Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Top 10 Movie Scenes That Personally Resonate With Me

One of the pleasures of watching movies is finding characters and situations to empathise with. I've seen plenty of movies that speak to me, but I wanted to go deeper than that. In this post, I'll be looking back at specific movie scenes that held a mirror up to me and said, "Hey, this is you!" This list is not to be construed as a list of my favourite movie scenes. For example, the entire exorcism sequence in The Exorcist is brilliant, but it has no personal relevance to my life. Also, this is not a list of scenes that I merely agreed with. The park scene from Good Will Hunting is my second favourite scene of all time, because it espouses so many profound truths about life. It engages me, but it doesn't have any connection to me as a person. The scenes in this post are ones that make me feel comfortable because I know I'm not the only person who thinks a certain way. Oh, and I should warn you that there are SPOILERS in this post, so proceed with caution. Let's begin the countdown at number 10!

10. Childhood memories (Wild Strawberries, Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

In my humble opinion, the final scene of Bergman's Wild Strawberries is one of the most perfect endings a film could have. Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) is a man nearing the end of his life. He evaluates his life in a series of dreams and asides, putting his accumulated years into perspective. What I like about this scene is that it focuses solely on the professor. No one else; just him. It is in our private moments where we are most honest. I connect to the scene because I consider my childhood the best years of my life to date. Everything that has followed it just hasn't been as exciting. I have an abundant bank of childhood memories, and although I am not as well-travelled as Isak, I still call on them when I need to smile.

9. Subway attraction (Shame, Steve McQueen, 2011)

I was having doubts over whether I should include this scene in the post. I was afraid it would make people perceive me as a stalker, or at least a creep. Well, I am neither of those things, but one thing I am is a frequent user of public transport, and this sort of eye contact is something that happens a lot. It's very subtle flirtation, and it can make make a boring train ride become quite interesting. Of course, if the eye contact is not reciprocated, or if I sense I'm making the woman uncomfortable, I drop it straight away. Also, I don't follow women once they alight the train, like Brandon (Michael Fassbender) does in this clip. It's just a bit of harmless fun for me. For those who haven't seen the movie, Brandon is a sex addict, and so his desires are a lot stronger than mine. 

8. Institutionalised (The Shawshank Redemption, Frank Darabont, 1994)


No, I have never been to prison, and I don't intend on ever being locked up there. However, I like to adapt the metaphor of institutionalisation and apply it to school life. Primary school and high school induce routine in our lives. We know at what time the morning bell will ring. We know when recess and lunch are. We catch the same bus to and from school each day. Everything runs like clockwork. But one day, it all comes to an end. Your final exams are over and you've graduated. You'll never have that again. I know a lot of people openly admit to hating their years as a school student. Usually, it's because they were bullied. I can understand that. I don't miss school a whole lot, but I miss the routine of school. Once school is over, life has a habit of throwing surprises in your face, and they aren't always pleasant. I also relate to the idea of institutionalisation because I am an introvert. The four walls of my bedroom were once very drab confinements. Ever since I accepted that I spend so much time at home, they've become second nature to me. Homesickness is a frequent problem of mine.

7. Typewriter tantrum (The Shining, Stanley Kubrick, 1980)


When I write, momentum is key. While I won't berate someone in the fashion that Jack Torrance berates his wife, I can certainly understand why Jack is so angry in this scene. If I lose my train of thought, I find it really difficult to get back on track. This scene works really well because of the contrast between the docile Wendy Torrance and her temperamental husband, Jack. You'll connect with the scene if you're an individual worker or a reclusive type.

6. The Colonel's kiss (American Beauty, Sam Mendes, 1999)


Firstly, I can't believe Chris Cooper didn't get an Oscar nomination for this role. Now, as you should all know by now, American Beauty is my favourite film of all time. Is this my favourite scene in the film? Probably. I can't say for sure. What I am sure of is that the scene taps into the fundamental human truth that we've all had "the wrong idea" at one time or another. Sometimes it seems as though the evidence is right in front of our eyes. Our selfishness entices us to a conclusion that turns out to be false. There was a time in my life when I got the wrong idea. I was so certain about something...someone, but my conviction was little more than idealisation and wanting to believe in another reality. I can't go into more detail than this. It is something I am very ashamed of and try to forget.

5. "I sound my barbaric yawp!" (Dead Poets Society, Peter Weir, 1989)


I have always been the shy one. This shyness means I am often lacking in confidence. "I'm just not good enough," I tell myself quite frequently. My teachers at school told me I had a lot of untapped potential. I could be the great student if I wanted to be. I just didn't try to be. Heck, I didn't even want to be. This scene shows us how we often rob ourselves of self-discovery because we live idle lives, and that some of us treat life as a 'waiting game', always expecting things to happen, but not actually pursuing opportunities. This is exactly how I view life. I live in the moment. I have no ambition. I have a profession in mind, but I have no idea how far I want to go with it. Maybe I just need a great innovator to shake me up and demand I sound my barbaric yawp. 

