Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Stealthy challenging censorship in China with film

Film has always been an instrument for pushing back against media censorship. The need is less visible and more subtle in America than it was during the years of the Hays Code (see This Film is Not Yet Rated, HU DVD 2414), but in other countries, overt suppression of creative content continues to be the norm. In one of the most audacious examples, China continues to prohibit depictions of same-sex relationships in movies and television. (This is an equality issue the country has long struggled with, having only effectively decriminalized same-sex relationships in 1997.)

So it comes as a major victory that, this year, China will release its first commercial film about a same-sex relationship. Although the promotional materials for Seek McCartney seemingly downplay the romantic aspect of the film, this way of sneaking in socially taboo content is a classic subversion of censorship laws, like the decades of "curious" characters in film.

It's unclear if this is the beginning of a trend – an interviewee in the linked Quartz article above sees the censorship process in China as too unstable to depend on – but at the least, it is a testament to film's continued social power.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Documentarians name their 50 favorite documentaries

We're suckers for any good, contentious list of best films. Whenever a publication puts together their top 300 films or the best horror movies, it inevitably has a few holes, which is an opportunity to talk about what makes art great. (It also give us justification to argue about movies.)

The latest "best of" roundup comes from The Guardian, which asked top documentary filmmakers, including the directors of Waste Land and Man on Wire, to name their favorite documentaries. The usual suspects make the list – Hoop Dreams, Capturing the Friedmans, and The Thin Blue Line makes appearances – as well as a few odder names. (We're pleased to see the inclusion of The Five Obstructions, a Lars von Trier experiment about the process of producing a film under increasingly absurd limitations.)

The list reflects a wide variety of styles, from Holocaust documentary Night and Fog to the strange meta-story of Sherman's March. The Guardian's fifty films are an excellent sampling of the genre. And since the contributors point out that their selections are only reflective of their own tastes, not the whole state of documentary filmmaking, it's hard to quibble with the choices.

Most if every film on this list is available to watch at Media Services in the AU Library. We've also put together our own list of the 500 most essential documentaries in our collection. Both lists are great starting points if you've wanted to watch more documentaries but aren't sure where to begin.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Pardon the silence. We're extra-busy!

We've been a little quiet recently, but not to worry! In the past few weeks, we've received an absolute mountain of DVDs for classic television shows, everything from I Dream of Jeannie to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. We're working hard to get them to you as quickly as we can.

In the meantime, while we keep our nose to the grindstone, here's Carlton dancing. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Almost fifty years later, you can finally watch the original Batman

This Friday's release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice marks the start of Ben Affleck's new take on Gotham's caped crusader. Batman's nearly eighty-year history has allowed for adaptations of his stories with a wide thematic range. For every dark Batman story about justice, there's another where Calendar Man appears (yes, that's a real Batman villain).

BvS certainly looks like it will fall on the dark end of the spectrum, and we can't think of a better contrast than the original 1966 Batman television series starring Adam West. You probably know this version's for its campy, colorful take on the Dark Knight... but you may not have ever actually seen it. The series was the subject of a decades-long dispute that prevented arguably the most fun and famous version of Batman from ever being seen again.

Adam West's Batman was produced years before anyone expected to worry about rights for television, and it shows. Warner Bros., ABC, 20th Century Fox, and the production company all had some stake in the series, and that knot took years to untie. Beyond that, some costumes, props, music cues, and background actors were not cleared for re-distribution. The series never saw the light of the day from when it ended in 1968 to the DVD release in 2014, apart from the occasional re-run on television.

For your viewing pleasure, we have the entire original series available to check out in the library. We're stunned that it took this long for such an iconic show to become available, but after endless legal wrangling, you can finally watch the show where the annoyingly catchy "Batman!" theme song came from. That one probably won't be in the new movie.

