the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Location: Washington D.C.

Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Oh Captain, my Captain

It's humbling to go from one of the smart kids on the block to just being one in a sea of dozens.

Back home in Colorado, I was, as my wife calls me, a walking IMDb. Ask me any movie question, any dose of trivia, any cinematic stumper and odds are I know it. It's my curse. It's also one of the reasons I thought I might try making a living at it.

That was Colorado. This is New York University's Tisch School of the Arts Cinema Studies Graduate Program.

Here, I am no one special. Being a walking IMDb is a talent everyone here has. My uniqueness is lost among a vibrant student body every bit as knowledgeable as I am, and many more so.

I arrived on Tuesday to begin my orientation. Though classes do not officially begin until next week, I am already starting to feel out my surroundings, test my boundaries, and scent the air for the spice of what is to come.

And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous. Sometimes frightened to death.

I don't belong here. I'm a fraud. I'm nowhere near qualified for this. They are going to see right through me and kick me out the first chance they get. I am going to be the laughing stock of NYU.

And then I think of Robert. And I know I'll be fine.

I suppose I should back up a bit.

As I've mentioned here before, film was never something I thought to pursue seriously. I always saw it as a hobby, not a career. I couldn't help but look upon it as irresponsible and narcissistic at best. A thing to play at but never something on which to risk or build a life.

The first film class I took was little more than a reward to myself for starting college again after being honorably discharged from the Navy. I thought I deserved at least one fun class.

That class was Narrative Film 200. The professor was Dr. Robert von Dassanowsky.

And he is responsible to changing the course of my life.

The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, while the fastest growing university in Colorado, deemed one of the best in the west and an up-and-coming juggernaut according to US News and World Report, was not always so. In fact, growing up in Colorado, UCCS was looked down upon as a commuter campus peopled by middle-aged returning students. That it has utterly exploded in popularity, quality and enrollment in the last decade has still not totally erased from my mind its mediocre past.

Which is why I am always amazed that UCCS had someone with Robert von Dassanowsky's credentials on staff.

The Professor and Chair of Languages and Cultures and Director of Film Studies at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Robert is an academic, a film and cultural historian and a filmmaker. An Austrian-American whose mother, Elfi von Dassanowsky, was one of the first female studio founders in Vienna, Robert writes extensively about Germanic affairs and is particularly known as one of the foremost scholars on photographer and filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl. His "Austrian Cinema: A History" is the first English language survey of that nation's contributions to the world of film. A founding Vice President of the Austrian American Film Association (AAFA), Robert is one of the few Americans to have been elected to the European Academy of Sciences and Arts and was decorated by the president of Austria. Robert is also an award-winning playwright, television screenwriter, and film producer. He was recently named the Carnegie Foundation/CASE U.S. Professor of the Year for Colorado. He is currently on sabbatical, writing a book on 60s psychedelic cinema and is a guest professor at UCLA.

He is also my mentor and dear friend.

It was Robert who took a young man sure of his zeal but unsure of his talent and pointed him in the direction of his destiny. It was he who saw what no one else saw, least of all the young man, and pounced on it with gleeful abandon. It was he who convinced this young man that he had what it took to work in the film industry. It was he who urged me to run with my desires, shut out the cacophonous din of naysayers, and seize the day. And I was not the only one. A true believer, Robert selflessly gave of everything he had to see his students flourish. His legacy is those he's brought along with him.

I don't know how much longer Robert will be at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. If his calling was to single-handedly take a non-existent program and turn it into one of the most respected and comprehensive out there, he has done that. Like the cinematic archetype who comes to town, cleans up and disappears, I imagine Robert is not long for Colorado. I'd be very surprised if I didn't find him climbing his way to the top of one of this nation's premiere film schools very soon. Or settling into a role as a major shepherd and vanguard of some of Hollywood's breathtaking future projects.

I am so glad he was there when I began taking classes. I am so glad he took me under his wing and mentored me, encouraged me, molded my mind and pushed me from the nest with a battery of tools necessary to make it on my own.

It is because of his influence and guidance that I can bring down the butterflies within my stomach and reign in the fear and doubt which still try to rear their ugly heads from time to time. It is because of his training and touch that I know I can not only compete here at NYU, I can excel.

As my time at grad school dawns, I want to say thank you, Robert. I am here—in so many ways—because of you. And I will thrive because of that which you have given me—a dream and a future not too monolithic that a film geek from Colorado, properly empowered, can't climb it.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Subway Serenade

I'm typing this from a bench in New York City's famous Washington Square Park. NYU borders the sides of the park, which serves as a massive, green, common area for the student body and right now, with a few extra minutes on my hands, I thought I would jot down a few more impressions of the last 24 hours.

I take the subway back and forth to school. Here just a few days, I am already feeling pretty confident that I am getting the hang of the system. I have to say, some of the best musicians ride the subway. I know, because they are always there, playing. From full bands with amps, to a man and his solo Spanish guitar to a barbershop quartet moving from train car to train car in constant song, there are performers here for whom you are more than happy to throw some loose change their way. Not that all my fellow travelers hear them, mind you. I am convinced that Apple stays in business, not off the sales of their computers, but off the iPods they sell to New Yorkers. Not simply walkmans or portable satellite radios, but genuine iPods. Young and old. Poor and rich. I am not exaggerating when I say that every third or forth person on the train is oblivious to the world, embedded with the distinctive white earphones that act as armor to undesirable attention and hassling.

Aside from the blog just below this one which describes my advising meeting and class enrolling, I also went on a several hour tour of Greenwich Village today. Led by one of the school's deans, it was an intimate, walking examination of the area's colorful Bohemian history, full of the sort of great trivia that a guide book can't even touch. One of the oldest bars in NYC that only in the past few years finally began admitting women? Yep. Bob Dylan's apartment? Yep. The architecture of Stanford White. Yep. Everywhere you turn are quant and ancient reminders of this city's centuries old past and vibrant present. With no school activities on Thursday until the evening, I plan to put my map away and spend a few hours of the afternoon wandering, getting lost, and discovering this section of the city that I'm sure I will come to know well.

