Saturday, October 26, 2013


Directed by Sidney Lumet. Written by Paddy Chayefsky. Starring Faye Dunaway (Diana Christensen), William Holden (Max Schumacher), Peter Finch (Howard Beale),Robert Duvall (Frank Hackett).

Bottom line: Brilliant satire about the role of television (and media) in our society today and, despite being from 1976, it is painfully relevant.

Howard Beale (Finch) was, at one point, the leading newscaster for UBS (Union Broadcasting System). After the death of his wife, he became an alcoholic and never completely recovered mentally or emotionally. His ratings dwindled and he was eventually forced to resign. In his next broadcast, he announces his resignation saying, “In two weeks, I will blow my brains out on live TV so tune in!” Not surprisingly, pandemonium ensues. Beale calls his long time friend, UBS news division president Max Schumacher, to give him another chance. Beale wants to apologize and go out gracefully. As soon as he gets on live TV, he rants and raves about the news corporation. They pull him off the air. The zoo of a news program is the headlines for the following day. It is a publicity spike that catches the eye of the head of broadcasting, Diana Christensen (Dunaway).

Christensen is a workaholic whose dream in life is to have a hit show. She sees the marketability of Beale’s eccentric ravings and develops the idea of turning it into a prime time show. She wants to mold Beale into a modern day messiah. He is vocalizing the anger and discontent felt by the average American. To get approval from the show, she meets with Schumacher. The two become “emotionally involved” despite the fact that Schumacher is already married.

The Howard Beale Show is made and it becomes a hit. The very nature of the show, however, Beale’s madness, is a source of anxiety. How will the UBS team keep the public interested? What types of things will Beale say? The executives may control him enough to put him on the air but how could they control what he will say?

Network is a powerful satire about the role of television in our society today. The acting is positively phenomenal. Each of the characters has a personality that creates a fleshed out world. There are no real individual villains or heroes but rather there is a general cast that builds up to a cynical, tragic end. We demonize the overall institution of the network instead of individuals. During a lunch meeting, John Hackett (Duvall), Christensen’s boss, is explaining the idea of the Howard Beale Show to his counterparts. One stands up and objects. He says this goes against all ethics of news reporting. Hackett basically says, that’s very noble and I’ll accept your resignation tomorrow but this network is millions of dollars in debt; we need this so sit down. The man sits down. Hackett isn't to blame, nor is Christensen. They are each cogs in the UBS machine.

Dunaway’s performance as the frigid Christensen is painfully fun to watch. We know she can never really be truly happy outside of her work and that, in the scheme of things, she will never be truly happy. She even tells us this. She has always had trouble in relationships but never in her work. Even though she is partaking in the exploitation of Beale, we kinda feel sorry for her.

Howard Beale becomes an interesting figure by the end of the movie. He is fed up with how society is going. He is “as mad as hell and [he’s] not going to take it anymore.” This sentiment is felt by his audience watching the news broadcast but also the audience in the theater watching the movie. Network is able to use Beale and everyone associated with him, from Hackett to Schumacher, to make the audience question themselves. Even though we might want to criticize the network executives and even the audience of the Howard Beale show, we still want to watch. That is, we too are participating in the exploitation of Howard Beale.

There is just one thing that irked me about Network but I don’t think it warranted taking out a whole half a point: the voice-over. I never like voice-over narration because, can’t the movie just show me instead of telling me? I understand the significance of the ending and I could’ve gathered the clout Beale once had. I don’t need some faceless narrator telling it to me. That said, I don’t think a minute or two of dialog detracts from the experience too much.

I highly recommend you watch this movie because it is so well executed. Just by watching this movie you become involved in its discussion. It isn’t just saying “television is bad”, it is calling us out on the exploitative culture that we, ourselves, help propagate.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Dead Poet Society, Motivation, and Me

I really liked Dead Poet Society. It hit the spot in terms fuel for motivation. There’s something about motivational movies that bothers me.

