Posts Tagged ‘Star Wars’

15,000 Register “Knights Of The Jedi” As Their Religion In Czech Republic

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

15,000 Register “Knights Of The Jedi” As Their Religion In Czech Republic

Deleted Scenes from Star Wars .. the Blu-Ray Trailer

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

Gary Kurtz On The First Line-Ups Of Moviegoers Who Wanted To Live Inside Star Wars

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

Gary Kurtz On The First Line-Ups Of Moviegoers Who Wanted To Live Inside Star Wars

Star Wars Good For Teaching Kids About Labor Relations

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

Star Wars Good For Teaching Kids About Labor Relations

Oscared Star Wars Visual Effects Artist Grant McCune, 67

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

Oscared Star Wars Visual Effects Artist Grant McCune, 67, Nom’d For Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Olly Moss’ Authorized Posters For The Original Star Wars Trilogy

Saturday, December 18th, 2010

Olly Moss’ Authorized Posters For The Original Star Wars Trilogy

Review – True Grit (2010) (Spoiler-Free)

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

True Grit is a true Coen Bros film. Its answers breathe in its seams.

The movie opens with a quotation from Proverbs 28:1. Well, half of a quotation.

“The wicked flee when no man pursueth”

That’s a western.

The rest of the quotation, which they chose not to include… “but the righteous are bold as a lion.”

That’s a Coen Bros movie.

Because True Grit is a movie about bold lions who are sometimes righteous, sometimes not. They pay for their self-righteousness in tangible ways that, perhaps, are not so comfortable for audiences. They leave aside their righteousness when it suits. They step beyond animal boldness, reactive and immediate, and sometimes decide to play God.

The first image in True Grit is a blur… a face, made of light, as a voiceover tells us a story about the past. Slowly, the shot comes into focus. It is a house. Mattie Ross’ house. The snow falls over the dead body of her father. Everything has a cost.

We meet Mattie for the first time in Fort Smith, far from home, seeking to settle arraignments for her murdered father. She is accompanied by a black man, a servant of some stripe, to whom she is polite, but feels, at 14, completely comfortable dismissing when she is no longer in need of him.

It’s a remarkable portrait by Hallie Steinfeld. At first, her speech is a bit off-putting. The Coens wrote the film in a kind of period dialect. I have no idea whether they were going for some kind of authenticity or not. But start with extremely limited use of abbreviation and go from there. Steinfeld is a young actor working through this stylized language. Phrases that will eventually pepper conversation include, “You give out very little sugar with your pronouncements,” “There is no clock on my business,” and “This ain’t no coon hunt.”

But Steinfeld is also playing a character who is using every tool she can to convince others that she has control of her circumstances. She’s also trying to convince herself. The journey will turn her into what she is trying to embody, for better or for worse.

The scenes between Mattie Ross and Colonel Stonehill (Dakin Matthews) are some early comic relief and a show that Mattie is already good enough at Jedi mind tricks to drive weak-minded men to distraction. The scene, while very similar to the one on the earlier film version of Grit, is dynamic in a way that the first film – in which the Stonehill role was played by the great Strother Martin – can’t touch.

If you take a look at the 1969 film, this will be a recurring reality for you. It’s remarkable how much of the dialogue seems to be exactly the same in both films, almost as though The Coens made an exercise of it. But you rarely can see a glimmer of similarity between the two movies. It is, to over simplify film history, like color and black + white. Henry Hathaway’s True Grit is basically classic filmmaking, a testament to film up until that point. The style was so often imitated in television westerns, it has lost a layer of cinematic umph. It can be a bit creaky. It relies a lot on John Wayne being John Wayne. Glen Campbell is not bad… but not very good. Even Dennis Hopper is a bit lost. (His battles with Hathaway are legend.) Only Robert Duvall raises the bar. But Ned Pepper is also one of the best-written characters.

This is Mattie’s story, 100%. But Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn is the Han Solo to her Leia/Luke. He’s funny, dangerous, and in a terribly odd way, almost sexy. He is not an anarchist. He’s a drunk and a cynic, but he has a code (left unspoken, for the most part) and he pays death no mind. He is maturity.

(ADD. 8:14a, 12/9) Jeff Bridges puts on Cogburn like an old shoe. Bridges is a very unusual performer, as he has had this quiet ease with characters for most of his career, but when he was younger, his ease was almost uncomfortable. He’s not really a straight character actor. He is uniquely himself and that singularity is the singularity of a movie star. But he fully embraces weird, Dusting Hoffman but with movie star looks. He has a grand old time here, but without ever one-eyed winking to the audience, never demanding that we love him, never trying to steal the scene. Remarkable.