Despite all its money and prestige, NYU is still a college like any other. While certain buildings are indeed lavish (the library is a massive, modern structure), most buildings are not the palatial spaces one might expect. Cramped and untidy classrooms are the norm and oddly enough, there is something reassuring in that fact. I came expecting a sort of hallowed opulence, and am comforted to find that even the best film schools require janitors and fresh paint. It means I have a fighting chance here!

Official Class List for Fall 2006

Having never gone to grad school before, I was ignorant about how many classes to take. As an undergrad, I'd always taken several classes above the official full-time load. I thought that I might do the same thing here until already Ph.D-festooned friends and former professors began looking at me as if I'd sprouted a third eye when I brought it up. When they found out that each of my classes were four credit hours apiece and that I'd also be working part-time while attending school, they were very emphatic that I take it easy. Turns out NYU won't even let me go above normal full-time without special dispensation. So, three courses it is then.

Two of the courses offered each of the first two semesters are part of a larger set of four courses required of the overall program. So you take them when they are offered. This leaves only one elective per the first two semesters to choose from. Something I did find out last night at my orientation is that the program, while realistically two years, is, in fact, only three technical semesters. Bad for people who wish to immerse themselves in as many (elective) classes as possible, but good for their pocketbooks.

This semester's required courses are "Film Form and Film Sense" and "Film History and Historography." Why is it that required courses always have such boring and uninspired names? Not that the classes are boring, necessarily, but is it too much to ask for a little zip and zing when deciding what to call them? My elective for Fall 2006 is "Screenwriting and Narrative Analysis."

Their descriptions (included for those of you who were begging for the minute details) are as follows:

Film Form and Film Sense: "The purpose of this course is to introduce students to central concepts in film form and style as well as film narrative. The course is structured to suggest a constant but expanding series of models for textual analysis of audio-visual works, with emphasis on the "cinematic signifier." The course will also deal with issues of the interpretation of audio-visual works, in relation to textual analysis. Part One of the course will have a strong formal emphasis: introducing concepts such as shot-structure, editing, mise-en-scene, camera movement and sound in relation to their function in the structuring of film narrative. Part Two will formulate these concepts more thoroughly in terms of parameters of film narrative (e.g. focalization and its implications for the representation of gender and race). Parts Three and Four will further expand the conceptualization of these issues by dealing with the relationship of film narrative to: 1) genre, understood in terms of its social and ideological implications; and 2) cultural history, understood in terms of the social relations between cultural discourses and the specificity of film narrative."

Film History and Historiography: "This introductory lecture will engage a number of cultural, aesthetic, as well as methodological issues in current historical film scholarship: the constitution of the codes and institutions of cinema and the ways in which the history of film has been, and has been understood to be, embedded in, shaped, and constrained by material and social practices. Various historiographical methods and historical contexts will be explored. Topics: screen practices, narrative integration (and its alternatives), spectatorship, cultural translation and more."

Screenwriting and Narrative Analysis: "This course centers around the exploration of storytelling approaches in feature films from the practical perspective of the writer. We will examine a broad range of narrative strategies and dramatic writing tools, from traditional three-act structure to radically alternative approaches. We will concentrate exclusively on the story elements and techniques which are within the domain of the screenplay and scriptwriter. Students will have a choice of writing analytical papers or trying their hand at scriptwriting."

Anyone still think all we Cinema Studies students do is hang out and watch movies!?

(After locking in my classes, I made the dreaded trek to spend the necessary life's savings in what is easily one of life's great scams--purchasing college text books. To my utter astonishment, I only had to get a half dozen books and none of those were anywhere close to a hundred dollars. A quick check on Amazon confirmed that, at least for this semester, at this school, I am buying fewer book and paying a lot less money. Go to grad school. Save money--at least on books, that is. Who knew?)

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

How Not To Get Mugged In Yonkers While Holding An Umbrella

Last time I was in New York, just under a month ago, the city was in the grip of a withering heat wave and suffocating under nearly 110 degree temperatures and enough humidity to drown birds in flight. Tuesday morning, when my plane landed, the celestial sluices were open, the rain was falling in torrents and it was barely 70 degrees. Nice. After an $80 cab ride (from the JFK airport to my cousin's apartment to drop off my luggage and then straight on to NYU), my first official act in NYC was a stop at a drugstore to purchase an unfortunately-forgotten umbrella. Never one to mind the rain (blame it on my Oregon genes), I enjoyed navigating the sea of undulating umbrellas that the sidewalks quickly became.

My favorite moment of the day was turning a corner and chancing upon a magical moment with the Empire State Building. A white fog bisected the great building. Not low enough to cloak its street-level origins and not high enough to mask it's straining top, the fog crept through the air like fast-moving smoke, dividing the steel and cement skyline at its waist.

The walk got me reflecting on my new city--traversing its streets, sitting in its taxis and leaping aboard its subways. And here's the incredibly naive and optimistic decision I've come to: I have determined that I will not become the rude, joyless, apathetic New Yorker everyone imagines when they think about this city. (What an idealist, this being my first day and all.) All I ever hear is that one should never make eye contact on the street, never say hello, never, in essence, acknowledge that the 6 million other people streaming past you, in fact, exist. Forget that. It goes against who I am. This is a moral issue. There's not enough kindness here and I'd love to do my tiny part. I want to do it just to spite those who say it isn't possible. I'll show you. I'll be happy.

