Thursday, September 29, 2011

Hollywood Tightens the Belt

It appears that tough times have hit Hollywood as much as anywhere else. A recent article by Ryan Nakashima in the Associated Press indicates that Hollywood is green-lighting fewer big-budget films.

Several projects that had previously been given the budgetary go-ahead have since been yanked from release schedules. These include Johnny Depp's "Lone Ranger" and, sadly, Stephen King's Dark Tower trilogy and television series. Even Spider-Man, whose previous three films had budgets of $139M, $200M, and $258M respectively has had its budget slashed for the reboot, Amazing Spider-Man, which has a rumored budget of a mere $80M.

Can Hollywood do more on less? Perhaps this is a good trend, causing filmmakers to rely more on character, acting, plot, and emotional impact rather than special effects, stunts, and CGI wow-factor. But either way, I hope they manage to get a Dark Tower movie made!


Monday, September 26, 2011

Is Star Wars The Most Important Film Ever?

Is Star Wars the most important film ever? In a word, yes. There are plenty of films that have influenced filmmaking, inspired future generations, or made advancement in film techniques. But none have had the unparalleled success that Star Wars has.

First, let's talk money. So far, the films have generated a combined box office total of over 4.4 billion dollars, making it the 3rd most profitable film series. And with the impending re-release in theaters of Star Wars 3D, it has nowhere to go but up. Tie into this DVD sales (the recent release of the Blue-Ray saga cleared 1 million bucks the first week), and a merchandising juggernaut including toys, video games, clothing, comic books and novels, makes Star Wars profitable beyond any film ever.

But its influence and success extend far beyond mere commercial gain. From this independent film spawned a filmmaking empire. Lucasfilm, Lucasarts, THX, Pixar, Skywalker Sound, Skywalker Ranch, and Industrial Light and Magic are the gold standards in modern cinema, and all have their roots in Star Wars. Like the story of Star Wars itself, George Lucas was an independent filmmaker who rebelled against the Hollywood machine. Once blacklisted from studios and unions like the Director's Guild, George's Empire is now the go to place to create movie magic. Star Wars pioneered the genre pastiche, where several classic movie genres into one film.It started the tradition of the summer blockbuster movie in the film entertainment industry.

Industrial Light and Magic, or ILM, have been known to make the impossible happen. Outside of Star Wars, ILM is responsible for, The Abyss, Indiana Jones franchise, Harry Potter Franchise, Men In Black, Schindlers List, Avatar, Terminator sequels, the Transformer films, Forrest Gump, Back to the Future trilogy, most of the Star Trek films, Magnolia, and so much more. ILM has, and continues to be at the forefront of visual effects in filmmaking.All together, ILM has, as of 2009, received 15 Oscars for best Visual Effects, with another 23 nominations.

THX is the audio standard in movie theaters, home theaters, computer speakers, car audio systems, and game councils. THX is a quality certification insuring the most accurate and nearest to the intentions of the mixing engineer.

PIXAR is another fantastic studio that puts out top quality animated films. While not owned by Lucas, it was created from a division of Lucasfilm and later sold.

The cultural impact of Star Wars is undeniable. Star Wars conventions are popping up everywhere, and surely Stormtroopers and Bobba Fett can be scene at cross-interest events like sci-fi, comic book, and gaming conventions the world over. Star Wars characters are still a favorite to dress up as every Halloween, and everyone at one point or another has said to someone, "May the force be with you." Star Wars has also been arguably the most parodied film, with dozens of skits on SNL, a Star Wars episode of the Muppet Show, three feature length Family Guy DVDs, not to mention a hundred fan films that can be seen on YouTube. Just look for Jabba On The Dais, George Lucas In Love, TROOPS, and Christmas Tauntauns, to name a few. in 2001, a United Kingdom census showed over 390,000 people listed their religion as "jedi", making it the 4th largest religion surveyed. Star Wars is also listed in the AFI top 100, and Darth Vader is considered to be one of the all time best on-screen villains.

There have been real world applications of technology inspired by Star Wars. The U.S. Military were developing armored walkers similar to the AT-ATs. A company in Hong Kong recently made a powerful, hand held laser that looks a lot like a lightsaber. In 2010, at a Technology, Entertainment, and Design conference, Nathan Myhrvold, former chief technology officer of Microsoft, demonstrated a miniature "Death Star" bug zapper, designed to use tiny lasers to shoot down flying mosquitoes. Bionic technology for amputees are becoming more and more similar to that used by Luke and Anakin Skywalker.

Star Wars has been so inspirational that in October, 2007, a space shuttle carried on board Luke's Return of the Jedi lightsaber. After 2 weeks of orbit, it was returned to its owner, George Lucas. The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum featured an exhibit called Star Wars: The Magic Of Myth.

Sure, George Lucas never won an Oscar, nor has Star Wars earned as many Oscars as Citizen Kane, the Godfather, or Gone With The Wind. But it's clear that Star Wars absolutely dominates the film industry, pop culture, and the furthering of technology, both in film, and as a source of inspiration to real world science and technology, pushing the boundaries of the human spirit and knowledge.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Netflix Continues to Implode

Have you ever had a friend who has been going down the wrong path in life? You want to help them but they just won't listen. That is how I feel about Netflix.

After the price-hikes it appears that hundreds of thousands of customers have cancelled their Netflix accounts. This doesn't even account for the hundreds of thousands who have cancelled either streaming or disk rentals (like me). Well, this drop doesn't make Netflix shareholders happy. The stock has tumbled from just under $300 to lower than $170. OUCH!

So, I received an e-mail from Reed Hastings, co-founder of Netflix. He says, "I messed up." What he DOESN'T say is that he'll take back the price increase. Simply explaining your business plan isn't going to make us forget about paying more each month and not getting anything extra in return.

What is the brilliant business plan? To split Netflix streaming and DVD services into two groups. The DVD service will be renamed Quikster and will be totally independent of the streaming service. That's right - the two services won't communicate at all. So when you're looking at a DVD you won't be aware that it is also streaming on Netflix.

