Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Late Night TV Wars Heat Up

ABC has had the news program Nightline at 11:35pm for many years. Jimmy Kimmel has his ABC show at 12:05am. It is a good show, but he has never gone head-to-head with Leno and Letterman, instead starting 30 minutes after them. Starting in January of 2013, Nightline will move to 12:35am and Kimmel will start at 11:35pm. So, we'll see how it affects the late night TV landscape with the 3 major networks all starting their late night comedy shows at the same time. NBC has recently cut staff at Jay Leno's show and Leno took a pay cut himself. Since Comcast purchased NBC/Universal they have cut costs to increase profits. Starting in March of next year Nightline will move to primetime. Kimmel has a good chance to get more viewers since Nightline averages 3.89 million viewers and Kimmel currently averages 1.8 million. Leno leads in ratings, averaging 3.71 million and Letterman averages 3.22 million. It always seemed like the audience for Nightline and Jimmy Kimmel would be different. The ratings for Kimmel will depend on the ratings for the local 11pm news on local affiliates I would think.


Film Analysis: Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989)

Above photos: the top photo is the official movie poster, showing Spike Lee as Mookie and Danny Aiello as Sal. The second picture shows Radio Raheem and his love and hate jewelry. The two emotions are juxtaposed in the film which had themes of love versus hate, racial tension and whether or not violence is justified, and under what circumstances.

Often times Spike Lee is not mentioned as a top American filmmaker, but he deserves to be. Way back in 1989 he made what many consider to be his best work, Do the Right Thing. It was nominated for 2 Oscars, one for Lee’s writing and one for Danny Aiello, best supporting actor. He has directed 50 films, dating back to 1977. His commercially released films previous to Do the Right Thing included She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze. His other works include; Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Summer of Sam, Bamboozled and so many more.

Writer, producer, director... Spike Lee
Mookie... Spike Lee
Sal... Danny Aiello
“Da Mayor”... Ossie Davis
Mother Sister... Ruby Dee
Radio Raheem... Bill Nunn
Jade... Joie Lee
Pino... John Tuturro
Buggin’ Out... Giancarlo Esposito
Tina... Rosie Perez
Mister Senor Love Daddy... Samuel L. Jackson
Cee... Martin Lawrence

A prominent song in the soundtrack is Fight the Power by the popular 1980s rap group, Public Enemy. This is no coincidence. The opening credits show Rosie Perez dancing to this song, at times wearing boxing gloves. A major theme of the film is the distrust of authority, especially the police. The film also has an underlying racial tension that builds up to a violent crescendo. It deals with conflict in the Brooklyn area of Bedford-Stuyvesant between blacks, whites, Puerto Ricans and Asians. It's the hottest day of the year in Bed-Stuy. The temperature is on the rise and so is conflict.

Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), is kind of like the narrator for the film, as he surveys the neighborhood from his radio studio. He is the DJ for “We Love Radio”, last on your dial but first in your heart. One of his many catchphrases is “That’s the truth, Ruth”.

Lee plays Mookie, a pizza delivery guy for Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. In his Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers jersey, he delivers pizza to all in the neighborhood. The pizza parlor is owned by Sal (Danny Aiello). One day a friend of Mookie’s, called Buggin’ Out, notices the Wall of Fame in the pizza parlor. Sal has photos of all of his Italian American idols such as Frank Sinatra, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro and more. Buggin’ Out asks why there are no “brothers” on the wall. Sal says that it is his business and he can have pictures of whoever he wants on the wall. Buggin’ Out is outraged and demands that people boycott Sal’s pizza until he gets photos of blacks on the wall. Sal has a son who is racist but Sal reminds him that the people in the neighborhood have been their customers for years, allowing the business to survive.

The late 1980s was a period of popularity for boom boxes, portable stereos that would blast radio, cassettes and CDs. One of the guys in the ‘hood is Radio Raheem, who blasts Public Enemy’s Fight the Power at full volume as he walks the streets. He gets mad at the Korean owner of the corner store when he does not understand the request to buy new batteries. He tells him to learn how to speak English. Sal gets angry with Radio Raheem when he blasts the music in his pizzeria.