Of course, there is no romantic element in a film about a 14-year-old girl and a man in his 60s. But this is not a romantic film. It’s a coming of age film. And though Leia and Han end up together, Luke’s maturity is shaped as much by Han as by Obi-Wan and Yoda. They teach him what kind of man to be while Han teaches Luke how to be a man.

On the other side is Matt Damon’s La Boeuf. Sure to be the most underappreciated – at first – performance in the film, Damon carves out a comic gem. Again, he is another character is righteous and wicked at the same time. He shows himself to be capable of terribly inappropriate behavior towards women and a disregard for morality. But he also is, at times, a real hero. In some ways, he seems to be the young Cogburn, before the challenges that truly seasoned him… and in some ways crushed parts of his personality.

One of the things I find fascinating about The Coens’ True Grit, which is not true of Hathaway’s, is the lack of any women in the film of child-bearing age, except for Mattie. I don’t mean a lack of significant female characters. I mean a void of any women 13-45 other than background players. There are two women of post-menopausal age and two girls who are pre-menstral. Is the entire film, perceived through Mattie’s eyes from the very first frame, a tale about how Mattie sees men in the world, both defining her perception and explaining it? Maybe. Ask me after I have seen it a few more times.

Another element of this is a disconnection from the emotion of death. Yes, it was a different time. But the matter-of-factness of some of it, the recurring theme of Mattie finding herself sleeping in the presence of death, should not be take for granted. It is clearly both text and subtext.

Unlike Hathaway’s Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey), The Coens don’t bring Josh Brolin and his character into the film until it is time for confrontation, midway into the third act. In The Coens’ world, Tom Chaney is the MacGuffin. It isn’t the result of the confrontation, but the journey that matters. Of course, being the genius contrarians they are, the Coens make a “classic western” moment out of the confrontation… but it’s more than that.

This dichotomy in the film mirrors the dichotomy of the film. It does all the things it is supposed to do to be a classic kind of entertainment. Late in the film, as a confrontation develops, two characters watch and the Coens’ frame is much like a drive-in theater… a natural upside down proscenium.

But the film also, without often declaring its intentions, is subverting the genre. Retribution is not a happy thing. Cogburn knows this. La Boeuf is still learning. Mattie is a precocious child who has lost her guiding force in her father.

And did I mention, it’s hella entertaining too?

Barry Pepper kills, literally and figuratively, as “Lucky” Ned Pepper. I mentioned Dakin Matthews already. Side characters like “Bear Grit” (played by Ed Corbin), the town Sherrif played by Leon Russom, the Undertaker (Jarlath Conroy), and the dynamic duo of Emmett Quincy and Moon, played by Paul Rae and Domhnall Gleeson… all gloriously specific and odd and engaging.

And need I tell you, it’s the most beautiful damned western, probably ever. As I said before, the technology is so different; it’s almost apples and oranges. And this isn’t The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which was also shot by the amazing Roger Deakins. It’s not style that you would notice. And it’s not Unforgiven (shot by Jack Green), that was beautiful and used the modern technology to its advantage, but was also revisionist, so never too beautiful, except when around dead bodies and torch light. This film is lush, but realistic. Deakins’ ninth Cinematography nomination may finally be the one he wins… too long in coming.

The Coens, dealing in some cases with the imagery of chases and gunfights which they haven’t really done before, are masters of simple elegance. There are a couple of sequences built around a small house in the middle of nowhere. The patience they show, allowing the audience to follow the action, never anxious for more, is wonderful.

I still don’t have “the answers” to True Grit. I know that each time I have seen it, I spent much of the rest of the day in no small sadness. Emotion comes late to True Grit, unless you have already seen it and are experiencing it again. But it refuses to offer the audience the out of experiencing the story through simple perspective of Cogburn. That would be a John Wayne movie. This is a Coen Bros movie. It’s Mattie. We’re Mattie.