The comments left on Mr. Hasting's apology blog post are the best. Clearly NOBODY is happy with this move. Netflix would have done better to just shut up and stick with their guns instead of offering this fear-induced, half-hearted apology/explanation. Here's a sampling from the comments:
Cary J Hill
Excellent....I enjoy watching an entire corporation suicide itself! 
Ben Cornue · Chicago, Illinois
Well, after 7 long years enjoying Netflix, this appears to be the end.
Kile Golder · The Walt Disney Company
Dear Reed Hastings, Co-Founder and CEO, Netflix,

I am a little unsure what exactly it is that made you so angry at me. For so many years now, I sent you money and you sent me DVDs in the mail. I felt our relationship was going well. At one point, you offered the opportunity for me to watch movies instantly online, and later, directly on my television. In turn, I felt it was right to send you more money, and I gladly continued to do so. And again, we both seemed to be quite happy with our relationship. But recently, you've changed. Sure you are still happy with taking my money, but now it seems like you want me to give you more, while in return you give me less.

Well, I guess Netflix isn't as important as I thought it was. If I want to be entertained I can just read the responses to Mr. Hasting's blog post here.

Here's the same explanation in a video. The only advantage is we can SEE him smirk.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Win Or Lose With Stephen King

Few authors have enjoyed seeing their publications turned to film more than Stephen King. His very name conjures up feelings of fear and dread. A few dramatic stories aside, King is the King of horror. Still, over the years there have been plenty of bad films with his name attached to them, and fans often wonder, has Stephen King lost his edge? Are there more hits or misses regarding the success of his films? We here at Real to Real will attempt to answer that very question.

First, we have to establish a criteria. We'll evaluate each film, in chronological order, and score it in three catagories. 1) Tomato Meter. This is a fair way to gain a quick insight to how the film was received by movie critics. It gathers up all relevant reviews and gives it an overall score. 2) We'll also judge the fan response. Critics and fans don't always agree, and movie goers certainly have a say. 3) Box office return. From a financial stand point, a movie that fails to meet its investment domestically is deemed a failure. We'll show both the amount +/- of money gained or lossed +/-, as well as the margin of investment vs gross. For example, if a movie made five times gross what the production budget was, it would be represented as "x5." Films that do not disclose a budget will receive an "n/a". With three categories, majority rules. If at least 2 of 3 swing one way, to be fair, that's how the overall will be scored, a hit, or a miss. For fairness, we exclude made-for-tv films, short films, and anthologies that use more than one writer. Here we go.

   Title                              Tomato Meter          Movie Goers             Box Office                    Overall

Carrie                                     91% (hit)                 70% (hit)                +32Mill (hit) x18.7             (hit)
The Shining                             88% (hit)                 91% (hit)                +22Mill (hit) x2                  (hit)
Cujo                                       59% (miss)              52% (miss)             +16Mill (hit) x4.2               (miss)
The Dead Zone                       89% (hit)                 72% (hit)                +10Mill (hit) x2                  (hit)      
Christine                                 65% (hit)                  63% (hit)               +11.5Mill (hit) x2                (hit)
Children of the Corn               39% (miss)               49% (miss)             +13.7Mill (hit) x18             (miss)
Firestarter                               41% (miss)              56% (miss)              +0.1Mill (miss) x1              (miss)
Cat's Eye                                65% (hit)                 52% (miss)              +6Mill (hit) x1.8                 (hit)
Silver Bullet                             50% (miss)              59% (miss)              -1.6Mill (miss) x0.7           (miss)
Maximum Overdrive               18% (miss)               54% (miss)              -2.6 Mill (miss) x0.7          (miss)
Stand By Me                           91% (hit)                 93% (hit)                 +44Mill (hit) x6.5              (hit)
The Running Man                    63% (hit)                 59% (miss)              +11Mill (hit) x1.4               (hit)
Pet Semetary                           50% (miss)              60% (hit)                 +45Mill (hit) x4.9               (hit)
Graveyard Shift                       13% (miss)              32% (miss)               +1Mill (hit) x1.0                (miss)
Misery                                     90% (hit)                 83% (hit)                 +41Mill (hit) x3                  (hit)
Sleepwalkers                           17% (miss)              39% (miss)              +15Mill (hit) x2                  (miss)
The Dark Half                          61% (hit)                 43% (miss)              -4.4Mill (miss) x0.7           (miss)
Needful Things                         27% (miss)              47% (miss)                     n/a                              (miss)
Shawshank Redemption           89% (hit)                 98% (hit)                 +33Mill (hit) x2.3               (hit)
The Mangler                            22% (miss)              24% (miss)                      n/a                             (miss)
Dolores Claiborne                    82% (hit)                 75% (hit)                        n/a                              (hit)
Thinner                                    17% (miss)              39% (miss)               +1.1Mill (hit) x1                (miss)
Apt Pupil                                 53% (miss)              57% (miss)               -5.2Mill (miss) x0.6           (miss)
Green Mile                               80% (hit)                 93% (hit)                 +76Mill (hit) x2.2               (hit)
The Rage: Carrie 2                   16% (miss)              45% (miss)               -3.3Mill (miss) x0.8           (miss)
Hearts In Atlantis                     50% (miss)               63% (hit)                  -7Mill (miss) x0.7             (miss)
Dreamcatcher                          30% (miss)               43% (miss)              +7.7Mill (hit) x1.1              (miss)
Secret Window                        46% (miss)              69% (hit)                  +7.7Mill (hit) x1.1             (hit)
Riding The Bullet                      29% (miss)              38% (miss)               -4.9Mill (miss) x0.02         (miss)
1408                                        78% (hit)                 61% (hit)                  +106Mill (hit) x5.2            (hit)
The Mist                                  73% (hit)                  64% (hit)                 +7.5Mill (hit) x1.4             (hit)

Okay, so let's crunch the numbers. The list of Stephen King motion pictures has 15 hits, and 16 misses. Of the 15 hits, 11 were across the board hits, represented in green. Of the16 failures, 8 failed across the board, represented in red

Let's also take a look at the overall regarding the Tomato Meter. If we added all the percentages together and averaged them, Stephen King Films has an overall rating of 54%. That means critically, Stephen King motion pictures have failed. If we apply the same principle to general audience results, the overall rating is 59%.

So it would seem that Stephen King has put out more failures than hits. But this doesn't make him a failure. These are films based on his novels and short stories. So much more goes into the success or failure of a film than simply the novel it's based on. Directors, actors, screenplays, editing all play a part.

