Saturday, May 26, 2012

STAR WARS STILL RINGS IN MY EARS


35 years ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

It’s hard to believe but STAR WARS is now 35 years old. It opened on May 25th, 1977. I remembered being amazed at 16 that it was opening the same day in little old Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. That was the ‘big city’ in my neck of the woods, and as a small town boy from Lomira, WI, 13 miles south with a population just over a thousand, I couldn’t wait to see the movie that Time magazine had just dubbed “the best movie of the year.” 
 
I've been a big movie fan all my life, and movies like STAR WARS fueled my passions at an early age. They transported me out of my conventional world and into the stratosphere of something bigger. I spent the whole movie with my jaw open. When it was done, my equally transfixed brother and I begged my mom to let us see it again. Immediately.

My mother’s reaction was less enthusiastic. She had accompanied us to the film and when asked what she thought of it, her response was a terse, “Too. Loud.” She was right. It was loud. But I was glad that the sound effects and John Williams’ trumpeting score and all those noisy battle scenes did a number on our ears. STAR WARS was a thunderous achievement. Its ringing in our ears was a foreshadowing of how the film would ring out throughout the nation. And ultimately, the world.
STAR WARS changed everything in the movie world. It became the biggest moneymaker of all time for decades. It put science fiction on the map as a mass appeal genre. And it showed how a movie could consume the cultural landscape, from soup to nuts. The film became an industry. Why, George Lucas himself made gazillions of dollars off the toy rights and used it to create THX Dolby and Industrial Light & Magic. (How embarrassing that 20th Century Fox let him keep all the merchandising rights because they had so little faith in it recouping its cost.) STAR WARS started the whole idea of tent pole movies too, for better and worse. Now, every studio wants a franchise like STAR WARS and will pay millions and millions to try to achieve it.

But the fans that loved STAR WARS first and best responded to its storytelling, not its blockbusting. We loved that George Lucas created an entire world with his vivid imagination. We marveled at his visualization of a galaxy with its own political order, its own transportation modes, its hundreds of oddball creatures inhabiting it. It was a big, opulent, mesmerizing place. And it was noisy and loud. It was bustling and crowded and filled with nattering robots and shrieking Wookies. The world of STAR WARS needed to be loud. (Sorry, Mom.) And it spoke volumes. 

And Lucas had such an eye for detail. And it all seemed so real. Not only the state-of-the-art special effects that made all those flying space ships seem utterly believable, but the lived-in specifics of his world. The vehicles in his universe weren’t pristine; they were grimy. The clothing people wore looked shaggy. The heroes and heroines weren’t gorgeous models and matinee idols. Faces like Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford looked more honest, even average. It all felt familiar, relatable and accessible.

Lucas so cleverly conjured the past in his new world too. His affection for WWII influenced the dogfight style of his battle scenes. He dressed his bad guys in uniforms that recalled Nazi gray. And his comic robots played off each other like veteran comedy teams like Laurel & Hardy or Martin & Lewis. 


Then there was Darth Vader. What a towering villain he was, both literally and figuratively. He had that big voice, that big helmet, and that 7 foot stature. And has a villain’s breathing alone ever been so terrifying? (Alright, maybe Frank Booth in "Blue Velvet" but still...) And this SOB, dressed all in black, he could choke his victims with his mere thoughts. He could do so because he practiced ‘The Force.' Force, indeed.

STAR WARS never condescended to its science fiction genre roots. It was so much more than just a space tale. It was about spiritualism, family, and friendship, as much as light sabers and Death Stars. Its themes were big, its reach was worldly. That’s why Williams’ score had to be so orchestral. It was grand opera. 

And here 35 years later, the influence of STAR WARS is as fresh as it was then. How many big-budget, sci-fi, super hero epics have been influenced by it? Perhaps it set the bar too high for other films. Hollywood movies rarely get close to something like it, with only THE LORD OF THE RINGS and AVATAR achieving something in the vicinity. 

