31 Days of Horror
Published on October 4, 2011 by Sara Foss

The excellent film blog Not Coming to a Theater Near You has started running a monthlong series titled "31 Days of Horror," in which short reviews of horror movies are posted regularly. The choices are eclectic and unconventional; for instance, one of the reviews takes a look at "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," which is often classified (mistakenly, in my opinion) as a family film. I didn't see "Willy Wonka" until I was in college, but my college roommate saw it as a child and found it absolutely terrifying.

Click here to check out the series.

The X-Files Is Funny
Published on September 30, 2011 by Sara Foss

I used to love "The X-Files."

I haven't watched the show or thought about it all that much in recent years, but this week I found myself nodding my head in agreement at a Splitsider essay about how "The X-Files" is actually a comedy, in addition to being a horror/sci-fi/paranormal detective show. Maybe it's because I watched "The X-Files" every Sunday night with my college housemates, but I often found myself laughing at "The X-Files."

I'm sorry, but Mulder and Scully were very funny, and the show was never funnier than when it appeared to be taking itself extremely seriously, which was about 95 percent of the time. I remember an episode that brought the comedy and romance to the fore for a change, and it was actually something of a flop - not very romantic or funny at all. In the end, comedy of "The X-Files" worked best when the show played it straight.

Watching "The Guard"
Published on September 28, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the new movie "The Guard."

Here's an excerpt:

“'The Guard'” is a trifle but, as trifles go, it’s pretty fun.

The film borrows from a number of movie conventions — the fish-out-of-water tale, the buddy-cop story, the whimsical Euro comedy and the post-Tarantino darkly funny crime film — but somehow manages to feel fresh.

This is largely due to the shambling presence of the great Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, who plays Sgt. Gerry Boyle, a corrupt, lonely cop who might or might not possess a core of decency. Boyle works in Connemara Gaeltacht, a rural, Gaelic-speaking region populated by people who, like Boyle, would prefer to be left alone and have a deep-rooted suspicion of outsiders and big-city folk. In the film’s opening scenes, Boyle is taking a nap in his patrol car when a deadly crash wakes him from his slumber; within moments of arriving on the scene, he has fished around in one of the victim’s pockets, and stolen his drugs. We also see him drink on the job, and forego investigating a murder to hang out with prostitutes. But he’s kind to the prostitutes and a loving son to his dying mother, so we sense he’s not that bad a guy."

The Guy Maddin Blog-A-Thon
Published on September 25, 2011 by Sara Foss

Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin makes movies that are like nothing else out there. His influences include German expressionism, fairy tales, silent films and dance, and as a result his movies feel like films out of time - they could have been made in 1975, or last year, or 20 years from now. I watched four or five Maddin films about a year ago, and I've got several more in my queue. So I've probably seen about half his works.

For the curious, Fandor has been running a blog tribute to Maddin, which you can check out here.

Another Netflix Viewpoint
Published on September 20, 2011 by Sara Foss

The Oatmeal weighs in with this funny comic.

Watching "Contagion"
Published on September 20, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I offer my thoughts on "Contagion," a film I had the privilege of watching with two friends who work and have worked in communicable disease prevention.

Here's an excerpt:

"'Contagion' is the realistic and suspenseful story of a global pandemic; though the film is filled with movie stars, the mystery virus is the main character, and director Steven Soderbergh charts its relentless and devastating path around the world. The movie opens on what a title card informs us is Day 2, and we’re introduced to Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow), the businesswoman/adulteress who contracts the disease on a trip to Hong Kong. Beth dies in the film’s first few scenes, as does her young son, leaving her grieving husband (Matt Damon), who turns out to be immune, and teenage daughter to weather the plague together.

Soderbergh likes to tell globe-trotting stories from multiple points of view (he did this very well in his acclaimed 2000 film 'Traffic,' about the war on drugs), and in 'Contagion' he gives us a handful of storylines: Centers for Disease Control chief Laurence Fishburne and his efforts to protect the public and find a vaccine, crackpot blogger Jude Law and his conspiracy theories about pharmaceutical companies, Marion Cotillard’s World Health Organization epidemiologist, who is trying to determine why and how the pandemic started.

'Contagion' is fairly entertaining stuff, particularly if you like disaster movies, as I do. But I hasten to add that it’s a fairly low-key disaster movie, with Soderbergh taking a somewhat experimental approach to the genre. He limits what the audience sees to what his characters can see, and so scenes of panic and hysteria are relatively few. The characters spend most of their time holed up in offices and homes, which is why it’s a bit of a shock whenever they venture outside, and we’re treated to scenes of looting, rioting and mass food distribution and burials. TV news reports and radio broadcasts provide wider context — we learn that the president is sequestered away in an undisclosed location — but we seldom see the big events that are unfolding."

