Category Archives: Film Studies

Script to Screen: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Don’t miss this episode of Script to Screen where Destin Daniel Cretton, director and co-writer of Marvel’s Shang-Chi, answered questions about the film from moderator Matt Ryan.

Cretton discussed a wide range of topics, including the casting of legendary actors Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh, as well as the intense physical training and emotionally complex performances required of cast members Simu Liu and Meng’er Zhang. He also talked about some of his favorite elements of the film, including the rich familial themes that drive the story. Cretton elaborated on the influences behind his decisions to incorporate complex ideas such as grief and the family dynamics of Asian households, and how these allowed for an unconventional relationship between the film’s hero and villain. He also commented on the importance of Asian representation in the film, and how important it was to portray realistic Asian and Asian American perspectives through its characters.

Watch Script to Screen: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

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Global TV

Television has traditionally been understood through national frameworks, corresponding to national networks of television distribution. The Carsey-Wolf Center series “Global TV” explores the way some contemporary television programs and formats have become unmoored from their national contexts of production and distribution. The series spotlights a number of recent shows that showcase this phenomenon, including a French heist caper, a South African vigilante thriller, and a crime drama set at the epicenter of political and social change in twenties Berlin; each of these shows both transcends and is rooted in its national context and culture. The conversations in the series examine how and why a particular program might travel and take hold with an international audience, addresses questions about the role of contemporary streaming services and global flows of creative labor.

Programs include:

The Hollow Crown
Ben Power discusses his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III for the BBC series, The Hollow Crown. Power discusses various elements of the series, including the challenges of adapting from Shakespeare, the casting choices, and political context.

Shadow
Moderator Wendy Eley Jackson speaks with Gareth Crocker about his South African television show, Shadow. Crocker discusses various elements of the series, and the bandwidth issues faced by some parts of the country.

Babylon Berlin
Scott Frank explores the influence of the German series Babylon Berlin on his own series, The Queen’s Gambit. Scott discusses multiple aspects of Babylon Berlin that contributed to his appreciation of German history and television.

Lupin
UCSB’s Lisa Parks, Jean Beaman, and France Winddance Twine discuss the sociological impacts of Netflix’s Lupin. They dive into the show’s political relevance and nuanced portrayal of Paris, and what makes the show an effective critique of state power.

Explore these programs and more from the Carsey-Wolf Center.

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Of Faith and Resilience

Commercial filmmaking often follows promising trends, whether consciously or not, and the result may be a spate of similarly themed movies appearing on the market at roughly the same time. For example, in the 1980s one such trend was the so-called “save the farm” films, in which Hollywood stars struggled valiantly to hold onto scenic family farms. Another short-lived but important trend was “border cinema” that dealt with tensions at the U.S.-Mexico border. When studio-funded these stories were told mostly from the American point of view; The Border (1982) with Jack Nicholson is emblematic of this approach.

Something of an outlier among border movies was Gregory Nava’s El Norte (1983) which, though not a box office hit, was a critical success and has proven to be immensely influential in the decades since its release. Nava tells the story of two siblings who flee Guatemala after the murders of their parents and journey to the north (el norte) along the length of Mexico. Like so many before and after them, Enrique and Rosa dream of finding a new home in the United States free of political violence and persecution. However, their faith and their resilience are tested at every step as challenges mount, leading to what must seem in hindsight an inevitable conclusion.

In interviews co-writer and director Gregory Nava traced the origins of El Norte to his experiences growing up in San Diego in a border family with relatives in Tijuana, Baja California. The young Nava crossed the border several times a week, often wondering who lived in all those cardboard shacks on the Mexican side:

“The border is unique—the only place in the world where an industrialized first-world nation shares the border with a third-world country…on one side are the Tijuana slums, on the other side—San Diego. It’s so graphic! This was the germ of the story.”

In his review Roger Ebert called El Norte “the Grapes of Wrath for our times,” and its impact is undiminished. The film is frequently shown and discussed in high school and college courses that touch on border issues, immigration, indigenous rights, and multiculturalism. In this program moderator Ross Melnick and guests Colin Gunckel and Mirasol Enríquez reflect on the genesis, production, reception, and legacy of the film in the context of both the “border cinema” of the 80s and newly emerging Chicanx filmmaking.