I was in a rush to get to the campus. This week is full of a smattering of orientation classes with fun titles like: "How Not To Get Mugged in New York," and "How Not To Get Lost and End Up In Yonkers." OK, those aren't the official names, but they are the official subjects. The rain slowed my progress this morning and I missed the first class. With some unexpected time on my hands, I stopped to pick up my student ID, a task that, with a line stretching around the block, took far longer than I'd anticipated and so I missed yet another class. By the time I did make it to a session on using the school's computers, I was so tired (I had to get up shortly after 3 am in order to get out of Florida in time to catch my flight) I had a really hard time staying awake.

The final event of the day and the only mandatory one was the Cinema Studies Department Orientation early in the evening. I can't say I know much more about NYU's film school now than I did this morning, other than some technical information. So far, my biggest impressions of the Tisch School of the Arts have come from, what I assumed to be undergraduate drama and dance students. Lithe, loud, oh-so melodramatic, and gathering in packs like ferocious predators, I knew I had to be in the right building.

Now I am off to catch the subway back to my cousin's place. I haven't seen her in nearly a decade (not to mention her husband or two-year-old son) and I am looking forward to an evening of familiar faces in an unfamiliar place.

But first I have to get from here to my subway stop without getting mugged for smiling.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Mission Impossible?

Am I the only one who finds this whole Tom Cruise issue just plain silly?

Listen to how Viacom (which owns Paramount Pictures, the studio that is dropping Cruise) chairman Sumner Redstone said it, "As much as we like him personally, we thought it was wrong to renew his deal. His recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount."

His recent conduct has not been acceptable?

Now, don't get me wrong, Cruise isn't making any friends by passing himself off as a total loon. His antics have left us all wondering just how sane a man he is. But does jumping up and down on a couch or even acting hostile to Brooke Shields and Matt Lauer constitute unacceptable behavior? From a movie star?

What is their measuring stick, pray tell?

Mel Gibson is pulled over while driving drunk and if that isn't bad enough, subjects the arresting officers to a massive racist tirade. Robin Williams checks himself into a rehab clinic for alcoholism. Halley Joel Osment crashes his car while high on drugs. Paris Hilton is one walking scandal after another. The Lost gals. Nick Nolte. Winona Ryder. Robert Blake. The list could go on forever. From minor misdemeanors to heavy felonies, it seems that there isn't a week that goes by that some actor isn't in trouble with the law.

And what did Tom Cruise do?

Jumped on a couch.

Yep, that's unacceptable behavior all right.

Could it be Paramount, that Cruise's Scientology and off-screen antics with Katie Holmes are hurting, not your sanctimonious sensibilities but your bottom line? $394 million for his last movie not enough for you? Oh, you have a right to expect Cruise to bring in the dough and you even have a right to realize that you were stupid to ever offer him so much money per film in the first place, but don't try blowing smoke up our asses by suggesting that it is his behavior that you find so repulsive.

That's just hypocritical and childish. Almost as hypocritical as feigning righteous indignation when you lose a few million dollars but defending depravity when it makes you the bucks.


There are other words for it too.

Little Miss Sunshine

When was the last time you went to a theater and had a genuine community experience?

I'm talking about the sort of gathering in which the entire theater was as one person whose emotions moved in perfect tandem. The sort of gathering in which the film's dialogue was, at times, lost because you couldn't hear over the sound of your own uninhibited laughter. The sort of gathering that rose to their feet at the credits in boisterous, exuberant applause.

If it's been a while, might I suggest Little Miss Sunshine.

This is the little independent film that could, the Sundance darling that is taking America by storm.

Tender and sweet-natured Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin, the darling girl who stole the show in Signs) has always wanted to be a beauty queen. She doesn't see her poochy tummy or big glasses. She just wants to be beautiful. When she asks her grandfather if she is pretty, he responds,

“Olive, you are the most beautiful girl in the whole world.”

“Nah, you're just saying that,” she replies.

“No, I'm not kidding,” he retorts, feigning offense. “I'm madly in love with you, and it's not because of your brains or your personality.”

Alan Arkin is the foul-mouthed patriarch of this wildly entertaining ensemble cast, an oversexed misanthrope who was recently booted from his retirement home for snorting heroin. His son, Richard (Greg Kinnear), is a failing motivational speaker with a maniacal devotion to optimism that borders on emotional abuse when aimed at his family. Richard's wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette) knows her marriage is on the rocks, but doesn't see any way to stear clear of them. Their teenage son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), who's taken a vow of silence, must express himself by scribbling “I Hate Everyone!” on a small note pad. Added into this mix is Sheryl's gay brother, Frank (Steve Carell in a delightfully deadpan, quasi-serious role), the number-one Proust scholar in the world who just tried to kill himself because his grad student boyfriend left him for the number-two Proust scholar in the world.

Unable to afford plane tickets, this kooky, self-destructive, uber-dysfunctional family soon finds themselves piling into a decrepit, bumblebee-yellow VW van for a trip from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Redondo Beach, California, in order to register Olive in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. (I was reminded of the late JonBenet Ramsey during the pageant scenes. If there is a more disgusting and reprehensible misuse of childhood, I don't know what it is.)

If this set-up sounds like another idiotic, raunchy road trip screw-ball or a sappy, feel-good family flick, think again.

Part black comedy, part National Lampoon farce, Little Miss Sunshine wears its heart on its sleeve, never failing to find the bright spot in the midst of the darkest moments, nor the love and humanity in the most inhospitable situations. Heartache and laughter are handled with equal adeptness and wisdom and dignity are shown to be the by-product not of success, but of failure.

Charming, moving, warm and brilliantly hysterical, Little Miss Sunshine is easily the funniest thing I have seen in a theater in years.

(NOTE: The entire score is a variation on the Denver-based band Devotchka's “How It Ends,” a gorgeous and haunting melody made popular from its use in the trailer for Everything is Illuminated).