4. "Do you realise what a thread we're all hanging by?" (Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen, 1986)

Not too long ago, I wrote about the search for meaning in my life. If that was too much for you to read, here are my basic thoughts on the subject. Life is such a depressing endeavour because everyone eventually dies. In order to keep our minds off this thought and prevent ourselves from committing suicide, we must pretend that this all means something by inventing distractions for ourselves. Sometimes the distractions are genuinely pleasant and we can derive personal meaning from them. When I watched this movie, I COULD NOT BELIEVE how accurately my beliefs were portrayed in this scene. A doctor tells Mickey (Woody Allen) that he doesn't have cancer. Mickey runs out of the doctor's surgery and does a victory dance in the street, until he realises that, while he may not die anytime soon, he will die eventually. Like Mickey says, death is something we know about all the time, but we stick at the back of our minds. For a lot of people, the inevitability of death is what makes the idea tolerable. It's the opposite for me. I often fantasise that scientists will one day invent a remedy for death. Of course, I make these thoughts in jest, but it would be nice. I just hate the fact that I'm going to die one day. For fuck's sake. Why?

3. "I am not gifted." (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen, 2008)

It's obvious that I'm very passionate about film, but if you asked me to actually make a film myself, I'd laugh at you. I'm just not gifted enough to make one. I know, I know. I could take a course in filmmaking. But you know what? I'm just not bothered. I have no drive. I am not like the self-taught François Truffaut, who, in his childhood, snuck into theatres because he couldn't afford to view the art form he would one day contribute to. If I had to pinpoint something that's remotely close to a gift, it would be my control of language. Not writing, per se, but just the way I generally use words to express myself. But, in today's society, is that a truly remarkable gift? Will it take me anywhere? I have doubts about that. I just wanted to hug Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) in this scene. I share her pain on a daily basis. I love art, music, film and literature, and I have so many interesting thoughts to share with the world. It's the medium of delivery I struggle with. I'm not as talented as the people I admire. This blog is the best hope I've got. I think I could write a screenplay if I really had to...but that's for another day.

2. "I can't relate to 99% of humanity." (Ghost World, Terry Zwigoff, 2001)

This is only a brief scene, but it encapsulates what I think about a large portion of society. Sometimes I call myself a misanthrope. Human beings just really disappoint me sometimes. We're vain and greedy creatures. Like Seymour (Steve Buscemi), I just cannot fathom why some people cannot be comfortable unless they're wearing expensive Nike footwear. The majority of people my age seem to coast along and cling to whatever will make it easy for them to be liked. Some people are happy to listen to whatever music is in the mainstream charts, and they will not cop a hard time for it because this music saturates popular media. Some people can watch the latest Transformers movie for nothing but pure entertainment, and no one will ridicule them because seeing movies as more than mindless fluff is “pseudo-intellectualism”. Sometimes I hate being smart. And yes, I believe I am smart. People have been telling me this my whole life. I can’t avoid it. Sometimes I wish I was predisposed to be a simple-minded guy with safe tastes and safe opinions. But that’s not how I’m wired. I’ve always been inquisitive and I’ve always been pedantic. I believe this is more difficult than being a moron, if only for the fact that morons have less explaining to do.

1. "This is important to me." (Diner, Barry Levinson, 1982)

I'm a very pedantic person. I like things to be organised meticulously. I probably have obsessive-compulsive disorder but just haven't been diagnosed. If I have things arranged in a specific order, and someone tampers with that order, then I will be angry. But this scene isn't just about people who like to order things. This scene is about caring so deeply for something that no one else understands. For me, that thing is correct spelling, grammar and punctuation. I don't care if I'm on Facebook. I'll use the language as it was intended to be used. Hardly anyone can understand why I object so strongly to bad spelling. I hate it because it’s incorrect and it looks ugly. Why butcher a language like that? Still, no one can fathom how frustrating it is to me. So, I am left alone to ramble into an echo chamber. Because of this, I fear that people secretly hate me. If they do, that's their problem. I'll keep inserting the apostrophes that people carelessly discard because they "cbf". When I was five and my grandmother sat me down and taught me how to spell my own name by pointing to a football with "STEVEN" written on it, she did it because she cared. She didn't have to do that. When someone writes 'your' instead of 'you're', I might correct the person. If that person responds with "Who cares?", it sets me off. "I CARE!" Isn't it fucking obvious that I care? I corrected you for your own good, because I care. And I'm not going to pretend that I have a perfect grasp of the English language. I'm sure there would be people who care about these things even more than I do, and they are most welcome to correct me. I encourage it. If you would like to read more about my reasons for caring about the correct use of language, I've written about it here. In the meantime, don't be afraid to stand up for the things you care about, and don't worry if no one understands your love for it. 

