Monday, June 30, 2014

Today, we've had 25 years to Do the Right Thing

25 years ago today, Spike Lee released Do the Right Thing (HU DVD 38), a landmark film about race relations that nearly speaks for itself. The film generated enormous controversy at its release, with one critic calling it "dynamite under every seat." It immediately became a cultural touchstone and quickly cemented its status as one of the most significant (and most beloved) films of its time.

In commemoration of a big day for a big movie, there's been a whole slew of retrospectives and essays. For your reading pleasure, we'll leave you with NPR's recap of an Academy-sponsored screening (complete with a stop-in by the Obamas, who saw Do the Right Thing on their first date); Spike Lee's reactions to early reviews that he slams as racist; and a piece from Complex about how the film anticipated today's problems with gentrification. They're all great reads and provide some interesting insight into how this film has stayed relevant and shocking even after a quarter century. You might also want to check out Spike Lee's Instagram, where he's been having some fun with the big anniversary.

Appropriately, it was swelteringly hot outside today. (Maybe not a good day to get pizza though.)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Before The Interview: films that drew international and political outrage

Among the more unusual recent film headlines, Kim Jong-un has threatened war over an upcoming film, The Interview, that depicts Seth Rogen and James Franco attempting to assassinate the North Korean leader. It's not often that a mid-budgeted comedy sparks an international crisis and calls for violent retaliation. Come to think of it, has this ever happened?

Though military action in response to a movie is certainly unusual, the film industry is no stranger to international condemnation and high-scale political controversy. You don't need to stray too far to be condemned by a religious or political group, but only certain films prompt a level of outrage that reaches world leaders. If you're curious about a few other films in the same ignoble league as The Interview, here's a quick list of some that have drawn notable international attention.

  • Now regarded as a Russian classic, Battleship Potemkin (HU DVD 43) contains strong Communist, pro-revolutionary messages and took decades to reach the United Kingdom and parts of Germany. Even in Russia, Stalin partially censored the films due to specific contributions from Leon Trotsky.
  • Monty Python's Life of Brian (HU DVD 970) earns a special spot as perhaps the most famous movie accused of blasphemy for its critique of religion and faith. Though the filmmakers do not view it as an attack on Christianity, the film promoted countless local bans and challenges in England. Marketers later seized upon this and labeled Life of Brian "the film so funny that it was banned in Norway."
  • Borat (HU DVD 2633) famously lampooned Western perceptions of Eastern Europe as backwards and destitute. It was banned in nearly every Arab country, condemned in Russia, and prompted a massive public relations campaign from Kazakhstan. The Kazakh government later embraced the film for increasing awareness of the country.
  • Death of a President (HU DVD 3310) imagined a documentary covering the fictional assassination of George W. Bush – in 2006, while the president still held office. The voyeuristic experiment was widely condemned by political parties, media outlets, and film distributors; the White House never issued a statement on the film because "it doesn't dignify a response."
  • The Great Dictator (HU DVD 3796) was the first major film to criticize and caricature Adolf Hitler. Chaplin's outspoken views led to accusations of Communist ties from the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee, damaging his image and leading to his essential blacklisting in America.
  • Set in 1970s Iran, coming-of-age story Persepolis (HU DVD 4498) depicted an unflattering version of the Iranian Revolution from the perspective of a young girl. The film is outright banned in Iran and frequently restrictid throughout in the Middle East, prompting outcry and repeated legal challenges.
  • The film adaptation of the novel The Da Vinci Code (HU DVD 9211) rekindled outrage over its suggestion that Jesus fathered a child. Countries with significant Christian populations attacked the film as blasphemous, and the Vatican called for its boycott. At least one cardinal suggested legal action against the filmmakers, but no lawsuit was ever filed.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

RIP Eli Wallach, supporting actor legend

Audiences might remember him best as Tuco (The Ugly) from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, but Eli Wallach was an actor of enormous range. Working on film and television well into his 90s, Wallach was the ultimate supporting actor, a man whose prolific appearances who brought life to every film in which he appeared. He charmed in the days of old Hollywood in The Magnificent Seven and The Misfits, and he brought humanity to recent hits including Mystic River, The Holiday, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Though he won BAFTA, Tony, and Emmy awards, Wallach was never nominated for an Oscar; the Academy realized their error in 2010 when they awarded him an honorary statuette for his lifetime accomplishments.

