Tag Archives: Martin Scorsese

A few thoughts on Leo, Titanic, and middle school

By Nathanael Griffis

It takes me back to think it has been 15 years since Leonardo DiCaprio’s smirking face and unseemly stiff-gel-parted hair graced the big screen in Titanic. So much has changed. I never saw the movie in the theater because, well, there was a scene that involved inappropriate painting, I was told. Also, I was suspiciously certain there was a significant amount of kissing, which I wanted little to do with when I was ten. Yet despite having never seen it in the theater, I knew of the film and I knew of Leo. Oh how I hated his blue eyes and skinny little neck. I honestly don’t know why, but I despised him simply because he was in Titanic, and eventually, to protect my rep, I would brag about not having seen it.

I finally got a chance to watch the film on television, which was an enormous disappointment as a three-hour movie became a five-hour foray that was all the more disappointing for its lack of exposed breasts. I naturally blamed Leo and continued down my confused road of hatred. I begrudgingly enjoyed Catch Me If You Can, but didn’t watch Gangs of New York. Once I graduated high school, though, I realized that maybe I should have given Leo a break. It seemed that he had realized the error of his ways and was doing cool, gritty movies. Remember when your one friend was dating that awful bitch that you told him to dump, but he kept dating her, then they broke up and he came stumbling around and was always buying you pizza to make up for being such a dick? I feel like Leo’s career has been like that.

It’s as if he directly wanted to gain my approval. Like in some bizzaro universe, I was the father Leo never had, and despite all the accolades and praise he’d won for one of the greatest films of all time, I was never satisfied. Since Titanic, he’s made film after film that I love and has become one of my favorite actors. He’s worked with Scorsese, Spielberg, Nolan, Zwick, Scott, and Mendes. He basically could not have picked a more Nate-centric group of directors. Somehow he spoke directly to my heart and apologized for Titanic, how could I not forgive him? So in my forgiveness, after watching his face explode in The Departed, I sat down to watch Titanic during my sophomore year of college. I loved it, and came to realize that I had been simply jealous.

Looking back, I realize that it’s insanely foolish of us to hate teenage heartthrobs out of sheer jealously. What if it was my face that was plastered over every notebook? I’m not nearly as handsome. I didn’t sink down into the icy waters for love. I can’t sketch nearly that good, but I’d be willing to try. It’s taken 15 years, but I’ve come around and am excited to see Titanic in theaters, if only to finally see it on the big screen. Forgiveness is a beautiful thing.

Leo, if it means anything, I think I speak for all us middle-school haters out there: we forgive you. And I for one will gladly spend $14.50 on a revamped 3D version of your classic if only to thank you for the awesome career you’ve delivered post-Titanic. Here’s to you, Leo. You can sleep soundly now that your bizzaro-world father accepts you and is proud of you.

I love you too, Nate...

Now about this Zac Efron character. I hate that guy…

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Anthologies: Four Rooms

By Nathanael Griffis

Sometimes called vignette films, anthology films are a genre of a film I greatly lack in. I haven’t watched many except the two big ones, Sin City and Pulp Fiction, which are probably the most well-know examples. To put it simply, anthology films are a collection of short films, or vignettes if you will, that somehow connect together. I want to make a distinction between anthology and montage films like Babel, Crash, or Magnolia. Montage films tend to be one overarching story built together from different perspectives. Anthology films are separate stories that may share some similar qualities, but do not have to form a cohesive narrative. Take Pulp Fiction, for example: the stories are connected by having cross-over characters, but each vignette could be its own stand-alone film.

I love Pulp Fiction and Sin City, but to be honest, that’s about where my knowledge of anthology films ends. Embarrassing I know, but anthology films are not mainstream to be honest. They’re hard to find, but provide an interesting change of pace for filmgoers. One of the things I love about them is that they give a chance for legendary filmmakers to collaborate, like New York Stories where Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese each directed one story. They can examine a single theme with various tones of drama or comedy. There’s a chance for greatness, and if one of the stories sucks you know another, hopefully better one is coming soon. My goal is to watch around six to ten anthology films and explore the themes, successes, and failures of this little watched genre.

To begin, I started with Four Rooms, a film I’d heard little about but was pleasantly surprised to watch. As you might guess it’s about four stories in four rooms. What initially attracted me was the directors and cast, which is a normal draw to anthology film. Four Rooms was directed by Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino. The last two names really drew my attention. Four Rooms was made in 1995, when Rodriguez and Tarantino were still just making names for themselves. The basic premise is that a bellhop, played by the wonderful Tim Roth, is left alone for what becomes an absolutely insane night as he deals with one room full of unexpected occurrences after the next. As is to be expected, each segment revolves around a particular room and their residents.

