Wednesday, April 27, 2016

10 MUSINGS ABOUT MOVIES SO FAR THIS YEAR

We’re only four months into the new year, but there have been some stories in the world of entertainment that have gotten me thinking. Here are my observations about ten of them:

Original caricature by Jeff York of Prince in his musical video "Kiss" (copyright 2016)
PRINCE'S LEGACY ON FILM  

So soon after the loss of David Bowie, the world has lost another icon of music, art, film and fashion. He only made a handful of movies, but Prince’s screen debut in PURPLE RAIN and his concert film SIGN O’ THE TIMES were revelatory. They showcased his singular and brilliant talent. Each brought his music to life in filmic ways. And judiciously, he won an Oscar for his musical score written for the former film, his movie debut. It’s just a shame that he didn’t star in more films. UNDER THE CHERRY MOON wasn’t great, and ultimately, his talent and persona may have been just too much for the movies. How do you play a fictional character when you're bigger than life in the real world just being yourself? Prince did demonstrate some truly delightful acting skills in his music videos though, notably “Kiss.” In that song that lists what he was looking for in a friend and lover, Prince demonstrated that he could be dramatic, hilarious, charismatic, and even childlike, sometimes within seconds of each other. And at least we have such permanent record of those mini-film performances like that. We also have his TV appearances and interviews that were always fascinating, and never less than entertaining. Watch him banter and volley the conversational ball back and forth with Larry King during a full-hour 1999 interview here: http://bit.ly/26jsk2v What a giant Prince truly was in so many mediums.

IS LEMONADE BY BEYONCÉ A MOVIE?

And speaking of music videos, Beyoncé just dropped an incredible mini-movie called LEMONADE which is a very personal and vivid concept album/film about marriage, love and betrayal. It may very well be a new way of presenting movies, in shorter lengths, that don't have to go through all the studio channels. A lot of artists and platforms, from iTunes to VOD to Louis CK are redefining what is a TV program, a movie, or an entertainment event. The lines are blurring and yet, for audiences, such landmark work could not be more clear.

THERE IS NO SUMMER MOVIE SEASON ANYMORE

When you have big summer movie’s like BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and THE HUNTSMAN: WINTERS WAR opening in the spring, we’re in a permanent summer movie season, no matter what the month. This has been happening for the last few years, but now it seems like studios are opening a big summer movie every month now at least. DEAD POOL in February. Yes, in February. So does that mean on the opposite end of the spectrum, we might get more niche movies aimed at adult audiences from Memorial Day through Labor Day? I'd like to think so, but I won't be holding my breath.


 WHY THE HUNTSMAN FAILED TO HUNT 

The reviews weren’t stellar, as the 17% fresh rating demonstrates over at RottenTomatoes.com, and the opening weekend’s box office was lower than even the modest expectations. So why did the sequel to Universal’s big hit for 2012 do so poorly? Could it be because the sequel forgot to star half the equation from SNOW WHITE & THE HUNTSMAN? Yes, Chris Hemsworth’s Huntsman is a terrific creation, but where was Snow? She’s only got a cameo in the movie, filmed from the back, because Kristen Stewart didn't come back to play her. So why not cast anew and make the female lead part of the tentpole? Come to think of it, why was Charlize Theron on screen for only a third of the time as she was in the original where she was such a vital villain? It seems obvious to fans of the first, like yours truly, but somehow these simple needs of a smart sequel evaded the powers that be at Universal. 

GAME OF THRONES IS BUDGETED LIKE A BIG MOVIE BUT IT MAY BE HURTING HBO

Don’t get me wrong, I am an avid GAME OF THRONES fan, and HBO, but the ginormously budgeted show with its huge cast, expensive and ever expanding production over how many continents, as well as its state of the art special effects, are costing the premium cable channel an arm and a leg. The worldwide success of GAME OF THRONES is a rare thing and shouldn't be expected for everything at HBO. Thus, they shouldn't be greenlighting more and more projects that have similar budgets.  Their multimillion dollar plans for a series about Lewis and Clark was scrapped, and a costly series based on the 1973 movie WESTWORLD ceased production to get costs under control. True, it’s not TV, it’s HBO, but not everything needs to be as big to be as bold.

THE PRESIDENTIAL RACE IS A DARK COMEDY, BUT WHO’S LAUGHING?

And speaking of HBO, as good as the new season of VEEP is already, or Netflix's HOUSE OF CARDS was last month, neither can compare to the crazy narrative at play in this year's political season. One is tempted to say that the Trump show is playing out like some kind of real-life dark comedy. But how many of us are laughing as he seems to be poised to be one of the two majors candidates for the general election? More like a horror movie, no? 


