Monday, August 31, 2015

RIP Wes Craven, master of horror

We wanted to start this semester off with a list of all the exciting titles we added recently, but we first need to acknowledge the very sad death of Wes Craven, horror director and producer extraordinaire whose slasher films defined and later deconstructed the genre.

Wes Craven is best known, of course, for his creation of A Nightmare on Elm Street and indelible horror movie icon Freddy Krueger. That alone would cement him as one of the most beloved figures in a genre full of cult personalities, but he also directed The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes and served as producer on their remakes. And in a terrific act of self-reflection, Craven also created Scream a series dedicated to dismantling the tropes and structure of the genre he helped popularize.

(He also directed a segment in Paris, je t'aime... which is weird.)

To honor Craven, we want to recommend not just his biggest movies but the love he put into his craft. So in addition to watching Elm Street and Scream, we suggest you watch three documentaries in which he offers a behind-the-scenes peek as his work and offers advice to upcoming filmmakers. Craven treated violent horror with artfulness and skill, and we'll miss his presence in the genre.

Scream – HU DVD 6
Scream 2 – HU DVD 7
A Nightmare on Elm Street – HU DVD 864
Paris, je t'aime – HU DVD 3378

The American Nightmare – HU DVD 998
Getting Started in Tinseltown – Streaming video
Successful Teamwork in Filmmaking – Streaming video

Thursday, August 27, 2015

We're back next week

Hi everyone! We wanted to apologize for the radio silence in the past two weeks. We've been very busy preparing ourselves and our staff for the coming semester.

Look forward to regular posts returning next week. Welcome to all the university's incoming freshmen!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A look back at Hugo Award-winning television and film

Yesterday marked the 73rd WorldCon, an annual assemblage of science fiction and fantasy fans and writers that hosts the prestigious Hugo Awards. Named after science fiction editor Hugo Gernsback, the Hugos are awarded every year to groundbreaking genre fiction and proudly include legends like Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick among their winners. This year's ceremony was steeped in controversy after anti-diversity groups flooded the nomination process to block submissions by and about people of different races and gender identities, and voters responded by, well, just not giving out some of the awards this time. (Probably an appropriate response!)

Among the many awards for short stories and novellas, the Hugos also honor "dramatic presentations," usually films and television shows. This year's crowns went to Guardians of the Galaxy and, for the first time, BBCs Orphan Black. As with the rest of the Hugos, the winners in both the Short Form and Long Form categories have a remarkable pedigree, though we'll quibble with some of the choices over the years. No win for Last Year at Marienbad in 1963?

Below, we've assembled a sample of Hugo-winning titles in our collection. It's not everything, but it's a good representation of what the Hugos tends to honor. There's a lot of obvious major names (of course Star Wars won), which if anything is a great indication of how often they get it right. Congrats to the Hugos on their weird but successful year, and we look forward to seeing what joins these annals in 2016!

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – HU DVD 480
The Lord of the Rings trilogy – HU DVD 808 - 810
Blade Runner – HU DVD 1067
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? – HU DVD 1096
Star Wars original trilogy – HU DVD 1643 - 1646
Pan's Labyrinth – HU DVD 2770
Slaughterhouse-Five – HU DVD 5727
Star Trek: "The Menagerie" – HU DVD 6201, Disc 4
Inception – HU DVD 8000
The Incredible Shrinking Man – HU DVD 8968
Game of Thrones, Season 1 – HU DVD 10021
Doctor Who: "Blink" – HU DVD 10803, Disc 4
A Boy and His Dog – HU DVD 11420
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Conversations with Dead People" – HU DVD 14011, Disc 2
The Twilight Zone (television) – HU DVD 14063 - 14067
Star Trek: The Next Generation: "All Good Things..." – HU DVD 14209, Disc 7

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Easily tally up how long you've watched TV and come face-to-face with your mortality

We understand that statistics about how much time we spend watching television tend to be exaggerated, often because we watch it while talking, eating, or working. But it's still shocking to see that our favorite shows run for days if not weeks. How much time have we dedicated to this glowing rectangle?