The Netflix Price Hike Impact
Published on September 18, 2011 by Sara Foss

Back in August, I offered my thoughts on the Netflix price hike.

Basically, I didn't like it. I viewed it as an attempt to get customers to stream movies, rather than receive discs through the mail, and since I consider Netflix's streaming options somewhat lacking, I found this bothersome. Here's an excerpt of what I wrote at the time:

"I’ve streamed exactly one movie in my life: the 2008 Anna Faris comedy 'The House Bunny,' about a former Playboy bunny who moves into a nerdy sorority and helps the women who live there become cool and popular. I watched 'The House Bunny' while out on disability with a broken wrist. During this period, I was watching at least two movies a day, and one day I happened to find myself in an unusual predicament: I ran out of movies. Desperate, I decided to stream a film on my computer. But I was loathe to screen a good movie, because my computer screen was small, and lacking in the same visual clarity as my television. I figured a mediocre film like 'The House Bunny' would be the perfect thing for my laptop, and I was right.

You can obviously stream movies on your television, and I wouldn’t mind doing this, if Netflix’s streaming catalog was anywhere near as good as its DVD catalog. But it’s not. I currently have 495 movies in my Netflix queue, and only 169 of them are available for streaming. I’m sorry, but that’s not good enough. Also, I have quality concerns. As film critic Jim Emerson wrote (click here) in a post about the price increase, 'The more serious problem is that too many of the movies themselves (even the good ones) are being made available in lousy prints: not just shabby public-domain versions (the equivalent of the old 16 mm local TV station prints that used to circulate through low-end nontheatrical distributors), but films shown in the wrong aspect ratio (beware of anything with the Starz logo on it) or even obsolete pan-and-scan (shame on you, Warner Bros.) What good is streaming delivery if you have to watch a digital mastering job that looks like it was done in 1986?'

I can be a bit resistant to new technology, but I don’t see any reason to embrace streaming until more films become available for streaming, and the overall quality improves. Netflix can do whatever it wants, of course, and I see no reason to drop my account, because Netflix, for all its flaws, is still a very good, very efficient service. But there are other options for watching movies, and they’re worth exploring."

Apparently the Netflix price increase had an impact, causing the company's stock price to dip last week, and resulting in a mass exodus of subscribers. I'm not one of those subscribers - I watch a lot of movies, and Netflix remains one of the best options out there for a high-volume user like me. But I'm unusual. Most people don't watch as many movies as I do, and are just as happy to wander up to the local Red Box and grab a copy of "Hall Pass" as wait for the DVD to arrive in their mailbox. What Netflix did was give those people a reason to get their movies elsewhere, forgetting that what made the company successful in the first place was how well it catered to cinephiles and other hard-core movie watchers. In effect, Netflix made the mistake of abandoning its base and pissing off the rest of its customers in the process. Not a good move.


Reality TV Has Replaced Good Old Fashioned Gossip
Published on September 15, 2011 by Sara Foss

I hate reality TV, which is why I hardly ever write about it.

But I still found this New York magazine piece, in which urban studies theorist Richard Florida discusses his theory of reality TV, pretty interesting. And I think I agree with his theory, which suggests that people used to rely on gossip for the sort of entertainment that reality TV provides. Having grown up in small towns, attended a small college and worked at fairly small companies, I view gossip as a pretty natural thing, and if you lack a social circle and sense of community I can see how you would get your gossiping fix from people like the Kardashians and Snooki and Jon and Kate or whatever.

Here's an excerpt from the piece:

"There are reality shows set in foreign deserts and on the decks of Alaskan frigates and amid the industrial mixers of gourmet cupcakeries, but over time, the series have taken on a predominant backdrop. You can probably picture it: The identikit mini-manses and the vast living rooms and gleaming kitchens within. The multiple garages housing SUVs that carry our heroes on their strip-mall errands. The empty strip-mall restaurants that become extravagantly air-­conditioned OK Corrals when producer-mandated clear-the-air lunches degenerate into Chardonnay-powered tirade-exchanges.

Though this shrieking sprawlscape is not his preferred haunt, the celebrity urbanist Richard Florida will admit to occasionally cruising reality TV’s endless subdevelopments. Also, the author of The Rise of the Creative Class and The Great ­Reset watches the Today show while he’s working out, and “when it changes over to Hoda and Kathie Lee, it’s suddenly all about these people on reality shows, so I hear about it there.” What he’s seen has led him to develop a working theory about the genre. It’s not just that a lot of the shows are set in suburbia—suburban life actually creates the appetite for them. 'Reality TV (from the Kardashians to the Jersey Shore) is the product of isolation & sprawl' is how he put it when floating the notion via Twitter (tweets being the new white paper)."

