Archive for the ‘ Features ’ Category

Seeing Through the Robots: How to Watch Science Fiction

Science Fiction films have forever been a part of cinematic history. Indeed, some of the most celebrated films of all time fall into this other-worldly genre. Beginning with early masterpieces like the short film A Trip to the Moon (France 1902) there has been a never-ending acceleration into technology, creativity, and of course the future.

For my viewing selection I watched (and I wish I would have had time for more) the following films: Metropolis (1927), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the first and second original Star Wars films (1977-80), Blade Runner (1982), Terminator 2: Jud

gment Day (1991), Gattaca (1997), Dark City (1998), and District 9 (2009).

Science Fiction (or SF) is an extremely important genre, not only for its robust role in what Langford calls Hollywood’s “lucrative summer market” but for the technical advancements and creative places and opportunities it opened and created for all of cinema.

I enjoy SF, and to be honest most of my favorite films have hints of SF imbued into them. I think this is due to the fact that SF to me is the genre that can’t stop its influence upon everything around it. As Brian Regan jokes about cranberries, they’re in everything. Cran-apple, cran-grape, etcetera. And like a cranberry, SF is incredibly versatile, with its elements showing up in every film type imaginable. From serious adult drama like this year’s Inception to children’s films like E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982) to western-action-comedy spoofs like the up-coming Cowboy’s and Aliens (2011).

Langford writes: “SF has a good claim to be considered the first distinctively post-classical Hollywood genre, and as such occupies an important place in industry history.” (2005 pg. 184) But as I’ve already pointed out above SF is a long-lived genre. Metropolis (Germany 1927) one of Ufa Studio’s greatest claims to fame still shows its traces in films like Gattaca (1997) or The Island (2005). Both films are cautionary towards the philosophical and moral implications of a society that is controlled by technology and divided by superfluous social classes. So the messages of SF films have changed little compared to the technology they present (both in production and story).

Film poster for Metropolis

Image via Wikipedia

So, although as Langford excellently argues that SF has seen leaps and bounds of growth since 1977’s Star Wars the true beginnings of the genre are old. The genre has moved from fantastic dreams of the future of space exploration, to mutated monster attacks like Godzilla (1954), to alien invasions throughout the 50’s like The Thing From Another World or The Day the Earth Stood Still (both 1951) or War of the Worlds (1953). And we have achieved a high-budget, star-powered and very diverse genre that uses infinite tools to express simple human truths.

But to avoid too broad of strokes when defining the genre it is important to note the characteristics that do help distinguish a sci-fi film from a simply a film with technology. Of course technology plays an enormous role, often times it is depicted as the malevolent force as in 2001: A Space Odyssey (2968), The Matrix (1999), or the Terminator (1984-2003) series, warning of the problematic possibilities of over-advancing technologies and the obsoletion (the making of something to be obsolete) of humanity. Other times technology plays a neutral role merely providing a context for other commentary as in Back to the Future (1985) or the excellent District 9 (2009) which gives a powerful depiction of apartheid and civil war and racism.

When talking about the distinguishing factors of SF, Langford begins to unravel his own argument as he explains that SF is lacking any consistent iconography. He breaks down setting, dialogue, and stories. He explains that the locations aren’t as identifiable or consistent as in Westerns, and the dialogue isn’t as placing as the gangster genre, because SF could be anywhere at any time. Sure there are “robots and rocket ships and death rays” (Langford 2005 pg. 186) and endless supplies of electricity (SF is, after-all, a genre that driven by comic book and pulp heritage), but there are also the SF films that work into the spiritual or super-natural aspects. Films like: Dark City and the Star Wars series both deal with inner forces of good and evil used to control the physical world. They just happen to be set in futuristic space-travelling times of powerful alien civilizations.

Perhaps the most identifying mark of science fiction is the “future”. And this “futuristic” setting is what has centralized the genre’s growth and change over time. Langford explains that science fiction never evolved at all. Saying in a sense, that we were always expressing the same things, we only improved upon on our ability to visually articulate them. He uses the example that our present technology has caught up to what early science fiction fantasized about. In turn we dreamed bigger. “SF has been and continues to be a recombinant genre.” (Langford 2005 pg.185) We achieve and then go back to the basics of imagination and stretch things further still.

