Movie Madness

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The IMDb Top 250

I had lots of lofty ideas and hopes in high school. I wanted to date my long-term crush Rosalind, visit Europe, catch an Eddie Izzard performance, and see a lot of great movies. Still haven’t made it to an Eddie Izzard concert yet…

My need for organization made the viewing of great cinema very list-based. I’ve talked before of my pre-Netflix film lists; this was no different. The first list I ever accomplished was Bravo TV’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments. Though some of those movies were instantly forgettable, a handful shocked the living daylights out of me. At the same time, I had a couple lists of American Film Institute’s 100 Best lists on my computer. As I saw a film or was in the mood for a classic, I’d reference the necessary list. On and off again I flirt with seeing all the Academy Awards’ Best Picture winners, but some of those films are real stinkers in my opinion.

Of all the lists, there has always been one that I’ve longed to complete. The Holy Grail of movie elitism and exploration: The Internet Movie Database’s (IMDb) top 250 films of all time. Based on an algorithm I don’t care to understand, ratings of films are calculated and given a total score on a 1-10 scale. The higher the number and the more votes it has, the more likely it makes it on the list.

In high school, during my pre-Netflix film list days, I decided to count how many of the films I had seen. My memory is a little hazy, but the highest I ever got was seeing 85 of them. Which wasn’t problematic except the list was living. Every day the list updated and recalculated. So my total would fluctuate through no fault of my own.

Since then, I would occasionally glance at the list and see what new films made the cut and add a few I’d not seen to my to-do list. That was, until last year.

Despite having a lot of family and friends nearby, I was eternally broke working for an insurance company right out of college. With the guilt of buying anything weighing on me, I turned inward. Fortunately I didn’t reach for the bottle, I reached for the computer. With IMDb’s list in front of me, I began my assault.

It slowly escalated. First it was adding one or two to my Netflix queue. Then it was clear that the movies I wanted to see and the rest of the list was quickly favoring the latter. So, I’d select five or six and go through them over the course of a month. If some were on Netflix Instant (and in English), I may put it on as I drove long distances to see my parents or my girlfriend. But then the number started to dwindle. As the list grew closer to 30, it became increasingly difficult to keep track of which I had missed. I almost blew past High Noon and Judgment at Nuremberg. So I started at the top and just worked my way down, but that wasn’t easy either. Littered along the bottom 50 were films that would test my patience and better managed free time from my exponentially improved job. I’ll admit, some of the films didn’t get my full attention, and a few I even skipped Act III, but I don’t have to fret over it anymore.

I’m completed the list.

As of this week I have seen every film on IMDb’s top 250 list. Through this marathon of celluloid, I’ve learned to adore Hitchcock whodunits, tolerate Japanese full-length cartoons, and witness the beauty of films in languages I have no intention of discerning. As I’ve explored this list of brilliant cinema, I realize that not all great films are included, nor are all films on the list truly brilliant. Many just don’t have the legacy that merits inclusion.

Of all the films I saw, some made me fall in love with cinema and others were merely educational. The ones that resonated with me changed how I viewed the moving picture. Below is a list of films from the 250 I watched solely to cross it off the list that wowed me.

Amadeus (Milos Forman) 1984

Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg) 1967

Das Boot (Wolfgang Petersen) 1981

Dial M For Murder (Alfred Hitchcock) 1954

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel) 2007

The Elephant Man (David Lynch) 1980

The General (Buster Keaton) 1926

Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean) 1962

M (Fritz Lang) 1931

Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick) 1957

Seven Samurai (Director: Akira Kurosawa) 1954

The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman) 1957

Twelve Monkeys (Terry Gilliam) 1995

Now, other movies caught me off guard. Some even blew my mind and shattered my world. I had almost no intention of watching many of the 250, but sticking with it gave me these aforementioned classics. Thank god I was wrong to skip them and gave them a chance.

If you look at the list, you’ll see it covers a pretty wide range of film history, from silent era to modern film. And many of them aren’t even in English, emphasizing my push for everyone to experience more foreign cinema.

With this list done, I can scarcely think of anything that would expose me to more films that have this diversity. And frankly, I’m ok with that. All those movies now ingrained in my memory will only make me a more appreciative cinema lover. Film is better discovered first, analyzed second. And I’ve discovered a great deal.


Insidious Chapter 2

I’m a sucker for movies that overlap their own timeline. Now, I’m not talking about rewriting the story everytime a new film comes out (I’m looking at you Terminator franchise). I’ve always held Back to the Future Part II as my favorite of the franchise; the complexity of traveling back but avoiding yourself has always captivated my attention. When done correctly, little nod or rewrites can transform a previous scene into something with even more depth. This is why I enjoyed Insidious Chapter 2 so much.

4270516_origNow don’t think for a minute I’m going to spill in what ways Insidious retraces it’s own timeline. Chapter 2 is a perfect subtitle for the sequel. Picking up exactly where the first film ended. It’s part direct sequel and part origin piece. With a mixture of results of the events in Chapter 1 and a deeper backstory, we get to explore a more complex story.

The film starts by expanding on the experiences Josh (Patrick Wilson) had with astral projection and The Further as a boy. With the help of Elise, Josh is fortunately able to block out the memories of the black veiled woman out to get him. But as we’ve learned from Chapter 1, Dalton is now experiencing the same horrors as his father once did. Though Josh has rescued Dalton from The Further, something has come back with them and it’s slowly terrorizing the whole family. Josh’s mother Lorraine must dig up her son’s nightmarish past to help save the family from the spirit trying to take Josh and Renai’s baby.

Just like its predecessor, Insidious Chapter 2 has a tense and tightly wound story. Despite moments of genuine scares, the film chooses the slow burn approach to a climax that puts the two films on a collision course. Once again, the cinematography and mood are kept stark and eerie. We see the trauma the family is facing, but everything is through Renai’s eyes. She’s convinced the troubles aren’t over, and as things escalate, she becomes more adamant.

