Tuesday, December 22, 2015

New Acquisitions - December 2015

Oh, hello! You caught us right in the middle of turning off the lights and locking things up the library closes up for winter break. But before we speed off, we wanted to leave you with a big stack of DVDs you can look forward to checking out when you're back.

Everyone looking for new releases should be happy with this next batch, which includes Jurassic World, Inside Out, Pitch Perfect 2, Tangerine, and Trainwreck. Those interested a deep dive might also notice the massive JVC folk music anthology that we added as well. Romantics might want to watch Carey Mulligan's performance in Far from the Madding Crowd. And for families? You have to love Shaun the Sheep.

Hit the break for a list of the last DVDs we've added for 2015. See you next year!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The definitive Star Wars remaster came from fans, is super illegal

George Lucas's remastering the original Star Wars trilogy has gone down as perhaps the most controversial decision in film history. Even without discussing the merits of the changes made (many of which stand out like a sore thumb or detract from the original meaning), Lucas's permanent alterations to the films' negatives effectively erased the original versions of some of the most successful films in history. It'll be difficult to get that back... legally.

Film restoration hobbyist Petr Harmy has assembled a "Despecialized" version of the film, using elements taken from Blu-rays, DVDs, television broadcasts, production stills, original film copies, and other fan remasters to create a high-definition version of the film as it was projected in 1977. Often these changes make the film look objectively worse – Lucas at one point smeared Vaseline on the lens to disguise part of a shot – but it accurately represents the original release of Star Wars.

Of course, that edition brazenly violates copyright law and is illegal to obtain. This puts cultural history and the law at a crossroads. Matthew Yglesias at Vox does a good job explaining the ramifications of this, even if his explanation veers into political bluster a bit. As the video above also explains, the Library of Congress never received an archival copy of the original film, so it's up to renegade fans/heroes/criminals like Harmy to get as close as possible.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Alternative programming: Before he was Finn, John Boyega saved London

Much of the early coverage of Star Wars: The Force Awakens has focused on the likely career booms of Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, two actors thrown into the global spotlight by their starring roles. While we have almost nothing to go by for Ridley (a music video and some commercials, basically), we had a chance to see Boyega once before in Attack the Block, a cult British sci-fi film that should be required viewing before Friday. (HU DVD 11432)

Set during Guy Fawkes Day, Attack the Block tells the story of a street gang that fights back against aliens invading London. It's a riotously fun movie that should appeal to fans of movies in the Edgar Wright vein (director Joe Cornish has worked with Wright and appeared in Hot Fuzz). Much of the film's critical praise was reserved for Boyega, who played gang leader Moses; at the time, he was a total unknown who had never acted in a film.

Boyega will never, ever have that problem again. Why not watch him in the role that essentially earned him his headline spot in Star Wars? Maybe we're just jealous that his first ever movie was such a massive success

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Star Wars was probably not "brutalizing children" in 1983

With its Disney-fication complete, the Star Wars series has become embraced (or begrudgingly accepted) as a family-friendly sci-fi adventure series. That wasn't always the case. Not that the series was ever adult or hyper-violent – it was meant for kids! – but at least a few cultural critics still objected.

Specifically, watch this bizarre, recently popular clip from a 1983 episode of Nightline where film critic John Simon, noted for his acerbic reviews, decries the Star Wars as empty special effects showcases for "stupid children" that stunt growth and encourage violence. His critique is shockingly rude, calling the stars "lousy" and the script "ghastly" while simultaneously insulting Walt Disney's entire body of work.

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert then provide a terrific counterpoint: "I feel badly," Siskel says, "that [...] John Simon didn't have a good time at these pictures. That's too bad for him." Ebert follows up, agreeing that "it made me laugh. It made me thrilled. And that's what a movie like this is for."

There's no retort to that. Sorry, Simon.

That snottiness aside, the conversation is relatively interesting, especially Siskel's discussion of whether we should reward films "for aiming low and hitting that mark." It's great to see two of the most renowned popular critics defending the gold standard of Hollywood blockbusters.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Star Wars saga, as seen for the first time by kids

The Star Wars series has understandably become a major cultural touchstone for several generations. For parents of a certain nerdy persuasion, introducing a child to R2-D2 and the Jedis for the first time can be a make-or-break moment. What order do you show the films in? Does the "I am your father" twist matter? What do you do about the prequels? And what if they're disappointed?