Monday, August 21, 2006

Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier

I write film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” is one of my favorite novels. The story of a man sent into the wilds of Africa to bring back a rogue trader who has set himself up as a god among the native tribes is an undisputed literary classic. That writer/producer/director Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather Trilogy) thought to adapt the book into a Vietnam setting that allowed him a canvas broad and deep enough to comment on war, the human condition and everything in between was no less a stroke of artistic brilliance.

If there is a film that better exemplifies the tug-of-war between art and commerce than Apocalypse Now, I haven’t seen it. So devastating was this conflict that Coppola admits to having gone slowly mad during it’s production and blames both the quality and quantity of his work since then on his apocalyptic meltdown.

As a gung-ho war film, Apocalypse Now very nearly fails. As an odyssey into the subterranean abyss of man’s primal nature, it is impenetrable. And yet, when these two elements are merged, a coherent, if inscrutable, masterwork is born.

Which isn’t to say that it is flawless. While the film has some of the greatest moments ever committed to celluloid and wraps up one of America’s most prolific and artistic decades in film, it also has some of the most pretentious and confusing. The first two thirds of the film, in which we follow Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) and his boatmates down river to kill a renegade Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) is a gripping descent into madness. The latter part of the film, in which Kurtz takes center stage and madness is all there is, degenerates into a psychedelic, surreal exploration of man’s interior madness.

Perhaps the reason it works so well, despite its incomprehensibility, is that the war it was representing was incomprehensible. No other movie about this country’s devastating part in Southeast Asia more perfectly captures the dysfunction, moral drift and hollow madness of what is still this nation’s deepest and most festering psychic wound. Grimly nihilistic in tone, Apocalypse Now retains the power to captivate and disturb some three decades later.

To read the full review, click here.


I write film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

(Eagle eye'd readers will already recognize this DVD review as a revistation of my review of the film earlier this summer.)

This is the movie Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler would have written were they modern high-schoolers. Brick may find its time and place in modernity but its soul is straight out of The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. Brick is what it would have looked like if Bogart went to high school--an adolescent Chinatown with shades of Kurosawa, peppered with the rapid-fire, hard-boiled, cryptic speech of A Clockwork Orange and wrapped in the very deceptive skin of a teen drama. These are not soap opera teens obsessed over who’s going out with whom. Here football studs, prom queens and social misfits are unapologetic criminals, enmeshed in a seedy high school netherworld that is as real an anything their parent’s encounter--perhaps more so.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Third Rock from the Sun) is Brendan--Sam Spade, Phillip Marlow, and Jake Gittes all wrapped into one. But he is more than just the pugnacious gumshoe of so many ’40 and ’50 film noirs. He is also a 16-year-old boy, struggling through English class, isolated through social alienation, and confused and hurt by unrequited love. Flashbacks reveal a young and innocent boy while realtime shows him to be a cold and hardened man-child. Time has not done this. Pain has.

One day Brendan gets a frightened and cryptic phone call from his estranged ex-girlfriend. The next day he finds her dead. He doesn’t go to the cops. He can’t trust them. This is a mystery he must unravel for himself. He owes it to his love to find out who killed her, even if the answers come accompanied by brass-knuckles.

The closer Brendan gets to the truth, the harder the punches land. He will take the beating and keep getting up because it is the only way to get to the truth. Poking his nose where it doesn’t belong, Brendan encounters all of the genre archetypes to which Brick owes so much homage, including the Kingpin, a drug dealer who runs his business from the suburban, wood-paneled basement of his parent’s home and has to borrow the family car to execute his plans; his goons, hired muscle unimpeded by brains; and, of course, the classic femmes fatales--in this movie, no dame can be trusted.

Everyone in Brick plays it straight. To them, their words and actions don’t seem in the slightest bit funny or weird. As Roger Ebert said, “The actors enter into the spirit; we never catch them winking.”

If this sounds ridiculous, it doesn’t play like it. First-time director Rian Johnson’s endlessly clever and visually arresting film completely merges adolescent angst and detective-fiction into something that is odd, yes, but also audacious and engaging. It both takes itself very seriously and allows moments of dark comedic delight. This is the sort of movie you can't help but smile at, dazzled by its cheeky ingenuity. Brick is a black-comic ballet through the peculiar terrors of suburban adolescence exacerbated and magnified by a criminal underworld that is anything but carefree and youthful.

To read the full review, click here.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Bruno Kirby Dies

Bruno Kirby, the hilarious supporting star of such films as When Harry Met Sally, City Slickers, Good Morning, Vietnam and The Godfather: Part II has died from complications related to leukemia. He was only 57.

Monday, August 14, 2006

World Trade Center

You know you are dissatisfied with a movie when your subconscious mind attempts to continually and restlessly remake the film through your dreams while you sleep.

World Trade Center is not a great film. It barely passes as a good one. For a film that should have hollowed out its audience, I walked out strangely unmoved. The few people that actually attended the screening with me seemed to concur.

World Trade Center, by the very nature of its subject, promises emotional resonance that it is oddly incapable of delivering. It is a made-for-TV movie--complete with annoying flashbacks--with an extraordinary budget, and ends with the sort of standard studio scenario, chock full of uplifting messages about disaster bringing out "the goodness we forgot could exist." Please. Is it true? Well, yes. But making a good memorial and making a good drama are two vastly different things.

We perhaps hold--or should hold--true events to a higher standard than those conceived in a writer's fantasy. Especially when those true events focus on the sort of tragedies that are guaranteed to elicit emotion in an almost Pavlovian way. The last thing we want is manipulated, gooey tears. Yet largely, that is exactly what we are given here.

World Trade Center is a scrupulous, honorable and noble tribute to those who died, those who lived and those who made that difference. Yet there is nothing revelatory, nothing haunting, nothing of lasting gravity. We never forget we're watching a movie, and an unconvincing one at that.