They flow nicely for the most part except for the first segment, “The Missing Ingredient.” Unfortunately, what I’ve noticed with anthology films is that one weak segment can sour all the rest. At the very least it feels like a wasted 15 minutes. “The Missing Ingredient” starts with Madonna asking the hapless bellhop Ted for the honeymoon suite. Soon other all-female guests start to arrive, representing varying degrees of stereotypical characters with accents, from the Southern belle to the Midwestern fifties girl to the prim and proper strong East Coast woman. It turns out that these women are a coven of witches trying to revive their cursed deity, but one of them has forgotten a certain ingredient. A certain ingredient that Ted can provide. I’d avoid spoilers, but it’s kinda painfully obvious. This segment just feels out of place, and Madonna is distractingly awful in skin tight leather literally spending a few minutes bending over in front of the camera in deliberate slow motion. It also isn’t funny and is basically skimming the surface of sex jokes. It seems to be on a rush to get to the punch line, but begrudgingly needs to fill up 15 minutes so they show some boobs, read some poetry, have a strange animation moment, and call it good.

It wasn’t until the end of the entire film, though, that I noticed the true flaw of this segment. It’s not about Ted, or doesn’t feature him enough, which is so sad, because the single great thing about this film is that it reminds me Tim Roth is an astounding actor. I’ve never really seen him do comedy and he pulls off an off-kilter-in-a-good-way physical performance that should really be studied. His character grows and changes but tries to remain composed as his night becomes increasingly chaotic. He has so many equally charming and somewhat disturbing physical quirks that are just sheer pleasure to watch. The simple way his character walks is hilarious. To see him pull a 90-degree turn from being stabbed with needle and running out of a burning room to answering the phone in a polite British accent is astounding. It’s fascinating that his character remains pretty static in performance across the board in each segment. It makes me wonder who decided to write his character that way and how much the four directors collaborated. This is definitely a distinctly comedic film. It has a fascinating 50’s/60’s  sense of comedy–with a Pink Panther-esque animated opening even–but with a 90’s presentation and topics.

Jennifer Beals, Paul Calderon, Tim Roth, Quentin Tarantino, & Bruce Willis in a movie--that's a good thing.

Because you’ll want to know, here’s a rundown of the other segments. The second segment is where the film really gets going. It takes a distinctly dark turn with “The Wrong Man,” directed by Alexandre Rockwell, a director who’s managed to stay off everyone’s radar. Ted the bellhop walks into the wrong room and is mistaken for a the lover of deranged man’s wife. The comedy in this scene is extremely dark and a bit unsettling at first, but it fits with the other two segments a lot better than “The Missing Ingredient.” Also, there’s a lot more of Tim Roth, so it’s exceedingly better. “The Misbehavers,” directed by Robert Rodriquez, is basically what would happen if Rodriguez made one of his kids’ films rated R. The final scene is a ridiculous send-off to screwball comedies with a wonderful punchline from Antonio Banderas to boot.

The real treat is the final segment, “The Man from Hollywood,” with trademark Tarantino dialogue and characters. It moves forward slowly, building tension constantly yet realistically. I don’t want to give away too much, but will say thing it’s inspired by Roald Dahl’s Man from the South and an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode of the same nameif you know either of those you’ll understand the plot almost immediately. Interestingly, the characters in Four Rooms get the name of the Alfred Hitchcock short wrong. The short is definitely worth checking out, considering it stars Peter Lorre and Steve McQueen. What’s really impressive about “The Man from Hollywood” is what Tarantino does with the camera. Overall, with the exception of the first segment, the cinematography is astounding for such short films. It’s really something in “The Man from Hollywood”–there are long one-take shots, close-ups, monologues, and dizzying crane shots, but they coalesce. The only problem is that Tarantino again insists on placing himself into the lead acting spot, which is hit-and-miss. He’s such a larger-than-life character that he sometimes seems to leave his character behind and just be himself. I’m glad that in subsequent films he’s stayed in the director’s chair.

Overall this is a surprisingly good introduction for my newest genre foray. I found it to be really funny and engaging. It’s wonderful to see different directors lending their hands to inventive stories. If only the first bit hadn’t been there, or had focused more on Tim Roth. Any moment Roth is on screen is really quite wonderful, as is the rest of the cast which includes Marisa Tomei, Bruce Willis, Jennifer Beals, and Paul Calderon.

Next I’m going to stay with comedic anthology films and watch David Wain’s The Ten.

Buried Cinema – Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

By Nathanael Griffis

Not your typical samurai garb.