In the Dead Poet Society, we have a prep school that stands for conformity using the rose tinted word “tradition”. Robin Williams plays the newly hired English teacher John Keating. In his time at the same school, he was the top of his class. He was the captain of some sports team and the editor of some journal. He  is an unconventional teacher who tries to teach his students the importance of poetry. That is, he teaches them the importance of living.

Neil Perry, played by Robert Sean Leonard, is one of the students in the class. He wants to be an actor. No, he doesn’t just want, he needs to be an actor. Up until he learns to live, up until he learns to “seize the day”, he has followed the plan set before him by his domineering father. He was supposed to go to prep school, then go to medical school, then become a doctor.

Neil finds an open casting call for a rendition of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He forges a letter of permission and gets the leading role. Not surprisingly, his father finds out. Instead of standing up for what he believes, Neil tries to deceive his father again; he performs in the play. He receives a standing ovation and, following the play, Keating says, “you have the gift.”

This brings me to what I want to discuss. Why did Neil have to do so well? I ask you, wouldn’t it be nice, if they tweaked it a little bit to fit something you or I might expect to experience? Imagine a Dead Poet Society where, instead of getting a standing ovation, he just kinda stumbled his lines. Maybe Neil didn’t even get the leading role, but a side character. When you think about it, that be even more inspirational.  He is finally beginning to live so what difference does it make if he does it “poorly”? Just being on that stage is a life changing victory. I think it would mean a lot more to someone watching it too. What happens when you watch a motivational movie? You try something new, right? Did you rock the house the first time?


I’d be willing to bet that it’s because we, the audience, don’t want to see a “failure”. We want to see someone who breaks from the mold and succeeds. You remember Cool Runnings? It’s the movie starring John Candy about the first Jamaican bobsled team. At the end of the movie, in their final run, the bobsled crashes. The team stands up, picks up the nearly 1,400lbs bobsled and walks across the finish line. Did that happen? Negative, Ghost Rider. In their Olympic debut, the team finished twenty-fifth. “Oh come on”, you might say, “it’s just a movie.” I know it’s just a movie but it would be nice to balance some more reality with.

Now, after this scene, his father pulls him out of school and orders him to go to military school. Neil proceeds to commit suicide. So, yeah, I know it doesn’t have a happy ending but there is something different about this type of sadness. It is the type of obligatory sadness that’s “all part of the show”.

If you’ve ever watched a Disney movie, you’ll know that there is a set plot structure. In a nutshell, it goes: sad, happy, happy, happy, sad, happy. Consider The Little Mermaid. She is a mermaid and falls in love with the human prince (sad), she becomes human (happy), she gets to be with the prince (happy), the prince falls in love with her (happy), Ursela, the sea-witch attacks (sad), she marries the prince (happy).

So, granted, Neil kills himself but, somehow, it feels like it was a necessary casualty. In a way, he had to die to illustrate the importance of seizing the day. The real question, though, as my fiancee pointed out, is the role of innate ability. Does it mean that Neil is meant to act because he is good at it? Is he good at it because he wants it so badly? Perhaps, he didn’t fail not because we only want to see success, but it would hurt our support of him. If he got on stage and bombed, then we might be willing to side with his father on the grounds of security. Neil’s suicide may very well be a way for the film to avoid addressing this issue. It’s a romantic sentiment that he “just couldn’t live without acting”, but realistically, he had other options. He could’ve left home to become an actor, for example.

To summarize, it would’ve been nice if Dead Poet Society or any motivational movie could present a situation in a more realistic fashion. Not only would be easier to relate but it would be even more inspirational.

Before I posted this, a friend commented on the review for Dead Poet Society. He mentioned Good Will Hunting. I haven’t seen all of that movie but I know it is a good one. It does, however, suffer from the same tendency as Dead Poet Society. Matt Damon’s character is a janitor at MIT but he is also a brilliant mathematician. I could never relate to that because, one, I’m not a brilliant mathematician and, two, I am not a janitor (yet anyway). It because it isn’t that I am rejecting what I love, I’m just not particularly good at it.

