Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Man of Steel considered.

After weeks of half unconsciously treating the opening of the new Superman film, Man of Steel, as a minor second coming, some more sober second thought about it is called for.

For one thing, its relatively low Rotten Tomatoes score (56%)  is disappointing considering what is riding on this film working to create a true DC Comic Cinematic Universe Franchise, even if it can still claim a majority critical approval.  As it is, I think this is a case where too many critics are missing the point of the film as it breaks away from the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve media image. That shadow trapped the last attempt, Superman Returns, to the point of retreading the first film's plot points with Superman being simply too powerful, thus dooming it. Furthermore, the critical situation was reversed with critics liking it, (RT 56%), but the public being far less enthused about it.

In short, Chrisopher Nolan and Zack Snyder had the same challenge Guy Richie had with creating his Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr. to escape the shadow of Jeremy Brett's quintessential version.  The problem was that Brett's film version was originally on British and American public, TV and didn't have a predecessor with the grand epic feel of a major film genre redefining Hollywood movie to overshadow it. In that situation, doing a darker and harder edged Superman is about the only option. Not only does avoid the high idealism of Reeve, but gives Cavill's version a vital human grounding before embracing his alien heritage with some welcome realism of how the world would react to such a superhero appearing. In addition, Hans Zimmer's score may not emulate the full majesty of Williams' classic work, but it drives the emotional element home better than you imagine.

Man of Steel's true challenge to face.
In that case, it feels like the right move with drama and blistering action climaxing in a fight in Metropolis that finally topped Superman II's legendary brawl.  The final resolution to it would seem against Clark's character, but he's young, wholly justified under the circumstances and is cleared precedented in the comics. Just his reaction to that move gives just the right tone of a man driven to do the seemingly unthinkable for him for the greater good and paying a high spiritual price for it. In addition, Lois Lane is refreshingly talented as a reporter who figures Clark out right from the beginning and thus begins a fascinating new dynamic with the superhero as a secret keeper from the beginning.

The film is certainly not perfect in some regards.  I don't approve entirely of how Pa Kent is more concerned about keeping Clark's powers secret than helping people and the way he was killed off stretches creditability to be that determined to keep that secret. Also, Cavill's take as Clark Kent the reporter was really disappointing; unlike Reeve, he didn't put any effort in making the persona believable in any sense. For instance, he didn't even change his hairstyle and there is nothing established in the film to allow him to work at a major newspaper.  For that matter, a narration of him writing in a personal journal in his travels could have gone a long way to doing that.

Regardless, the strong Monday box office indicates a decent sustained interest in the film and hopefully we can enjoy more of them.  If it means that Wonder Woman will finally get her film before Justice League, it will be something long overdue. If only Bruce Timm, the guiding producer of the classic DC Animated Universe franchise could be in charge of the writing part of it, then its future would be really assured.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Movie Publicity Stunts: The Right and Wrong Ways to do it.

It's interesting how the internet allows, and in fact practically requires for the big blockbusters, some real creativity and interactivity to their marketing.

It's not a new concept such as Frank Capra promoted his greatest film, It's a Wonderful Life, in 1946-7 by soliciting moviegoers to write letters how they considered their own lives wonderful and Jay Ward, the producer of the Rocky and Bullwinkle TV shows used to tour in a specially marked van to do various publicity stunts across America in the early 1960s.  Eventually in the mid 1960s, outside of costumed character appearances at local community events like fairs and parades, no film company bothered to do anything really fun like those moves that wasn't related to standard TV and radio commercials. Considering that there were only three major American commercials TV networks, and two Canadian national ones for that era, you can see why marketers wouldn't see the point of doing much more than buying commercials for the obvious timeslots.

Now, with the TV audience heavily divided with the plethora of cable channels, providing people are watching them at all, marketers have to take a proactive push to promote films far beyond the usual official websites, although Wreck-it Ralph has some fun webgames equivalents of the games in its film. As it is the film companies have had to return to some interactive promotional stunts to get some attention, but there is a right and wrong way to do it.