World Trade Center is a well-intentioned, old-fashioned, sincere movie that disappoints because it cannot overcome its cloying sentimentality, obvious manufactured rhythms, and plodding, even monotonous trajectory. Where United 93 was an authentic and harrowing account of that horrible day in September, World Trade Center is a film-by-numbers movie, steeped in convention and lacking any sort of power to surprise or overwhelm. United 93, about events peripheral to the destruction of the Twin Towers is by far the superior film. The great film about New York City's agony has yet to be made. (Let's just pray that Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay don't decide to try their hand at it sometime, a la Pearl Harbor. That film would make World Trade Center look like a masterpeice by comparison.)

I have no problem that World Trade Center was made in the first place. Artists should and must confront the great, gaping wounds of our time. It's odd that Hollywood gets attacked by jeers of "too soon!" by the same people who don't bat an eyelash at the songs, paintings, poems and novels written about the same events. Such is the transcendent power of film.

This is certainly not the film about 9/11 that any of us expected Oliver Stone to make. Never an easy filmmaker to digest--even if you like his body of work--Stone here becomes at palatable and artistic as Rob Howard. It's not that any of us actually wanted to see a Stone 9/11 film steeped in conspiracy and controversy--but in reigning himself in from his dispositions, it is almost as if he cut himself off from the source of his power--both creatively and philosophically.

Heroism, loyalty and hope are fine values to champion, to be sure (although the film also manages to slip in "vengeance" as a good, old-fashioned American family value near the end as well), but as good as those ideals are and as movingly as they are presented here, they could have been told within the framework of any random story. World Trade Center comments very little on the greater tragedy. By narrowing its focus to such laser thin precision, it castrates itself of any depth or big-picture resolution. Instead, it wraps itself up like a Hallmark special. While a gripping and inspiring story, however true to life it may be, it cannot comment on anything other than the fight of imperiled men to survive and brave men to save them.

In just a few weeks, New York City will observe the five year anniversary of the national tragedy. I will be a resident of the city by that time. I will participate in that momentous day. I keep wondering what it would have been like to have lived there then, to have lived through that horrible day at ground zero. Films like World Trade Center are supposed to transport me to a time and place where, vicariously at least, I can catch a glimpse of what it might have been like. Unfortunately, World Trade Center was so worried about being safe that it forgot to be effective.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Playing Games

I've never been much of a video game guy. When I was a kid, we had the original “Pong” but that was as close as my mother would allow my siblings and I to get to video games. All through the Nintendo craze, we were reading books. Frankly, I'm indebted to my mother for her foresight.

That said, there were occasional forays into gamedom. Some family friends had “Zaxon” in the early 80s when I was in elementary school and I played that until I beat it. Then there was a gap of well over a decade and a half. The next time I picked up a controller was in my makeshift barracks room in Bosnia. One of the Marines I was rooming with had “Goldeneye” and “Star Wars: Shadows of Empire” and we played those until we were masters. The alternative was going off base and getting shot at. After I got out of the Navy and returned to the States, a friend seduced me into hours at his place playing “Halo.”

And I discovered something. I do enjoy playing video games. Truly. Which is why I will never buy a gaming system. I know that if I do, I will be playing it constantly, to the detriment of all social skills, familial bonds and life responsibilities.

So what's a guy who likes video games and movies to do? Wait until they combine them, of course!

I know what you're saying. Video games to movies are a testy, frankly, despicable genre. And I would agree with you. But I think Halo has the goods. It has an impressive enough mythology, a rich enough storyline and a fleshed-out enough universe to really give a filmed version the undergirding it would need to work (there are already "Halo" novels). Now, the only trick is getting the right people behind the camera.

Universal Pictures finally announced a director today for the eagerly anticipated, Peter Jackson-produced Halo film to be released in the summer of 2008. Award-winning short-film director, Neill Blomkamp will make his feature film debut with Halo. While part of me always balks at huge projects being given to untried talent, there are certainly short-film directors out there with whom I would rest easily giving them such responsibilities. Let's hope this guy is one of them.

Halo should, by all intents and purposes, be the sort of film the I would get very snobby about. Then again, the SciFi addict in me is hoping against hope that it will be the sort of larger-than-life-guilty-pleasure-eye-candy that one occasionally craves and needs at the movies.

P.S.--In an unrelated bit of film news, I also saw a headline this morning that read: "Brett Ratner Helming Brazil Remake" and about fell out of my chair. I was busy preparing a letter-bomb to put an end to whomever would have the audacity to remake Terry Gilliam's masterpiece until I read a bit further and discovered the headline was referring to, Boys From Brazil, the 1978 film with Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck about a diabolical plot by Nazis in South America to revive the Third Reich through the use of cloning. Shew!

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Filmic Dissent

As America continues headlong into the quagmire of war, this film snob (and veteran) finds films like The Ground Truth all the more important and crucial to our national health. See the trailer here.

A Scanner Darkly

Poor Phillip K. Dick.

He never lived long enough to see his books and short stories made into some of our most enduring and entertaining SciFi films: Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck...well, maybe it's a good thing he's dead.

What many don't know about Dick's life is that it was plagued by rampant drug use and debilitating schizophrenia.

Enter A Scanner Darkly.

A Scanner Darkly is a frustrating movie, even as it is bound to become a cult hit for some. Too talkie to be legitimately entertaining, too dark to be wholly enjoyable and too muddled to be entirely comprehensible, A Scanner Darkly stands as a creative, if unengaging interpretation of its source material. This doesn't necessarily make the film flawed. It speaks more to Dick's pen than the director's camera. That it comes the closest to Dick's addled brain and is, perhaps, the most faithful adaptation of his work is true enough. But, does that alone make it a great film?