HitFix film critic Drew McWeeny put a great deal of thought into this as part of Film Nerd 2.0, a column about introducing his two sons to the world of film. McWeeny is a dyed-in-the-wool Star Wars veteran, and to celebrate the series's release on Blu-ray, he documented his childrens' reaction to the series, starting with the fourth film, A New Hope. McWeeny was one of the first critics to advocate for a staggered viewing order – cutting to the prequels after The Empire Strikes Back – and his methodology paid off here.

Apart from the fun of reading about kids screaming and making a ruckus after meeting classic characters like Chewbacca (here called "the monster" by the younger child), McWeeny offers some insight into the series's thematic heft for young viewers. Watching Anakin Skywalker turn to the Dark Side helped teach his sons about morality as defined by your actions. Credit where it's due to the prequels!

You can read all six chapters in the series via the links below, including McWeeny coming to terms with his kids loving The Phantom Menace.

Yep, it's Star Wars Week

As almost every human being on the continent is aware, Star Wars: The Force Awakens hits theaters this Friday (with some early showings Thursday). We recognize cultural critical mass when we see it, so we're dedicating this week of blog posts to the juggernaut movie franchise.

We realize that Star Wars exhaustion has also reached new heights, so we'll do our best to keep it interesting and insightful. May the synergy be with you!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The future of film copyright could rest in the Hands of Fate

Beloved by fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 but unknown to the rest of the world, horror film Manos: The Hands of Fate is often considered the worst commercially released movie ever made. Nearly everything about the movie is a disaster, most famously the bizarre characterization and knee-heavy costuming of the evil henchman Torgo (pictured). Joel Hodgson described it as a movie where "every frame [...] looks like someone's last known photo."

Manos was recently re-released on Blu-ray, but as explained by Jonathan Bailey in Plagiarism Today, it might become the center of a landmark copyright battle. The producer of Manos neglected to copyright the film, leaving it in the public domain, but he did copyright the script before production. His son, inheritor of those rights, has threatened legal action – but no case has ever legally tested whether script ownership constitutes ownership of a public domain film. Bailey notes that similar cases have come up in the past, such as when story and soundtrack rights helped maintain control of It's a Wonderful Life, but Manos's case is far trickier.

(An interloper completely unrelated to the film's production has attempted to claim distribution rights, but that's a separate dispute.)

These specific ownership circumstances rarely happen, as proven by how this has never been tested. The answers could be a big moment for film copyright law, but Bailey sees little reason why such a thorny battle would end up in court given Manos's extremely low profile and revenue.

But we hope it does, if only so Manos can sneak into legal textbooks. Master would be pleased!

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Alternative programming: Why run when you can ride?

Tonight is the library's annual Final Perk study boost event, this year rechristened as the marathon-themed Final Lap. That's a great metaphor, but we'll admit that this is a difficult topic for our collection. Frankly, not many running or track movies exist, almost all of them besides Forrest Gump are about the Olympics or Steve Prefontaine. How are we gonna come up with a tie-in for that?!

We want to recommend something lighter to help push you through finals. To riff loosely on the racing theme, our recommendation is Breaking Away (HU DVD 5172), a coming-of-age movie that has surprisingly fallen out of popularity despite an Oscar win and critical accolades.

The film tells the story of a group of high school graduates who join a university cycling race and – no surprises – stand up against the competition. Beyond from the big race scenes (which gadget site Stuff called "the best fictional road-bike action ever committed to film"), Breaking Away has the same triumphing-against-adversity, finish-line-crossing-ery spirit as tonight's study break.

You deserve a treat. Breaking Away is here and thematically appropriate. Grab it!

Monday, December 07, 2015

Need a finals break? See The Danish Girl on Thursday!

Welcome to finals week! We know it might be a rough time of year, so best of luck.

We're kicking off this hellacious week with a little present: advance passes to see The Danish Girl on Thursday, December 10th at 7pm in Friendship Heights. The story of transgender woman Lili Elbe is fascinating and timely, and Eddie Redmayne's performance has garnered major attention (and some controversy). No one has won back-to-back acting awards since Tom Hanks for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump; could Redmayne be next?

