Blog Directory CineVerse: July 2009

I walk the line

Thursday, July 30, 2009

With job worries, tightened budgets, family pressures and other stressors bombarding you today, did you ever feel like you were teetering on the edge of a tightrope? Well, just imagine how Philippe Petit felt while performing a high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of New York's World Trade Center in 1974.

This amazing feat is chronicled in "Man on Wire," our next CineVerse film scheduled for discussion on Wednesday, August 5, chosen by Carol. Join us for an event that promises to be more fun than going to the circus--and without the aroma of elephant droppings (!)


So bad they're good: The strange, sour appeal of putrid pictures

by Erik J. Martin

Call it a fascination with the fetid, an intrigue for the intolerable or a penchant for the putrescent. But many movie lovers, myself included, are often drawn hypnotically toward bad movies--not unlike a moth toward the alluring glow of the bug zapper.

Film critic Roger Ebert famously said in his book "I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie" that no good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough. But when you relish the taste of rotten celluloid like cavia
r, the opposite is usually true.

Yes, there have been countless bigscreen stinkers foisted upon the American moviegoer over the past 100 years. Some of the heavyweight contenders include "Plan 9 From Outer Space," "The Beast of Yucca Flats," "Ishtar," "Caligula," and even last year's "The Hottie and the Nottie" starring Paris Hilton--all of them deliciously memorable in the "bad" department.

Two more that come to mind are "Santa Claus Versus the Martians" and "Manos: The Hands of Fate," two prime examples
of why the 1960s was the decade of choice for afficianados of atrocious entertainment at 24 frames per second (two flicks that were also mercilessly spoofed on "Mystery Science Theater 3000").

The latest B-feature earning cult classic status is "The Room" (2003), directed by and starring Tommy Wiseau, which simply must be seen to be believed. It's quickly become a midnight movie sensation, as evidenced by packed houses on select Friday nights at The Music Box Theater in Chicago. When I attended a late-night showing recently, I was amazed at how many viewers knew most of the piss-poor dialogue by heart. If you do get the opportunity to check out "The Room" at The Music Box, be su
re to bring a football and plastic spoons--you'll quickly figure out why.

If your funnybone can take the stress, here's a nomination for a pair of overlooked Limburger cheeses that can really clear out a room with their collective stench: "Spice World" and "Leprechaun 5: In the Hood."

Before Britney Spears and N’Sync there was another sickly sw
eet pop act that dominated the charts and the posterized bedroom walls of young teenage girls everywhere—the English flavored Spice Girls, whose formulaic music and cheeky cheesecake bubbly-ness were neatly packaged to the hungry masses in the mid-1990s. But while their tunes may have been catchy for their time (and hard to avoid if you owned a radio), their bigscreen presence left, well, more than a bland aftertaste. One could argue that "Spice World" (1997) did have dashes of infectious energy and flavorful, toe-tapping fun--at least in a colorfully campy sense. The plot, however, is where this picture particularly shines in the annals of badness. Scary, Baby, Sporty, Ginger and Posh Spice become an overnight musical sensation, strut around wearing a lot of makeup and not a lot of clothes, lip sync their songs to plastic perfection and share plenty of giggles. It’s no “Hard Days Night” (a film which it not-so-subtly rips off), but “Spice World” does offer more unintentional laughs per minute than an Ed Wood B-flick from the fifties.

St. Patrick’s Day may have come and gone, but that wee little green gremlin from the "Leprechaun" series (you remember the first "Leprechaun," featuring a fresh-faced Jennifer Aniston? Of course you do) is back to his old bloody shenanigans in "Leprechaun 5" (2000). Only this time, he takes his Irish ire to Compton, where three aspiring rappers have stolen the Leprechaun’s magic flute. That’s when the four-leaf cleaver goes on a killing spree, taking out one homeboy in the hood after another. Gun-toting street gangs quickly learn that they’re no match for a 600-year old munchkin packin’ a deadly dose of unlucky charms. Word up to all you Dr. Dre wannabees—don’t be trippin’ with Lep daddy’s woodwind! Ice T stars opposite Warwick Davis, who reprises his role as the Irish cherub of death with a fetish for shoes and a proclivity for morbid humor delivered with a laughably bad brogue. If you're looking for a guffaw-generating, roll-on-the-floor kind of night at the movies, rent this rotter and enjoy.