A Scanner Darkly tells the bleak, sporadically comedic, and always tragic tale of drug use in an America only a handful of years in the future. 1 in 4 people are mercilessly addicted to "Substance D" (disintegration, despair, death, etc.) which leads to the sort of wild paranoia and freak-outs that puts The Lord of the Ring's Gollum to shame. Keanu Reeves plays an undercover police officer so dependent on the very thing he has pledged his life to eradicate, that he is in danger of losing himself entirely.

The use of rotoscoping--a process that overlays animation overtop live-action photography and was first employed in writer/director Richard Linklater’s maddening but awe-inspiring Waking Life--is perfect for this film. Animation allows such creative freedom and here Linklater uses it to graphically represent the torturous dementia of a mind fried on drugs.

But the film is more than just a commentary on the pervasiveness and destructiveness of addictive narcotics. It is a commentary on the miseries of life and a person's inability to know and understand the one individual who should be an open book--themselves. How much more impossible a task when the investigative instruments are dulled and rotted by foreign substances? Governments may spy on us 24-hours a day but what can a camera diagnose when we cannot fathom ourselves?

"What does a scanner see?" Reeves asks. "Does a scanner see into me—into us—clearly or darkly? I hope it [sees clearly] … because I can't any longer see into myself. If the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed … and we'll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too."

A Scanner Darkly is certainly a thoughtful film—challenging, meditative, and sad. Dick would have approved. There is no doubting that it is a timely and relevant parable.

And yet its power may go unnoticed by those who grow weary trying to sit through its meandering conversations and its chorus of dysfunctional fools. No, Linklater was not trying to make an exciting thriller. But he may have made a film too beholden to its source to be palatable.

Still, as a eulogy for Dick's hopeless generation (and how different is that generation from our own?), it is spot on.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Miami Vice

No one, but no one does crime like Michael Mann.

His films are creatures of the night, in love with the way glowing urban sprawl looks from a God's eye view. From above, a city looks like a sea of twinkling star light; down below, on the streets, all is dark, gritty, and deadly. The monsters that roam these streets are ruthless and the side of good needs ruthless men to battle them.

Mann proved his brilliance in Heat (actually, he proved it in the gorgeous and sublime Last of the Mohicans, which is not, of course, a crime drama and will henceforth be ignored), one of the few films I dub perfect in every way; I would not change a thing (other than that rear-view mirror falling off the windshield multiple times for you fellow eagle-eyed viewers). In Collateral, Mann once again showed his masterful adeptness at crafting characters and situations that are fleshed out in such a way that they more than equal his colossal wide angles and bright, crisp HD palettes.

That this auteur is the same man that produced the tongue-in-cheek humor and neon clothing-clad 80's classic, Miami Vice is still something of an enigma to me. Obviously, to him as well. Because, while it was dear enough to his heart to reimagine on the big screen, the dark pastiche of menacing thugs and grimy drug deals in the film version bears little resemblance to its small-screen forerunner.

Miami Vice is still filled with too-cool sexy toys--Ferrari's that spit flame, million-dollar apartments, speedboats, airplanes, Havana night clubs--but unlike the TV series that never forgot to wink to the audience, Miami Vice: the movie takes itself very seriously. The result is a hyper-cool world where we don't believe for a moment that these things are possible--but they sure are fun to look at.

Unfortunately, that sort of sums up the entire film. This is minor Mann and does not resonate like his earlier work. This latest incarnation is lavishly shot and executed, and has a fluid, titillating style. But unlike his other films, the story, while engaging, is underdeveloped. Furthermore, the lead characters brood the entire time, never letting their sulking personas drop long enough to allow us to read any sort of character development. As a result, we care little for what happens to them. It is a testament to Mann's writing and directing, however, that we remain seated for the duration of the ride regardless of its shortcomings, straining at the bit to see how various situations resolve themselves in Mann's typical bursts of hyper-violence. Engrossing and impressive, Miami Vice is only intermittently enjoyable. But when it works, man, it works!

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Super Size This!

Finally got around to seeing Super Size Me. All I've heard from my friends who've seen it is how they never want to touch fast food ever again. So why is it that I have an overwhelming desire to go out a get some McDonalds right now?

Friday, August 04, 2006

An Open Letter to Rob Schneider

Dear Mr. Schneider,

I read today that you have pledged never to work with Mel Gibson, based on his actions last week in which he was arrested for drunk driving and proceeded to subject the arresting officers to an anti-Semitic tirade.

I understand how you feel. Mr. Gibson's actions were deplorable. His hateful words make me wonder if my unfettered defense of his film, The Passion of the Christ from those who charged it was deeply anti-Semitic, was misplaced. Obviously Mr. Gibson has some issues in his life that are in desperate need of redemption, far beyond his drinking problem. I confess I like Mr. Gibson's work and even think that as a person, he is decent, warm and gracious. Which is why his actions a few days ago hurt us all so much. It will be interesting to see how and if the industry forgives him. I feel his apologies were very sincere and the fact that many in the Jewish community have embraced his pleas for forgiveness is a step in the right direction. But is it too little, too late?

Which leads me back to your announcement today that you will never work with Mr. Gibson.

With all due respect Mr. Schneider, you are a half-wit actor who stars in the sorts of films for which the "zero star" category was invented in the first place. Even if this unfortunate incident with Mr. Gibson had never taken place, there was never any chance in hell that an actor of your phenomenally sub-par caliber and ineptitude for choosing parts would have ever gotten close to working with Mel Gibson anyway.

But I thank you for your heart-felt stand--self-righteous, self-promoting and utterly inconsequential though it may be. Good luck with the inevitable Deuce Bigalow sequel.