Chapter 2 is a great companion piece for Insidious. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that these two films should be watched back-to-back just like the Kill Bill films. As a standalone film, it still delivers, but its strength comes from justifying and intensifying the scares of the first film. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

A Time Before Netflix

netflix-rev-4It’s hard to imagine a world without Netflix. When I was in high school, at the onset of my fascination and obsession with film, Netflix wasn’t around. Neither was the concept of online streaming. Before iTunes introduced picture and later video iPods (now called the “Classic” model), finding a particular movie was a hunt.

I became a regular at the local Blockbuster as well as a member of multiple other chains in my area. Watching a specific movie required planning. Sometimes I would go to three or four locations to find a certain title. Libraries, three different video rental chains (Blockbuster, Family Video, and Mr. Movies), Best Buy, Borders, and Barnes & Noble could all be hit just to exhaust all options. When all of these avenues didn’t work, I could order it from (tough to do as a minor without a credit card) or request one of the above locations acquire it for me. Though I never took the later route, I was diligent and determined when I was looking for a certain film. It would consume me and give me drive on an otherwise relaxing day. Finding said film, wherever it was, made me feel like I’ve achieved greatness. That is of course, until I watched and saw that it sucked, which happened on occasion.

1995-showgirls-poster1Not only did I have to coordinate time to locate said film, but I also needed privacy to watch the more graphic and non-family friendly fare. Thankfully, I had a 13” TV/VCR that I could tuck away in my room. Now, I could explore The Godfather and Taxi Driver and other classics without the watchful eyes of my parents. Rated R subject matter (or NC-17 or unrated) could be explored without reproach.

My parents did their best to assert certain standards of minimal to no sexual content in film when I was in middle school. I had to cover my eyes whenever too much flesh was on the screen. When I reached high school all that changed. I watched whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. Tucked away in my room with the headphones plugged into the TV, I saw films that I came to love. Many of them, like Irreversible and Requiem for a Dream, far too graphic for the rest of the family.

When I received a portable DVD player for Christmas one year, my obsession hit overdrive. Coupled with a bad break-up shortly after, I became addicted watching movies. I began to measure spans of free time by how many movies I could watch. It didn’t help that I was working at a movie theater at the time, so new releases were at my fingertips.

Trying to keep straight all the movies I wanted to see (or needed to see according to film historians and various other film folk) was a chore. I read Entertainment Weekly religiously hoping to hear all about the next great masterpiece. That magazine became my bible; I sought out movies they raved about and shared dismay over bad ones. Without it, I would have never tried Secretary or One Hour Photo, movies that became staples in my collection for years afterward.

My friend Aaron devised a solid way to keep our movie to-do list in order one day in class sometime late in my high school career. Whenever we had the chance, we would make a list of all the movies we wanted to see. With the local Mr. Movies offering $0.99 movies on Mondays, we diligently made our lists to maximize the savings. We would make regular trips to see what titles they had and note which ones on our list were there. I graduated high school with a solid GPA; this was merely an avenue we explored to avoid boredom.

Aaron and I would constantly revise and expand our lists, including films others recommended. While searching for classic films, I came across the American Film Institute and Internet Movie Database’s (IMDb) top film lists. Using these as a litmus test, I incorporated many titles into my Monday movie rental sprees. Though I tried to watch many that night, I took things one-step further. Instead of watching all the movies on Mondays, I’d save one to watch for Tuesday morning. Much to the chagrin of my parents, I’d rise early each Tuesday morning, sometimes as early as 5:00 am, get ready for school, and then watch a two-hour movie before I needed to head out. Seeing Romero’s Dawn of the Dead before everyone wakes up in the morning is a very surreal and enjoyable experience.


My movie lists and constant watching caused my parents to grow concerned. My goal of watching all of the Halloween franchise was a bad idea to them. Getting up and watching movies before school was even more foolish. But they didn’t grasp that this was a hobby as much as it was learning. One particular error on my part left me banned from watching movies during Oscar season, something that was meant as a punishment but only confused me. When we went to Estes Park, Colorado, the summer before I left for the Air Force, I had my family watch The Shining. I wanted them to see the film before we went to  The Stanley Hotel, where Stephen King got the idea of the book. You can imagine how much they enjoyed that.

Upon joining the Air Force after high school, I quickly saw the benefit of Netflix. But my queue was never enough. I’d merely replaced my paper list with a digital one. Whenever I went out to rent movies on my days off, sometimes as many as seven or eight at a time, I aimed to shrink my Netflix queue as much as possible. To this day, almost every film I see is on that list. I want to cross it off and get it out of the way of films I haven’t experienced yet.

I still use IMDB’s Top 250 films as a measure of my knowledge of great cinema. In high school, I’d seen as many as 80 of the films. As of writing this, I have on 42 left to see, with many of them already hanging out in my queue awaiting summons. Lately, I’ve been pouring over the list to see as many as I can to better refine my tastes and appreciate great film. Granted, this devotion to brilliant cinema has made me ambivalent to new releases. Little is really making an impression on me; thus, more classic films.

Netflix, like the iPod classic I still use, have become essential to my downtime. Without the two of them, I would be driving all over town and going broke on trying to see every film that comes across my mind. If my queue were to vanish, I’d be lost. And with fewer physical rental stores around with limited selections of great cinema, I need that digital to-do list. Now excuse me why I go update my queue. I only have enough time for six more movies before I have to go to work in the morning.

2012 in review

2012 is not our last year on Earth. Hallelujah. Now I can see all the upcoming masterpieces of 2013. But what about the films of 2012? Well, you can visit to see my list of the top ten best films of the year. But only here will you see the other lists. I got my top five favorite films and the five worst of the year below just for you. Enjoy.

Top Five Faves of 2012

Dredd1. Dredd– At first viewing, I thought the film was decent. But each successive trip to Mega City One made the film more rich and more encompassing. I saw it three times in 3D and loved every minute. It may have bombed at the box office, but the film really sticks with me as one of the few films I saw multiple times in theaters this past year.

2. Detachment– You’ve heard me rave about this film for months, and I still think it’s one to recommend to anyone who will listen. I became an Adrien Brody fan after this movie, which is not an easy task given his film choices as of late.

3. Cabin in the Woods– A horror film that knows its audience and doesn’t dumb it down for ticket sales. Last year had Tucker & Dale vs. Evil as brilliant horror comedy; this year is Cabin in the Woods.

