Elements of the Screen: A Little Perspective

James here.

I present to you all, today, my editorial entitled A Little Perspective.

End of line.

NR: Finding The Magic In The Kingdom

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

Screenrant recently posted a piece on ‘Iron Man’ director Jon Favreau and his work on Disney’s new ‘Magic Kingdom’ project.  The article is definitely worth a read, so head on over to Screenrant and give it your attention.  Then come back, for I have a few words to add.

Director Jon Favreau

Magic Kingdom's Centerpiece

There are rough waters ahead for Mr. Favreau. ‘Magic Kingdom’, a film based on a theme park, could all too easily be a shallow spectacle, a comedy misfire, a self-indulgent debacle or worse. But it’s clear Favreau believes that there’s potential for a rich, exciting narrative. I quote Mr. Favreau via Screenrant (emphasis mine):

“When Walt first set out to do it there was something very nostalgic and forward looking at the same time about Disneyland. When you went down Main Street it was the turn of the century, it was days gone by and Tomorrowland was the future. There is such a weird shared experience that any of us who’s ever gone to Disneyland feels that I don’t think has really been mined yet. It’s this collective subconscious that we have and there are these archetypes that are so strong that there’s a fun way to present something that is family entertainment but still will take you through the experience that you had [growing up].”

Favreau wants to mine nostalgia, which when properly harnessed is a powerful cinematic force.  Many of the great films of the late 20th century run on nostalgia fuel.  ‘Star Wars’, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, ‘The Godfather’, ‘Pulp Fiction’, ‘Dark City’ — all mined from the cinematic and cultural heritage of their creators.  All of them present worlds that fuse the auteur’s nostalgia with their unique vision.  Favreau’s opportunity is to reinterpret Disney’s legacy in his own image, which, if it works, could deeply influence its future.  ‘Magic Kingdom’ is not just another theme park ride adaptation ala ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’.  It’s the whole park, and therefore symbolic of Disney’s heart and soul.  The tactile juxtaposition of the mystical past and the incredible future, with today’s family caught in the middle, has delighted and inspired millions.  There’s obviously a great story there.  How does a filmmaker turn this into an emotional arc complete with action and suspense without succumbing to cliché?  It’s a daunting, though tempting challenge.

I believe Favreau is up to it.  He has the arms and the oars for this whitewater ride.  His ‘Iron Man 2’ could serve as the proof.  Not for the film’s main story, which suffers from Marvel’s insistence on setting up ‘The Avengers’, but for the Stark Expo that anchors it.  With music and production design deliberately reminiscent of the World’s Fair and the Magic Kingdom’s own Tomorrowland, there is exactly that same nostalgia-future collision that so attracts Favreau to this new project.  He can now fully explore this concept and hopefully conjure up the cinematic magic necessary to save Disney’s kingdom from ending up on the rocks.  I wish Favreau, his team, and Disney the very best of luck.


NR: The Importance Of Poster Art

James here.

Some of you are aware of the recent commotion over a particularly bad poster for Tom Hooper’s new historical drama ‘The King’s Speech’.  Slashfilm, among others, posted something about it.  My thoughts are not so much about the poster’s obvious badness as they are about the relationship between advertisement and a movie’s narrative, and how critical it is to make the movie live outside the cinema.  I’m about to make a whole bunch of pretentious, arrogant and repetitive statements, so take it as my thought process, written out for your edification.

Bad King's Speech Poster

The above is a bad poster. Why? Because it doesn’t communicate the film’s essence. It looks, as many have said, like an ad for a run-of-the-mill Hallmark movie.  There’s nothing wrong, per se, with putting your stars up front and center.  If you do so, you should use them to get your film’s premise, themes, core emotions, and actions across.   You see, the title says ‘The King’s Speech’ but the photoshopped stars do not.  If I saw this in a theater lobby, I’d glance at it, probably without it registering in any meaningful way, and move on to a more interesting poster.