Dead Poet Society - Review

Directed by Peter Weir. Written by Tom Schulman. Starring Robin Williams (John Keating), Robert Sean Leonard (Neil Perry), Ethan Hawke (Todd Anderson).

Bottom line: Dead Poet Society is a powerful and unique motivational movie that I will almost certainly see again.

We open to an opening ceremony held in the chapel of a very old, very traditional, all male, prep school named Welton Academy. Led by a young man playing bagpipes, a line of boys walk to the front of the chapel. Four of them hold banners which state the four pillars of the school: tradition, honor, discipline, and excellence. This staunch tone is reflected in the students (and their parents) of the school. One student, Neil Perry (Leonard), has a domineering father who dictates the course for his son’s life; Neil will go to Welton, then to medical school, then become a doctor.

A new English teacher, John Keating (Williams), was hired to replace the one who had retired. His methods are unorthodox. For one of the first few days of class, he has his students read an excerpt from the introduction of the official poetry textbook. It states that one might plot a graph whose x and y axis is meter and importance, respectively. The “greatness” of a poem can be defined by its placement on that graph. Keating vehemently opposes this notion and, in the spirit of rejection, he has his students tear it out of the book. They are dumbfounded but comply.

Poetry isn’t something you can measure like a height and weight, Keating says, poetry is life. So to teach them about poetry, Keating is teaching them how to live and how to seize the day. His students, in each their own way, are touched by his teaching. Neil Perry, for example, comes to realize that he has always wanted to act and he works to make his dream a reality despite his father’s opposition.

I thoroughly enjoyed Dead Poet Society. This is a motivational movie that hit the spot and departed from what I’ve always associated with motivational subject matter. That is, it wasn’t about an athlete persevering despite physical, emotional, or political obstacles. Not that there’s anything wrong with athletics but Dead Poet Society is refreshing. The use of poetry to develop the idea of living is lovely. It isn’t about them writing poetry, mind you, it is about the students breaking from their repressive molds by learning to appreciate poetry.

Generally, I have mixed feelings about Robin Williams. Sometimes he can be a little much, but his performance as John Keating is fantastic. His antics are silly but not distracting. The acting overall is solid. It is really uplifting to see the students’ eyes light up as they develop a new outlook on life. I also really liked how the movie didn’t feel the need to give much if any epilogue. The students have a new perspective on life and that’s that. The movie doesn’t say “Student X went on to <insert ‘great’ thing>.”

I really liked the music and the cinematography. There is a shot of a fall morning with flocks of birds taking off. The camera cuts over to flocks of students filling the stairwells of the academy on their way to class. Later, after a couple weeks of Keating’s teaching, one of the boys rides his bike down a hill through a flock of birds, disrupting them and causing them to fly. It is a simple yet effective visual metaphor.

The only thing I didn’t really like is how, until obligatory sad portion, everything works out so perfectly. This isn’t anything major but I’ll describe why this is a pet peeve in my discussion post. Other than that, I had no issues with this movie. It got me pumped up and, I suppose, that’s the point of a motivational movie. I’d recommend this for any time, especially if you are feeling a little down.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Five Deadly Venoms, Pacific Rim, and Authenticity

After watching Five Deadly Venoms this morning, I decided to take a shower. I know some people sing in the shower or just focus on cleaning but I have a tendency to relax. I free associate or maybe zone out. If I just watched a movie, which I had in this case, then I usually think about that movie.

By this point, I had drafted my review and had given Five Deadly Venoms a 2.5/4. I took a shower because I didn’t really know what else to say. It is one of those movies that is what it is. It is a Kung Fu movie from 1978. It wasn’t the best but it wasn’t trying to be the best. I included that in my review so I didn’t know what to say in terms of a discussion.

Then, rinsing shampoo out of my hair, I had an imaginary conversation with someone.

“What did you give Five Deadly Venoms,” he asks.

“2.5/4,” I respond, “it was fun and it wasn’t trying to be anything more than a fun movie.”