4. Cloud Atlas– This film is everything I love about cinema: smart script, great visuals, and a cast and crew that wouldn’t dilute a story for accessibility. Cloud Atlas is a deep experience that rewards the viewer each and every time.

for-a-good-time-call5. For a Good Time Call…– At first, this comedy was really just something I watched to kill time. However, when I bought it later on, I couldn’t help but love it. Something about a movie that’s about phone sex but maintains its warmth and heart makes it a real feat of filmmaking. Like Cabin in the Woods, it’s a movie I constantly want to watch.

Who Wrote This Crap? The Five Worst of 2012

1. Piranha 3DDPiranha 3D was an over-the-top B-movie that went down easily and was quickly forgotten. The sequel however, was a complete wasteland. No interesting scenes or characters and made me feel so cheated after it ended.

2. Total Recall– Who the f*** thought it would be a good idea to remake a classic Arnold Schwarzenegger movie? Here is a textbook of what remakes can do wrong. Everything about it was a joke. Even the homages to the original film felt forced. I hated it.

CosmopolisPoster23. Cosmopolis– Cronenberg is a talented and twisted director. In his film with Robert Pattinson, I was hoping for something bizarre and engaging. What I got was an insulting film that did absolutely nothing. Say what you want about Pattinson, he has potential. Here, however, he didn’t do a thing to show that. Just another great poster for a horrible film.

4. 360– With a script that included multiple narratives and a cast that had Anthony Hopkins, Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, and personal favorite Ben Foster seemed to reach for something like Crash. It failed miserably. The film is self-indulgent garbage and offers no closure or ending. Just because you reference something from earlier on, doesn’t mean everything is connected. You aren’t Cloud Atlas.

5. The Raven– I love John Cusack and director James McTeigue made V for Vendetta, so this seemed highly entertaining. Then I saw the movie and remembered McTeigue also did the god-awful Ninja Assassin and watched a film squander a good premise almost immediately. Of the five worst, this is the least despised, mostly because it failed to meet even the basic levels of credibility and lessened my admiration for The Cusack.

The Trailer Tells its Own Story

Something needs to be done about trailers/movie previews. I don’t think I can handle another potential movie going experienced being ruined by its trailers. Instead of teasing and building interest in a film, many have resulted to becoming the Cliff Notes for a 2 ½ hour film. Why waste money on a bad film if the best part of the film is the truncated two to three-minute form?

Before we attack those involved in making the trailers, let’s first clear some things up. Trailers are assembled long before the movie finishes filming. Many times, the trailer’s editing staff must assemble bits and pieces into a cohesive advertisement to get people in the cineplex. Major portions of the film have not been captured or had proper post-production effects rendered. Also, some of the portions that the assembly team use end up being scenes on the cutting room floor. So a great line or take from a comedy trailer made up not making it the completed film. This might be a blessing or a curse.

The Glass Case of Emotion

The Glass Case of Emotion

In the original Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy trailer, we got Ron screaming, “I’m in a glass case of emotion!” When the film hit theaters that summer, the line was noticeably absent. It has since been added to DVDs and Blu-ray, but that is just one example.

Some comedies will put an alternate take of dialogue, which can feel funny when you’ve seen a different version in the trailer multiple times.  Look at gag reels for films like Tropic Thunder; sometimes a line gets three or four different deliveries. Granted, some worked more than others, but the process of filming a scene is easy to see.

This all aside, I’ve begun only watching the first half of many trailers outside of the theater. Two films last year played their cards way too soon, giving away a major Act II or Act III twist in the first half of a trailer. The Double and Dream House drove me so mad that I actively avoided them both. The Double is a cat-and-mouse espionage flick starring Richard Gere and Topher Grace.  The trailer made me very interested in seeing film, detailing a CIA agent and a FBI agent trying to capture an assassin. Problem was, the trailer gave away who the assassin was and showed most of what appeared to be Act III action. I felt so cheated that someone dumbed down a film to the point I would have no surprises watching it. It was liking reading the most important chapter of a book first instead of starting at the beginning.

Dream House played out similarly. Starring the current James Bond, Daniel Craig, we followed a man investigating the supernatural history of his home. Instead of playing up the psychological thriller angle it seemed to aim for, the trailer put everything on the table. Any surprise or shock was gone when we found out what was really going on with Craig’s character. What looked like a decent horror show became a trailer that gave away everything except the ending. It disgusted and insulted me.

A great trailer can succeed and not blow a film’s load in two minutes. Look at Christopher Nolan’s Inception trailers. The film set things up, explained the premise in vague strokes, but sucked you in. It helped that the film was too complex and original to spoil. A noticeable exception to this atrocious method of selling audiences on films is last year’s Warrior. By looking at the trailer, it gives away the entire plot of the film. And yet, what the trailer doesn’t show (i.e. the finale) made the film actually endure and overcome its unfortunate trailer.

Great films and bad films alike deserve being discovered in their full form. I know the difficulty of summarizing something so succinctly, but its been done correctly for decades, so the excuses are null and void. If you’re making a Michael Bay and you have footage of an epic battle scene, include it. But make sure the film is not synopsized completely. These trailers need to keep in mind that the focus of a trailer is ideally limited to Act I with a spackling of later scenes without context. You can put “I drink your milkshake,” anywhere in a trailer for There Will Be Blood but don’t tell the entire story. That’s for the filmmakers to do. Leave the twist for paying patrons. Don’t give it away from free. It insults the intelligence of the moviegoers and can actually drive business away.

**Final note: Romantic comedies don’t apply. Even the less formulaic ones all get the same type of trailer. People see those for the concept, not the plot. They meet, they have a fight, they get back together. That isn’t a spoiler, that’s what seems to happen every time!

Horror Needs to Clean House

I’m getting worried. For years, I’ve been a fan of horror films. I watched all the classics; I tackled Bravo TV’s “100 Scariest Movie Moments,” and yet, horror is nothing like it once was. This is why I’m worried. In the last few years, the genre has been reduced to three cruxes that do nothing to move the genre forward. Those obstacles have kept real chills from hitting the back of my neck.