We're very saddened to hear news of Eli Wallach's death, but we'll never lose his numerous and iconic contributions to film. Media Services's collection contains a startling number of films starring Wallach, a testament to his prolific body of work.

Baby Doll – HU DVD 7752
Brand Upon the Brain! – HU DVD 4638
The Ghost Writer – HU DVD 8010
The Godfather, Part III – HU DVD 2543
The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly – HU DVD 1001
The Holiday – HU DVD 5407
The Lineup – HU DVD 7294
Lord Jim – HU DVD 10385
The Magnificent Seven – HU DVD 7640
The Executioner's Song – HU DVD 8857
The Misfits – HU DVD 8886
The Moon and the Son – HU DVD 1328
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps – HU DVD 8018

(Wallach also hosted a series of stage play character studies for A Raisin in the Sun, The Glass Menagerie, and Our Town. Follow the links to view these programs online via the library.)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Newly unearthed first works shed light on famous directorial styles

Directors with large bodies of work often develop distinctive styles. Once you these signatures for the first time, their earlier films become exciting treasure hunts for glimpses of their trademarks yet to develop. You might get a glimpse of the Coen brothers yet to emerge, for example, when watching Blood Simple. If you enjoy playing this game, you're going to have a ball with two new short films that recently emerged online. They're the first works by notable directors Tim Burton and Lars von Trier, and you can already see seeds of each of their styles taking root.

Burton's film, a bizarre 1982 low-budget retelling of Hansel and Gretel with an all-Asian cast, it's almost immediately noticeably his product. Though the production stark, Burton's hand is evident, and the film resembles a live-action The Nightmare Before Christmas. The witch's costume especially screams Burton-esque dark whimsy.

Von Trier's short, on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, is a dialogue-less spot-motion adventure starring three bunnies that he directed at age 11. This one bears almost no resemblance to the psychosexual chaos that Lars von Trier would become notable for in the future, but like most of his films, it is totally inscrutable.

These are the earliest known works of both these directors, and they're a great watch of fans of either. We imagine that first films by future great directors will be far easier to find, so it's exciting to find weird gems like this lying around.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Mysterious Hellraiser VHS terrorizes London

Well, this is moderately terrifying: London appears to be cursed by some sort of lo-fi demon. Some time in 2011, a VHS copy of Clive Barker's 1987 horror opus Hellraiser appeared on top of a specific bus stop on Old Kent Road. As documented by Time Out London, that VHS has been lingering there for the past four years, occasionally disappearing and resurfacing shortly after. At some point, two Hellraiser tapes appeared at once. No matter how often the local council takes the tape away, another one invariably springs up in its place.

This is probably the work of one or more dedicated pranksmen, but we choose to believe in some sort of localized portal to hell and a demon with a sense of humor. Also, we're slowly going mad from the heat outside, and this was too entertaining not to share. As far as we know, we don't own Hellraiser on either DVD or VHS.. but we should check again just in case one mysteriously appeared.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

New Acquisitions - June 2014

If the weather for the rest of June is going to be anything like it is now, we're in for a scorching summer. Do you need a good reason to stay inside right about now? What better way to fight the heat than to curl up on the couch and watch movies until your eyes bleed out? Should you choose this sort of AV-enabled respite, we're glad to help out.

The flow of new acquisitions has started once again, and we've got some good DVDs this month. Her and Philomena complete our collection of Oscar nominees, while Men in Black and War of the Worlds fill some gaps in our backlog (Men in Black came out in 1997!). If you're more inclined towards documentaries, consider watching We Are Legion or A Brief History of Time. And if you just want to see things blow up for a while? There's always Ender's Game.

Hit the jump for a full list of what we have this month...