Brandon Fibbs

Titanic News

When "The CBS Evening News With Katie Couric" makes it's debut next month, it will not be with the usual opening musical cue. The current, 15-year old theme will be replaced with a new, as of yet unreleased theme by Oscar-winning film composer, James Horner (Titanic, Braveheart, Apollo 13, Aliens, Legends of the Fall, Glory).

Horner is primarily responsible for getting me into film scores. As a kid, I listened to the cassette tape of The Wrath of Khan so much I nearly destroyed it. Now, I own hundreds of film scores with somewhere around 60 being works by Horner. I also own an XM-Radio set that never leaves channel 27, Cinemagic--movie scores 24 hours a day.

I confess that I am in the middle of an "I-am-sick-and-tired-of-Horner" phase and have been for some time. While a magnificent artist, the past few years (some would argue his entire career), Horner has relied on nothing but self-rip-offs and regurgitated themes from his past works. I miss the days when I could gush over him without restraint.

Here's hoping he can't screw up a 30-second clip.

Trailer Park

There are some fantastic new trailers online. Here are a sampling of a few:

Babel looks like it will be this year's Syriana--global in scope, politically charged, and suffused with our common humanity. Looks enthralling.

Darren Aronofsky, who hasn't made a film since Requiem for a Dream, returns to cinema with an epic, mind-bending film spanning a thousand years of one man's struggle to save the woman he loves and find the key to eternal life in The Fountain.

Many thought The Aviator would finally give Martin Scorsese his much deserved Oscar. Alas, it did not happen. Scorsese is following up his Best Picture nomination with The Departed, in which two undercover agents, one a Boston police officer who has infiltrated the mob (Leonardo DiCaprio) and another, a mobster who masquerades as a cop (Matt Damon) in the employ of a gangland chief (Jack Nicholson), fight not to be consumed by their double lives and desperately try to fulfill their missions before they discover each other's secrets.

In The Prestige, two stage magicians, intent on destroying each other, rise to the height of their careers but not without terrible consequences for everyone involved.

Children of Men imagines a world just a generation from now, in which humankind is on the verge of extinction, utterly infertile, and plunging towards anarchy.

The Black Dahlia is based on the true story of the notorious 1947 Los Angeles murder of actress Elizabeth Short and the cops who are driven to obsession to solve the case. Brian DePalma hasn't made a decent movie in nearly 20 years. Lets hope the director of The Untouchables and Scarface can change that with The Black Dahlia.

Will Smith is aiming for an Oscar and based on this trailer of a man trying to make ends meet for he and his son in The Pursuit of Happiness, he just may get it. A beautiful and selfless performance.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Here's Your Sign

Sometimes you can misread signs and wonders.

Climbing aboard our flight to New York City, we ended up sitting near and chatting briefly with John Terry, an actor who has starred in such films as Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, the James Bond movie, The Living Daylights and currently stars on ABC’s Lost as Dr. Jack Sheppard's doctor/alcoholic/deceased father.

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This is good, I told myself. You’re heading out to look for an apartment in New York City for film school and you’re sitting next to a respected character actor on the most popular show on TV.

It’s a sign.

Sometimes you can misread signs and wonders. Perhaps I should have been paying more attention to the extraordinarily disruptive teenage boys in the seats behind me.

Skip ahead a few days to our last night in NYC. We’re sitting in a restaurant which my wife’s company has asked her to check out in advance of a possible corporate function. Given that she works for the space industry, the restaurant was a space-themed eatery that begins with a ride evoking a trip to Mars, winds your through a celestial promenade and ends inside a giant subterranean room that looks as if it took its architecture and design straight from Total Recall. (Kitsch was the name of the game in this Disneyified restaurant in which your server, dressed in something vaguely resembling a Star Trek uniform saddles up to your table and announces that he’ll be your space captain for the evening—needless the say, the corporate event is out). As we sat waiting for our dinner, I couldn’t help but think that it wasn’t Mars that the place reminded me of. With its rock walls and pillars, and low, red lighting, I imagined that all it needed was a smoke machine or two and it would have been a perfect ringer for hell.

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I guess I should start at the beginning.

We arrived in NYC without a broker, clutching a few addresses from Craig’s List and a few flimsy shreds of hope. We knew it was going to be a huge undertaking and we knew we had just a few days to make the impossible possible.

The first thing we realized when we landed was that New York was in the grip of a devastating heat wave. The hundred degree temperatures, combined with the massive humidity, gave the impression, according to the weathermen, of something actually closer to 115 or more. Step below ground into the subway tunnels, which we did all throughout our time there, and the heat jumps an additional 10 degrees or so. Hell, yes? Hell yes!

Luckily we had a safe place to land. My cousin lives in Manhattan and told us we could stay at their place. (Ironically enough, they were on vacation). Retreating to their blessedly air-conditioned apartment just long enough to drop off our bags, we jumped back in the cab and headed off to a realty office that managed an apartment we were interested in through Craig’s List. Unfortunately, it was too late in the day to see any locations, so after filling out some paperwork we returned to the apartment, made some calls and began mapping out our time.

Saturday morning, we took the subway into Brooklyn. Always far cheaper than Manhattan, we felt we had to at least examine all our options. The first apartment was OK but was set in a less than desirable neighborhood. The second was in a beautiful neighborhood, was an attractive and spacious apartment and was the cheapest we’d seen so far. But while it seemed to have everything going for it, the 45-minute to an hour commute back into Manhattan made us realize that Brooklyn simply wasn't practical for our needs and desires.

After a brief visit to NYU and adjacent Washington Square Park, we found ourselves, that afternoon, on the Upper East Side (the portion of Manhattan that is east of Central Park). It was easily our favorite part of the city—clean, tree'd streets rowed with brownstones and overshadowed by titanic skyscrapers. The realty company we’d spoken to the previous day finally called that afternoon while we were taking a break in the shade of Central Park and said that because it was Sunday, they weren’t going to be able to get us into anything. Here for only four days, we were watching our second go up in smoke and we were no closer to finding an apartment than when we’d left Colorado.