Still, the argument of "are Stephen King movies successful or not?" has been answered, the best it could.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Language And Violence And Sex, Oh My!

When it comes to children, the biggest concern parents have in exposing their children to a movie is the content of the film. Most notably, their looking for sex, violence, and language. The more of these a film has, the less likely they'll allow their kids to see it. But how do they prioritize the content? Does one become more forgiving than the other. And how does one gauge how much is too much, and when it crosses that line? 

Let's take a hypothetical scenario. Three movies are released simultaneously: 
Movie A contains no violence or sexual content. Yet it does have an unacceptable amount of language. 
Movie B contains no violence or unacceptable language, but does contain nudity and sexual content. 
Movie C has no nudity, sexual content, or unacceptable language, but plenty of violence.

Now, as a parent, you find out over the weekend your child went with a friend and saw one of these films. To which movie do you fear the most him or her seeing? Which one is the least of the three evils? And then, why? 

Movies with nudity and sexual content tend to fall in one of two categories. Sophomoric adolescence in which sex is pursued for its own sake, and nothing more. Revenge of the Nerds, Porky's, and American Pie would certainly fall into this category. Other films use sex to convey a deep connection between characters. These are scenes of intimacy, love-making, and bonding. The sex scene in An Officer and a Gentleman is an example of this type. Yet, is one preferable to the other? Is one more appropriate than the other? And does age matter? My personal experience, I was given "the talk" at the early stages of puberty. As my body underwent changes, my parents put it in context for me. Still, I can honestly tell you, perspective or not, I gravitated more toward the Porky's type of films than An Officer And A Gentlemen. It didn't matter if I was 13, 17, or 19. Still, I have to wonder, if I were exposed to these films and thus the talk came sooner, say 10 or 11, would my curiosity be even more warped, or would my appreciation for sexuality be more mature by age 18? I also believe it's naive and foolish to believe that our kids will be fish-bowled from seeing these films, considering the wealth of access and outlets available today. Between the big three, sex and nudity is the most positive force. Violence leads to injury and death. Language can come off as crass and ignorant. But sex and nudity are "natural." It's the driving force behind life itself, and should be appreciated. Yet, such a powerful force requires discipline. Unwanted babies, abortion issues, incest, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancies are just a few symptoms of this driving force gone unchecked. So, when it comes to letting children watch movies with this subject matter, is it better to shield them, or make it apparent, putting it in proper context?

Violence in film is almost unavoidable. Call the genre what you will, Comedy, Horror, Sci-Fi, they all share one thing in common, they follow the Dramatic formula. In a drama, there is conflict, and violence is a representation of that dramatic effect. Like sex, there are two schools of thought, fantasy and realism. Films like Hook, Spider-Man, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are filled with violent action, but are often given the PG stamp of approval, due to little to no blood, maiming, or death. Movies like Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List show realistic violence, and the results of violence, ie: blood and death. These films are rated R for their graphic realism. Yet, in a culture which demonizes video game violence, which is presented in an unrealistic manor, citing children who imitate the violence into the real world, one wonders if the ratings should be reversed. Is allowing children to see violence without the realities associated with it better than the truth? Would kids emulate the violence they see in film, knowing that people suffer. Not just those wounded and killed, but their friends and family. There is no reset button. Limbs don't grow back. Children are left Fatherless. Watching mutated turtles plow threw a hundred ninjas without a scratch is a context that can only glorify violence in the hearts and minds of the young. Yet, one cannot deny that violence in and of itself is evil. In fact, through violence comes honor, respect and courage. If we learned anything from the Rocky films, it's that it isn't that you fight, it's what you're fighting for. To consider Rocky a "boxing film" is to be short-sighted. The boxing is the metaphor. It's about the conflict a man faces to prove his self worth, his identity, and to find his courage. In the Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, the four kids escape the horrors of World War 2, only to be whisked away into a fantasy realm where they are involved in an epic fight between good and evil. This film neither glorifies or condemns war. Rather, it illustrates a time and place when people must make a stand in defiance of evil.

Language is a funny thing. Naturally, there are certain words which are red flagged. F*ck, Sh*t, P*ssy, Assh*le, are universally regarded as vulgar and can attract an R rating like a bog zapper attracts moths. The problem lies in the gray areas of the English language, which there are no hard and fast rules. On television, films run an exhaustive gauntlet of standards and practices. Certain words bleeped on one channel is allowed on another. Some consider context, while others are strictly verbiage. The saying we all knew growing up, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me", is apparently a lie. Words like fag is often bleeped. Used to disparage an entire culture, I can understand. Referring to cigarettes, its ludicrous. A fine example is a scene in the film Rock Star. Mark Wahlberg's character is flown from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles and arrives at the recording studio home of rock band Steel Dragon. The band, all Englishmen, greet Mark and ask him if he's fagged out from the flight. This is obviously meant "Are you tired from the flight?" The word is appropriate due to context, but is bleeped by censors who hold fast to strict rules. Later, in the same scene, the real singer shows up, who's just been fired from the band, as it turns out he's gay. One band member says "like we give a toss who you're buggering." In this context, he is effectively saying, "we're not jerking it to the idea of who you're f*cking in the a$$." Pretty profane in context. But because censors see nothing wrong with the words "toss" and "buggering", it's passable. Some don't allow the words, "Retarded", "God", and "Honky" no matter the context for fear of offending someone. Even the deadly words like "f*ck" get alternative rules. For example, you can have the "F" word in a film without gaining an R rating if the word is used as an expletive and not as a sexual reference.

In the above hypothetical, it seems that in the television world, movie C is the least concerned. While language and nudity are censored, they have no qualms about taking commercial revenue displaying violence, in whatever context. Yet, paradoxically, of the three, it leads to the most dangerous behavior. But where do you stand? What are your priorities, and how and when do you feel what is appropriate for your child and when? Furthermore, do your values and sensibilities give you the right to impose them upon others? If not, than do censors and the MPAA have that right? What gives them that right? And what makes their opinions more valued than yours?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

F-Bombs in PG and PG-13 Movies

Bill has already touched on the worthlessness of the movie rating system but I'd like to focus on one aspect in particular: The F-Bomb. As swear words go, this is the big one. Culturally, we are very sensitive to the use of this word. Or, at least, we were at one time.