Smiley is a character in the neighborhood who stutters severely and sells photos of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Mookie buys a photo from him when he gets his paycheck. Late in the film, Smiley has a key scene.

Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem come into Sal’s with Public Enemy blasting and demanding that Sal put pictures of “brothers” on the wall. Sal refuses and smashes Radio Raheem’s boom box with a bat. Radio Raheem jumps the counter and attacks Sal. The fight escalades and goes outside onto the sidewalk. The cops show up and put Radio Raheem into a stranglehold, until he stops breathing. They throw him in the back of a cop car and take off. Mookie decides to get involved and he throws a trash can through the plate glass window at Sal’s. People begin looting the pizzeria, tearing it apart. Smiley sets it on fire and people run out. The Korean grocer across the street is afraid that his business will be destroyed. He swings a push broom at the crowd and says “I, you, the same!”

Smiley goes into the pizzeria as it burns and puts a picture on the wall of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The only criticism I have of this film is that it should have neded with that shot. It did not, it showed the aftermath of the fire, the next day as Mookie walked to the pizzeria to get his paycheck from Sal.

Before the credits roll, there are 2 quotes that appear on screen. One is from Martin Luther King Jr. The essence of it is the quote “Violence is impractical and immoral”. Then a quote from Malcolm X is shown that in part says, “I don’t call it violence when it is self defense, I call it intelligence.” Which leaves us to ponder, when is violence justified? I think that this film is a landmark in the career in Spike Lee, and it addresses important questions about race and violence in America.

*Some information from

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Film Analysis: Amelie is a Masterpiece of French Cinema

I greatly enjoyed the French film Amelie (2001) the first time I saw it about eight years ago. I could relate on an emotional level to many of the themes of the story. This was obviously a work of art, created by someone who has a passion for the craft of film making. The story is emotional, lovely, whimsical and a delight, but also it was the look of the film that drew me in. No wonder it was nominated for 5 Academy Awards, including best cinematography. It was also nominated for a BAFTA award (Great Britain) and a Cesar (France) in the same category. The special features had a vignette that discussed the look of Amelie. The quote from the director, Jean Pierre Jeunet, spoke volumes about his work as an artist. He said "Nothing is difficult for me when making a film. I love so much to make. That's my reason to live." If only everyone felt that way about their career. It was pointed out that the look of the film had a lot to do with the saturation of colors. When watching the film I noticed that the color green was used extensively. As a complement, red was used as well, sometimes with a single blue object in the frame, like a blue lamp in a couple of cases. The director was influenced by a Brazilian painter named Fabio Marcelo who did the same thing. That painter uses vibrant colors much like one of my favorites, Romero Britto, who I have written about in an earlier blog post. In the vignette it was discussed how certain shots utilized a moving camera, but other shots used a fixed camera since the movement would disrupt from the emotional connection. The film Amelie was story boarded extensively, so the cast and crew knew exactly what to do when the arrived on set. I will give a synopsis of the film, detailing some of the key scenes and commenting on the emotional underpinnings of the work.

Amelie is a French girl, shy, timid and sheltered. She grew up with a father who is a doctor. She had very little affection as a child so the only time he touched her was when he gave her a physical exam. Her heart would race when he examined her, so he figured she had a heart condition. Due to this she was home schooled, which led to a childhood of isolation where her only friend was a fish. The little girl found ways to amuse herself and retreated into a world of imagination. She enjoyed the simple things in life, such as skipping stones on a pond. Her parents were the same way and her dad liked to empty out his tool box and re-arrange everything. Her mom liked to dump out her purse and re-arrange the contents. Young Amelie gets a camera and starts taking pictures of the world around her. She is sensitive and solemn.

Fast forward to the present, and Amelie works as a waitress at the Two Windmills Cafe. The film looks at her unusual co-workers, one of which is a hypochondriac. She goes to a movie every week and takes pleasure in watching the faces behind her of the movie patrons enjoying the show. She is single and lonely. A key character is a man in her building who has a disease where his bones are very brittle, so he must stay inside all day, otherwise he may break a bone. He is like a man made of glass, too fragile to take any chances. He paints a Renoir painting over and over, once per year, trying to get every detail just right. Amelie is living a life not much different than his, with her fragile heart made of glass, too delicate to risk emotional rejection from a male companion.

