Monthly Archives: December 2010

Top Ten Movies (I’ve Seen) in 2010

As a filmmaker, I’m supposed to keep up with the Jones’s in film and be sure to watch all those indie hits and Academy Award contenders like Black Swan and 127 Hours. Truth is that this year I haven’t seen nearly as many of those films as I should have (I think the only one I did see was Inception.) But as you can tell by reading my status updates and tweets, I soak up cinema through Netflix, and this year I’ve had an unquenchable penchant for Hollywood classics and foreign films.

So instead of a “Top Ten Films of 2010″ list, I put together a brief list (with trailers and my own comments) of the top ten films I’ve seen in 2010.

Admittedly, this list weights a bit heavy on the noir side of the spectrum since many of the movies I watched this year were used as research for a quirky hit man feature I’m currently outlining.

So here it goes, in reverse order for maximum tension, of course!

10. Martin (1977; Director George A. Romero) Prior to my hit man research, I went through yet another stage of research for my vampire script A Beautiful Unlife and I stumbled on this “smart” vampire classic by zombie guru George Romero. The final scene alone makes this cult classic worth viewing, though the entire film is pretty messed up (and strangely reminiscent of my first feature!)

9. Funny Games (1997; Director Michael Haneke) 2010 was a year of firsts; I immersed myself in the works of Almodóvar and Michael Haneke. However, Haneke was the one who made the list. I’ve never seen the 2007 American remake of Funny Games (also directed by Haneke), but this original version is fucked up enough! The best part is that the types of things you normally wouldn’t find in a movie are found here in all their psychotic and gory detail.

8. The Hurt Locker (2008; Director Kathryn Bigelow) Now I’m not a war movie kind of guy, but The Hurt Locker is by far one of the best war films I’ve ever seen, seconded only by Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land. Hearing writer Mark Boal talk about his personal experiences in the war on NPR.org also aided in my desire to watch this picture, since much of what is shown in the film was experienced by Boal himself during his research.

7. Elevator to the Gallows (1957; Director Louis Malle) I’ve seen films like this before, the kind that take place primarily in a single location (Phone Booth stands out in my mind), but when you’ve got a jazzed up score by Miles Davis crying beneath your long shots and close ups, no other film is worth the effort (sorry Devil!). This is truly a masterpiece, not only of noir cinema, but of all cinema.

6. Insomnia (1997; Directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg) Al Pacino and Robin Williams do not star in this all out thrill-tale––and it wasn’t directed Christopher Nolan, either. I’m talking about the original “night of the midnight sun” masterpiece. Slow-paced and tense, this first film by director Erik Skjoldbjærg definitely tops the American remake.

5. Rififi (1955; Director Jules Dassin) Due to my film noir research, I’ve become a bit of a Jules Dassin groupie, as you’ll notice further down this list. Rififi captures the essence of gangster cinema (and the gangster epoch, in general) perfectly. The best part of this movie is the 30-minute heist in the middle, which is nearly silent and will keep you on the edge of your seat.

4. Moon (2009; Director Duncan Jones) I’m a huge sci-fi fan, and this film made me realize that the genre has not been reduced to Michael Bayesque action sequences and Tron: Legacy laser light effects, but, like a classic Isaac Asimov tale, can still make you ponder all the deepest meanings of life when placed in the hands of a director who understands the true definition of science fiction. Moon also happens to be the finest film Sam Rockwell has ever done, in my humble opinion.

3. Night and the City (1950; Director Jules Dassin) Another darkly wonderful film noir by Jules Dassin (See? I told you––I’m a darn groupie!) This movie, along with Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953) and Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death (1947), made me fall in love with the trademark smirk of Richard Widmark, who plays a hustler trying to make it in the big time.

2. The Long Good Friday (1979; Director John Mackenzie) The best part about The Long Good Friday, I’m convinced, is the score, though when I first saw the film, it struck me as extremely odd and dissonant. Then, as with the catchy theme to Carol Reed’s immortal classic The Third Man (1949), I found myself humming the tune over and over again. It was then I realized just how much the music really adds to director John MacKenzie’s story of a big shot casino man slowly losing control of his empire.

And the best movie I’ve seen in 2010 (which doesn’t have any trailers up on YouTube, so I’ve included this cool chase scene instead) is…

1. Thieve’s Highway (1949; director Jules Dassin). I’ve watched this film two times, and I want to watch it again and again. I keep marveling over the story itself, the final confrontation between Nick Garcos and the man who crippled his father, and the seductive siren songs in Valentina Cortese’s voice. From the inciting incident to the denouement, Thieve’s Highway is a non-stop thrill ride full of dollars, double crosses, and yes, Golden Delicious apples!

Happy viewing everyone, and a happier New Year to you all!

What are some movies YOU’ve watched (noir or not) this year that you would recommend and why?

