You Can’t Please Everyone: Fandom in the Modern Age

We live in an unusual time, movie-wise. On any given weekend, there’s probably at least one new movie coming out that’s based on an established property, be it a comic book or novel, an old TV show, a videogame, or some previously-existing film. Studios want to make projects with a built-in fan base, and they will go to great lengths to appease those fans. Marvel, for instance, has turned fan-pandering into an art form with the creation of its Cinematic Universe, which ties all their films together. There is no logical reason to have Falcon cameo in ANT-MAN except to explain why Ant-Man will be in the next Captain America film, a branch of the MCU that Falcon is already part of. Marvel simply knows fans love that sort of thing.

Studios are usually so desperate to earn fan approval that they bend over backward. It’s no real secret that potential casting choices for big movies are “leaked” online to see how the public will respond. This is why you often see stars saying they have “never been approached” about these roles they’re supposedly up for. The rumors are simply to gauge whether the fans will give a thumbs-up to a possible selection. If they do, the actor might actually receive an offer. If not, someone else mysteriously becomes the new consideration. Comic-Con has also proved a vital testing ground. Studios trot out the casts of their as-yet-unfilmed projects or debut early footage, hoping they will be met with enthusiasm. More than once, course corrections have occurred after the crowds at Hall H expressed displeasure.

Fan revolt is nothing new. In 1988, fans flooded Warner Brothers Pictures with angry letters after it was announced that Michael Keaton – an actor known primarily for comedies like BEETLEJUICE and MR. MOM – had been cast in Tim Burton’s adaptation of BATMAN. (Keaton ultimately proved them all wrong.) When a then-unknown Robert Pattinson was cast as Edward in the eagerly-awaited TWILIGHT, the so-called Twi-hards went into a tizzy. Once they saw the final film, they embraced Pattinson, although, as a whole, they never seemed interested in seeing him in anything other than a TWILIGHT picture. Similarly, producers of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY were smacked with an online petition demanding Dakota Johnson and Charlie Hunnam be replaced as the leads in favor of fan-preferred picks Alexis Bledel and Matt Bomer. Hunnam eventually dropped out and was replaced by Jamie Dornan. Johnson stayed. The film was a hit, if not exactly a blockbuster.

Those cases worked out from a box office perspective, but generally speaking, it can be extremely risky to piss off the fans, who feel a sense of ownership toward their beloved properties. We’ve seen two recent examples where failure to appease the base led to catastrophe. Josh Trank’s FANTASTIC FOUR, to the dismay of comic book loyalists, changed the manner in which the titular heroes obtain their superpowers. Less enlightened fans were additionally outraged that one of the characters, Johnny Storm, was now being played by a black actor, Michael B. Jordan. The movie’s $56 million take is widely considered a disaster. Scathing reviews didn’t help, but critics don’t usually make much impact on fan-driven films such as this. Large swaths of the base likely opted to stay away because they didn’t approve of the changes.

An even more telling example can be found in Universal’s JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS, which is based on a popular ‘80s cartoon show and toy line. Dedicated fans were ecstatic upon learning there would be a movie adaptation. Then the first photos and trailer hit the internet, and it became painfully clear that the filmmakers were going to be something less than completely faithful to the source material. This led to a full-on boycott, which played out on multiple Facebook pages, among other online hangouts. The end result: the $5 million-budgeted film won’t even earn half that in its theatrical run.

All of this begs the question: How much power should fans have over the course of these movies? As terrible as it was (and believe me, it was abysmal), JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS at least felt like it had an idea behind it. The filmmakers clearly wanted to explore the power of the internet to make a person famous. They may not have given audiences the Jem story they were used to, but doggoneit, they gave them something. AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, on the other hand, was a massive hit that offered no surprises. Moreover, it often felt, as most Marvel movies do, like a commercial for future Marvel movies. Sure, it was largely fun, but it never once had the courage to color outside the lines.

And this is where the problem lies. Fans typically want something that fits into their preconceived notion of what a property is. They seek cinematic comfort food. We’re all guilty of it. This impulse, however, may have the effect of shutting the door on movies that are more challenging and ambitious. When filmmakers feel they have to work within a very defined, fenced-in area, true art is stifled. Sometimes really spectacular entertainment is produced within these confines, but at what cost? Not every creative decision, safe or risky, pays off. Aren’t they worth making, though? Don’t the most special films come about because someone inherently defied the norm or made a deliberately unexpected choice? These are the very qualities we revere in directors like Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, yet when they’re applied to our favorite properties, we tend to reject them – or at least display obstinance toward them until we’re proven wrong.

Cinema is fundamentally about making the viewer experience something. Allowing the target audience to dictate that experience not only creates the risk of bland movies, it creates the risk of breeding apathy. Yes, films based on existing properties have some responsibility to stay true to the source material’s spirit. (Why even adapt something if you don’t intend to be at least a little faithful?) But giving the fans too much power makes them oddly apathetic, because people don’t demand anything more than what they’re already comfortable with. That is in no way a knock on fans; it’s just an acknowledgement that intense love of something inherently makes us resistant to change.

If Shakespeare’s plays can be interpreted a hundred different ways, so can a superhero story, an old cartoon show, a popular young adult novel series, or anything else. A black actor can play a traditionally white character. An unpredictable actor can be cast over an obvious one. An origin story can be updated. By allowing ourselves to be open to adjustment and alteration, we deepen our relationship with the source material. Having our preconceived notions challenged causes us to engage with the property more fully and to explore our fondness for it in greater depth. We need the boat to be rocked from time to time.

Fandom is a wonderful, beautiful, meaningful thing. Allowing that fandom to be less rigid and more fluid will help keep it healthy and thriving, and that benefits audiences and filmmakers alike.

Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan

Depression in Alex Ross Perry’s QUEEN OF EARTH

 

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Alex Ross Perry’s QUEEN OF EARTH opens with a dramatic close-up of Catherine Hewitt (played by Elisabeth Moss). She’s been crying so hard that mascara is running down her face. This long, unbroken shot is a perfect visual representation of the pain Catherine is feeling inside. She talks to an off-screen boyfriend in a hurt, angry tone. It’s clear that she is in the process of having her heart broken and is struggling to deal with it. Eventually, the film cuts to a brief shot of the man who is devastating her, but then it goes right back to Catherine. We are encouraged to look into her eyes, to see the raw emotion pouring out. From these opening minutes, QUEEN OF EARTH establishes its willingness to examine the very nature of depression without the eventual feel-good sheen a lot of Hollywood movies awkwardly try to put on the subject. This is one of the most vital films ever made about how it feels to be depressed.

Catherine, it turns out, has suffered two blows. In addition to getting dumped, her beloved artist father died not too long ago. Now devoid of the two most important men in her life, she turns to best friend Ginny Lowell (Katherine Waterston) for support. The two women go to the latter’s family lake house together for a week of intended recovery, but it doesn’t go as planned. Ginny ends up allowing a neighbor, Rich (Patrick Fugit), to hang around. Catherine resents his intrusion into what is supposed to be an exercise in female bonding, which leads to conflict with Ginny. QUEEN OF EARTH intersperses this plot with flashbacks to the summer before, when Catherine thoughtlessly brought the now ex-boyfriend to the lake house while Ginny was the one going through a difficult emotional time. This leads to the question of whether Ginny is intentionally trying to antagonize Catherine in retaliation, or whether the two simply don’t know how to truly be there for one another during times of crisis.

