#ThrowbackThursday — Film Technique in “An Education” (sort of a movie review but not exactly)

I’m getting so creative with these throwbacks, huh. This is actually a paper that College Freshman SM wrote in December 2009 (5 years ago, holy moly), for the film class I was taking in my very first semester as a co-requisite for the screenwriting class I was taking at the time as well, since the Intro to Creative Writing class had filled up before I could register for it. (Ain’t college requirements great?)

This paper came up in conversation this week because I was having a little argument with a friend after he asserted that I have great taste in people, great taste in TV shows, but terrible taste in movies. I was like, “Nuh uh, I do too like good movies! Here’s a paper I wrote about a good movie. Boom.”

Actually, it didn’t happen like that because it was a phone conversation and also I couldn’t find the paper on account of it being buried in a drawer amid my massive stacks of papers (I may have a slight hoarding problem). But today I dug it up, read it over, then found it on my computer, and BOOM. Paper.

Take that, Stefan.

 

 

I don’t know how much sense it will make to someone who hasn’t seen the movie, because it is extremely specific in its analysis of things like shot composition, framing, lighting, props, angles, etc. But it’s a really good movie — I had to write a paper on it and I still like it, that’s how good it is — so you should probably go watch it and come back here.

 

 

Film Technique in “An Education”

 

An Education, directed by Lone Scherfig, is a coming-of-age story about an isolated, precocious British schoolgirl in the 1960s who learns several hard lessons that can’t be taught in school: the value of simplicity over the temptations of extravagance, the importance of making her own decisions, and the fact that people are not always who they appear to be. The filmmakers’ choices of mise-en-scene, shot framing, types of images, point of view, lighting, locations, and use of color/black and white all help to underscore these themes. The film also offers some social commentary on the power dynamics of May-December romances, patriarchal family structures, teacher-student relationships, and racism, which are subtly depicted through use of camera angles and camera placement, though sometimes the camerawork is misleading, emphasizing that not all is as it seems.

 

 

Camera Angles Typically, a low camera angle conveys power, a high angle conveys vulnerability, and identical angles indicate equal authority. Sometimes, An Education follows these rules, but often it bends them. For example, Jenny, the protagonist, and David, her far-too-charming older lover, are often shown in identical eye level angles. This gives viewers the impression that the power in the relationship is shared, but this is not the case—David is taking advantage of Jenny. On the other hand, standard use of camera angles is employed in several scenes to accurately convey the dynamics of this relationship and others. A hotel room scene begins with Jenny in low angle to show that she holds all the cards, but once David persuades her to expose her body to him, the angle shifts higher because she has lost power. A scene of Jenny arguing with her teacher begins with Jenny in slight high angle, which shifts to eye-level as Jenny gains the upper hand. A woman later revealed to be racist is shown looming over David’s African-American “clients” in low angle, hinting at her attitude.

Camera Placement Authority and power is further conveyed in camera placement. To capture the impression of a male-dominated family unit in a scene where Jenny and her mother are arguing with Jenny’s father, the father is shown in tight close-ups, while the women are in medium shots, giving them less presence and less power. In a scene with her principal, Jenny argues vehemently in medium close-ups, and the nearly speechless principal reacts ineffectively in medium shots. Later on, after Jenny has been humbled by David’s dishonesty, she returns to ask the principal for a second chance. In this scene, Jenny is further from the camera, sitting timidly in medium long shots. In Jenny’s scenes with David, equal distances are employed along with the aforementioned equal angles, augmenting the illusion that the two are on level footing. Camera distance also conveys ideas other than power: the development of Jenny and David’s romance is hinted at in their very first scene in his car through the use of claustrophobic close-ups to indicate intimacy, and Jenny’s isolation after dropping out of school is shown in an overhead shot from afar.

Mise-en-scene Viewers are given additional clues about Jenny’s mindset through the film’s mise-en-scene. The central conflict of simplicity vs. decadence is displayed through Jenny’s clothes—she begins the film in school clothes and her outfits get fancier and more extravagant as the story progresses, but in the final scene she has reverted to pajamas. Her surroundings also reflect the conflict: her parents’ house is modestly furnished with very few artistic touches, whereas the apartment where David and his friends spend their time is glamorous and crammed full of art objects. Jenny’s teacher’s house is not nearly as lavishly decorated, but warmer than Jenny’s parents’ house, which is vital to Jenny’s realization in that scene: “That’s all you need.” Jenny’s innocence being at odds with her newfound worldliness is also implied through props: a white coat and a black purse. There are several scenes where Jenny’s feelings that she is a prisoner to societal expectations are communicated through the mise-en-scene: we observe her twice through a grate on her window as she studies. As her attitude toward schooling changes, we see her pacing a corridor that also seems jail-like with grates on the windows, but a door in it is ajar, implying freedom to come. Lastly, the idea of choices is shown near the end through an interesting use of angled mirrors—viewers see two Jennys, representing two divergent paths, and though some skillful coordination, when the real Jenny moves, one reflection is obscured, indicating that she has run out of options.