One of my best-friends, whom I consider an excellent and born story-teller, has this remarkable ability to give hypothetical situations to prove points in arguments of any kind. And while my inevitable defeat may be frustrating, it’s part of what I love about him as a person. Say, as we recently were, we’re talking about whether you can be elitist without being arrogant. It’s a complicated question, but he makes it simpler by creating a hypothetical. A pretend civilization somewhere along the Amazon River maybe, a group who doesn’t have the exposure to see what is good or bad or excellent to be critical of their consumption. All this and more to prove his point. It’s elaborate and maybe excessive, but simply it works. It communicates so effectively a truth. Humility and elitism don’t mix; but even that sentence feels as though it awaits a challenger without some sort of tangible defense. Some elaborate situation.

Langford I think misses his own point as he trails off into amazement during his case study of The Matrix, when he finally agrees with another film writer, Scott Bukatman’s, idea that the ultimate goal of SF is to fight for the utopian promise of ultimate human society. This is not the point of SF, but rather to make profound truths about people and life clear through any means possible to use the hypothetical to say something that otherwise falls on deaf ears.

Langford nearly touches it just pages earlier when he writes of the need for basic human spirit or almost anything pre- or trans-technological as a solution to the narrative crisis: “Most famously, in Star Wars Luke Skywalker must learn to ‘trust the force’: only by turning off his sophisticated targeting mechanism and channeling the mystical animistic power that in the film’s mythology binds together the living fabric of the universe can Luke destroy the Death Star….The entire code of the Jedi Knights is founded on this conviction of the fundamental inadequacy of mere technological mastery.” (Langford 2005 pg.199) Doesn’t sound like looking for the ultimate human society to me at all. It sounds more inwardly focused.

For as long as SF can speak its simple wisdom it can be a powerful communicator. And will be an ever-changing genre, which is constantly pushing the boundaries of technology and creativity in the art of film-making. But most importantly for us viewers and critics and students of film, is a need to look at the movies with an investigative eye. To see through the robots and special effects and time travel to absorb a real meaning. To realize that even when we search the far galaxies for villains and heroes our  solutions still return to the core human needs of love, companionship, and adventure.


A Treasure Map to Understanding the Action Film

An archeologist treasure hunter, a vacationing cop, and the son of a powerful intergalactic war-lord–what do they have in common? Well as Indiana Jones, John McClane and Luke Skywalker very little, but as action heroes nearly everything. The action film is one of the most modern and important genres in both contemporary Hollywood and world cinema. The origin of the action blockbuster is difficult to pin down, since as Langford writes: “In one sense, of course, every motion picture is an ‘action’ film.” (Langford 2005 pg.237) Meaning simply that scenes of action are used in every genre and in every decade of filmmaking, but I quickly want to cover this point and move away from it. The action genre is big, really big, and it is “ruthlessly colonizing” every other genre. Now that I’ve said that let’s leave it. Because, more importantly I think it also unwittingly has spoken volumes for all of movie-dom, identifying the most central and profound desires of both movie goers and movie makers.

For my action exposure I watched (in order of release): The Great Train Robbery (1903), The General (1927), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Seven Samurai (1954), all four Indiana Jones films (1981, 1984, 1989, 2008), Die Hard (1988), Eraser (1996), The Dark Knight (2008), The Good the Bad and The Weird (2008) and Gamer (2009). I’m glad for an opportunity to cover action films; it’s probably my number two genre (unless you can count Penelope Cruz movies as a genre?). But I would like to clarify ahead of time, (I understand this is assumed and redundant) that this was my watch-list not my exposure, and I will be referring to more films than this.

The most important aspect of action films, over character development, storyline, location, and often times even above overall quality is the action sequences. Buildings, cars, bridges, people, anything really, being blown up, lit on fire, demolished, squished, shot, stabbed, or otherwise destroyed in some spectacular way; shootouts, chases, falling, jumping, climbing, swimming (drowning) and of course hand to hand combat are all mandates of action films and they are often shown to us with slow motion, fast motion, animatronics [Jaws (1975)] and CGI [from Star Wars (1977) to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), which even used reverse slow-motion for many effects].

