Flix Fix: The Independent Movie Store

 

Film Title: Mr Nobody

By James

One day, I decided to be adventurous and trek into uncharted territory; I watched a Netflix movie without researching it. Granted, the movie in question had a 5 star suggestion for my tastes, but in principle, I was being very brave. As I sunk into my chair, I prepared myself for what was inevitably going to be a forgettable indie movie. From the cover, I could see that the film starred Jared Leto, and involved a cast of forgettables. Seeing as I had never heard of the film before the title seemed appropriate: Mr. Nobody. The movie focused on the importance of choice in the world, and the relevancy of any and every decision. The movie beautifully shot and thought out, making it a fantastic piece that I ended up loving.

Of my twenty favorite movies, fourteen of them are films that were produced by independent companies.  It’s not that big budget films can’t be amazing, and it’s not that every independent movie is amazing. Rather, the focus lies in the framing. Big budget films are a matter of probability. For every unexpected success in the box office, there are four flops. Most films made by companies like 20th Century Fox and Paramount are guaranteed cash cows. People joke that Hollywood hasn’t come up with anything profitable in years, but the fact is, movies are money. Even new movies are based on profitable old formulas to ensure that producers will make the allotted revenue. But, as this is a topic that my fellow collaborators have done already, I don’t want to drone on about the how and why of independent movies. Instead, I want to share my reasons for loving these fascinating, if slightly esoteric films.

People watch films for escapism. Films seek to offer us an opportunity to flee from the banalities of life, but how often do movies seek to change that banality within the larger context of our lives? The power within an independent film lies within the ability to change a person’s perspective. The movies that affect me the most always hit on one emotion: wonder. While joy, anger, and sorrow will last for the rest of the day, wonder will haunt me for months. After two months, I still feel that Mr. Nobody is hanging on the edge of my consciousness, subtly shaping the way I act. Mainstream films have realized the profit in other emotions, preying on romance, sorrow, and thrill, but rarely on wonder.

My love of independent films isn’t a sign of snobbery, but rather an appreciation of sincerity: sincerity of the thought that goes into movies, and sincerity of emotion within the script. The care and craft that goes into the best independent movies is extraordinary. And though the movie is created long before the viewer sees it, the decision to appreciate wonder belongs to the viewer alone.

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Flix Fix: The Generality of Genres

In bruges

by James

When I was trying to recommend the film In Bruges to my brother, I came across some problems. The conversation ran something like this: “Jake,” (my brother’s name is Jake) “you should really check out this film. It’s like a dark comedy, but it isn’t really a funny movie, and it has some action parts, but it really isn’t an action movie, and there is some drama, but it isn’t like a real dramatic movie. Umm. It’s about Bruges. No really, you should check it out.”

When I try to talk about a film, the first thing that comes to mind is the genre. Inevitably, the first words out of my mouth are “It’s a horror movie,” or “It’s an action movie.” The human mind naturally categorizes things into a collection. The easiest way to describe something new is to start with something old. Only after the category is established does the explanation come out. “It’s a horror movie, but the serial killer is a puppet.” “It’s an adventure movie, but the main character is actually a cyborg dog. How awesome is that?” For the most part, these films are easily categorized. Hollywood knows what the markets are looking for, and tend to produce to the specifications. People want comedies? Give them a wacky setup, and send Kevin James in. People want a horror movie? Send in the teenagers and give somebody a knife and a mask. Most movies fit into this category, but from time to time, there comes a movie that doesn’t really fit into this mold.

Some of the most innovative movies are the ones that lack the boundaries imposed by genres. Adaptation, my favorite movie, is an example of a movie whose value increases due to its lack of restrictions. Adaptation is a movie about a man trying to adapt a screenplay. There is comedy, but the movie isn’t a comedy. There is drama, but the movie isn’t a drama. There is crime, but the movie is not a crime movie. The idea behind the movie is simple, but the writing by Charlie Kauffman brings out a complex look at the nature of change in many different forms. If it was forced into having more drama, or more crime, or comedy, the tone of the movie would change substantially. The focus would no longer rest on the ideas that the movie tries to convey, but instead the attention would be drawn away by the tropes of the genre.

I’m not saying that movies that are easily classified are bad. I enjoy watching comedies and action movies. However, the movies that stay with me are movies that contain ideas. Oftentimes, movies are so filled with tropes that there is little time for innovation. Was Lockout a fun movie? Of course it was, but I will never remember the movie as more than what it was: an action movie set in space.