More when people have seen the film and we can get into a good spoiler-heavy chat…

George Lucas Preparing Star Wars Reissues In “Chronological” Order, Delighting Potential Audiences From 2012-2018

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

George Lucas Preparing Star Wars Reissues In “Chronological” Order, Delighting Potential Audiences From 2012-2018

“Sounds Of Star Wars” Book

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

“Sounds Of Star Wars” Book Ka-chings The “Ka-CHUNG

Andy Helms’ Minimalist Star Wars Prints

Sunday, September 5th, 2010

Andy Helms’ Minimalist Star Wars Prints

All Of Chewbacca’s Dialogue On A Single Post-It Note

Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

All Of Chewbacca’s Dialogue On A Single Post-It Note

“Mr. Lucas said that to release the original versions on Blu-ray was ‘kind of an oxymoron because the quality of the original is not very good. You have to go through and do a whole restoration on it, and you have to do that digitally. It’s a very, very expensive process to. So when we did the transfer to digital, we only transferred really the upgraded version.” Star Wars Gold Mine Coming To Blu-Ray Merchandising: The Next Generation

Saturday, August 14th, 2010

“Mr. Lucas said that to release the original versions on Blu-ray was ‘kind of an oxymoron because the quality of the original is not very good. You have to go through and do a whole restoration on it, and you have to do that digitally. It’s a very, very expensive process to. So when we did the transfer to digital, we only transferred really the upgraded version.”
Star Wars Gold Mine Coming To Blu-Ray
Plus – Merchandising: The Next Generation

Happy Holidays from Princess Leia

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Princess Leia singing an ode to “Life Day” – the Star Wars Universe’s answer to Christmas.  This aired on local Chicago TV on Friday, November 17th 1978.

20 Weeks To Go, The Rules Of Ten

Friday, October 30th, 2009

The most often considered issue of this year’s Oscar race is, “How will having ten nominees change the game?”

And the definitive answer is, “Ask me next April.”

Well, even that may be a little blurry.

What I can tell you is what has happened so far, which is still very much at the beginning of the journey as far as actual awards voters are concerned.

What we don’t see so far is an earnest effort by the “big movies” to get slots in the BP10… except for Up, which Disney has out there on parade early and often. All the sky-is-falling whining about Star Trek and The Hangover and Harry Potter as Best Picture contenders has been followed by Paramount and Warner Bros shrugging their campaigning shoulders and not spending a dime or more than a minute of effort moving the bar in that direction. Wisely.

Besides Up, on the commercial side, there is a Supporting Actress push going on for The Proposal, some hints that Sony is going to push District 9 out there, and The Weinsteins may find some real BPO traction for Inglourious Basterds. That means that there are two possible movies in the BP race from the Top 20 domestic grossers to date.

But quietly – amazingly quietly – Avatar is becoming a serious Best Picture player. Fox isn’t pushing it. They aren’t advertising it. They are doing what they have done for years… sell the movie and if awards come, so be it. And no matter the media response to the teaser trailer, you can feel the ground rumbling under the earth’s crust for this one now. The movie is going to be very, very big.

Even if it fails by some standards, it is almost impossible to imagine the film grossing less than $500 million worldwide. That would put it with Potter 6, Ice Age 3, and Trannies 2 (in that order… do people realize that IA3 has outgrossed Tr2 worldwide?) in that financial category. This is very rarified air for a title that is neither a sequel, animated or based on a literary work that defined the box office future of the title… you know, what grandpa used to call “an original.”

There are sixty-seven $500m worldwide grossers in history and only Ghost, The Day After Tomorrow, Forrest Gump, Armageddon, Night At The Museum, I Am Legend, Hancock, The Sixth Sense, Star Wars, ET, and Jurassic Park qualify in that rarified grouping. Five of the eleven were Best Picture nominated. Only one won. But still…

The two tip-top contenders that have not been seen – Nine and Invictus – remain on the top of many lists, though we are still weeks away from seeing the goods (or the bads).

But the lists have filled up with some titles that wouldn’t quite be borderline in years past, whether Precious or A Single Man or A Serious Man. A movie like The Hurt Locker would have a very hard road, no matter how good it is, because of its lackluster box office run. Inglourious Basterds would have been dismissed by now as too commercial and fun.

Still, all five films, seen as favorites by most to secure BP slots, are not advertising yet… not fighting to get out ahead of the late-coming big dogs… biding their time, perhaps waiting for critics to give them a lift.

The most heavily pushed “small” film so far, amongst actual voters and not just the press, is An Education… which is now benefiting from an air of inevitability. The film isn’t world beating. But the movie is loveable, the performances are loveable, and all of a sudden, borderline contenders like Alfred Molina are real contenders for nomination because Academy members are being asked early and often for their consideration.