Batman, Season 1 – HU DVD 14261
Batman, Season 2 – HU DVD 14262
Batman, Season 3 – HU DVD 14263

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Screening Room wants you to watch new movies at home, and not everyone's on-board

photo by Mr.TinDC via Flickr
Years ago, we mentioned PRIMA Cinema, the absurdly expensive streaming device that requires a home inspection and, for $500 a pop, allows you to watch first-run Hollywood movies. This was mostly intended as a way for the Jay Lenos of the world to see The Force Awakens in the comfort of their home, something far beyond most people's reach. The selective audience and high price meant that PRIMA Cinema didn't eat into box office revenue too much, so everyone sat well with that.

But a new, similar fight has been brewing in the past several weeks with the proposal of Screening Room, a more budget-minded version of PRIMA Cinema for the average consumer. Tech entrepreneur Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake in The Social Network) has been shopping the idea around to studios and distributors, gaining high-profile support from J. J. Abrams, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and other film icons.

Not everyone agrees with the conecpt, though, especially not the theaters that depend on a cut of movie revenue. Only AMC has expressed support for the idea, with seemingly all other theater chains and organizations disavowing the concept for understandable business reasons. Mega-directors James Cameron and Christopher Nolan have also objected to Screening Room, citing not just piracy and abuse but the need to preserve the experience of seeing a movie in theaters.

That may be the strongest argument against this type of idea. With the appeal of cramming into a theater on opening weekend with dozens of people equally excited to watch a new movie on a huge screen, would you really prefer to have to see the next Captain America in your living room? Many people might not care, but for all the convenience of home viewing, film is strongest as a communal experience.

Monday, March 21, 2016

New Acquisitions - March 2016

You might notice that we've added a boatload of older television shows this month. We're in the process of filling in our television back-catalog, and the place to start has been Full House and The Norm Show. Look for much more classic television to join the collection in the coming weeks.

We've also started adding many of this year's Oscar nominees that are finally available. Sicario, Spectre, Straight Outta Compton, and Best Picture winner Spotlight are now available to check out. On the odder side of that coin, you can also watch The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, the out-of-left-field Swedish comedy nominee for Best Makeup and Hairstyling.

But for a local flavor, our recommendation of the month goes to Sweaty Betty, an improvised movie about a  Hyattsville family and their 1000-pound pig. Indiewire called it "the rare discovery that's bracingly original and down to earth in equal measures."

Hit the break to see what else is now available...

Thursday, March 17, 2016

A rough early road for the Irish in film

Still from Whom the Gods Destroy via "Unsung Divas of the Silent Screen"

While St. Patrick's Day is now a generally beloved holiday (we're going to grab Shamrock Shakes in a moment), it's easy to forget that much of the world was inhospitable to the Irish a century ago. The hostile attitudes toward the Irish continued through the early 20th century in the lead-up to the uprising in Ireland in 1916. In an interesting bit of timing, that coincides with the early days of film.

We found this lengthy but extremely in-depth article by Kevin Rockett from Trinity College Dublin about the representation of the Irish in pre-1916 films. To summarize, Ireland didn't have much of a film industry until World War I, so a majority of Irish representation on-screen was left to American producers. Only a few of these films depicted the Irish was menacing stereotypes; most of these films depicted Irish history just because of the interesting content. But more controversially, they scrubbed these stories of their more radical, political elements, possibly as an appeal for cultural assimilation and an attempt to quell the rising anger.

European audiences imported and generally enjoyed these films, but it wasn't until the rise of Ireland's nationalist cinema a few years later that the Irish found their cause represented on-screen. Rockett notes that those nationalist films depicting Irish rebellion sparked such a strong, violent reaction that the film was banned in multiple countries.

Even as critics and producers at the time tried to downplay film as only an entertainment medium and not a political one, the depictions in and outside of Ireland – discouraging versus embracing Irish identity – had a message associated with them. You can read that same thread into modern depictions of race on film too: you can't depict history without at least an implicit message.

This might be a little academic-y for St. Patrick's Day, but we were greatly interested in Rockett's take on this unexamined slice of film.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

For our Metroless day: public transit videos from our collection

In an unprecedented move, the entire Metro system is closed today. Whether or not this was the right choice, it means that DC is spending the day without its main form of public transit. There isn't a documentary about the DC Metro (as far as we know) so we've gathered together three timely media items about this unusual transportation problem.