Of course there will always be conventional Hollywood standbys. People will watch, and people will enjoy. Those are tried and true classic methods, and there is no reason to change it. But when I am looking for a movie to really speak to me, I’ll be looking for the film that nobody can describe.

Flix Fix: The Arrow-Shootin’ Teens Movie, and Simplifying Complex Media

hunger gamesBy Allen

Cultural assimilation has always been a term that I had trouble understanding. Is our experience with media just a series of interconnected vignettes, or does a cohesive whole stick in our minds? As the Internet becomes an easier way to share and discuss our opinions of films, we tend to forget that not everybody is meticulously watching every major blockbuster that comes out. But even as someone who doesn’t see every film that gets nominated for an Oscar or mentioned in a TV commercial, I feel like I’ve “consumed” more films than I’ve seen.

One of the most recent instances of this effect was 2012’s The Hunger Games. I didn’t get around to seeing it until just a few months ago, and it wasn’t exactly what I expected. Until sitting down to actually watch it, I only knew that it was about a bunch of kids fighting to the death for their country, Jennifer Lawrence was the protagonist, and she had some love interests or something. All of that information came from various sources; SNL parodies, social media, and general film discussion with other people. It wasn’t until I actually watched the film that I realized that it was about not only survival and kids killing each other, but also responsibility in the face of a massive entity, defending one’s family, and all sorts of fairly deep, mature themes that completely go over your head until you actually watch the film. Granted, the film does not tackle these themes as well as the original novels apparently do, but they’re almost all there on the screen.

Another good example of this is The Godfather films. Coincidentally, they were also adaptations of novels, but they came at it from a different perspective. Where The Hunger Games is a Hollywood-ized version of a young adult series of novels, The Godfather is a re-imagining of a popular crime novel. Its general premise has cemented itself as one of pop culture’s most enduring stories, but hardly anyone mentions that it’s not just a crime film. It’s about family, marriage, patriarchy, and coming to the realization that an old method of doing business is coming to an end. Essentially, it’s like putting the skeleton of a film in the public domain, but missing the fleshy pink center that is the plot beats, character development, and the overall production.

Our opinion of movies also determines how we describe them to others. I’d describe The Hunger Games to someone as “that arrow-shootin’ teen’s movie”, but that’s because I found it dull and wasteful of its interesting side characters. However, if you asked me to describe one of my favorite films, Almost Famous, I would go on an extended rant about how it deconstructs 1970s counter-culture while also telling the relatable story of a sheltered child being exposed to the most fascinating era in music, trying to be a part of it, and realizing that he belongs on the outside looking in. I also happen to really enjoy Almost Famous, so describing it like that is just a joy for me. The only time I would distill great works of art to a single sentence or two is to enhance the point that some films just need to be seen all the way through. Spring Breakers can be summarized in a sentence or two for plot, but that wouldn’t come anywhere close to the deeply intimate, intoxicating experience that is watching it.

On the other hand, some films benefit from a truncated explanation, because the execution doesn’t live up to the premise. I could pick pretty much any M. Night Shyamalan film from the early 2000s to illustrate this. Lady in the Water, The Sixth Sense, or even The Happening. The problem with these films is that there is little left to enjoy beyond the twists and turns that they take in the final act. This doesn’t mean that every Shyamalan “twist film” is inherently bad; Signs is bolstered by good acting and music, and Unbreakable is a legitimately great film from beginning to end.

As we go deeper into this new year, consider how you recommend films to other people. Are you giving them just the base amount of knowledge, letting the film speak for itself in its minute details? Or are you disregarding those details in favor of a quick, easily-explained synopsis of the film’s twists and symbols? The more a film resonates with the viewer, the less likely they are to explain its details, choosing to just say “You should watch it.” That, to me, is the sign of a film worth watching.

Flix Fix: Fixing What We Can’t See

YunioshiBy Allen

The concept of “21st-century racism” has been coming up in various conversations that I’ve had this week. Just a month ago, I finally saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and I was surprised how well it’s tale of love and capriciousness holds up today. The film focuses on Paul Vorjak, and his infatuation with his next door neighbor, Holly Golightly. The two meet, go on dates, and fall in love over time. However, it becomes evident very early on that Paul (and the viewer for that matter) is only seeing one aspect of his neighbor’s personality.