Most movies about depression deal with the things you can externally see: staying in bed, crying, suicide attempts, etc. QUEEN OF EARTH is notable because it looks at the more internal stuff. For example, right out of the gate, the film shows a recognition that people who are depressed often feel alone. Catherine’s boyfriend and father, by different means, have both left her, and Ginny’s seeming use of Rich as a way to retreat leaves her without her best friend. She seeks some sort of connection with others who cross her path – including a guy she finds passed out in the woods – but nothing fills the void. Perry very wisely has Catherine and Ginny drift apart before our eyes. In the movie’s signature scene, the two women have a nine-minute conversation, filmed in one perfectly-executed extended take. Catherine starts off talking about her woes, then Ginny hijacks the conversation, expounding on things that have caused her pain in the past. She is oblivious to the fact that her friend was baring her soul. This sequence conveys the alienation of depression, the feeling that even those ostensibly closest to you are somehow just out of reach, or unable to fully understand the depth of your misery.

Music also plays a big part in the way QUEEN OF EARTH explores its central topic. The score (by Keegan DeWitt) often sounds like something out of a horror movie. One brief scene, in which Catherine, Ginny, and Rich canoe across the lake, is scored so ominously that you half expect Jason Voorhees to emerge from the woods and hack somebody’s head off with a machete. Sonically, the use of eerie music underscores the idea that, when you suffer from clinical depression, even the most mundane of moments can feel terrifying. This effect is accomplished several times throughout the film, almost subliminally making the audience feel the ever-present sense of undefinable menace that overwhelms Catherine and anyone else living with this particular mental anguish.

Finally, and most importantly, QUEEN OF EARTH understands that depression is often misunderstood by those not afflicted with it. We know that Catherine is suffering. Those around her, especially Rich, just don’t get that fact. Over the course of the story, Catherine is told that she’s “a spoiled brat” and that she’s just feeling sorry for herself. These are refrains that depression sufferers know all too well. People mistake a clinical condition for self-pity, or suggest that someone can merely “snap out of it.” The idea that it’s beyond the individual’s control is something too many folks can’t conceive of. This is one of the main reasons why a mental health stigma exists to this day.

Alex Ross Perry has taken a wise approach. Rather than making a standard-issue drama about the subject, he opts for something quite different. QUEEN OF EARTH often feels like the first hour of an old exploitation picture – the part with all the slow-burn buildup and mounting dread. We wait with anticipation to see what will happen between these two women, who seem so competitive in the imaginary race to determine whose problems have been worse. The difference is that Perry offers none of the release you’d associate with exploitation fare. No one dies, and there are no sudden bursts of violence. By the end, Catherine has neither conquered nor succumbed to her depression. She just moves forward with it, prepared to see both bad days and good.

During a recent screening of QUEEN OF EARTH at the historic Campus Theatre in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Perry discussed his choice to tell this story with female characters. He pointed out cinema’s long history of using women to portray breakdowns, adding that “men having a breakdown becomes THE SHINING.” While that remark was clearly tongue-in-cheek, he’s got a point. Gender stereotypes persist, and audiences have become accustomed to seeing men onscreen handle inner turmoil (be it anger, fear, or sadness) via aggressive means. In having two female leads, QUEEN OF EARTH allows us to focus on the things happening under the surface, rather than subconsciously waiting for violence to occur.

Elisabeth Moss co-starred in Perry’s previous film, the delightful LISTEN UP PHILIP. The director told the crowd at the Campus that a movie such as QUEEN OF EARTH “couldn’t have come about without a relationship with the performer.” In other words, he knew what Moss was capable of, and she understood what he was attempting to do with this story. The result is a first-class collaboration that digs deep into the subject of depression’s most insidious qualities.

It’s amazing that a movie about such a dark subject can play so thrillingly and vibrantly.

 

Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan

The Two Sides of Bobby Dupea: Remembering FIVE EASY PIECES

When you think of the movie FIVE EASY PIECES, what comes to mind? Odds are overwhelming that you picture the scene in which Bobby Dupea (played by Jack Nicholson) gets into an argument with a waitress in a diner because she will not allow him to make substitutions in his order. It ends with Bobby telling her to hold the chicken between her knees. Even if you’ve never seen FIVE EASY PIECES, you probably thought of that scene. It’s one of the most famous in cinema history for a reason. Bobby’s quip to the waitress is funny, and the moment ends with him dramatically clearing the table. People often site this brief sequence as exemplifying all the anger and disillusionment Bobby feels, and which the film itself addresses.

But here’s the thing: that is not the quintessential scene in FIVE EASY PIECES. If we’re going to talk about the very core of this film, we need to look at a scene that comes much earlier.

When director Bob Rafelson first introduces us to Bobby Dupea, he’s working as an oil rigger. He comes home filthy at the end of the day to be with his girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black). Rayette is what you might charitably call a little tacky. He doesn’t treat her very well. Bobby likes to go over to best friend Elton’s trailer to drink beer after a hard day. Sometimes they go bowling or cheat on their girlfriends together. From everything we can see, Bobby is a blue collar kind of guy, and quite possibly a real asshole.

Then the scene occurs. Bobby and Elton are in the car. They get stuck in a traffic jam. In front of them is a flatbed truck carrying a piano. Bobby hops out of the car, jumps onto the truck, and begins playing a beautiful piece of classical music. He gets so caught up in his performance – or maybe just doesn’t want to stop – that he keeps playing, even after the truck begins moving again. In this precise moment, we realize that we don’t know Bobby Dupea at all. The real theme of FIVE EASY PIECES emerges right here.

Bobby, it turns out, has reinvented himself. As the story progresses, he returns home to Washington state in order to visit his ailing father, at the behest of his sister Partita (Lois Smith). Far from the product of a blue collar upbringing, he comes from a very wealthy, artistically-inclined family. Partita and brother Carl (Ralph Waite) are both accomplished musicians. There is a visible appreciation of culture in the home. Now back in his original element, Bobby reverts to his former self. Gone are the greasy blue jeans and denim jackets, replaced instead by button-down shirts, sweaters, and blazers. His hair is more neatly combed. Family members begin referring to him as “Robert.” His whole demeanor changes, too. Bobby starts carrying himself in a more proper way that somehow simultaneously feels natural and uncomfortable for him. Even more telling, he puts the moves on Carl’s girlfriend Catherine (Susan Anspach), a woman far more sophisticated and worldly than Rayette. This is not the oil rigger anymore. It is the man we saw playing piano on the back of a truck.

FIVE EASY PIECES is about many things, but perhaps nothing more than a man desperately attempting to construct a version of himself that he can live with. Interactions with his father and siblings suggest that Bobby never measured up in this cultured, well-to-do clan, so he invented a new personality – one that was intentionally the exact opposite of what he was bred to be. When Rayette shows up unexpectedly at the Dupea home, Bobby is deeply embarrassed by her (despite briefly defending her honor when she is insulted by a snooty party guest) and by his family’s unspoken recognition that he is living “beneath” himself. There is a climactic scene in which Bobby finally opens up to his father, who doesn’t acknowledge the emotional outpouring. He then leaves to return home with Rayette.