I was first introduced to Jim Jarmusch films while taking a class on Westerns during my undergraduate. The last film we watched was Dead Man, which was introduced as post-modern Western. It was a strange experience, and certainly post-modern. It had a clear sense of being within the Western genre, but was willing to break out of it at times and ends without resolution. A friend in the class was a big Jarmusch fan, and we watched Coffee and Cigarettes later, which was honestly one of the first vignette films I’d seen. I loved it, especially the “Strange to Meet You” segment with Stephen Wright and Roberto Benigni. So, for some time now I’ve been interested in watching Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. I’ve heard so many conflicting opinions on the film that it sounded great to me. This is because Jarmusch, from my experience, either leaves you scratching you head or reveling in his brilliance.

Thankfully, Ghost Dog is amazing. It follows the trials of Ghost Dog, played by Forest Whitaker, as he tries to maintain the life of a samurai in an urban crime environment. Think of it as what would happen if Spike Lee had directed Rashomon from a Martin Scorsese script. Ghost Dog is a solitary warrior whose master, Louie (John Tormey) doesn’t fully understand the life Ghost Dog is committed to. When the crime bosses over Louie decide Ghost Dog has to be eliminated, Ghost Dog struggles with keeping the way of the samurai while still honoring his master, who is trying to kill him.

I knew going into the film that it would be slow moving, because most of the viewer complaints are that there’s not enough action. (There are actually several action scenes, so all you Netflix reviewers are liars.) I imagine people are just disappointed that Forest Whitaker never chops down a hundred ninjas with a katana. (Hey, I was too, but what I got instead was still good). I am a critic though, so naturally I do still have a complaint about the action. Jarmusch does some strange slow-motion with cross dissolves of the same image slightly offset that I couldn’t quite understand. This was the main thing that bothered me about the film. I couldn’t decided if Jarmusch was trying to be cool, or comment on slow motion as cool, or display some meditative meaning in Ghost Dog’s violence.

Ghost Dog using the samurai technique of gun to temple.

The film is wonderfully reflective upon its place in samurai films. Ghost Dog sees himself as part of a dying philosophy, but stays true to his code. Throughout the film, selections of the Hagakure, the samurai code book, help transition throughout the story and build Ghost Dog’s character. This direct approach is used well, because the selections inform the whole film and not just the next scene. They aren’t prophetic. They don’t give anything away, and they don’t seem repetitive or unnecessary. Plus Forest Whitaker’s calm steady voice lends a gravitas to them that’s wonderful. They also provide the audience with a perfect sense of just what the samurai code is. It might feel like a gimmick to some viewers, but if that’s the case, it’s a well used gimmick.

Whitaker’s performance overall is wonderful, as is the whole cast. Each gangster has a personality all their own. Jarmusch did a great job of rounding up aging Italian-American actors and getting them to stretch their acting ability. It’s something to watch Richard Portnow, Henry Silva, and Gene Ruffini playing roles they’ve been typecast into completely differently than they’ve ever played them. This movie pushes against both the crime and samurai genres just enough to claim a unique spot in both, which is something Jarmusch is great it. He modernizes within a genre without forgetting the roots of the genre. He seems to be concluding that the samurai code of honor may be ancient and extinct, but so are the codes of organized crime, and there is room for some code or philosophy to be revived or something new to be created.

Ghost Dog ordering some books at the local Haitian ice cream stand. No joke, that's what's going on.

As I’ve mentioned already, a frequent criticism of this film is that it’s boring and you’re basically waiting for the action sequences. I couldn’t disagree more. In between each action scene are wonderfully quirky scenes of comedy. Ghost Dog’s best friend is a Haitian ice cream salesman, Raymond, who only speaks French. Their interactions speak to the bond of friendship being more than speech and communication. They’re also hilarious together as Raymond, the highly underrated Isaach De Bankolé, worries about health reports on ice cream on the radio and only manages to confuse Ghost Dog with his rants. The three Mafia bosses are either strangely aware of rap culture, stoic to the point of comedic, or apparently suffering from Tourrette’s. Watching them stare down a nervous John Tormey as they order Ghost Dog’s death is both frightening, because you realize this group is run by psychopaths, and hilarious, because you realize they’re psychopaths. It’s a fascinating duality that fits into samurai philosophy brilliantly.

The soundtrack is also wonderful. RZA has shown a strange attachment to samurai films and a wonderful ability to compose excellent scores (he also composed the original music for Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Unleashed). RZA uses traditional Asian string instruments, but combines them with drums and puts them into loops, so they sound like modern hip-hop derivations. What’s amazing is it flows perfectly and sounds natural, which is a credit to his composing. The music expresses emotions and drives scenes perfectly without overpowering anything. He clearly has a love for samurai films, and a talent to mesh conflicting genres together, which makes me excited for his directorial debut The Man with the Iron Fists, a samurai film with Russell Crowe. Sure, why not, sign me up.