The question at the end of the day will be, “What was the great idea that got these movies nominated?” And every year, we are reminded that there is no hard and fast rule. And this year, even more so.

I predict that as obvious as the floorplan seems to be this season, there will be a major surprise or two in which films didn’t get nominated… because so many are laying back, thinking they can foist themselves on the voters late in the game. There are too many studios trying to play this game and someone’s going to go home with their balloon crushed (and it isn’t like to be Disney).

On the other hand, it seems to me that we are already down to fifteen or fewer serious contenders for nomination, even without having seen five of them. So that is the shading in which the contending marketers are operating. There will be some happy surprises as well.

As risky as I see a strategy like The Hurt Locker’s as being, I am also quite conscious that the film will certainly be amongst the best five, by most standards of quality, in that group of fifteen. So no matter how little is spent or how late it is spent, aren’t they likely to be in the group of nominees? Isn’t there a constituency that will just joke on quality and feel that a nomination vote spent there is not a wasted vote?

The most interesting thing so far is that it is already November and so little has really happened. Toronto came and went… NYFF after that… and very little has changed. Most of the horses are in the gate, kicking and squealing, but not allowed to really race. They are just biding their time, waiting for the industry to put together enough money to pay for the dirt to be laid out on the track, lest the horses run on concrete and break their dainty legs.

And when they are let loose, it will surely seem more intense than ever. But it may actually be just the opposite… no time for much to happen but for people to see the movies and to vote their hearts and not their heads.

Come February, there is no way of knowing how distributors will behave either. Will, like last year, one or two films become the obvious frontrunners and send everyone else into “it’s lovely to be nominated” mode or will there be a battle royale amongst ten contenders who all feel viable as every one of them has fatal flaws and winning strengths?

Ask me in April.

– David Poland
October 30, 2009

Best Picture Chart

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009
The Nomination 90% Locks (in alphabetical order)
Dec 25
Et al
In a thin year, getting over the post-production fights, looking like the front-runner
Could the first animated film to get a BP nod in a year with an animated category get the win?
The Nomination 80% Locks (in alphabetical order)
Dec 11
The Waiting Game…
Nov 13 Up In The Air
Very well liked already… a reflective comedy
Nov 6
The race race
Toronto Contenders Looking Likely
Oct 9
An Education
Belle Of The Ball
Oct 2
A Serious Man
It’s the Jewish Precious… but funny!
A Single Man
It’s the Gay Precious… but pretty!
Serious Contenders To Fill The Last 3 Slots(in alphabetical order)
The Hurt Locker
A great movie… will Summit spend to play?
Inglourious Basterds
A more commercial film… but looking better and better as the “contenders” slide
Sept 25
Coco Before Chanel
The strong small film for women…. could push out Streep’s Julia Child… or not
Nov 13
The Fantastic Mr Fox
Fox Searchlight on it now!
Dec 18 Avatar
Is it a gamebreaker?
The Still Blurry, Waiting For Focus
Dec 25?
The Lovely Bones

Will get a late, limited release
Nov 6
A Christmas Carol
A breakthrough?
Damaged Goods
Oct 2
Capitalism: A Love Story
Folks are trying to get excited, but privately are dissapointed
Aug 7 Julie & Julia
A modest hit… seen as all about Streep… could rise if others fall
Nov 25
The Road
Not as problematic as righties claimed, but hard road for Oscar
The Walking Dead Since July’s Chart
People heard something was coming… didn’t know it landed
Commerical miss
Aug 28
Taking Woodstock
Commerical miss
Sept 18 The Burning Plain
Too heavy for a theatrical…
Bright Star
DOR – Dead On Release
Shutter Island
Moved to 2010
Green Zone
The Commercial Chasers (by release date)
Star Trek
Bloom off the rose with #4 summer finish
Public Enemies
Mann’s #2 high grosser ever has been tagged “a flop”
Fighting the notion of 2 animated nominees
The Informant!
Tone is throwing some off
Nov 20 The Blind Side
Could be a surprise
Dec 25
Sherlock Holmes
Not likely… Guy Ritchie
Dec 25
It’s Complicated
Could well be the surprise
The Arthouse Chasers (by release date)
Oct 23
No one is excited
Nov 20 Broken Embraces
Excellent… but not a ground breaker
Dec 4
It wasn’t at TIFF… how will it find wings with Precious as LGF’s true love?
Dec 4
Everybody’s Fine
Remake of a Tornatore classic
Men Who Stare At Goats
Liked, not loved.
Dec 25 The White Ribbon
Fine art
Unlikely To Race This Year (in alphabetical order)
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky
Intrigues At Tire-Larigot (Micmacs)
The Last Station
Love Ranch


Pulitzer Day

Tuesday, April 8th, 2008

When the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1975, I was working at a small newspaper a few miles down the interstate, editing copy and reviewing the occasional movie. No other film critic had been so honored, and I suffered no delusions about following in Roger’s footsteps any time soon, if ever.