Firstly and perhaps most seriously, you can stream Subway City, a documentary about all the people who pass through New York's underground rail system. It's not just about the commuters who use it to get to work but "those who work there, those who live there, and those who commit crimes there." Infrastructure on the scale of a subway system changes a city, and this film is a neat peek at what that cultural indentation looks like. (And today, you're seeing what happens when that system disappears.)

Next, for a bit of a laugh, the old newsreel Futuristic Transportation Needs (also streaming) features brief clips of vehicles meant to be the future of transport that missed the mark by a mile. Our favorite is the AĆ©rotrain, the giant Flash Gordon-looking hovertrain pictured above.

And just for good measure, we also have a copy of the How I Met Your Mother episode Subway Wars (HU DVD 11576, Disc 1) in which the main characters try to out-race each other using whatever transportation they can find. The subway-riders don't win, though mostly because of an emotional forfeit.

The Metro may be increasingly dangerous, but be glad that you don't have to ride the AĆ©rotrain. Hopefully we're back to normal tomororw

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Watch these great new documentaries from Docuseek2

From Big Dream

Our media librarian Chris Lewis once called streaming video website Docuseek2 "an embarrassment of riches" for fans of documentaries. We're not gonna disagree: Docuseek2 lets you stream some incredibly high-quality documentary films, and this week, their collection got even larger.

43 new titles are now available via Docuseek2, including the comedic short Drones in My Backyard, women-in-STEM documentary Big Dream, and I Am Become Death: They Made the Bomb, a collection of interviews with participants in the Manhattan Project. Docuseek2 picks their films well, so even without seeing them, we can reasonably recommend everything they've added this month.

We added a full list of Docuseek2's newest additions to the end of this list. If you want to browse the rest of their other 700+ films, you can always browse our full catalog list of Docuseek2 titles.

A Fragile Trust
After Winter, Spring
Arresting Power
Banking Nature
Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery
Big Dream
Black Dawn
Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart
Cheat Neutral
Code Black
Cuba: The Accidental Revolution - Pt. 2
Diamond Road
Divide In Concord
Drones In My Backyard
Game Over: Conservation in Kenya
Gore Vidal
I Am Become Death: They Made the Bomb
Independent Intervention
Inside Burma
Japan's Peace Constitution
Kabul Transit
Madam Phung's Last Journey
Oil and Water
Racing To Zero
Salvador Allende
School of Babel
Shift Change
Soldiers of Conscience
South Africa Belongs to Us
Split Estate (short version)
The Hand That Feeds
The Homestretch
The Motherhood Manifesto
The Mystery of the Lost Red Paint People
The Storytelling Class
The Tree that Remembers
The Trouble with Bread
They Are We
Where Am I? 
Without Shepherds

Monday, March 14, 2016

Paramount opens their vault to YouTube. Will other studios follow suit?

(embedded above: all of Masters of the Universe! For free!)

Major movie studios are usually extremely protective of their copyrights and lead the charge against video piracy. So it comes as a surprise that Paramount Pictures has opened up a great deal of their film archive for consumption on YouTube.

The Paramount Vault channel, which opened about a year ago, includes over 100 films from the studio's history. These movies are free to stream, with ad breaks interspersed roughly every 15 minutes. These types of studio archive-sponsored YouTube channels tend only to include older, black-and-white films, the Paramount Vault has a few comparatively recent movies as well, like the Wachowskis' directorial debut Bound and 2009 Australian horror movie The Loved Ones.

The quality of the films included is all over the place (we don't have any expectations for American Ninja), but Paramount's willingness to release all these movies into the wild is a good sign for an open future of film distribution. We're happy knowing that The Man from Rio Grande is available for anyone with a phone within a few seconds for no cost.