I wish I could recommend this film to everyone, but my film lover’s heart has been broken too many times. If you have a healthy knowledge of samurai films, this should be an interesting watch for you. If you like crime dramas, perhaps you’ll like it. If you’re the kind of person who sits at home watching Lynch, Cronenberg, Aronofsky, or Gilliam, but also likes Scorsese and Kurosawa, then you’ll love it. If all those names just went over your head, stay away. It’ll just make me cry if you watch this film and hate it.

Adaptations: Remakes: Cape Fear vs. Star Wars

By Nathanael Griffis

In what is simply horrifying news, and a disturbing continuation of a frightening trend in Hollywood, Tony Scott recently announced a remake of The Wild Bunch. Meanwhile, his more talented brother Ridley announced in past weeks a return to the Blade Runner universe for a pseudo-remake. One seen as an awful idea, the other an exciting idea. Why is it that two respected classics, neither of which need a remake, can be greeted with differing opinions? I agree with the opinions, mind you, but the reason for incessant remakes bothers me. One reason is that Sam Peckinpah should be avoided for remakes. (I’m looking at you, Rod Lurie.) Films like Straw Dogs and The Wild Bunch are complex, disturbing, and hard to understand with Peckinpah behind the camera.  Remakes are nothing new, of course, and remaking movies is essentially what an adaptation is in the long run, but because a movie, unlike a live play, can exist in it’s original form for a longer time, it often seems unnecessary to remake it. And still we’re getting a new Footloose. Last year we were subjected to The A-Team. Alvin and the Chipmunks and The Smurfs have returned, but then again we’re also getting The Muppets coming up. With such a mixed bag it’s hard to filter through it all, so I will attempt to by giving you a good example and then the prime unholy grail of all examples. (Warning: I may geek out a little.)

Cape Fear (1962 & 1991)

Cape Fear is a unique remake, but I think the perfect example of a successful one. The 1962 version starring Gregory Peck as a lawyer driven to the brink by Robert Mitchum’s psychotic rapist is a frightening film that was heavily censored in the 60’s. What survived on screen is still pretty surprising. Max Cady (Mitchum) was imprisoned for rape and when released moves into the same town as Sam Bowden (Peck), the lawyer who poorly defended him years before. Cady then proceeds to manipulate, stalk, torture, and eventually attempt to rape and kill Sam Bowden and his family. Cady, as a man fueled by hate and some primal psychotic desire to sexually overpower women, including the 14-year-old daughter of Sam Bowden, is scary, really scary. It’s a terrifying performance by Mitchum, which is stunningly counterbalanced by Gregory Peck’s fascinating turn as Sam Bowden, who turns to breaking the law to protect his family. It is an interesting deviation from Atticus Finch in many ways.

When Martin Scorsese directed the remake in 1991 it seemed almost unnecessary considering the status of the first one, but the finished product proves that theory wrong. Scorsese, as he did often in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, turned to Robert De Niro to play Max Cady. He brought in Nick Nolte for Sam Bowden, and Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis play his wife and daughter. There are wonderful supporting performances by Robert Mitchum as the town sheriff and Gregory Peck, in his last big screen role, as Cady’s oily religious fanatic defense lawyer. The first thing Scorsese’s remake is able to do is kick the censors out the door. The original Cape Fear, while challenging, clearly feels hampered by its 60’s mentality. Issues are never fully discussed. It’s frustrating in a lot of ways to see Robert Mitchum beat and rape a women, and then listen as the characters dance around the subject, because it’s not appropriate to talk about. In an interview with the director of the original, J. Lee Thompson mentioned his frustration and noted that several scenes of dialogue were cut because of the nature of the discussion. The censors were frequently asking for the film to be rewritten, going over the film scene by scene to control the artistic expression.

Scorsese has no such problem, and he’s able to flesh the characters out a lot more. Sam Bowden is given more depth; he’s not a perfect or pristine symbol of honor like Gregory Peck, which fits with Scorsese themes. Everyone in this film is guilty of something; crime and violence inhabit our world, and it’s how we respond to it that matters. Max Cady is let off of his leash, and De Niro delivers what is, in my opinion, his most frightening performance. He’s manipulative, unforgiving, and driven by some demonic sense of hatred to hurt anything the Bowdens get near. The final scene, which I won’t spoil, is as terrifying a death as any in cinema. The reason this remake works is because Scorsese is not simply trying to cash in. He’s taking these characters and this well-respected film and building upon it, reinterpreting it for a new generation, and improving the technical aspects of the filmmaking. The film simply looks better, the art direction is better, and it feels more realistic and less set-piece-driven. Visually, it’s a cleaner and more clearly shot film with better camera work.

