Blog Directory CineVerse: June 2009

Two thumbs up: Siskel & Ebert made stars out of movie reviewers

Thursday, June 25, 2009

by Erik J. Martin

It's hard to believe that it's been a decade now since film critic Gene Siskel passed away. And it's nearly as hard to believe that it's been 34 years since Sneak Previews, a quirky half‑hour TV program pairing two rival Chicago newspaper film critics--Siskel, with the Chicago Tribune, and Roger Ebert, with the Chicago Sun-Times--aired locally on WTTW. Few viewers took notice at first, but the way we would look at movies was from that point forever changed.

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert soon became the dynamic duo of movie reviewers--the world's most easily recognizable and respected film critics. Though their series would change titles, time slots and stations countless times since its inception, their gold mine film review format would stay the same: Each week, the two would screen clips from a handful of current movies, and then take turns critiquing them. In the series’ early years, each show would close with the “ruff, ruff” bark of a small dog as the preface to the pair’s “dog of the week” picks.

Occasionally, Ebert & Siskel would present a unique theme program such as the year's best and worst movies, the annual Oscar picks installment, and even the pair's favorite movies of all time program (Siskel has said his is 2001: A Space Odyssey; Ebert once picked Casablanca).

By 1982, Sneak Previews had become the highest-rated regular series in PBS history. Not so coincidentally, the pair abandoned the show for a more lucrative syndication deal that produced the new half-hour series At the Movies.

Succeeding Siskel & Ebert on Sneak Previews was Jeffrey Lyons and Neal Gabler, two lesser‑known film critics. Michael Medved replaced Gabler in 1985, and two years later the series jumped to the Lifetime cable network for a single season before returning to the PBS airwaves in the fall of ’88. At the Movies, meanwhile, lasted four years until Roger and Gene left for their third and final foray into televised film reviewing, Siskel & Ebert, which debuted in 1986. (Replacing them on At the Movies was Rex Reed and Bill Harris, the latter who was eventually supplanted by Dixie Whatley).

By 1997, Siskel & Ebert's program was appearing on some 200 stations across the country and the show was ranked as the top‑rated syndicated weekly half‑hour program in the United States.

Sometimes controversial, never compromising and always entertaining, the ever-bickering Siskel & Ebert were often more fun to watch than the movie clips they show. When they weren't taking jabs at thumbs-down movies, the twosome poked fun at each other–Gene at Roger for his weight, and Roger at Gene for his receding hairline.

But seriously, folks, the duo can be credited with increasing audience awareness of critically acclaimed, artistic and foreign films, and creating higher visibility for movie reviewers and film columnists everywhere. Over the years, Siskel & Ebert catch phrases have even become part of the American vernacular, with trademarks like "two thumbs up," "save us the aisle seat," and “until next time, we’ll see you at the movies.”

After Siskel died in 1999, Ebert continued the show with a variety of guest critics in Gene's seat. By 2000, he had named fellow Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper as the permanent replacement and eventually retitled the program Ebert & Roeper. Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002 and often was absent from the show in the years that followed. Roeper and Ebert ended their relationship with the program in 2008. But what a run it was!


Kolya is koming...

Now that we've concluded Minority Moviemaker's Month, once-a-month World Cinema Wednesdays are officially back at CineVerse. To celebrate our love of overseas flicks, we'll be discussing "Kolya" at our next CineVerse meeting, scheduled for Wednesday, July 1.

"Kolya" is a movie from the Czech Republic directed by Jan Sverak and was the winner of the 1996 Academy Award for Best Foreign
Film. Beat the heat and cool off with "Kolya" by joining us.


Q&A with director George Tillman

Thursday, June 18, 2009

With this being minority moviemakers month at CineVerse, I thought I'd share excerpts from an interview I conducted for Screen Magazine a few years back with African American filmmaker George Tillman Jr., director of such acclaimed features as "Soul Food," "Men of Honor," and, most recently, "Notorious."

A homegrown product with roots to Chicago, Tillman reflected on working in Chicago, his favorite films and the challenges black directors face today. Here is a sample from that Q & A.

Erik Martin: What do you enjoy about shooting a film like Soul Food in Chicago?
George Tillman Jr.: I’m able to be very creative and inspired in Chicago. [20th Century] Fox wanted to shoot in L.A., but I stood my artistic ground and almost walked out on the project in protest. I wanted to get away from Hollywood and infuse the film with that midwestern working class feel. There, everything looks the same. Here, there are so many unique characters, neighborhoods and environments. Chicago kept it real for me.

Do you think directors today have a certain responsibility to their audiences?
GT: We as filmmakers need to focus less on blow-em-up action flicks and focus more on personal films that can both entertain and educate.

What kind of films do you enjoy best?

GT: The best movies are ones about real families. "The Godfather" is my favorite because it’s more about family than it is about the mafia.

What are the challenges facing African American filmmakers today?
GT:We’re trying to bring black films to a level where everyone--whether you’re white or black--can enjoy them. A few years ago, all we saw were "Hood" movies. We need to make more positive films about families and their struggles to stay together.