Shot Framing Of course, most if not all of these decisions regarding mise-en-scene would be wasted without good shot framing. The “jail” feel would not have been achieved if the grates were in the background of the shot. Similarly, Jenny’s black purse would have seemed to be only a detail if it had not been placed prominently in the foreground of one particular shot. But framing is important regardless of props. Twice, it shows Jenny’s struggle against manipulation by others through use of shots where Jenny is sandwiched between two other characters as they exercise their influence over her. The first of these is with her parents, the second with David and David’s friend Danny. This second one is framed much more tightly with no extraneous space between the actors, because their influence is so strong. Jenny’s parents’ influence weakens so much as the film goes on that eventually they are relegated to the background in their scenes with Jenny. Shot framing also sets Jenny and David up as couple by pairing them in a two-shot immediately after a two-shot of Danny and his girlfriend, Helen. Off-center framing is used at the beginning of the movie in shots of Jenny and a lot of empty space, illustrating her isolation.

Camera Movement The camera movement in this film serves mainly to highlight the allure of David’s exciting world in contrast to Jenny’s apparently empty one. The camera is mostly static in Jenny’s home and school, apart from a few obligatory tracking shots here and there, but when she’s with David, the camera swoops and circles as she absorbs the totality of her new experiences. Swish pans add danger to the scene where David and Danny steal something, and give a dreamlike quality to the montage of Jenny in Paris. Pans and tilts of the camera can guide the eye from one item to another and connect the two: a pan from a shadow to Jenny singing implies that all is not right in this seemingly cheery scene, and a tilt from Jenny’s black purse to her face indicates loss of innocence.

Point of view The reason Jenny doesn’t realize all the negative things that are happening to her is because the film is told almost entirely through her point of view. Almost, but not quite. We see her delighted reactions to the new world she encounters, we see her exasperation with her parents, and we see how she looks at David, completely taken in by his charm. But every so often, the camera becomes the narrator, and we see how David looks at her, which is very unsettling. Since these are not Jenny’s POV shots, she remains oblivious to his intentions, while the viewers know that what she sees is not what she’s getting.

Light/Shadow Lighting in An Education is sometimes used deceptively, to develop this theme of appearance vs. reality, though at times the lighting is “honest.” Some of Jenny’s scenes with David are extremely well lit, such as those in Paris and those in Danny’s apartment, giving a false impression of security, but some are appropriately dark: their nightclub visits, their first kiss, David’s late-night meeting with Jenny’s parents. The dark and the light are muddled together, characters’ faces are often half-shadowed, explaining why it is so difficult for Jenny to tell the good from the bad. But when Jenny learns David’s secret in the dead of night, there can be no question of which is which.

Spaces/Locations Again, this element is used deceptively, tempting us and Jenny to want what isn’t necessary. Jenny’s home seems cramped; the rooms are small, and frequently characters spread out through two or more rooms as they conduct a conversation. Compare this to Danny’s apartment, or to Paris, where everything is wide open and airy and far more inviting. Jenny’s teacher’s house strikes a balance, being spacious without being too gaudy.

Color/Black and white Color is also often used to confuse the viewer by making the wrong things seem attractive. Drab, dull colors fill Jenny’s home and school, but David’s world is full of glitzy, candlelit nightclubs and the scenery on their trip to Oxford is astonishingly green. When Jenny later sneaks away to an equally green riverbank to tell her friends about David and her upcoming trip to Paris, the pretty colors distract us from the fact that David is not good for Jenny. Jenny wears a black dress at one point—black has been established though dialogue as a rebellious color, so her wearing it has added subtext. The title sequence is a series of simple black-on-white instructional diagrams which then fade in to a world of color where nothing is that simple.

Types of Images (also Visual Symbols) The title sequence diagrams directly contrast the art collected/stolen by David and his gang, further emphasizing the conflict Jenny is facing: should she stay on the black-and-white straight and narrow road of her education, or plunge into this beautiful, colorful, enticing new world? When she sees a painting by one of her favorite artists in her teacher’s house, she realizes that she can in fact do both.

