Showing posts with label Spliced Column. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Spliced Column. Show all posts

Feb 13, 2013

Spliced: Charlie Chaplin

The following comes from my column, Spliced from Volume 47 - Issue 23 of the Carillon (the University of Regina newspaper) from April 2005.

In film history, or just entertainment in general, there are few artists or projects that are able to bridge generations and that warrant a position in the collective consciousness of a society made up of people that can barely remember the name of a movie they saw a few weeks ago.  

With this in mind, I’d like to shed some light on a figure who acted, directed, wrote, produced, and composed the score for many of his films.  A character who you've no doubt seen mimicked, and a man who even if you've never seen one of his films, you’d likely recognize from a picture of early Hollywood big wigs.  Of course I'm speaking of, Charles Chaplin.

Born in London, England on April 16, 1889 Charlie faced extreme poverty, only made worse by his father‘s early death and his sickly mother.  By the age of 21 he became part of a travelling music-hall company and found himself in the United States where he was well-received by audiences. 

Charlie’s ambition and resounding talent led him to a film contract in 1913 with the Keystone Film Company for $150 per week. 

In 1914 Chaplin made over 30 short films, and by the end of that year had signed a new contract for $1250 per week.  Needless to say, audiences loved Chaplin, especially his cane twirling, bowler hat wearing, little tramp character who would later skyrocket Chaplin‘s name and career internationally. 

On a side note, one German dictator was such a fan of the tramp character that he actually styled his moustache after Chaplin’s.  True story.

What I’ve always found fascinating about Charlie Chaplin is that his own rags to riches lifestyle was made possible by a poverty stricken character, who aside from making people laugh, shed light on social issues such as homelessness and unemployment.  This was something Chaplin took great pride in throughout his life having faced these issues head on.

Chaplin, who began feeling restricted by the studio system, gained independence in 1917 when he teamed with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith in forming the United Artists Corporation.  Artist’s under the label essentially became their own bosses, and when your career can’t go any higher, that’s a big deal.

As for Chaplin‘s brilliant films, if you‘re not familiar with his work, I recommend Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931) or Modern Times (1936) to get you started.  Each one of these films is a shining example of Chaplin’s spot-on routines and the tramp’s infectious lovability that extends from situations he mistakenly becomes involved in.

Modern Times is my favourite film of Chaplin’s.  Some may remember a scene where Charlie slides through the cogs and gears of a factory, or his repetitious fidgeting caused from screwing in bolts on an assembly line, or his hilarious mishaps with an automatic eating machine used to save time on lunch breaks.  I’m laughing as I write it because it really is that funny.

Charlie Chaplin’s significance and staying power is no accident, and you’ll understand why when you watch any of his films.  For the record, all of his major works are out on re-mastered DVDs so there’s no excuse.  I guarantee laughs will be had. 

Jan 22, 2013

Spliced: Movies About Movies

The following comes from my column, Spliced from Volume 47 - Issue 19 of the Carillon (the University of Regina newspaper) from March 2005.

Nowadays it seems that there is a sizable amount of behind the scenes knowledge, made possible through deluxe limited special collector's edition DVDs, that the average person feels no guilt in skimming over.

You have to question when watching some of these features (the lengthy Lord of the Rings box sets come to mind). Why would we want to know about the make-up artist who worked on extra number 11 on whatever deleted scene?

Honestly, I’m all for special features, and I did enjoy the Lord of the Rings, but so many DVD bundles seem to have ignored the “quality before quantity” rule.

Special features are popular for obvious reasons; We enjoy seeing more of a film that we love. It seems sometimes that features are essential to understanding a film, and sometimes they’re purely promotional to convince people that the DVD is actually worth that new release $30 price tag.

I think we all roll our eyes though, when we click on a production featurette that is simply a mash up of the film’s trailer and the lead actors spewing about how this is a film you have to see. Perhaps it would hold some significance, had we not just watched the movie.

I find the best of both worlds in movies about movies, and filmmaking.

For instance, I love the opening of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and how Robert Zemeckis melds animation and live action as though filming a cartoon is just a matter of getting all of your characters to show up at the same time.

It’s clever and good storytelling, but in its own right, it’s groundbreaking cinema.

Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty (1995) is another great movie about movies. Chili Palmer (John Travolta) comes to Los Angeles to collect on a debt, and ends up pitching a movie idea about the job he’s doing. Playing on the “everyone wants to be in the movies” bit, Get Shorty is great fun that anyone accustomed to following the entertainment industry will latch onto.