I am a strong advocate for the non-realistic action films. I go into them already knowing that they are impossible and silly. So I enjoy the humor of the action more than the believability of a well scripted fight scene, like being shot once and being down for the count. An action scene like the last battle in Seven Samurai is entertaining to me, and I’m very involved in the outcome yet, more for the characters and the livelihood of the village than for the actual fighting. Whereas take a movie like The Punisher (2004), where the premise, revenge for the death of a man’s wife and child, I couldn’t care less about (And why not? The writers didn’t.), but I find the action sequences equally inducing of a stare-lock on the screen. There is a scene in The Punisher where Frank Castle (lead character) is fighting this enormous assassin, I mean this guy is big, in a tiny-little apartment. He stabs the guy, but the knife doesn’t go deep enough through the body-builders muscles to do any major damage. They have a slapping contest, and shortly afterward they play catch with a live grenade before Castle hides in a bathtub from the explosion. It’s wonderful. It’s silly, and impossible and wonderful.

Just four years after The Punisher, action sequences have been taken to such impossible extremes that the audiences’ believability of a scene isn’t even considered. Take the fourth Indiana Jones film for example. Indiana survives a nuclear bomb while hiding in a refrigerator. The fridge is hurled miles away from the blast; and if that isn’t preposterous enough, Indy is also involved in a point-blank shoot-out using machine guns mounted to the top of SUV’s that are driving along a cliff in the middle of the jungle while having a sword vs. whip duel with a Nazi on the hood of the vehicles moving 60 MPH. . .and monkeys are driving one of the cars! Monkeys! AND NO ONE IS INJURED!

I like this (with Indiana Jones, I expect it). I am riveted by the implausibility and absurdity of these images I’m seeing. So the fact that the narrative is not advanced or a point is not made is excusable. Fortunately  there is another side to action films. Underneath the kung-fu and rooftop leaping there are still stories. And the very best action films have them.

Langford writes that we should call action “action melodrama” (Langford 2005 pg.236) because of the often simple and familial, domesticated plots. With the motivation for many heroes being revenge for or protection of a family member or love interest, I would agree with him that this may be a “profitable” way to view the genre.

As action films have changed (their evolution very similar to the real world’s progression of weaponry) their budgets have become larger and larger. Often the summer action blockbuster is the studio’s biggest payout and these “silly vehicles” have become the winning rides for big money. The term blockbuster referring to the amount of cash a film generates.

Yet, on a deeper level of change, action films have learned something. The “hard action” films of the 70’s and 80’s with stars like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Shwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Jet Li, Jean Claude Van Damme, even (some) Bruce Willis, have been substituted for an action film that holds a message. Sure we still have Jason Statham and Gerard Butler making excessive (both excessively violent and moronic) movies like the Crank series or 300, Gamer (which I shouldn’t have wasted time on) and (action/thriller) Law Abiding Citizen (2009). But we also have another set of movies emerging, a set of more purposeful action films.

Where the melodrama is more subtle, albeit the same stereotypes and techniques (slow-motion and CGI) are being used, there is an allegorical tone. Films like Avatar or District 9 (both 2009) or Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) are great examples of exceptional action-like tropes and profound philosophical and allegorical stories. The shoot ‘em up film is still out there (Literally, Shoot ‘Em Up (2007) with Clive Owen, don’t bother!). But Hollywood is also producing action films that have something deeper to them. Even exploitative films like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series proves, upon further inspection, a constant homage to historical action films.

This, I think, is the key to watching action in our current time. Look deeper. Look past the stereotype characters and see if there is a meaning. See if there is a moral to the story. Is it just action for the sake of action? Or is there something to it? Avatar’s eco-friendly message of equality and respect helped carry it to its current position as the highest grossing film of all time ($1.95 billion). The Lord of the Rings didn’t stack audiences and fans into theaters based solely on action either. Although there are superb combat sequences and ground-breaking CGI in every one of the films, the sacrificial and redemptive story of Frodo Baggins is what makes the movies worth spending 9 hours on.