I read an article recently that analyzed the use of F-Bombs. By the MPAA's Classification and Rating Administration's guidelines a film may still be rated PG-13 if it has one non-sexual use of the F-word.

Then how do they explain the numerous PG-13 movies that use the F-word more than one time? Recent PG-13 movies to include more than one F-bomb include "Transfomers: Dark of the Moon," "The Social Network," "The Tourist," "Crazy Stupid Love," and "Larry Crowne." Not to mention PG movies such as "Big" and "Beetlejuice" that include the F-word. Apparently, the raters can vote to overrule the rules, meaning they can assign any rating to any film irregardless of the film's content as long as two-thirds of the raters agree.

Frankly, this is simply absurd. I realize that there's lots of gray area in rating a film but either the ratings are meaningful or not. As a parent, I do not want to take my children to a PG movie and have them exposed to the F-word! It makes me upset enough that there's mild cursing in even G films.

Personally, I find websites such as and much more informative than the MPAA rating. Websites such as these are extremely detailed. They rate a film according to its violence, sexual content, language, and other potentially offensive or suggestive categories such as drug and alcohol use. Each category is rated separately which allows the parent to make a truly informed decision.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Waiting For Godfather

Where have all the good mob movies gone? Is the golden age of the on screen mafia finished? If not, to whom do we turn? Certainly De Niro, Paccino, and Pesci can't carry the torch forever.

I honestly cannot say that there has been an epic mob film in the last 10 years. The Godfather Trilogy, Scarface, A Bronx Tale, Goodfellas, Casino, Bugsy, and The Untouchables have romanced audiences with stories of violence, power, respect, family, and lawlessness. Mob films are a genre unto themselves, the 20th century version of Westerns. In fact, Westerns and Mob Movies have a lot in common. It's the law vs outlaws, brutal justice, plenty of gun play, and men forging their own destinies. But America's love affair with the Western comes and goes. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood dominated Westerns back in the day. Then, after a lull in the genre, we see Young Guns, Tomestone, Wyatt Earp, and Dances With Wolves herald in a new era. Is this the same with Mob Movies? Was there a golden era, and is that era going to return?

Whether based on real life characters like Bugsy and Henry Hill, or fictitious stories like Casino, Mob Movies attracted audiences like flies to honey. But in order to pull this off, there had to be a synergy between brilliant screenplays, directors like Martin Scorsese, Warren Beatty and Francis Ford Coppola who respect and treat the source material with great care, and actors like De Niro, Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta, and Al Pacino who's natural persona's and on screen chemistry can pull off convincing and compelling characters. This formula has created several compelling films, and dominated the industry with Academy Award nominations and wins. With the original Godfather released in 1972 and Casino released in 1995, if Mob Movies had a golden age, this would be it. Since 1995 it seems, Hollywood shifted focus, with Sci-Fi dominating the box office. Here, we've seen the release of a special edition of Star Wars, an entirely new Star Wars Trilogy, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and a slew of Superhero films. As they ask in the Westerns, "Ain't this town big enough for the two of us?"

Apparently not. Some films like Donnie Brasko (1997) and The Departed (2006) have attempted to keep the fire burning, but have not scored the success, nor stood out, like their predecessors. Other films like Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and A History Of Violence have gangster themes, but these are tales told in a modern context. Audiences seem more interested in the bygone era's of the Mob. Clearly, there are distinctions between gangster movies, and mob movies.

As we enter a second decade removed from the Golden Era, where do we turn? Who are the directors that will romance us like Scorsese and Coppola? Who are the actors that will keep us glued to our seats? A few actors from the Soprano's could be cast to type, but hardly worthy of a lead role. try and imagine being tasked as a casting director for a remake of the Godfather. Who would we cast as Michael Corleone? Matt le Blanc? Johnny Depp as Fredo? There doesn't seem to be anyone in Hollywood, either as an up and comer, or an established star, that could pull off a convincing "Made Man."

Again, like the Western, the Mob Movie genre seems to be headed off into the sunset, but it will return again, someday.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Selecting a Theater: Pay for the Seats

Of course, there are multiple factors to be considered when choosing a movie theater. How far is it from home? What are the ticket prices? What are the crowds like in that area? But the one feature that I truly measure a movie theater by are the seats.

Movie theater seats have come a long way in the last twenty years. I remember when they were narrow, half-backed, thinly cushioned, and the row in front of you was only an inch or two lower than yours. Some theaters still have seats like this. I understand why theaters had these seats - the more people you can pack into a theater at a time the more tickets you can sell. But people aren't going to a theater to sit on a little bench like they were attending a Penn State game at Beaver Stadium! I avoid theaters with these old seats at all costs! I'd rather pay more and drive further to sit in a full-backed, plush, recline-able, wide-seated chair that is neatly arranged in stadium seating. After all, thanks in large part to home theater systems where somebody can watch a 3D high-def picture in their favorite recliner, theaters are now tasked with making the experience of watching a movie in a theater a premium one.

The one area I think theaters can still improve the seats in is the armrest. First of all, the armrest needs to be able to come up. When I go to a movie theater with my wife, I walk to be able to have her snuggle up with me, put my arm around her, or hold her hand. An immovable armrest gets in the way of that.

Armrests should also be wider. It bothers me to sit next to someone who takes up the whole armrest. Sometimes the people on both sides of me take both armrests and I'm left hugging myself for the entire movie! Why not create a double armrest so that each patron has an armrest all to themselves on either side of them? This wider armrest could accommodate a double cup holder. Perhaps a fold-up or fold-out tray would be nice as well. This would encourage people to purchase things like nachos and hot dogs. Who wants to hold a tray of nachos on their lap during the movie?

And while we're at it - can I have something to put my feet up on if it's not to much to ask? That way I'll be almost as comfortable as I am at home in my recliner as I watch films on my home theater system.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Critic's Cafe: Bill's Movie Evaluation Criteria

So what does it mean to label a film as "good" or bad"? Is there a certain criteria that has to be met? Is that criteria universal?

