September 17, 2006

Reviewing Native movies

How to Review a Bad Movie (or Better Yet, Avoid Them Altogether...…)

I say hold Native movies to the same standard as any other movie. If you want 1-2 hours of my time, I want a good movie. And by that I mean a story that works--that entertains and enlightens--not glitzy production values. A good story costs nothing to develop and is priceless when done right (which is all too rare, alas).

My favorite Native movie (so far) is probably The Business of Fancydancing, which is probably one of the lowest-budget Native movies ever made. Movies like Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Fast Runner probably didn't cost much (except for the location shooting) either. It's not about whether you have big-name talent or cutting-edge technology; it's about whether you can tell a real story with real characters.

In short, if the writing is there, the rest will follow. If it isn't, no amount of acting, directing, filming, or editing can make it more than a glossy piece of mediocrity.

12 comments:

Carole said...

Couldn't have said it better myself, homedog...;)

Rob said...

I'm glad we're in sync. But from what I've read of your reviews, they're more positive than mine are. ;-)

Carole said...

ummmm...true. But that's because I try to AVOID the real stinkers. Or maybe it's because I'm a sucker for the underdog. Or maybe both...;)

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
And now we are into MY area! The article I want to add here is a bit complex, and I have appointments this morning, so I will post it when I get back.
THE BUSINESS OF FANCYDANCING was written and produced (?) by Sherman Alexie. I don't think Chris Eyre was involved. Never have seen it, though I read Alexie's articles on it in various magazines and how they 'four-walled' it in Native areas in the back of a semi truck. It certainly never was brought to Oklahoma, though. Wonder if it was worth a VHS or DVD release?
Sherman Alexie and I have had a rocky long-distance relationship. In the 90s, he sent me an autographed copy of THE LONE RANGER AND TONTO HAVE A FIST FIGHT IN HEAVEN, after attending an OU Native writers' conference here in Oklahoma where I was one of the host writers. Then he insulted me by saying that he regarded Native science fiction as only being written by 'modern' Native writers. And then he began an anthology about 'relocation' for Native writers under 30, notified me of it, and then said I wasn't eligible to submit!
Hell, I 'invented' Native SF in the 1960s! And I've spent thirty years and more writing Native SF stories from a time when there was no one but myself doing such work. Yet, I plan to include an Alexie story in HORSEMAN, STARMAN. I'm not a Republican as he is and I prove it by being Democratic!
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
Titles sort of run together for me, so I can't differentiate between SMOKE SIGNALS and SKINS, the two films I recall seeing. One was about two brothers and a pickup truck, and the other one was about 'rez' life where Graham Greene played a drunk. For the level of the efforts involved, both were okay and that's it. If there was an appreciable moral to either story, it was rather hard to determine. Oh, Graham Greene did die after being caught atop a burning liquor store. Was that a moral? But I mostly was distracted because I know that liquor stores do not just burn, they EXPLODE!! Bad science...
The film about the road trip was humorous to a degree but despite having actors I recognized (Native as well as PICKET FENCES and NORTHERN EXPOSURE cast members) and some appealing characters, the whole film lacked a central focus on which to hang the story. And it just sort of...ends without any resolution.
This is what I meant heretofore when I said such films were insular, uninvolving, and even incomprehensible. Audiences likely came away from these films somewhat confused, asking if this is all the filmmakers know about themselves and about life in general. It is not enough that the film could not have been made otherwise; in fact, it has to come across IN the film itself.
Here is where I agree with Rob, budgets, smudgets. The original ROCKY was made for $800 thou, the original PORKY'S was madee for $600 thou, the original TERMINATOR was made for $400 thou, and the original EL MARIACHI was made for $7,000! But these films had solid stories and well-drawn characters and somewhere to go while taking audiences along for an exhilirating ride.
I admit to liking the Tony Hillerman 'Navajo Detective' film adaptations on PBS, but with Robert Redford backing the efforts, they'd damned well better be likeable.
Maybe THE BUSINESS OF FANCYDANCING might change my mind somewhat, but I have yet to see it.
A few years back, Native American Public Broadcasting contacted me to ask if I was interested in submitting a screenplay for consideration as their first feature film project. Max budget: $2.5 mil, shooting schedule 8 weeks, possible theater release in Canada and Europe before PBS debut. I offered one of my favorites, RUN BEFORE THE BUFFALO, in which a decorated Viet Nam vet joins a Cheyenne protest in western Colorado that seizes a small settlement and holds it against the National Guard and Federal Marshals and the FBI. Yes, a direct parallel to Wounded Knee, except it played as I wished it had played. The protagonist, Thomas LittleShield, is one of those Natives blessed with the 'power not to be touched by bullets.' Unknowing he has such a power, he saves himself and several buddies on an ambushed patrol and so was decorated. It is not long before he discovers that the leaders' motives for the takeover have begun to change and he eventually falls out with them. Concerned for the dozens of innocent men, women, children, and old people who also were pulled into the protest, he at last is told of his power by a visiting medicine man, and then decides to ride before the National Guard and draw their fire. If his power allows him to emerge unscathed, he will prove that seeking ancient ways and knowledge is more important than playing someone else's political games.
This is it, they asked? Yes, I said, it is. But why are the militants the bad guys? They aren't, at least not at first. But as you see in the story, when things do not go their way at all, they change their minds, just like at Wounded Knee. It was in all the papers.
They had to admit, the script was well-paced, full of humor and excitement, crisp dialog, fulsome characterizations, authentic lore and culture, action scenes that used the dark of night to seem bigger, and indeed it would take an audience where it never has been. BUT...
The militants were the 'bad guys.' Yes, just like at Wounded Knee. No, no, the militants at Wounded Knee were HEROES!
Really? OK, then, name all the good things that came to Native people because of Wounded Knee? I'll give you a minute, no I'll give you two minutes. Hmm, hmm-hum-hum-hum, hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm. Enhh-enhh, oh, time's up and you didn't name one thing! Why is that?
Needless to say, RUN BEFORE THE BUFFALO came back home to rest because I wrote it as an exact parallel to history and I wasn't about to rewrite it to someone else's interpretation of history. It could have been done on their budget (2001's dollars) and would have helped the group make a name for themselves. But, no, the militants were the bad guys.
They searched around over and again and finally gave up by 2003. There has been no feature film forthcoming from their group and there likely never will be one. We are not on speaking terms any longer but that's fine with me. My writing speaks for me...
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