Do the Right Thing and join us next Wednesday

Hello feature film fans--this is just a reminder that we'll be continuing our look at minority moviemakers with our next CineVerse film scheduled for discussion on Wednesday, June 24: "Do the Right Thing" (1989), helmed by African American director Spike Lee, now celebrating its 20th anniversary. If you've not seen this picture before, you may want to read up on it a bit ahead of time. This flick should generate a lot of thought-provoking and varied discussion; make it a point to be with us if you can.


Has Office Space grown 10 years later?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

In the real world, the cubicles may be getting smaller, but in the warped universe where the 1999 comedy classic "Office Space" resides, the laughs seem to last even longer.

What happens when you take away “Beavis and Butthead” from its creator, Mike Judge? You get crude, lude live action comedies like “Office Space” (now 10 years old and going strong), which could have worked just as well as an R-rated cartoon. If you’ve ever wanted to tell your boss to take his job and shove it, you can live vicariously through this irreverent excuse for a movie.

Judge directs an ensemble cast including Jennifer Aniston, David Herman and star Ron Livingston, who plays a disgruntled white collar drone who, along with other fed up coworkers, starts a mutiny against his greedy boss (Gary Cole). No corporate cliche is left unparodied, from downsizing to the hiring of idiot consultants.

It may be true that “work sucks,” as the film’s tagline insists, but if you can sit back and laugh at this flick, Monday mornings back to the grindstone may just become a little easier.


Get zapped with "Hairspray"

Howdy, happy CineVers-ians! This is just a quick reminder that we'll be continuing our "Minority Moviemakers Month" theme next
Wednesday, June 17, with a viewing and discussion of a gay director's film: "Hairspray," directed by John Waters. Don't be fooled by imitations; this is the 1988 original (not the sequel from a couple years ago). Should be a lot of fun. I should also have the July/August schedule ready to unveil at next week's meeting. See ya then!


Reel dinosaurs: A larger-than-life history of dino-FX on film

Thursday, June 4, 2009

by Erik J. Martin

From "King Kong" to "Jurassic Park," movie-going audiences have been fascinated with animated attempts to recreate dinosaurs. One glimpse of the spirited T- Rex in the new "Land of the Lost” movie shows just how far Hollywood has come at breathing new life into large lizards and their gargantuan, Godzilla-esque cousins.

Thanks to highly advanced technology, the era of what can now be perceived as cheesy, choppy giant monster special effects are about as extinct as the dinosaurs themselves. But for more than 70 years, frame-by-frame cel and stop-motion 3-D figure animation ruled the earth--or at least the big screen dino-domain.

The evolution of dinosaur animation began in 1912 with Winsor McCay's "Gertie the Dinosaur," which blended cel animation with live action for the first time. But the first recognized special effects wizard was Willis O'Brien, whose depiction of dinosaurs in the 1925 silent film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World" was a pioneering effort in 3-D puppet model stop-motion animation and compositing (taking two or more separate images and combining them onto a third piece of film).

O'Brien achieved immortal fame next in 1933 as the animator for "King Kong" and "Son of Kong," which both drew worldwide acclaim for their dazzling stop motion photography of flexible rubber models, realistic sets, and pre-filmed images projected
in the background.

O'Brien's famous protégé was Ray Harryhausen, who perfected the art of Dynamation, a patented 3-D stop-motion matting process that combined a more seamless blend of animated models with live action, as demonstrated in films like "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" (1953); "Jason and the Argonauts" (1963); One Million Years B.C." (1966); and all the films in the "Sinbad" series.

Eiji Tsuburaya may not be a household name, but films featuring his more primitive special effects are, including "Godzilla, King of the Monsters," (1954), "Rodan," (1957) and "Mothra" (1962), most of which involved men dressed in rubber monster suits attacking miniature model landscapes.

"Go motion" animation, a technique that allows
stop motion animators to record onto a computer the way they move puppet models, which are choreographed via a joystick and then simulated by the computer frame-by-frame to create a life-like blur, made its debut in 1981 with "Dragonslayer."

Finally, dino-flicks made a giant leap with "Jurass
ic Park," which employed a sophisticated blend of full-size robotic dinosaurs (metal skeletons covered with flexible molded skins attached to devices like air bladders to mimic breathing, and radio‑controlled servo motors to control facial motion) and computer generated images (CGI), all a la the work of George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic special effects company. The result? The most the most realistically textured, life-like dinosaurs ever hatched for the big screen.


Welcome to Minority Filmmakers Month

Hello, movie lovers, and welcome to the official kickoff of our fifth (!) year! This is just a reminder that our next CineVerse film scheduled for discussion on Wednesday, June 10, will be “Lost in Translation” (2003; 102 minutes), by female director Sofia Coppola, as chosen by Dave. This picture kicks off Minority Filmmakers Month, during which we'll explore movies helmed by a female (this week), a gay director (next week), and an African American (on June 24). Hope you can join us!


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