In 1973, Sun-Times critic Ron Powers had won a Pulitzer for his coverage of television. It wouldn’t be fair or accurate to say that Ebert and Powers were cut from the same cloth, but their appeal was similarly universal. From a distance of about 45 miles, I envied their ability to write intelligently about popular media without condescending to anyone in the S-T’s broad urban readership or wearing their IQs on their lapels.

Even today, that is a rare quality among winners of the prize. The vast majority have gone to pundits writing for right- and left-coast newspapers about dance, books, architecture, art, theater and classical music. While other television critics would be so honored in 1980, 1985 and 1988, another 28 years would go by before another film critic, Stephen Hunter, would take home the prize, with Joe Morgenstern to follow two years later. In between, writers about automobiles, fashion and food were included in the populist trend.

This year’s prize went Monday to Mark Feeney, an arts writer and photography reviewer for the Boston Globe. Washington Post movie critic Ann Hornaday was a finalist. It will take another millennium, probably, for a rock or hip-hop critic to impress the judges in the same way.

With movie critics being jettisoned from newspaper payrolls, like so many bangs of sand from a hot-air balloon, it’s an appropriate time to assess the state of the art in American newspapers. If cost-cutting continues apace, the next Pulitzer for film writing might necessarily go to a critic toiling for pennies on their own website, or one dedicated to cinematic endeavors. Only a handful of ink-stained critics are likely to be left standing when the blood dries.

Instead, the majority of movie lovers will be served by the AP’s crack corps of faceless reviewers, the minimalists at USA Today, syndicators of content and a newspaper chain’s critic du jour. If a reader in the hinterlands is fortunate enough to see Ebert’s reviews in their morning paper, it’s likely they’ve been sliced and diced to fit the odd hole in a space-deprived feature section.

So far, the critical purge hasn’t had the same impact on deep-thinkers about television. That’s likely due to the fact that newspaper editors want someone on hand to answer questions about a local anchorhotties’s new hairdo and wax indignant about reality shows. They dutifully run wire copy on the weekend’s top-10 movies and feign a freakish curiosity in the Oscar hysteria, but blindly assume their subscribers have little interest in indies, documentaries and subtitles.

MCN’s David Poland already has expressed his opinion on the implications of the purge, and the studios culpability in it. MCN also has provided a link to Roger Ebert’s visionary 1991 essay on the difficulties of writing serious criticism for a diverse readership base. Perhaps, I can offer another perspective.

In Ebert, not only did Pulitzer judges honor a still-blossoming journalist’s writing and commitment to the medium, it demanded that other newspaper editors take movies seriously, as well. The timing couldn’t be better for readers and critics, as this new mandate not only coincided with the rise of such directors as Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg. Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese, but also the emergence of a generation of independent filmmakers inspired by John Cassavetes, the French New Wave and Britain’s “kitchen sink “ movement. The explosion of blaxploitation and martial-arts products also required analysis.

No longer were editors simply able to grab the youngest-looking guy or gal from the copy desk and assign them to the film beat. Suddenly, reviewers also were required to assume the role of critic, even if their backgrounds were limited to taking Film History 101 in college and an ability to pick Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard out of a lineup. More enlightened editors went out and hired genuine students of the art, even if the only newsroom they’d ever seen was in The Front Page.

Ebert had already demonstrated his proficiency in awarding stars to movies and backing them up in prose. In 1975, the imagistic approach was extended to his and competitor Gene Siskel’s “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You,” with summations of “yes” and “no” and bark of Spot the Wonder Drug. The local hit would begat the nationally televised “Sneak Previews,” which would begat “At the Movies,” with Aroma the skunk, which begat trademarked thumb-ratings and “Siskel & Ebert & the Movies,” which begat “At the Movies With Ebert & Roeper.”

And, therein, was laid the seed that grew into Great Critical Purge of the Mid-‘00s.