The other main character that is most often discussed when bringing up Breakfast at Tiffany’s today is her landlord, Mr. Yunioshi. He’s basically a caricature of grumpy Asian men, but there’s something disturbing and dark about Mickey Rooney playing him as a joke for everyone to laugh at. The big teeth, the strong accent, and the thick-rimmed glasses all made me cringe, even knowing that it was coming. The main problem with this portrayal is that it is not only played for laughs, but clearly meant to be taken seriously in the context of the film’s audience. No other character remarks on his absurd antics and they all simply look down at him as the silly landlord who can’t take a joke. Now, it’s easy to say that this was what America found funny in the 1960s, and we’ve changed today. Today, racism is more internal, and is coupled with other negative thoughts that don’t bubble to the surface as flambouyantly as an Asian landlord eating from a big bowl of rice with chopsticks. This is 21st-century racism, and although it’s less offensive than stereotypes, it’s just as harmful to society.

With the rise of the Internet and portable smartphones, people are simultaneously more and less connected. One can read about the triumph of modern social justice on their phone, while simultaneously missing the beautiful girl giving them googly eyes from across the subway car. The initial impression of modern Americans is that we are open to all, yet we have still have some deep-seated problems in our nature. Like Ms. Golightly, what appears on the surface isn’t all that there is. Each and every one of has some sort of bias deep inside of us.

Everyone’s a little racist and a little sexist, but some are better at hiding it than others. It’s the same reason that we can’t in good consciousness take a seat from a pretty lady, and why we always assume that more attractive people are kinder. These ideas are so ingrained in our minds because of films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where prejudice is treated like a background joke. How do we slough off these dregs of a past that we don’t like to bring up anymore, that has become a shameful mark on our history? One way to work towards that is admitting that we are all fundamentally flawed, and allowing these negative aspects to define us.

I didn’t expect the back half of Breakfast at Tiffany’s to go the way that it did. Holly and Paul have a falling out when he finds out that she lives a false life after having fled her family’s farm many years ago, and she prepares to flee yet again. However, in the climax of the film, the two kiss in the rain, and learn to accept each other’s differences as all lovers should. It’s a typical Hollywood ending, but applied to our modern day issue with accepting others, it seems appropriate. Hiding one’s faults only makes them worse, and leads to a culture of people who can’t admit when they’re wrong. If we’re to be like the ending of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, we need to accept each other’s inner demons, not pretend that they don’t exist. Because, like Mr. Yunioshi, they’re always going to be there, ready to rear their deformed, unfortunately-shaped heads.

Flix Fix: Thinking Outside the Lens

Whedon

By Allen

Have you ever wondered what Biff was thinking throughout the Back to the Future series? I mean, the guy is constantly put down whenever he finds a modicum of success in life, and he’s reduced to an indentured servant by the end of the first film. I’ve always been interested in unique perspectives like Biff’s, and film is the perfect medium to experiment with views like Biff’s and other unique storytelling angles. Several of the films I’ve watched recently bucked convention in interesting ways.

I’ve always been a big fan of Joss Whedon. It’s the things that everyone likes about his work; the way he portrays powerful young females, his skill at writing for an ensemble cast, and his snappy scripts filled with pop culture references. One of his less popular works, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, was actually my introduction to his filmography. It focuses on the titular Dr. Horrible, a bumbling supervillain who pines after his rival’s girlfriend. He is clearly meant to represent the underdog, but only for the first 2/3s of the movie. One of my favorite things about Dr. Horrible is that the protagonist is not meant to be rooted for the entire time. He may start as the charming genius with some misguided views, but once he realizes that what he really wants is to take over the world, all pretense of love and rivalry fall away. In the final scene, when Horrible sings that he won’t feel a thing, he really means it. What started as a nerdy love story showed itself to be a film that was actually about the nature of evil. When allowed to take over his life, Dr. Horrible doesn’t mope or try to reject his supervillain life. Instead, he puts on the black gloves and the red coat, and he takes his seat with the other villains, a seat which he has wanted for longer than anything else. It’s the strength of Joss Whedon’s script in addition to Neil Patrick Harris’s dead stare in that final scene that really sell the film’s tonal shift, and it’s impossible to rewatch Dr. Horrible without thinking about the “hero’s” true goals now. What could have easily been a bland ending where Horrible gets the girl and discovers his inner hero is ignored In favor of this darker, much more thought-provoking ending.