No matter how culturally insightful, no film can linger in the memory unless it speaks directly to audiences. El Norte is first and foremost a profoundly moving story, elevated above mere melodrama by its unblinking devotion to realism, its visual beauty, and the mesmerizing performances of the two leads, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez and David Villalpando.

Watch Borders: El Norte.

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The Future of Cinema

Since its inception in 1885 with the Lumiere Brothers’ public screening of La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon), cinema has been a collective experience, the modern equivalent of gathering around the campfire for storytelling. It continues to shape our perceptions, our attitudes, and the larger culture by providing a sort of shared mythology. However, the COVID-19 pandemic with its social restrictions has altered the ways in which films are delivered to the audience and how we process them, just as the 1918 influenza epidemic affected the nascent film industry of that era.

Scholars believe that there is much to learn by comparing and contrasting the effects of these and other outbreaks on cinema worldwide. In this roundtable discussion by six of those scholars, UC Santa Barbara professors Stephen Groening, Maggie Hennefeld, Brian Jacobson, and Jocelyn Szcepaniak-Gillece examine how the study of pandemics past – most especially the 1918 epidemic – sheds new light on how the current health crisis is reshaping the world of cinema, and whether or not those changes are likely to become permanent. Moderated by Patrice Petro, the conversation addresses such topics as questions of financial risk and exposure in the media industries as the balance of revenue sources shifts; the challenges to the movie theater’s traditional role as public space; and how reliance on streaming services has changed our fundamental understanding of cinema. The participants also explore how fears of viral infection are reshaping the literal and figurative “atmosphere” of moviegoing, since it remains to be seen if audiences (particularly older segments) will return to movie theaters in pre-pandemic numbers.

Finally, the panelists describe various strategies employed by the major studios and film distributors to adapt to changing circumstances. The consensus is that while there will always be a substantial audience of hardcore moviegoers who insist on seeing films on the big screen, the burgeoning popularity of services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Disney Plus, and others will continue. A pattern has already developed whereby many new releases have a brief theatrical run, after which (and in some cases during the run) they appear on digital platforms. Though initially confined to independent films this release pattern has become increasingly the pandemic-induced norm, and may eventually be limited solely to big budget blockbuster titles as marketing and distribution costs continue to skyrocket.

The specifics of the long-term future of cinema are as yet undetermined, but a close study of historical antecedents may help us to discern its outlines.

Watch Roundtable 1920/2020 – How COVID-19 is Reshaping Cinema.

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Genre-bending is Not for the Faint of Heart

Blending movie genres can be a tricky business, one often as not doomed to failure. Combining horror and comedy is especially fraught, since the two genres would seem to be mutually exclusive if not diametrically opposed in tone & subject matter. A few brave filmmakers have forged ahead regardless, including Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the screenwriters behind the sleeper hit Zombieland (2009).

Successful genre-bending is not something that can be tackled haphazardly. In conversation with UC Santa Barbara Pollock Theater Director Matt Ryan the duo discuss the many considerations that go into fashioning such a script, including finding the right horror/comedy balance while honoring the audience’s unavoidable genre expectations. As with any screenplay it’s a matter of making good decisions along the way; for example, Reese and Wernick determined at the outset that their zombies would be the fast-moving kind, a la 28 Days Later, and not the shambling variety popularized by Night of the Living Dead. They also elected to begin their tale with the zombie apocalypse well under way and almost taken for granted by our intrepid heroes. Subsequently there’s very little exposition about cause and scope to slow the pacing. As the writers note, it’s really not relevant to their story.

Reese and Wernick stress that having the right cast is absolutely vital to any film’s success, since if the actors are right for their roles they can boost the script to another level (and if not, it’s a train wreck). Fortunately the Zombieland cast includes such stalwarts as Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, and the near-legendary Bill Murray, all experienced and adept at playing comedy and drama with equal aplomb. (And in case you were wondering, yes, Bill Murray is very much the same personality off-screen as on.) The scripters were able to do some re-writing as needed to suit the actors’ personas, which in their view made the director’s job a little easier and enhanced the final result.

Track down Zombieland, and then tune into this installment of Script to Screen. You’ll be entertained and hopefully better prepared for World War Z, if and when…

Watch Script to Screen: Zombieland.

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