Other great movies about movies to check out include L.A. Confidential (1997), Ed Wood (1994), and Woody Allen's Hollywood Ending (2002).

And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003) directed by Bruce Beresford, is a story about how filmmaker’s were hired to film Pancho Villa and the Mexican revolution.

What’s astounding about this film is its historical context, and how the hired filmmakers created a legend out of such an infamous character. It's an entertaining movie made even better by the history of what they were doing.  Pancho Villa even agreed to a clause in his contract for the film that stated he could only fight during the day so that there was ample light for filming.

Learning about film can be a lot more fun, and even more educational when it’s dramatized (at least they have to hit plot points). Who is kidding who anyway?  Most of the special features are orchestrated pretty well on DVDs to make the experience of making the movie come across as awe-inspiring and life-changing.

I’ve yet to see a director or actor completely broken and confessing to the camera that it was all a mistake, but my fingers are crossed.  Use a few of these recommendations as a sampler to get into movies that go behind the scenes.  You obviously have some features to catch up on, so pop in a movie, and like me, use it as an excuse to study.

Jan 16, 2013

Spliced: Pixar Animation

The following comes from my column, Spliced from Volume 47 - Issue 22 of the Carillon (the University of Regina newspaper) from March 2005.

The year was 1995, and I was eleven years old.  My tastes in movies were just being discovered, and needless to say they had not ventured far from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) or Aladdin (1992).  

This of course was all about to change thanks to a little known company at the time called, Pixar Animation, who that year released the first feature length computer animated film known as Toy Story.

I think we all know where this is heading, since chances are you’ve seen at least one of the six smash hit animations Pixar has released in it’s 10 year feature animation relationship with Disney.

What’s exciting about computer animation, is not only the attention to detail and the mimicry of all of the subtleties that reality entails, but it’s a new art form and style of making movies that has really just taken off in our lifetimes. 

Surprisingly, or maybe not to some, George Lucas was responsible for the initial development of the company.  Long story short, the small division that would become Pixar was in its infancy when it was sold.  Had Lucas known how successful it would’ve been, or had it had a bigger purpose at the time, perhaps Lucas wouldn‘t have let it go.

When Toy Story burst into theatres it came to gross nearly $192 million in the US alone.  Clearly, the team at Pixar was on to something and their attention to detail and story was something that audiences were prepared to open their wallets for.

The team continued with the same formula (gasp).  Since there was an unbelievable amount of work being done, much of it being the attention to small details, the Pixar team took their time, and rightfully so, to turn out quality features and stories.

John Lasseter, who had directed Toy Story, then worked with Andrew Stanton in shifting the focus from toys to ants and grasshoppers in the 1998 movie A Bug’s Life.

These new movies were so beautiful to look at, so witty, and so genius that the studio was soon growing at an incredible rate.  Yet, they never lost their focus for telling well thought out stories with an impressive standard of quality.  Each time they pushed their skills further, and have now really become the masters of the computer animation market.

Dreamworks was busy with it’s own animation department at this time, and had Pixar Animation not been so successful, it’s doubtful that Dreamworks would have worked so feverishly to develop competitive films.  They’ve recently shown their abilities, and made history with the tremendously popular Shrek (2001) and Shrek 2 (2004).

Meanwhile, the hits kept on rolling out for the Pixar team with Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), and most recently The Incredibles (2004).  What I find I can’t emphasize enough is that these are truly amazing movies about unique subjects and events that are only bettered by the vibrant cartoon colours and the physical depth that the computer animators create in these fictional worlds.

Pixar Animation has slated Cars for 2006, and using the previous films as a guide I have a hunch that it’s going to be awesome.  This film is also going to mark the completion of Pixar’s contractual bindings to Disney, but interestingly, Toy Story 3 has already been announced as a potential project.  Only time will tell how that will unfold.

Things are heating in the computer animation world, but it sure seems likes things are getting better and better.

Jan 9, 2013

Spliced: Steven Spielberg

The following comes from my column, Spliced from Volume 47 - Issue 21 of the Carillon (the University of Regina newspaper) from March 2005.

I’ve known since I started writing this column that it was an inevitability that eventually I’d be writing about Steven Spielberg. 

I certainly feel no regret in doing this, but you have to understand that it almost feels to easy.  Spielberg is a brand name synonymous with big budget blockbusters, heartfelt storytelling, and in no understatement of the word, success.