Rob said...

The Business of Fancydancing is out on DVD. In fact, you can order it through my website.

You're right about Sherman Alexie and Chris Eyre. I think they had a falling out. I don't know if Alexie produced Fancydancing, but he wrote and directed it.

If you match the titles to the descriptions in the order you wrote them, you have Smoke Signals and Skins down correctly. I give them both 8.0s, which is pretty good. But unlike many people, I don't rave about Smoke Signals as if it's a masterpiece. In my mind, Dances with Wolves, Thunderheart, and even Pocahontas are better movies.

I'd say the same thing came out of Wounded Knee II as out of Alcatraz. Namely, renewed Indian pride and determination to challenge the establishment. But I can't say for sure since I was only a teen then.

Carole said...

Let's see..."Smoke Signals?" Not too great; I'd give it a "6." "The Business of Fancydancing," was better--largely because of Evan Adams in the lead role--but fell short because Alexie's egotistical fingerprints were all over it. Still, worth seeing since the premise of a conflicted gay poet is a great story.

But one thing I do disagree with both of you on is that budgets do count. Try making a seamless movie with a knock-em-dead soundtrack and special effects, a cast of thousands and costuming to die for. That's what I'm referring to. Small movies--and some of the films I'm talking about cost less than $100,000, maybe $50,000--are never ever going to compete with that, nor should they be evaluated the same way. Nevertheless, a good script, good acting--those factors should be considered in any production, large or small.

Rob said...

Clearly, you can make movies with big budgets that you can't make with small budgets. Peter Jackson's King Kong would've been impossible without today's technology, for instance. And (sorry, traditionalists) it was a notable improvement over the original in most ways.

But a lot of movies waste their big budgets on things that don't improve the results. That's why movies like Rocky or The Terminator are better than Star Trek: The Motion Picture or Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Big budgets can't rescue a bad movie; they can only enhance a good movie.

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
The original KING KONG was full of racial metaphors but in a way that brought on audience self-examination. It frightened audiences as well.
The modern KING KONG was a loving homage to the original and just as much an examination of the movie industry as was the original. The only really scary parts were the dinosaur stampede down that damnably narrow valley and then the attack by giant insects, spiders and slugs at the bottom of the chasm. It took the much-discussed but never seen sequence of the original (cut out on order of The Hays Office, precursor of the MPAA) and expanded on it admirably. And then there was the implied story element that Skull Island once had been the seat of an advanced civilization that destroyed itself after developing recombinant DNA and cloning technologies, a la THE RELIC and JURASSIC PARK. Hint, hint...
What will be the final determinant about which KONG is king is whether the newest one ALSO becomes a classic in the field.
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
POSTSCRIPTUM: went to the website but I prefer special ordering through Wal-Mart or Best Buy. I don't trust putting my sole credit card or one of my debit cards online.
Is there a reason WAR PARTY is not among the offerings? Or is it not available? I auditioned for that one, mainly the part of the drunken medicine man. But Saginaw Grant true to form aced me out of that one, too. At least, he played himself for a change.
And I'll frame that line about "Alexie's egotistical fingerprints." Too, too delicious!
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

Rob said...

The most notable point about the indigenous people in the new Kong is that they're cruel savages who practice human sacrifice. If they were American Indians instead of Asians, I'd lambaste the movie as stereotypical.

I don't know anything about War Party, although it's on my list of Native movies. On my Customer page, I've linked to what I consider the best movies--the ones people should buy. It takes work to set up these links so I don't want to link to every possible movie.

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
And the natives in the 2005 KING KONG were "cruel savages" who had suffered from their own misdeeds and bad cultural decisions, just as would any of the First World nations who abused their technological discoveries and inflicted or unleashed those upon themselves. Science fiction most times is a warning and Jackson was needling the US or Great Britain.
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'