A lot of times the main argument for remaking a film is that the original was good in concept but poor in execution (e.g., Tron). I want to point out that this is not the case. A good remake is more about how you tell the story, who’s involved, and the theme you’re trying to convey. You must have a reason to remake a film, and the good concept- bad execution is a good reason, but not the only one. Don’t get up in arms simply because Fright Night was remade (turns out it was good) or that Aronofsky wants to do Robocop (it could be good). Cross your fingers and calm down, it’s not the end of the world–unless George Lucas is involved, in which case it just might be.

Star Wars (1977, 1997, 2008)

Leaving aside his prequels and his astounding ability to ruin childhoods, George Lucas created the greatest sci-fi franchise ever and then proceeded to stomp all over it. Initially a “special edition” that is remastered and cleaned up sounds like a great idea, and watching the documentaries of the process to clean up the negative of the original trilogy fascinated me as child. I saw all three special editions in theaters, being as I was too young to see the original films in theaters, and truthfully enjoyed them. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve become more and more bothered by the changes Lucas keeps making. He’s not merely adding a deleted scene, extending a song montage, giving us a more lively Mos Eisley, or simply a better picture quality–the story is shifting and changing.  A New Hope has plot holes, physics problems, and technical issues, but with the 2008 DVD release, none of those issues are fixed, they’re simply compounded with new problems.

Let’s try and let our nerd problems go and forgive Lucas for the 1997 remakes, because for the most part it is simply a remake that technically needed to happen. The original negative was degrading and it had to be remastered. It looks better and some of the improvements, like adding more character to Mos Eisley and Cloud City bring out the worlds more. The sarlacc’s beak and tentacles do look better than just the pit of sand with spikes in the original. The extended Max Rebo Band sequence is fine, sometimes annoying, but it doesn’t detract from the character or story. Yes, Greedo shoots first, but let’s calm down–if there weren’t T-shirts and websites dedicated to complaining about this fact, we might not have noticed.

What is truly appaling is the 2008 DVD release version that tries to connect the original trilogy to the prequels. Hayden Christensen’s visage has replaced Sebastian Shaw, which just creates an inconsistency, because why doesn’t Ewan McGregor then replace Alec Guinness? It’s as if Lucas was afraid to do this (perhaps the thought of Alec Guinness’ ghost haunting him with those judgemental hazel eyes makes him think twice), leaving us wondering, why is Obi-Wan old, but not Anakin? Gungans make an appearance in the final celebration, though thankfully no Jar-Jar. Voice actors are changed to fit with the prequels–Boba Fett is now voiced Temuera Morrison, the voice of Jango Fett in the prequels, which seems like nothing short of an insult to Jason Wingreen from the original and again an added inconsistency, because shouldn’t the son sound different from the father? New scenes of Ewan McGregor talking with Uncle Owen just seem out of place, and the lighting and scenery don’t coalesce with the later shots of Tatooine. Overall, though, what is most disturbing is that the digital remastering is severely botched. At one point Luke’s lightsaber has been color-corrected to be green. Vader’s lightsaber has lost its deep red hue and turned to a rosy pink, and there is a strong blue wash over the film, similar to the wash that is found commonly in modern sci-fi.

It’s infuriating, but what is happening is that an author has not been made to stop. As a writer, if I don’t put my work out there, I will never finish it. I am never content with what I write, and I always feel like there is something worth changing, so I constantly change things, but what we have here is an artist who’s in the midst of revision and gives us his drafts every couple of years and claims each draft as the true masterpiece instead of just leaving them alone. I suspect Lucas will in a few years (I’m afraid of the Blu-ray) correct some of these problems, but he’s created so many more with his changes that there’s little room for trust in his ability any more. He’s not fixing inconsistencies, like why Obi-Wan disappears from his cloak but Qui-Gon doesn’t; he’s simply tweaking and adding inconsistencies that loosely tie all six films together.

Remakes need to be just that, remade entirely. You have to start anew. Treat it as an old concept with a new spin and go from there. We can’t have one bearded madman destroy everything we know and love about science fiction in film. The good thing is that even though they may try to remake classics like Akira, we can always go back and watch the original.

Next, I’ll finish up my long and drawn out series on adaptations with some of the oddballs, like adapting a song, a theme park ride, or a painting.

Korean films: a look back.

By Nathanael Griffis

A while back someone, I believe it was Steve, asked me if I could identify any patterns in Korean filmmaking after watching a few Korean films in a row. They all speak Korean and there’s a lot more kicking than in American movies, I thought. Neither truly felt accurate, and I doubt I’ll be able to give an accurate description of prevailing themes, styles, techniques, or ideas.  I did, though, begin thinking about my whole experience and how to discuss Korean films in a general sense, at least as much as one can after having seen ten films. There were five main things I took away from this experience that I was impressed with in Korean films: little color correction, strong female characters, bold unhampered violence, a concern for the framed shot, and experimentation especially in editing for narrative. These things are not unique to Korean cinema, but they stood out to me as something that was of a primary concern within most of the films I watched.