There is a little known Jewish interpretation of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis which states that before the sin of the forbidden fruit, all that was good in the world was beautiful, and all that was bad was ugly. After the sin, it all got jumbled together and life became that much harder. An Education illustrates this difficulty quite well. Using many techniques explained above, it expresses many ideas, none more so than the fact that all that glitters is not gold.

 

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MOVIE REVIEW — Veronica Mars

 

 

Well, this is way overdue and I feel like I should apologize to the internet. Sorry, internet.

 

This review was commissioned by an anonymous donor known only as the “Funder of Dreams.” Thanks, Funder! (Commissioned post #4 out of 10 so far!)

 

While I did not fund the famed Veronica Mars Movie Kickstarter, there’s no way to talk about this movie without talking about some history, because practically everyone who saw the movie has some kind of history leading into it. Mine was that I watched the Veronica Mars show years ago, sometime after it went off the air, and thought it was a pretty good show but not OMG AMAZEBALLS like most of its fans seemed to think. And then more recently, my favorite blogger Mark Oshiro of www.markwatches.net began blogging it episode by episode, and I picked it up again, intending to watch along with his posting schedule (as I am doing with Supernatural right now) . . . aaaaaand that didn’t work out so well. The show has so much momentum that I zipped through all three seasons in like a month.

 

But I was amazed at how much more there was to the show than I’d given it credit for during my first watch. I’m assuming that in the intervening years I’ve become so much more aware of and invested in social constructs and societal conventions, and that’s why I could finally appreciate how daring the show was, and how direct it was in tackling issues of racism, classism, sexism, and just about every other ism. And it doesn’t do it in a preachy way; it just weaves the threads into the lives of the characters and the mysteries that the titular Veronica has to solve week in and week out.

 

So it’s like, some people go into JJ Abrams’s Star Trek movies hoping for morality plays and social commentary because that’s what Star Trek is about (and they are disappointed because JJ Abrams? Philosophy? HA) — but Veronica Mars isn’t really about that and I don’t really expect commentary from it; I mostly just expect to see the world presented to me as it is and being left to make the final judgment call myself. No impassioned monologues delivered by major characters at the movie climax about right and wrong or about how things should be; just people living messy lives and making messy decisions. Of course, there are true villains and evilness and that’s fun to root against, and we have our plucky heroes that we can root for, but no one’s perfect and I don’t have to like everything they do, and most characters fall somewhere in between.

 

So in that vein, I liked a lot of the choices that the writers made for this movie, such as where they decided to place the characters in this Ten Years Later installment. Funder of Dreams expressed disappointment to me that Wallace, Veronica’s adorable sidekick, became a high school teacher/basketball coach instead of the engineer he’d dreamed of being when we last saw him on the show. We saw how dedicated Wallace was in college to the math and science work he had to do, even though it wasn’t easy for him, and Funder may have a thing for engineers and felt let down to see that Wallace’s work hadn’t paid off long-term in the form of an engineering career. And I’m sure some people were annoyed that Veronica herself went off and became a lawyer instead of a hotshot FBI agent, and I’m absolutely certain no one expected Weevil, the leader of the PCH motorcycle gang, to settle down and have a wife and baby.

 

But I like that. I like when movies and TV and books acknowledge that life is not linear. Life paths do not follow a set trajectory just because that’s logical or because you want them to. I actually saw the movie, I realize now, with someone who originally thought he’d be an engineer, but life happened and now he feels that his true calling is to be a high school teacher. He is basically Wallace. This stuff really happens. I’m aware that there’s a tacit requirement of fiction that it has to make more sense than reality, but career paths changing is such a normal thing that I don’t believe it really requires an explanation. I mean, if someone made a TV show out of my high school life, it would be unbelievable boring, but aside from that, it would be about a teenage girl who wrote novels. And if there was fanfiction written about my Unbelievably Boring High School Life show (because such things have been known to happen), I’m sure all the fanfic writers would project that grown-up SM would be a novelist or the next JK Rowling, depending on the degree of wish fulfillment the writer subscribed to. None of them would have put me in automotive school, but guess what? That’s where I am right now, and that’s where I want to be. Life is not linear.

 

And sometimes, as the movie shows, you may get sucked back into that original trajectory, and that may not be “destiny” or “meant to be” or any of those positively connoted things — it may in fact be a regression, the path of least resistance, an addiction; it may not be a good thing. And I liked that too.

 

And again, nobody in the movie really gave any speeches outlining this and analyzing whether it is right or wrong — it’s just there. For you to notice or not, just like the other things I didn’t notice when I first watched the show.