M. Night Shyamalan: The Man with a Twist

The first obstacle is the reliance on franchises and remakes. Horror has always survived on the countless rehashes of previous success stories. But this rigidity only puts those franchises in a formula that eventually gets parodied. We now make fun of M. Night Shyamalan for his third act twists. We expect Jigsaw to put a clever spin on everything as each Saw movie comes to an end. Hollywood is suffering from a drought of creativity, and it’s even worse in the spook genre.

We need fresh blood in the genre. Found footage is nauseating (literally) as we see intentionally amateurish camerapersons shake, drop, and whip the viewer around. I have no desire to see a movie told the same way my uncle use to videotape his new home. Sure, the Paranormal Activity films scare me, but these films are far from classic status. Look at the major horror franchises of the past decade (Final Destination, Paranormal Activity, Saw), after a while, they all run together. I struggle trying to remember what the basic plot was in any of the middle entries in the Saw franchise. We need new ideas.

The remakes are even worse. With the exception of the fantastic Dawn of the Dead remake, classics have been remade into bastardized versions of the originals. The studios take a beloved film, and run it into the ground. Nightmare on Elm Street, Day of the Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Wolfman, Halloween, The Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, etc. Each film was remade from the classic it was into a pile of garbage. Every once in a while we get a remake that sets itself apart as inferior, but not completely awful. These films are largely forgotten because of a lack of interest or availability. The Crazies and The Hills Have Eyes are two such examples. Decent remakes, but still nothing in to reach the highest level of horror movie status. It’s not to say I don’t like some these films.

The second obstacle is the PG-13 rating. This rating is an enemy of horror cinema. It is extremely difficult to make a PG-13 rated horror movie that still scares and thrills. I can count on one hand the movies that really hit their mark. But the rating isn’t entirely to blame. It’s studios requesting teen-friendly ticket sales. This means tapping a market that usually too young for horror films. Instead of going the route of scary fare like The Last Exorcism or the original Poltergeist (rated PG?!), the studios release watered down crap like Prom Night or When a Stranger Calls (both also remakes). The violence is muted, the characters become more one-dimensional, and the story usually does nothing. Gone are you 90 minutes and $10 for a film less terrifying than Dr. Oz’s show.

If PG-13 is done right, my argument is no longer valid. But when garbage like The Apparition come to theaters and Rotten Tomatoes has it at a 3% approval rating, I have a point.

The last issue with modern-day horror is the need to make it a hybrid. Prometheus wasn’t a horror movie; it was a science-fiction thriller. Zombieland is a horror comedy. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is an action/drama horror movie. Horror movies have long used blending of neighboring genres for ideas. The problem is, straight up horror is on the ropes. With proven names like Eli Roth and Alexandre Aja still working on their next films, and Guillermo Del Toro’s horror movie epic and The Dark Tower series being shot down, it looks like straight forward horror is a thing of the past. Or at least, will be for a while.

Looking at upcoming horror films, almost all of them are one of the three safeties horror rests on now. In the next six months, we’ll see if Jennifer Lawrence really made House at the End of the Street watchable, a fourth Paranormal Activity happen, and we’ll take another trip to Texas for Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D.

There is hope. Sinister, V/H/S, and The ABCs of Death might be just the fresh air it needs. If not, I’ll guess I’ll be staying home more often.

Even with all of that, there has been a few recent horror releases that took me hostage and held me captive. To prove good horror films continue to get made, here is my list of my favorite horror films of the last couple of years:

Paranormal Activity – The franchise may quickly run out of steam, but this one really got me.

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil – It switches up the conventional hillbilly murderer story.

Cabin in the Woods – Part horror movie homage, part nostalgia for old-school horror films.

Red State – A Westboro Baptist Church-like villain. Need I say more?

The Last Exorcism – A PG-13 horror movie that is actually scary.

Hollywood vs. Independent Cinema

The past few years has seen a dramatic disparity among movie releases. Hollywood seems to only distribute three style of films: the great but often films, the come quickly and collect a small profit mediocre fare, and the Hail Mary dud that needed to shut down in preproduction. The last few years has brought us movie pirating of a better quality and frequency than the old days of handheld VHS cameras. We’ve also seen Video-On-Demand become an emerging market while the economy constantly encouraged us to save our money. It use to be that a memorable movie would open every few weeks, keeping the multiplexes rich with worthwhile fare. But that’s no longer the case.

The economy and recent recession affected Hollywood as much as it affected us. Money conscious studios are releasing fewer films, but reallocate the funds to make these films more expensive to produce. I don’t understand. I look at my top ten films of all time and the combined budgets would easily be dwarfed by blockbuster misfire Battleship. It makes sense to focus on fewer film projects in hard times, but the films chosen aren’t resonating. The second type of film, the forgettable mediocre films, is taking over the cinemas. Followed by an uptick in awful mistakes like last year’s The Rum Diary or Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star. New masterpieces are becoming harder to find. And when the critics and film buffs find them, general audiences ignore them (Warrior).

As Hollywood and its studios continue to pump out sequels and reboots that reek of money-grubbing, the room for exciting and original films gets narrower. Sure, there are some directors out there who pump out fresh material every few years, but for every Christopher Nolan or Quentin Tarantino, there are many Adam Sandler films and horror films that insult their audiences.

Independent cinema avoids all these traps. If a film isn’t good, it quickly gets ignored at the film festivals or disappears from the theaters before it can do any harm. Independent cinema isn’t built on commerce as much as it is Darwinism. The better the film; the wider the release. This pattern allows brilliant fare like Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom continue to find new audiences as it’s release slowly widens.

Maybe it’s the three years I spent working for an art house theater, but I value their showings more than the lackluster offerings of Hollywood. This isn’t to say I don’t find a lot of fun films in the multiplexes. I realize Step Up 2: The Streets isn’t Oscar-bound. I still like it. It’s a mindless, popcorn film I can watch and just enjoy for what it is. But when I want stimulation, I head to places like Fleur Cinema and Café in Des Moines.