Hear to stay: The onscreen marriage of sound and vision has been a happy one for over 80 years

Thursday, July 23, 2009

by Erik J. Martin

Eighty-two years ago, motion pictures--which had been going gangbusters since the 1890s--were hardly in their infancy. Yet it would take until 1927 to utter their first real words.

It would be vaudeville performer Al Jolson who would become the spokesman-of-sorts for a new generation in movies. Jolson played the lead role in Warner Brothers’ black-and-white 1927 musical “The Jazz Singer,” the first commercial motion picture that married realistic synchronized dialogue and sound to picture, an
d the era of “talkies” was born.

Though it contained many popular musical numbers like "Toot, Toot, Tootsie Goodbye," the movie itself--which depicts the musical ambitions of an aspiring song-and-dance man whose career alienates him from his stern Jewish father--was not particularly groundbreaking.

Nevertheless, the film was a smash hit and the concept of talking pictures took the world quickly by storm, as did Warner's revolutionary Vitaphone sound-on-disk system that made synced music and dialogue possible. Jolson's catch line "You ain't heard nothing yet" became a household phrase.

Ironically, however, Hollywood had, at first, rejected synchronized sound in films in the early 20s. An
d even after "The Jazz Singer's" release, many critics and viewers panned the early “talkies” as lesser artistic works because sound negated the need for pantomimed expressions long considered to be a hallmark of quality dramatic acting.

Also, the non-stop accompanying music--usually played on a record player or by an orchestra or organist in the theater during the silent era--took more of a back seat, which many audiences found to be an awkward adjustment. A number of silent era stars with poor singing talents or gauche voices also found themse
lves out of work.

Still, by 1928 sound was here to stay, and Hollywood studios began churning out hundreds of talking film
s every year, many of them musicals.

Arguably, it was the Euro
pean filmmakers who best helped ease the transition from silent to talkies by expanding the artistic and creative possibilities that the marriage of picture and sound provided. Good examples include Alfred Hitchcock's "Blackmail" (1929) and Fritz Lang's "M" (1931).

Over the past eight decades, sound in film has progressed from a once crude
and tinny aural experience for audiences, to a full-blown, digital multi-track “event for the ears.” Music and audio sound effects are prominent players in today’s films, and the majority of theaters are equipped with immensely expensive sound systems, from George Lucas’ THX Sound to Dolby Digital to DTS surround sound.


Dial "M" for masterpiece

Frtiz Lang is deemed one of the greatest directors in motion picture history, and we'll get a chance to see that mastery showcased at 24 frames per second on Wednesday, July 29 when we view and discuss "M," as chosen by Ken.

Starring Peter Lorre, "M" tells the gripping tale of the hunt for crafty child murderer in pre-Nazi Germany. This highly innovative and influential picture is often credited as the progenitor of two genres: the police procedural film and the serial killer movie. Make plans to join us next Wednesday for this highly entertaining and historically important flick.


Classic clones & dismal drones: The best & worst sci-fi sequels of all time

Thursday, July 16, 2009

by Erik J. Martin

“Aliens” or “The Road Warrior”? “Spider-Man 2” or “T2: Judgment Day”? With the recent release of “Transform
ers: Revenge of the Fallen,” the follow-up to the highly successful first “Transformers” movie (and by no means worthy of being uttered in the same breath as the four flicks on the first line), the time-traveled argument now rages stronger than the Sith Lords’ hatred of the Jedi Knights: What are the best and worst science-fiction sequels in movie history?

Difficult to see, in the immortal words of Yoda. Always in motion is the future, and the guaranteed ho
rde of outer space sequels, sci-fi spinoffs and fantasy follow-ups that are bound to come from its mothership underbelly. But if the past is any indication, we’re in for many more hit and miss box-office attempts to cash in on the success of erstwhile originals in the cinematic sci-fi universe.