Let's be clear, when engaged in conversation with friends and associates regarding a film, inevitably someone says that, "_______ was a good film", or "______ was a bad film." But that isn't a true or honest critique. What they're really saying is that they either liked or disliked a film. So how do we properly apply the terms of good and bad to a film, regardless of personal preference? We start by defining the terms good and bad. Like anything else, "good" is a term applied to something that does what it is expected, or intended, to do. "Bad" is when something fails to do what is expected or intended. For example, a meal may be considered good, if it is well balanced, provides essential vitamins, is nutritional, and does not contribute to high cholesterol or weight gain. A bad meal is one of little to no nutritional value. It raises cholesterol and fat in the body, leading to ongoing health problems. Yet good or bad have nothing to do with a meal's preference. We all enjoy a tripe-cheese pizza, but it is "bad" for us. Same with film.

For me, this begins and ends with the narrative. Simply put, the narrative is story which the movie is trying to tell. Embedded in each narrative, and arguably just as important, if not more so than the story element, is the intention of the narrative. What is it trying to convey? The intentions of the narrative can be many things. A narrative may simply have entertainment value. These movies are generally not thought provoking, but allow the audiences to escape their world for a couple of hours and simply enjoy the moment. Some narratives look to elicit an emotional response. Some people may say of a film, "I had to see this movie, I just needed a good cry." Narratives that resonate with deep emotional content connect with audiences in a more profound way than a simple "popcorn flick", which only entertains. Other narratives look to challenge the audience's thought process. Films like these look to raise awareness of cultural or social issues, challenge their moral and philosophical notions, or expand their aesthetic awareness. A film's narrative incorporates one, and often times more, of these intentions.

Of course, there is a virtual cornucopia of elements that go into a film that if not executed properly, can detract from the narrative so much, the narrative gets lost, and thus becomes a bad film. Chief among these elements are:

Direction: Like a coach in a football game, the responsibility lies on the shoulders of the director. It is his job to  put the pieces together and complete the picture. This position has often proved that it isn't just the story that's important, but how it's told. That alone doesn't make a film good or bad, but would radically alter how the narrative is delivered. Consider what Star Wars would have been if originally directed by Quintin Tarantino. What if Jerry Bruckheimer had directed Schindler's List? Good or bad, these narratives would have been told completely different than the version we're used to. So matching a screenplay with the right director is important. But once the director is chosen, his techniques and sensibilities are paramount in how the narrative comes across. Dialogue, lighting, sound, camera angles, pacing, and choice of soundtrack are but a few of the many seasonings these chefs use in their kitchen.

Acting: Since most films involve people (even animated films require voice acting), it is the job of the actors to make their characters real, engaging, relatable and believable. The lead roles are usually what drives a film, but even for films where characters are not essential to the narrative, they still play a vital role in the films momentum. Like selecting the right director, casting is important. Times have shown that even bankable actors have been the wrong choice, and sometimes casting an unknown have propelled the film to unexpected heights. Superman: The Movie is a prime example.

Continuity. How many times have we noticed a scene where a glass of water mysteriously changes position several times, or the volume of water goes from full, to 1/2 empty, back to full again. These are called continuity errors, and plague every film to some degree. This is the result of multiple shots, multiple takes during a scene. But that's not the continuity I speak of. What I refer to is the continuity that a film establishes for itself, than violates it. This happens a great deal in sequels. Christmas Vacation, for example, for the sake of story, alters Rusty and Audrey's respective ages. Rusty was always the older sibling except for this installment. Spider-Man 3 sees Peter Parker blindsided by the New Goblin, yet it was established in the first film that Spider-Man has "Spider-Sense", an almost precognitive ability that keeps him from being harmed from unseen dangers.

Sight, Sounds, Action. Costumes, sets, props, settings, visual, and audio effects also contribute greatly to propelling, or hamstringing, the films narrative. Sometimes effects can be so vivid, that they become the story. Avatar's breathtaking scenery, costumes, and special effects took an often retold plot and breathed considerable new life into it. Other times, bad props and sets can detract from an otherwise compelling plot.

Ultimately a "criteria" in and of itself isn't used, by me anyway, to determine a films worth. Indeed, the concept of checking boxes off a virtual checklist of whether a film scores a pass or fail is really a disservice to the film, as each film should be held in its own regard. I'm not going to penalize Police Academy for its unrealistic characters because its a comedy, and the farcical nature of the characters is whats central to the film. I'm not going to withhold appreciation of the film Up because it's scientifically impossible for helium balloons to rip a house from its foundation. It's a children's fantasy film that caters to their imagination. What I look for is what the films narrative is and how it's crafted. Then, are there any detracting components that prevent the film from telling the audience what it needs to convey. Did the audience lose their escapism? Does the plot make sense? Did they leave with a sense of disappointment? Were the events believable in the context they were presented? Added up, did this all overshadow the purpose of the film? If so, than it was a bad film. If not, it was a good film.

Notice my use of the words "they", "Audience", and "their"? This is essential to keep in perspective when critiquing a film. If one critiques a film with "I didn't this", or "I find that", than pure objectivity is lost, and personal preference comes into play. Of course, I am one man and cannot speak for all. So I have to analyse  my own reaction, and compare its objectivity to my personal preference. So I will often follow up a statement in conversation of a film being good or bad with "I liked it", or "I hated it", to give a clear distinction between a  films performance and my preference. Regardless, the very nature of critiquing a film will always have objectivity tarnished by personal preference. The goal is to minimize personal preference as much as possible. What I find as a detractor may be forgivable by me, but to someone else it might be the deal-breaker. For example, I am a fan of the film Armageddon, due to its strong cast and depth of characters. The narrative is a bunch of every day Joe's are tasked with saving the world from a comet large enough to destroy all life on the Earth. To me, the character element is more important than the premise, which is scientifically unsound, bordering on ridiculous. Yet, I can overlook these flaws when viewing the bigger picture. Other's find the premise too absurd to be taken seriously, and cannot. Again, they say it's a bad movie, but is it "bad", or just disliked? If the narrative was to tell the story of an Earth killing comet in the parameters of true aerospace physics, and a realistic natural progression of events,than yes, it is a bad movie cause the narrative is lost. This type of narrative clearly is meant to be thought provoking. But Armageddon's narrative was for pure entertainment value, and to be inspiring in its characters and theme. It was, and therefor a good film. Perhaps not a film everyone will like, but certainly not a bad film.

