Virtual film analysis

September 8th, 2008 — Wordman

Having recently completed Awake in the Dark, I was glad to see Roger Ebert’s article on how to read a movie. I immediately started thinking along the lines that some of the commentators did: could this be reasonably done in an on-line way?

I think it could. It wouldn’t be exactly the same as Ebert describes, of course, for some obvious reasons: the crowd would be much larger, the pace would be necessarily slower, the shots to be examined would have to be selected in some way other than yelling “stop”, typing is not the same as speaking, and so on. Even so, it still might be useful. And fun.

I’m tempted to do this myself. Maybe I will if no one else picks up the gauntlet. One way it could work would be like this:

  • Get a domain like cinema-interruptus.org.
  • Install the latest version of phpBB.
  • Create one forum per film.
  • Use one thread per shot.
  • For each film, one registered user acts as the “host”.
  • Lock down permissions in a forum so that only the “host” can create new threads (i.e. shots) in that forum.
  • The host initiates a shot by creating a new thread containing the shot to be examined, with a number in the subject. The initial post would contain things like the time index and so on.
  • Anyone can then post to the thread.
  • Once some criterion has been reached, a new shot is posted. This could be done in a few ways:
    • Some sort of time limit, say, an hour or two. This forces the experience to work in a “live” way, however, which isn’t what the internet is best at.
    • Some sort of “post count” limit is hit. For example, after 50 or 100 (or whatever) posts to the thread, the next shot starts. This has the advantage that the pace of the process is dictated by interest, moving through shots quickly when a lot of people are posting (i.e. at “peak hours”) and more slowly when fewer are paying attention. Disadvantage is that the cutoff is arbitrary. There will surely be cases where it either cuts off to soon or stalls.
    • Allow the host to move on when he feels the time is right. Would probably be the best choice, but would entirely depend on a good host.
    • Some other method.
  • It might be useful, when moving to a new shot, to lock the previous shot/thread. I can see where this would be helpful. I can also see how it would be a hindrance. Probably a choice left up to the host.
  • It might be interesting if the choice of frames was deterministic (e.g. take one frame exactly every 30 seconds), rather than having the host (or, perhaps, requests from earlier shots) pick out “interesting” frames. On the one hand, this downplays the human element and forces focus onto a place it might not go naturally. On the other hand, this downplays the human element and forces focus onto a place it might not go naturally.
  • Using one film per forum, run several different movies at once.
  • Close down the site after being sued by the MPAA for copyright violations.

It would take quite a while to get through a film. It would also be a project with many built-in “intermissions” from the point of view of the reader. That is, they’d see a few shots, then go on with their day, then see a few more, and so on. This would be a much different concept than sitting in a dark room for several hours at a stretch. I’m guessing it might make the analysis better, but perhaps not.

Who’s up for it? Would you participate in such a thing?

The Asteroid Ultimatum

August 12th, 2007 — Wordman

I just got back from seeing the Bourne Ultimatum. This might be a good movie, from the sound of it. I wouldn’t know though, because cinematographer Oliver Wood seems to have screwed the movie up entirely by only hiring cameramen with advanced Parkinson’s disease or some other severe palsy, so you couldn’t actually see much of anything. When the DVD of this movie comes out, someone should go through it and count the frames that consist of nothing but motion blur. I’d wager the count will be more than 15%. Some highlights:

  • A scene where Matt Damon and Julia Stiles are sitting down, looking at each other, doing nothing but quietly talking. They seem to be unaware that the cameramen are, evidently, caught in a massive earthquake or about to be eaten by the worms in Tremors.
  • Several different points where the camera spends several seconds frenetically panning around at absolutely nothing.
  • One of the best car crashes ever is rendered completely moot by the fact that you can’t see a damn thing. Repeatedly. From several different angles.
  • Most of the scenes, where editor Christopher Rouse takes footage from several cameras providing different angles on a single shot, and toggles the lever that switches between them like it was a Robotron controller.
  • The credits, when you realize you are looking at the first stable shot you’ve seen in the past two hours.

Similar stupidity marred what might have been a good movie trailer for Cthulhu in the Field of Clover or whatever it’s called.

I don’t pretend to be a filmmaker. I am, however, a film watcher and, seriously Hollywood, how many more films are you going to let the Handheld ShakyCam™ technique ruin before you knock it the hell off? I know you think it makes the film look “edgy” or “gritty” or “realistic” or something, but it doesn’t. It just makes the audience nauseous. Normally the rest of your recent products do that without the benefit of cinematography induced motion sickness. Please, at least, stop ruining movies that don’t suck from conception by shooting them handheld. Tripods aren’t that expensive.

People called Romanes, they go the house?

April 8th, 2007 — Wordman

As you might guess from prior posts in my “religion” category, I don’t celebrate Easter with much enthusiasm, at least not of the religious sort. I did, however, watch King of Kings, a 1961 Technicolor™ film about the life of Jesus from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. This is not the best film ever, but good enough to be an Easter classic. Plus, it contains juggling.