Even the movement and use of the camera has been boiled down to a science, which several directors like to experiment with. Richard Linklater’s first film ever, Slacker, is one of my favorite examples of changing how one sees a film and its characters using just the camera. Although it’s credited as the start of the independent film movement of the 1990s, my greatest takeaway from Slacker is how the camera becomes a character itself. There is no linear narrative here; the camera lazily follows around several 20-something characters in Austin as they go about their day. Whenever I think a particular plot point is going somewhere, the camera abandons that location and moves somewhere else. It made me feel like what I was watching wasn’t actually important enough to dwell on, and that there’s always something completely different around the corner. Instead of building tension and then releasing it with a climax, Slacker presents tension, and then abandons it for more peaceful scenarios. There’s a scene in the middle of the film where a group of people living in an apartment supposedly discover their friend’s terrorist plot, and the camera switches to their oblivious roommate and his benign shopping trip. By simply keeping the viewer away from the action, there essentially is none. Technically, nothing happened to those kids and their friend, because we didn’t see it. I had never considered my role as the watcher to be that of a storyteller before Slacker, but shooting the film with so few cuts makes it an even more relaxing, mellow experience.

Coincidentally, The Cabin in the Woods is another film with the Joss Whedon touch that aimed to show a different perspective. In this case, the entire horror genre is deconstructed by making the writers and directors actual characters in the film. Scientists craft the perfect haunted house to lure unsuspecting teenagers into falling into horror film archetypes, only to have their blood sacrificed to the old gods living beneath the cabin. In most horror films, the two-dimensional characters rarely act with any level of self-awareness or knowledge that they are falling into obvious traps. The jock and the virgin have sex in the forest, the black guy dies first, and someone always suggest that everyone split up. This movie takes that idea and puts the twist on it that these characters aren’t actually their stereotypes. The jock is well-read, the virgin has had plenty of sex, and so on. But in this cabin, they’re all pawns in the scientists’s master plan. Through traps and subtle nudges, they force these kids to be horror movie characters, and the film becomes about breaking free from fate. In the climactic scene, the two surviving kids throw middle fingers to tradition, and break free from convention and cliché.

It’s fun to tear apart the motivations and meanings behind our favorite films. If I were to ever make a movie, all I know is that there would have to be a scene in a classroom. The students, lost in their own thoughts, begin to process the world around them. One of them is lusting after the girl in the short skit in the front row. That girl is thinking about that night’s homework, and how she plans to find time to watch the latest episode of her favorite TV show. In another corner is the lonely jock, who just wants to break free from convention and become a dancer. Instead of relegating these characters to their stereotypical archetypes, I’d let them be free, dynamic characters. Directors that are willing to step out of the realm of predictability and reframe tradition create some of the best works of art in the modern cinematic medium.

Flix Fix: That Pixar Spark

PixarBy James

Last Saturday, I went to a Cleveland Orchestra concert. The Cleveland Orchestra is widely regarded as one of the premier orchestras in the world, and their home turf, Severance Hall, is located directly on my campus. Despite the mere five-minute walk that it would take to get there, my friends and I did not attend this particular concert hall. Instead, we headed out to Cuyahoga Falls. The venue was half open-concert-hall and half lawn, and the people took advantage of the space by sitting on the grass and picnicking in the fading light of evening. The orchestra was dressed in T-shirts, black pants, and skirts, and the only person wearing a suit was the conductor. As he stepped up to announce their first song, the throngs of people quieted down. And the Pixar fanfare emanated from one of the most famous orchestras in the world.

Pixar has an interesting relationship between art and emotion. As someone who grew up with its movies, Pixar has grown and developed with me.  From the very first time I watched Toy Story, when I was around the same age as Andy, to the finale of Toy Story 3 when I was going off to college, the path that Pixar has followed has always been an incredible journey. Even after seeing Toy Story 3 as many times as I have, I still tear up at the end when Buzz and Woody get left behind.  Pixar knows how to emotionally engage an audience, and what’s more, they do it with (primarily) inhuman stars. Pixar is also one of the most innovative animation firms, creating films that capture beauty beyond simply their technological achievement. The team’s films are as beautiful as they are, not because of the technology that they use, but the dedication of the animators. For example, in order to make the fish in Finding Nemo look more realistic, the animators took graduate level ichthyology courses in order to study the movement patterns of different fish. The soundtracks to the movies show this blend of art and emotion as well, emphasizing theme through the very technical pieces that the films require. Listening to the soundtracks’ Oscar-winning songs played by the Cleveland Orchestra, it’s hard not to be impressed by the technical perfection and emotion within the songs.