Thus, we celebrate its singular accomplishment this week as it turns 35 years old. Today, the names Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, C-3PO, R2-D2 and Obi-Wan Kenobi are known from Peru to China. And any film enthusiast anywhere can tell you about the day they first encountered the universe of STAR WARS. Mine was 35 years ago, this week, the week of its birth. And it’s still ringing in my ears.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

NOW TRENDING IN 2012 SUMMER MOVIES


What would a summer movie season be without blockbuster wannabe’s, super heroes and sequels? The one upon us at the moment is just like that, albeit on steroids. It seems like every movie opening in the next few months either cost 200 million to make (BATTLESHIP); stars an actor in a ridiculous costume your child will be wanting come Halloween (THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN); or has a title with easily marketable, built-in name recognition (THE BOURNE LEGACY). Or all three in many cases, like with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. But there are some new trends, less obvious ones, shifting the sands of the beach beneath our summer season. Here are five worth noting:
Andrew Garfield in the upcoming THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN


Trend # 1: Summer Is Now 12 Months Long

Time was Memorial Day weekend was considered the start of the summer movie season. No more. These days, more and more tent-pole pictures (those movies that a studio stakes its year on, hoping for a rainmaker) are opening throughout the year. That’s why a popcorn adventure like THE HUNGER GAMES opened in the spring. It would have done exceptional in any season but by opening with less competition around it, the film became an utter phenomenon and one that ruled the box office for a month. And with the advent of Netflix and same-day-as-theater releases on cable, the May-August period is no longer as exceptional as it once was. Now, movie studios will open any movie at any time, in any way, in any place, if they see a golden opportunity. And popular movies like THE HUNGER GAMES have proven that any month can be a summer-esque one.
Robert Downey Jr. in THE AVENGERS
Trend # 2: We’re Number 2, We’re Number Two!

American movies get shown in America first, and then rolled out to foreign markets, right? Wrong. That has been changing over the last few years. You’ll recall that THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO opened in foreign markets weeks before it opened at Christmas in the USA last year. And this year a number of summer movies already opened overseas in the spring. THE AVENGERS was raking in the dough in April already across the pond before it opened here in early May. Same with BATTLESHIP. As world marketing becomes more and more global, Hollywood fare will no longer be stamped with “America first.” And movie studios love opening in a competitive American market being able to brag about it being a hit already overseas.
Noomi Rapace stars in the upcoming PROMETHEUS

Trend # 3: 3-D Is Here to Stay

Just when you thought that those silly glasses were destined to remain in the return bin after the failure of so many 3-D extravaganzas over the last few years (THE GREEN LANTERN, anyone?) along comes Martin Scorsese, who after his 3-D HUGO won four Oscars this past February, exclaimed that he’s only going to make films in 3-D from now on. Then there’s James Cameron, who while plotting multiple AVATAR sequels, says he is now only in the “Avatar” business. Even the esteemed filmmaker Ridley Scott recently told Britain’s Empire magazine that he not only loved doing his upcoming PROMETHEUS in 3-D, but that he wishes he had done GLADIATOR the same way. (Can a re-release of that Best Picture winner be far off?) So if you thought that 3-D was going to die the same death as Sensurround or Scratch & Sniff cards in the movie theaters, guess again. More and more Hollywood spectacles will require, dare I say, spectacles!
Sacha Baron Cohen in THE DICTATOR

Trend # 4: Even Rich Actors Feel the Effects of a Bad Economy

Think only the 99% are struggling? Then ask yourself why Sacha Baron Cohen scrapped his ‘take no prisoners’ gonzo style of moviemaking on display in BORAT and BRUNO to produce his scripted THE DICTATOR with a sweet love story at its core.  Consider why Sylvester Stallone was so anxious to use his new clout from the success of THE EXPENDABLES to rush into production its sequel rather than finally produce his long-gestating vanity biopic about Edgar Allan Poe. And reflect on why the still gorgeous and provocative Michelle Pfeiffer was willing to play the matronly third lead in DARK SHADOWS and concede the sexy vamp role to Eva Green. It’s simple. Actors need to eat and pay mortgages and afford their lifestyles, just like the rest of us. And in these unsure economic times, career risk taking is going to be put on hold.
Liam Neeson in BATTLESHIP