Or at least that’s what we think. (And this is a great big SPOILER ALERT.) The last scene of FIVE EASY PIECES finds them stopping at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. Bobby hands Rayette his wallet to pay for gas and food while he uses the restroom. Upon emerging – and away from where she can see him – he hops into the cab of a tractor-trailer after a short discussion with its driver. In a long, unbroken, utterly devastating final shot, the truck pulls away, leaving Rayette wandering around, looking for the now-absent Bobby. It’s a fascinating ending, in that Bobby’s action can be read as either cruel or merciful. Abandoning Rayette may seem mean, or perhaps he simply realizes that he’s no good for her and wishes to spare her any further hurt. Either way, we know that Bobby Dupea is still searching for himself, and this iteration of his identity has ultimately been no more fulfilling than that of “Robert.” His search continues, somewhere else down the road.

FIVE EASY PIECES is so powerful because it steadfastly refuses to pass judgment on Bobby. The film simply observes what he does. Rafelson and screenwriter Carole Eastman (under the pseudonym Adrien Joyce) allow the viewer to decide how sympathetically to view Bobby, if at all. This quality marks it not only as an American classic, but also as one of the best films ever made about the torturous act of soul-searching. Movies about characters trying to find themselves typically end with a success; FIVE EASY PIECES leaves Bobby Dupea in a place that’s possibly even less certain than where he was at the outset.

And it all begins with that scene at the piano, when Bobby’s past bursts through his present, revealing that it still exists in spite of his efforts to bury it. The heart of this character lies right there. Cinema is filled with magnificent entrances: Harry Lime abruptly revealed by an errant light to be hiding in the shadows in THE THIRD MAN, Darth Vader emerging from a cloud of smoke in STAR WARS, Hannibal Lecter standing motionless before Clarice Starling in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, etc. To this list, we should add Bobby Dupea jumping on a truck to play a piano. We’ve been watching him for twenty minutes at this point, yet it’s the first time we’re truly seeing him.

It’s a classic moment that deserves to be what we remember when we think about FIVE EASY PIECES.

Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan

The Unbelievable True Story of MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY

Movies are made for all kinds of reasons. In the best scenarios, a filmmaker has a story he/she is really passionate about telling. More frequently, a studio sees an opportunity to make money by bringing some already-existing property to the screen, be it a book, a beloved superhero, a videogame, or even a popular toy. And then, every once in a while, a movie comes into being for some totally unique and strange reason. One such example is 1987’s mostly-forgotten comedy MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY, which exists because a well-known mogul thought he could score big by staging a contest.

Dino De Laurentiis was an Italian film producer who cast a wide shadow over Hollywood. His resume included everything from BARBARELLA to RAGTIME to the ill-fated 1976 KING KONG remake. He also, for a time, had his own distribution company, known as DEG (De Laurentiis Entertainment Group). After a promising start that saw it distribute David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET and Bruce Beresford’s CRIMES OF THE HEART, among others, DEG lost some of its luster. Pictures like THE BEDROOM WINDOW and FROM THE HIP performed poorly. A box office smash was desperately needed.

According to a 1989 profile in Spy magazine, inspiration struck when De Laurentiis was driving through New York City and saw an extremely large group of people lined up on the street. He thought they were queued up for a movie. His traveling companion informed him that they were actually in line for lottery tickets; the jackpot had grown high, and everyone wanted a chance to win. It occurred to the notoriously shrewd De Laurentiis that people might line up similarly to see a movie if they thought they could win a million bucks by doing so. Better still, he figured, the sweepstakes could entice people who normally didn’t even go to the movies. And just like that, MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY was born. De Laurentiis put the movie into production and partnered with the Glad trash bag company to promote it.

The film – which aspired to be a riff on IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD – stars Glad commercial spokesman Tom Bosley as Sidney Preston, a former White House aide who has stolen $4 million belonging to the U.S. government. Just before succumbing to a heart attack in a roadside diner, he confesses to the other patrons that he stashed the money at four different locations around the country. This sets off a madcap cross-country dash among the other diners. They find, and subsequently lose, three million of the loot. At the movie’s end, there’s still a million left undiscovered.

That’s where the audience came in. As the end credits rolled, a character appeared to inform them that the final million was hidden somewhere in the United States, and that they could follow clues provided in the movie to locate it. Everyone who bought a ticket received a game piece so they could mail in their guess. Folks who purchased specially-marked boxes of Glad bags could receive clues, as well. The company was quick to point out that the money was only metaphorically hidden; they feared lawsuits from people injuring themselves trying to find a garbage bag full of cash in some remote location. According to a New York Times report from May 1987, the Frankel Company – a Chicago operation that specialized in running sweepstakes – contained the only people who knew the correct answer.

Theoretically, the whole crazy idea could have worked, but MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY was nothing short of a catastrophe. For starters, building a story around a contest and a garbage bag promotion wasn’t the greatest way to achieve narrative coherence. De Laurentiis also hired a largely unknown cast, which included Eddie Deezen, Rick Overton, and Rich Hall. They were not exactly the A-list comedians of the day. Richard Fleischer was brought on board to direct. Fleischer had once helmed esteemed pictures like SOYLENT GREEN and FANTASTIC VOYAGE. His career was on a serious downslide by this time, though. His most recent efforts had included RED SONJA, AMITYVILLE 3-D, and the misguided Neil Diamond remake of THE JAZZ SINGER. Production also faced its share of problems, most notably the on-set death of legendary stuntman Dar Robinson, who, during a basic ride-by shot, misjudged a turn and accidentally rode his stunt motorcycle over a cliff.

When it finally hit cinemas, the movie was savaged by critics. In his one-star review, Roger Ebert wrote: “I’ve gone to a lot of movies that I could have used a Glad bag for, but MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY is the first one to admit it.” The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson was even more savage, labeling the movie “a scam” that offered “a million bucks to whomever can hold his stomach long enough to collect all the clues scattered throughout the film.”

If the reviews were terrible, business was somehow even worse. MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY opened on June 12, 1987 in 1,396 theaters, opposite PREDATOR, THE BELIEVERS, and THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK. It debuted in tenth place, earning a dismal weekend gross of just $513,731. For perspective, in addition to the other new releases, it was beaten out by the fourth weekend of ERNEST GOES TO CAMP and the tenth weekend of the Michael J. Fox comedy THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS. By the time it was pulled from theaters a week later, it had earned a grand total of $989,033. The movie designed to give away a million dollars hadn’t even made that much at the box office. The contest winner would fare better than the film itself.

In spite of such a poor performance, thousands of correct entries were received, so a random drawing was held. The winner ended up being Alesia Lenae Jones, a 14-year-old girl from Bakersfield, California. She correctly guessed that the final million was hidden in the Statue of Liberty’s nose. DEG gave Jones a limousine tour of Hollywood, plus a cashier’s check for the million dollars. The girl told the Associated Press that she planned to buy a horse and get braces with her winnings, as well as help her family purchase a house. She apparently never publicly commented on what she thought of the movie.