Shortly after the Pulitzer judges awarded the first prize for film criticism to a 32-year-old movie nut (and occasional Russ Meyer collaborator) from the heart of the heartland, graduates of the Sarrisite and Kaelite schools began infiltrating the pages of newspapers, as well. Not having newsroom roots, as did Ebert and Siskel, these first-wavers naturally assumed that clearly reasoned criticism and bright prose would satisfy even those grumpy editors and mainstream readers who couldn’t pick Warren Beatty out of a lineup. Some even dreamed about having a show of their own someday.

The huge success of Jaws and Star Wars not only signaled a new way of doing business in Hollywood, it also revealed the stirrings of disconnect between critics and audiences. If it weren’t for Titanic – and Kenneth Turan’s sadly overhyped feud with director James Cameron — the gap might have gone unnoticed for a few more years. The debate would continue well into the next decade, as Oscar nominations and top-10 rankings failed to duplicate the list of top-grossing movies. If no one else was paying attention to the squabble, budget-strapped editors certainly were.

The most vigorous disagreements often were inspired by so-called “tentpole” pictures. Released primarily in late spring and summer, tentpoles gave youngish audiences all the action, pyrotechnics, CGI heroes and villains, and porous storylines, they could possibly handle … at least, until the next week’s new releases. Instead of being platformed out and be allowed to build on critical and popular buzz, potential blockbusters began to open on thousands of screens simultaneously. The impact of same-day newspaper reviews was thereby minimalized, and all that seemed to matter to studios were the first two weekends’ grosses.

From Jaws on, studio marketing campaigns would target opening-weekend audiences. Negotiations over premium space in Sunday and Friday features sections would grow fierce, and become highly influenced by publicists and a newspaper’s circulation department. By agreeing to participate in junkets, and running a puff interview ahead of a potentially negative review, an editor essentially would have sold the soul of his paper to the studio.

In the most competitive markets, personal and studio publicists now could barter exclusivity for access to their biggest stars, whose appearance, theoretically, would help sell papers on Sunday. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times trumped everyone else within a 100-mile radius of their printing presses. In Chicago, however, Siskel and Ebert’s newspaper and television (local and national) presence was deemed of equal importance to publicists, who learned to play a different game in Chicago.

Rather than alienate either of the fiercely competitive Bigfoots, the publicists for a prolific artist like Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese would make their clients available to the boys on alternate films. A bone would be thrown to the loser in the form of an interview with another high-profile client, a prominent co-star or some other quid pro quo. Even if Ebert and Siskel were among the few critic/writers who refused to let studios finance their junketeering, a newspaper might be able to save money by piggy-backing on a trip financed (or not) by a local TV outlet. In our under-budgeted shop, at least, it was wink-wink, nod-nod all the way.

The major flacks toyed with other media in the same way, and, by 1990, paramilitary firms like PMK dictated coverage from Times to Times. The writing already was on the wall for newspaper circulation, and, in a few short years, only the NYT, LAT, USA Today and Wall Street Journal really mattered to the studios. In addition to those outlets, publicists limited their browbeating to the morning and late-night talk shows, Newsweek and Time, ET andExtra, 60 Minutes and Barbara Walters. Everyone else could fight over the scraps.

The constant in this equation were the critics who had no desire to do anything but write about the movies themselves and pen the occasional Sunday “think piece” and obit. Their job was difficult enough, without also having to secure a Sunday pufferoo with a Robert Redford or Julia Roberts, knowing full well they might be required to lambast their movie the following Friday. Eventually, the actors and directors wised up and refused to agree to do interviews with critics who routinely trashed their work.

As an editor and writer for the Chicago Tribune, I spent a lot of time walking a tightrope between publicists and section editors, critics and readers, news side and business side, all of whom had a separate agenda when it came to movies. In a perfect journalistic world – The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, perhaps – there were enough reporters and freelance writers to maintain a separation of church and state. Critics could critique, while feature editors could budget a balanced mix of puff and think pieces … in turn, the publicists could brag about driving a hard bargain with the editors, and their studios would keep the Sunday sections fat with ads.

Even in the good ol’ days, this was a far from perfect world.

On the rare occasion a senior editor would actually deem to see a movie in a theater, there would be times when a divergence of opinion would result in a phone call and official questioning of our critic’s sanity. It’s difficult to ascertain whether a big shot’s willingness to criticize the content of a review ever clouded a critic’s opinion, but it’s true that David Kehr, who succeeded Siskel as lead reviewer, almost wasn’t awarded the job because he hadn’t treated ET as if it were Citizen Kane.

