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Many questions were asked following the screening of Dr. Gerald Peary’s film For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism—most of which seemed to focus on the diminishing presence of the Independent and Foreign film industry on American soil.  Why are Americans not interested in films that rest outside of the mainstream?  I, as well as other students at the symposium, attempted to answer the question, though Dr. Peary didn’t seem satisfied with any of the answers that were given.  Even after, I couldn’t help but continue to think about this question.

As with any intelligent discussion, there are multiple sides to answering this beyond “Americans are sooooo stupid.”  Okay, while an over-simplification of the American people, there are in fact many who do consume “film-junk” on a daily basis—paying $13 a ticket to be lulled into a sleep-like trance by explosions and attractive people doing “outrageously” attractive things on screen.  Yet, for every film about violent robots, wise-cracking stereotypes, or the usual maudlin film featuring characters afflicted with aids/cancer/9-11 , there is barely any mention of films that rest outside of the American stream.

Of course, I realize that there are older film-buffs violently shaking their heads at me; it’s still relatively recent that film-lovers were able to purchase movies to watch at home, much less being able to gain access to hundreds of films from all over the world via the internet.  I can only imagine how hellish it must have been to even attempt to acquire a film from Japan or Europe that didn’t come to a local art-house.

The advent of Netflix and the digital-medium has forever change the landscape of film, and is often to blame for why people just aren’t going to the theaters any more.  Why pay $13 to watch a big-budgeted film when you can simply rent a slightly older movie for around four bucks—in high definition no less.  Netflix, once notable for its practice of DVD shipping, has fully embraced the digital age with its streaming section—a vast collection of films made available on nearly every internet-enabled device; yet, I know of many who still claim their aren’t any good films available on the service—a claim that I would have once disputed, if not for the fact that I have noticed a dip in quality among the catalogue of film available in Netflix’s streaming service.  What with TV channel Starz removing all their films from the streaming service, and Netflix moving in an original programming direction—with its recent series Lilyhammer, as well as acquisition of a new season of “Arrested Development—“ it seems that, in a year or two, Netflix may not be the haven for unknown cinema as it once was.  Of course, Netflix isn’t the only available way to consume entertainment digitally; there are several “In Demand” services which allow consumers to either rent or purchase movies over an internet connection.

But that runs into another problem of the “Hollywood vs. everyone else” debate: How can I even find films that are even good?  As much as I adore Netflix, it does a fairly terrible job of informing users of new films; and other services aren’t any better.  This is coming from a guy who keeps up to date with various film sites/blogs, and even I have a hard time getting access to worthwhile entertainment.  Education is something that could work in advantage of getting people interested in obscure film titles; though, there is a reason–a rather sad one–as to why Americans seemingly have no interest in going beyond their comfort zones—they don’t care about film as “art.”  I realize how condescending that statement might appear, but there is some truth to this.  After a screening of the big-budgeted schlock Battle: Los Angeles, I explained to my friends that I thought it was an unoriginal mess of cliché’s stolen from nearly every American war film ever created, and had the audacity to somehow make an alien invasion “boring.”  All I got in response were glares from my friends and the tired statement of “stop acting like a critic, Chris.”  On film blogs, hundreds of posts can be read of commenters calling for the online critic’s head for dare claiming that Michael Bay film is (gasp!) terrible.  Anti-intellectualism is a term Dr. Peary used in describing the love-hate relationship movie-goers have with critics; the idea of a single person claiming authority over a specific subject tends to make people uncomfortable.  Perhaps it’s because feel rather stupid when someone who might be more qualified to talk about film proceeds to tear apart your favorite film; or maybe it’s simply because no one likes a know-it-all ass.  Either way, this notion of “people shouldn’t intellectually pick apart a film because it’s just fun, man” feeds into the idea that films aren’t worth anything more than trashy entertainment is rather insulting, and fills me with the kind of passive-aggressive rage that inspires one to blog.

While Hollywood is often the first to be blamed for the state of the film industry—not to suggest that Hollywood isn’t—some of that blame lies squarely with the audience that feeds the machine.  People want the loud, brashness of today’s Hollywood action-films because they’re easy to digest and contain American sensibilities that most people are familiar with.  Could you say the same for Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation or Michael R. Roskam’s Bullhead?  In today’s modern society, people want their entertainment—which ranges from film, television, music, and literature—in bite-sized, easy to digest formats, where the good-guys win and get rewarded for their deeds.

I don’t want to suggest that people are unintelligent because they don’t appreciate film nor would I ever suggest that film-viewing shouldn’t be fun.  Movies might be one of the most enjoyable social activities that people can enjoy, and I certainly enjoy the decent summer blockbuster as much as everyone else; but I do believe the key to widening the gap is an understanding of film culture in general—not just what Hollywood hypes up.