My personal DVD collection fashions more of his movies than of any other director.  Twelve to be exact.  And as a film major, to disregard the work of Spielberg is to disregard the Empire State Building in the New York skyline.  It’s tough to miss, and why would you want to?

The longevity of Spielberg’s career is undoubtedly because of his knack for great stories that often push the envelope, and his understanding of a medium that he wisely uses to inform and entertain. 

If you’re wracking your brain to think of Steven Spielberg films you’re crazy.  His real breakthrough film was Jaws in 1975, and please don‘t admit to anyone that you‘ve never heard of it.

Then there was Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), The Indiana Jones Trilogy (1981-1989), The Color Purple (1985), Hook (1991), Jurassic Park (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Minority Report (2002), and The Terminal (2004).  And yes, I have omitted a few for the sake of not filling up the entire article with titles.

However, I did omit three films purely for the sake of pointing them out as my favourites, and arguably Spielberg‘s best work.  I’m speaking, of course, about E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1984), Schindler’s List (1993), and Catch Me If You Can (2002).  These are three very different films, that each accentuate the talents and control Spielberg has over his craft.

E.T. is a shining example of the family drama that Spielberg is so good at constructing.  Can you honestly admit that you didn’t get the chills when Elliot’s bike took off, or when you thought E.T. might be dead?  I can’t even handle it, it’s just such a good movie.  Excuse me, I suddenly have a craving for Reese’s Pieces.

On a completely opposite end of the spectrum, Schindler’s List is probably one of the most shocking, emotional and powerful films that through its performances, horror, and beauty, captures the frailty, the inexcusable cruelty, and the hope that resides within humanity.  This film about the Holocaust and the work of Oskar Schindler is one narrative that can’t be underestimated.  It's one of the must see films in modern American cinema.

Catch Me If You Can (2002) is again another shift in Spielberg’s range.  This film embraces the best of popcorn entertainment.  It’s colourful, exciting, funny, and a great heist film that follows Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he takes to forging checks and living out the best of 1960’s pop culture.  If you‘re looking for a fun cat and mouse caper, this is it.

War of the Worlds is the next picture to grace Steven Spielberg’s illustrious filmography this summer, but in the meantime, there are more than enough of his previous works to enjoy. 

I hope throughout these weekly articles, you’ve been reminded about some of the movies that you haven’t watched in years, and feel encouraged to go out and pick some of them up.  If you want an easy choice at the video store, few people are going to criticize your taste in Spielberg.

Dec 18, 2012

Spliced: Mockumentaries

The following comes from my column, Spliced from Volume 47 - Issue 18 of the Carillon (the University of Regina newspaper) from February 2005.  In it I discuss my love of mockumentaries, and why I think others should drink the Kool-Aid too.

The fake documentary, or mockumentary, is something I could talk about, or not talk about for hours. And still, Id find things to not talk about.

How Id love to claim that joke, but its spoken by Sheri Ann Ward Cabot, a character in the brilliant mockumentary, Best in Show (2000). A comedy about the Mayflower dog show, and the fanatical, but hysterical characters that pamper their dogs in pursuit of a blue ribbon.

Eugene Levy, Catherine OHara, and Jennifer Coolidge, are just a handful who star as dog owners who bring new meaning to the words eccentric and witty. The cast is exceptional, and although theyre all outrageous, the semblance of reality is never far off.   The movie is so successful at breeding laughter from seemingly commonplace occurrences that youll come to find yourself saying, I know someone like that or at least you'll think you do.

Whether Im talking about Corky St. Clair, Nigel Tufnel, Harlan Pepper, Alan Barrows, or the modern father of the mockumentary (I thought Id exaggerate a bit to keep with the style of the genre), Im talking about one funny man: Christopher Guest.

His first big induction into the genre was in Marty DiBergis (aka Rob Reiners) rockumentary This is Spinal Tap (1984). For any music fan, this is a must see. Picture every stereotype, every unconventional act, and every nuance of the big haired, spandex wearing, heavy metal band culture of the 1980s, and therein lies the endless comedic foundation of this film.

Guest plays Nigel Tufnel, one of the bands leading members who is torn by the lead singers girlfriend, and the declining popularity of the group. The information and critical comment that this, seemingly ditsy, film provides is both inspiring and memorable. Its a challenge, but try not to quote something from the film after watching it, I dare you.