 

Leaving aside all this baggage I’ve now projected into the movie, was it a good movie?

 

I think so. I saw it with someone who’d never seen the show, and aside from my squealing every time a character came onscreen (“MAC! WEEVIL! GIA! LEO! DEPUTY SACKS!”), I don’t think he found anything too confusing, which is a big plus for a movie with so much background info. There were some incredibly suspenseful moments, and because the movie was low budget and couldn’t possibly be “action-packed,” the few incidents of violence were shocking and effective. As far as I could tell, this was a good little thriller. (I don’t know how qualified I am to judge such things, because I tend to watch dramas and comedies and sci fi and family movies and hardly any straight-up thrillers at all, but most of the critics seem to agree with me, as did my movie-going companion.) And I was of course extremely nostalgic and just so happy to see all the familiar faces playing all the familiar characters ( ❤ Vinnie Van Lowe, you scumbag).

 

It was too bad that they couldn’t get Leighton Meester to reprise her role as Carrie Bishop, because every time they showed pictures of what was supposed to be her character, it was super distracting because THAT’S NOT LEIGHTON MEESTER YOU CAN’T FOOL ME. Looked nothing like her. They could have said she’d had plastic surgery, and given the character, I’d have been totally fine with that, but nada.

 

I thought it was interesting that they chose to make the villain an unfamiliar character invented for the movie, and not one we already knew (although the movie distractingly pretended that he had gone to high school with them to explain why he was at the reunion), but I suppose that would have been too risky and would have outraged too many people. This is a fanservice movie, after all, and while they may not have gone the Wallace-the-engineer/Veronica-the-FBI-agent wish fulfillment route, there were some lines they still didn’t want to cross.

 

Such as having Veronica end up with anyone other than Logan. Le sigh.

 

I came into the movie assuming that they’d wind up together and that I’d be fine with it, because I never thought Piz, Veronica’s other love interest in this movie, was a viable option for Veronica. (At heart, I still liked Veronica’s first boyfriend Duncan best but Teddy Dunn was not going to be in the movie so I accepted that the LoVe ship would be sailing.)

 

I’m not that tough a sell when it comes to romance, honestly. Show me characters who genuinely connect and care and get along and support and respect each other as equals and I’ll probably be fine with whoever you throw together.

 

And the movie gives us that with Piz but not with Logan. We see that Piz and Veronica have a well-functioning relationship of equals and that Piz no longer that pathetic puppy dog just following Veronica around. Good for him! They work really well together in the movie! But it is not to be, alas. And we’re left to assume all of that important stuff with Logan; the movie doesn’t give us enough Veronica/Logan talky time for them to hash things out and deal with their issues — it shows us Logan in his Air Force uniform, Logan being broody, Logan being violent, Logan being heroic . . . but none of that actually addresses the central issues of the Veronica/Logan relationship, such as poor communication, distrust, and oh yeah, ten YEARS without speaking to each other. But he means well and they smooch by the end so it’s all good. Not.

 

On the other hand, there’s all sorts of class warfare and douchey police abuse and Logan being angsty and Keith Mars being the best dad ever and Mac being the only one to have a linear life where she’s now a hotshot software developer, and that’s pretty yummy.

 

So overall, I think enjoyment of this movie depended largely on expectations. I don’t think critics expected much from it and were pleasantly surprised. I think I expected certain things from it, as outlined above, and for the most part my expectations were met, so I was happy. I think that if people expected it to be the best movie of the year, the decade, the century, they were probably disappointed, and that if they disliked Logan, they were probably disappointed, and if they expected linear progression of the characters and of some of the plot loose ends left by the show, they were probably disappointed, and I can’t argue with that.

 

But I think it was a solid little movie, and if by some miracle there’s a sequel, I’d totally go see it.

 

 

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A Much Too Personal Movie Review of the First Ten Minutes of “Fill the Void”

 

“Are – are you going to be all right?”

“You mean, like, ever?”

My date chuckles halfheartedly. “Well, at the very least, ever. But I meant more like, by the time you go to sleep tonight?”

I inhale shakily. Everything under my skin is still vibrating — not in the sexy-clichéd-romance-novel kind of way; in the stitched-together-ripping-apart kind of way. My stomach gives an ominous residual lurch. “I honestly don’t know.”

We’re sitting on a bench outside the Lincoln Center movie theater at dusk on a Sunday evening. The paths and other benches around the fountains and mini waterfalls are relatively deserted. It’s quiet, or maybe just quiet for New York City. My quiet barometers are probably not working terribly well, though.