From Superman vol. 2 #5 (May 1987)
Currently, Gillette is doing the wrong way in its cross promotion of the upcoming Man of Steel film with its "How Does He Shave?" where celebrities filmmaker Kevin Smith, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Mythbusters Jaimie and Adam and actor Mayim Bialik give their "theories" of how Clark Kent does facial grooming.  The problem is that it has been well established for decades in the comic on how Clark does it: by directing his heat vision off a reflective surface on to his own face to burn his whiskers off.  Unlike the ideas of the celebrities, this concept is simple and logical enough to keep it as a background fact without interfering with the stories.

Kevin Smith has tried to defend this silly promotion with condescending rhetoric:  "The campaign is for people who are in the mainstream. It is certainly not for the comic book aficionado. It was more to capture the attention of those who don't make Superman and comic books the focus of their lives."  That doesn't hold water considering that method has been used to the most significant TV adaptations of the modern Superman over the decades before Smallville: Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Superman: The Animated Series, although they cheated slightly by using ordinary mirrors instead of the reflective plate from his Kryptonian rocket ship. Considering each was at least a reasonably significant popular success on that mass medium, one hardly needs to be an avid comic book fan to know this little factoid.

Instead, we get a curt dismissal of fans for a cheap promo that treats everyone like ignoramuses about a well established pop culture trivia fact that could be found with a simple online search. As much as I know the promo has been successful in sheer response numbers, but does it have to be at the expense of annoying fans who have stuck with the character

 It would have been more plausible to have done this kind of promo stunt for Superman Returns for how Superman could be surgically treatment for being kryptonite stabbed into his body with fragments breaking off internally.  That was apparently never addressed in the TV shows and you'd have to read Superman vol. 2 #4 to learn that a surgeon had to use a controlled exposure to kryptonite to weaken his skill in order to make incisions. I would have loved to seeing a medical company and/or hospital taking on that promo challenge back in 2006.

By comparison, a promotion where the fans are treated with respect with a brilliant publicity stunt was Coke Zero's Unlock the 007 in You challenge. Here, people in a train station using a particular pop machine were enticed to enter their name and then told they could get free tickets for the Bond film, Skyfall, if they could get another location in the station in 70 seconds. So, willing contestants ran through the station, dodge various obstacles while buskers played the Bond theme while various employees held displays of the remaining time. 

By contrast to the Man of Steel promo, this idea is wonderfully fun with the idea of emulating 007 as you race against the clock to win the challenge.  The only way it could have been enhanced, with some risk, is that if a classic privileged henchman villain from the films like Jaws or Oddjob could try standing in the contestants' way. In other words, this promo was designed with some real thought about the property and how to emulate its spirit in a way that fans will eagerly accept.

In short, I would love to see more publicity stunts that take the time to know the property and treat the fans with some respect.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Dr. Henry Morgentaler, a small tribute to his life and fight for more than one kind of justice.

Although he certainly was not an uncontroversial man, but Dr. Henry Morgentaler was a man who expanded a woman's right to real reproductive freedom. Just learning about him defending himself rhetorically against the self-righteous forces who presume to smear him and anyone who needs him is, when he is not being physically attacked by fanatics, is just part of his heroic life that started with surviving the Holocaust. You can listen to a great CBC Radio documentary about his life on this link.

In doing so, he reformed the justice system by fighting off how he was screwed around by the Canadian criminal courts, which arbitrarily overruled his jury acquittal in the 1970s for no other reason other than they didn't like the decision, which is in defiance of a hard fought tradition of British Commonwealth justice. Regardless of your opinion about abortion, every Canadian who values the integrity of criminal justice in their country should appreciation what Morgentaler fought and suffered for. 

To understand that contribution, check out this National Film Board of Canada film, Democracy on Trial: The Morgentaler Affair. It gives a whole new perspective of this man and how his fight helped everyone.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Blood Pressure: A Personal Review.