Deus to Diabolus ex Machina: Ancient Technique in Two Postmodern Films

Alongside teaching grammar rules and techniques on how to write more effective prose in my English Composition courses, I also like to show films that relate to some of the topics we discuss in class. One such film is No Man’s Land, directed by Danis Tanovic. Aside from being an atypical war film, this Serbian film is also a meditation on the absurdity of war, chronicling the struggle between two soldiers from opposing sides caught in a trench. The pair must try and work out their differences in order to survive the day while caring for a third soldier who’s lying on a mine.

The best part of the film by far is its ending (don’t worry, no “SPOILER WARNING” needed; I won’t give it away!) It comes to pass through a divine intervention of sorts using the ancient theatrical plot device of deus ex machina, or “god from the machine,” in which by the conclusion of a play or film, a figure of power enters the scene just when it seems that the conflict can’t be resolved by traditional means; this figure either sets things right or, in some instances, makes matters worse. In No Man’s Land, the UN inadvertently gets involved in a situation, and they encounter a wall that won’t move. Enter Colonel Soft, the UN’s main officer, via helicopter to clean up the mess.

However, Colonel Soft enters this fray of all-too-human affairs as a god but emerges more like a devil from the machine. The end of No Man’s Land isn’t exactly an uplifting Disney song and dance celebration. When the characters leave the battlefield of Tanovic’s film, the audience is left with a sick feeling within while the film’s haunting score trails off into the credits. It makes for a powerful finale to a poignant story, though differs greatly from classic war films like Saving Private Ryan and Apocalypse Now.

Another of my favorite films that makes use of the deus ex machina is Richard Kelley’s cult masterpiece (and, sadly, his only success) Donnie Darko. (okay, so for this one there’s a “SPOILER ALERT”––but really, if you’ve never seen Donnie Darko, for shame!) Towards the film’s conclusion, the title character and his friends are attacked on Halloween night by masked high school hooligans. Donnie’s love interest gets hurled into the street. A red Camaro screeches down the road and tumbles over her, then whirls around and menacingly stares through its headlights at the horrified kids. The passenger side door opens, and from inside the machine emerges a clown. From the driver’s side steps out the dark rabbit that’d been haunting Donnie’s mind since the first minutes of the film.

One of the most harrowing moments in Donnie Darko.

A devil figure in the form of a demonic Easter bunny and a trickster archetype perfectly conformed to Colonel Soft in No Man’s Land. Each of these characters paves a road for more terrible truckloads of hell to arrive shortly after their divine intervention. This sounds more to me like these are diabolus ex machina endings, which may be the next evolution of this ancient theatrical device.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to consider is that the deus ex machina may have been partly responsible for the death of tragedy in ancient Greece and, consequently, the birth of what we call “drama”––a welterweight brand of tragedy. When the ancient playwright Euripides, for instance, ended his tragedies with a deus ex machina ending, it suddenly became a happy story. StageAgent sites a play called Alcestis, in which the protagonist is rescued from death by Hercules. And in Medea, the playwright’s most well-known work, the title character, who has just murdered her children, is escorted to Athens in a golden chariot pulled by dragons. In each, the characters are rescued, seeing as the protagonist in the first play volunteers to kill herself to save her husband, and Medea kills her children to stab at the heart of her two-timing husband Jason.

The deus ex machina ending in action.

This diabolus ex machina ending, however, seems to bring back the true integrity of tragedy, restoring an empathetic value that had been somewhat diluted since the days of Sophocles and Shakespeare. Today, people tend to reserve the term “tragedy” for real events that cost thousands of lives when back in the day it was tragic enough in an artistic sense to discover that you inadvertently killed your father and are now married to your mother. (Today, a situation like this can easily be remedied by an appearance on Maury.) But in No Man’s Land, there is no easy way out, and definitely no happy ending. Instead, we walk away from the closing credits with those characters burned into our brains.

The general consensus is that the deus ex machina ending is a sham ending, and is criticized harshly if ever used today, most notably by screenwriting guru Robert McKee in the film Adaptation. I even get all shy-faced when I have to teach my humanities classes about how the ancient Greeks used a crane to lift an actor masked as a god into the skene. (“The Greeks,” I’d say, “gave us so many wonderful things. And then they gave us this!”) But I think that when used to bring about empathy or an unexpected turn of events, this darker sort of the deus ex machina ending can prove quite powerful for a writer, as expertly demonstrated in both No Man’s Land and Donnie Darko.

Perhaps the only thing that can be left out is making the characters announce that what’s about to occur is, in fact, a deus ex machina ending.

What are some movies (or books, TV shows, etc.) that YOU’ve seen which have a memorable deus ex machina ending? Make a list in the Comments section below.

Red Carpet Success: The Cerise Big Apple Preview

There may not have been a red carpet (or even a red rug for that matter!), but what was there at the Millennium Film Workshop this past Friday in New York City was a full-throttle evening of epic proportions filled with positive energy and heaps of enthusiasm.

An unprecedented turnout for the Cerise Big Apple Preview!

The Big Apple Preview of Cerise was, to say the least, a smash success. With a head count of at least ninety to a hundred attendees, the small theater space in the East Village went from empty to standing room only by the time the festivities got underway.