By now, thanks to Entertainment Weekly and People magazines, feature editors were putting ratings on everything that moved in their departments. Movie ratings assumed the form of tiny rosebuds, clapping hands, letter grades, popcorn boxes, reel canisters and thumbs. All provided excuses for readers – and editors – not to read the text, as did capsule reviews of the movies in weekend guides. Worse, a star’s value was based on hugely subjective criteria. At the Tribune, a single-star review meant a movie was bad, while a single-star restaurant grade meant a discerning dine might want to take a chance on it, at least.

One critic I know “over-starred” his commentaries, while another would “under-star” to camouflage suspicious critical tendencies. Only those readers who actually took the time to peruse a review from byline to bye-bye would know precisely how closely their opinions might jibe with those of the critic and the star grade. Newspapers were making it easy for readers to fall out of love with reading.

In Ebert’s 1991 essay, he addressed the question of how his ratings might not always reflect his true feelings about a film, and how he could encourage readers to attend a movie about which he had a strongly negative reaction. Minus the stars, the debate would have been moot.

Ebert also bemoaned the added competition – such as it was – of the Tribune’s “Teen Movie Panel,” which ran in the paper’s Friday section, but wasn’t under the supervision of the entertainment editor. It was a gimmick, pure and simple, intended to appeal to those hard-to-reach niche readers of a certain age. Turns out, other media were more interested in covering the panel than Chicagoans were in reading the reviews. While innocent, in an Archie & Veronica sort of way, the short reviews cut into space previously reserved for grown-up reviews. The timing was less than perfect.

Instead of being selective about the movies that warranted full reviews, every dopey genre and exploitation flick was being given the star treatment. No title was too obscure or cheesy to relegate to the capsule bin. If anything, critics were expected to give Hollywood fare more attention than it deserved, relegating significant indies to the corners and shadows.

Last week, while cruising through RottenTomatoes, I chanced upon an example of just such a discrepancy. It came in the form of Vincent Canby’s analysis of Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2, which, two decades later, has just been re- released into DVD. I have no idea what possessed Canby’s editor to pass along the assignment … if the critic harbored a secret passion for slasher movies, none was revealed in the text. Then, as now, it was a nothing horror movie, re-titled as sucker-bait for fans of the Leslie Nielsen and Jamie Lee Curtis original. If the Times felt it necessary to review such products, there was no hope left for any of us.

Nothing in the Tribune lent itself so easily to exploitation as movies. No space would be diverted to a Teen Editorial Board, Teen Baseball Writer or Teen Classical Music Critic. Movies were fair game, primarily because no one in a position of power took them as seriously as the Tribune’s critics, and, of course, a pretty decent number of readers.

After a year or so, people stopped paying much attention to the teen panel, one way or the other. Of the dozens of participants, only one young woman demonstrated any talent at criticism, and, at 17, she would have made a terrific lead critic for half of the dailies in the country. Despite this, similar panels began springing up in media outlets around the country.

Digital technology would further dilute the gene pool.

Websites and discussion boards that focused on movies were among the first to energize the Internet. Long before Hollywood publicists and newspaper editors recognized the web’s potential for exploitation, movie-crazy netizens were exchanging opinions, gossip, box-office analysis and files on the web. How else could a schlub like Harry Knowlesbecome a mover and shaker in a multibillion-dollar industry? Where else, besides and, could fans, scholars, trivia geeks and perverts find a common ground?

Sadly, the Internet also would provide newspaper publishers with a convenient excuse for the precipitous drop in readership and advertising. It would be cited as the primary reason for necessity of eliminating the positions of hundreds of seasoned journalists, including many of the same critics who, editors assumed, were being ignored by readers and studios.

How to stem the erosion in advertising revenues? A few years ago, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times dropped to their institutional knees to fellate the major Hollywood players. It was an overtly desperate effort to woo them back to the print medium. Both of the august newspapers launched sections that promoted the Academy Awards and, God help us, the Golden Globes, as if they had meaning beyond the ritual announcement of nominations and presentation of awards. Even if Nielsen ratings demonstrated declining interest in such self-promotional vehicles, editors found new ways to slobber over the ceremonies and stars.

And, yet, circulation kept plummeting. With so many reviews available virtually for free, via the various wire services and syndicates, publishers began doing something once considered to be unthinkable: kill the messengers.