This is the country I've been talking about.

The lack of color correction–by which I mean no computer enhanced color palette (i.e. Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd’s gray scale and red palette, O Brother, Where Art Thou?’s sepia palette, Amélie’s sun-drenched yellow and green, or the blisteringly annoying steely blue of most sci-fi action films like Transformers)–was refreshing. At first it was disconcerting in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance; it felt unpolished. I grew to really appreciate it though, in that film especially, because it lends a realistic feel to the images . Color correction isn’t hard to do. It’s a matter of a few dials, buttons, and toggle switches and you’re all set, so this is not something beyond the filmmakers’ abilities. They consciously choose to shoot with realistic tones. This style is a rarity in American filmmaking. I’m not calling for them to change; I like the difference between the two countries. The use of color correction signals certain themes and genres and allows a director another added level of artistic control. It can be annoying though, especially in poorly made sci-fi and horror, when the color scheme is simply there because that’s the accepted color scheme of a genre. It’s even more annoying on television where, with the exception of reality TV, most procedurals on CBS are given blue tones (just watch an episode of CSI), ABC is garnished with reds and greys, and FOX tends to go with whatever the genre calls for. Sometimes, all the color correction done needlessly all the time becomes tired so I appreciated these films’ decisions to avoid it.

Strong female characters are another large cross-cultural difference. Korea, as I understand it, is much more of a matriarchal society than America, which is almost so individualistic as to be neither patriarchal nor matriarchal, but we tend to slide towards the male-dominated end of character development. Every film I watched, with the exceptions of The Good, the Bad, the Weird and Painted Fire, had female characters at the focal point of the film, and they had depth that is rarely seen in American movies. When a film like Black Swan, which presents strong complex female leads, is released in America, it’s seen as daring and different. (Mind you, Black Swan is daring and different for so much more than just strong female characters, but you get my point.)

In case I never mentioned it, Kang-ho Song = amazing.

Films like Lady Vengeance, Mother, My Sassy Girl, and 3-Iron were striking. The difference to me is that both sexes are given equal consideration and complexity. Female character are not used to bolster the male character, but to play off of each other. The actress’s story is just as important as the actor’s. There is little sense, except in Painted Fire, that women are objects men use, or that men are objects strong women use. Having strong, well-written characters of both genders has removed objectification to some extent in these cases. (Mind you, I’m watching what is considered the best of Korean cinema; it could be different if I watched less highly regarded films.) This is something I wish American films would take a cue from, because strong female characters just improve your story as a whole.

Something where both countries are similar though is in their presentation of bold unhampered violence. By this I mean that violence isn’t pulled away from. It’s a visual experience that causes a visceral reaction. American films have always been preoccupied with violence. It is sometimes a popular criticism of them, but both countries have been moving towards a stark presentation of violence. The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men is the perfect example of this. Along with David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, we’re seeing more realistic violence in film. The difference is that violence is forthrightly presented as more horrifying instead of the slow-motion glorification of the late 80’s and early 90’s. This is not the period of the John Woos and John McTiernans of earlier.

Korean films follow this trend as well–Chan-wook Park, Ji-woo Kim, and Joon-ho Bong especially. Ji-woo Kim is unique in this category, because he still seems to be glorifying violence and presenting an enjoyable spectacle in The Good, the Bad, the Weird, but he uses the stark violence to make the presentation more fluid and exciting. Park’s use of violence is without a doubt horrifying and grotesque at times, while Bong has a sense of grace and beauty built around the extent of the violence he is willing to show. I personally prefer this style and technique for presenting violence. Gore should disturb; it should frighten the audience. We should cringe and turn away from it, not jump up and clap. (I say this, yet I still love a good action flick, but that’s my own personal struggle to contend with.)

The final two things I noticed go together: a strong concern for the framed shot (which most American cinematographers and filmmakers still have) and a desire for experimentation go together. The things Chan-wook Park and Ki-duk Kim do with editing to control the movement of time in their film is fascinating. All of their films have a strong sense of framing. Every detail is placed within the frame for a purpose. This is more than merely skilled filmmaking; it’s really a persistence to continue bettering the art of film. Ji-woon Kim reminds me of early Spielberg, with a panache for exciting stories and a gift for visual presentation. Joon-ho Bong is like Robert Altman reborn and mainstreamed. Chan-wook Park has the gifts of Martin Scorsese, if Scorsese made sci-fi horror movies. I think these filmmakers will be studied in the future for their editing and framing and their impact on film as an art form.