“What did you give Pacific Rim?”


“Why is that? Didn’t you say in that review that it wasn’t trying to be anything more than a silly action movie?”

Answering that question, why I gave Five Deadly Venoms 2.5 and Pacific Rim 2, is what I’ve decided to write about for this post. My initial, gut reaction is to say well, Five Deadly Venoms is somehow more authentic.

A red flag went up in my mind.

To criticize Pacific Rim for not being an actual old giant alien fighting robot movie is silly, not to mention fundamentally wrong. To make such a claim, in effect, I would be saying Five Deadly Venoms is an authentic Kung Fu movie. I’ve mentioned this question of authenticity in other posts (The Lone Ranger comes to mind first) and I hesitate to attempt a full explanation. It is a slippery slope. We would have to define “Kung Fu”. Then we would ask are the actors actually practicing a “real” style of Kung Fu? Are the costumes accurate in terms of the time-period? The questions continue and spiral downward endlessly. Such a position assumes that there exists or there could exist something truly authentic.

What is comes down to, is that Five Deadly Venoms would not be an authentic anything. It’s just another of the multitude of Americanized Kung Fu movies that came out in the 1970’s. So, that said, my initial justification in my imaginary conversation is out but it did lead me to something else.

Perhaps my phrasing was off. One of the reasons I like Five Deadly Venoms was because of its focus on action (even if it really isn’t Kung Fu). It’s plot is barebones: a student has to find five guys, each a master of a different form of fighting. The story is set in a small city whose name I don’t even think we are given. There are only a half dozen different sets in the movie so we don’t really have any understanding about the film’s world. The film doesn’t tell us because we don’t have to know, and quite frankly, nobody cares. After all, we are here for action.

Pacific Rim included additional elements that distracted from the core giant-alien-fighting-robots. Did it have to compartmentalize different cultures into different teams as it were? Did it even have to set it in the modern day world (and pass it off as the future)? No, it didn’t. At the end, we are left with the feeling “Alright, the good guys *cough* America *cough* saved the day!” In Five Deadly Venoms, the good guys defeated the bad guys and that’s that. Pacific Rim could’ve just been about a generic corporation fighting generic alien invaders. That’s why we’re here, right? Just give me some robot fighting action and leave all the extraneous details at the door.

Please let me know your thoughts in a comment, email, message or whathaveyou.
If you haven't read it yet, check out my review of Five Deadly Venoms

Thanks for reading!

Five Deadly Venoms - Review

Directed by Cheh Chang. Written by Cheh Chang, Kuang Ni. Starring Sheng Chiang, Philip Kwok, Feng Lu.

Bottom line: If you love cheesy Kung Fu, it is your responsibility to see Five Deadly Venoms but, otherwise, you can pass on it.


We open to an aged Kung Fu master, the head of the Five Venoms Clan. He makes a dying wish to his young, inexperienced pupil, Yang Tieh, “Go to my former schoolmate and tell him to donate the ill-gotten treasure to charity.” The master warns that his five other students will undoubtedly seek out the treasure as well. Queue montage of the other students’ styles!

We have the Centipede, also known as “the man with a thousand hands” because he punches and kicks so quickly. We have the Snake, whose left hand and right hand is the head and tail of a serpent, respectively. His fast reflexes make him a dangerous advisory. The Scorpion attacks with precision; his hands grab like claws while his feet strike like the legs of a scorpion (I don’t really know what that means exactly, that’s just the description we get), oh, and he also throws scorpion shaped daggers. The Lizard can stand on walls. The Toad can “bend and break things with his body” which refers to his ability to stop swords from cutting him. Yang Tieh has learned a little Lizard but he is no master it so he must team up with another pupil to take down any of them who have villainous intent.

If you like 70’s Kung Fu, this is a solid choice. The introduction gives you feel for the tone of the movie. It isn’t a complex plot and the characters are pretty basic. The characters are even color-coordinated: red is probably bad, blue is probably good. There is only one costume change throughout the movie so it’s easy to follow the characters. The dialog is equally simple. The set design and lighting is appropriately bare setting the stage perfectly for fight scenes.