When I go to the Hyland Cinema, or any movie theatre for that matter, I always check out Rotten Tomatoes' score for the film in question and I typically have full array of opinions to access for a consensus statement.

This Sunday, I had a slightly different experience with a Canadian feature film, Blood Pressure. Like too many native features, this one has has only 2 reviews on RT, although they are both positive and one of them is from the Toronto Star. As a result, I was coming to this movie this movie relatively blind, and the result is exactly the kind of cinematic experience I want from London's only art house theater.

The story is about a frustrated woman, Nicole (Michelle Giroux), who has a pharmacist job under the thumb of a hard ass manager who seems determined to crush out any human interaction and compassion on the job.  Her family life is worse with a coldly distant husband, her teenage kids are a pair of spoiled brats and she is left feeling there is nothing special in her life. One day, she gets a mysterious letter out of nowhere with an offer to help her change her life if she obeys one simple instruction to signal her willingness to begin.  She does so, and that begins a series of letters with gifts and instructions that get increasingly more lavish and bizarre until she finally gets her answers that leads to even more disturbing choices.

Part of what makes this film so effective is that Giroux's performance enables us to enter into Nicole's psyche as we experience her spiritual conflict about her private miseries even as we appreciation what she does have.  That makes that letter writer feel so seductive as Nicole is pulled in irresistibly with the sheer mystery of it, which is given an enthralling visual cue as the text appears around as she reads.  As the stakes rise and the requests become ever stranger, you are left wondering whether Nicole is being sucked into an abyss that will destroy her. Along the way, Giroux creates a life journey with touchingly funny touches as she is led out of her comfort zone as she tries out a gun range, a fancy new dress and scouts out a stranger her corespondent wants her to shadow.

Unfortunately, when that letter writer is finally revealed, the story takes a less enticing flavour as he reveals his true intentions behind the letters, leaving Nicole with a strangely agonizing moral decision. Now, the story revolves around how much as this woman has changed and what she is willing to do. That in itself is a intriguing plot thread, but it lacks the compelling mystery with the letters.  Still seeing Nicole making her choices and finding friends and hidden answers where she least expects them will push you along; unfortunately it's for an climax that feels too conventional.  That said, the very end has a real punch as the true emotional cost of her adventure finally hits home even as her shaken family comes together.

All in all, discovering a film like this, warts and all, is worth a Sunday night's ticket.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Fred Rogers and Hollywood's Planned Cinematic Tribute

When we hear such awful stories like those women held prisoner for years in a house in Cleveland, which is one of many we've heard about, that, along with Steve Harper and his cronies' antics on Parliament Hill, can give you a really low opinion of humanity.

With that in mind, it is gratifying to see Hollywood plan to celebrate someone who was truly good in seemingly every way, Fred Rogers, with a biopic film about him. After all, when right wing neanderthals  like Fred Phelps and Fox News loathe a man of such love and humane principles as Rogers, then you know he has earned the right to be considered an American saint of Television.  Just that famous quote now about we should "look at the helpers" is enough to give strength to people in the face of tragedy is a glorious tribute to his goodness.
It's funny how a guy like that with only a decades long TV series could created such a sweet alternative to the frenetic "bombardment"  created by lesser minds in the medium.  Furthermore, it's especially gratifying to know that the CBC helped get the ball rolling starting the show's first incarnation, which inspired his assistant, Ernie Coombs, to do the same in Canada as Mr. Dressup. Heck, just knowing that he both liked both Eddie Murphy's Saturday Night Live parody, "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood" and Night of the Living Dead, which was inspired by a spot on his show about going to the dentist, says a lot what an open minded man he was.