Following its disastrous release, MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY continued to bring bad luck. It dominated critics’ lists of the year’s worst films. Four Razzie Award nominations followed: Worst Original Song and three separate Worst Supporting Actor nods for Tom Bosley, Jamie Alcroft, and Mack Dryden. DEG wrote off its entire investment in the production, to the tune of $15.5 million – a stunning loss for a company already in financial trouble. In August 1988, it filed for bankruptcy.

In fairness, had MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY worked, De Laurentiis would have looked like a genius. But that didn’t happen, and the movie is remembered solely for the contest it spawned, to the extent that it’s remembered at all. A previously-released DVD is now out of print. It has never been released on Blu-Ray. Some enterprising soul put the entire movie on YouTube, which remains the most convenient way of viewing it. Ironically, something like this might work better today, where social media (and not a trash bag company) could fuel the promotion, and where virtual clues could be hidden around the internet. Whether anyone will try something of this sort again is questionable.

Catastrophic as it was from a business standpoint, and excruciating as it was from an entertainment standpoint, MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY nevertheless remains a fascinating case study in (literal) go-for-broke ideas.

 

Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan

The 70mm Experience of THE HATEFUL EIGHT

A new Quentin Tarantino film is always a cause for celebration. His latest effort, THE HATEFUL EIGHT, arrives in theaters this Christmas. Set in post-Civil War Wyoming, the movie is about a group of bounty hunters stranded in a blizzard. The cast is a powerhouse: Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, and Samuel L. Jackson are just some of the stars. So yes, there is much to be excited about here. But when Tarantino announced that THE HATEFUL EIGHT would be shot in 70mm and also released that way at select theaters, hardcore cinephiles went bonkers. Average moviegoers, on the other hand, were left wondering what the fuss was all about. If you’re not familiar with the format or its advantages, we’ve got a crash course in 70mm for you.

Before the current era of digital projection, movies were usually exhibited in one of two ways. The standard was via 35mm film. This refers to the fact that the celluloid itself was about 35 millimeters wide. Use of this film resulted in a crisp, clear picture. 70mm film, as you may have guessed, has frames that are even larger in size, both in terms of height and width. (The in-camera film stock used is actually 65mm, but is printed on 70mm strips for projection.) The vastly larger image area allows for a higher-resolution picture that is brighter and more atmospheric than a 35mm print. You can see little details in the frame that you might not notice otherwise, while lighting effects take on an especially strong ambiance. Think of 35mm as DVD and 70mm as Blu-Ray, if you will. Both are wonderful to look at, but one is even better than the other.

Film of the 70mm variety additionally provides movies with an opportunity to be projected in super-widescreen aspect ratios. A normal “flat” ratio (i.e. one the shape of an HDTV) is about 1.85:1. A “scope” ratio is wider, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1. This ratio is used frequently in modern action/adventure movies like MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and THE DARK KNIGHT, or movies that, for one reason or another, benefit from packing a lot of imagery into the frame. The N.W.A. biopic STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, for example, is a recent drama that effectively uses the scope ratio to enhance scenes where many characters are onscreen at the same time, as well as to capture the energy of the group’s concert performances. With 70mm, the aspect ratio can be stretched even further, going as wide as 2.76:1. The result is an image that literally overtakes the audience, practically putting you right inside the movie with an enveloping, crystal-clear picture.

The visual qualities and aspect ratio potential of 70mm have historically made it useful for epics (BEN HUR, THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA), large-scale musicals (SOUTH PACIFIC, WEST SIDE STORY, MY FAIR LADY), and movies aiming for a sense of spectacle (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, CLEOPATRA, GRAND PRIX). It has even been employed for comedy; Stanley Kramer’s IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD needed the super-wide aspect ratio in order to accommodate its massive all-star cast. By every measure, 70mm conveys the intention to deliver a powerful impact to moviegoers.

The downside of 70mm is that making prints is very expensive. Because the film itself is physically larger, it costs more to manufacture and ship. Reels of 70mm film are twice as heavy as those of 35mm. Additionally, special equipment is required to show a movie made in this format. Theaters need special 70mm projectors, as well as screens that can accommodate the oversized picture.

From the mid-1950s through 1970, 70mm was used fairly frequently for “event pictures.” Then those pitfalls caught up to it, and use of the format diminished abruptly. Not until the 1990s did it start to make a comeback. Ron Howard shot his 1992 Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman drama FAR & AWAY in 70mm. Four years later, Kenneth Branagh did likewise with his four-hour cinematic adaptation of HAMLET. More recently, Christopher Nolan shot select segments of INTERSTELLAR in IMAX 70mm. The last true 70mm production, however, was Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER in 2012, although that movie utilized the traditional 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

THE HATEFUL EIGHT, then, will be the first true ultra-widescreen 70mm motion picture in decades. (It’s being released at a 2.75:1 ratio.) To make sure audiences get the full benefit, Tarantino is helping fifty theaters worldwide prepare by retrofitting them with 70mm projectors containing the proper anamorphic equipment to create that wide image. If you’re not fortunate enough to be in close proximity to one of those theaters, THE HATEFUL EIGHT will receive a traditional digital release two weeks later, on January 8, 2016. Obviously, though, the 70mm option will be the preferable one.

Now that some of the 70mm basics have been covered, let’s look at the implications of this particular release. Tarantino, a longtime celluloid advocate, is reviving a format that has largely laid dormant for many years, and was presumed by many to be dead, thanks to the widespread conversion to digital projection in cinemas worldwide. He is clearly trying to provide audiences with a type of moviegoing experience most of them have never had. That in itself is pretty special. Furthermore, THE HATEFUL EIGHT gives him a chance to pay homage not only to some of the movies that influenced him, but also to the way those movies were exhibited to the public. Given that he’s well-known for paying tribute to his cinematic inspirations, it will be thrilling to see how Tarantino morphs his own unique style with a format that has long signified visual spectacle.

Tarantino is not the only person getting to experiment here. THE HATEFUL EIGHT was shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson, who has photographed some of the most visually daring movies of our time, including Oliver Stone’s JFK and NATURAL BORN KILLERS, Martin Scorsese’s SHUTTER ISLAND and HUGO, and Tarantino’s own KILL BILL and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. So now you also have one of the cinema’s top DPs getting the chance to play around with a format most of his peers have never touched. Richardson will bring all his knowledge and expertise to the table, and there’s little doubt that this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity will encourage him to pull out all the stops. It’s inconceivable that THE HATEFUL EIGHT won’t be one of the most visually sumptuous movies of the modern era.

If Tarantino’s grand experiment proves to be a success, it may well inspire other top directors to try 70mm, as well. This would help ensure that celluloid continues to survive – and maybe even thrive – alongside digital. It would also increase the odds of us seeing inventive, spectacular masterpieces. So whether you’re a Quentin Tarantino fan or not, THE HATEFUL EIGHT will give 70mm another shot at glory. And that is a reason for every film buff to rejoice.

Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan

The Musical Magic of Purple Rain

Movies and music can have a powerful connection. Just think of all the memorable scores and magical theme songs that movies have given us over the decades. Hollywood has long sought to capitalize on this power by putting pop stars up on the silver screen. Sometimes the singers merely act; other times, they act in movies where they are also required to sing. This has been done to varying degrees of success. Elvis Presley made a lot of movies that aren’t very good, but which hold cult appeal for his fans. Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees utterly embarrassed themselves in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Olivia Newton-John hit the bullseye with Grease, but tanked with Xanadu. Whitney Houston scored with The Bodyguard. There are dozens more examples, good and bad.

Other times, movies are specifically built around the musical performer. This is a lot harder to do, as it requires a complete understanding of what makes that performer special. The Beatles did it successfully with A Hard Day’s Night (although it could be argued that the film is a better reflection of Beatlemania than the band itself), as did Eminem with 8 Mile. Others have not been so lucky. Just ask Rick Springfield (Hard to Hold), Kelly Clarkson (From Justin to Kelly) and the Spice Girls (Spice World).

Perhaps the best example of a movie built around a pop singer came in 1984. Albert Magnoli’s Purple Rain was released on July 27 of that year, and it made Prince – who was already a star – a bona-fide phenomenon.

Prince was an unlikely subject for a motion picture. He was a mercurial presence, reluctant to do interviews or reveal much about himself personally. He let his music do the talking for him. In spite of these hurdles, Magnoli and co-writer William Blinn managed to find a way to make it work, in part by embracing the very things that would seem to be obstacles.

Purple Rain is the story of a prodigiously talented, yet deeply troubled Minneapolis musician known as “The Kid.” He electrifies audiences at a local club with his catchy songs and energetic stage presence. Members of his backup band, The Revolution, resent his refusal to share the spotlight. Two of them, Wendy (Wendy Melvoin) and Lisa (Lisa Coleman), have written a song for the band to perform, but The Kid continually rejects it. Some of his thorny personality issues stem from a troubled home life; his father is physically abusive, his mother emotionally so. The Kid finds the impetus to change a little bit after falling for Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero), the voluptuous aspiring singer he tricks into stripping naked and jumping in a lake.

Magnoli wisely crafted Purple Rain to let Prince essentially be himself. It was filmed in the singer’s home town of Minneapolis, at the real clubs where he often performed. His real band plays his movie band. Apollonia Kotero was a real-life protégé and love interest. Morris Day and the Time, who appear as a rival band and its leader, were also part of Prince’s inner circle.

Aside from surrounding Prince with familiar, comfortable elements, the film crafts his character to stay true to his own personality. Fittingly, The Kid doesn’t speak much. When he has something important to say, he generally does it through song. Purple Rain never has any scenes in which he stops and talks in depth about how he feels. He simply jumps onstage and performs a song that suits his mood. For instance, in one scene, he’s upset at Apollonia for joining a girl group managed by his rival. His response is to slap her, and then to sing the vulgar tune “Darling Nikki” in a packed club, while staring right at her. Rather than engaging in a therapeutic discussion of the impact his dysfunctional parents are having on him, The Kid sings “When Doves Cry,” which is about that exact subject. And instead of ever formally apologizing to Wendy and Lisa, he leads the Revolution in an impromptu performance of their song, which he has morphed into the movie’s stunning title tune.

Purple Rain‘s use of songs to propel the plot and explain the character’s inner motivation is its greatest strength. The approach wisely doesn’t force Prince to do much acting-with-a-capital-A, and it also allows for regular musical numbers. This is important, because Prince has always been more than just a great live performer. He becomes almost possessed by the music onstage, radiating a magnetism that is nothing short of hypnotic. Purple Rain opens with a seven-minute rendition of “Let’s Go Crazy” that sets the tone for what’s to come, then proceeds to shape the plot so that it fits the songs, rather than the other way around. The last fifteen minutes are nothing but performance scenes: the show-stopping “Purple Rain” number, followed by The Kid’s cathartic double-feature of “I Would Die 4 U” (to let Apollonia know that he’s prepared to be a better boyfriend) and “Baby, I’m a Star” (to everyone know he’s ready for his music to conquer the world).

Albert Magnoli used Purple Rain as a showcase for Prince’s onstage charisma, knowing that it would more than compensate for a thin story. That makes it a true “music movie.” It’s tough to portray the inner creativity of an artist on film. By moving the songs front and center – and allowing them to be the main character’s primary voice – Purple Rain accomplishes this task very effectively. Through the use of you-are-there cinematography and dramatic, often purple stage lighting, Magnoli captures the meaning of every song The Kid belts out, while Prince performs them with full passion. This is a movie full of perfect shots.

Emboldened by the film’s box office success ($68 million in the U.S.), Prince went on to make two more fictional films, Under the Cherry Moon and a Purple Rain sequel called Graffiti Bridge, both of which he directed. But Prince didn’t understand his own appeal as well as Magnoli did – at least not cinematically. Both movies were huge critical and commercial flops.

Even so, Prince will always have Purple Rain. While some elements of it are dated, the movie still retains its impact as an in-depth examination of how a performer expresses himself through his music. It contains the best songs Prince ever wrote, and instead of truncating the concert scenes, the movie wisely indulges in them to the fullest, most satisfying extent possible.

Purple Rain is the Prince-iest Prince movie a fan could ever wish for, as well as a prime example of how to tailor a singer’s unique magic to the requirements of cinema.

Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan

My Summer in the Cinema

foxtheaters

The exterior of the Fox Theaters

Every film critic should spend at least a couple months working in a movie theater. Heck, every film buff should spend at least a couple months working in a movie theater. If you love movies, there’s nothing quite like being in an environment where you’re surrounded by them. Lately, I’ve been indulging in a little nostalgia, reflecting back on the summer of 1989, when I spent three months working at my local Fox Theaters.

I’d just turned 21, was home from college for summer break, and had recently scored my first paying gig as a film critic, earning a whopping $3.00 per week penning reviews for my local newspaper. Since I was 16, I had worked at the drug store in the mall. Initially, I was a stock boy, which was kind of fun. But then, because I was “responsible,” I got moved up to cashier, which was boring. Standing behind a cash register all day wasn’t for me. Needing something new and different, I applied at the theaters, which were also in the mall. They hired me.

My first night there was simple: I ripped tickets. It was a Thursday night, right before the summer movie season officially kicked off. The place was mostly empty, with only a few stragglers coming in to see the last remaining shows of Pink Cadillac, Road House, and See No Evil, Hear No Evil before the big summer movies took over. At the end of my shift, I was allowed to go into the back room and take any old movie posters I wanted. I grabbed more than a few, and they decorated my college dorm room the next year.

Fox Theaters was your typical mall four-plex, built in the late 1970s. The auditoriums were nothing fancy, just shoebox-type theaters with decent-sized screens. You had to walk down a little offshoot of the main mall thoroughfare to get to them, or you could cut through the Space Port, the L-shaped arcade that was right next door. There was a gate at the theater entrance, so when it was time to open, we’d have to take a massive crank and attach it to an opening in the ceiling, then turn it repeatedly to lift the gate. It was incredibly tiring on the arms. Once the gate was up, patrons would take two steps forward and order their ticket from the box office. Then they’d take three steps to the left and order concessions. (A mini concession stand was located between theaters Two and Three, for use at busy times.) On the wall behind the concession stand were four poster frames that had one-sheets for the movies currently showing, so that people would know which theater to enter. I loved climbing up there to change them.