While watching it, the acting, sets and flavor immediately reminded me of “a comedy 3000 years in the making”. Mostly, though, I realized I can never watch anything containing Jesus or Romans without thinking of the Life of Brian (from which the title of this post comes). I mean, even the marquees of these two movies are similar:

The casting in King of Kings is a bit more interesting, however. (Maybe it was watching too many episodes of “Rome” back to back, but I kept wondering who in the cast was sleeping with who.) Orson Welles did the voice overs (which were apparently written by Ray Bradbury). Judas is played by a nearly unrecognizable (at least to me) Rip Torn. For some reason, this movie also more or less ended the short career of the surprisingly hot Brigid Bazlen, whose performance as Salome evidently drew an extremely vitriolic response from the critics at the time. (There is a story in there somewhere.) Through most of the film however, I was troubled by the semi-crazed, yet familiar look of the actor playing the white, blue-eyed Jesus. It was a pretty good performance, and something about how they shot it made him look beyond human most of the time, but I couldn’t quite place him until about halfway through. He was Jeffrey Hunter, who played the very first captain of the Enterprise, Christopher Pike. It’s not quite the same:

Correcting success

January 6th, 2007 — Wordman

A commercial just reminded me of a question my sister raised the last time we were in John’s Pizzeria in Manhattan. At the time, there were a number of remakes of various hit movies. She wondered: why are only good movies are remade? Doesn’t this seem backwards? You’d think that movie makers would want to correct mistakes, not success. After all, of all the things that can go wrong to make a promising movie fail, there have to be any number of films that just missed greatness. If only that one big mistake could be corrected, you’d have a hit. Plus, hit movies usually spawn sequels, so why remake them?

There is, of course, a reasonable explanation: movie studios are among the most risk averse companies in the world, for no apparent reason. They only take chances if they are about to be eaten by lions, or if someone else has taken the risk first.

The commercial that provided a small sliver of hope that this might be changing pitched a new remake: a thriller called The Hitcher. The original, featuring C. Thomas Howell, Rutger Hauer and Jennifer Jason Leigh, was not a great movie, but not the worst in the world either. It gets a middling 65% fresh rating and grossed under $6 million. Obviously, someone convinced the studio that “you know, that was an OK movie, but it had some problems. Here’s how we’d turn it into a major hit.” I’m not sure why the studios believed them, since this same team has already screwed up the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (original = 87%, remake = 37%).

I can’t remember other examples of this phenomenon, though there might have been a few. I had thought that Never Say Never Again might qualify as an attempt to improve the original Thunderball, but evidently others don’t share my opinion of the lameness of the original. Also, it looks like the remake might have been more the result of legal battles than anything else.

For any studios looking for films with ideas that held great potential, but flawed execution, to remake into something great, a few suggestions:

I’m sure there are many others. What would you remake? While you’re thinking, you might also want to look a various death scenes as well.

Felines coming out of the closet

December 8th, 2005 — Wordman

Perhaps predictably, some atypical venues, such as NPR, editorial departments and various Christian sects are devoting mindspace to the film release of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, based on the novel by C.S. Lewis. Lost in all this undeservedly grandiose commentary about the mix of religion and cinema is one of Lewis’ much better works: The Screwtape Letters.

The book contains a series of letters from an senior demon, Screwtape, to his happless nephew demon Wormwood, offering advice on how to successfully corrupt his target human, a Christian. Naturally, this work features religion far more overtly than the Narnia books. The audiobook version of this work is blessed by perfect casting, featuring John Cleese as Screwtape. Having listened to dozens of audiobooks, I’d place this perfect match between reader and material at the top of the list but, unfortunately, the sound mix on the cassette version is dreadful. It may be that the audible.com version is better.

Lewis followed up this book 17 years later with an essay entitled Screwtape Proposes a Toast.

The man from room five

July 29th, 2005 — Wordman

Though tempted to call this post “riding the hype train” or “anticipating sound and fury”, I thought I might be able to manipulate at least some of the hype in a worthwhile way before the noise gets too loud. In the 1980s, writer Alan Moore and artist David Lloyd produced a comic book decidedly not for children called V for Vendetta. It has been reproduced in trade paperback and become a cult hit with adult fans, having even been well annotated. In his introduction to the trade paperback, artist David Lloyd sets the tone for the work:

“The Nine o’Clock News” followed “A Question of Sport.” Or, at least for 30 seconds it did, before the television was switched off and cheeky, cheery pop music took its place.

I looked over at the barman. “Just half this time,” I said. As he filled the glass, I solemnly asked him why he’d switched off the News. “Don’t ask me-that was the wife,” he replied, in a cheeky, cheery manner.…

…I finished my drink and left, almost certain the TV would be silent for the rest of the evening. For after “The Nine o’Clock News” would have come “The Boys From Brazil,” a dim film with few cheeky cheery characters in it, which is all about a bunch of Nazis creating 94 clones of Adolf Hitler.

There aren’t many cheeky, cheery characters in V FOR VENDETTA either; and it’s for people who don’t switch off the News.

In a few months, a film based on this comic will be released, created by the same guys that made the Matrix. You are going to hear a lot about this movie pretty soon, and not just because it looks to be a stylistic blockbuster. There will be screaming about it on CNN and (especially) Fox News, because its hero blows up buildings in London in an attempt to destroy the (now fascist) government. Given the bombings in London right now, this is probably going to send the right wing into a tizzy. Add to that the tagline from the marquee (“people should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people”) and you can pretty much hear the “think of the children” pining already.

Before all that starts, I’m asking (hell, begging) you to read the original comic. It has its warts, but remains powerful in spite of (or, perhaps, because of) being written twenty years ago. Keep your kids away, though. It’s not that kind of party (“think of the children!”).

By the way, Alan Moore, easily one of the top three comic writers of all time, has a history of entrusting his work to filmmakers that mess it up and has disassociated himself from this film.

Microreview: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

May 12th, 2005 — Wordman

I have only vague memories of reading Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The movie was a lot like the book, except not funny. Or entertaining.