Monday, October 29, 2012


By now, I'm sure most of my readers would know I am an introvert. As a result, I do not go out often, and this means I don't come by many photo opportunities at social events. You may have noticed that my display pictures on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr are always of me by myself. Usually I am standing or sitting in front of a plain background with a manufactured smile. Pretty boring, but that's the price I must pay for not going places. Sometimes I get insecure about being alone in these pictures. I see others update their profile pictures and I notice they are with friends or family, and everyone looks genuinely happy. I've never had one of those profile pictures. 

So, I got thinking about the meaning of all this, and mustered up the motivation to do some original quantitative research. I logged onto Facebook, clicked on my 'friends' section, and slowly trawled through every single one of my Facebook friends—all 486 of them. Yes, even YOU! (Note: On my profile, Facebook tells me I have 502 friends, but this number is evidently off.) As I did this, I had a pen and some paper next to me, and I was keeping a tally. I observed each profile picture, and noted whether the person posed alone, with at least one other person, or didn't feature in the picture at all. 

Here are the criteria I established in the process:

* In order to satisfy the 'alone' category, the person must either be completely isolated, or, if anyone else is in the frame, they cannot be facing the camera, or must be in the background by accident. 

* In order to satisfy the 'with company' category, the person must be with at least one other individual who is engaged in the photograph. That is, the other person/people must know the photo is being taken. Animals and statues do not count as other people. Babies/infants do count ('company' is not restricted to friends).  

* In order to satisfy the 'N/A' category, the person who 'owns' or moderates the account must not feature in the photograph at all. Deactivated accounts which have the default Facebook display picture do count. Other examples of things under this category: pictures of celebrities, logos, solitary animals. 


Alone = 185 (38.1%)

With company = 205 (42.2%)

N/A = 96 (19.8%)


As suspected, most of my friends had chosen profile pictures where they are posing with at least one other person. However, there is only a 4.1% difference between the 'alone' and 'with company' categories, which means the desire to be seen with other people isn't the greatest priority on Facebook. Sure, it must feel good to be perceived as popular, but an imaginative solo shot can really impress people. Even if I did attend more outings, I don't think I would want anyone else to feature in my profile picture. To me, the main function of a profile picture is identity. If there is more than one person in a profile picture, it can become unclear which person is connected to the account. I'm sure some people realise this and set group photos as profile pictures to maintain a sense of ambiguity and perhaps even anonymity. 

Couple photos were frequent, but not everyone in a relationship had set their profile picture as one with their significant other. I find that if I see a male and a female together in a profile picture, I assume they are romantically linked. Of course, I make exceptions in cases such as a father posing with his daughter. Sibling shots seem to be a rarity, unless the siblings are around the same age and hang out together as friends. Black and white or filtered photos were more common amongst people who posed alone. People who posed alone were less likely to smile, probably because the photo was not taken at an event. Like I mentioned earlier, the smile you see in my profile picture is completely fake (sorry guys). The majority of accounts that fell under the 'N/A' category were deactivated accounts. This indicates that most people on Facebook want people to know what they look like, even if it isn't obvious at first. 

All in all, my findings aren't all that revelatory. My hypothesis turned out to be true: most people on Facebook set their profile picture to a photograph where they are not alone. Of course, my list of friends is just one sample. If you primarily used your Facebook account for maintaining business contacts, and most of your friends were bosses of big companies, most of them would probably pose solo to appear professional. I would guess that some people display a profile picture with other people in it just to feel popular, but this is not a true reflection of how many friends a person has. A person can pose with three other people, but those three people may be his or her only friends. 

On a side note, if I were to conduct this experiment with my Twitter followers, the majority of people would fall under the 'alone' or 'N/A' category. Group photos are not that common on Twitter. Here's my theory as to why that is: On Twitter, you're not just interacting with a circle of friends. You will most likely chat with strangers every day (who often become friends or acquaintances). You have to sell yourself to get followers, and if you pose by yourself, you help people emotionally connect with you. On Twitter, the focus is on the tweets. That's it. If you can't craft 140-character zingers, hit the road. On Facebook, you're maintaining an entire profile. Photo albums are important, and there are a lot more parameters on there than on Twitter. If you set your Facebook display picture to one with your two best friends, your Facebook friends will probably know who those two people are because you can tag the photo. It's a lot more intimate and close-knit than Twitter (although I find I have the better relationships on Twitter). Think of Twitter as the modelling portfolio and Facebook as the family photo album. On Twitter, you have to win people over. On Facebook, you've already won the people over, so you can just be yourself. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Four Film Genres I Like the Least

I don't like action movies. I don't like superhero movies. I'm not really into sci-fi or fantasy, either. I have never seen a single Die Hard or Star Wars film. I didn't feel the slightest inclination to see The Avengers this year. My friend forced me to watch Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and I just didn't enjoy them at all. Thank goodness he didn't force me to watch The Dark Knight Rises. First of all, let me just clarify that I'm not writing this to bash any particular genre, or the fans of those genres. I'm not arguing that action, superhero, sci-fi and fantasy movies are devoid of merit. In fact, I know there are some excellent films belonging to those genres that I just refuse to see because I wouldn't appreciate them. My purpose in writing this is to inform. I want people to know about my aversion to particular genres, just so I don't have to explain it each time someone assumes I've seen the latest blockbuster.