The camera is, for the most part, a consistent medium shot or long shot so it’s far enough away for us to feast our eyes on the action. That is one of the best parts about this movie. I remember hearing a number of complaints when Batman Begins first came out. The camera cut too quickly during the fights making the action nigh incomprehensible. You don’t have that problem in Five Deadly Venoms. Sure, the martial arts aren’t quite up to the level of Bruce Lee but it is still satisfying.

The focus of this movie is about Kung Fu and, really, everything revolves around that. The one character says something like, “The toad is strong, he will break out of any iron or chains.” “Oh,” responds the supervisor, “Guards! Put him in the heaviest chains we have!” He breaks out and starts fighting everyone.

I am a fan of Kung Fu so I thought Five Deadly Venoms was fun. It takes itself seriously enough to present a Kung Fu experience but it doesn’t take itself too seriously in that it loses sight of the fact that it is...well, a budget Kung Fu movie. There are bad movies, there are good movies and then there are the bad movies. You want to avoid the bad movies because the quality is just so low, it isn’t worth your time. The bad movies are the popcorn-action-movies. They aren’t too sophisticated but it’s ok because they are just for fun. Five Deadly Venoms is a bad Kung Fu movie that I recommend for fans of Kung Fu. If you aren’t a fan, pass on this. It is like giving a fine scotch to someone who only drinks wine. There isn’t anything wrong with only drinking wine but the experience of the scotch will be lost.

You might also be interested in my discussion post about Five Deadly Venoms

Monday, October 21, 2013


Directed by Fritz Lang. Written by Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang and Egon Jacobson. Starring Peter Lorre (Hans Beckert/M),  Gustaf Gründgens (Schränker/Safe Cracker), and Otto Wernicke (Inspector Karl Lohmann).

Bottom line: M might as well stand for magnificent; this is one of the best movies ever made.
M begins with a group of children singing the following song: "Just you wait, it won't be long/ The man in black will soon be here/ With his cleaver's blade so true / He'll make mincemeat out of you!" Add German to my list of nationalities with creepy children. Japanese children and German children. They are either adorable or nightmarish.

Anyway, we watch as a mother is cleaning and preparing lunch. The camera cuts over to her young daughter who walks alone down the street playing with a ball. She tosses it against a bulletin board. It reads, "1000 Marks. Who is the murderer?" The shadow of a man (Peter Lorre) appears on the bulletin board. He says in a nasally voice, "That is a pretty ball you have. What is your name?" We cut back to the mother who glances up at the clock. Her daughter is late. The man, whistling "Hall of the Mountain King", buys her a balloon from a blind man. We cut back to the mother who calls out the window "Elsie! Elsie!" The camera jumps from a shot of an empty stair to an empty attic then to a patch of grass. Elsie's ball rolls out from behind a bush. The camera cuts to her balloon that is caught in power lines.

The introduction is an indication of how Fritz Lang is able to tell a story with film. Acting or cinematography drives some movies, but in M, the two harmonize. As soon as M asks Elsie for her name, we as the audience, think," Oh man..." Almost anticipating that thought, Lang cuts over to the mother. The worried look that she gives the clock is so simple and so basic but it perfectly captures the concern of a mother. The cinematography is incredibly precise. With just the first few frames of M's entrance as clearly defined shadow we understand the situation who he is and his intentions.

As soon as Elsie's murder reaches the papers, we watch the ensuing chaos and paranoia. A police officer arrests a man on a bus. The man says, "Oh come on! There is a child murderer on the loose and you are arresting a pick pocket?" A pedestrian over hears and says," The murderer?" Another yells," He's the murderer?!" All of the passersby become a mob. They knock over the police as they fight to get to the man. The mob mentality especially one charged with a desperate desire for justice is a recurring image. It is also one of the scariest parts about M. We see how destructive people become because of fear. Even though there is this child murderer on the loose, he becomes the least of one’s worries with the constant paranoia.