If anyone really wanted serious criticism, after all, he or she could subscribe to The New York Times, New Yorker or Film Comment. It wasn’t likely that fans of horror movies were turning to the morning newspaper for guidance when Fangoria was so readily available on the web and magazine racks. A perusal of and RottenTomatoes.comoffers more reviews of movies than there are stars in the heavens, even if most were plagued by horrifying grammar, poor spelling and absence of any noticeable copy editing.

Until recently, alternative weeklies were the place discerning movie lovers would go to read about titles the dailies generally gave short shrift. Even if it was fair to argue that newspaper readers, with the exception of those in major markets, couldn’t care less who reviewed movies opening at the local megaplex, the same wasn’t true about the weeklies. The critics had identifiable personalities, traits, tics and passions. As with Siskel and Ebert, in their more argumentative days, one’s thumb-down almost would guarantee you’d enjoy the picture, and vice-versa.

The recent consolidation of the Voice’s critical staff will provide a test as to whether movie buffs speak the same language no matter where in American they live. I suspect the Tribune papers will follow in kind before too long, eliminating all but about three or four of the critics in the chain.

The consolidation and homogenizing of radio only made the medium worse, prompting listeners to flock to satellite and Internet services, or create digital playlists for their iPods. If the newspapers follow suit, what will drive readers to their websites? Canned reviews from some bozo in Orlando? Roger Ebert will remain a primary destination for the Sun-Times, but for how long?

Television networks invest many fewer advertising dollars in newspapers than their counterparts at movie studios, and, yet, movie critics are the ones paying the price for their publishers’ short-sightedness. Movie advertising pays the bills needed to keep sports sections and editorial pages virtually ad-free. Is it too much to ask of the studios that they use their considerable clout to promote criticism, in addition to slobbering profiles of Oscar nominees? That, or re-direct some of their dollars to websites that are dedicated to the medium all year round, not just during awards season. As it is, the studios appear willing to rely on hit-and-miss viral campaigns for their niche products.

Whenever the subject of print criticism raises its ugly little head, I’m reminded of a conversation I had nearly a decade ago with the top editor at my former employer. I was working out of SoCal at the time, and the subject was the paper’s stature in Hollywood.

After explaining the new pecking order among studios and publicists, and the growing hassle of gaining access to their top clients, my boss voiced his disappointment at not seeing his critic’s pull quotes in more ads for upcoming movies. While arguing that using such criteria to judge the value of a critic — or his thumb, as the case may be – was counterproductive, at best, I tried to explain how the game worked: Sunday double-truck ads invariably were filled with the quotes of junket whores, and therefore were meaningless, while an opening-day rave from a someone in Albany or Fargo only meant the picture stank. Our critic’s name could be found in ads for plenty of pictures, if not the ones he was likely to notice.

Not being an avid filmgoer, I’m pretty sure he didn’t grasp the fine points of my argument. He certainly couldn’t be convinced that readers could discern the difference between a pull quote from the Tribune and one from a deejay in the Upper Peninsula. Even my then-teenage kids saw through that ruse.

Soon enough, I fear, newspaper readers will be fed a steady diet of pre-sold pap from junketeers and the opinions of a few generic critics working for newspaper and magazine chains. If the studios are short-sighted enough to support publications that care so little about their products, they’ll deserve each other’s company. With or without advertising support, the Internet’s vibrant movie community will be there long after the lights are turned off at the local newspaper.

April 8, 2008
– Gary Dretzka

Movie Sites

Wednesday, December 24th, 1997

Twentieth Century Fox produces some of the very best sites on the net for single movies. Alien: Resurrection may be a better site than it was a movie. offers up all the Fox product, in theaters or on TV. But Fox has made the smart move of separating divisions on the net as well, so Fox Searchlight offers a very different experience than the main site.
Of course, the thing most of you will want to find at Fox these days is Star Wars info. It ain’t there. There’s not a deal for distribution of the prequels yet, so no site. You can check out the official site here, and there’s a terrific site from fan Chris Kivlehan called The Force. For regular prequel news, you can also check out Harry Knowles’ Ain’t It Cool News site Harry’s site is fun, but is also becoming a little less reliable every month as the studios attempt to co-opt him. But still worth the visit.
For some good trivia fun, check out Bezerk’s You Don’t Know Jack site. You need some juice on your computer. At least a 28.8 modem and a pentium will be needed to make it worth the trip. Downloading takes a while. But the result is amongst the most fluid experiences you’ll have with gaming on the net.