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Science confirms that Paul Thomas Anderson is the master of your eyes

The intersection of science and art has always yielded fascinating insights. As much as filmmaking is an art that requires a carefully trained eye and excellent talent to pull off, scientific studies often find surprising and actionable evidence of how we process and respond to images. That might take some of the artistry out of the process, but it tells us exciting things about the human brain.

This great example comes from The DIEM Project, which studies eye tracking of moving images. Researchers tracked the eyes of eleven people who watched the same clip from There Will Be Blood. Paul Thomas Anderson is a gifted director, and he has a keen eye for composition; the selected portion combines long takes, close-ups, and tracking shots.

As you can see from the circles that represent where a person was looking, we are all immediately drawn to contrast, whether that's a bright object in a dark room or a moving object in a static scene. The most interesting example might be the long shot of a car at the end of the clip. Even when the car is obscured by scenery, everyone's eyes are focused tightly on the right edge where they expect the car to appear.

This video is a great demonstration of how a master filmmaker can command an audience's attention with motion and composition. The next time you find yourself watching a static scene in a just-okay movie, you might wonder where the little eye circles would fall.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Alternative programming: Extra time with South Africa

Soccer might not be a big sport in the United States, but the World Cup is without a doubt the biggest global athletic event. Media outlets estimate that over 3 billion people will watch the World Cup this year, and it stands a chance of becoming the most watched event in human history.

That said, as with all sporting events, the organization of the World Cup is not without intense scrutiny and criticism. As we saw during the Sochi Olympics, the years of intense prep work that go into putting on a massive sporting event often disrupt countries and leave them in economic or social turmoil.

We'd like to direct attention to World Cup Soccer in Africa: Who Really Wins?, a documentary that deals with these ripple effects and how they transformed South Africa in the wake of the 2010 World Cup. As you can no doubt tell from the tone of this post and the title of the film, the effects were not positive. The DVD includes interviews with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and soccer star Jomo Sono, both of whom offer valuable perspectives on their home country.

We're all looking forward to the World Cup, but it's important to recognize that any event at such a large scale can have a strong negative impact on its host. With Brazil also hosting the Olympics in two years, one can hope that they find a way to channel their high profile into meaningful social and economic advancement.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Want to see how the Emmy sausage is made? Now's your chance

We've previously covered the shadowy process behind Oscar nominations. It's unclear how films are nominated, and that's a frequent criticism of the Academy. When Ben Affleck was passed over for a Best Director Oscar for Argo, it caused understandable alarm regarding the transparency and politicization of the process.

In contrast, the Emmy's are letting everything spill out publicly. The Television Academy recently posted its complete list of potential Emmy nominees as nominated by their respective studios producers. This is all extra-nerdy inside baseball stuff, but it's fascinating to see what shows are nominated in which categories, as well as which have been omitted. Even without extra analysis (Treme is considered a mini-series! Key and Peele was nominated for hairstyling!), it's an exciting laundry list of all the quality shows currently on television.

If you're big on television, prepare to lose a lot of time looking through this behind-the-scenes look at the nomination process. And prepare to be amazed at how minor of a role you can have and still be nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Hungry for more free movies? BYT has the master sheet of outdoor film events

Over the last few weeks, we've been slowly trickling out posts about upcoming DC film festivals. Ten days into June, we figure it's time to rip the Band-Aid off.

DC culture hotspot Brightest Young Things has compiled a list of all current and upcoming film festivals in the area. It's a very handy one-stop guide for every outdoor event you might want to attend this summer. You might notice that today, for instance, the only event is a screening of All the President's Men in Adams Morgan. That might not float your boat, but on June 30th, Crystal City will be showing Top Gun! This is a great way to plan your summer movie schedule and, let's be honest, find out the next time that you'll be able to see Frozen (July 3rd and 8th, for the record).

We'll continue to post interesting highlights from these upcoming screenings, but if you want to make a schedule yourself, the list from Brightest Young Things is the first place to head.

Monday, June 09, 2014

DC Public Library celebrates Pride Month with a new film series

In case you missed last week's festivities, DC is in the midst of celebrating Pride Month. DC Public Library wants in on the fun too, and of particular interest to this blog, the Southeast Neighborhood Library has announced a three-day Prime Movie Fest starting tomorrow, June 10th, at 7pm.