Does he look like Rogers to you?
With all that being said, I've always thought that it is a great acting challenge to portray a good, wholesome man than a flawed one since the former can bore the audience if there is minimal internal conflict. In that regard, Christopher Reeve and Chris Evans managed to pull that thespian trick off as Superman and Captain America respectively and a Rogers biopic will demand similar skill.  To that end, I always like to default to an unknown actor since he could depict the man without the presupposition of any screen presence of an established star.  However, given the whole Hollywood fixation about stars, selecting one is inevitable. Obviously, another suggestion, Steve Carrel, is out; casting a comedian like would undercut the drama. I would go for Ed Norton, he has roughly the same build of Rogers and his roles can have the same feel of charm and dramatic gravity.

For a major test, I am certain that Norton could do a dramatization of this classic moment when Rogers charmed a crusty US Senator to save the Corporation of Public Broadcasting's public funding in 1969. Only a man with a gentle presence and eloquence could do what Rogers did with persuasion and a song and only an actor of such quiet skill like Norton could recreate it. 

As it is a no-brainer to have this as a major scene in the film, then it should be a deciding factor and I bet an actor who played a white trash neo-nazi in American History X would relish this kind of different role. I just hope that the film will include the Canadian role in this story and give it it's proper due.

Until then, we can also know that Rogers' legacy lives on with his production company now producing a sequel animated series, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, which endeavors to recreate the original series charm for new generations. For myself, I welcome that effort and I hope it can help new generations of children that Rogers devoted his life to.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

The Value of an Informed Opinion

Trust them, or hidden marketers?
When one thinks about the arts, why is it that some people sneer at the idea at consulting informed opinions about the subject?  If someone buys a car or a house and does not consult some resource to see if what is the best to get and what to avoid, they are considered suckers. Yet, when it comes to something so simple like buying a movie ticket, the idea of checking out what a critic says about the film is too often treated like nothing to consider.

Even worse, the idea of ignoring critic is too often treated like some grandiose declaration of freedom from some supposed self-important cultural dictator who is telling what people to read or see. I am reminded of a story Roger Ebert told when he had a conversation with a person who asked his opinion of some film and when Ebert said that he thought it one of the best of that year, the person declared that they certainly would not see that movie because of that recommendation.

That kind of attitude fundamentally is as philosophically pathetic as those people who protested New Coke in the 1980s like it was some grand civil rights cause instead simply a high profile whining of a mere soft drink product change. In this case, saying "I don't pay attention to critics" is usually not much more than a blind embrace of ignorance.  Do these people really want to waste their money on movies that they don't like and what is so wrong of being forewarned?

For me, movies cost too much to typically waste my money on the bad ones and I want only to see the ones that are worth it.  Furthermore, those who think they are making totally uninfluenced choice of seeing a film by ignoring critics are kidding themselves; what they are exposing themselves to instead are the intense marketing campaigns, be it trailers, TV commercials or celebrity interviews, or their friends who could be similarly and ignorantly influenced by such persuasion. The movie companies spend millions to market their films, regardless of whether they deserve it or not and to unthinkingly treat that kind of pushing as inconsequential to one's decision is to allow it to achieve its ultimate goal to fool you thinking that seeing a particular film is entirely your idea.

By contrast, to pay attention to the critics is to more likely consult people who make it their business to find if something is worth your time and money.  That is not some kind of  "snobbery" or "elitism," that is just plain common sense and it will likely give you an enriching cinematic experience to try new material because you are judging on reports of merit, not because you are beaten over the head with advertising. For myself, watching a film's score on Rotten Tomatoes is often all the promotion I need and want as I enjoy its roller coaster ride and see where it will finally end up. With RT with 100+ reviews for major films, the old excuse of "That's just one person's opinion" is shot down with satisfying efficiency.

In short, when deciding about films to see, you will either be influenced by your peers as sheep, manipulated by marketers as a puppet, or influenced by hopefully disinterested critics' informed opinions as an intelligent human being.  It is not a perfect or foolproof arrangement, but its one that respects your intelligence and values your judgement rather than be someone to fool.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Film Distribution Frustrations and Unfortunate Implications.