 

*

 

I’m hesitant to call my reaction to the first ten or fifteen minutes of the indie drama “Fill the Void” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2219514/) a panic attack, not because I’m concerned about the stigma that might come with a loaded phrase like that, but because I don’t think the symptoms fit and I don’t want to belittle the severity of people’s actual panic attacks when my experience was probably a lot milder by comparison. No heart palpitations, no inability to breathe, no paralysis of thought, no actual panic or fear.

Just wave after wave of nausea sliming my insides, coating my throat, making it spasm. Shakes. Dizziness. Surges of heat under my skin that vanish, leaving me shivery.

It wasn’t pleasant, I’ll say that.

But if it had been a full-fledged panic attack, I don’t know that after rushing out of the movie, locking myself in a bathroom stall, crashing down on the toilet, trying not to hunch over lest I make the nausea worse, I would have been able to scoop up my phone and send a coherent, properly-spelled text to my very worried date:

“I think it’s a combination of physical and mental. That movie has a lot of emotional triggers for me, I didn’t realize – marriage, religion, claustrophobic/repressive culture . . . all hit me really hard.”

 

*

 

I should point out that we didn’t even get to the major plot development listed in the film’s summary: “A devout 18-year-old Israeli is pressured to marry the husband of her late sister” — my reaction was triggered solely from the film’s highly effective handful of setup scenes before the major crisis is even introduced.

I want to clarify that (a) every one of these scenes is brilliantly conceived and executed, and (b) they constitute my own personal horror show. I’m aware that the rest of the movie was probably a very good negation of the awfulness of these opening scenes, but we didn’t get that far. I should also clarify that I am not Hasidic, although my paternal grandfather was and some of my cousins are, and some of them are Yeshivish, which is also a very insular community with some fairly extreme marriage practices.

 

Sample scene: Young Hasidic girl in the supermarket with her mother. They’re both pretending to shop but really trying to get a look at the guy the girl has been betrothed to but never met. They can’t seem to find him, so they call someone, and are immediately told, “He’s in aisle 5.” (Or, “he’s in the produce section” – I don’t remember exactly.) They find him soon after and gawk from a distance. He looks singularly unimpressive: not particularly well-groomed or dressed, uninspired posture. Basically more or less like every other Hasidic male in the movie thus far. The girl does not seem bothered.

Two triggers in this scene: (1) The idea of marrying a total stranger, and (2) the fact that it’s not just one person presenting this as the norm but rather an entire network of people in this girl’s life (as evidenced by the phone call). I find these two things deeply, deeply horrific — tethering your entire life to someone you don’t know, and being told on all sides that this is the only option, and this is simply how it’s done, and having been kept naïve and sheltered enough not to question it.

I would love to say that this is foreign to me and I can’t imagine it ever happening to me or anyone else, but that would be a lie, for reasons brought out further in the next scene I’ll discuss, and because I know that dating before getting engaged in the circles I live in goes at a brisk pace. My Yeshivish cousins date for 2 or 3 weeks, generally, before the engagement. In my own, non-Yeshivish circles, 3 to 6 months is often fairly standard. Ten months to a year is an eternity, and very rare, unless the relationship began as high school sweethearts, in which case waiting longer was legally mandatory. Is 3 months enough time to get to know someone? Maybe. Maybe not. Everyone’s in such a rush to pair up for life that even I can’t help but feel the marriage pressure from the second I start dating someone new. I feel it much less when I’m not seeing anyone, and that’s an enormous incentive for me to never date. I’d much rather be single forever than get too involved with the wrong person just because of outside pressure. But obviously playing it safe because of pressure is just another way of letting yourself be pressured.

 

Sample scene: It’s the holiday of Purim, and at the Purim feast, the Rabbi is doling out charity money to those who ask. One man asks for money because, “My wife is mentally ill. I didn’t know that when I married her.” The rabbi gives him money, and when he protests that it’s not enough, he’s told whom to go to for more.

Triggers: (1) example of results of marrying a total stranger, (2) I have a Hasidic cousin who married a girl, had a child with her, and only then found out she was mentally ill because she stopped taking her medication. Her family had kept her condition under wraps, knowing full well that they were duping her husband. As far as I know, the custody battle is still going on, but nobody talks about it because it’s all so very scandalous and shameful and would force people to confront realities in their community that they don’t want to confront. (3) It’s all well and good that the man in the movie is receiving charity from the community to help him with this awful situation, but that’s a band-aid, and nothing is ever going to be said about the underlying cause: DON’T MARRY STRANGERS.