The greatest thing I’ve taken away from this experience is a greater love for the universality of film. Everyone loves stories, and films are such an amazing way to present something as dense as a novel but only as time-consuming as a short story. I want to keep watching more. I missed several, like J.S.A., Peppermint Candy, Simodo, The Man from Nowhere, Secret Sunshine, A Bittersweet life, The Show Must Go On, Barking Dogs Never Bite, and Thirst. If I had to recommend one film that you must watch from the ten I saw, it would have to be Memories of Murder–it’s an amazing and unique experience in film. If there’s one I’m sure people will love, it’d be The Good, the Bad, the Weird.

I don’t know what I’ll do next, but that’s half the excitement of writing.

On Trial: Case #001 – Tom Cruise

The Defense, presented by Nathanael Griffis

There is a viewpoint floating out in the ether that Tom Cruise is a bad actor, that he doesn’t make good movies, that he’s annoying, that he’s a crazy goofball. I respectfully and forcefully disagree (though I may not be able to argue against the last point). His ridiculous running style aside, Tom Cruise is a fantastic actor. He’s been nominated for three Oscars and seven Golden Globes (of which he’s won three), and numerous other accolades. He’s shown range in comedies, dramas, and genre films. Most of the criticism of his acting is that he’s too passionate–that he doesn’t have subtlety or the ability to lose himself in a role. Basically, he yells a lot, and this is all people remember. The reason they remember it, though, is because he is amazing at playing a character that lets his emotions build up and then explode. If anything, he has probably been typecast in these roles, but he wrote the book on releasing emotion on screen (not literally). He does take roles that require more subtle touches: Rain Man, Eyes Wide Shut, & Interview with the Vampire come to mind.

If you simply go through his filmography, the resume he’s accumulated is staggering. The directors he’s worked with are the best: Kubrick, Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, both Ridley and Tony Scott, Oliver Stone, Ron Howard, Sydney Pollack, Rob Reiner, Cameron Crowe, Paul Thomas Anderson, Edward Zwick, Michael Mann; and I’ve left some out. I think a lot of the criticism of Tom Cruise comes from his off-screen activities. There also seems to be this ridiculous notion that he’s an action star, which is a sneaky way of trying to lump him in with sub-par actors. The truth is that in real life just about everyone’s a little strange. We all do and say crazy things. If you look at the things he’s done, chewing out cameramen or Matt Lauer, it’s not all that deplorable. He’s also barely an action star. Sure he’s done the Mission: Impossible movies, but that’s only a recent development. Minority Report has some action in it, but with the exception of the Mission: Impossible franchise, even his action-packed films, like Collateral, rely on strong story and characters.

What normally happens with criticism of an actor of Mr. Cruise’s caliber is that the whiny internet trolls have to begrudgingly qualify their insults with some phrase like “A Few Good Men was awesome, though.” The evidence speaks louder than the cover of the National Enquirer claiming Tom Cruise is a big meany. So, I leave you with his filmography for you to view and eventually accept that Tom Cruise makes amazing films. He’s here to stay and will be remembered. Perhaps this fact only builds a greater stubborn jealousy in his critics, but I’m willing to risk it.

Selected* films of Tom Cruise:

Taps (1981)

The Outsiders (1983)

Risky Business (1983)

Legend (1985)

Top Gun (1986)

The Color of Money (1986)

Cocktail (1988)

Rain Man (1988)

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Far and Away (1992)

A Few Good Men (1992)

The Firm (1993)

Interview with the Vampire (1994)

Mission: Impossible (1996)

Jerry Maguire (1996)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Magnolia (1999)

Mission: Impossible II (2000)

Vanilla Sky (2001)

Minority Report (2002)

The Last Samurai (2003)

Collateral (2004)

War of the Worlds (2005)

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Tropic Thunder (2008)

Valkyrie (2008)

Knight and Day (2010)

*Some films have been excluded from this list because of their lack of notoriety and for space concerns.

The Prosecution, presented by Steven Moore

Never mind that Tom Cruise is kind of a dick in his personal life. If an actor is a douche in real life, it has no bearing on how talented they are or how well they perform their roles. Never mind that Tom Cruise has been in some of the best movies ever made. His film canon is impressive, and he repeatedly chooses films that are amazing. (Who can forget the game-changing Legend). Never mind that Tom Cruise is one of the greatest talents in stunt work of our generation. All that’s beside the point.