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One of the more effective aspects of Suzanne Collins’ ever popular science-fiction novel, “The Hunger Games,” is its unrelenting sadness—a portrayal of a dystopian world that acts as an allegory for our own modern day class-based issues.  Since its release in 2008, “The Hunger Games” has achieved a level of success that made a film-adaptation inevitable.  While exciting for fans, some grew hesitant over one of the more “controversial” aspects of the book: it’s depiction of children participating in death-matches.  With a pg-13 rating attached, how on earth could a “Hunger Games” adaptation be properly made, much less maintain the brutality contained in the novel?  Director Gary Ross manages to bring the book to the big screen, crafting a rather faithful adaptation; however, faithfulness is not synonymous with quality, and through the cinematic transfer, loses many of the nuances found in its source material.

Ross opens “The Hunger Games” depicting the poverty of District 12, one of thirteen districts put down during a violent uprising by The Capital. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone)is one of District 12’s inhabitants.  A born survivor, Katniss illegally hunts for her family and seeks to protect her sister, Primrose, from the possibility of acting as a “tribute” for The Hunger Games—a gladiatorial event where two tributes are forced to fight to the death against the other district’s tributes.  Strong, and fierce, the character may as well been created with Jennifer Lawrence in mind as Lawrence’s performance captures the independent nature of Katniss rather well.

The film proceeds to streamline most of the events that take place in the books, though many of the smaller touches from the source material are lost in translation.  A powerful moment of silent rebellion from the people of District 12 as Katniss volunteers to take part in the games is rather muted in its film interpretation.  Even so, Ross, armed with cinematographer Tom Stern, manages to recreate the bleakness that permeated the world of Collins’ novel.

However, the film trips and falters as it moves to more fantasy fare.  Katniss, partnered with the District 12’s male tribute, Peeta, (Josh Hutcherson) makes her way to the Capital to be pampered and prepared for the games.  The film swaps out the harsh landscape of District 12, for the cleaner, if slightly generic, visual aesthetics of the futuristic metropolis.  Katniss and Peeta, in a clever nod to our own obsessions with reality-show celebrities, are forced into a state of artificialness—smiling robotically for the attention of millions and, ultimately, for surviving the games.  “The Hunger Games” lays its social-commentary on thick, parodying our self-obsession with fame; yet, the film loses the overall punch of its first half, thanks in part to some drab visuals–a scene during the opening ceremonies has all the qualities of a FMV video game—and some pacing issues.

“The Hunger Games” manages to retain some of its momentum during the start of the actual games, but it’s here that proves to be the most troubling.  Gary Ross trades in the potential brutality and horror for that of visceral entertainment; what should be shocking is instead turn into rousing enjoyment as the audience cheers on Katniss as she faces a cadre of cartoon villains.  For a movie that puts much emphasis in its message, it’s disconcerting how it avoids exploring the grey area that is typically associated in similar stories such as Lord of the Flies and the oft compared Japanese film, Battle Royale.

Ultimately, The Hunger Games is a solid adaptation that will make fans happy, and is a strong film directed at those who tire of Twilight’s long-reaching influence over young-adult cinema.  However, those expecting a more mature science-fiction film may be turned off by the film’s “black-and-white” approach to its themes.

It’s exciting times to be a Ridley Scott fan.  The versatile director has recently announced his film Prometheus—a pseudo-prequel of sorts to the fan-favorite film Alien.  While any sort of connection to the mature horror film is greatly appreciated, the fact that Prometheus will mark Scott’s first foray into the science-fiction genre in thirty years is pretty exciting in itself.  Though despite how varied in quality Scott’s work tended to be, it at least showed he isn’t willing to be tied down by “genre labeling”

However, Ridley Scott’s return to the genre that had made him the big-named director he is today is exciting indeed, and footage from Prometheus looks to be a grand return to form for the director.  Though the new movie has revitalized interests and discussion of the mythology of Alien—and as to whether or not James Cameron forever ruined the franchise with his sequel Aliens, a film that shifted from the claustrophobic tensions of the original movie to Cameron’s action-pack interpretation in his sequel—it has also laid attention to another Ridley Scott film—Blade Runner.  The 1982 film adaption of Phillip K. Dick’s sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, was a far more ambitious film than the admittedly small-scaled Aliens; and yet, retained that same feeling of claustrophobia in its depiction of an Earth where corporations rule, and American cities have literally become a hastily, slapped together melting pot of Asian-centric cultures.  Blade Runner is the type of ambitious film from a dedicated director and his staff that is rarely seen in modern cinema.