I love the way that Langford ends his chapter. In his case study of Armageddon and Deep Impact, he beautifully words his point: “Thus the ostensibly super-social—the sacrifice of the one for the many—is reoriented to the supremely personal: it is as if Armageddon, having thrown every effect bar the kitchen sink at the audience over the course of its 2 hr. 24 min. running time, can conceive of no more spectacular effect—no phenomenon of more global or even cosmic significance—than the death of its own star.” Wow.

What a point, huh? If given an unlimited budget, talent and spectacle, it ultimately will be worth less than one man sacrificing for many. As a Christian, I find this moving and very gratifying. That you can show all the fighting and struggle and chases and impacts and explosions you want, but in the end there must be something worth fighting for. And the reason goes beyond the macho “hard action” films, it goes beyond disaster epics, it goes beyond the swashbuckling romances and the jungle adventures to finally remind us that all the people we passed along the way are people. And that they matter.

I don’t intend to diminish the genre. I find the ridiculous action sequences very enjoyable and I will watch a film just for them. After-all I own the Hellboy and Brendan Frasier’s Mummy movies. But the action blockbuster, if it’s going to mean anything, it is meant to show us the diamond in the rough, to show us heroes who we can be and who we can’t be and to entertain at all costs. And this is what we most deeply desire in films: to engage in the spectacular. To see what we might be. Not simply to be in location and on-scene but to feel spectacular for having actually done it and sometimes just for having been a witness.

From Caution to Anti-hero

One of my favorite lines from any movie is in the opening scene of Goodfellas. Ray Liotta’s character, Henry, slams the trunk on a body that his two “wiseguy” friends had just shot and stabbed dozens of times. It freeze frames on a look of pure complicity. The voice-over kicks in. “As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.”

The gangster genre is hands down my most beloved movie genre. I took the time to watch both The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932) as a sample of the “classical” period and even developmental stage of the genre. And then watched again all three Godfather films, On the Waterfront, Pulp Fiction, and, as I write, I’ve got Goodfellas going in the background.

As much as I could ramble about my love for this particular style of anti-hero, I know the purpose of a genre study is to understand that particular genre’s development. To understand what defines it, what makes it work, why it has lasted, who likes it and most of all what it means. So I will try not to be melodramatic.

The gangster genre is an old genre. However, it didn’t have distinctness until the introduction of sound. Criminal based films of the silent era couldn’t personalize the crooks enough for us to like them. It was simply too difficult to get an audience behind a “bad” character as the hero of the story without being able to hear that persons voice. But once our gangsters could talk they proved to be the most charming baddies imaginable.

This is something that is very characteristic of the genre, even from the ‘30s. Dialogue. Gangster films are characterized by their language. Gangsters, at least the cool ones we all like, are often (but not always) flippant, over-confident, hot-heads. They say things that sound really fun to say. Like: “Say, hello to my lil’ friend!” (Scarface 1983) or “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” (The Godfather 1972) or “Hamburgers. The cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast,” (Pulp Fiction 1994). Without this dialogue Gangster films wouldn’t be what they are. The language is vital. Which is why I disagree with the Langford’s argument that silent era films “used a different, rather than simply an inadequate, ‘language’ to articulate the experience of urban modernity.” (Langford 2005, pg. 137) I would agree you could call The Great Train Robbery (1903) a crime film, but it certainly is not a gangster film!

The language (and even the sounds of inner-cities and guns firing) helps to set up this world of the gangster. I do appreciate how Langford begins his approach to the genre by explaining that we as film-goers have been trained to know when we see “gangster shit,” (term courtesy of Quentin Tarantino). We learned how to recognize the rules to the gangster’s world.

We understand that police and the judicial system are incompetent or nonexistent. We don’t expect consequences from outside the mob or mafia. We recognize, without being told, that we will have to adopt certain slang to understand the characters’ speech. We tolerate that they have sick senses of humor, and if all of these things work the right way, we even participate.

Both The Public Enemy and Scarface (’31/’32) begin with an indictment to the audience. It is an explanation, and sort of a roundabout way of saying “don’t buy into it.” The messages from the studios say things like: “this is not meant to glorify crime, but to depict it accurately and condemn it.” Glorify crime? It seems so backward. How could crime accidentally be glorified?