An extremely crude diagram of the Fox Theaters box office/concession stand layout. (Finding an actual picture regrettably proved impossible.)

An extremely crude diagram of the Fox Theaters box office/concession stand layout. (Finding an actual picture regrettably proved impossible.)

Although there was much that was cool about working in the motion picture exhibition business, the pace was a lot slower than I was used to. You’d work a little bit, then have two hours of sitting around while the films played. I started to think that maybe I’d made a mistake, so I promptly turned in my two-week notice and begged the manager of the drug store for my old job back. After a hectic week of standing behind the register again, I remembered why I left there in the first place. It would have been too awkward to leave a second time, so I decided that I’d simply work both jobs. I told theater management that I didn’t want to quit after all; I just wanted to work weekends so that I could work at the drug store during the week. (I had trouble making definitive decisions when I was younger, a fact that also contributed to me having two majors in college because I couldn’t settle on one or the other.)

It didn’t take long to really get back into the job. There were irresistible little pleasures, like holding my hands under the popper when the popcorn came out. We’d all grab the stuff and shove it into our mouths when it was piping hot. I’d never been a big popcorn eater before that summer. I grew to love it – and gained a few pounds in the process.

Seeing people I knew coming in to view particular movies was also fun, and the breaks were a good time to do “theater checks.” When things were slow, I’d sneak into one of the theaters, ostensibly to make sure the picture and sound quality were okay. Actually, I’d be watching movies – re-seeing especially awesome parts of movies like Tim Burton’s Batman or absorbing films I hadn’t yet seen in pieces. To this day, I’ve never seen A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child from start to finish, but I have seen the whole thing in non-sequential chunks.

The summer of 1989 was massive for movies. In addition to Batman, it was the summer of such blockbusters as Ghostbusters II, Lethal Weapon 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Turner & Hooch, Parenthood, Field of Dreams, When Harry Met Sally… and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Because I worked Friday and Saturday nights – peak moviegoing times – my first task was ushering.

This concept doesn’t really take place in theaters anymore. Now, we have multiplexes with a dozen or more screens. Highly-anticipated new films can play in multiple auditoriums to accommodate the crowds. With only four screens at the Fox, there was no doubling up. A different movie was on each of the four screens, and when one of them sold out, it sold out. My task was to help latecomers find seats together, ask people not to leave unoccupied seats between them, and so on. This often took place while the previews ran, so it was a great way to stay up-to-date on all the new trailers. Sometimes I had to split people up, putting one parent in an empty seat in the back and the other parent and a child in two vacant seats in the front row. One way or another, they got seated.

When the movies we over, I and some coworkers had to go in and clean up the theaters, whose floors were littered with empty soda cups, candy boxes, and popcorn tubs. You could always count on some stupid teenager trying to be funny by dumping any uneaten popcorn all over the floor before exiting. Sometimes we’d find unopened boxes of candy (which we’d keep or put back in the concession case to sell again). This task took place as the end credit music rolled, and I got to know the movie songs of that summer very well. I still mentally flash back to Fox Theaters whenever I hear Bobby Brown’s Ghostbusters II song “On Our Own.”

Of course, pranks were occasionally played, and while cleaning out the theaters one Saturday night, a couple of us decided to prank a coworker. First, let me tell you about Herm. He was an amazing guy, a few years older than I. A longtime fixture of the theater before I even got there, Herm was the lead ticket taker. He had palsy in one hand, so he could only use the other one to rip. After taking someone’s ticket, he’d press it against his leg, tear it in half using two fingers, then hand it back. He was so accomplished at this process that he could rip tickets faster than any of us with use of both hands.

Herm was an awesome guy with a great sense of humor. He didn’t like picking stuff up off the floor, though, and after one sold-out show, he announced that he had no intention of helping out. I went in to clean with two coworkers. From time to time, a patron would lose money. After visiting the concession stand, they’d shove their change in their pockets and it would fall out during the movie. The general rule, certainly not official, was that if you found money in the theater, you kept it. (We were all young and dumb. Cut us a break.) I came up with the idea that we should all take twenty bucks out of our wallets, then tell Herm that we’d found – and split up – a huge chunk of cash. Needless to say, he was very distraught at having missed out on such a payday. When I later let him in on the gag, he laughed and said, “You sons of bitches!”

Another really great person who worked at Fox was the manager, Andy. He was what those in the clothing business would refer to as “big and tall,” and he had a boisterous laugh. Andy was also one of the most generous people I’ve ever met. If someone he knew and hadn’t seen for a long time came to the theater, he’d often let them in for free and instruct us to give them the VIP treatment.

Andy liked the junk food. Many a time, he would come out of his office, reach into the concession stand, and pull out a four-pack of Reese’s peanut butter cups. He would shove a whole cup into his mouth, and continue like this until they were gone.

While he is one of my favorite people I’ve ever known, Andy could also have an occasional temper tamtrum. Occasionally, he would yell at somebody. No one ever seemed to mind it, which initially puzzled me. One evening, he asked me to fill the soda machine with crushed ice. I did as instructed. When he came out to inspect, Andy yelled and swore at me for not getting ice cubes, which is what he’d meant to tell me to do. I didn’t get angry because, by this point, I realized what everyone else already knew: this was just something he would do when he got frustrated by whatever operational stuff he was dealing with in his office. It wasn’t at all personal. He simply needed to let off steam. About half an hour later, he called me off the floor and into the office, where he offered me a seat and began joking around with me. This was his way of apologizing.

The other thing I remember vividly about Andy was that he dated strippers. I know this because he’d sometimes bring them into the theater to meet us. These women would be introduced as his “lady friends.” Later, after they’d left, he would conspiratorially lean in and whisper to us guys, “She’s a stripper!” It was no surprise that they liked him in return. Andy never treated them like strippers, he treated them like ladies. When they came in, he proudly introduced them to everyone and made a point of having us make them feel welcome at the theater. He was a total gentleman in their presence.

Working at Fox Theaters was a fun job. I got to see lots of people I knew, worked around a couple of cute girls I developed crushes on, and was surrounded by movies. I got to do cool things like change the marquee out in front of the mall, switch out the posters, watch previews, and help people find seats. From time to time, there were small problems, of course. On Friday and Saturday late shows, a couple people inevitably arrived drunk. I vividly recall a patron frantically running out of the theater showing Field of Dreams and darting into the bathroom. A minute later, another man came out to ask for a refund because the first guy had puked inside the auditorium. Andy told me to check it out. Upon opening the door, the unmistakable aroma of alcohol-laden vomit filled my nostrils. It was glaringly apparent where the offender had been sitting: right-hand side, halfway down. Everyone else in the fairly crowded theater was sitting either on the left-hand side, or at the very front or very back of the right side. Stopping the movie wasn’t practical, so anyone who wanted to leave was given a pass to come again another time. Thankfully, I got off early that night, so somebody else had to clean the mess up.