 

Sample scene: The girl’s pregnant sister talks briefly with her husband. Purim is the holiday of getting publicly wasted, and the sister immediately knows that her husband is drunk because he starts saying affectionate things to her. If he were sober, he’d never say a thing like, “I love you.” She says with a smile, “You’re drunk,” somehow manages convey an eye-roll without actually rolling her eyes, and walks away.

Trigger: THAT WHOLE THING. I have recently developed a personal, visceral fear of settling for a relationship where my partner is incapable of paying me a compliment. There are some people who, well, getting a compliment from them is like wrenching it out with pliers. I may have dated someone like that. I have also dated someone who is the exact opposite and I can’t imagine going back from that. But I have this way of listening to those voices in my head that say, “Come on, you can’t expect everyone to be so open about their thoughts and so willing to say nice things. People just aren’t conditioned that way. Especially men, sad as that is.” Just because they don’t say it doesn’t mean they don’t think it — if I got them drunk, maybe all that nice stuff would come pouring out. But maybe not. And I would hate to have a relationship like that.

 

*

 

I understand that when you’re a small minority group, you need to have an emphasis on marriage and children or else you’ll die off. But there has to be a better way.

I could easily have been born into that community. A little to the right on my family tree, and poof!

I wouldn’t have lasted. While I was watching, I felt like I was seeing a life that could have been mine, and I don’t think I would have survived it. I was the kind of kid who pitched a fit when my mom wanted all us kids to wear cute matching outfits. I can’t stand sameness. I can’t stand restrictions on my individuality. It makes me want to tear my skin off. I feel very sure that if I were indeed a part of that type of community, I would not have lived to be as old as I am now. I feel very sure that I’d have done something drastic to get out of it.

Ten minutes of that movie. Jeez.

 

 

 

Image source

REVIEW: Inside Job (documentary)

 

Maybe I just have a skeptical view on anything that purports to explain and solve a global problem in under 2 hours, but the word that kept coming to mind while I was watching this documentary — a film intended to dissect and point fingers at those responsible for the current financial crisis — was “oversimplified.”

I may just be a very trusting sort who doesn’t want to believe in the absolute corruption of these people that director Charles Ferguson has decided to hang out to dry, and it’s not that I don’t think there was any corruption at all or any stupid or unethical business practices going on. But the fact that the movie doesn’t actually explain all its jargon and is only occasionally clear about the technical aspects of the industry, and often cuts away from an interviewee before they can answer a particularly damning question, makes me feel like what I’m seeing is very manipulated and not really giving me the whole picture.

For example, the film soundly condemns “derivatives” as extremely risky investments that were an obvious ticking time bomb that caused massive collapses. But it doesn’t actually explain what derivatives are and why they’re so risky. The film throws it around like an automatic negative buzzword and yes, backs it up with the word of some respected economists, but other respected economists had disagreed, so am I just supposed to accept that they must have all been corrupt?

The film does a very good job discrediting a lot of economists by pointing out that they have conflicts of interest — they are often on the payroll of financial institutions which reward them handsomely for their positive feedback on the jobs they’re doing. But surely not all of the economists were paid off, and what about journalists? As Ezra Klein at the Washington Post points out, journalistic rockstar Michael Lewis wrote a book, The Big Short, about the financial system not long before the crisis, and did not seem to think derivatives were a problem, apparently buying into the idea that derivative don’t increase risk; they “redistribute it.” I have honestly only a vague idea of what that means, and yeah, the vague idea I have does look pretty bad because it seems to be saying that banks are not responsible for loans that aren’t paid back; old retired folks who buy the loans as securities are the ones left holding the bag if something goes wrong, as it in fact did. But I’m just a Creative Writing major and am fully aware that there are many things about the business world that I do not understand, but that doesn’t mean that smart businesspeople and top-notch journalists like Lewis don’t understand them. Was he paid off? Lazy in his investigation? Fooled by the system? Just stupid? I don’t know. Seems unlikely — to me, anyway. More likely is that there are some aspects of the financial industry, such as derivatives, that are just very complex and not explained thoroughly in the movie because then finger-pointing gets more difficult to do.

I’m not saying the film doesn’t make its point better on some other jargony topics. The explanation of AIG’s practice of credit-default-swaps was eye-opening, thanks largely to the articulate interviewee doing the explaining, Satyajit Das. (I wanted more clips of him. He was good.) A lot of the interviews were good in the sense that the questions were pointed and had an obvious agenda that they were getting at, painting the interviewees into a corner. They were very skillfully done, but I sometimes felt like the agenda was getting in the way of more information. The film has also been criticized for its scapegoating of individuals instead of examining the capitalist system itself, ala Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, and I am inclined to believe that the system is more problematic than the people, although of course the people are absolutely not blameless.

