is it entertaining and emotionally involving, it's also a film that actually has deeper themes beneath the surface, dealing with ideas such as race and species relations, war versus peace, and the importance of family and community.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a rare kind of film, one that maybe only gets made every year or two, if we're lucky.  This is true blockbuster moviemaking, relying on story, character, and experience, more so than action bombardment.

I give Dawn of the Planet of the Apes an A+!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How to Fix the Emmys

This morning's Emmy nominations were nothing if not predictable.  I mean, the Emmys are the most predictable award show there is.  While the Oscars and Grammys are about as bad at nominating things that only a select few have actually experienced, the biggest problem with the Emmys is that the same people always get nominated.  I mean, at least when Martin Scorsese gets nominated for another Oscar, it's not for the same movie.  With the Emmys, the same five actors and actresses get nominated every year for the same performance as last year.  Look, I am not knocking the shows that always get nominated for the Emmys and Golden Globes, I'm just pointing out how ridiculous it is to award TV shows on a season-by-season basis.

The truth is, the Emmys, Oscars, and every other major award show, are pretty much always going to honor the more "challenging" or "artsy" material.  Does it matter that perhaps less than 25-50% of the moviegoing or TV watching public have seen 12 Years a Slave or every season of Breaking Bad?  No, because they are "artsy" and "challenging," compared to a fun adventure film like The Avengers or a TV show like Castle, both of which are more entertaining than the aforementioned (just saying).  At the end of the day, the voting bodies for these award shows are going to always want to vote for only the things that make their "craft" look good, even if it is some of the most boring stuff you could watch on TV or film.  

However, I am getting off track.  This is not meant to be me on my soap box complaining about what gets nominated for these things and what doesn't.  Honestly, I like a lot of the films that often get nominated for Oscars, and while I don't watch as much TV as I do movies, the little I've seen of some of the major shows nominated for Emmys are at least intriguing enough to where if I ever had two to three months with nothing else to do, I'd watch them.  Simply, the real point I am trying to get at, is that the Emmys are the award show most in need of an overhaul.

Sure, I could sit here and whine about how a show like Broadchurch didn't get a single nomination, or how Nathan Fillion's well deserved Emmy still eludes him, but that is neither here nor there.  The real problem with the Emmys is not what's getting nominated, it's the fact that the same stuff that was nominated last year, is nominated in almost all of the same categories this year, with only a few exceptions.  This is a large part of the reason why I find the Emmys so frustrating to follow, because for a 5-10 year period, the same 7 or 8 shows get nominated for everything and then the cycle starts all over again.  So, in essence, you get the same shows winning again and again for 5-10 years, and it's just draining to see the same people climb up onto a podium and thank everyone they've ever known for the five-millionth time.  Now, this is not to say that one year someone may deserve the award more than who won it last year, and vice versa, but it's still essentially the same horses in the race.

Here's the thing, I firmly believe that the Emmys should rethink their rules.  Nominating shows on a season-by-season basis is what creates this dilemma.  I think in order for the Emmys to feel fresh and exciting, the paradigm needs to be shifted, and I have an idea on what they could do.

While we are swamped with new TV shows every year, for just as many new shows, we are saying goodbye to old ones that have finally gotten canceled or are just ending the story on their own terms.  I think, rather than letting every single show that is currently airing be nominated, the only way your show could be nominated for an Emmy is if it had its Series Finale and ended within the past year.  This way, you would be honoring each worthy show only once, instead of year after year.

Let's face it, we've all seen shows win Emmys and then watch them go down the tubes in subsequent seasons.  For me, a show cannot be adequately judged until it has ended.  While the first or second season may be the best, if it lasts for ten seasons, the entire ten season journey shapes a new opinion, and very often that opinion can be different than what you first thought or felt when the show started.  By honoring the entire series, from start to finish, rather than on a season-by-season basis, it really clues viewers into what shows are actually worthy of joining the long list of classic TV shows that have won Emmys, and what shows were merely one-hit, one-season wonders.

While this is all just my hypothesizing about what I feel the Emmys need to do in order for me to care more about them, they're never going to change.  The Emmys are always going to be the same, and I guess that's okay, because if you love Mad Men, The Big Bang Theory, Downton Abbey, or Modern Family, congrats on your nominations for 2015!  Oh, wait, it's only 2014.  Well, congrats anyways.