Nevertheless, if you can stomach yet another “Top 10" list or two without expelling an outraged alien film critic from your abdomen, ponder the inductees into my very unofficial “best and worst sci-fi flicks” hall of fame, listed below.

Sorry, Jar-Jar Binks haters, but Episodes 1 and 2 of the “Star Wars” prequels are not quite (but almost) deserving of a spot on the “worst” list. But many of the picks in my list are examples of sequels that arguably improve upon their originals.

That’s quite a boast, considering that very few subsequent chapters in any genre are widely considered to be better than their originals. In fact, while titles for the “worst” category came to mind as fast and furious as a TIE-fighter attack, it was downright diff
icult to think of more than a dozen or so sci-fi sequels that belong in the “best of” category.

Note: only one film from each series was made eligible for each list, and the multitude of low-budget “B” movies–including the laughable Godzilla sequels–made-for-TV and direct-to-video features in the futuristic film canon weren’t considered for the “worst” list. That would be, as Darth Vader says, “all too easy.” Also, each is available for rental on DVD.

10 best sci-fi sequels
  • Aliens
  • Back to the Future Part III
  • The Bride of Frankenstein
  • The Empire Strikes Back
  • Quartermass 2
  • The Road Warrior
  • Spider-Man 2
  • Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan
  • Superman 2
  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day

    10 worst sci-fi sequels
  • Class of Nuke ‘Em High 3: The Good, the Bad and the Subhumanoid
  • Cocoon: The Return
  • Cyborg 3: The Recycler
  • The Fly 2
  • Highlander 2: The Quickening
  • Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace
  • Robocop 3
  • Superman 4: The Quest for Peace
  • Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
  • Trancers 2: The Return of Jack Deth
Disagree with my choices? Want to suggest a few different titles to add to either list? Post a reply with your selection(s). And be sure to vote in our latest CineVerse poll on this very topic, which can be found in the upper left portion of this Web page.


Hud is heading your way

Next week's CineVerse movie is certainly no dud--it's "Hud," starring the late great Paul Newman in one of his most memorable roles. Make plans to join us if you can on Wednesday, July 22.

Also, FYI: Helen informed me that director John Waters will be appearing at Moraine Valley Community College on Oct. 17. This is a rare event that is being described as "an evolving mix of stand-up, spoken word and theater, a 'feel-good lecture if you're a happy neurotic,'" in the words of Waters. For more information, visit


Director’s cut DVDs add value & vision to memorable movies

Thursday, July 9, 2009

by Erik J. Martin

Watch enough episodes of “The Simpsons,” and you may start believing that there’s a hidden director’s cut to every major film that the movie studios just won’t let you see.

In various episodes of the animated cult-favorite show, audiences are treated to spoof snippets of “alternate endings” and directors cuts—from “Casablanca” (Ilsa jumps off the plane and parachutes back to Rick, but not before neatly doing away with a weapon-toting Adolph Hitler hiding in Sam’s piano) to “Fr
ee Willy” (while attempting to jump to freedom, the killer whale falls short and ends up squashing his smallfry sidekick on the way down).

The truth is that, while every motion picture leaves some footage on the cutting room floor prior to theatrical release, only a few lucky features get the benefit of revisitation by the director at a later stage. When a film is being edited, a battle for control over what viewers will see is typically waged between studio executives and directors. In most cases, the Hollywood suits win, usually because they want to shorten the running time and tack on audience-friendly endings to make more money. But sometimes the director is given full creative freedom to edit the film to his liking, in particular the second time around.

When a director is allowed to return to his film, restore cut footage, and reedit portions of the movie to better reflect his artistic vision, the end result is usually called a “director’s cut,” considered to be the definitive version of the film that he or
iginally intended for audiences.