Since high school, I’ve found myself drawn again and again to this independent theater that specializes in art house cinema and independent filmmaking. The first movie I ever saw there, One Hour Photo, is one of my favorites. Instead of a simple blockbuster, though from time to time they get them, the choices are much more rich. Working there gave me a deeper understanding of modern-day movie-going.

Looking at my list of the best of 2012 so far, independent cinema dominates it. With the exception of The Avengers and Ted, it’s all films you would see at an art house theater. This isn’t by mistake. Indie films connect with the core human element of these stories. The films resonate because most of the frill of Hollywood films is gone. CGI is often too expensive; actors are commonly in close proximity for the entirety of filming, which creates a deeper chemistry.

As the future of cinema develops with 3D, 4D, and other technologies, it becomes clear that gimmicks are given more weight than quality of the films. Avatar may have been a thin script, but the experience of seeing it in 3D on the big screen made it the highest grossing movie of all time. Studios tack on the 3D for a (hopefully) larger profit piece, but this problem doesn’t fix the film. If the film sucks, it doesn’t matter what gimmick you throw at it. American audiences made be picky, but anyone who cares about the medium will say that story is essential to a good movie.

As the second half of the year closes the summer and prepares for the Oscar season in November, we’ll see a great deal of bland cinema. But with luck, independent cinema will continue to release gems that rise above the junk. If not, here’s to Adam Sandler’s Oscar speech.

The Dark Knight Rises: the Conclusion of the Batman Trilogy

The second the credits rolled in The Dark Knight back in 2008, audiences were at a fever pitch for what Christopher Nolan would do next. Rumors of the Riddler and the Penguin covered blogs all over the cyberspace. After a brief break from Gotham City with the brilliant Inception, Nolan returned to bring his Batman universe to a close with The Dark Knight Rises.

The world of Nolan’s Batman is more just a simple summary. Starting all the way back with Batman Begins in 2005, Nolan and Christian Bale ushered in a new style of comic book movie. Gone were the over-the-top costumes and villains. In their place, the universe became gritty and realistic. For the first time, Batman was rooted in a reality that behaved a lot like ours. He wasn’t a superhero; Batman was a tragic vigilante who found motivation in revenge and anger more than justice. This warped morality allowed Bale to shape Bruce Wayne and his alter ego into the most complicated character he had done since Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.

All the elements of what is set-up in the first two Nolan Batman films find themselves in The Dark Knight Rises. The events and choices of Bruce Wayne, Jim Gordon, and the other recurring characters have real consequences in the latest and last Christopher Nolan Batman film. Taking place eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne has become a recluse and Batman is marked a monster. But the void Wayne’s appearances have made Gotham ripe for a takeover. The Harvey Dent Act allows police to take most organized crime off the streets, but the city reeks of a calm before the storm. And a storm is definitely coming in the way of Bane (an unrecognizable Tom Hardy), a man that is more capable of destroying Batman than any villain he has ever encountered.

After seeing the film the first time, I was left a bit in the dark. My unreal expectations made it difficult to filter the dense story of The Dark Knight Rises. Upon a second viewing, I began to fully appreciate the film for everything it represents. It’s the conclusion of a trilogy, the event movie of the summer, and once again a Batman film must overcome an unfortunate and unforeseen tragedy.

As the second bookend of the Batman universe Nolan has created, it can be forgiven when the film wanders a little. The trick is to not compare the film to its predecessor. This is a standalone film that satisfies the same audiences that crave a modern epic. The last time a long film length appeared for a comic book movie (more than two and one-half hours) was 2009’s Watchmen. Both films are ones that can’t be fully appreciated in one viewing. The Dark Knight Rises is a large-scale film that brings Bruce Wayne’s story full-circle. His struggles in this film are easily his most difficult to overcome, keeping the film centered. We see Batman pushed to his limits, and it appears beyond them, as Gotham suffers under Bane.

Some of the external elements of the film have eclipsed the film’s premiere. One midnight show was interrupted by a disturbed man who opened fire on the audience, killing and injuring around 60 people. But Warner Brothers has gone to great lengths to show their shared pain for such an event. Earlier this week, Christian Bale even visited some of the victims, trying to bring comfort to those families marred by such a tragedy.

The bizarre and disturbing events of that midnight show in Aurora, Colorado has made the film trilogy an even more interesting story. Here was a man who sought chaos in a manner similar to the Joker in The Dark Knight. Seeing the film after learning about this made the film a surreal experience. Knowing that the comforting dark of a movie theater was no longer safe put me on edge. My heart goes out to the families in Aurora. They don’t deserve the pain they are experiencing right now.

Like 2008, the speculation as to what to do next is growing. Nolan and Bale have made it clear they aren’t coming back. Some critics and bloggers like myself are picking the film apart or defending it from those who were disappointed by it. At the end of the day, the aim of art is to get a conversation going. If you remember, there were a lot of complaints about Bale’s Batman voice in The Dark Knight. Seeing as most entertainment sites can’t stop talking about the latest Bat-tale (or misspelling the title- it’s not Night), Nolan and Warner Bros. should be pleased with the final product. It’s an epic film in a market where epic doesn’t really sell. I’m glad Nolan stuck with the film’s length of 164 minutes. If it were any other film, it would likely be spliced into an inferior into something much shorter.

Once again, Marvel has made a light-hearted blockbuster and DC follows a few months later with a gritty, almost drama of a superhero movie (see 2008 when Iron Man debuted and The Dark Knight followed months later). Here’s to hoping that future comic book films will borrow heavily from the great template Nolan has made.  3.5 out of 5 stars.

I Gotta See This!

This summer, I’ve been really patient about seeing certain films I’ve wanted to see for a long time. Prometheus and The Avengers had me waiting feverishly for months (I’m still overly excited to see Jeremy Renner take over the Bourne franchise in August). The Dark Knight Rises and Rock of Ages on the horizon make me hopeful that this summer won’t be dominated by mediocrity. But sometimes, my excitement doesn’t quite align with studios’ release schedules. Rewrites, date changes, and ultimately hiding a film in a vault can push any film buff to exhaustion.

