Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Reel Review: The Tumbler Tour

“Does it come in black?”

This Blogger was pleased to attend one of the nation-wide stops of the Tumbler Tour; a showcase of the Bat-vehicles used in Christopher Nolan’s BATMAN films.

In every BATMAN film, the design of the Batmobile has reflected the overall vibe of the film. Tim Burton’s vision was all about style, Joel Schumacher’s vision was all about pretty lights…and their respective Batmobiles were designed accordingly.

Christopher Nolan’s vision of BATMAN films have been regarded as the most grounded and realistic superhero films ever made, and the attached vehicle, referred to as The Tumbler, reflects just that. It only takes one glance to appreciate the design, and be awe-struck at its presence. Seriously; this bloody thing puts the fear of God (or the Bat) down into your cockles just from sitting there. It is menacing, yet grounded. The design allows for peeks under the wheel-well, which reveals a very true and believable working mechanism. All BATMAN films have always had a slight (or overdone) element of sci-fi, but this vehicle smells only of realism. And as far as criticisms of a lack of style goes, The Tumbler up close does indeed look like a bat with its wings folded.

While The Tumbler invokes fear, its offshoot, the Bad-pod, is equally impressive. The detail into the craftsmanship makes it completely believable that it would launch out of The Tumbler. No suspension-of-belief needed.

Overall, The Tumbler Tour is one of the best promotional tools ever put together for a film. It is a grounded marketing technique to push a grounded film, and one that is not likely to be imitated.

“…this baby works just fine.”

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Reel 35

"A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..."

This month marks the 35th anniversary of STAR WARS.

The significance of STAR WARS has often been lost, or forgotten over the years.  Most Film Appreciation classes will begin their lessons by teaching the date of May 25, 1977 as a vital one in cinematic history; not only because of the multi-generational fanbase, but for the way STAR WARS altered the course of the movies forever.
Beginning with the story…STAR WARS is inspired heavily (and makes no attempt to hide it) by the revered works of Joseph Campbell, the early FLASH GORDON TV serials, and the classic film THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (1958). It is familiar ground which is given a fresh spin courtesy of a new universe presented in an opera-like style. The story is a coming of age tale, coupled with good vs. evil and a few reluctant heroes for good measure. The characters took on familiar personas that felt fresh; a farmer, a pirate, a wizard, and a bad guy who wore black. It was a throwback, and a reminder to future filmmakers of the power of classical stories.

Maybe not so difficult to conceive, it was a near-impossible task to craft. The vision for STAR WARS was a literal galaxy away from existing motion-picture technologies in the 1970’s. With nowhere to go, technologies were invented on the spot; tech that would evolve into the now infamous effects company, Industrial Light and Magic. ILM would become a juggernaut in visual effects; pioneering the way to digital creations backed by outstanding sound. Things we take for granted today in the media/tech world; Blu-ray, surround sound, CGI…can all trace their roots back to STAR WARS.
The film made household names out of virtual unknowns. Although Sir Alec Guinness, Peter Cushing and James Earl Jones had already been around the block for a few years, it would be their STAR WARS roles which would define them for the rest their lives. The same would be said for the younger cast, which involved a certain actor destined to wear a leather jacket and fedora hat. And there would be no STAR WARS without the magical score by John Williams.

And then there was the merchandising, which is one of the major reasons Film Appreciation classes tend to teach 5/25/77 every semester. STAR WARS was the first of its kind to be promoted through a toy line; action figures, vehicles, playsets, mugs, lunchboxes, pajamas, video games and anything else limited only by imagination. Today, toylines are an automatic thing to attach to a new movie. Prior to STAR WARS, it was not.

And the cultural impact was, and still is massive. It is arguably the most quoted and parodied film in history. Character names and costumes seem to be everywhere, and events like the Oscars and the Super Bowl can’t seem to get by without a few references.