You can see for yourself weeks before the film expands to a larger national release – what better study break? You can pick up passes in person at Media Services or online. Remember to show up early: passes don't guarantee admission, and these screenings typically fill up early.

Hopefully you can make time this week to head to the movies. If not, we hope to at least see you at the library's Final Perk event on Wednesday!

Thursday, December 03, 2015

The Hateful Eight makes the case for physical film, so what if it backfires?

The upcoming release of Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight is a pivotal moment for physical film. Tarantino famously loves film stock (having shelled out money to keep film production plants running); the director wants his upcoming movie to showcase the rich power of film in a way that's undeniable to studios and audiences. But showing that film in all its glory takes specialized equipment. Only select theaters will project it as intended in Ultra Panavision 70  – a beautiful format that, it turns out, nobody really remembers how to use.

No major commercial film has been shot in Ultra Panavision 70 since the 60s, and given their rarity, few working projectionists have experience with the format. This might explain The Hateful Eight's apparently disastrous advance screening last night, as reported by HitFix's Drew McWeeny, in which the film drifted out of focus for two hours before the theater decided to play the digital version instead. The event meant to celebrate physical film stock might have convinced attendees that the format isn't practical anymore.

McWeeny warns that too many of these failures could reduce film stock to a fetish object for filmmakers with little meaningful use. He notes that the most recent season of Project Greenlight involved a huge push to shoot on film rather than digitally, "[a]nd in the end," he says, "it made no difference."

If theaters struggle with the medium's show-off piece, that's a bad portent – and clearly not what Tarantino and other film diehards hoped for. We're sure The Hateful Eight looks gorgeous when projected correctly, but the long-term outlook on watching film like that seems more uncertain.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Special event film screenings grow with audiences and theaters alike

Archipelago Cinema, via the KT Wong Cinema

In a little over two weeks, Star Wars: The Force Awakens debuts, and insiders hope that raises the tide for the whole film industry. Like Jurassic World this summer, a new Star Wars movie is a cultural event, and although that usually spells huge profits for theaters and distributors, the movie business can't rely on massive, polarizing tentpole twice a year. Instead, in that spirit, theaters have turned to immersive screening events to drive interest in heading to the movies.

You might be familiar with some of these screenings as they've popped up around the country, like Alamo Drafthouse's poolside screening of Jaws, but the writers at The Conversation dove deeper, looking at these "live exhibition" events as an outgrowth of audience-focused film culture. Novelty screenings have engaged viewers since the earliest nickel theaters and drive-ins, and the rise of social media and affordable technology have made unusual events like Secret Cinema more desirable – and profitable.

As an example, the article focuses on a recent orchestrated tour of THX 1138 (incidentally, as with Star Wars, a George Lucas joint), which deepened emotional response to the film while generating new interest in it. The technique has also been used for social impact, as with a particularly harrowing screening of The Battle of Algiers run by Secret Cinema.

DC is getting wind of these too: in addition to themed outdoor screenings during the summer and special occasions like the Back to the Future parties last month, the AFI Silver in Silver Spring often plays silent films with live accompaniment. If this trend really signals where the big bucks in film will come from, color us interested in those city-block sized events.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

How We Made looks at the inauspicious production of My Beautiful Laundrette

We hadn't stumbled across it until now, but since 2012, The Guardian has been publishing "How We Made," a weekly column that invites creative types to talk about the history of their works, including films and television shows. This leads to all sorts of great anecdotes, often about the emotional, personal side of production.

This week, The Guardian rounded up the director and co-star of My Beautiful Laundrette, a groundbreaking romance story that tackled the class, race, and gender identity climate of 1980s England. The filmmaker and actor reveal tidbits about the budget and filming process, but most interestingly, they both admit that they never expected the film to find much success or audience. Director Stephen Frears assumed the film would go direct to television because "Who in their right mind," he recalls, "was going to go to the cinema to see a film about a gay Pakistani running a launderette?"

The film went on to be a classic, and the fact that no one would even bat an eye at My Beautiful Laundrette's themes or political humor today speaks to its importance. We always enjoy hearing human element stories like these, and if you do too, consider adding "How We Made" to your regular reading rotation.

My Beautiful Laundrette is frequently reserved for class use, but given its popularity, we have a copy you can always take out of the library (HU DVD 3451*).