Amelie has a life changing experience when she finds a box hidden behind a loose tile in her bathroom. Inside are relics from a childhood: a toy car, a toy bike, a photograph, etc. She will find the owner of the box and return it to him. She finds out his name and leaves the box in a phone booth where the owner will find it. When he finds it, he is emotional and excited since the box takes him back to his childhood. Amelie feels wonderful since she has helped someone to find happiness. She feels a sense of harmony and elation. She feels like an outcast so much of the time but this makes her feel like she has done something special for someone else. One of the main themes of the film is that she works hard at helping others but in turn, neglects her own needs.

Her father has a garden gnome which he paints and takes care of. Amelie is jealous of the attention that the statue receives and she steals it. Later, the father gets pictures in the mail of the gnome at world landmarks as he travels the globe. I had to wonder if this film is what made the travel company, Travelocity, use the roaming gnome as their mascot.

Amelie does not like to see anyone mistreated. She notices that the neighborhood grocer is mean to his employee, belittling him in front of customers. Amelie gets her revenge by going into the grocer's apartment when he is not home and playing practical jokes on him. She swaps his slippers with a pair that are a size smaller, she sets his alarm clock for 4 a.m., she puts sugar in his wine, and other tricks that make him feel like he is losing his mind.

She finds a photo album full of pictures taken in a photo booth at the train station. She seeks out the owner of the album and returns it to him. But, she did not turn it over to him personally, she sends him on a wild goose chase, following different clues until he finally gets it back. There is a scene where Amelie (Audrey Tautou) has large dark sunglasses and a scarf on her head where she looks similar to Audrey Hepburn in the film Breakfast at Tiffany's. Whether this was an homage to that film or not, I don't know.

Amelie wants to meet this man and develops an interest in him but even when she comes up with an elaborate scheme for them to meet, she chickens out and lets her fear get in the way of love. Toward the end of the film, the glass man sends her a video tape telling her to go for what she wants in life. She is not glass like him, and she needs to take chances. He tells her to go to the man she loves. Her crush had come to her door once but she did not open it. After she watched the video by the glass man she went to her door to go after him and he was there. They embrace, and the film ends with them riding though Paris on a scooter together, the look of joy on each of their faces.

This film is a delight. It is a feast for the eyes and the performance by Audrey Tautou was spot on. Amelie has a sense of mischief, whimsy and wonder. It is a celebration of life and love. Melancholy at times, yes, but the main theme is that life is too short, go after what you want. We are not made of glass. Even a broken heart will mend over time.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

New Media Presents Challenges for Old Media

These days, so many people get a lot of their information via the internet. When I was in college in the late 1980s/early 1990s, things were much different. In college I did not know anyone who had a computer in their dorm room. No one had a cell phone or an mp3 player. None of us had heard of Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Google or blogs. My term papers were typed on an ancient device called a typewriter.

The past 15 years or so have been challenging for media outlets. TV stations, radio stations and newspapers have experienced shrinking customer base which leads to less advertising revenue. People figure, why buy a newspaper when I can get information free via my computer? Why listen to the radio when I can get free pod casts and download songs to an mp3 player? People can watch full length TV programs on the internet as long as they have a fast connection, so traditional broadcast TV stations have fewer viewers than they used to. Yes, broadcast TV has had competition from people renting movies, watching cable stations and doing other recreational activities like playing video games. But the internet has been a fierce competitor that changes people's habits concerning how they get entertainment. If you have been in a movie theatre lately, many of them seem to have few customers since people watch movies at home and download films legally (and illegally). Newspapers, radio stations and TV stations seem to be putting more of an emphasis on their online presence which only makes sense.

With a blog like this one, I can put my ideas into a format that is free. It can be distributed widely or selectively. No wonder that we see some news sources like The Huffington Post that is 100% online. No need to purchase printing presses, paper and ink, just put it online. Adam Carolla has a very successful pod cast that many people enjoy. He does not need to have a broadcast transmitter and all the equipment like a radio station does. A person can make a video with a $100 video camera and upload it to you tube for free. Times are changing so quickly, it is amazing to see what has happened, especially since about 2000.