Rather than parse through episode lists and running times, you can now use to add up the numbers. Using info grabbed from TMDb (a more developer-friendly IMDb alternative), calculates the running times of TV shows per season and adds them to a dreadful running tally of the total time you've dedicated (or plan to dedicate) to binge-watching.

(As of this posting, the site seems to have some technical glitches that prevent it from displaying the tally in some circumstances. You might need to clear your browser history if things go awry. Try not to enter any stratospherically long-running shows which tend to break it.)

We can couch our shameful time commitments by acknowledging that we aren't actually spending a solid week at a time actively watching television, but the numbers are still startling and eventually numbing. For a real shock, see how long it would take you to catch up on every episode of Jeopardy!. We'll see you next year.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Flintstones was the ultimate warning about cohesive writing

The second season of HBO's True Detective has not received kind reviews, but in defense of its creative ambition, it is the singular product of creator Nic Pizzolatto. He has almost exclusive writing credit for the series, and for better or worse, it undeniably carries his signature. That's a rarity in commercial film and television production, where rooms of writers edit each other's work down into something slicker. This often results in better scripts, but too many participants can create a tonally confusing work.

That was certainly the case for the John Goodman-fronted The Flintstones, which legendarily had over 35 screenwriters. Den of Geek recently dug into the convoluted history of this committee-driven disaster, and the tale serves as a lesson in terrible writing practices. After roughly a decade with at least six total overhauls and two directors, the final product bore so many contributions that the Writers Guild of America had to rewrite its rules when the studio only credited three names. At least one writer doesn't even recognize their additions anymore.

Though both were disliked, True Detective and The Flintstones may be polar opposites. One failed for indulging a single author; the other floundered from the chaos of dozens. Pick your poison.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

We might see The Day the Clown Cried in 2025

A year and a half ago, now-removed footage from Jerry Lewis's The Day the Clown Cried surfaced online for the first time. For those unacquainted with the legend, The Day the Clown Cried was a Holocaust melodrama about a clown sent to a concentration camp. The film was never released and has acquired an apocalyptically poor reputation, described as "beyond normal computation" and "so drastically wrong" by those who have seen it. Lewis refuses to discuss the film at-length and vowed to block its release.

But thanks to the Library of Congress, we might finally get to witness this disastrous movie. According to the Los Angeles Times's report on the Library of Congress's annual Mostly Lost film festival, the institution's film wing recently acquired a copy of The Day the Clown Cried on the ground that it not be shown for ten years. Jerry Lewis will likely be dead by then, and we can only assume he wanted to spare himself the public attention (and probably ridicule) that would result.

We want nothing more than to see this film finally released, both for its historical and possible kitsch value. Based on the interviews linked above, it sounds like an aesthetic marvel too, with major production design errors and filmmaking faux pas. We'll check back in 2025 to see if that print ever sees the light of day.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Four years ago, Scottish environmentalists took on Trump

With all the hot air swirling about Donald Trump in the past week, now because of his debate performance, we often forget that he was a blowhard in business before he was a blowhard in politics. He's received flak for some of his higher-profile real-estate projects, many of which involve taking over historic spaces like his purchase of Old Post Office Pavilion downtown. But once in a while when takes on the little guy, the little guy fights backs.

In the 2012 documentary You've Been Trumped, Trump pressures the Scottish government into loosening environmental regulations so he can construct a golf course on the coastline. Activists didn't take kindly to this, and the film documents their protracted fight to preserve the Scottish coast, as well as looks at the general environmental damage caused by over-development. Trump famously tried to prohibit the release of this documentary and later called it "boring," which to us reads as a glowing endorsement.

AU students, staff, and faculty can watch You've Been Trumped for free as part of our collection from Docuseek2. Log in via the catalog to stream the documentary from your device of choice. We understand if you're sick of the Donald, but this is an excellently made film and a timely opportunity to continue with the pillorying.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

See Vulture's 2-minute primer on the bottle episode, then watch a few

Bottle episodes have long served as a staple of nearly every TV production – whether for creative or budgetary reasons – but many television fans might not be familiar with the concept. To avoid stealing their thunder, we'll just recommend that you watch Vulture's terrific, short primer on the history of bottle episodes and why they're all-around positive for a show to sprinkle in.