At the end of the summer, I went back to college, leaving Fox Theaters behind – although I returned often as a patron when I was home for weekends or holidays. A year later, I went off to graduate school in Shippensburg. A few miles down the road, in Chambersburg, there was an older, sort of run-down four-screen theater called the Southgate. (If you’ve read my book, Straight-Up Blatantyou know the place I’m referring to.) I went there one day in the fall of 1992 to see Cameron Crowe’s Singles and was surprised to run into Andy, who was just as surprised to run into me. It turned out that the Fox chain had been purchased by Manos, and he’d been transferred. True to generous form, he handed me a stack of passes, good for both the Southgate and the fancier theaters at the Chambersburg Mall. “When you run out, let me know and I’ll give you some more,” he told me. That was Andy: he knew I was a poor student, so he made sure I got into the movies for free. This allowed me to pocket the $3.00 a week I was earning from the newspaper.

I saw Andy off and on at the Southgate over the next year. After graduation, I moved back to my hometown and never saw him again. A few years later, news arrived that he had passed away. There were several differing accounts of what happened. Some people claimed that he’d become ill, had no health insurance, and died because he couldn’t afford to get treatment. Others said it was a heart attack, brought on by his weight and poor diet. Herm said it was the latter, and I believe him.

That’s because Herm knew everybody. He went on to work at the local driver’s license center, so I saw him every few years when I went in to have an updated picture taken. To my amazement, Herm knew where everyone from the theater was and what they were doing. (I guess he got updates when they, too, came in for a new license.) He knew who was married, what everyone did for a living, where they lived, etc. He remembered the name of every single person who worked at the theater, too. “Hey, remember that one guy?” I’d say, and he would tell me the guy’s name and give me a brief update on what he was up to. You could count on Herm for the news.

Sadly, Herm is no longer with us, either. He died in 2005. I never did get the full details on what happened. I just remember feeling really sad when I heard of his passing. He was one of those people it was impossible to dislike. Just an all-around great guy with a wonderful, good-natured – if occasionally sarcastic – spirit.

As for Fox Theaters, they’re still there. Kind of. After the Manos purchase, they were sold to Carmike in the mid-’90s, then closed down in 2000. A year later, a family run company, Cinema Center, bought and completely renovated them, eventually building a beautiful extension with an additional eight auditoriums. Digiplex Destinations bought the theaters from Cinema Center a little over a decade later, and about a year-and-a-half ago, they were sold again…ironically, to Carmike.

On a fairly regular basis, I end up in one of those original four auditoriums. They don’t look the same anymore, but it’s the same space where I watched so many movies growing up, and where I worked for one magical summer. I’m glad to have this connection to my moviegoing past. Whereas many other theaters from that era have been torn down, the Fox Theaters remain.

They are changed and improved, but they still stand, and my heart warms a little bit whenever I watch a movie in one of them.

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The original four Fox Theaters as they appear today. Auditoriums are all on the left. The box office was behind where the far wall is now. I took this picture from what used to be the end of the theater. The eight-screen expansion is behind me.

 

 

Why I Cover Faith-Based Films

Originally posted October 24, 2014

thesongAnyone who follows the box office knows that faith-based films have become a hot topic lately. The success of movies like God’s Not Dead, Heaven Is For Real, and other, similar films has made Hollywood sit up and take notice. There are lots more of them on the way. I’ve been covering faith-based films for a while now, and I plan to cover them much more extensively in the future. This will not happen at the expense of anything else on The Aisle Seat or on my Twitter and Facebook feeds. It will simply be in addition to what’s already there.

For this reason, I wanted to offer an explanation for why this is happening. It’s a funny thing. Whenever I tweet about a faith-based movie – whether it’s assessing the movie’s quality, talking about its box office, or anything else – I end up losing a couple of Twitter followers. I’ve had professional colleagues tell me that I shouldn’t bother reviewing faith-based films because they’re “filmed sermons,” “propaganda,” and “not real movies.” I’ve had makers of faith-based films tell me that critics “don’t get” their product and might as well just ignore them. And yet, I persist. Clearly, this is because I want to shove my religion down other people’s throats, right? Wrong.

A little bit about me: I was raised a Catholic and continue to practice that religion. I attend Mass weekly, and I’m tickled that I can see the steeple of my church from my front yard. I am not, however, the most by-the-book Catholic you’ll ever meet. I don’t go to confession, I have anger toward my religion for its shameful, decades-long cover-up of child sexual abuse, and I’m far more liberal in my political views than the Vatican would probably be comfortable with. (Gay people want to get married? Fine by me!) Catholicism is part of Christianity, and yes, I absolutely consider myself a Christian. Not an Evangelical one, but a Christian nonetheless. It’s not something I generally talk about, simply because I prefer to let my actions reflect my beliefs. My faith is what makes me try every day to be a good husband to my wife and a good father to my son. It’s what motivates me to engage in things that help the poor and mentally ill in my community, which I do regularly. It’s what makes me work really hard to use whatever writing skills I have to my fullest ability. But I have no intention of doing anything to force my beliefs on anyone else, and they have little to do with my interest in covering faith-based films.

The true origin goes all the way back to 1999. I was traveling in the southern part of our wonderful country and seeing a lot of movies in the process. Almost every theater I came across down there was showing a film called The Omega Code. I’d never heard of it, which, being a film critic whose job entails keeping up on new movies, struck me as odd. A quick internet search revealed that The Omega Code was a Christian-themed movie. Makes sense, I thought. I’m in the Bible Belt! To the shock of everyone, myself included, the picture debuted in the box office top ten for the weekend. It was amazing that a film playing to such a specialized audience could have such success, especially given that it had clearly received no sort of mainstream promotion or publicity. I was intrigued.

In 2000, I decided to investigate. I interviewed people from Cloud Ten Pictures, a company dedicated to making Christian films. It was there I learned of the goal among Christian filmmakers to hire A-list stars and have their movies play in multiplexes right alongside the standard Hollywood fare. The idea of a new movement in cinema excited me. In the intervening years, I could see slow, steady progress being made on this front. I occasionally covered one of the movies. Some were pretty good. (Like Dandelion Dust is an example of an excellent faith-based film.) Others were, well, filmed sermons. This past year, though, faith-based films blew up, achieving heretofore unprecedented financial success, and there were more of them. Aside from Heaven Is For Real and God’s Not Dead, we’ve also had Son of God, Moms’ Night Out, The Identical, The Song, Believe Me, and Left Behind sharing screen space alongside superhero movies, horror flicks, and raunchy comedies.

And this is why I choose to extensively cover faith-based films. They’re no longer playing just in church basements. They’re at a theater near you. Your friends, family members, and coworkers are going to see them. Maybe you are too. For that reason, they deserve to be covered and reviewed, just like any other movies. I’m going to review them, and tweet about them, and provide as much information/perspective on them as I can. The fact is that most critics ignore these movies (although that is starting to change somewhat). Some do view them as “propaganda” and “not real movies.” I don’t. I view them as a product designed to satisfy an audience. People who want to be scared go to see horror movies. People who want to laugh go to comedies. People who want an uplifting Christian message – and don’t want profanity, sex, and violence – go to faith-based films. They are a legitimate force in the current box office scene, and they deserved to be discussed with as much seriousness of purpose as a Marvel movie or an awards-bait drama. Hollywood, noticing the often intense support of faith-based films, is getting in on the action, producing expensive Biblical epics like Noah and the upcoming Exodus: Gods and Kings. We can’t ignore the impact of faith-based films on the overall cinematic landscape.