Trend # 5: Everyone in Hollywood Wants To Be Liam Neeson or Noomi Rapace

Whoever would have thought that the graying, master thespian Liam Neeson would become an international adventure star at his age with megahits like TAKEN and THE GREY? He proved that great actors could do action. And ever since, roles usually filled by the likes of Bruce Willis or Jason Statham, are now being taken by art house beanpoles such as Guy Pearce and Andrew Garfield. And why not? Action films play well overseas, certainly more than film adaptations of Shakespeare or Pinter, which require understanding of words more than visual language. That's why Neeson is in BATTLESHIP and not the upcoming bio of Lincoln that he turned down. Actors, even Oscar nominated ones, need to eat. (See Trend # 4.)

As for Swedish actress Noomi Rapace, she proved that women can kick butt too, and they don’t need to be six foot like Sigourney Weaver, or muscle bound like Gina Carana, to do so. Rapace is little and light but when she played Lisbeth Salander in the original Swedish film trilogy of Stieg Larsson’s best-selling Millennium books, every actress in Hollywood sat up and took notice. Suddenly, women in Tinsel Town wanted to be the next Schwarzenegger in their own action franchise. And soon enough willowy stars like Kristen Stewart signed for fight heavy summer releases like the upcoming SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN. As for Rapace, she’s not only set a new precedent but has the lead in this summer’s huge release PROMETHEUS. That movie is rumored to be a prequel to ALIEN. Take that, Sigourney!

What other trends will become apparent from the slate of new summer releases? Time will tell. But whatever succeeds, Hollywood will try to duplicate it, re-jigger it, reboot it or re-conform it in one way or another. It is called show business, after all. Art is fine, but art with commerce is considered even better there. Especially in the months when kids are out of school, people take vacation, and everyone needs a good air-conditioned theater to sit in and scratch their sunburn.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

GREAT VILLAINS MAKE SUPER HERO MOVIES GREAT



With the astounding success of THE AVENGERS worldwide take already past $700 million, Hollywood moguls most assuredly will be greenlighting more superhero movies. Perhaps even that long gestating version of DC’s JUSTICE LEAGUE will finally get off the ground now. Or a big screen version of WONDER WOMAN. We can only hope. But why do some superhero films fly so spectacularly like THE AVENGERS, while others crash and burn like THE PHANTOM? There are many reasons: casting, storyline, relatability, and good costume design. (Believe me, a bad costume can sink an effort. Right, GREEN LANTERN?) I also think the best of the bunch more often than not have outstanding villains.
Tom Hiddleston in THE AVENGERS




A great nemesis can make or break any horror movie, a James Bond sequel or any comic book adaptation. The most successful graphic novel to screen versions tend to be the ones where the hero’s nemesis is a credible and legitimate foil. I think one of the very best aspects of the new AVENGERS film, and of last summer’s smash THOR, is the villain Loki played by the sly and insinuating Tom Hiddleston. Thor’s half-brother is not some one-note, sour and surly baddie. Instead, he’s a charming, handsome and intelligent man who just happened to be born second and smaller than his he-man sibling. The black sheep aspect is something most of us can relate to, and Loki’s vulnerability is what drives his anger and villainy. Any similarity to the devil, the fallen angel Lucifer who so wanted to be as powerful as God, is purely intentional. It gives Loki great depth, innate sadness, and incredible memorability.
Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor in SUPERMAN




Like all the best comic book villains, what motivates Loki is relatable to an audience. We understand what makes the bad guy tick because it’s something we’ve all felt at one time or another ourselves. We don't mean to hurt anyone, we're just protecting our own interests. And those who act really bad may be selfish and even monstrous, but they always do so with similar justification too, don’t they? No one sees himself as the villain, but rather as a victim, a trapped animal who has to lash out to save his own skin.