Our one consolation was that we’d found an UES sublet that was coming available and would be showing later that evening. We’d scoped out the neighborhood and building earlier and really liked what we saw. The price was also fantastic. Unfortunately, outside appearances can be deceiving and the apartment turned out to be a dilapidated studio with a run-down kitchen, a perpetually leaky bathtub and a toilet in its own tiny room. While we were prepared to make concessions, we weren't willing to go this far.

The only thing that saved Sunday was a fabulous dinner of sushi with my editor at DVDFanatic and her boyfriend, a fantastic up-and-coming director. They gushed about how much they loved living in New York and gave our spirits a much needed push.

Between all the walking and the extreme heat/humidity, lets just say that my legs were a bit chaffed by the end of the night. Such pain has no pride. I raided my cousin's two-year-old son's room, found some anti-diaper rash cream and went to bed comfortable, though smelling like a swaddled newborn.

Monday was a bit more like we'd been expecting and hoping for. While the morning was still somewhat light, the afternoon was filled with a glut of apartments. The reality office we'd visited our first day had several to show us, our original broker who had to abandon us called from Florida with several addresses and a few we'd found on Craig’s List were available for viewing.

The first apartment we saw was actually a medium-sized, well-kept studio in a very nice UES building. Aside from the fact that it was a studio, we were very impressed. And, at just shy of $1,600 a month, in our budget. Still, we wanted a separate bedroom. Nice as it was, we decided to push on. The apartments in lower midtown, while only blocks from NYU, were abominable—tiny hovels half the size of most U.S. prison cells. It was clear the the lower into Manhattan we went, the more impossible it was going to be to live there. Should we take the studio? It was certainly nice and surely we could make it work. We called the realtor who showed us the studio and told him we had one last place to check out.

“Hurry,” he said, “My boss has been asking for the keys and I lied, telling him I didn't have them. He's got people here to look at it. I can't hold him off much longer.”

Watching the afternoon evaporate and with the knowledge that we were leaving the next day, we knew we needed to act fast. The last place we looked at was in the middle of renovations. The bathroom was nearly something out of a luxury hotel, the kitchen fitted with new appliances, new hardwood and marble tile everywhere, the living room was spacious and the bedroom...looked like it would have trouble fitting a dog bed.

“Is the studio still available?” We rang back, rushing from the building.

“Only if you get over here now!”

Racing back to the reality office we were pleased to discover that they had begun laying out the paperwork and that the apartment was on hold for us. While not sold entirely on the place, we were nonetheless satisfied that we could make it into a nice place to live. While dotting the i's and crossing the t's, the senior broker at the firm began scowling a bit.

“You know, of course, that to be approved for an apartment in New York, you must make 40 times the month's rent in a year?” he asked.

Actually we didn't know that coming out. Our broker hadn't told us. It was something we discovered upon arriving. While our combined incomes in Colorado more than covered the cost, in New York, I'd be a full-time student and would have only a part-time job.

“Yes,” we replied and showed him how, with some totally legitimate but nonetheless creative accounting, our numbers worked.

“Well...hmm...yes, this might work.”

With that we were hustled out the door to the management office, yet one more hoop through which we had to jump. The management office was high powered and intense, the sort of electrically charged environment rendered so well in movies. When we finally sat down with the manager in his glass office overlooking Broadway, we saw the scowl again.

“You don't make 40 times the month's rent.” He charged.

“Well actually, if you apply this and this...,” we countered...

“I don't.”

“Well what about...”


“And the...?”

“I said no.” Silence. “You need a guarantor. This is how it works in New York City. You need a guarantor who makes at least 130K to co-sign.”

Hold on a sec, buddy. I got a few of those here in my cell phone. WHAT!?

“I'm sorry. There is nothing I can do. This is how it works in New York City...everywhere in New York City. Goodbye.”

I left that office wanting to quote Shakespeare. No, not “Romeo, Romeo...” or “to be or not to be” but the sorts of villain's speeches that the bard did so well, speeches where the antagonists spoke of tearing out babies entrails with their teeth or propping up exhumed corpses on the front doors of their friend's houses. I was breathing smoke and tasting flame. It was hours before I stopped hoping someone would try to rob us on the subway so I'd have an excuse to vent my bottled up rage.

The injustice of it all unnerved me. It wasn't even that I was pissed off just for our sakes. It was the entire system; the machine that chewed people up and spit them out without regard for anything above its bottom line. And this was just an apartment. What's more tragic, is that it's situations like this that turn institutions like NYU into the elitist hubs they've become, populated by often mediocre trust-fund babies while poor but genuinely talented auteurs are shut out in the cold.

Tuesday we slept in. There was no point in trying to look at any more places. We'd made some calls and confirmed that that was the same treatment we'd receive anywhere else we tried to rent. We salvaged what remained of our trip before heading for the airport at the American Museum of Natural Science where my wife's friend is a director. He wasn't there, but his secretary graciously gave us some tickets to spend what few minutes we had wandering around a fascinating exhibit on the life of Charles Darwin and seeing a planetarium show. After six or seven extremely weather-laden and turbulent hours in flight, we arrived back in Colorado Springs, basking in the dry, cool air.

So, what now?

Now, I am just over three weeks away from leaving for school. I'm still going. I'm looking into coming to New York alone and staying with my cousin or in a 30-60 day sublet apartment for the month of September. That will give me enough time to activate my G.I. Bill once school starts and find a part time job. That done, we'll be in the clear again. I can find an apartment and bring my wife and things out at that time.

This is certainly not what I planned on blogging about today. I'd imagined a far different post.

Obviously I need some more practice at reading signs. Or a friend with $130,000. Any takers?