In trying to pinpoint a similarity between these four genres (action, superhero, sci-fi and fantasy), I arrived at the conclusion that they all value extravagance. Films of these genres usually have big budgets, plenty of special effects, CGI and grand sets. What's wrong with these things? Well, nothing. Remember, I'm writing this post to explain why I don't like these films, not why these films are bad (although, some really are bad). To me, the most important elements of a film are the screenplay and the characters. Most blockbuster films are driven by plot, not by dialogue. People go to see action films for the car chases, the explosions and the shootouts. Am I generalising? Perhaps, but let's not kid ourselves that these elements aren't standard fare in action blockbusters. The thing about action sequences is that they negate the need for interplay between characters. Instead of words, characters exchange bullets. If all this violence and noise is balanced with an engaging story, and if it is motivated, then I might be more interested. Taken is one of a handful of action movies I have seen in my life. I'm not kidding. I've probably seen less than ten action movies in my life. Surprisingly, I enjoyed Taken, and I enjoyed it because it had a good setup. We were acquainted with the characters before the action began, and the action was not gratuitous. We only saw as much of it as was needed to restore order. Most importantly, the film worked because it had a human predicament at its core—a father in search of his kidnapped daughter.

So far I've mainly addressed my dislike of action films. Time to explain my apathy towards superhero films. Many would argue that there is no such genre as 'superhero', and that it is just a subgenre of action. They're not wrong, but the popularity of films in the Spider-Man, Iron Man and Batman series has birthed the term 'superhero movie', so I will use it throughout this post. I know some of you will be thinking, "The Dark Knight isn't a superhero film. It's a crime and drama film." Well, it may not be a superhero film in the vein of Tim Burton's Batman, but it is definitely a superhero film nonetheless. By extension, it is also an action film, which automatically makes me lose interest. As mentioned in the intro, I have seen The Dark Knight, and not by choice. Heath Ledger's performance was the only thing I cared for. Everything else was steeped in Batman vernacular. I could tell it was well-made, but that didn't make a difference because I couldn't emotionally invest in anyone or anything. I didn't know who these characters were, or what their backstories were. Sure, I had previously seen Batman Begins, but I didn't care for that either. I have heard several people say they aren't fans of Batman but still enjoyed Nolan's trilogy. Good for them. They are less scrutinising with their taste. For me, if the protagonist wears a cape and fights evil, the film can never divorce itself from the 'superhero' label. I can't treat it as a drama or a crime film. It is a superhero film with dramatic moments, or a superhero film with a crime at its centre. Earlier this year, director David Cronenberg slammed Nolan's Batman trilogy, saying "A superhero movie, by definition, you know, it's comic book. It's for kids. It's adolescent in its core." I agree with him to a degree. My theory is that, in order to truly enjoy superhero movies, you must have had an interest in superheroes as a child. Other than watching Captain Planet on Cartoon Network, I was not exposed to any other media associated with superheroes (I owned a Batman costume, though). Kids who grow up reading Marvel and DC comics become enraptured in the ethos of good vs. evil. The notion of heroism becomes enticing, and they look up to the superheroes in the comics they read, the movies and TV shows they watch, and the video games they play. I had none of that. I never wanted any of that. Prove me wrong if you wish, but I cannot see how someone could enjoy The Avengers if they have no prior knowledge of the characters or storylines involved. My point is: more often than not, superhero films are for fans only. Yeah, you can watch as an unacquainted viewer and get a cheap thrill from seeing a building explode, but for a deeply immersive film experience, you've got to know the characters' histories. 

My grievances with sci-fi films aren't all too personal, and I'm more likely to enjoy a sci-fi movie than I am to like an action, superhero or fantasy movie. The main reason I usually don't enjoy or even watch them is because they are too mathematical. When I think sci-fi, I think machines, spaceships and robots. I am literary minded (hence my prioritisation of screenplay and characters), so scientific jargon is just very heavy for me. Stanley Kubrick is one of my favourite directors, and yet 2001: A Space Odyssey bores me to tears. I can appreciate it, but there's no way in hell I can watch it and have a good time. I think it comes down to the fact that the problems faced in space and on other planets are different to the ones we face in everyday life. Also, I am a fan of simple plots. Sci-fi movies are noted for containing many small details and plot complications. This is not a criticism of the genre, but just a personal admission that I generally don't like having to remember that much when I sit down to watch a movie. I had to study Blade Runner for HSC English. I remember hating it after my first viewing. After watching it another one or two times, I looked beyond all the futuristic spacecraft and dystopian imagery and found an emotional entry point in the character of Roy Batty. His final monologue is haunting and has stayed with me ever since.