Langford wrote something that struck me personally. He wrote: “…the genre has influentially been read as an allegory of both the allure and the potentially catastrophic consequences of untrammeled individualism.” Wow. I felt like he was pointing a finger. As a young man who watches many movies (probably too many) I found myself taken aback, that I had missed this ruse.

Because when I read it, I instantly recognized it as truth. All of my favorite gangsters Henry from Goodfellas or Michael from The Godfather or even Tony from Scarface are all perfect examples. As Warshow’s argument (1975) states: “to the American audience the gangster is an exemplary and admonitory figure of fatally overreaching ambition.” But I had missed it.

I understand now that in their pursuit of power and control they lose everything. But how misleading that exciting journey could be I never quite pinned down. I find it strangely amusing that Hollywood went from caution to apology but then back straight to anti-hero. In the early stages of the genre we were warned about and even detested the characters and their crimes. But the detestable characters still had fans.

The lifestyle appeal of this extreme individualism is what has kept it alive through every phase of economic and social change in the US. Everyone in our country has bought into the idea that things can get better for them if they… You fill in the blank. It’s the American dream to be successful and powerful. But as I said the gangsters were presented as cautionary figures.

Quickly, to be ethical we almost entirely stopped making gangster films in the late thirties after their great success. What did we do instead? We made them undercover police, spies, double-agents, tough-guy detectives. They did all the same things except we labeled it as “good”. Movies like G-Men (1935) or Bullets or Ballots (1936).

But that was short lived. And soon we turned back to gangsters with a stronger emphasis on the mob, beginning in the late ‘40s–the more organized the better.

Movies like On the Waterfront combined that sense of lavished individualism with the surrounding organized crime necessities. Creating an irony that is what our greatest gangster film, The Godfather, explains beautifully. Langford says it well: “Typically, the gang itself is both indispensible and a burden, even a threat, to the gangster: he needs the support of his soldiers, and it is by his ascent from the ranks that his self-assertion is measured; yet the gangster knows only too well how dangerous it is to rely on any ties, even those of blood.” And later: “The gangster film implicitly ironises its subject inasmuch as it stresses the self-sufficient individual the gangster desires to be and insists he is, yet—precisely because he is a gangster—he can never become.” (Langford 2005, pg. 142)

Langford calls film gangsters a “contradiction of radical autonomy and dependency.” I’d like to use the metaphor of a peacock here. Don’t laugh yet, hear me out. Peacocks are the only loose animal (bird or otherwise) in the zoo. But they are still in the zoo. They have this incredible freedom that the other animals don’t have to walk around where they please. Yet they are completely dependent on the system for protection from those other animals and people.

Gangsters are like this. They believe in this fake autonomy, this false sense of power and control which will ultimately betray even the greatest and most powerful gangsters. Even Don Michael Corleone is fooled by this. So why does Hollywood love so much this disillusionment of the American dream?

Gangster movies are often retro-fitted. They’re set decades before they are made. They talk about “the good old days,” the days when getting away with crime was easy. I think of last years’ Public Enemies (2009) with Johnny Depp. I don’t remember the exact line, but it was something like: “That’s why they won’t catch me. They have to be at every bank at all times, I can be at any bank, at any time, and anywhere.” And that’s the same fraud of omnipotence and omniscience that tricks all our anti-hero gangster favorites. It’s the ease of becoming a criminal and doing it successfully that generates the appeal for such a wicked route to the American dream’s fulfillment.

The moral value in early gangster films was that eventually these full-steam ahead bad guys, would be convicted and change. That first started with The Public Enemy character Tom Powers who nears redemption at the end of the film, continuing in movies like The Godfather: Part II and III, and Blow (2001) also Johnny Depp. But more often than not, our gangsters die alone, powerless, and as violently as their vicious rise to power often deserved. For every one redeemed character there are dozens of examples of to-the-teeth gangsters who go down blazing.

Gangster films are precious to me. They are some of the most intricate and most stylized films ever made. I have grown accustomed to the dark humor, the language (both verbal and metaphorical) of the environments these people dwell, and have been both shocked by their audacity and moved by their weaknesses. And I occasionally see in myself and in many of my friends that enjoy similar films and characters, many of the same habits of individualism and self-centeredness that the gangsters unwittingly and foolishly pride themselves on.