I hope this has offered insight into my reasoning and opinions on evaluating a film from a critical point of view. See you at the movies.

Critic's Cafe: Scott's Movie Evaluation Criteria

So, how do I evaluate a movie? I know what I don't do - and that is rely on anything outside of the movie such as friend's opinions, critic's ratings and awards earned. Those things are only helpful to me in selecting which movies I see. So what factors determine if I enjoy a film or not?
  1. Most important is believeability. I don't care how awesome the action sequences or character moments are - If I don't believe that they're plausible then the film lost me. For example, in Speed when the bus jumps across the gap in the road without falling below fifty five miles per hour they lost me. Now, this doesn't mean that I don't enjoy fantasy and science fiction with the best of them. But a film has to obey its own internal logic. So when, at the end of Transformers, the Allspark shrinks down from the size of a building to the size of a football the movie lost me because it didn't fit with the entire film's mass-retention principle.
  2. Next is emotional impact. It really doesn't matter what emotion it is - it could either be humorous, uplifting, or sad. If a film moves me emotionally I think much better of it. I cry at the scene in Apollo 13 when the pregnant wife watches the astronaut going into space for the first time. I can't make it through the scene in Forrest Gump when he's standing at Ginny's grave without crying. Meanwhile, Office Space, Dirty Work, and Road Trip crack me up. If a film can make me care enough to be moved emotionally I know its a good one.
  3. Another thing I look for in films is if they are thought provoking. That doesn't mean I want to be preached at or told a story with a social, ecological, or political agenda. But I like it when a film gives me reason to think more deeply on a topic or to see an issue in a new light. Back to the Future caused me to think about how time travel works. The Good Son had me thinking what I would do if I was in that mother's place with two children's lives in my hands and only one can survive. When the experience of watching the film doesn't end with the final credits, that's an indicator that it was a quality film.
  4. Rewatchability is also very important to me. Sure, I saw Schindler's List in the theater and loved it but when I bought it and watched it again I couldn't drag myself through it a second time. It's a special thing when you can find enjoyment in a film even when you know every secret, every surprise, and every line of dialogue. I loved Tim Burton's Batman when I saw it in the theater but it just seemed tedious when I watched it again while The Wizard of Oz remains a timeless classic that I've watched dozens of times.  
  5. Of course, I examine the technical aspects of film making such as acting, pace, lighting, shot composition, and special effects. Poor acting can kill a film almost as fast as poor directing. A truly monumental performance, on the other hand, can significantly improve my opinion of a film. Special effects, to a certain degree, apply back to the believeability of a film but I also think they're a distraction aspect to them as well. If I notice either a good or bad special effect and it takes me out of the experience of watching the film that's a bad thing. On the other hand, if they're integrated seamlessly into the fabric of the story then that's to the film's credit. I honestly didn't notice the CGI shots in Fight Club until I watched the bonus features on the DVD and they were pointed out to me. Bravo!
  6. Finally, I can't totally discount star power and property value. I find myself being more willing to forgive the faults of a film if it features one of my favorite actors such as Denzel Washington or Harrison Ford. A film based on a pre-established property, however, can affect my judgment both for the good and for the bad. I find that I'm particularly hard on films based on a property I love (such as Spider-Man or Star Wars). But if a film based on a property I love is good, I find that my evaluation of that film is higher than perhaps it would have been if I wasn't already a fan.
So, there you have it. Believeability, emotional impact, thought provoking, rewatchability, technical aspects, star power, and property value are all factored in when I'm thinking about how much I like or dislike a movie.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Critic's Cafe: Movie Evaluation Criteria

Have you ever gone to seen a movie with a friend, walked out of the theater, and started talking about the movie with your friend only to wonder, "Did we even see the same movie?"

Your friend loved the action, you hated the action. Your friend hated the characters, you loved the characters.

It isn't that you saw a different movie but rather that both you and your friend look for different things in a movie. Part of this is personal preference but there are also a variety of other measures each of you use you measure the quality of a movie.

So tomorrow, here at R2R, both Bill and Scott are going to be lifting the curtain to reveal the criteria each of them uses to personally evaluate a movie. See who you agree with more!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Han Shot First: The Rise And Fall Of The Director's Cut

The Director's Cut. Once an exciting alternative to favorite movies, seemingly given more artistic credence, has over the years devolved into directors seemingly bent on tarnishing their own classics.

Contrary to popular belief, seldom does a film director receive the rights to a final edit. With the studios footing the bill, they give the final edit for a variety of reasons, mostly economical. Some edit scenes in order to gain a more favorable rating. Others edit film to trim down time, thus making multiple daily screenings per theater feasible. The idea of a "director's cut" is that the film is restored closer to the director's vision and artistic merit, but this is not always the case.

Not long after the invention of the VCR, and theatrical releases on home video, did the home movie phenomenon take off. People could buy and rent movies and watch them in the comfort of their own home. After a while, certain films would be re-released as a "Director's Cut." The first films to be re-released in this fashion were Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Michael Cimeno's Heaven's Gate. While intended for cult fans of certain films, studios took notice of the rise in home movie sales, and quickly began pumping out re-releases of popular titles, offering fans alternatives to their favorite films.

Some of these films had edits that were barely perceptible. Unless one had seen the originally formatted film on numerous occasions, the differences don't stand out. A bit of dialogue here, a previously cut scene there, and voila. Others boasted robust changes and additions. Take the directors cut of James Cameron's Aliens. With 17 minutes of additional footage, the scope of the film is much richer. Now we see the colony that got wiped out, how they discovered the eggs, and how the company directed them there. We learn that Lt. Ripley had a daughter, and that she died while she was frozen in space for 57 years. This lends more emotional weight to her motivation concerning her care for Newt. However, not all these films are done for artistic merit, they are marketing techniques.

Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy is a prime example. He considers the theatrical releases to be his "final cut". The extended version of the Rings were added for LotR fans to witness the fully scripted and fleshed out world of J.R.R. Tolkien. Notice how each extended cut was released to coincide with the theatrical release of the next installment at the theaters. Not to mention, boosting DVD sales only six months after the release of the theatrical versions on DVD. Fans gleefully forked over money for both versions.