The lasting power of Pixar rests with its universality. With so many films nowadays deriving entertainment value from sex and violence, it’s a breath of fresh air to have a simple, innocuous story now and then. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy sex and violence, but Pixar manages to blend nostalgia with interest, creating fantastic films with no agenda, and no emotional scarring. Pixar is not childish in any way, because the stories don’t apply solely to children. The films are universal, self-affirming messages that are applicable to everyone. And sometimes, it’s nice to hear that. Even for adults.

Flix Fix: The Coen Brothers, The Modern Millers

By James

The first Coen brothers movie I ever saw was No Country for Old Men. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story, it is based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, and tells the story of a man from Texas who finds a load of drug money. The movie, released in 2008, won Oscars for Best Film, Best Director, Best Screen Adaptation, and Best Supporting Actor. This is the legacy that awaited me when I started on the works of the Coen brothers.  Their films are set all over the United States, from the hokey criminals of Raising Arizona, to prohibition mobsters in Miller’s Crossing, to the Hollywood screen writers portrayed in Barton Fink, to the wilds of Minnesota in Fargo, and the Depression-era South. The list continues through different states and time periods, ranging from the 1800s to present day.

For me, the Coen brothers represent the best in American film. While other directors rely on settings in foreign countries to give the audience an escape, the Coen brothers show the stories of Americans. The sheer range and variety of their work allows for a huge plethora of stories to be told throughout American history without ever overlapping. The Coen brothers have never needed to recover one of their stories, as they have so many stories to tell.  While they may reuse actors like John Goodman, John Turturro, George Clooney, and Francis McDormand to tell these stories, at the heart of these films lies the adventure of this country that many now take for granted. The Coen brothers instead try and tell the story of the average man, much like Barton Fink, in his eponymous movie. They actually seem to love America and, in producing their movies, they seem to want to share that love with the rest of the country.

In addition to their devotion to the country, the Coen brothers have advanced film through their careful cinematography. Each movie is shot distinctly and carefully, as every solitary frame fully reveals the movie it came from. Each film is carefully scripted and shot to enhance a sense of reality. True, the reality may not be the reality that we inhabit, but each movie tries to be as true and honest as possible. The brothers don’t try to hide their actors, instead opting to focus on their stories. This really needs to happen more often. While watching one of their pieces, a viewer can really get a sense of the love and care that the brothers use to approach their movie. The audience instinctively latches onto the reverence that the Coens have for film, and the excitement fuels the ride through the scenery, be it the Midwest or L.A. Their comedy and the dramas are equally appealing for this very reason, as the films are both developed thoroughly and completely.

Perhaps the equal appeal of the comedy and dramas is what makes the pair so interesting. The brothers always pair the two genres together. Their films seem to come out in these pairs: Barton Fink was written at the same time as Miller’s Crossing, and Burn After Reading was written at the same time as No Country for Old Men. No matter what, the two of them seem to find comedy in darkness and darkness in comedy, mixing their seriousness and their farce through films such as Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou. The point seems to be that life is neither completely funny nor sad. Within every aspect of the story the two genres mix. Whether these are the common threads of life that tie us all together or the common connections that Hollywood movies make, I really cannot say, but I chose to believe that the brothers capture one of the essential pieces of life: nothing is ever clear. There is never any comedy without some tragedy nearby, and there is no drama so depressing that we cannot laugh at ourselves.

Arthur Miller was widely considered one of the greatest modern American playwrights. He took a look at the conditions of people throughout different times and places of the United States, from Salem during the Witch Trials to the 1950s, his modern times. One of the biggest things that Miller started was the modern tragedy. These works did not focus on kings and lords who started in a position of power, and were brought down low by arrogance, but showed instead, the plight of the common man, resplendent in his life, who is brought down lower than he started.  The Coen brothers capture Miller’s spirit. Their concern for the common man drives them across America in search of that one true glimpse of simple life, bringing them face to face with not only the best of comedy, but the saddest of tragedy. Playwriting may be a less popular art, and American theatre may have inexorably drifted away from plays to the cinemas, but the spirit of the great American plays still lives on in the works of the Coen brothers, because they still maintain the same perspective that Miller did. In the end, the Coen brothers create works as great as they are because they care.