Once you're caught up, you might want to watch one of the better ones. Below is a list of recommended bottle episodes that show how much you can wring out of one set – many of which appear in that video!

Homicide: Life on the Street: "Three Men and Adena" – HU DVD 2798, Disc 2
Star Trek: "The Naked Time" – HU DVD 6201, Disc 2
Community: "Cooperative Calligraphy" – HU DVD 10002, Disc 2
The Sopranos: "Pine Barrens" – HU DVD 14032, Disc 4
Friends: "The One Where No One's Ready" – HU DVD 14040, Disc 1
Breaking Bad: "Fly" – HU DVD 14050, Disc 3
The West Wing: "17 People" – HU DVD 14087, Disc 5
Seinfeld: "The Chinese Restaurant" – HU DVD 14133, Disc 2 

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

A tribute to analog computers in film

Continuing this week's accidental theme of production design, we came across a terrific article summarizing the history of analog technology in science fiction films. Minority Report's gesture-controlled holographic interfaces and touchscreens changed the popular idea of a futuristic interface, but before that, the future in film looked a lot like the 70s: toggle switches, dials, and LCD displays. These tactile computers had a unique, lived-in aesthetic that's still fondly remembered.

The authors at Hopes and Fears assembled a great collection of some of film's best physical interfaces, most of which came out before 2000. Among the famous examples including Star Trek and Blade Runner, the article includes interesting tidbits from the designers themselves. The ship from Alien, for instance, was built as a single contiguous set. Many ships in Star Wars were apparently built from airplane scrap for the sake of authenticity.

Film production designers pour clear love into their scenery, and this demonstrates the lengths they go to in order to make such memorable technology. We may have left behind the bulky metal boxes from 80s science fiction for the intuitive shiny floaty boxes of the 21st century, but we miss attention to detail like this.

Monday, August 03, 2015

In honor of Rowdy Roddy Piper, a look back on They Live from Slavoj Zizek

Rowdy Roddy Piper's death last Friday leaves a very unusual hole in the film world. Though he made occasional guest appearances in TV shows and movies – usually either playing himself or a similarly hard-knuckled character – Piper is best known even beyond his wrestling career as the star of They Live (HU DVD 9020), John Carpenter's cult 1988 sci-fi thriller. Piper plays a construction worker who finds mysterious glasses that allow him to see the hidden mind-controlling messages throughout society. It's a bizarre but deeply loved film, and Piper's death has prompted plenty of media retrospectives about it.

Our favorite comes from Slavoj Zizek's documentary A Pervert's Guide to Ideology (available in the collection, HU DVD 11194). Zizek uses the film as a critique of the concept of moving outside ideology. It's complicated, and we'll let him explain it; the video is embedded above. He even discusses the over-extended fist-fight midway into the movie, calling it "the extreme violence of liberation."

They Live's second life in the cult film canon isn't surprising given its total weirdness, and we like that critics are revisiting its ideas with a little more acceptance. And even though Zizek's analysis is a few years old, it speaks to what a special movie Piper contributed to.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Production design in an HD world

For all the brouhaha about greenscreen effects changing filmmaking, props, costumes, and sets still matter. Production design continues to be vital to even the most effects-heavy movies: just ask the craftspeople who hand-made all the chainmail armor for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, embedded above. But as high-definition cameras, Blu-rays, and auto-smoothing televisions produce increasingly higher quality images, this traditional side of the film craft has struggled to keep up with the level of detail needed to keep up the illusion.

A terrific article last week from Bloomberg Business of all publications looks at the new lengths propmasters are taking for the sake of onscreen magic. David Marais mentions that props in wider shots used to need to look realistic within two-inches of detail. Now, detail matters down to an eighth of an inch. Plastic props made to look like wood now look like... well, plastic props made to look like wood. For more detailed props like soda cans, names and branding need to look as close as possible without infringing on the actual designs, something that has raised serious legal dilemmas.

There's plenty of other great anecdotes in there. Give the article a read to get a better appreciation for the work that film crews are putting into keeping the illusion of reality in movies and television. The next time you see a big spender with a briefcase full of money, your television might reveal that they say "In Dog We Trust."