Ironically, it seems that the Directors of the Director's Cuts, are the ones becoming short-sighted. While studios are out to make money, directors are showing poor judgement in going back to the well and altering what clearly needs no altering. Take for example, George Lucas's Special Edition of the classic trilogy. His method and madness come together at just the right moment. With digital film in its infancy, and Lucas being at the forefront of movie technology, he gave himself the opportunity to "fix" portions of the film he didn't like, citing  poor budgets, schedule issues, and lack of convincing technology that hindered his much grander vision of Star Wars. Indeed there were noticeable improvements. The dewbacks could now walk around. The exterior shot of Mos Eisley is far grander. There were new and interesting aliens in the Cantina scenes. Yet, George also committed an unforgivable crime, he made Greedo shoot first. To the uninitiated public, or non Star Wars fans, they view this as nitpicking and nothing more. But fans of film, and not necessarily Star Wars fans, see this as a dangerous tool that when misused, can drastically alter the tone and scope of a film, its characters, and its morale.

For those that don't know, the original scene shows Han, after negotiating a transportation price with Luke and Obi-Wan, runs into Greedo, a Rodian in the employ of the feared gangster Jabba the Hutt. Greedo has him at gunpoint and informs Han that Jabba is putting a price on his head. Greedo intends to collect, despite Han trying to convince Greedo that he has Jabba's money, just not on him at the moment. As Greedo continues with his threats Han slowly reaches for his blaster and shoots Greedo dead from under the table. He coldly stands up and tosses the bartender some credits for "the mess." George Lucas feels this paints Han as a murderer, not a hero, and decides to alter the scene to look like Greedo shoots first, and Han acted in self defense. George seems to have forgotten what fans knew from day one, that Han is a scoundrel. Tatooine easily comes off as a frontier town, reminiscent of those seen in westerns. Frontier life was harsh, and disputes were often settled with guns. Fans never despised Han's actions, indeed it made his role in the trilogy all the more poignant. Here is a selfish loner only concerned with money who learns to fall in love, care for others, and accept a cause bigger than himself. Since then, the Original Trilogy has undergone several revisions, yet Lucas stands firm on Han never shooting first. Now, a previously deleted scene involving Hans encounter with Jabba the Hutt by the Millennium Falcon is put back into the film. Jabba was played by a robust actor and George intended to have the real Jabba matted over the actor in post production. Again, special effects and budget kept him from doing this in the original theatrical release. Now a CGI Jabba is put in to replace he presence of the stand-in actor. This Jabba doesn't look much like the one seen in Return of the Jedi, being more green and yellow than flesh tone. Han also clowns on him as he purposely steps n Jabba's tail causing him pain. Yet through it all Jabba is more cordial than angry, essentially telling Han to return soon with his money or he'll place a huge bounty on his head. This entire scene should have been left on the cutting room floor for numerous reasons. In regards to dialogue, it does nothing to propel the story as all this was previously exchanged between Han and Greedo. Jabba is way out of character, being made to look foolish by Han in front of his cronies. The real Jabba would have had his men kill Han for such a slight. Not to mention, it completely makes no sense. If this is Lucas' vision, let us search for the logic in this. Greedo gets the drop in Han with a blaster pistol. He informs Han that he aims to collect, yet decides to kill Han? Wouldn't that hurt his reward money? I do not get the impression that the bounty is "dead or alive", especially years later in Empire Strikes Back, Bobba Fett worries about Han dying, telling Vader that Han is no good to him dead.So, unprovoked, Greedo wants to kill Han and ruin his meal ticket. And according to the Jabba/Han scene, Jabba is not nearly as upset with Han as he is in later films. There simply is no logic to this sequence, yet clearly this is George Lucas' vision.

But he isn't the only one. Francis Ford Coppola decided to extend Apocalypse Now into Apocalypse Now Redux. It added much more footage, but only served to polarize fans, many of whom feel the original was the definitive version. He also recently released a "complete novel" edition of The Outsiders, adding as much as 20 minutes to the film, giving more depth to the story. Yet he foolishly removes the original soundtrack with a generic rock-a-billy musical score. While citing that this music reflects the period of the film, it only serves to drown any drama with comical music one would find in a Gidget film. It is played inappropriately during scenes like the rumble, Dallas getting shot, and the church fire. It betrays the emotion of the footage with a sense that Austin Powers and six go-go dancers are about to show up. Plus it completely overpowers the dialogue. One gets the impression that he is either insane, or purposely sabotaging his own work.

Even the great Steven Spielberg isn't immune to the temptation, and "enhances" his classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Wanting to appear politically correct, he digitally removes police officers' handguns and replaces them with walkie-talkies. In one scene, the Mother tells her oldest son, referring to the approaching Halloween Holiday, that she does not want him going out looking like a terrorist. He replaces the word "terrorist" with "hippie." Clearly a useless tactic that show we have not recovered from the events of 9/11.

So fans beware. If you value a film, hold on to a copy of the theatrical release. Nowadays the Directer's Cut is replacing the original films. Again, as an example, the Star Wars Trilogy. With every new edition that is released, previous incarnations of the film are pulled. Only the latest is allowed to be sold, rented, or aired on television. This is where the real tragedy lies. I can understand a director wanting to put a new spin on an old film, but to deny the audience their right to choose for themselves which version to own is unforgivable.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Who Is The Dominant On-Screen Superhero?

Geeks everywhere endlessly debate on which Comic Book character is better, often based on favoritism, personal experience, and a few facts. Here, in regards to the Silver Screen, we contimplate this very question. Who is the dominant on-screen superhero? What criteria do we use, and how do we adjust for the sheer number of films, adjustment for inflation, peer recognition and fan based opinions? The criteria is as follows:

Superhero based movies in this match-up must have a minimum of three films. This allows for more scrutiny as well as longevity of the title character. They must have live action, so animated films do not count. Finally, they must have been screened in theaters, so direct-to-video films do not count as well.

So the Superheroes who fit this bill are: Batman, Blade, The Punisher, Spider-Man, Superman, and the X-Men.