Tom Cruise just sucks. That’s all. I see a trailer for a movie he’s going to be in, and I immediately have no interest in seeing it. Something about the guy just makes me want to go anywhere his face isn’t. You can argue that I’m just jealous of a five-foot-tall psychopathic control freak who constantly has to try to re-ingratiate himself to polite society, but I’m not alone. We are legion. When I’m at a function where I don’t know anyone, all I need to do is throw out an “Ugh, I hear Tom Cruise has a new movie coming out.” The ball only starts rolling from there. Soon a crowd is gathered, and we unite as brothers and sisters of humanity through our mutual disgust of Mr. Cruise.

It’s not rational. It’s not even fair. But it’s damn near universal. Ray Bradbury wrote a short story about a man who hacks his way into the heart of an unexplored jungle. There he finds creatures whose very presence trigger a flight response in him. When he tries to fight it, he begins vomiting uncontrollably. There is no reason for him to feel this way. The creatures are tiny, harmless, and benevolent. Tom Cruise is like that: tiny and harmless (not sure about the benevolent part), but something about him makes my skin, and a lot of other people’s skin, crawl. Oh, and in the story, the creatures turn out to be the real earthlings, while we are descendants from Martians. I think the conclusion is pretty obvious there. I rest my case.

DiCaprio’s Crappy Prose

By Tom Kapr

Ten years ago, if you told me you thought Leonardo DiCaprio was a good actor, I would have laughed in your face. Right in your face. I would have tried to make you feel bad about your life for having such an opinion. Granted, at that time, I was basing my opinion almost solely on his performance as Jack Dawson in Titanic (of which my opinion has not much changed).

DiCaprio in Shutter Island

DiCaprio in "Shutter Island"

Now, I have to somewhat sheepishly admit that DiCaprio has become one of our best actors. I wasn’t on board until late 2002 when I saw Catch Me If You Can. His performance as master counterfeiter Frank Abagnale Jr., whose daddy issues got him in way over his head with the law in several countries, was astonishing. (I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the credit due to director Steven Spielberg and co-stars Tom Hanks and especially Christopher Walken, who played the senior Frank Abagnale and had some genuinely moving scenes with his on-screen son.)

DiCaprio has since given some of the best star performances of the last decade, mostly in great Martin Scorsese films like Shutter Island (one of this year’s best), The Departed, and The Aviator, in which he gave arguably his best performance to date as Howard Hughes.

But I’m not here to talk about how great Leonardo DiCaprio is. I’m here to take him down a few notches. He is gonna be so burned when he reads this, man.

There seems to be a pattern emerging wherein no matter how great one of his films is, DiCaprio has that one line of stand-out cheesy dialogue that makes me want to throw Macadamia nuts at the screen. (I keep a handful in each pocket at all times for just such an occasion. If you want to follow my example, then also remember not to throw them at actual people who say stupid things. Stupid people have a tendency to react violently when pelted with nuts.)

My favorite example of what I like to call “DiCaprio’s Crappy Prose” is from Titanic, when Jack Dawson overhears that the ship is going down. Leo wrinkles his brow and flatly says, “This is bad.” Really, Jack? Are the impending deaths of 1,517 people bad? Because so is that line reading. (Incidentally, I asked Kevin Costner how he felt about the matter. All he said was, “My boat.”)

Here are a couple more gems (which I already realize might not be verbatim, so chill out):

“You want him to chop me up and feed me to the poor?” We’ve all heard this line about a thousand times, in every single piece of advertising for The Departed over the last four years. Somebody in that marketing campaign either really dug that line, or really hated DiCaprio.

“In America, it’s bling-bling, but out here, it’s bling-bang.” I heard DiCaprio came up with that one himself. I don’t know, maybe it’s more poetic in Afrikaans. But it’s anachronistic in any language. Blood Diamond takes place in the 90s, before that term was popularized.

“Come back with me, so that we can be young men together once more.” I know I’m butchering that line. I guess it’s not so much a bad line, as it is a line that draws more attention to what is already the most nonsensical part of an otherwise amazing film. Here’s my burning question about Inception: Why, in that scene, does DiCaprio’s character still appear so young while Ken Watanabe’s character looks like a mummy? If you’ve seen the film, you understand why I’m asking the question.

And here is the cheesiest line of them all, from the film at the center of the Incidental Dog review crew’s most recent podcastBody of Lies. DiCaprio plays a CIA agent trying to catch a high-ranking member of Al-Qaeda. He’s looking for a patsy to play up as a competing terrorist mastermind, and here is his description of who he wants for the unwitting job:

“Someone between Osama and Oprah.”

You know, I think I actually saw that job listing on Craigslist, and strangely enough, I believe I fit that description. Less militant than Osama bin Laden? Check. More militant than Oprah Winfrey? Check. When do I start?

Keep an ear out for more of DiCaprio’s Crappy Prose in your future film viewings. I will be.

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