Later in his career, Guest turned to directing and starring in his own mockumentaries starting in 1996 with Waiting for Guffman. His flamboyant Corky St. Clair, decides to direct a pageant for the 150th anniversary of the small Missouri town of Blaine. The cast established in this film transcended into his future films, Best in Show (2000) and A Mighty Wind (2003), a mockumentary about the folk music scene.

In my experience, people either seem to love these films or hate them, however the tide seems to be changing with this style becoming more mainstream.  In many ways the genre is like a scripted blooper reel, which often makes you feel like you're in on the joke in that moment and not necessarily being played to.  Youll quickly find out for yourself if you like them, and chances are if youre watching with someone who doesnt, the experience will be ruined.

Documentaries have gotten a bad reputation for being boring, or too dry, which in itself is a huge myth. But, if youre having your doubts about watching a comedy posing as a documentary, dont.

Christopher Guests films arent out to trick you, theyre out to entertain and make you laugh. See Spinal Tap or Best in Show if you want to get your first taste of this genre and style, because if youre going to become a believer in the mockumentary, these are the films that are going to do it. And, if youre already hooked, I'm glad you're in the club!

I feel there is nothing more I can say to get you to see these films, for I think Spinal Tap summed up the mockumentary genre best when they mused, theres such a fine line between stupid and clever

Dec 14, 2012

Spliced: The Muppets

The following comes from my column, Spliced from Volume 47 - Issue 17 of the Carillon (the University of Regina newspaper) from February 2005.  In it, I muse about the influence and brilliance of the Muppets and how they're due for a proper revival.  Of course, all of this came before the 2011 Muppet movie that did just that.  It's like they knew exactly what I was thinking. 

Not too long ago I found myself gazing out the window at the lightly falling snow. It was remarkable how the wind carried and shifted the millions of snowflakes like a flock of birds darting out of traffic. If only I had had my video camera at that moment I would have recorded it and watched it over and over again in true American Beauty fashion, for I felt my heart welling up from the endless beauty that lay just outside my window. By no stroke of chance I began to question what likely every person questions at some point in their existence. What the hell happened to the Muppets?

Ok, so the Muppets never really left, but the likes of Fraggle Rock, The Muppet Show, and feature length films featuring the odd bunch have either been left by the wayside or have faced poor attempts at revival. So until they (meaning the new owners, Disney) can make the Muppets better, I think its best to embrace the movies that made them such household names in the first place.

The Muppet Movie (1979) starring Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear, was the first feature length picture for the Muppets and was released during the syndication of Hensons The Muppet Show (1976-1981). With hopes of hitting it big in Hollywood, Kermit and Fozzie head cross country and run into all the characters youd expect from Gonzo to Miss Piggy. The usual sprinkling of celebrity cameos ensues, including Milton Berle, Steve Martin, Bob Hope and many more.

The idea for the film supposedly came from Jim Hensons own rise to stardom. Cameos by characters such as Big Bird, whos heading to New York to break into television, are obvious references to Hensons multiple endeavors at the time like Sesame Street. Any fan would do themselves good to see this and all of Hensons other films again.

Other pictures such as The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) continue to comment on the down and out luck that the group has, but the films follow the same formula with catchy songs, outrageous slapstick, and with a like-ability that appeals to almost everyone (and I say almost everyone, but Im hard pressed to think of someone who hasnt enjoyed something Jim Henson has done).

What is amazing about the films besides the original characters and talent is the technical aspect of it all. The fact that sets have to be constructed to allow a Muppet handler to move freely while interacting with a human character poses numerous problems, yet each film makes it look easy - like a live action cartoon. Keep this in mind when watching, and I guarantee youll ask howd they do that? a few times.

Literary tales have been the inspiration for the latest Muppet films such as Muppets Christmas Carol (1992) and Muppets Treasure Island (1996). The same is true for the latest project to come from the now Disney owned Muppet cast. Muppet Wizard of Oz is a made for TV movie slated to air on ABC in the spring of 2005.

Get out there and relive the zany antics of the Muppets.  Just walka, walka, walka to the video store (groan) and if you didnt get that, your need for the Muppets is far more serious than I thought. 

Nov 29, 2012

Writing for the University Newspaper

One of the more productive past times I took up in film school was writing for the University of Regina's campus newspaper, the Carillon.  I had casually written a few film related articles for the paper in my first few years of uni, but it was in the winter semester of 2005 that things really got interesting.