 HORROR IS BEING SERVED UP SHORT & SWEET

And while we’re on the topic of horror...
I've been reviewing horror films for the Examiner online for five years now and seen many a movie struggle to maintain the terror for 90 minutes to 2 hours. It's one of the reasons that anthology horror movies have really taken off with franchises like V/H/S and THE ABC’S OF DEATH. Even Edgar Allan Poe's short stories got their due last Halloween with the animated EXTRAORDINARY TALES (http://exm.nr/1NBjTt5). And now, there’s HOLIDAYS, available in theaters and on VOD. In this anthology, eight holidays are each given their own short horror film, and most of them are very good. They're fresh, funny, frightening...and they'll keep you on the edge of your seat for 15 minutes until the next one starts the scaremongering all over anew. What's not to scream about there?

TIME MAGAZINE’S 100 MOST INFLUENTIAL LIST

One can argue about the worth of who made the list and who didn’t, but isn’t it wonderful that such a versatile and compelling actor like Oscar Isaac was featured?  He has absolutely been killing it in project after project on the big screen these last few years, from INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS to A MOST DANGEROUS YEAR to EX MACHINA to STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. And on the small screen, like in HBO's SHOW ME A HERO, he's been doing work that has already won him a Golden Globe and an Emmy may be next. I’ve written about him here before on the blog (http://bit.ly/1OeOjNF) but it’s always nice when others recognize the singular sensation that a talent like Isaac is as well.

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL IS JUST THAT

Think there are too many superhero movies out there? Well, there are. And though some are truly excellent, like this year's DEADPOOL, it's nice to see smaller films with minuscule budgets get good reviews and do decent at the box office too. One of those movies is this April's MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, written and directed by Jeff Nichols. It's a small, intimate character-driven thriller that prove that a great vision and script can trump most monolithic tentpoles. Sticking to similar stories focusing on middle Americans dealing with crisis' of faith and family, like MUD and TAKE SHELTER, his latest again proves that three-dimensional characters are the always the best special effect in any film. That being said, he does conjure some pretty good CGI in the final act of this one, but the acting and story is what you'll be talking about long after the film has ended. Go see this thought-provoking and well-acted film starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher and Adam Driver.
THE BARE NECESSITIES OF CGI

I don’t think actors have to worry yet about losing roles to CGI. I still laugh when I think about how the female lead’s hair in FINAL FANTASY gave a more moving performance than her face did 15 years ago. I'm not sure how much better humans look by computer animation these days, but I can tell you that the CGI animals in the new JUNGLE BOOK look spectacular. So much so, that they may even give SAG some pause. Still, if you're going to do such special effects, they're only truly that if they serve the story and not the other way around. Director Jon Favreau and his colleagues have told their tale exceptionally well here, and its priorities are clearly in order. 

And here are two extra bits of personal news that I hope you followers of The Establishing Shot will find interesting:

ADVENTURES IN PODCASTING 

Did you know that I’ve ventured into the world of podcasting? Indeed, the International Screenwriters Association asked me to host a weekly review program for them that concentrates on the screenwriting aspects of current movies playing in the cinemas. I’m a budding screenwriter and ISA member, as you may know, and the hook of our show is that each week a different fellow ISA member is my guest. It's called "Page 2 Screen" and you can listen to our conversations for free at networkisa.org or on iTunes. And they're downloadable too. We’ve completed 20 podcasts so far, and we're getting a lot of listeners, so hopefully it will continue on for some time. We're no Siskel and Ebert, and our discussions tend to be longer (about 45 minutes) and more script driven, but I know you'd enjoy them as movie fans, so please give "Page 2 Screen" a listen.  

THE START OF THE CHICAGO INDEPENDENT FILM CRITICS CIRCLE 

I’m also proud to tell you that I'm a new member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle, founded by fellow Examiner critic Don Shanahan. You can follow him and read his articles and reviews on his blog: http://www.everymoviehasalesson.com, or at the Examiner. My reviews are there too, of course, and you can link to them here: http://www.examiner.com/movie-in-chicago/jeff-york. Its great to be part of this new critics group and I'll try to keep you informed of what we're up to here and on Facebook as well.

Well, that's it for now. So much going on in such a short time. I'm looking forward to the other eight months this year. How about you?

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

WAS THE REAL VICTIM OF NEGAN'S BAT ON "THE WALKING DEAD" ITS AUDIENCE?

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan in THE WALKING DEAD.