Before Lars von Trier made his now infamous Nazi comment, he made a film that quickly became the most controversial film in years. Antichrist became a horror/drama that messed with pushed the envelope in terms of what could be tolerated from an audience. A huge fan of lead actor Willem Dafoe and the film’s trailer, I was dying to see it. So much so, that I did almost everything I could to get the movie theater I worked at to get a print. After almost 18 months of waiting, it became available on Netflix Instant View, giving me the opportunity to watch a movie that easily deserved an NC-17 or X rating in between classes in college. I loved it so much, I pre-ordered it from Criterion Collection’s website (I very rarely pre-order anything). It took about two years from its theatrical release to get to my Blu-ray player as a hard copy.

I’m not always so patient as to wait for the studio to get me their product. When I was in Paris last month, I was seconds away from buying the obvious masterpiece The Intouchables on DVD. Yes, I knew about the regions of European home video, but I have DVD players that will work them, so it wasn’t an issue. Unfortunately, The Intouchables, a French film, did not have the one thing I needed: English subtitles. It wasn’t meant to be. But you can guarantee the day it hits central Iowa, I’m taking a bunch of people with me.

Me buying films from other countries is nothing new. I’ve bought films from China, Germany when I visited recently, and the United Kingdom. With only a couple of exceptions, this collection of movies from around the world (not including the copy of Apocalypse Now my boss got me in Afghanistan) is composed of films not yet available in the United States. Though most of them eventually became available stateside, a few have yet to hit theaters.

A few weeks ago, I bought Shelter and The Awakening from Britain’s Though The Awakening will likely receive a brief theatrical run later this summer, the big acquisition was Shelter. Made back in 2010, the film has yet to receive any notification of an American release despite the film being made in Pittsburgh and in English. Having seen it, I don’t understand why the film treated like such a turd. It has a solid story and an interesting premise, but those in control of it (I think I read somewhere it was The Weinstein Company) refuse to let it see the light of day. And yet, it was released in Europe.

Sometimes, the film is indefinitely unavailable. Ever a fan of any controversial films, books, or music, I am a bit of a fan of movies that push the limits of what is art. Now, I need to take a step back and make it clear that though I like watching controversial films, I’m talking about films banned in America. Many sources will confuse the two, believing that being banned means it is controversial and vice versa. Though films are banned for their contents and controversy, controversy does not mean a ban, especially after the government created a way to find if a piece has any artistic merit.

I’m too computer illiterate and paranoid to download banned films directly, but I’ve been fortunate to find ways to see a handful of films that have been or are still banned in America. Why do I watch these films? Because I want to understand what is so awful. Most of the time, it is a public that can’t stomach a piece and it needs to sit on a shelf until tastes will be more welcoming of the product. But sometimes, a film’s ban isn’t for reasons involving sex or violence. Titicut Follies was banned because it was a fly on the wall documentary about Massachusetts Correctional Institution Bridgewater. Until the late 1990s, you had to petition to see it and required credentials that would make watching the film essential to your research. A movie that made fun of the Scientology called The Profit was banned simply because Scientology believed it was harmful to their religion.

Having seen these films, I understand why they’re banned. But seeing them anyway, I was disappointed. These are not masterpieces that have lived in their controversy like Citizen Kane or A Clockwork Orange. I learned the hard way that controversy doesn’t equal greatness. But when I’m itching to see a movie I can’t get my hands on, of course I’m going to put unrealistic expectations on it.

I know many of you are wondering why I haven’t mentioned streaming illegal films. As someone who supports the film industry, I believe that bad films get swallowed up by time and great films will live on. Have I tried to watch a Russian dubbed version of a movie and try to translate without having any understanding of the language? Once. Turned into a disaster.

Another contention I have with illegal streaming is the sound and picture quality. I use, iTunes, Netflix and retailers to get access to films with sound quality and visuals that don’t fall on the wrong side of the law. As if sensing my urge to get a jump on certain films, Amazon and iTunes have begun allowing films to be rented before being released in theaters. This has allowed me to fall in love with last year’s The Bang Bang Club and declare Detachment on my short list for best film of 2012.

I realized this impatience when it comes to seeing great films is not going to go away. Learning about all the (legal) methods of circumventing slow studios helps me better understand films that have yet to find an American audience. Will this eat into me paying $10–15 for a movie in theaters? No way. If you get my attention, I’m there. But having to wait another nine months to see the G. I. Joe: Retribution movie may be a problem.

The Hell of Home Video Rental

I’ve rented movies long before I could comprehend the material on-screen. I saw As Good As It Gets because I loved Helen Hunt in middle school. It took me nearly twenty years to fully get all the jokes in Mrs. Doubtfire, probably the first movie I ever saw in theaters twice. As I grew old enough to rent VHS (yes, I’m old enough to recall them) from the local grocery store, I took every opportunity to watch a movie with my family. When I got my learner’s permit to drive. I became a member of the local Blockbuster. I became fiercely loyal to seeing anything I could. My parents would gripe about my movie watching, concerned that it would stunt my socializing, but I ignored them. As I developed an insatiable taste for films that Blockbuster couldn’t help with, I became wise to all the local libraries that rented movies, and added two more video rental cards from Blockbuster competitors. Renting or watching a movie was now a wild goose chase to find a working copy that I could get my hands on. In a pre-Netflix world, I had a list of films on a slip of paper my friend Aaron and I would update regularly in our classes together. I began keeping a movie diary after reading about it in an article Stephen King wrote for Entertainment Weekly.

When I moved to Montana, this well-crafted method of procuring the ideal rental was a trick since all three options basically shared a street corner. I migrated to Hollywood Video as much as I could. I found out the hard way the maximum rentals allowed from them at one time was 9. I once overdrew my debit card from renting so much (I was also horrible with money at this phase in my life). When I started attending Iowa State University, I saw my local options included my second home. It was laid out different, but a Hollywood Video was the place I visited most often those days. Then they went out of business.

Over the course of the last few years, I’ve had to lean more and more on Netflix to get me the titles I’m looking for. Ames, Iowa, once a place of many rental options has seen the variety depleted heavily. The only remaining options are, besides the ideal Netflix, are That’s Entertainment, Family Video, or Redbox. Redbox only has the latest few releases and fillers no real cinephile has ever heard of. It’s convenient for many, but not for this highly meticulous video rental Jedi. That’s Entertainment is only in business because it mostly rents/sells pornographic videos. I’m sorry, but that doesn’t mix well with family night or popcorn. So that’s not a viable option.