My friend Kelly was the Editor-in-Chief of the Carillon that year and while hanging out one night I proposed an idea I had for a column I was interested in writing.  I really had no expectations, just a willingness to try something new, and she seemed keen to give me a shot.  The basic premise I had was rooted in childhood nostalgia, film school experiences, and highlighting the classic flicks that I thought should be required viewing. It was essentially a film student's guide for getting lost in the video store.

I titled the column, Spliced, which if you weren't aware is the editing term referring to the joining of two pieces of a filmstrip.  I thought it sounded cool and also related to people missing certain films, cutting them out, etc. It was a great experience, and I had a lot of fun writing about everything from mockumentaries (like This is Spinal Tap), to a rundown of the Muppet movies, to my favorite films about the movie business (like Sunset Boulevard).  Some of it was a bit indulgent I suppose, but the idea was always to share my appreciation for flicks that I felt didn't get mentioned as much as they should.

I only ever wrote on a consistent basis for the Carillon that one semester, but the few remaining articles I ever wrote for the paper still ended up under the Spliced banner.  It was cool to do something like that for a brief period of time, especially because stuff like this foreshadowed what eventually came from this site when I started it in 2007.  Keep an eye out for some of my favorite articles from Spliced in the coming weeks.          

Feb 18, 2008

Spliced: Documentary, Media & Iraq

I was going through some old files on my computer today and came across this article I wrote for the university newspaper back in the fall of 2005. There are probably three times as many films about the Iraq war out there now, most recently I watched No End in Sight and Iraq in Fragments, but there are still no easy explanations regarding the chaos occurring over there; no easy solutions either. Here's what I wrote back then:

Our perception of the world, likely now more than ever, is a result of a media induced society that aims at unleashing our empathy on those who have undergone some experience. It sounds vague, but let us not kid ourselves, anything can be news. This is the first lesson in understanding bias.

Perhaps you’re tired of reading, watching, or hearing about Iraq, but I have to admit that my own ambivalence towards what was happening over there was lifted after watching several documentaries. More than changing my views on Iraq, which wasn’t really my intent, they helped me to refine my views on the media.

The first documentary I watched was Control Room (2004), which provides insight into the infamous Al Jazeera network, and the perception of the war created by both Middle Eastern and American coverage.

After about a half an hour of watching I started to realize that I really had no idea what was going on in Iraq, or the middle east for that matter. I became conscious to the fact that my entire view of the war had been shaped by heated debates and broadcasts that often played the Americans as struggling heroes and the Iraqis as victims or lunatics.

Even worse, I realized that most Westerners who are not directly linked to the conflict are probably having their minds made up in much the same way.

Directed by Jehane Noujaim, Control Room is filmed in Iraq and focuses on many of the media correspondents and military spokespeople located there. It’s a real eye opener that delves into the problems of open and honest media when anyone can access it. However, the films real strong point is it’s realistic, no nonsense Iraqi perspective that allows you to come to your own conclusion about what you may be watching on the nightly news.

Of course, Michael Moore has to come up when talking about Iraq because of his latest release Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). This film takes an entirely different approach, because it’s strength and perhaps it’s flaw, is to inform through entertainment.

I have to admit that I became emotionally revved after seeing Moore’s film and was determined that Bush was wrong, the war was wrong, and Americans were crazy. But, regardless of your viewpoint, Fahrenheit’s real power is it’s ability to spawn discussion.

I’ve been with people who never expressed an opinion about the war, and after seeing this film, wouldn’t shut up about it.

Michael Moore has adopted a sketchy reputation for altering facts for the sake of making arguments. For that reason my eyes opened a little wider when I ran across Alan Peterson’s Fahrenhype 9/11 (2004).

Now I’m not saying who’s right and who’s wrong here, because in my opinion the truth lies somewhere between these two films. Moore is clearly a democrat and Peterson a republican, but from Peterson’s lesser known film I was amazed at hearing how some of the people who were in Moore’s film actually felt.

Ultimately these three films share very different opinions that are expressed in equally different ways. Although each of these films make great arguments, what I really got from these experiences was the reasoning to never accept easy answers.

Media is simply communication altered by perspective. The purpose and logic seems black and white. Although, at one time so did war, and yet here we are living in a world where buses, hotels and skyscrapers are targets and still most people don‘t understand why.

The answers are complicated, but the information is out there.

The good news is that if you’ve reached this point in my article you’ve at least attempted to understand another viewpoint. And for the sake of what I’m trying to say, that’s a good start.