And as many of you may know, this was not just an ordinary film screening. The Big Apple Preview was a full-fledged event with many surprises. Here are some of the highlights of the evening:

 “Man Versus Word.” The first thing people saw after descending the stair to the Millennium Film Workshop was our ginormous Cerise poster, designed by local Jersey City artist and good friend Lauren Clemente. Blown up to full size, it was simply a wonderful sight to behold!

Artist Lauren Clemente and I with the ginormous Cerise poster she designed.

“I’ll drink you up as the lights go down” Let’s just say everyone in that audience that night got a much needed flu shot. Icewagon Flu, that is! The boisterous band was in the house performing an acoustic set for our enjoyment. They played their latest single “Drive the Spirits Out,” along with “Talk To Me” and “Cerise,” which was written and performed by the band as a donation during Cerise’s IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign. Perhaps biggest highlight for me (besides finally seeing these boys rock out live) was when frontman Kevin Adkins lead the crowd in a chant spelling out the word “cerise” to the music as I made my way to the front. It was truly epic!

The myth. The legend. Icewagon Flu!

As an added bonus, Icewagon Flu also offered up free CD singles featuring “Drive the Spirits Out” (available on their site as a free download as well) and “Cerise” as the B-side (how cool is that!?)

“We’re the crazy sad family no one wants to talk to!” The next treat for the hundredfold cinemaphiles packing the place were five trailers for other crowdfunded films, all of which were from supporters of Cerise––namely Mahogony J. Slide’s drama The Saving, Robert Lise and Sam Platizky’s zomb-com Blaming George Romero (which features a cameo by yours truly!), Phil Holbrook’s thriller Tilt (penned by the inimitable duo Julie Keck and Jessica King), Mattson Tomlin’s dark retelling of Solomon Grundy, and Gary King’s musical How Do You Write a Joe Schermann Song. Aside from being awesome, fun trailers, each of these films represents the changing face of independent film, and I really wanted to give back to those who gave to Cerise by helping them gain potential new audience attendees when these films debut in 2011. Based on the crowd’s reaction to these fabulous trailers, it was a success!

“And here we are, Sam, the match of the month!” The lights went down (well, I switched ‘em off from the side of the room) and I watched a year of my life shine out into the eyes of the audience from a much bigger screen than I’m used to. Like always, there was a war waged between the Godzillas in my mind and Mothras in my belly; although this is the fifth film I’ve screened at the Millennium, that fearful question still creeps up from the back of my mind, much like how the word “cerise” creeps back into Josh’s: Will they like it?

The cast and crew of Cerise.

When the credits rolled, the battles had subsided and the monsters were buried by a great earthquake of applause that made a smile curl across my face. Based on many of the comments I’d received from certain audience members who waited around just to tell me that they enjoyed the film, Cerise was a success!

“For Marinell––” I wanted to make this first ever screening of Cerise a little extra special for one person who’s extra special to me. As the scrolling credits trailed away, a deleted scene flashed onto the screen in which Josh wears boxing gloves and sports a black eye. Behind him, Josh’s love interest C.J. massages him, pumping him up he rushes off––a new man filled with new inspiration. After that brief scene which prior to this had only been seen in the first Cerise teaser, a message faded in: “For Marinell––” the one person who deserves all the credit for putting together the Big Apple Preview, who also pushes me to stay at my fighting weight, for she’s truly “the coach in my corner championing me towards a knock out.”

Marinell Montales (@Merrynell), the coolest gal this side of any lifetime!

“I’m NOT gonna let you finish…” Following the screening, I called up members of the cast and crew and (apparently) went through a long-winded speech filled with Academy Award-style thank yous and the like, and I was simply astonished when Cerise’s leading man, the extremely talented David Arkema, snatched the microphone from my hand and complimented me on not only making a quality film, but also on the amount of passion that I have for everything that I do, that same passion that made him want to play Josh and help bring Cerise to fruition; and that it was that same passion, he said, that filled every seat and side corner of the Millennium Film Workshop on this Friday, December 3rd, 2010.

David Arkema as Kanye West; John Trigonis as Taylor Swift. Sort of!

Those were the highlights, like the glimmering beads of a Kombolói. But like any Greek bead collection, those gem-like beads are held together by the chain links of everything else that comprised a perfect evening––from conversing over wine and cheese and shrimp cocktail and fundraising for film festival donations to choosing the mingle music (my “Underdog” mix) and raffling off swag bags designed by another excellent Jersey City artist and buddy Matt Caputo. And all the spaces in between those links of chain? The love and enjoyment from all the wonderful people who came out to support Cerise, my latest and greatest creation!

As an added bonus, here’s a short clip of some of the highlights that Cerise “Samurai of Cinematography Alain Aguilar put together from the night.

On a side note: Yesterday, I showed the students in my Civilizations 2 course Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, and for the first time (after seeing this film about four or five times) I got a tad bit emotional during the film’s finale––Chaplin’s heartfelt speech praising the goodness of humanity.

I believe I experienced first hand a piece of that goodness this weekend, and for that, I’m truly grateful, and I sincerely want to thank you al once again for being a part of that magic!

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