Is the explosion of the internet good or bad for society? That is not easy to answer, and it is up to the individual to evaluate that. The internet has created many jobs, but it has caused many to lose jobs as well. There's no use in fighting about it since we can't go back, only forward. When society went from using the horse and buggy for transportation to the "horseless carriage" or automobile, many were put out of work in that transition too, such as blacksmiths and buggy makers. But, on the other hand, the auto industry created millions of jobs. The only constant in life is change.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Orson Welles' Citizen Kane is No Longer #1

Earlier this week a list was released which has the top 50 films of all time, according to the critics, and other film experts. For 50 years, Citizen Kane was number one, but now it has been replaced by the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece, Vertigo. Every 10 years the list is generated by Sight and Sound magazine, starting back in 1952. The magazine also polled over 350 directors, asking them to rank their top 10 films of all time.

The critic's top 10 include:

1. Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock, 1958

2. Citizen Kane, Orson Welles, 1941

3. Tokyo Story, Ozu Yazujiro, 1953

4. La Regle du jeu, Jean Renoir, 1939

5. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, FW Murnau, 1927

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, 1968

7. The Searchers, John Ford, 1956

8. Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov, 1929

9. The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Dreyer, 1927

10. 8 1/2, Federico Fellini, 1963

Some other notable films in the top 50:

14. Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola, 1979

20. Singin' in the Rain, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1951

21. The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola, 1972

28. Mulholland Dr, David Lynch, 2001

31. The Godfather Part II, Francis Ford Coppola, 1974

31. (tied) Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese, 1976

35. Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock, 1960

The list of the top 10 films chosen by directors contains many of the films also in the top 10 of the critic's poll, but I thought it was interesting to see #5 as Taxi Driver, #6 as Apocalypse Now and #7 as The Godfather. Many feel that the 1970s in America was a golden age of film with auteurs such as Scorsese, Kubrick, Woody Allen and Coppola leading the way. I have seen very few movies that were made previous to the late 1960s so my knowledge of the early days of the medium is limited. I have also seen very few foreign films. When I watch a film I like to watch the film for the directing style, the acting nuances and the set design. With foreign films, reading the subtitles makes it hard to do that. My list of top films would include some on the above lists, but also many others would be added. If Hitchcock's Vetigo and Psycho are on the list, why not Rear Window? Scorsese's Taxi Driver is amazing, and one of my top 10 no doubt, but I would also include him for Raging Bull, GoodFellas and Casino. Kubrick's 2001 is an achievement, but I preferred A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. If the Godfather 1 and 2 are on the list, I would include another violent film by another Italian-American filmmaker, Scarface, by Brian DePalma. The absence of Woody Allen films is a mistake in my book, and I would include Annie Hall and Manhattan. Allen's hero, Ingmar Bergman was on the critic's list at #17 for Persona. I was surprised to see David Lynch on the list at #28 for Mulholland Drive since I preferred Blue Velvet. I would have included James Dean's tour de force, Rebel without a Cause, which I feel is too often overlooked as a masterpiece of cinema.

But, alas, with any list there is controversy about what was included and what was omitted. I often wonder if critics feel pressure to like the art house or foreign films, so they can hold onto their credibility. If they do, then that is too bad since many of the more down-to-earth, less cerebral films are also enjoyable. Would a critic feel odd to include The Wizard of Oz or It's a Wonderful Life? They shouldn't, since those are outstanding works of art.

With the lists I notice how few of the entries are films made in the last 20 years. It seems like the film industry has often catered to the lowest common denominator, sticking with sequels, remakes and films based on comic book heroes simply because they attract a wide audience. That is a shame. For that reason, people owe it to themselves to check out independent films and documentaries. These are made due to the love of the media of film and the passion to tell a story, not out of the desire to break box office records. Attend local film festivals and make it a point to seek out these gems. We all "vote" with our wallets for what we want to see.