It’s also known for notoriously bombing when first released in theaters, failing to provide the action-adventure spectacle that many expected from a Harrison Ford-starring vehicle, instead alienating audiences with its slow-moving, “artsy-fartsy” pacing.   Blade Runner has since achieved a level of acclaim and success that has become the basis for all supposed “cult-classic” films; successful enough that Blade Runner has seen the release of five different versions of the movie, all of which are available in specific collector editions of the film (for the purpose of this writing, I decided on watching the international director’s cut).

If there are any similarities between Ridley Scott’s sci-fi films, it’s that, much like Alien itself, Blade Runner hints at an expanded universe; the film’s story of  bounty hunter Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) attempting to hunt down a group of Replicants,—cyborgs who are able to think and act like human beings—feels like simply part of an anthology.  Early on we find that most of humanity has moved on to live in space colonies, while the “dregs” of society are forced to stay on earth—Deckard, among those who are simply wasting away in worn-down Los Angeles.  In fact, Deckard seems like the very representation of what humanity has become in 2019: tired, afflicted with alcoholism, and a cynical outlook towards life in general.  To make matters worse, Deckard has been forced out of retirement by the very people he used to work for—“You’re little people now,” remarks Deckard’s former supervisor, Bryant—and  is put on a case to find four deadly Replicants who have landed on earth after taking part in a violent uprising in one of the space colonies.  The Replicants: Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), Leon Kowalski (Brion James), Pris (Daryhl Hanna), and Zhora (Johanna Cassidy), land on earth in hopes of finding a way to extend their own lives, which are limited to four years thanks in part to the Tyrell Company’s efforts to control the replicants.

Whether or not these replicants have a right to humanity, is a theme that, while the film never focuses explicitly, is always in the background; The replicants don’t want vengeance on mankind, or even to rule any part of the world.  What they want most is to be able to live lives that we generally take for granted; it’s a freedom that they’re all willing to kill for—to die for.  It can’t be any coincidence that Ridley Scott’s upcoming film is titled Prometheus, a title that alludes to the Greek god Prometheus responsible for granting human beings with fire; the name also serves as the subtitle for the popular Mary Shelly novel, “Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus,” a cautionary tale of personal responsibility and the consequences that come from playing god.  Much like the novel’s protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) has conquered the role of god with his cyborg creations—especially with the recent Nexus-6 models, of which the replicants featured in the movie are based on– that are able to completely replicate the thought-processes and emotions of human beings.  However, unlike Frankenstein, who hesitates and fears the unholy creature he has created, Tyrell controls his creations by taking away the one thing granted to all living things—the right to live.  Considering that the most basic natural rights—if one should believe in such things—is considered to be accessed by all living things, should that not include androids that are able to form their own emotional responses?

Blade Runner makes for an interesting subject on the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate; whereas “Frankenstein” portrays a more negative stance —the monster is driven to kill because of a lack of emotional response from his fellow living beings– Blade Runner ends on a surprisingly upbeat note.  In his last act, Roy Batty chooses to save Deckard from falling to his death.  Despite Batty’s labeling as a combat android, and despite the oppressive nature of his human counterparts, he experiences a sense of empathy during the last moments of his life.  The Rutger Hauer monologue, which is famously known for being adlibbed by Hauer, is one of the more understated moments in the movie, and it’s ultimately up to the viewer to determine the meaning of the scene.

On the other side of the spectrum, Rachel—a replicant who, unlike the others, is not stricken with a four year life span, allowing her to live almost like an actual human—is a reverse “Frankenstein monster;” unlike the others, she is allowed to experience human emotions, thanks in part to “false memories” that are imbued into her consciousness.  However, her “humanity” is as every bit as artificial as her own replicant body.  It is only when she is forced to confront her own identity, does she come to resemble an actual person.

BladeRunner’s bold-headed attempt at subverting the expectations of mainstream cinema is most likely the cause of its lackluster sales.  BladeRunner is not an action film.  Whereas we’re used to rooting for our masculine protagonists struggling in the face of evil, defeat is well-worn on the face of Blade Runner Deckard; whereas we’re meant to cheer as our hero combats evil, BladeRunnerforces us to witness in horror as Deckard “retires” beings with the capabilities of human emotions.  Humanity has already lost, revealing a futuristic world that isn’t unlike our own. Ridley Scott makes the smart decision of not including any notions of some kind of social-rebellion; apathy seems like the more realistic approach.

Yet, in a sense, a rebellion—no matter how small—is nevertheless sparked.  By not dying silently and anonymously, the “replicants” continued existence fly in the face of their creato.  Even Deckard himself makes a small movement towards rebellion by refusing to put down Rachel, and go into hiding.  It’s inconsequential as to whether or not Rachel and Deckard live or die—there are books that go into detail of the continuing adventures of Deckard, but it’s safe to assume that only those stories helmed by Scott should be considered canon—there is now a spark of hope that true human compassion can exist in a typically robotic, dystopian world.