Though DCPL's website doesn't go into specifics about which films they'll be showing, this is a great tie-in event for a month that, frankly, DC does well. If you live near the Southeast Neighborhood Library (right next to the Eastern Market Metro), be sure to stop by some time this week to catch a few quality films on a great and time-pertinent topic!

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

25 years later: Reflecting on the Tiananmen Square massacre

Today marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, one of the most significant events in China's modern history and the country's struggle with freedom of speech. More so than any conflict of the Cold War era, the incident at Tiananmen Square owes its iconic status in large part to the powerful images and videos that emerged. As anyone who has seen the famous Tank Man photo can attest, this was an event told through visuals.

Appropriately, a number of high-quality documentaries have been produced about the circumstances leading to the massacre and its aftermath. We highly recommend viewing these films in commemoration of a landmark demonstration that will reverberate for years to come.

The China Story – VHS 2280
Declassified: Tiananmen Square – Streaming video
The Gate of Heavenly Peace – DVD 10735
The Gate of Heavenly Peace: Tiananmen Square, June 4th, 1989 – Streaming video
Moving the Mountain – VHS 4590
Reform in Crisis: The Aftermath of Tiananmen – VHS 3251 no. 1
The Tank Man – DVD 2251
The Tiananmen Hostage: Fang Lizhi – Streaming video
Tragedy at Tiananmen: The Untold Story – DVD 11328

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

How much does television cost? Millions – if you're a period drama

Movie studios are often hesitant to confirm the budgets of their biggest movies, but we can generally ballpark something like The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in the $250 million range. Television shows, however, prove a little harder to guess. We know that many networks love reality shows because of their seemingly non-existent cost, but it's unclear how much they're saving over scripted television shows.

If a new (albeit outsourced) report from Uproxx can be believed, it can cost a few million for an hour of quality television. Unsurprisingly, fantasy shows and period dramas cost the most to make. An average episode of Game of Thrones can cost $6 million, while each episode of the miniseries The Pacific cost a startling $20 million. Smaller shows like Friends and ER often ran into the $10 million range, though only in later seasons when their casts had name recognition and could get away with asking for more. That still places each season of these shows far below the cost of the average blockbuster movie.

These numbers certainly provide a little perspective about why a network might be hesitant to renew a series that can cost around $70 million per season. It also reveals how cost-effective television shows can be when they limit their special effects budgets. Would you be comfortable trading Maleficent ($180 million) for thirty episodes of Game of Thrones?

Luckily for our patrons, the most expensive TV shows of all time are free to borrow from our collection!

Deadwood – HU DVD 7101 - 7129
Boardwalk Empire – HU DVD 9421 - 9423
Game of Thrones – HU DVD 10021 - 10023
Friends – HU DVD 14038 -14047
Rome – HU DVD 14072 - 14073
Band of Brothers – HU DVD 14080
The Pacific – HU DVD 14081

Monday, June 02, 2014

Empire readers name 301 greatest films of all time. You may (strongly) disagree

Alright folks, please try to remain calm through the duration of this post while we attempt to contextualize this list.

For the first time in six years, British film magazine Empire has conducted a survey of readers' favorite movies. Their finished list of 301 movies is... let's be generous and say that it's suspect at best. Fritz Lang's dystopian masterpiece Metropolis (#251), for example, ranks lower than Home Alone (#250). Dumb and Dumber (#244) is also higher than The Graduate (#247). And Vertigo (#43) is below The Breakfast Club (#38).

It's folly to suggest that movies can really be objectively ranked, but Empire's methodology is remarkably unclear. At the risk of editorializing, the Media staff universally agrees that this is pretty awful list. Once you get to the top 100, the rankings become less embarrassing, if only because the worst ones are still at least enjoyable.

Approach this list with a grain of salt. It's certainly worth a read to get a gauge on what movies people consider the best. But to quote one of the comments left on the article, "Wait what?"