Now that we established the rules, we judge the films under a number of categories. The first is the Tomato Meter from Rotten Tomatoes. This is a fantastic resource that gathers professional critiques from movie critics  of newspaper, internet, and television fame. After gathering all critiques, they give an overall percentage. The higher the percentage, the more the film is "approved by the experts." So we go film by film, record the tomato meter results, then average the total by the number of films in a single superheroes film history. By doing this, we see that Spider-Man is the winner. Punisher is dead last.

But we can't just go by what critics say. What about fans? What about the average movie goer? So we turn to Internet Movie Data Base to see the rating score. This score is comprised of thousands of scores that fans rate a film, from 1-10, then averages those ratings into a single score. Like the Tomato Meter, we gather the ratings of each movie, total the score, and divide by the number of films to get an overall averaged rating. In this method, X-Men came in first, with Spider-Man a close second. Surprisingly, Superman came in dead last. This is due to the enormous drag factor of the later sequels and Supergirl spin-off.

But in order to determine success of a film, because money talks and you-know-what walks, we also look at the box office. The fairest way to determine rank is to simply total the budgets of the films and then total the domestic gross of the films. We then divide the gross by the budget to determine the investment vs profit ratio.  Here, Batman dominates this field with a domestic gross x3.05 that of the budget. The second was Spider-man at a distant x1.86. The Punisher performed terrible, actually losing profit at a x0.5.

Success also comes in the form of recognition and achievement. People like trophies. So we also take into consideration wins and nominations from movie awards. The problem here is, there are dozens of award companies. So for the sake of simplicity and appropriateness, we only consider awards and nominations from the Academy, Golden Globes, Mtv Movie Awards, and the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. Because each Superhero has different amounts of films to back up, we again average the total to give a fair and balanced comparison. We also double-score the Academy as they are the most credible, and longest running awards company. Sadly, the Punisher didn't even hit the radar, while Spider-Man scored the highest.

With all this considered, we then take each category and combine their totals into one universal score. This score reflects movie critics, fan approval, financial success and film achievement to give a complete performance review. They are simply scored from 1-6 points per category. The final outcome is as follows:

Coming in at #6: The Punisher. With only 5 points, it would seem the only one who get's punished is Frank Castle. While the Punisher dominated the comic book scene in the 90's, he's small potatoes on the big screen.

Coming in at #5: Blade. This kung fu vampire franchise enjoyed moderate success with 10 points. 

Coming in at #4: Superman: The Man of Steel can fly, but poor sequels tugged his cape hard enough to face plant him in Kryptonite with 11 points.

Coming in at # 3: X-Men. An example of consistency, the X-Men score 17 points, a significant jump over Superman.

Coming in at #2: Batman. Despite its awards and the Dark Knight dominating the box office, the Joel Schumacher films holy hamstrings the caped crusader's efforts. Still, it gained an impressive 19 points.

And the #1 Big Screen Superhero is...Spider-Man. With 22 points, Spider-Man is swinging into success.

Of course, we're talking Superheroes, and like the comics that inspired them, there is no finality. The fight will go on. in 2012 Reboots of Spider-Man and Superman will add to their respective performances, as well as the Dark Knight Rises finishing off Christopher Nolan's Batman series. Plus, with the Avengers release, we'll see the likes of Captain America, the Hulk and Iron Man throw their hats into the ring.

So, as Stan Lee would say, stay tuned true believers.

Friday, September 2, 2011

"3D" in Movie Names

It's preposterous that film companies put "3D" into the actual, official name of their movies. In 2011 alone, there are nine movies that have been or will be released that have this distinction. They are:
  • Born to Be Wild 3D
  • TT3D: Closer to the Edge
  • Rescue 3D
  • Glee: The 3D Concert Movie
  • Shark Night 3D
  • Kylie 3D: Aphrodite Les Folies
  • A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas
  • Yu-Gi-Oh! 3D: Bonds Beyond Time
  • Piranha 3DD
Why do studios do this? Certainly 3D movies are not the rare exceptions they once were. There have been literally dozens of movies released in 3D in 2011. Do studios believe that more people will go to see, "Born to Be Wild 3D" than would go to see "Born to Be Wild"? I certainly don't think so. In fact, it may actually cause people to stay away because they know that 3D movies are more expensive than a 2D movie. If a movie has 3D in its title you know there is no 2D version available.

Then consider the DVD and Blu-Ray release. When it was released in movie theaters in 2010, the final Saw movie was called Saw 3D. When the same movie (only now in 2D format) was released to home media devices it was renamed Saw: The Final Chapter. Likewise, when the 2010 remake of Piranha was released in theaters it was called Piranha 3D. In its home media release it was called simply "Piranha" for Blu-Ray and DVD but for its 3D Blu-Ray release the title was still "Piranha 3D." All of this simply leads to confusion for fans. Is this the same movie? Also, is it really necessary to include "3D" in the title of a 3D Blu-Ray? By its very existence it must be a 3D movie!

Not to mention the inclusion of the number "3" in "3D" which can become confusing when you consider sequels and remakes. When I first hear a title such as "My Bloody Valentine 3D" you think, "Is this a 3D remake or did I miss the second film in the series?" Movies such as Spy Kids 3D: Game Over and Jaws 3D don't help by muddying the waters by using the "3" twice - once to denote that it's the third movie in the series and a second time to tell you it's also in 3D.

There are two movies on the above list that have interesting titles in examining the inclusion of "3D" in the name of the movie. The first is Piranha 3DD. Since there was already a Piranha 3D what do you call the sequel? Piranha 2 3D? That just looks sloppy. Piranha 3DD is a brilliant title because it pokes fun at the trend of adding "3D" to a film's name AND makes a joke about women's anatomy all at the same time! Meanwhile, TT3D: Closer to the Edge is a horrible name. The "TT" comes from the Isle of Man TT motorcycle race. Why they close to cram it against 3D instead of titling the film, "TT: Closer to the Edge 3D" is beyond me.

In my opinion, they only time it is justifiable to add "3D" to the movie's title is when you are re-releasing a previously 2D film into the theaters but in a 3D version. The upcoming 3D Star Wars films are a perfect example. I don't know if George Lucas is going to add the "3D" to the film's title or not but he should because it says to fans, "There's a reason this is being re-released! You can now see it in 3D!"