I'm going to open this paragraph on fantasy films with the admission that I have never seen a single Harry Potter film, or read any of the books. I realise half the Internet hates me right now, but I thought I'd put that out there to demonstrate my apathy for the genre. While I'm at it, I've never seen or read anything to do with The Lord of the Rings. My problem with the fantasy genre is similar to the one I have with the superhero subgenre. Films of the genre are made primarily for fans. Of course, I could probably watch all the Harry Potter movies in order and make sense of them, even without reading the books first. I won't, though. Why should I care about fantasy movies if nothing that happens in them relates to the world I live in? This notion of escapism is one I'll explore further down. While I do not like fantasy movies, I do like movies that deal with the theme of fantasy. David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. does this perfectly, blurring the lines between dreams and reality. You could call Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life a fantasy film, but its aims are deeply humanistic. A good fantasy film should always maintain some semblance of reality. If I watch a fantasy film and it's all magic and mythology, it just won't interest me.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to watching films. One school watches films to escape the drudgery of life. They want to enter another dimension where everything is idealistic, because it's comforting. These people, more than anything, go to the movies to be entertained. The other school uses cinema to evaluate their own lives. This is the school I belong to. I want human stories. I want to be moved. I want stories of hardship and triumph. I want poignancy and pathos. I want Woody Allen. I want Ingmar Bergman. I want a story that is about people. I want movies that depict the way real people talk and behave. To get an idea of the type of movies I like, American Beauty is my favourite film of all time. I would rather walk away from an absorbing drama feeling depressed than leave The Dark Knight Rises and say "Wow, that was impressive, now let's go grab some pizza!" Essentially, I want films that have an emotional impact on me. Action, superhero, sci-fi and fantasy are genres that offer an escape to other worlds. I don't care what's on Pandora. I care about what happens on Earth. I don't care about Harry's quest to destroy the Horcruxes, because I don't know what a Horcrux is. There are no Horcruxes in this world; the world I live in.

My three favourite genres: drama, comedy and horror. "BUT YOU CAN'T LIKE HORROR! VILLAINS LIKE FREDDY KRUEGER DO NOT EXIST IN THE REAL WORLD!" A large misunderstanding is that people watch horror movies to see a bunch of people get killed. I watch horror movies to identify with the victims' struggles, and because I enjoy the thrill of being scared. I know Freddy Krueger is a fictitious character, but the world he inhabits in the film is not. The people he kills are not unlike you and me. I am interested in the notion of trying to stop a supernatural being in a world where the laws of physics apply. On the topic of horror, Jaws is generally regarded as the first true 'blockbuster' film. The shark may have been mechanical, but the fear it played on is very much real. Ask around and see how many people developed a fear of open water after seeing that film. My second favourite film of all time is The Shining. Like the Elm Street films, here we have supernatural events occurring in a place that is by no means supernatural or other-worldly: a hotel. Jack Torrance's descent into insanity is frightening to watch. The film is never about the spirits. The spirits are there to reveal things about Jack. 

I would like to see Hollywood produce blockbusters that have some emotional foundation. It seems the four genres that interest me the least have a monopoly on the blockbuster, and too often, these movies prioritise extravagance over character development and feeling. For all its cheesiness, Love Actually is a feel-good movie, and it was seen as a blockbuster of the romance genre. Directors such as David Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson make big movies that could be considered blockbusters by nature, despite not dealing with explosions and fantasy worlds. Still, they don't take the world by storm in the same way action, superhero, sci-fi and fantasy films do. I am curious as to why that is, and I think it's as simple as this: it's just EASIER to watch a movie for entertainment than to watch one and engage with it intellectually. I remember when The Avengers was released. A man boarded the train I was on and began asking strangers if they had seen the movie. No one would get on a train and ask a random commuter, "Have you seen the latest Todd Solondz movie?" No one would have the confidence to assume the majority of people know who Todd Solondz is. We need to make drama films more marketable to the young adult demographic. It's not just middle-aged, middle-class people who watch and enjoy arthouse cinema.