This Blogger has certainly written plenty about the influence STAR WARS has played in his life, so no more will be written about it here. Despite the many debates the film can spur, the impact it has made on cinema is clear, and that will never change.  

"This will be a day long remembered..."

Monday, May 14, 2012

Reel Facts & Opinions: Money vs. Movies

FACT: THE AVENGERS continued to smash Box Office records this past weekend. The Joss Whedon directed, superhero team-up film pulled in another $103 million domestically ($373 mil total), which surpassed the best second-weekend ever ahead of AVATAR’s (2009) $75 million. The film also blew by the 10-day total set by the THE DARK KNIGHT (2008); KNIGHT pulled in $313 million in its first ten days of release.

OPINION: A good friend of Reel Speak has been predicting that 2012 would be The Year of the Billion Dollar Movie. With AVENGERS well on its way (if not already there), and highly-anticipated THE DARK KNIGHT RISES up in July and THE HOBBIT emerging in December, that prediction looks to be a lock.
On the surface, all this moolah at the Box Office seems like a good thing for the industry, and indeed it is. With attendance dropping steadily over the past few years, the movies as a whole really needed a year like this. Between hype, early buzz, good reviews, high-anticipation, and repeat-viewings, these three films are a great shot in the arm for the silver screen as it struggles to compete with small-screen media in the form of downloading.

There is a flip-side to the success of these films, and it is a bit of an ugly one. All three of these films are adaptations; all based on previous works. As the studios look at the numbers being drawn in by these heavyweights, they will be eager to begin greenlighting films which are adaptations, and shit-canning anything original; AKA unproven.

Hollywood has taken it on the chin a lot for not being original enough, and rightfully so. But when looking at those billions of numbers, it is clear that is the type of stuff audiences want to see; they look for familiar territory. After all, those billions of dollars didn’t come out of nowhere.
So the suits will go ahead and rush to make more adaptations. What they hopefully realize is that these billion-dollar movies didn’t make themselves. They all had quality minds behind them. Minds belonging to names like Christopher Nolan, Peter Jackson, and the new kid on the movie block, Joss Whedon are what made the films which made the billions. Hollywood should know by now that not just any old fartface can make a great adaptation.

Groan away if you wish at the thought of an upcoming avalanche of films based on comics or books, but it really isn’t all bad. Besides the money-making angle, there is quality to be found there (again, depending on who is involved); THE AVENGERS is overwhelmingly praised by critics, as was THE DARK KNIGHT. And it is difficult to believe that THE HOBBIT and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES won’t be critically praised, either. History has proven that adapted works can be great; THE GODFATHER, GONE WITH THE WIND, THE WIZARD OF OZ, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, THE LORD OF THE RINGS…all adapted works.
It has always been said that a great story can be found anywhere; anywhere from a book to a comic to an etching in a cave. If we are to take that idea one step further, then a great movie can be found anywhere as well. Let the adaptations come…as long as they entertain us, thrill us, and amuse us. Just don’t bore us.

What say you?

Friday, May 11, 2012


How to make a Tim Burton movie:
1.       Buy up someone else’s idea
2.       Make Johnny Depp look weird and act accordingly
3.       Make it look pretty