Amanda Marcotte's reaction to Florida's thoughts on reality TV is also pretty interesting, particularly her theory that gossip can sometimes make people more empathetic. This comes as music to my ears, because I spend a lot of time gossiping.

Film Capsules
Published on September 12, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write briefly about some of the films I've recently watched on DVD. The list includes "Black Dynamite" and "Tender Mercies." Good stuff!

Watching "The Help"
Published on September 7, 2011 by Sara Foss

Yes, I watched "The Help." Predictably, I felt sort of blah and ambivalent about the whole thing. Here's an excerpt from my review for the DG:

"I had no expectations for 'The Help,' and mainly went to see it because people keep asking me if I’ve seen it, and because 'Fright Night' was only showing at 9:30, and I didn’t feel like going to the movies that late. So I’m pleased to report that 'The Help' is not terrible, and I could even understand, from time to time, why people love it so much. And I think the movie actually improves a little upon the wobbly source material, trimming some of the fat from the narrative and casting actresses who know how to flesh out underwritten parts.

There are some genuinely moving moments in 'The Help,' and the movie’s eye for period detail is sharp — it’s one thing to read a description of a fancy society dinner and try to imagine it, and quite another to see all the white people in their fancy clothes sitting down to eat, while black maids in uniforms stand silently against the wall and wait for orders.

In some ways, both the book and the movie feel like a bit of a missed opportunity. The book could have been harder-hitting and tighter, while the movie surrounds its few genuinely moving moments with broad comedy, overheated and melodramatic side plots and a view of the civil rights era that’s just a little too soft. Like the book, the film would have benefited from focusing more on Minnie (Octavia Spencer), Aibileen (Viola Davis) and their fellow maids, and reducing Skeeter’s (Emma Stone) role in the story; American cinema is filled with the stories of white people who put themselves at risk to befriend and help black people, and 'The Help' fits squarely into that canon — a canon that includes 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' 'Mississippi Burning' and 'Driving Miss Daisy.'"

However, I did really enjoy this piece, in which Los Angeles film critic Betsy Sharkey, who grew up in the Deep South, remembers the black domestic who helped raise her, and reflects upon the film.


Thoughts on "The Parallax View"
Published on September 5, 2011 by Sara Foss

I recently watched the 1974 conspiracy thriller "The Parallax View," in which Warren Beatty plays an investigative reporter named Joseph Frady who uncovers shocking secrets about a political assassination.

The film was directed by Alan Pakula, who helmed another great conspiracy theory about journalists, "All the President's Men." Last week, the Columbia Journalism Review took a look at "The Parallax View," which is the less famous and more ludicruous film, but also bracingly cynical and incredibly dark. Watching it made me wonder why nobody has made a great conspiracy thriller since the 1970s. (An exaggeration, but it certainly feels that way.) Doesn't it seem like the failures of the past ten years should have produced a whole new crop of great conspiracy thrillers? And yet it hasn't happened.

Anyway, here's an excerpt from the CJR piece:

"In the end, the truth dies with Frady. No story is ever written. The sinister Parallax Corporation continues to operate in surprisingly conspicuous quarters, churning out assassins. All of Frady’s risk-taking and hard work seem not to have mattered—it’s an even bleaker picture, in terms of journalistic efficacy, than the existential crisis that grips the business today. Do we matter? Maybe not.

But Pakula’s message is not an indictment of the journalist, but of the machine and the power structures the poor hack is up against. Pakula made this film in what was something of a golden era of journalism, when people had far more faith in the press than in politicians and their official narratives. Be wary of the powerful. Be wary of the corporate. Be wary of worn-out editors who have gotten too comfortable in the newsroom.

And yet, sometimes the good guys lose. Whereas journalists are triumphant truth-tellers in All the President’s Men, in The Parallax View the journalist is a tragic hero on a lonely—and, as it happens, futile—quest for truth in a world that won’t allow it. Indeed, it was a reflection of the times. While much of the Watergate story had been unraveled on the front page of The Washington Post by the time The Parallax View was released, it wasn’t until later that summer, when Nixon resigned, that journalism ultimately prevailed."

Watching "Terri"
Published on September 1, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about the new film "Terri," from talented young director Azazel Jacobs. I didn't think the film was as good as Jacobs' previous film, "Momma's Man," but it's worth checking out. Here's an excerpt:

"'Terri' is a sensitive film, with a great eye for detail. We watch as Terri sets mousetraps in the attic and gives his uncle his medicine. Unlike most films about high school, 'Terri' understands that some students have bigger concerns than whether they can find a date to the prom, and that some students aren’t even all that interested in going to prom."