Most often, we are treated to director’s cuts a la home video in a first or second print of the movie. Today, thanks to the universal popularity
of DVD, film lovers are able to enjoy more filmmaker-fortified versions of their favorite flicks than ever before. Indeed—look closely at the DVD boxes on the retail or rental shelves and you’ll see that nearly every other title includes the words “director’s cut” in its list of features and bonus materials.

The mark, in fact, has become somewhat of a consumer expectation—a stamp of approval of quality, if you will, that DVD and Blu-Ray renters and buyers have come to demand of their home video releases. And, since DVD's introduction in the late nineties, serious movie fans and home theater aficionados have lapped up these value-added flicks like thirsty Labradors.

So, what exactly make
s a director’s cut so special? That depends on the movie and to the extent that the filmmaker tinkers with his product. Some directors given a second chance to enhance their labors of love simply add in a few new special effects, snippets of gratuitous sex or violence, and throwaway scenes that do little to advance the story or its characters.

Good examples of this include the “Lethal Weapon” series and the “Star Wars” Special Edition trilogy on DVD. Die-hard fans may appreciate the new eye-candy explosions and digitally altered restored sequences peppered throughout these type of re-releases, but to call them “director’s cuts” is an abuse of the term to cinema purists. (The lesson learned here? Beware of false advertising—not all “director’s cuts,” “special editions,” and “restored versions” are quite the revelations you’d expect.)

Other directors are either fortunate enough to have more leftover
footage and alternate shots to work with or have the resources required to tweak the image and sound enough to dramatically improve the finished product. Like mad scientists given unrestricted access back to the laboratory, these visionaries build an even better beast that can leave audiences in awe.

Two movies that greatly benefited from this type of reworking are “Das Boot” and “Blade Runner.” With “Das Boot,” director Wolfgang Peterson managed to completely reedit the film from more than six hours of original footage, restore the negative, and improve the sound, resulting in an enhanced masterpiece that now has an extra hour of footage added to it. Ridley Scott revamped his cult classic “Blade Runner” by removing star Harrison Ford’s voiceover narration, reinserting deleted scenes that amplify mood and suspense, and replacing the original ending with a more ironic denouement. “Titanic” director James Cameron was given the green light to create special edition versions of his “Aliens” and “The Abyss” for DVD. The former now features an extra 17 minutes of restored footage that add significant color to the character of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and tighten the suspense. The latter off
ers a new version of the film with a bonus 28 minutes of restored scenes, including Cameron’s original tidal wave ending that completely changes your perspective of the movie.

Likewise, Oliver Stone spiffed up an already riveting “JFK” by putting an extra 17 minutes of cut scenes into the DVD version, and Richard Kelly added an extra 20 minutes to "Donnie Darko" for his director's cut, improving on a theatrical version that was enigmatic at best, incomprehensible at worst.

Arguably, some of the greatest examples of outstanding movies that became even better after the filmmakers reinserted additional scenes are the "Lord of the Rings" films by Peter Jackson; the extended edition DVDs of each of his three films run an extra 20 to 50 minutes longer, but enhance the viewer's enjoyment by fleshing out certain scenes, adding extra color to favorite characters and staying more faithful to Tolkien's original text. Iron
ically, Jackson refers to the theatrical versions of his "Rings" films as the true director's cuts, but acknowledges that the extended editions were created as a gift for the fans.

If you really want to appreciate the differences between a director’s cut and its predecessor, free up a few evenings, stock up on the microw
ave popcorn and make an effort to watch both home video versions of a movie, if they’re available (preferably the original theatrical version first). Some changes may be subtle or negligible—others quite dramatic, giving you a newfound respect and admiration for the film.

Ten must-see director’s cuts

  • Aliens
  • Almost Famous
  • Blade Runner
  • Brazil
  • Das Boot
  • Donnie Darko
  • JFK
  • The Natural
  • Terminator 2
  • The Wild Bunch


Make a date with The Lady Eve

They say Eve tempted Adam with an apple--but there's nothing fruity about the way Barbara Stanwyck tempts Henry Fonda in "All About Eve"--the great Preston Sturges-directed feature from 1941.