Such has been the formula for Tim Burton over the past ten years. The question going into his adaptation of the 1960’s gothic/horror soap opera DARK SHADOWS was not if he would stick to that old formula, but if that old formula would serve the movie or derail it.
Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) is turned into a vampire and buried alive for nearly 200 years by his scorned lover Anqelique (Eva Green), who is also a witch. Awakening in 1972, Barnabas returns to his family estate, now run his by descendants Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Roger (Jonny Lee Miller). Anqelique is still around, now driving the Collins family business into the ground.
SHADOWS starts off very strong as it goes through Barnabas’ origins and doomed love affair with Anqelique. The extended prologue is simplistic, but it works very well because it is beautifully realized and has solid footing for the film to latch onto. Once Barnabas awakes in ’72 and begins exploring his new world, things begin to get messy. The film embraces a soap opera style with long expositions of dialogue with creepy music underneath. The movie feels very much like an old soap opera and fans of the original show would definitely love it. However, the flip-side to a soap opera narrative structure is that the movie loses its footing with all the different storylines. The film almost feels episodic as Barnabas goes from storyline to storyline, and the characters around him suffer for it as they become merely placeholders in every “episode”. The many characters get lost to the point where some of the vanish from the goings-on for long periods at a time.
Fans of Burton will be pleased to know that his style and touch are everywhere in the film. Aesthetically, things are breathtaking; from the set-design to the music to the overall atmosphere, it very much is DARK SHADOWS. However, now and again the film has to remind us that this is 1972, and the reminders are an interruption nearly every time. Burton’s zany humor (and annoying product-placement) is like having the lights suddenly flipped on in a dark room. It’s frustrating, because every time the film feels like it is going somewhere important, something dumb has to come along and ruin it.
Depp’s performance of the famed vampire is admirable. He conveys elegance and terror all at once, and it is very reminiscent of the character made famous many years ago. Eva Green is a perfect adversary for Depp, and Burton is smart enough to know what parts of her needs to be in frame. The rest of cast gets lost amongst the confusion and are instantly forgettable.
The finale arrives by way of a final battle (yes, a final battle) which contains so many over-the-top, WTF moments that the audience is jarred into wondering what the hell it is they are supposed to be watching. In fact, the entire third act is in such a different gear that it pisses all over the earlier efforts to create a noble homage; there are just a slew of bad decisions. In the end, DARK SHADOWS tends to rely on Burton’s style and Depp’s performance as heavily as a crutch, for beyond the craftsmanship and acting, it’s a mess.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Reel 30

“What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?”

1982 was a banner year for movies, with many significant films in the fantasy and sci-fi genre. This month marks the 30th anniversary of John Milius’ CONAN THE BARBARIAN.
Based on the novels by Robert E. Howard, CONAN is often unfairly dismissed as a blockheaded blood-and-guts flick. Although it does have plenty of bloodshed, its inspirations stretch back to classic films like KWAIDEN (1964) and SEVEN SAMURAI (1954). Based on a screenplay by Milius and Oliver Stone (yes, that Oliver Stone), CONAN is an inspired story of a barbarian (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who seeks vengeance for the death of his parents, who were killed by cult leader Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones).

The film was put into production as early as the late 1970’s, when the success of STAR WARS (1977) had studios looking to capitalize on the new interest in heroic tales and adventures. CONAN stuck with those themes and while it still kept true to the brutal slayings that the books were chock full of, it also had heavy-handed themes of spirituality and grand adventure, faith and love, and a little bit of sorcery thrown in for good measure.

Milius cast a young and virtual unknown bodybuilding with the weird name of Schwarzenegger as the lead, who was eventually tutored on-set by James Earl Jones and screen-legend Max von Sydow, who played King Osric. The film would pave the way for Schwarzenegger’s long and lucrative film career as an action star.

CONAN also employed some fantastic, sweeping cinematography. Shot on location in Spain and Canada, the film was really brought to life by Basil Poledouris’ thunderous score. Sweeping and immersive, the score was an instant classic and is highly respected by film buffs to this day. The score was used so heavily that Milius let the music do the talking; long segments of the film go by with no dialogue.


This Blogger has never had the opportunity to see CONAN on the big screen, and had only experienced first on cable. Years later, its sweeping power can still be felt. Fascinating visuals with a classical epic feel, CONAN has the ability to completely engulf you in the world the characters live in. Thirty years later it still feels relevant. Relevant enough that many loyal fans have been praying to Crom for Arnie to finally give us KING CONAN.