Thankfully the police in my neighborhood are very good at their job. I only kid, but the fast-talking, quick-way-up fast-way-out lifestyle is what I believe makes the genre so watchable. It’s what makes the characters so lovable, when they don’t deserve it all. It’s like Langford said: “It’s the only genre that’s named after its protagonist.”

It’s Alive! The Transforming Genre of Horror

Horror is a perfect genre to begin a genre study course, first because it is simple to track its progression over time and secondly because it is a reliable cultural thermometer. Based on the nearly hundred or so horror films I’ve seen and approximately the half-dozen I’ve carefully selected and re-viewed or visited for the first time I feel I have a strong sampling to discuss the genre. My early films will be The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, my classical films will be Frankenstein and Dracula (both 1931) and my revisionist films will be Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby, with frequent movement around the last four decades of horror (and maybe science fiction, I make no promises).

Horror has been a quickly evolved and developed film genre. From its story-telling devices and film-making techniques has arrived a style and theme of movie that still entertains and frightens.

In its early days the genre was permanently forged into movie history with the German art movement, Expressionism. One film in particular helped in the “crystallization of the horror film as a genre” (Langford 2005, pg. 161) that film is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Cabinet used heavily painted sets, extreme makeup and over-the-top acting to exaggerate and dramatize the supernatural and paranormal. This destruction and recreation of reality into the bizarre became the standard of horror films.

But as Langford writes (and I paraphrase) the world didn’t need Cabinet to teach it how to use low-key lighting, angles and shadows, the value and lasting influence of these early films like Nosferatu and Cabinet is in the story-line content they presented—the centralization of a message and theme of the creepy and paranormal. These early movies started speaking in a language the world hadn’t heard before, but proved very eager to learn.

This early influence can be clearly seen just over ten years later in the two enormously successful films Frankenstein and Dracula. Frankenstein garnered from the early films a firm belief in the presentation of the impossible in a melodramatic style. Colin Clive screaming “It’s alive!” again and again would be humorous if audiences hadn’t previously understood that such performance are expected.

Frankenstein also showcases a similar monster to Cabinet in that of a person in heavy make-up grown with technology to include prosthetics. The same could be said of Dracula whose monster is engrossed in the same make-up driven effects. Early horror films made no attempt to hide that they were just movies. The effects and costumes were the point, similar to George Méliès science fiction films and his trick shots and editing trademarks of the 1910’s.

The next step in the evolution of the horror genre was to take both this implausibility and the exaggerated worlds and to force them into the confines of the everyday person, essentially to make the outlandish believable. It took considerable time to turn into the modern-day horror film. But everything I read from Langford to Ebert refers to the same turning-point in film history. Psycho.

Alfred Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece Psycho extinguished the separation of the audience and their fears. Psycho was not only plausible, but it felt authentic and while it kept some devices (like the human, or humanoid, monster) it discarded others like the melodramatic acting and flashy set pieces to replace them with honest behavior from actors and convincing settings and environments. Psycho is generally regarded as the most influential horror film in history (Schneider 2008).

Roman Polanski’s 1968 nightmarish horror, Rosemary’s Baby, followed quickly into the safe-zone rubble created by Psycho, playing still on the everyday mixed with the supernatural and the evil. It was especially enlightening to watch this progression so closely together. Watching all these horror films over three weeks reveals each proceeding one as a cinematic child of the past. Indeed the language of the alarming that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari spoke was being echoed in the films I watched.

The other amazing feature of horror films is their incredible accuracy as gauges of a culture. It is hard not to notice the gradual increase in the sexuality of the genre. Cesare’s love in Dr. Caligari becomes Dracula’s fascination in Dracula which turns into Norman Bates abasement of life and especially women in Psycho which turns into blatant sexuality and nudity in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.

Compared to the decades in which these films were released it shows an ever-growing willingness to expose and display the obscene for the sake of shock. Alfred Hitchcock’s famous shower-stabbing scene is void of nudity because he considered it inappropriate for audiences to see Janet Leigh’s body. Just eight years later we see full nudity in a rape scene involving Satan in Rosemary’s Baby. There is no doubt a connection between this and the sexual revolution of the 1960’s.