So, now you know why I have no interest in action, superhero, sci-fi or fantasy movies. Of course, I am not militantly opposed to these genres. I will always look at the IMDb plot outline of a movie before deciding whether to watch it. If it seems like a good premise, I'll give it a go even if it belongs to one of those four genres. A lot of you must be thinking: "But call yourself a film enthusiast and hope to write about film for a living one day. Shouldn't you expose yourself to ALL genres?" That's a fair question, and it's likely I will expand my taste as I get more serious about film writing. Still, if I can produce quality analysis of the films I enjoy, it shouldn't matter what I don't watch. I'll leave you with a list of popular movies I have never seen because of my stubbornness:

* All Star Wars films
* All Lord of the Rings films
* All Harry Potter films
* The Dark Knight Rises
* All Spider-Man films
* All Iron Man films
* The Avengers
* All Alien films (I plan to watch the first one because it also serves as a horror film)
* Avatar
* Prometheus
* All X-Men films
* All Die Hard films
* 300
* ALL James Bond films
* All Pirates of the Caribbean films
* All Transformers films (I don't regret this one at all)
* All Terminator films

I'll stop there before I disgust you even more.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Review: Paranormal Activity 4 (2012)

Directors: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Writers: Christopher Landon (screenplay) and Chad Feehan (story)

Yep, the Paranormal Activity series is still going, and it is way past its use-by date. I have made an effort to see every film in the series at a cinema. They are fun movies to watch with a large audience, but fun doesn't always translate to well-executed. After the surprisingly decent Paranormal Activity 3, I invested a little bit of hope for this one. I thought Joost and Schulman (they did Catfish - a documentary I think very highly of) were steering these films in the right direction, but this entry convinced me that the main (and perhaps only) priority in making these films is attracting teenagers to cinemas to give them a few cheap scares.

Paranormal Activity 4 is set in 2011 (a sequel to part 2, as part 3 is a prequel), and follows the strange events that befall Alex (Kathryn Newton) and her family once they take in a child called Robbie (Brady Allen). Robbie is Alex's neighbour, and comes to live with her family after his mother is taken to hospital. Alex's boyfriend, Ben (Matt Shively), owns a laptop that automatically records webcam chats, and this is how he notices the supernatural presence in Alex's house. From this point on, Alex grows suspicious of Robbie, and we enter the usual schtick of suspenseful long takes and jump scares galore. 

Two things that really stood out were the film's sense of humour and its touch of modernity. In terms of the humour, there's nothing that will induce a belly laugh, but I think this instalment was written with a distinct audience in mind, which highlights an awareness of the filmmakers that most people just don't take these movies seriously anymore. A lot of the chuckles are due to the interplay between Ben and Alex. I found their awkward chemistry very endearing, and this is probably the film's greatest asset, if I'm being frank. There's some blatant product placement involving Xbox Kinect, and some parts of the film are saturated with vibrant colours, giving the series some much-needed freshness, and reinforcing that it's set in 2011.

For all this heightened immediacy, the series is simply running out of gas. The cues are too predictable. We notice the inanimate objects moving, and we don't care because we've seen it before. We know that exploring the creepy neighbour's house will never end well. We know this demon can lift things and drop them. You get the point. These films are now being pumped out every year, just in time for Halloween. We saw what happened to the Saw franchise. It just turned to shit. I don't think the Paranormal Activity series is at the unwatchable stage just quite yet. There's still an element of playfulness that underlies these movies, and if not for that playfulness, the series would be dead. In fact, I wouldn't mind if the franchise discarded all of its pseudo-mythology about witch covens and mystic symbols. I just don't care for the story when I go to watch a Paranormal Activity movie. What I do care for is that there are some characters to empathise with (there rarely are), and that I am scared out of my wits (not a guarantee anymore). I know this sounds strange coming from me—someone who values great storytelling in film. But that's the thing...I value great storytelling, not middle-of-the-road storytelling. These movies are just too convoluted for their own right, and I was shocked to learn that writer Christopher Landon also worked on the screenplay for D.J. Caruso's Disturbia (a riveting thriller). Will there be a fifth film in the Paranormal Activity series? Probably. Will I go to see it? Yes. Why? Because I'm an idiot, and also because those clever distributors sure know how to build hype.

2.5/5 stars.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Review: To Rome with Love (2012)

Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen

The title suggests an intimate dedication from a director who has fallen for the charms of a city. Manhattan and Midnight in Paris—these films are love letters, to New York City and Paris respectively. Woody Allen's latest film, To Rome with Love, is more of a postcard—something you quickly peruse before storing in a drawer, never to be seen again. Throughout the past seven years, Allen has broken away from the confines of New York and shown us the offerings of London (most notably in Match Point), Barcelona (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and Paris (Midnight in Paris). Now, Allen's given us a travelogue set in Rome. The old saying goes "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Going by this proverb, you would assume that the Romans make clumsy films, because this film is a disappointing misfire. 