 

Rating: 3.5/5

REVIEW: In-class viewing of “Good Night and Good Luck”

I have to say, there is definitely something lost in the viewing of a movie like this in a classroom setting. What do I mean?

I mean, look. George Clooney and other handsome men in suits? Robert Downey Jr. in crisp black-and-white close-ups? (Seriously, there was a Buzzfeed list about why Robert Downey Jr is the sexiest man ever and it is a travesty that there was not one mention of how incredible he looks in black and white. I mean, for real:

Mmmmmmm.) Point is, in a classroom setting, there’s no one around to squeal with you about these wonderful gifts of cinema, and that’s just tragic.

Okay, I’m emerging from the shallow end of the pool now.

On a more intellectual level, I would compare this movie extremely favorably to The Newsroom, and consider it to be about on par with House of Cards, which, if you’ve read my reviews, is high praise.

It’s better than The Newsroom because it features the same message but gets it across so much more effectively and less annoyingly — instead of having characters rant and rave and speechify about how idealistic they are and how much better the news should be and explain over and over again what they’re going to do to make it better, the characters in Good Night and Good Luck just do it. When they know they’re going to lose advertisers over a controversial segment, they just immediately agree to pay the difference out of their own pockets. Actions speak louder than words, yo. Consistent problem with Newsroom is that its words far outweigh its actions.

The House of Cards comparison is mostly on the level of pacing. Both are what I’ve heard people refer to as “slow” but are what I tend to think of instead as “atmospheric.” There is such a thing as too much atmosphere and not enough story (see: Star Trek: The Motion Picture), but in my personal opinion (and hey this is my blog so who else’s opinion were you expecting), both House of Cards and Good Night and Good Luck found a good balance for the stories they were telling. While watching, I felt completely immersed in the world of the movie/show, and felt like the story unfolded and developed at an appropriate speed. In politics and newsmaking, things don’t happen all at once, people don’t constantly shoot spitfire dialogue back and forth, high drama isn’t constant, and I enjoy its depiction here.

REVIEW: RedLetterMedia’s Review of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

 

(Warning: Video contains explicit language. NSFW.)

 

 

Deep question: What is the point of this column? Why do we have reviews of movies and TV? Why do we seek out reviews, read them, write them?

 

Answer #1: To get ideas for what to watch next. There is so much stuff out there, especially in these days of internet streaming, and sometimes you just need a push in a direction, any direction.

 

But then why do we — or at any rate, I — sometimes look up and read reviews or recaps of movies and TV episodes we’ve already seen? Sometimes we won’t even click on reviews of stuff we’ve never heard of, but we’ll read a recap of a TV episode that we saw just last night or last week . . . or maybe that’s just me.

 

Answer #2: Sometimes it’s for validation. I’ll admit it, sometimes if I like something, I want to know if the wider world embraced it as much as I did. If I look at the reviews it got, maybe I’ll learn that my tastes are too mainstream for me to maintain my hipster cred. Or maybe I’m one of the few who saw brilliance where most people missed it. Or maybe I just have really bad taste and didn’t realize it? (Totally hypothetical, fyi; my taste is impeccable.)

 

Answer #3: We loved some movie, or hated it, or felt indifferent to it, but for whatever reason, we can’t quite find the words to explain why, and there is something so satisfying about finding someone who can articulate your thoughts for you. Makes you feel stupid and smart at the same time.

 

Answer #4: Negative reviews have a tendency to be hilarious.

 

This column is old-school movie reviewing — i.e., it uses the written word. An increasingly popular alternative these days is the video-review, which pop up all over YouTube, because just as anyone with a keyboard can post a blog post movie review, anyone with a video camera can post a YouTube movie review.

 

And I am in fact reviewing a review. Because I think they’re worth discussing and also, I can.

 

Some of the most popular video reviews on YouTube, and some of my personal favorites, are RedLetterMedia’s reviews of the Star Wars prequels: The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith.

 

They are preposterously long for movie reviews — The Phantom Menace review is in 7 parts of 10 minutes each (from back when YouTube videos maxed out at 10 minutes), for a total of 70 minutes for just the one review.

 

How the heck does this reviewer get away with that, and better yet, achieve viral popularity? Even the Kony video was only half an hour. What gives?

 

Well, it’s a combination of factors.