CineVerse, Oak Lawn's weekly free film discussion group, will be discussing this classic screwball comedy on Wednesday, July 15, from 7 to 10 p.m. at Oak View Center, located at 4625 W. 110th St. in Oak Lawn (room #9 or the theater; look for signage in building). For more information, contact Erik the moderator at (708) 785-5014 or visit Join us if you can!


Revenge of the Hollywood half-pints

Thursday, July 2, 2009

by Erik J. Martin

Randy Newman be damned, short people do have reason to live long and prosper, especially in action/adventure/science-fiction films and TV fare. If not for the talents of short statured actors like Billy Barty, Kenny Baker, Warwick Davis and Beatrice Straight, the world might never have enjoyed big- and small-screen characters like Mayor of the Munchkin City, Rumpelstilskin, R2- D2, Willow and "Poltergeist's" great mini-medium Tangina.

Yet rumors of exploitation of dwarves and midget actors in the film and television industry endure. Tha
t diminutive thespians continue to be typecast in fictional Lilliputian-esque roles is a given. But are these actors disrespected, unappreciated and underpaid, as alleged by many insiders?

Yes and no, said Warwick Davis, the English star who plays Filius Flitwick in the "Harry Potter" films and the titular characters in "Willow" and the "Leprechaun" series and founder of the Willow Management agency for British actors under 5-feet tall.

"We've seen a lot of exploitation and very low pay in this industry, but we've managed to turn a lot of it around…through our agency's efforts. We've accomplished much better working conditions for short actors, better pay, and equal treatment. Before us, there wasn't a very good reputation for short actors, at least in England."

"Sometimes we're overlook
ed and forgotten about, yes," said Kenny Baker, best known for his role of R2D2 in "Star Wars" Episodes 4 through 6. "I remember acting in a British production of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' with Anthony Hopkins, and the director said, 'Wait in your dressing room we're not ready for you.'" Next thing I know, everyone had gone home without telling me."

Thanks to short actor advocates like Willow Management, however, little people have garnered more respect and learned to reject freak show entertainment-type work, a la circus acts and dwarf-throwing. And Hollywood hasn't turned a deaf ear, either.

"I think roles in movies have gotten better for shorter people, and the filmmaking industry has gotten its act together," said Davis, who adds that he and his dwarfish brethren have also adopted a change in attitude to enhance confidence and self-respect: "We're not being exploited; we're only exploiting ourselves, just like any actor selling his services."

Davis' argument to a produ
cer looking to underpay a midget cast in the background of a commercial, for example, is simple: "Why did you ask for a shorter actor in the first place? You're obviously featuring him or her. Why not double their rate of pay."

"Unless you're being put down or belittled, I don't think [a short actor is] being exploited by being typecast into roles," agreed Baker. "Our problem is more that we're not being cast at all. There aren't many parts for dwarves or midgets in a straight acting role. And the death of Jim Henson [who helped short actors land roles in films like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal] didn't do us any favors."

Davis, who has landed plum roles in big-budget features, certainly isn't complaining.

"A company such as Lucasfilm or BBC Television absolutely treats its shorter actors with respect," said Davis. "I've never run into any problems in my career, really. Sure, I've turned down some scripts that I thought didn't reflect very positive images of short actors. That's the sacrifice you have to make."

With digital effects advancing to the point where the computer can make normal sized actors appear diminutive, Baker and his friends always have to look over their shoulders.

“Anybody can be replaced,” adds Baker, “particularly little folk. I've always had that worry, especially with me being inside a robot like R2-D2, which can be computerized," Baker said. "But I think Lucas likes a man inside the robot, to make it wibble and wobble and come alive more naturally."


Wrong number, right movie

Ma Bell is calling with an urgent message--she says you won't want to miss next Wednesday's CineVerse feature, "Sorry Wrong Number," starring Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster and chosen by Dorothy, about a helpless bedridden woman who accidentally overhears plans for her murder on the telephone. Join us on July 8, if your nerves can stand it!

P.S.--We may be in a completely different room next Wednesday, so pay attention to the signage when you walk into Oak View Center.


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