So, what is this film actually about? To be honest, everything's a muddle in my head, but with the assistance of what's already been written about the film, I'll do my best. Hayley (Alison Pill) is an American tourist who falls in love with and becomes engaged to Italian lawyer Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti). Hayley's parents, Jerry (Woody Allen) and Phyllis (Judy Davis), fly to Rome to meet their daughter's fiancé and his parents. Jerry hears Michelangelo's father, Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), singing in the shower one day and hopes to make him a worldwide sensation. Another story arc sees Alec Baldwin as John, an esteemed architect who is visiting Rome with his wife and some friends. It's been around 30 years since John lived in Rome, and he's keen to revisit his old haunts. He meets Jack (Jesse Eisenberg)—an aspiring American architect, and boyfriend of Sally (Greta Gerwig). Sally's best friend, Monica (Ellen Page), is invited to stay with Jack and Sally following a rough breakup, and bonds with Jack over architecture and literature. Throughout the film, John will become an extension of Jack's consciousness and offer him relationship advice. Meanwhile, Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) are newlyweds who have just settled in Rome. Milly is starstruck to see her favourite movie stars in the Roman streets, while Antonio becomes involved with Anna (Penélope Cruz), a prostitute who mistakes him for a client. The other storyline that rounds out the film is concerned with Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni), who wakes up one morning as a national celebrity, but has no idea why. He is essentially famous for being famous.  

Allen is thus tasked with juggling four story arcs, and at least double the amount of important characters. Actually, I shouldn't use the word 'tasked', as Allen brought this upon himself. The result is a mess—an uneasy series of people and predicaments that rarely provide the opportunity for empathy. The film lacks an emotional centre, as Allen weaves in and out of these characters' lives with reckless abandon. Some would call this approach 'spontaneous'. I beg to differ. It's just plain jumpy. For those playing at home, a film that ties many lives together very nicely is Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know. When the most engaging character in a film is the city it's set in, you've got problems. Notice how I used the word 'engaging'. The problem is not that these characters are bland. Quite a few are interesting, but just as we begin to warm to them, Allen switches to a different vignette. If he wanted to, Allen could have separated each story arc into an individual film. This film just feels as though it wants to burst through the screen and offload some characters into the audience. It has enough to spare. 

It was nice to see Woody Allen in his first acting role since Scoop in 2006. I wouldn't say that he stole the show (my personal vote for that role goes to Alec Baldwin with his quick wit), but he was always entertaining. I do think he overacted in some scenes, and tried too hard to be THE Woody Allen character everyone knows so well (for example, when his character is complaining about turbulence on the flight to Rome). In this sense, he descended into self-parody, but it didn't detract from my enjoyment of his scenes. It wouldn't be a Woody Allen film if the theme of death was not prevalent, and To Rome with Love is no exception. A recurring notion throughout the film is that of "Ozymandias melancholia", or the sinking realisation that nothing in life is permanent. Jerry remarks that he hates the idea of retirement because it's essentially analogous with death, and we get the feeling that this is Allen using his character to voice a personal statement.  

So, does To Rome with Love signal the decline of Woody Allen as a filmmaker? Certainly not. Keep in mind that this man has averaged one film per year since 1969 (because stagnation triggers thoughts about his mortality). There are bound to be some average or below par films in a career that is so prolific. Not every one will be a success. I think this film is a product of pragmatism. Having made films in London, Barcelona and Paris, it was only logical that a film in Rome would have to follow. Indeed, this film is largely imbued with Italian sensibilities. It doesn't feel as though Allen is an American director making a film in Italy, but rather that Allen is an Italian director. He has an excellent knowledge of how to channel the styles of other cultures. Could it be that Allen is simply running out of ideas? The Roberto Benigni storyline in this film is a well-travelled one, and Allen himself addressed the pros and cons of fame in Celebrity, where he argued that the positives of being famous far outweigh the negatives. But who does Woody Allen make films for? In the past, he has said that he can't identify his audience, and refuses to believe his films naturally attract intellectuals. I believe he makes them for himself, more than anything—not because he is egocentric, but because of that constant need to always be working. And if, like Jack, you are always working and never playing, you can very easily become a dull boy.

2.5/5 stars.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Atheistic Existentialism and the Search for Meaning

I am an atheistic existentialist. I believe there is no inherent meaning attached to life, and that we must find our own meaning to make existence bearable. The atheistic component comes into play when I consider where that meaning is derived from. I have no reason to believe that a higher deity has a plan for me. I do not believe in any romantic notions about our souls descending into heaven once we die. I believe our hearts just stop beating and we cease consciousness. Our bodies are placed in wooden boxes and are either buried six feet under or cremated. It'll be like going to sleep, but NEVER waking up. Now, I find that idea very unpleasant. Still, I value truth and evidence, and would prefer that grim prospect to a life wasted by praising a god that isn't there. I'm aware that some of my opinions in this post will make me sound like a nihilist, but I reject that label, because nihilists tend to abandon all moral principles, and I do believe there is a right and a wrong.