“To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”

Monday, May 7, 2012

A Reel Opinion: THE AVENGERS and Beyond

THE AVENGERS proved to be Earth’s mightiest amongst critics and in the Box Office. The superhero team-up, the first film of its kind, earned $200 million for the biggest three-day domestic weekend ever. Add in the foreign Box Office numbers and its total rises to an astounding $641 million.
Those astronomical numbers guarantee a sequel, and AVENGERS was smart enough to end in a way which opened up a lot of great opportunities; the door was left wide open for more AVENGERS flicks while clearing the way for the individual heroes to still have their own stories and movies, some of which are already into production. Here’s what’s on the way and what to look forward to:

Already in production and slated for a May 2013 release, the third entry into the IRON MAN series has a lot to make up for after the messy second film. IRON MAN 2 was not only derailed by too much AVENGERS set-up, but also by mishandling its villains. Fortunately, a useful aspect that AVENGERS has established is that not every bad-guy Tony Stark faces has to be thrown into a metal-suit to be a challenge (another ridiculous fault of IRON MAN 2).

Also scheduled for next year (a curious November release), the THOR franchise has (literally) a wide-open universe to explore. With that troublesome Loki somewhat still in the picture and the vast fantasy realms that Thor inhabits, there seems to be no limit to what this franchise can do. The first THOR, while entertaining, also suffered from too much AVENGERS set-up, which took away from the character’s own story and development. With all that set-up now out of the way, a THOR movie can actually belong to Thor.

THE AVENGERS thankfully didn’t make Ol’ Cap the comic relief by focusing on a tired, fish-out-of-water plotline for the time-misplaced hero. That sort of sub-plot could and would serve the character well in his next individual adventure. With Cap’s strong sense of loyalty and duty now firmly established, his future films would seem to focus on many missions for his new bosses. CAP 2 is scheduled for release April 2014.

HULK 2 (or 3?)
As successful as Marvel has been with their new, consistent universe, the big green guy has been their only fumble. Mark Ruffalo is the third actor in as many cinematic appearances to portray the troubled Bruce Banner, and Marvel doesn’t seem to know what to do with the character or the franchise. No real commitment seems to have been made for another standalone HULK film (yet), and this Blogger seems to feel that Hulk would be better off appearing as extended cameos in the other individual films. As long as Ruffalo stays on board, Hulk can have a lot of fun with his new buddies.

It’s also likely that other, minor characters such as Nick Fury, Black Widow, and Hawkeye will continue to pop up here and there across the individual films as supporting cast, as none them really seem strong enough to carry a movie all by themselves. Either way, Marvel has fifty-some years worth of stories and characters to add to its quickly expanding cinematic universe. There is a lot of mightiness to look forward to.
What say you?

Friday, May 4, 2012


Eleven years ago, in the pivotal, fifth season of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, series-creator Joss Whedon wrote and directed the all-important episode, The Body. In that episode, one of the main characters rallies his friends together in the face of tragedy with an off-remark of “Avengers assemble”. As fate would have it, Whedon would later be chosen to pen and shoot the big-screen adaptation of THE AVENGERS; the biggest, riskiest, boldest, and greatest superhero film ever made.
Loki (Tom Hiddleson) has returned to our world to steal the Tesseract, a powerful energy cube, and plans to use it to open a portal so his alien army can invade. With S.H.I.E.L.D unable to stop him, Nick Fury (Sam Jackson) initiates the (ahem) Avengers Initiative to save the Earth; a collection of superheroes in the form of Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), The Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who are then teamed with S.H.I.E.L.D super-agents Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).

On the surface, AVENGERS looks formulaic; bring all the heroes together, let them argue, find a bond, then save the world. What separates AVENGERS from anything else that’s ever been done is the smart, and downright genius writing from Joss Whedon. Every character is fleshed out so well the simplicity of the plot is never an issue. The characters rule here, and Whedon knows exactly what to do with them. By taking many lessons from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, our heroes are put through some hard times and trials to the point of brutality. There is boldness at work here; Whedon is not afraid to put our heroes through the meatgrinder and taking the audience right along with them.
AVENGERS then shifts to a new gear around the halfway point when the genius of the film finally shows its cards. The tragedy that is looming through the film finally hits a breaking point, and it is a bittersweet heartbreaker; the one thing that brought them all together over the course of five films manages to do so again in a tragic manner, and it happens at just the right time.