Lex Luthor, played imperially by Gene Hackman in three of the four Christopher Reeve SUPERMAN movies, is punishing the world for failing to recognize his genius. So he’ll show ‘em, by dropping California into the drink by setting off a bomb right in the middle of the desert. It’s not his fault he’s so bad, it’s San Andreas' fault!  
Ian McKellen as Magneto in X-MEN




The standouts of super hero villainy are always those that wear their humanity on their sleeve. Magneto (Ian McKellen) made such an impression in the X-MEN movies because he’s a victim of Auschwitz. His pain is literally on his sleeve, or tattooed on his wrist, as it were. We accept his motivations because he’s a victim of horrendous prejudice. 
Michelle Pfeiffer in BATMAN RETURNS




Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) is abused by her sadistic boss Max Shreck in BATMAN RETURNS and the reason she becomes bad girl Catwoman is to turn the tables on him. Terence Stamp’s General Zod is driven by resentment for not getting his due on his home planet of Krypton in SUPERMAN II. That's why he comes to earth to wreak havoc on his foil's son. And even Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane, the villain in IRON MAN, is just a corporate wonk who feels terribly overshadowed by the great Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). Who among us hasn't been passed over for a raise or a promotion at some point and wanted retribution for the slight? “The man” always keeps the good people down, right? That’s exactly how villains think too.
Heath Ledger in THE DARK KNIGHT




Heath Ledger is arguably the greatest villain in any comic book movie for his Oscar-winning turn as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT. In it, the Joker brags about how he got his ghastly scars, changing his story every time. Just what the truth is we never find out, but it’s the ambiguity of the tale as well as the sadness of it that makes the clown prince of crime all the more fascinating and tragic. If only he had gotten more love, perhaps he wouldn’t be so zealous in wanting to watch the world burn.
Alfred Molina in SPIDER-MAN 2




For me though, my favorite super hero movie villain is Dock Ock in SPIDER-MAN 2. The well-meaning scientist starts out as an exuberant nerd who has created four electronic arms to do good but then sees them go haywire and affix to his back permanently. He’s turned into a deranged psychopath, driven by his ego and octopus-like appendages. Alfred Molina plays his villain with a contained cool, but never lets the humanity leave those amazingly soulful eyes of his. When he dies at the end, saving Manhattan from going up in flames, I got a lump in my throat. His death is utterly tragic and really moved me. Even villains in comic book movies deserved to be mourned.


How effective will the villains be in the remaining superhero movies due this year? Whether or not the nemeses from DREDD, MEN IN BLACK 3, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN or THE DARK KNIGHT RISES live up to the likes of Loki and these others remains to be seen. But if they are successful, it will be for the following reasons: a terrific storyline, spot-on casting, and villainous motivations that we can all relate to. And so can the super hero. The closer the good guy and bad guy are to each other in background, spirit and drive, the better.


Bring ‘em on!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

THE 10 ELEMENTARY REASONS YOU SHOULD WATCH “SHERLOCK” ON PBS


It’s rare that I write about anything television here. After all, this is a movie blog. But the second season of the BBC’s modern-dress Sherlock Holmes series is so sublime, and so cinematic, that it warrants my endorsement here in this forum. There are only three 1 ½ hour episodes to each of the SHERLOCK seasons. And the 2nd series starts this Sunday on PBS’ MASTERPIECE MYSTERY. To miss it is criminal, thus here are the 10 reasons you must make it appointment TV or set your DVR:
Original caricature of Martin Freeman & Benedict Cumberbatch in SHERLOCK
THIS TV VERSION IS BETTER THAN THE MOVIE SERIES
The Robert Downey Jr. films have their charms, but their action hero version of Holmes can’t hold a Victorian candle to this truer and smarter take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous character. The Holmes here, created by Mark Gattis and Steven Moffat, has ten times the brains of Downey’s version, both as character and series. That will be clear after a mere five minutes of watching to any novice or aficionado.

    BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH IS EXTRAORDINARY 
This young actor is going to be a huge star soon, with his attention-getting turns in everything from last year’s TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY to the upcoming HOBBIT movie. And his best work so far is here, as he makes for one of the greatest Holmes ever. His Baker Street sleuth is brilliant, witty, arrogant, impatient, mercurial, and at times, borderline psychotic. In other words, a perfect Holmes.

    MARTIN FREEMAN IS THE BEST WATSON EVER
The entertainment world is getting smarter about not portraying Holmes’ #2 as such a doofus, like the doctor Nigel Bruce played opposite Basil Rathbone for so many years. And Freeman is the best yet. His Watson is a moral medical and military man. And watching Holmes work takes his breath away. And his tongue. Freeman does more with a bewildered look than just about any actor working today.

    THEIR MORIARITY IS TERRIFYING
He’s not some crotchety old bugger like he’s so often portrayed, but rather a young, hip sociopathic genius, not unlike Holmes, who has a grudge against an intellectually inferior world. And Andrew Scott’s portrayal of him is amusing, fastidious and utterly chilling.

IT'S MODERN DONE RIGHT
This series makes fun of many of the more clich├ęd conventions of the Holmes oeuvre, like Holmes insulting the stupidity of a deerstalker hat. (“It has two fronts!”) And it contemporizes Holmes in logical ways that make for a lot of fun - Holmes texts, Watson blogs his stories about their adventures, Irene Adler (a felinely sexual Lara Pulver) is a dominatrix, etc. The new tales are riffs on Adler, the Hound of the Baskervilles and the Reichenbach Falls. They’re both tribute and a new spin on the classics, which should delight Holmes fans as well as newbie’s.

    EACH EPISODE IS WORTH WATCHING TWICE
    DVR this series because you’ll want to catch all that you missed, including some of Holmes’ rapid-fire deductions as well as his delicious put-downs of those working with him. Poor Molly, the morgue attendant, gets it worst of all, and actress Loo Brealey does more with a wounded look than most actresses could do with a page of dialogue!

    IT LOOKS LIKE A MOVIE
This series’ three episodes look as cinematic as any movie in theaters these days. And its content blows most screen fare away. 

    JEREMY BRETT WOULD BE PROUD
The TV series from the 80’s is still the best version of Holmes ever done, mostly due to lead Brett’s insistence on staying utterly loyal to the original stories. And his portrayal of Holmes, still the most masterful. However, this SHERLOCK is almost as close on both counts, even though everything is contemporized. They remain true to the essence of Conan Doyle’s detective and stories, and I’m sure Mr. Brett would be an avid fan if he were alive today.

    YOU SHOULD SUPPORT PUBLIC TELEVISION
The current Congress is no fan of arts entitlements and PBS could use your help. They’re still fighting the good fight to bring better fare to our small screens so please support their efforts by watching SHERLOCK. And maybe pledge some moolah too.

ENSURE THAT THIS SERIES CONTINUES
Keith, a good friend of mine from England, shared the DVD of the series with me months ago, as it premiered in the UK way back in January. But sadly, most of you don’t know Keith so in order to get up to speed you need to watch SHERLOCK on TV starting this Sunday night. And good ratings will mean more SHERLOCK series making it across the pond. 

Again, I don’t write about TV here, I write about movies. But these three episodes of SHERLOCK are essentially mini-movies anyway. No matter what you call it though, SHERLOCK is truly an outstanding piece of entertainment, no matter what screen it’s viewed on. (Now someone, please, run out and mix me up a 7% solution as I’ll soon be going through withdrawals waiting for my next fix of this amazing series. Another year is simply too long to wait for such a masterpiece.)