The power of an outraged people can be seen everywhere this election season, giving rise to candidates that most of the press and powers-that-be-wrote off early on. And the same can be said of audiences stymied by what’s going on with beloved franchises on both the big screen and small. The outcry over how misguided and tin-eared BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE was has tainted the entire DC docket slated for the next few years and is causing worry inside Warner Bros. A box office drop-off of 81% from first week to next will do that to a studio. And on television, the outcry over Sunday night’s cliffhanger on THE WALKING DEAD has turned the producers'  season-end victory lap into a real PR problem.

Those responsible for the show probably thought that it would be exceedingly clever to hide the identity of which recurring character was killed by the wrath of the big bad bat of its new villain character Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and that they'd be able milk the guessing game across the summer months. Unfortunately, the tease has resulted in blowback that has been swift and brutal. 

Negative reactions trumped positive ones on Twitter by 9 to 1 in the aftermath of Sunday night's finale. And the web has lit up with even more outrage since then. Fans and press alike have taken the producers to task all over the web for yet another egregious taunt this year, after the fake-out of Glenn’s death earlier in the season, and it’s left showrunner Scott Gimple complaining about the lack of trust from the fans.

Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Daryl (Norman Reeds) on THE WALKING DEAD
It may have been one tease too many. When Glenn’s fate was toyed with for a few episodes, the ruse even went so far as to expel the name of Steven Yuen, the actor who plays Glenn, from the opening credits until his beloved character returned. It was great for creating buzz, but it started the show down a dangerous course of playing a PR game and not playing fair with its storytelling. Fans started to feel they were being trolled. 

At times, it has seemed that this season of the show has been specifically designed for the program THE TALKING DEAD which follows each episode on Sundays. There, host Chris Hardwick discusses what happened on the proceeding episode with various cast members, producers and special celebrity guests. The coy attitudes of those from the show has continued the trolling in its way and again, the drama should really be on the show, not in how information is parsed out to fans afterwards. 

THE TALKING DEAD on AMC network
And with all that, the show continues to seem to be more and more designed for talk value rather than disciplined narrative. In the penultimate episode this season when Daryl (Norman Reedus) was shot, his blood splattered all over the camera lens, breaking the fourth wall. The fact that the makers of the show chose to do the exact same thing with Negan’s bat in the season finale added insult to such injury. Not only was it the same camera trick, but now it served its intent of turning our POV literally into that of Negan’s victim. Even more so, it became a metaphor for how the show has been brutalizing its audience with all the tricks and scams.

Now, audiences will have to wait some seven months until its return on October 9 to see whom Negan has clobbered. As it turns out, the death scene hasn’t even fully been shot. The showrunners say that they’ve chosen who died but apparently, the cast members are just as much in the dark as we are. Are the actors now being trolled too?

Wouldn’t it have been easier to show the death scene, be honest about it, and show everyone's reaction on the season finale to make it truly eventful rather than such a shocking letdown? And wouldn't season seven benefit from starting with the aftermath, and the new life that the survivors will now have to forge under Negan's rule? Why go over the same material again, especially when it's an awful murder scene? 

Granted, a show like THE WALKING DEAD has never pretended that it wasn’t mean, cynical, and ferocious in its depiction of the ruins of a world overrun by a zombie apocalypse. And week in and week out, it pushes the limits of violence on television. But as the last few seasons have started to push the zombies more and more to the background, preferring instead to paint man as the true monster threatening survival, it seems the show was truly moving forward. Now, with this fake-out, and that of Glenn's death earlier in the season, the show's producers seem too preoccupied with parlor tricks.  

Negan wields his bat in the original comic book of THE WALKING DEAD.
And do the producers think they can truly keep the identity of Negan's victim a secret  for six months? On-set spies and paparazzi will be watching closely to see which actor is no longer on the call sheets. And if you don't think such things can be readily found out these days and quickly spill out all over the web,  check out the spoilers Reality Steve has been ruining ABC's THE BACHELOR with over the course of the last few years. 

Those making THE WALKING DEAD may have miscalculated on what how much the fan base is willing to take, particularly when it comes to PR stunts versus cogent storytelling. The cautionary tale of how quickly an audience can turn is there in the debacle that was BATMAN VERSUS SUPERMAN two weeks ago. We'll see how the ratings for THE WALKING DEAD are affected it returns in autumn, and whether or not the furor will take a toll on the ratings.


And if Daryl is the one who bites the dust because of Negan's bat, then the makers of THE WALKING DEAD will have really stepped in it. And their fans will eat them alive.