Love and Death (1975)

As of late, I've been obsessed with the philosophy of Woody Allen. Yes, Woody is primarily a filmmaker, but I love his mind first and foremost, and his films second. In the clip below, he talks about the artist's role to alleviate human suffering. This is a man who, since 1969, has averaged one film per year. He's always working because, if he takes a break in his schedule, he begins to think about the terrifying nature of existence—how old he's getting, if he'll get cancer, how much longer his heart can hold out. Work is a distraction for him. He doesn't care if his films are not perfect, because a successful film does not alter the human predicament that everyone will eventually die.

He doesn't keep his Academy Awards on display. They won't change the fact that he is mortal, so why should he grow attached to them? He summed up his outlook on life in the opening monologue of Annie Hall—that it is "full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly." In Crimes and Misdemeanors, he toys with the idea that, in a godless universe, it's up to the individual to monitor oneself. Without a god to punish you, you can get away with anything, including murder. In Hannah and Her Sisters (my favourite of his films), Allen plays Mickey Sachs. When a doctor tells Mickey he doesn't have cancer, Mickey runs out of the clinic and does a little victory dance. Then, he suddenly stops, realising that, while he may not have cancer, his time will be up one day. 

I mentioned some of Woody's beliefs because they are virtually the same as mine. I was always ashamed to tell people that I think life is meaningless, but since discovering Woody Allen, I've realised my view is more universal than I originally thought. Why must I spend my time on Earth going to school, university and work? Sure, these things seem normal because humans have been doing them for a while now. But before these became societal institutions and checkpoints, did we humans roam around like savage beasts, living primitive lives? Why do we have to take life so seriously? Why does it matter what grades you get in school? One day, you'll be dead. The teachers who marked your essays will be dead. The canteen lady will be dead. The principal will be dead. All gone. Yet, even with this knowledge, I still want to succeed. I know it won't matter when I'm just some ashes in an urn (at the moment, I prefer cremation over burial—just), but I'm forced to buy into this illusion that success will mean something. If I didn't sit any of my tests in high school, or if I choose to never find employment in my life, then I'll become a nobody and descend into a life of poverty. It's like there's this tacit agreement amongst everyone that, while we all end up as dust, we have to pretend that we're 'getting somewhere' or making an impression. 

On the notion of creating impressions and leaving behind legacies, I return to Woody Allen. He said that you can admire the works of Rembrandt and Plato, but that won't bring them back to life. Sure, YOU are enjoying their works, but THEY are long gone and wouldn't have the slightest idea that their works matter. Allen said he wouldn't mind if all of his films and the negatives of his films were thrown in the sewer once he is gone. He's realistic, as demonstrated through his admission, "Not that I think I’m totally untalented, but I don’t have enough to get my blood circulating once rigor mortis sets in." The majority of people who were alive 100 years ago are now dead. In 100 years' time, the vast majority of you who are reading this in 2012 will be dead. Some people will remember you. They might stop by your grave every six months and lay some wilted roses next to your headstone. You won't be aware that they're visiting. They'll do it out of respect and love, and one day they will be the ones who have flowers placed on their grave. As generation after generation passes on, you become nothing greater than an entry on a family tree. You'll become that great-great-great-great-grandparent, when you were once a mother or a father.

And all the celebrities who you admire...they'll die too. Every single one of them. Kevin Spacey. Kate Winslet. Emma Stone. Adam Sandler. I'm just tossing up names here, but the truth is, assuming you live a healthy, prosperous life: you will live to see all the news bulletins announcing the death of every celebrity significantly older than you. It's a scary thought, but we don't think about it because we find distractions. Just like you try and disregard that the lead singer of your favourite 70s band is sporting a head of grey hair now, you have to brush off some of the inelegant facts of life. Otherwise, it all becomes too miserable. If you sit around thinking that nothing at all matters, you might think about killing yourself, and that's a horrible thing to do, because it makes the people who love you very sad. 

"But if life has no meaning, why does it matter if one chooses to throw it away?" I hear you asking. Here's how I see it. If you're reading this, you are a miracle. Your father's sperm fertilised your mother's ovum, and you came into fruition. There would have been a point growing up where you realised you won't be around forever. You realised that education, work and settling down are stages of life that most people adhere to. You discovered the pleasure of distractions such as music, art, film and literature. You've made some friends along the way because it's enjoyable to let others share in your happy moments. Now, all these things you've done have not, in any way, changed the fact that you are mortal. However, there's no denying that while we are alive, we can enjoy ourselves. Yeah, we'll die, and that diminishes the experience a little bit, but if we tuck that fact at the back of our minds, we can get by. Appreciate the little things: the froth on your coffee, a trip to the zoo, birthday cards from your grandparents, bubble wrap. If you take all of these things into account, killing yourself becomes the last thing on your mind. We may only be around for a relatively small time, but we can have a ball while we're at it, can't we? Like Camus wrote, "It's no use reminding yourself daily that you are mortal: it will be brought home to you soon enough." I'll leave you with a scene from Hannah and Her Sisters. It's my favourite movie scene of all time. I hope you find it as meaningful as I did.