Monday, March 07, 2016

RocketJump Film School breaks down film cuts

Our staff will be out for a few days for a library conference, so we want to leave you with something substantive to chew on for the week. Enter RocketJump Film School, a film production education group that has been releasing dense, informative videos about specific aspects of filmmaking. It gets pretty wonky; see their video about the difference in camera lens quality for an example.

RJFS's latest video, embedded above, is an 11-minute crash course on cuts, wipes and transitions. This is an excellent overview of the types of cuts filmmakers use and, more importantly, why they use them. Even regular movie fans will learn something from here. Take "cutting on action," for instance: it's a fairly common trick to enhance the action of a movie, and it can help your appreciation of film to look for those techniques.

The entire RocketJump Film School video collection is worth watching if you want to dip you toes into learning about film production, and even for those who are just fans, they'll help you appreciate the film a little more.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Spotlight's director talks about filmmaking failure

Tom McCarthy won deserved accolades for his directorial and screenwriting work on this year's Best Picture winner, Spotlight. But only months before, McCarthy also wrote and directed The Cobbler, an Adam Sandler-starring dramedy about a shoemaker who learns life lessons by literally walking in others' soles. The Cobbler was roundly considered one of the worst movies of the year, both for its maudlin tone and its surprising racism.

McCarthy has maybe the largest single-year quality swing of any filmmaker in history, and somebody finally asked him about it. The director's interview with Jada Yuan in Vulture comes off as defensive, with McCarthy insisting that people actually enjoyed it. But eventually, he offers some wisdom to people having to ride through a failure. "You’re that athlete who's a good pitcher and gives up a home run, and you might think no one's ever going to forgive you for it," McCarthy says. "But you've gotta be like, 'All right! Next season!' and you go back to work."

Not everyone gets that opportunity, least of all first-time filmmakers, but the advice is well-taken for anyone facing creative rejection. Sometimes your work will be poor, and you have to push on through to whatever comes next. It probably won't be Spotlight, though.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Hear Betty Boop and Max Fleischer favorites performed live

Discussion about the early history of animation tends to focus on Walt Disney and Looney Tunes, ignoring good old Max Fleischer. Fleischer was the man behind Betty Boop, Popeye, and other Depression-era classics. We could talk about those for a week, especially the censorship of Betty Boop, but one of the most critical parts of Fleischer's cartoons was the music he used. Compared to Steamboat Willie's stereotypically peppy score, Betty Boop was jazzier, riskier, and a little more culturally savvy.

In celebration of Max Fleischer's career, the currently ongoing Washington Jewish Film Festival will host a screening this weekend of some of Fleischer's cartoons with the music performed live, as improbable as this sounds, by a Max Fleischer cover band. Hear Betty Boop sing! Marvel at how Fleischer's animation reflects the Jazz Age rather than glossing it over!

The video embedded above should give you an idea of what to expect. This is really novel performance idea and a great way to celebrate Fleischer's body of work.

The screening-concert will be at 8:30pm on Saturday, March 5th, at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Alternative programming: Vote if you can

Today is Super Tuesday, arguably the biggest day in the presidential primaries that could solidify each party's candidates for November. Like everyone else, we'll be watching the results as they trickle in tonight, and although we expect plenty of discussion about who did and didn't drive the vote in each state, we probably won't hear much about who couldn't vote. Around the county, voter ID laws intended to prevent fraud continue to obstruct the ability to vote, especially along racial and class divides. Regardless of the perceived benefits of such laws, that's a big problem.

Up until a court ruling last October partially overturned them, Super Tuesday state Texas had some of the strictest voting restriction laws in the country. In 2014, Bill Moyers covered the Texas law and the suppressive effects of voter ID laws on his syndicated PBS show in the episode "The Fight-and the Right-to Vote." Moyers elaborates on these problems with help from a member of the NAACP's Legal Defense and Education Fund and a writer for The Nation.

We'll no doubt hear all about campaign momentum tonight, but the people who don't get a voice in this process – by accident or by design – need a moment too. Thanks to Films On Demand for making this segment available streaming through the AU Library.