The only one left? Family Video. I don’t know how this company isn’t dead yet (it’s probably the porn they also rent to keep in business). Their choice is so disorienting, that you have to look for one film in at least three different places. Instead of the convenient organization of going by genre, then alphabetized, they adapt a clustercuss system that makes no sense logically. There is the New Release wall (a staple in rental stores), then the Nearly New, then Favorites, then the rest is alphabetized. If you wanna see their selection of horror films, you have to walk the entire floor. If you want to find Bruce Almighty, you have to check the B section, the Sequel, Prequel section, and the Favorites before you finally find it. As you peruse these areas, you see films that seem to collect dust as a primary purpose. The cases can asphyxiate anyone who accidentally shakes one. There is a reason you don’t know who Lorenzo Lamas is.

Their organization system

After you suffer the marathon of running all over the store for one title, you will likely experience one of three scenarios. Each one with their own troubles.

1) They don’t have the film. You’ll ask them about it. The staff will remember the film fondly, but will end up just as puzzled as you are when they too can’t find it. To my best recollection, when this has happened, they have not offered to call around or offer to order it. This is the expectation when this happens, but it has never happens to me. And I’ve suffered this indignity quite a bit from them.

2) They have but it’s rented out. With a film that is easily one of Jim Carrey’s best, why only one copy. The shelf containing the cases easily holds two copies. What gives?

3) You find it. You find yourself relieved and excited. They notice the disc looks dirty. Without a second thought, they throw it in their cleaner. Now, when you get home. You put the film in and enjoy all the skipping that occurs. I remember one instance where I spent an hour trying to get Zoolander to play. It was cheaper to buy it at this point, so I took it back and told them. When this happens, they stick it in the cleaner and call it good. This doesn’t help a big scratch. A gash buffed is just a shiny slice that renders Ben-Hur unwatchable.

On occasion, I’ve found myself able to get around all three of these obstacles, but not often. In a previously rant, I was encouraged to provide solutions to the problems I presented. It’s simple, but it doesn’t matter. If Family Video were to actually make the layout and system more user-friendly, they still have to worry about the selection choices. I may only have 350 DVD and Blu-Ray titles, but my collection is far more comprehensive and accessible than Family Video. I try everything I can to avoid them, but there isn’t any alternatives when you want Gran Torino that night if Redbox doesn’t have it (I’ve been on the verge of driving 20 miles out of my way to the nearest Blockbuster, it gets that frustrating). Like Wal-Mart, Family Video is a parasite, feeding on the convenient site by giving its customer’s broken dreams.

Tyler Perry, the Superstar You Need to Know

Last weekend I ventured to the theaters to see Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds with my parents. Watching it got me thinking about the empire Perry has erected over these past 6 years since Madea first exploding on the big screen in Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Despite regularly being dismissed by the critics, his films regularly open as either first or second place at the box office and end up turning a tidy profit before home video release. With a track record where all his films end up in the black, why is he not a bigger force in Hollywood?

2012 will test his starring power with him taking over for Morgan Freeman in Alex Cross, the first lead role in a film he hasn’t written. But regardless of how this goes, Perry has a tried and true business to fall back on. I, for one, am rooting for him.

I was first recommended Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman from my commander over a holiday break while I was in the Air Force. I fell in love with Madea and the world Perry had created. After recommending it to my parents and sister, I found a fellow fan in my friend Tori. From there, I became hooked.

With all of Perry’s films, they follow a simple course. In a world where films are budget close to $100 million, Perry creates smaller, more intimate fare. Like fellow director Christopher Guest, Perry usually uses the same actors over multiple films. This troupe feel, helps carve the name into a brand all its own. When you see a film from Guest or Perry, you know the film will fit distinctly in that mode. In the case of Perry, the film will combine elements of drama, comedy, faith, and a splash of melodrama to give you a two-hour experience you won’t find with anyone else.

As the name Tyler Perry becomes more synonymous with successful films, Hollywood needs to pay close attention. So far, Perry’s imitators borrow too heavily from the surface story of his films. Perry has introduced a rise in African-American and minority films billed as box office viable. The problem this introduces is why Spike Lee was so against Perry’s films. Yes, the casts of Perry’s films are predominately black, but the film isn’t about the skin tone. His copycats miss this. Perry has a universal appeal that is ignored by many who believe that his films are all about race.

With all of Perry’s films, love and community are central themes. I can count many examples in which white actors anchor a film that ignores this, alienating the audience. I know skin color, gender, and sexual identity are issues that far from reaching equality they so rightly deserve, but love can wash all this inequality away. Perry has flawed protagonists who are struggling with the flawed love of their lives. He tells stories of revelation and redemption. They may not be for everyone, but his films deserve a larger audience than the loyal fans who flock to his films everytime one opens.

I know I’m known for being critical of films, and that is what a majority of these other entries consist of. Perry’s films, from a critical standpoint, aren’t masterpieces; but that is beside the point. His films are family-friendly tales that are as enriching as they are profitable. Of all the directors in cinema today, he knows his audience the best. His film ideas may start to wear thin as he continues to milk the sources he’s used so far, but I honestly believe he is capable of becoming Oscar nominated someday if he is willing to push himself creatively. A few years ago, he put his name on Precious as producer. Precious was a tale that was a more graphic and real take on many of the same themes Perry tackles in his films. Hopefully, one day we’ll see his star rise even higher than where he is now. For my family (diehard Perry fans), we hope so.

If Good Deeds is any indication, Perry doesn’t need Madea to make an engaging film. In fact, I think he really opens things up creatively when his signature character isn’t in the picture. Of all his non-Madea roles, this is my favorite (though Michael Jai White made the Why Did I Get Married? movies pretty comical). He hones the story into a concise and interesting story that takes a look into the chasm between the have and have-nots, which is especially poignant given the constant reminders we experience in the news today about the 1%. I highly recommend Good Deeds to anyone who is willing to give Perry’s films a shot (3 out of 5 stars). Of all the movies that have come out this year, this is the first release to give me something to think about. And in the January/February movie schedule, that is something incredibly lacking. A solid film that only deepened my appreciation and passion for his films. If I were to work in film, I’d send my résumé in a heartbeat. Edward Burns would be the next place I’d apply. Filmmaking is evolving, and these men know where it is going.