Why Can't They Make a Good Action Movie Anymore?
Published on August 25, 2011 by Sara Foss

Occasionally a good action movie gets made - the summer hit "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is one such example. But as a whole the genre has gotten worse and worse, and I fear that someday I'll be asking the same sorts of questions about action movies that I currently ask about romantic comedies. Such as: Is it possible to make a good action movie?

Anyway, in a video essay over on Press Play, Matthias Stork explains how the action genre devolved into something he calls Chaos Cinema. He argues that while directors once strove to keep viewers oriented during action sequences, today's action films are hyperactive and overstuffed. He writes:

"Contemporary blockbusters, particularly action movies, trade visual intelligibility for sensory overload, and the result is a film style marked by excess, exaggeration and overindulgence: chaos cinema.

Chaos cinema apes the illiteracy of the modern movie trailer. It consists of a barrage of high-voltage scenes. Every single frame runs on adrenaline. Every shot feels like the hysterical climax of a scene which an earlier movie might have spent several minutes building toward. Chaos cinema is a never-ending crescendo of flair and spectacle. It’s a shotgun aesthetic, firing a wide swath of sensationalistic technique that tears the old classical filmmaking style to bits.  Directors who work in this mode aren’t interested in spatial clarity. It doesn’t matter where you are, and it barely matters if you know what’s happening onscreen. The new action films are fast, florid, volatile audiovisual war zones.

Even attentive spectators may have trouble finding their bearings in a film like this. Trying to orient yourself in the work of chaos cinema is like trying to find your way out of a maze, only to discover that your map has been replaced by a reproduction of a Jackson Pollock painting, except the only art here is the art of confusion."

Critic Matt Zoller Seitz offers his take on the essay here, and Jim Emerson offers his take here. Here's an excerpt from Emerson's essay that I really like:

"It seems to me that these movies are attempting a kind of shortcut to the viewer's autonomic nervous system, providing direct stimulus to generate excitement rather than simulate any comprehensible experience. In that sense, they're more like drugs that (ostensibly) trigger the release of adrenaline or dopamine while bypassing the middleman, that part of the brain that interprets real or imagined situations and then generates appropriate emotional/physiological responses to them. The reason they don't work for many of us is because, in reality, they give us nothing to respond to -- just a blur of incomprehensible images and sounds, without spatial context or allowing for emotional investment."

Watching "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"
Published on August 24, 2011 by Sara Foss

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is one of the more pleasant cinematic surprises of the summer, a rousing, fast-paced simian action film. Some people have described it as a very good B movie, and I've been tempted to do it myself, but then decided that the label is a back-handed compliment - one that the film doesn't deserve. Because "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is A level entertainment all the way.

Also, I've seen some critics suggest that one of "Rise of the Planet of the Ape's" flaws is the fact that the most complex and well-defined character in the film is Caesar, the ape. They're right that Caesar is the film's most memorable and charismatic character, but they're wrong that this is a flaw. What makes the movie so good is that it inspires us to root for Caesar, even though it means rooting against our fellow humans and in effect cheering the end of civilization as we know it. 

Over at the DG, I elaborate on my thoughts about "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

Also, artist and fellow Oberlin alum Josh MacPhee discusses the film in an interesting essay titled "What is Planet of the Apes in a World Without Black Power?" Click here to read it.

Roger Ebert's Life Story
Published on August 23, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over on his blog, Roger Ebert has posted the opening pages of his memoir, which will be published on Sept. 13.

Here's an excerpt:

"I was born inside the movie of my life. The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don't remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me. At first the frames flicker without connection, as they do in Bergman's Persona after the film breaks and begins again. I am flat on my stomach on the front sidewalk, my eyes an inch from a procession of ants. What these are I do not know. It is the only sidewalk in my life, in front of the only house. I have seen grasshoppers and ladybugs. My uncle Bob extends the business end of a fly swatter toward me, and I grasp it and try to walk toward him.

Hal Holmes has a red tricycle and I cry because I want it for my own. My parents curiously set tubes afire and blow smoke from their mouths. I don't want to eat, and my aunt Martha puts me on her lap and says she'll pinch me if I don't open my mouth. Gary Wikoff is sitting next to me in the kitchen. He asks me how old I am today, and I hold up three fingers. At Tot's Play School, I try to ride on the back of Mrs. Meadrow's dog, and it bites me on the cheek. I am taken to Mercy Hospital to be stitched up. Everyone there is shouting because the Panama Limited went off the rails north of town. People crowd around. Aunt Martha brings in Doctor Collins, her boss, who is a dentist. He tells my mother, Annabel, it's the same thing to put a few stitches on the outside of a cheek as on the inside. I start crying. Why is the thought of stitches outside my cheek more terrifying than stitches anywhere else?"

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