What do Invictus, Red Tails and 42 all have in common with my favourite mainstream movie theatre, Rainbow Cinemas? They were all films that were initially scheduled for that theatre, complete with posters displayed both on the frames at the outlet and on the website. Then, they are unceremoniously removed from the schedule before their release date by their distributors over the theatre management's objections and their main run is restricted to a handful of other theatres in the city.

They are also all serious dramas with black men being the lead characters of the stories. That is a relationship that feels all the more disconcerting and illogical considering they were supposed to be up for a wide release and you'd think going back on that would be obviously counter-productive. So, given that fact, the obvious possibility that comes to mind is a racist assumption that there is no point giving those films the widest release they can get. Even when I heard reasons like Invictus had to have a certain auditorium seating capacity in a theatre to be shown is ridiculous considering that a wide release would mean a selection of cinemas with a great combined seating availability.

I know there are deviations from this pattern; the 2011 Oscar winning silent film, The Artist, was similarly pulled from Rainbow's schedule and Ali, the biopic about Muhammad Ali ran there without a problem in 2001.  However, that does not take away from the fact that it seems the majority of films I notice that get this treatment have the above racial connotation. How much this observation of mine is actually real is a matter I can't prove considering I don't have a list of distributed films that were treated in this way. However, there is a saying, "Once is Happenstance, Twice is Coincidence, Three times is Pattern," and it's a pattern that is deeply frustrating for myself who want to see such films, and the cinema managements who want to show them.

It would make more sense if it was the standard platforming limited release pattern for art films that is designed to build buzz to attract the audiences for such a film.  I respect that pattern, if only it means that deserving films don't get jerked around like the above films. Even if they were shown only at The Hyland, at least it's at a cinema I can go to with reasonable ease with good ticket prices. The difference is that there are no false or thwarted expectations involved for films and we the audience are not treated as disposable. Even the logic of 42's early distribution baffles me: I can see some "arty" films being restricted to the higher class multiplexs like SilverCity, but why Empire on Wellington, the rattiest cinema in London with the worst major bus route section in the city, got one of the only 2 prints in the city with SilverCity defies all logic.

Fortunately, 42 is emulating its hero, Jackie Robinson, and is a major hit that is breaking through with a wider release starting this Friday, including Rainbow.  So, I will get to enjoy a decent drama film without the expensive bother of getting to SilverCity or Empire after enduring the usual early year movie dump months.   I just wish this kind of distribution practice would be replaced with something logical for once.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Roger Ebert: a Subject Retrospective

Roger Ebert had his funeral yesterday and I thought that a follow up on my personal thoughts about his
legacy would be in order.

For one thing, Ebert's website has now been completely redesigned with a search function that is finally working again.  On this site, you can enjoy all of Ebert's reviews, essays and blog updates that made him such a force in modern film culture. My only disappointment is that apparently of Ebert's Answer Man posts have been deleted which means I may likely never find the answers to my questions again that Ebert was kind enough to answer. Still, it is a fitting archive for such a great writer and I hope it stays up for years to come.

However, many of us first learned of Roger through his TV shows and I thought a few clips of some of his most interesting stuff would be order.

For instance, we know about his pans like for North, which he "Hated, hated, hated..." and Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo which he bluntly said as a Pulitizer Prize winning journalist that it "sucks," but how about we see a modern film which he loved in its initial release?  

Well, you can just take a look at his TV review of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a masterpiece of animation with a nearly seamless integration of story and visual technique that was an unforgettable cinematic experience.  Just watching Ebert gush about this film is a treat as he praises a blockbuster film that deserved to be one.

However, I already said that I loved the special episodes that shed so much light on film and I thought posting a few on youtube would be called for.

For instance, "What's Wrong with Home Video" is a fascinating look at the early days of video film releases that is painful and hilarious watch for the utter incompetence we had to put up with on home video in the 1980s and how we have it better to a degree with DVD, Blu-ray with letterboxed films on widescreen TVs being the norm. 