Film is both a cause and an effect of societal changes. (Thompson, Bordwell 2003) It reflects and it creates ideas and thoughts. That’s part of its wonderful power, but also when dealing with a genre like horror part of its inherent threat.

Obvious is the excessive gore and sexuality in the genre from the last decade. It seems that thanks to gore-horror movies the perversion will never end. Many of the most successful horror films of today’s Hollywood have little if anything to do with ingenuity, design, suspense and art. The current shift in focus is directed at nudity, violence and shock.

I will quickly plot a few movies on a timeline to back this up. Beginning in 1973 with The Exorcist containing intense violence, gore, language and anti-religious messages; The Shining (1980) again language, violence and nudity are frequent; Saw-Saw VII-3D (2004-2010) all featuring increasingly disturbing content including nudity, sexuality, torture, violence and gore. Cabin Fever (2002), The Devil’s Rejects and The Descent (both 2005), Teeth (2007), Bitten (2008) or Sorority Row (2009) (dates courtesy are all progressively targeted at the teenage boy’s mind. A film like Saw would have been completely abhorrent to society in the 1930’s, and I’d bet that even the directors of our great horror classics would be appalled at the “monstrous” styles and content now common-place in their genre. Perhaps an improvement in the content of horror films will be an indicator that Hollywood is beginning to see its part in the repercussions in degrading American lifestyles.

Horror is an amazing genre and a historically important movement. I am amazed by what I learned and saw in the constant changing and elaboration of themes and characters and devices used by the film-makers. And I found that I actually enjoy many of the more artistic behind-the-scenes aspects of horror. Like wondering how they make the monster or costume or make-up look the way they did? Or where did they get the idea for this or that spray of blood or eerie glow?

Horror is a genre of these things—of effects, acting and lighting. It is a world of costumes and myths and entertainment that has moved from significant and patient thrillers to mindless, stomach-lurching gore festivals without missing anything in between. But we must always be careful when watching horror films not to confuse our entertainment with the dark content they often depict.

If this one genre can be used as a thermometer of our society’s ethics and values then we must regulate our participation. Our film-going experience must always remember to not hack and slash its way into our spirits. Sometimes the films we watch get so scary we have to remind ourselves, “It’s just a movie.” So let’s not forget that and in doing so allow what is “just a movie” to permeate our world and minds.

7 Suburban Movies to Prove Something’s Wrong with Suburbia

In no particular order, and full of spoilers:

1. The Chumscrubber (Arie Posin)

               What’s wrong with the picture? Well to start, suburban kids don’t mind kidnapping or being kidnapped. The neighbors are those strange friendly types who seem concerned, but really just want their casserole dish back. And a counter-top mountain of vitamins and prescription drugs turn a suicidal young man into a heroic real-life adaptation of his favorite video game game character. Did I mention the mayor is spiritually obsessed with dolphins and a car wreck sends a kid airborne–in slow motion? There is so much happening in this movie that a trip to the ghetto would be relaxing.     

2. American Beauty (Sam Mendes)

             It might be easier to start with what’s not wrong with suburban life as depicted through this movie. It has infidelity, murder, inter-family betrayal, distrust and dishonesty, socially inept children, immature parents, mature drug dealers, peeping toms, and a Nazi plate collection. With the tag line: “Look closer.” The movie really shows you have to do just that to see any kind of American Beauty. Again, the hero defines his world-view in his last thoughts before dying.



3. Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly)

             Nothing wrong here. Just a talking bunny rabbit from the future’s past warning a psychologically disturbed teen about the end of the world on a golf-course. (Wait…what?) It sounds strange but it will make more sense once he travels back in time through his chest jelly and lodges a hand axe into a bronze sculpture at his school before committing arson and exposing a child pornographer. I’m beginning to see a pattern here. Hero learns ethical message and dies to save his family. This time in a much more cinematic way, a detached jet engine falling through the ceiling by means of carefully calculated “coincidence”. Thanks for keeping us all safe, Donnie.        


4. Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder)

            What could be more suburban than the local mall? Add in a large undead horde and a multicultural group of suburban townies trapped in said mall and you’ve got the fourth movie on my list. Despite the obvious communication problems and inhumane treatment among the group, they have to deal with their Saturday morning shopping crowd gone ravenous. At least they’re in the mall and not their suburban house (I Am Legend?). And right when everything looks okay, guess who dies? Trick question, the whole cast turns undead on an island they manage to escape to. If you haven’t seen this, you need to. 




5. Home Alone (Chris Columbus)

                  It is Christmas time in Chicago and time for a family vacation to France. Woopsy, they left a kid in the Chicago-land suburb. Luckily for Macaulay Culkin this is a family comedy, and he doesn’t die in the end. But he is forced to deal with two suburban thieves, Harry and Marv, via any means possible. The movie that made household booby traps okay.     


6. Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton) 

            Why does a suburban neighborhood have to be near a city? Why not at the foot of a creepy mountain topped with a creepy mansion inhabited by an even creepier half-robotic-recluse-hairdresser? It’s suburban gold because of the gossiping housewives, the manicured lawns, and the IDENTICAL houses. At least Ed is merely chased back to his mansion and not murdered. It is a love story after-all.      


7. A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen)

              The Jewish suburbanite movie. For the educated, it’s a contemporary story of Job. A cheating wife calmly talking of divorce, a 20×30′ blackboard of college mathematics, a lonely and attractive sun-bathing neighbor woman, a stoned son at his Bar Mitzvah, a message from God in a man’s teeth, a brother’s tax evasion, the FBI, and a man desperately trying to be serious. The movie that asks how far you will go to do what’s good, and then waits for the end to ask if it was worth it. Larry, the lead, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, dies at the end. Either by some disease–his doctor breaks the news over the phone, how nice of him, right?–or by a tornado that would kill everyone if the movie didn’t cut to black in wonderful Coen style.

Runner’s up:

Revolutionary Road (The “I’m too good for this” suburbia)

The Bonnie Situation (Scene from Pulp Fiction–the “gangster” suburbia)

Toy Story (The “child” suburbia)


What’d I miss? What suburban movie is your favorite? Did you notice how many of these films end in death? Leave me your thoughts, I’d love to read ‘em.

The Best Movies of the Year Since 2005

One for each year starting with 2009 and working backward.

2009: Up in the Air (Jason Reitman)

Why: Because with an incredible cast, an underrated and upcoming director, and a story perfectly timed for the moment our country was and still is enduring (economic and spiritual depression), Up in the Air showed us all that contentment and purpose are not found at the end of our own desires.



 2008: WALL-E (Andrew Stanton)    

Why: Even though 2008 was a great year for movies of every genre and style (a certain Dark Knight and Wrestler) WALL-E quite literally broke my heart, as an allegorical story of humanity and technology. WALL-E is the best film of the year–only by a circuit–because it overcomes its biggest drawback of being an animated child’s film. It transcended its medium’s capabilities and depicted a danger that is all too close to reality–fully wired and yet disconnected people who are unable  to see the natural beauty beyond their own screens and devices.

2007: Into the Wild (Sean Penn) 

Why: Because it captures the heart of an adventurer and of youth while wisely cautioning against the abandonment of responsibility and respect and love for people. Phenomenal acting permeates the entire film. It is driven by purposeful characters, dialogue, and decision.


2006: The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)

Why: I know, I know, this is the same year as The Departed. But Germany takes the title for 2006’s best film. Just watch it. It’s funny, it’s clever, it’s patient, it’s involving. It’s everything you could want in a movie. Great cast and story. Truly shows how hard it is to make the “good decision” when those around you pressure otherwise. Bad company (Nazi’s) corrupts good morals (Secret Police) and it’s movie gold.  

2005: Good Night, and Good Luck. (George Clooney)

Why: Seamless editing. Brilliant direction and pacing, perfectly cast and acted. This is a movie for people who like movies. It does the essential elements perfectly and the rest is, well, history. I’m moved by the story of Murrow, a newsman who fights a senator for his nation. And after he’s saved them, they forget. Did I mention the editing? Okay.