Time for a Sequel

Snake Plissken. Criminal. Veteran. Eyepatch.

A few nights ago, I finally sat down and revisited one of John Carpenter’s classic early films, Escape from New York. But it wasn’t just enough to see Snake Plissken in just one film, I had to see the sequel too, Escape from L.A. A fan of Carpenter’s early films, I found myself accepting the first film because of the great chemistry Carpenter had with Kurt Russell (the year following Escape from New York’s release, the two released the masterpiece The Thing). I loved Russell’s character; Plissken was not a hero sent in to a dangerous place to save the day, he is blackmailed. With no other choice, Plissken overcomes the odds and saves the President before all the hoodlums of Manhattan Island, now a prison, kill him.

After a satisfying foray into B-movie glory, I decided to see it’s equally B-movie follow-up. Boy, was I disappointed. The first film had a lot of low-budget appeal and developed a cult following. The sequel, set in Los Angeles, seems to do nothing more than insult California at every turn. When Los Angeles suffers an earthquake that turns it into an island, the United States makes it the anti-Ellis Island. Illegal aliens, criminals, and religious heretics, all quarantined on the island indefinitely.

The problem with Escape from L.A. is how to so closely tries to duplicate what worked in the first film. The film tries to strike lightning twice with every gag or gimmick that made the original so beloved. The sport scene (Boxing in NY, Basketball in LA), the older actor acting as a sidekick (Ernest Borgnine, who reminded me so much of Charlie Cheswick from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Peter Fonda as a washed-up surfer), even the way of injecting him with a virus that will kill him in so many hours to force him to complete the mission, everything was the same.

The attempts to make the story leap forward failed miserably. Steve Buscemi had no business being in this film. And the idea of making Plissken wear dominatrix style leather just put me off. The tacky CGI that looked so fake that I almost turned it off (I hate CGI).

What I realized watching the two films back to back was the importance of moving forward when it comes time for the sequel. Unfortunately, Last summer’s The Hangover Part II didn’t get the memo. Though it has its moments, the film, like the Snake Plissken films, falls dangerously close to copying the original. The major elements of what happened to Stu, Phil, and Alan aren’t different. They blackout, lose a member of their party, and figure out at the last second where he is. The second of these franchises aren’t sequels; they are blatant rip-offs that more closely resemble half-baked remakes. But not all sequels are so profit driven like the greed monster that was Cars 2.

Sequels have always had a spotty record. When Batman gets nipples, something gets lost in translation. For every epic sequel, there are at least five inferior films. In my Breakdown- Best Sequels post, I talk about great sequels that actually improved on the original film. I still stand with those films. And for good reason, they not only continued the story of its predecessor, but it also treaded new ground.

The Terminator is a classic. It gave Arnold Schwarzenegger his big break and helped James Cameron start leaving behind smaller horror fare like Piranha Part Two: The Spawning. But when T2: Judgment Day came out, all hell broke loose. Here was a sequel that took the first film’s story and exploded it to create an epic science fiction/action film.

"Get away from her you bitch!" - Ripley

James Cameron had done the same thing to the Alien franchise years earlier. Cameron took Ridley Scott’s moody monster in space film and made a sequel that could stand apart from its original. The action and story were expanded, not that the first didn’t have a solid script. Aliens merely went further down the road for a movie that turned its survival girl Ripley into the heroine of the film.

Cameron isn’t the only name associated with making a great sequels, Christopher Nolan single-handed revitalized a dead franchise when he made Batman Begins. He started from scratch, leaving a lot of the problems of the pervious films behind. Gone was the camp. Here was a Batman rooted in reality. When Nolan returned to the world of Bruce Wayne’s alternate identity, he managed to top even himself. The Dark Knight became a colossal success. The film took what Begins had set up and continued the evolution of a hero coming to grips with what must be done to protect his city.

These sequels not only justified more sequels, but also showed that an extension of story works just as sharp and rewarding as the first film was. It just needed the proper balance of new and old. Too much new and you end up reimagining the franchise every time (The Punisher films); too much old and you end up with a unsurprising waste of time (Escape From L.A., The Pirates of the Caribbean sequels). They won’t all be terrible, but they won’t have the allure of the original. Don’t believe me? Ask Bryan Singer.

Singer has been on both sides of the coin. With X2: X-Men United, he elaborated on the universe he brought to the screen in X-Men. X2 had a scope and originality that allowed it to act as a proper benchmark for the franchise. But when Singer stepped away from directing another X-Men film, he had decided to reintroduce another superhero. When Superman Returns finally hit theaters, people left underwhelmed. The film focused so much on catching up that no amount of Brandon Routh’s talent could save the film. Two and a half hours later, and people vacated the theater wishing for more action and less drama. At the end of the day, the film was too loyal to everything that had happened before to really make a stand for existing.

John McClane can't die. Hard or otherwise.

Now, despite all I’ve said about these films, even the bad ones still have merit. Sometimes it’s nice to revisit a character on the big screen, even if the actors wink at you as they phone it in. I enjoy a few of them. If they make another Hangover movie or when Die Hard 5 finally makes its way to theaters, I’ll see it opening. What can I saw, I’m exactly what Hollywood wants in moviegoers (I’m far from perfect).

This upcoming summer, we’ll see Will Smith back in his black suit and Peter Parker starting over, but I’m not holding my breath for anything new (exception of course being The Dark Knight Rises). The studios will never learn. Sequels may mean a low risk investment with a tried-and-true brand, but why can’t we add some more originality to things? Take the time to come up with something fresh and exciting. If the Mission Impossible and The Fast and the Furious franchises can experience a new creativity high this late in their respective universes, why can’t every sequel? Christopher Nolan and James Cameron can’t do it themselves.