However, you can see their more serious topic episodes, such as violence against women in film, which is included in the video clip here No other movie reviews on TV would have done this where a serious artistic discussion takes place that respects her. I haven't have cable TV for years, but so I don't know if anyone bothers now. 

Finally, you can see Ebert and Siskel on their anniversary show at the height of their success, enjoying a long reign that still had plenty of years to go. 

It is all a collection of memories and commentaries that we can treasure today and can inspire other to emulate a great talent like Ebert.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Roger Ebert: Goodbye and Thank You.

Yesterday, the movie world lost a revealing light in its vista and I lost an inspiration.  Roger Ebert finally lost his battle with cancer that claimed his voice and later his life, but never his spirit.

I first really began to follow him in the mid-1980s.  Before him, movies were predominately those boring long TV shows that ran constantly on the syndication TV stations I watched like WKBD in Detroit that too often seemed to have nothing to do with me except for newer films like Star Wars and Superman. The fact that I lived for years in the country and small communities like Strathroy and Comber, miles from any cinema, made the whole concept terribly remote to me.

However, after getting a preliminary taste with PBS' post-Siskel and Ebert Sneak Previews with  Jeffrey Lyons and Michael Medved, I discovered the real thing when Detroit's WXYZ ran Siskel and Ebert's commercial show on early Sunday evenings at 6:30 pm.  It was like the clouds of muddled perceptions about film had parted from my eyes and the pair showed me what I should have enjoyed from the beginning.

Roger Ebert espoused his love of cinema in ways I could understand as a teenager and broadened my horizons to introduce me to a world of art that was far beyond anything I could have dreamed.  I especially loved his special topic shows like his attack on film colorization as explained in the attached video here. With clips selection as the truest of cineophiles could do, Ebert showed a whole new perspective about film that transcended my superficial kid notions into a deeper appreciation I never thought I could have. Just understanding the silvery beauty of Casablanca's black and white cinematography, and the larger art of it, is a gift I will always treasure from Roger.

I dare say that he raised my tastes and allowed me to stretch out and enjoy film in ways I never dreamed possible without his influence. I still remember a Saturday night in 1988 in Goderich when I was home alone, bored with nothing on TV, but knowing that the drama film, The Accused, was at the Park Theatre. Roger's opinion was not directly on my mind at that time, but surely he was the reason why I ran all the way to the box office and see it and deeply enjoy the deeper philosophical issues behind it.  However, I do know that Roger's review, at least indirectly, did finally push me to see The Nasty Girl, my first subtitled foreign language film in 1990 at The Bookshelf Cinema in Guelph and a wider cinematic world opened up for me.

Since then, I came to love cinema and Roger Ebert's writing played a lot in building that passion. His insights, his knowledge and his long rich career inspired me to review performing art myself, whether it's on the stage or on the screen in London.  Although I have drifted more to consulting Rotten Tomatoes' general scoring for my moviegoing choices and reading the reviews themselves later, the film experience I love is became so much more with Ebert's help. The fact that he even took the time to answer the occasion question I wrote to him was a magical thing in of himself.

While I didn't agree with all Roger's reviews such as with Pixar's Cars 2 which he liked and I loathed as Pixar's betrayal of its artistic integrity or his relatively lukewarm review of How to Train Your Dragon, which I regard as one of the greatest animated features of all time, his opinions were something always to consult and value.

Now, I restart this blog to express my own thoughts about film and I just wanted to have this one last thought for my journalistic hero:

Thank you Roger, you guided me into seeing a powerful art in all its glory and embarrassments.  I go to my art house cinema, The Hyland whenever I can as well as the multiplexs and enjoy the movies, an art you helped me understand and love a little like you did. There will never be a writer and a critic like you and I hope I can achieve one tenth of the insights you had.  See you at the movies in spirit while I sit in that darkened room, and hope I can be something of what you became for us all.