Having been immersed in comic books and superheroes his entire life, Whedon seems to know exactly what the world wants to see out of their favorite heroes. What they get to do, who they get to fight and how they do it is the type of thing an eight year-old would imagine with his action figures on his playroom floor, and it is done on a magnificent and grand scale. And through it all, no character is shortchanged. Every hero, agent, and Director gets an arc and many great moments; an astounding feat considering how much is packed into the movie.
The acting and casting is absolutely perfect. The largest question marks going into the film was Hiddleson’s Loki (who is a leftover villain from THOR), and Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner (Ruffalo is the third Banner in three films). Fear not, mortals. Hiddleson takes Loki to a new level,and Ruffalo owns Banner. It’s nearly a shame Ruffalo hasn’t been on board since the first film.

A great superhero film should obviously be entertaining, thrilling, and engaging. Outside of that it also needs to humanize these extraordinary beings so we can relate to them. The specialty of AVENGERS is that it pulls off the humanizing of seven characters. We get to walk and fight (and fly) in their shoes (and heels), and we care about what they are after. With that in place, the thrill ride has substance beyond loud noises, which makes it likeable to everybody; not just the comic-geeks. THE AVENGERS will have everyone’s asses out of the theatre seats with arms up in the air in celebration; it is an awesome feat, and Earth’s mightiest superhero film.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Reel Facts & Opinions: The Innovators Episode II

FACT: Last week, Reel Speak took a peek into the brilliant and complicated minds of Peter Jackson, James Cameron, and Christopher Nolan for some insight into their ideas and theories for improving the cinematic experience and moving the industry forward.
Somewhat buried in that peek was the equally brilliant (if not more so) Douglas Trumbull, a visual effects pioneer who is not only advocating faster frame rates, but is pushing for a totally brand new, immersive style of theatre.

To be clear, Trumbull is not some whiz-kid fresh out of college looking to make a big name for himself with zany ideas. Trumbull worked with Stanley Kubrick in creating never-before seen sights in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY when he was in his early 20’s. He went on to head up the visual effects on stunning eyeball-poppers such as CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, STAR TREK THE MOTION PICTURE, and BLADE RUNNER. Recently, he worked with Terrence Malick on the Oscar-nominated TREE OF LIFE.
Last week, Trumbull appeared on Ain’t It Cool News in a fascinating interview to expand on his ideas for changing the cinematic experience. These ideas include improving the look of 3D, larger and curved movie screens, faster frame rates (up to 120fps!), and an overall more enjoyable experience at the movie theatre.

OPINION: From multiple screens to vibrating seats to handing out scratch-and-sniff cards to (goddamn) 3D, the industry has tried a zillion tricks and gimmicks to bring people in and to enhance the movies. To be clear, Douglas Trumbull is no trickster. Right away, he obviously cares very much about the quality of the presentation on the screen (enthusiastically shared by this Blogger); he knows that the content of the movie itself is worthless if the presentation looks (and sounds) like ass.
The industry as a whole has been really been stuck in the past; projecting with film, using slower frame rates, and using flat, square screens. The advent of digital projection has finally given innovators like Trumbull the tools to break out of the 1800’s and into a new frontier. Some of his ideas will likely be dismissed as the same type of gimmicks that the industry has toyed with over the years, but if the world knows what’s good for its movies, then it should stop and listen to the people who know what they are doing. Trumbull is the guy who was called upon by Kubrick, Malick, Spielberg, and Sir Ridley to bring their visions to life; they knew his knowledge transcended that of lesser mortals.

To see the interview: Ain't It Cool News