The truth is that no genre should be dismissed entirely, including this one. Yes, some of the movies put far more emphasis on delivering the message than on creating a good story or interesting characters. Some of them think they can get lazy, so long as there’s a sermon or a miracle at the end. I’m pretty hard on faith-based films for this reason. I want them to be better, to be good quality films, to go beyond what’s easy and shoot for something more ambitious. The only way to make that happen is to be part of the conversation.

Any time there’s a new “trend” in cinema, it’s exciting. We need new voices and new points of view. Faith-based films, love them or hate them, are part of that. So you’ll see and hear me discussing them a lot more going forward. Again, it won’t be at the expense of anything else, it’ll just be an expansion. Some of you will have no interest in hearing about these movies. I understand, and won’t be offended if you skip reading those reviews or tweets. But I hope you won’t. I hope you will keep reading and follow me as I explore how this emerging genre grows, changes, and adapts. These are real movies, and I’ll be covering them and how they impact cinema. Because that’s what film critics/reporters do.

 

The Aisle Seat Blog is Back

A few years ago, I created The Aisle Seat Blog as an offshoot of The Aisle Seat. It was a place for things that were not movie reviews, such as in-depth articles, humor pieces, and general musings on film criticism. Some of the most popular and well-read things I’ve ever written appeared there.

And then catastrophe struck. For reasons I cannot explain, the WordPress program I was using went kablooey, refusing to work anymore. None of the articles were accessible any longer. It seemed like everything was gone permanently.

Thankfully, I was able to retrieve it all via the Internet Archive: Wayback Machine, a website that curates things that used to be on the internet but aren’t anymore. (Well, they kind of are, I guess. But whatever.)

I have now started this new blog to replace the old one. To begin, I’ve reposted many of the things from the previous blog. Some pieces were outdated, so I skipped them. The others are here, though, and they can now be read and (hopefully) enjoyed once again. New blog entries will follow in the not-too-distant future. I may also repost a few more old ones as I retrieve them.

Thanks for visiting the blog and The Aisle Seat. See you at the movies!

“No Good Deed” Gets Punished

nogooddeed

Originally published in September 2014

No Good Deed is a new thriller about a devoted wife and mother (played by Taraji P. Henson) who has to fight for survival after an escaped convict (Idris Elba) makes his way into her home. There is nothing particularly special about this premise; it sounds like a hundred other movies, and if you’ve seen the trailer, it looks like a hundred other movies, too.

Nonetheless, No Good Deed got a lot of attention in the movie press this week when all critics screenings were abruptly canceled. The screenings were originally scheduled for Wednesday night. That’s less than 48 hours before the movie was set to open to the general public. This kind of thing is typical when a studio lacks confidence in a movie. If they think they’ve got a winner, they’ll screen it a week or more in advance and allow critics to start the social media buzz. When they think – or know – they have a turkey, they will often hold screenings last-minute, in part to keep bad buzz on the down-low until the opening, and in part with the hopes that critics won’t have time to get a review filed before the first tickets are sold. This strategy also minimizes the likelihood of an abysmal approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes prior to opening.

On Wednesday morning of this week, critics who were invited to No Good Deeds screenings got emails saying that the studio, Screen Gems, was calling the whole thing off. Here is a copy of the email that I received:

screengems

Hiding a movie from critics is common. Studios do it all the time when they have no confidence in their product. What’s different about this situation is that Screen Gems was, in effect, blaming critics for the need to cancel all the No Good Deeds screenings. Their logic was that we would immediately spoil whatever the “twist” is, thereby ruining the fun for average ticketbuyers. It’s an absurd claim. For starters, Rex Reed aside, no critic professional enough to be invited to a screening would blow the movie’s big surprise. Secondly, if one felt it was absolutely essential to reveal the twist in order to properly critique the film, you can be sure he or she would give readers fair warning. Those are just basic film criticism ethics. Screen Gems’ excuse is nothing but smoke and mirrors, a way of saying “We know this movie is going to get poor reviews, and since we already scheduled screenings, we need to find a way to save face.” It is also another case of critics being unfairly villainized.

The story took another unexpected twist – one likely more fascinating than the one ostensibly in No Good Deed – today. Sony Pictures, which owns Screen Gems, sent out one of its weekly email newsletters. Not surprisingly since it opens this week, the subject was No Good Deed. Right there, in the corner of the email body, you wil find this:

nogood

Yep, that’s right – a critical blurb for a movie that no critics have seen. The author of that blurb is Joel Amos, who writes for MovieFanatic.com, a website so heavy with pop-up ads that it almost seems like a satire of bad websites. Amos is what is derogatorily known as a “quote whore.” (He is not the only one.) Quote whores are people who are allegedly willing to provide studios with glowing quotes for bad movies, in exchange for the opportunity to see their name in an ad. Oftentimes, the quotes are pre-written by the studio marketing departments, and a quote whore will simply lend his or her name. Joel Amos has been very successful on being quoted; the Criticwatch column, run by my colleague Erik Childress, had Amos as its #6 quote whore of 2013. (He was #1 the year before.) Amos is the guy who called Beautiful Creatures “gorgeous, lush, and wildly romantic,” said This Means War was “the funniest comedy of the year,” and proclaimed You Again to be “hysterical with a heart of gold.”

If you look on MovieFanatic.com, you’ll see that Amos attended the press junket for No Good Deed. He’s got a video of himself interviewing Idris Elba posted there. What you won’t find on the site is a review. At least not yet. Did he really love it? Perhaps. But he’s not the real issue here. No, the real issue is that Screen Gems is engaging in shameful manipulation. They’re lying about why they won’t show No Good Deed to critics. They’re unfairly making professional, and often low-paid, writers the scapegoats. And then, on top of that, they’re trying to dupe the public into thinking that 1.) they have shown the movie to critics, and 2.) it’s getting rave reviews. The whole “we don’t want critics to spoil it” idea is taken to an even further extreme in the subject line of their email newsletter:

nogoodquote

Yep, that’s a #NoSpoilers hashtag right there. Critics can’t see the film because #NoSpoilers.

Why should you care? Because here’s a major corporation that is fudging things to sell you a product they suspect you won’t like. The marketing message, emphasized by Joel Amos, is that No Good Deed has a shocking surprise twist. Of course, telling you that in advance seems like a spoiler itself. Wouldn’t it be more surprising if you didn’t know there was a twist and therefore weren’t expecting it? Screen Gems’ use of a suspiciously message-specific quote from an established blurbster gives you the exact opposite impression from the truth. Real critics have not yet seen this film, so therefore no legitimate raves exist. Sony is the same company that created David Manning, a non-existent film critic who was quoted praising Sony movies in their own ads back in 2000. The company seemingly has no problem with flat-out fabricating things to sell their movies.

I have no idea if No Good Deed will be terrible or not. (I’ll be there for the 11:10 AM show on opening day, with a review going up soon after.) What I do know is that Screen Gems and Sony would not be going to all this trouble – and working overtime to build such a faulty illusion – if they had even an ounce of confidence in their movie. If they thought it was legitimately good, they wouldn’t need to cancel screenings, blame critics, or get into bed with noted blurbsters.