There are two types of narration. There is a direct voice over as a character explains something and then there is the type of establishment that integrates into the story. Really good films are able to smoothly show and tell the audience. In M, after the introduction, we listen to a phone call between the Police Chief Inspector and Mr. Secretary. The Inspector proceeds to explain what steps the investigation takes to track down M. The film shows us each thing that the inspector explains. He mentions, fingerprints, we watch someone compare different figure prints; he mentions how the police have investigated the crime scene, we watch their investigation. The images complement a natural conversation. The combination establishes how the police are baffled despite their best efforts. Even by the very nature of this conversation, that it is between two people, we can see the feelings of helplessness and frustration on an individual level.

Lang's best quality, however, is his sense of restraint. He knows when to use a song or a sound effect but, more importantly, he knows when not to. As an example, we can look to a scene where a group of people is chasing M down a street, nearly capturing him. Instead of having a fast-paced musical score, the sequence is in nearly silent. It is fascinating how something as simple as a moment of silence can alter the dynamic of a scene. It focuses our attention to the significance of the images unfolding on the screen. We gaze at his desperate attempts to avoid capture.

Lang is an incredible filmmaker. What makes things even more interesting is M's subject matter. You might this that it is the story of how a child murder is caught but it's much more complex. The plot develops and we watch the different criminal syndicates unite to catch the murderer. After all, with all this increased police activity, they can't conduct their business (read: commit crimes).

Eventually, the criminals catch M and bring him to the basement of an abandoned factory. The majority, no all, of the criminals want him to die. He pleads to be turned over to the police. "Why should we do that," asks the criminal leader, Safe Cracker, "so you can get off with an insanity plea and be taking care of by the State in an asylum until you are fit to be dismissed so you can continue to murder with impunity?" Safe Cracker says that they aren't without a sense of moral obligation. They will hold their own trial and will even provide M with a defense attorney.

"But I can't help it! I really can' it," M screams. A criminal stands up and says," We all know that one: 'Judge, I just can't help it.'" M slumps down onto the dirty floor with a harsh light beaming down on him from above. "Who are you? All of you. Criminals. Probably proud of it too...all of which it seems to me you could just as easily give up if you learned something useful or had jobs...But me? Can I do anything...about this fire, this agony, inside me!" Wherever he goes, he feels like he is shadowing himself and that he can't escape the ghosts of those he has hurt. "Except when I'm doing it...when I'm doing...then I wake up in front of a poster reading what I've done. I did that? Who would ever believe me?!"

The movie uses M's testimony to address the audience. Throughout the movie, we've been involved in both the police’s and the criminal’s plans. When met with frustration, we turned from the police to the criminals. Even though we may not sympathize with their motives, we want M stopped and the criminals’ willingness to go outside the law was the most effective strategy. M's cries for help make us question our own motives. Surely, we want some sort of closure if we are willing to sympathize with the criminal syndicates but where does that leave us? If we want him brought to "justice", what does “justice” mean? Do we want him executed? The film implicates us in the destructive hysteria and desperation shown throughout the film. We want him stopped, we don’t know who he is but we’ll allow nearly anything to put him out of commission.

Unfortunately, in much the same way as in the introduction, Lang anticipates this type of reaction. The police arrive at the scene and take M (and the rest of the criminals) into custody. The camera cuts over to a line of judges in a courtroom. Just as they are about to deliver the verdict, we cut to three grieving mothers. One looks into the camera and says, "This will not bring our children back. One has to keep closer watch over the children! All of you!" We do not get the satisfaction of knowing what happens to M.

M is certainly one of the best movies I've ever seen. Lang shows a mastery of film making technique. In a way, M's story may seem simple but it becomes a powerfully complex statement about crime and punishment. Lang plays with our natural emotional responses to implicate us in the terrifying and destructive hysteria caused by a murderer. You simply must see this movie.