 

The key, I think, is that the reviewer anticipated the obvious initial reaction of most people to a 70-minute movie review. Naturally, most people would say, “Jeez, it’s just a movie. Who cares? You must be the biggest loser with no life and no friends.”

 

RedLetterMedia preemptively counters this in the most deliciously demented way possible: he invents an entire movie-reviewing persona for the videos, a persona that gleefully screams, in essence: “Yes, in fact I AM a complete and total loser with no friends! What’s more, I actually killed all my ex-wives and I hate my kids and my grandkids and I’m a compulsive gambler and I kidnap cheerleaders and prostitutes and tie them up in my basement!”

 

Not exaggerating. At all. The review’s opening line is: “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is the most disappointing thing since my son.” And later he actually takes the camera down to what he says is his basement and while he’s ranting about how much he hates the movie and its shameless merchandising, the camera just happens to pan over a hooker tied up in the corner. (She begs him to let her go, and he snaps, “Shut up, I’m making a review here!”)

 

It is simultaneously the most messed-up and unbelievably genius idea any movie reviewer has ever had.

 

The other major strength of these reviews is that they have genuinely insightful criticisms to offer. Couching them in the over-the-top absurdity gets people to actually listen to what the reviews are saying.

 

RedLetterMedia points out failures in the characters by asking people to describe Han Solo vs. Qui-Gon Jinn. (Han is a “dashing, cocksure, arrogant badboy with a heart of gold,” whereas the most anyone can come up with for Qui-Gon is “stoic” and “bearded.”) He demonstrates that there is no protagonist (which he hilariously mispronounces differently every time he says it), and as a result, the movie’s story is unfocused and lacks coherence. He intercuts footage from the movie and the behind the scenes featurettes to emphasize his points.

 

Without one or the other of these two key components — the legitimate critiques and the ridiculously profane and misanthropic persona — the reviews wouldn’t hold together. It may not sound like a winning formula, but it’s addictive, and will get you to watch all the way to the end, as evidenced by the almost 1.5 million views on Part 7 of the 7-part review.

 

 

Video Source: http://youtu.be/FxKtZmQgxrI

MOVIE REVIEW: Gattaca

I freaking love this movie, I’ll just get that out there right from the start.

It is tightly written, it is alien but scarily plausible, it is well-developed down to the fictitious slang terms the characters use, the objectives are so clearly defined, the characters are likeable, the details are precise and painstaking (the letters in GATTACA are all letters from the genetic code, entirely appropriate for a movie about a dystopian society where everyone is judged based on their genes), the stakes are high, every scene adds something to the overall picture . . . it is just a thing of beauty.

This was my third time seeing this movie — the first was in AP Bio after we’d taken the AP and class became basically party time, the second was when I forced my dad to get it from Netflix and watch it (he fell asleep grrrrr) — and even on my third viewing I have only three minor complaints:

 

1)   The murder victim whose death shifts the movie from fascinating setup to whodunit mystery is not someone we viewers ever meet. This is a minor quibble, because meeting him is obviously not necessary, but I really would have liked to know who he actually was and why he opposed the mission he was killed for opposing.

2)   The final confrontation between the narrator, Vincent, and his brother Anton kind of turns into a testosterone fest. There was a great line about motivation — Vincent says, “I never saved anything for the way back” in order to explain how he could swim farther than his genetically advantaged brother — that almost makes it worth it, but I’ll admit the scene is kind of silly.

3)   I’d have liked to have seen more of the world outside the Gattaca institution and its astronauts. How do the other genetically perfect people spend their time? What futuristic jobs do they do? I don’t know where this would have fit in, but I am CURIOUS.

 

Things I loved that far offset these tiny criticisms:

 

1)   The concept of exceeding your preordained potential. As Locke from LOST would say, “DON’T TELL ME WHAT I CAN’T DO!” I’m pretty sure Vincent says that verbatim at one point.

2)   Jude Law is fantastic as the wheelchair-bound Jerome. Favorite role I’ve seen him in by far. (To be fair, the only other Jude Law movie I can recall seeing at the moment is Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but still.)

3)   Uma Thurman is stunning. Also, her performance is very poised, but she conveys so many nuances in every slight change of her expression. Makes me want to see more of her movies.

4)   The fact that once people perfected genetic engineering in this universe, they apparently stopped bothering to find cures for things. Like Jerome broke his back and there is no surgical procedure even suggested in order to fix it. It’s a culture of disposability — like going to an Apple store with a problem with your laptop and instead of fixing it, they just give you a new one.

5)   The doctor is played by Mason from 24.

 

So what I’m saying is, if you haven’t seen this movie, you’re missing out big time.