Sam Smith, a designer of good posters, spent just 30 minutes and came up with something excellent, in my opinion.  It is, by his own admission, rough, but it works.

Note that it makes the title pop and stick in the brain. ‘The King’s Speech’, visualized in such a humorous and bizarre way, now seems a good deal more intriguing. The names of the stars are still prominent. With more time and money invested, you could turn out a detailed poster with, say, Colin Firth’s face reflected in the period-era mic. Weird, yes. Memorable, yes.

Cinema works on the saturation quotient.  Of course, you must have all the right elements, but once you do, you grow them.  A story is a living thing.  A big, populist story — like, say, a movie — should be a very big, unavoidable living thing.  Advertising is not just the way that artists and investors tempt people to come in, pay hard-earned money and sit in the dark for two hours.  Done right, it’s seduction of the best kind.  We want to be seduced.  We want to believe.  The wise advertiser knows not to merely sell the product, but to tell the story, and storytelling is all about raising questions, getting hooks in, creating possibilities.  Film advertising should imply a world.

For the most part, Hollywood gets this.  It’s why viral marketing exists, and works.  Still, I’m frustrated by the overwhelming number of bad posters out there.  Posters are critical.  I think I remember a good poster and a good trailer more than any other aspect of marketing.  Other ads tend to draw from these two, so that’s probably why.  So, if your movie’s poster is as lazy as that of the ‘The King’s Speech’, it’s not a good sign.  Take a page from artists like Sam Smith and find the central, intriguing image(s) that made your movie come together, consciously or unconsciously.  If a movie doesn’t have a discernible compelling image, don’t bother advertising.  Save your money and ours.

Budding filmmakers like myself need to embrace marketing as an artistic challenge.  It’s easy to sell the movie short by making the main event the only thing of substance.  That’s all wrong.  Treat the movie like a bucket of paint and splash it all over the wall.  Make it unforgettable.  Make it a world.

NR: Snyder’s Superman

James here.

This is the first article in a new series, News Reflections, here on The Silver Mirror.  When we see something intriguing coming down the wire, we give some commentary, weigh pros and cons, wag a prophetic finger if necessary.  Expect updates bi-weekly, Wednesday and Friday.

First up, thanks to Collider, we have the news that executive producer Christopher Nolan is stepping away from active involvement in the ‘Superman’ reboot to focus on directing ‘The Dark Knight Rises’.

This leaves the reboot entirely in Zack Snyder’s hands.  Yes, we knew this would happen eventually.  Somebody has to take the reins.

Superman, as I expressed in my review of the 1978 classic, is heroic idealism anthropomorphized.  He’s the guy who always wins, and he’s such a swell guy, too.  Also in my review, I directly contrasted him with Alan Moore’s cynical, nihilistic ‘Watchmen’ and its film adaptation, directed by Snyder.  I do find it amusing that Snyder, responsible for bringing Superman’s antithesis to the screen, is now interpreting the Big Blue Boy Scout for a new generation.  I don’t want to imply that Zack Snyder is the wrong man for the job.  He’s got a brilliant visual sensibility and manages to get believable emotions out of actors working in an effects-heavy environment.  My fear is, because he shows more affection for gritty, postmodern graphic novels than the optimistic pre-Cold War comic books of Superman’s heyday, he may not succeed in communicating the character’s essence.  Not being familiar with the gamut of Superman’s run in print, my main reference points are in film, particularly the superb Max Fleischer cartoons and the Richard Donner classic.  Getting to the point, I must confess my bias is towards the Fleischer cartoons and their pliable, World-of-Tomorrow aesthetic, and I have no wish to see a cynical, brutal re-imagining of the childhood icon.

The World’s Fair-inspired art in the 40’s cartoons has thematic resonance with the character’s soul.  Superman is sometimes aptly named the Man of Tomorrow.  He represents what the artists believe is best in humanity and what will allow us to flourish in an uncertain, often dangerous world defined by technological innovation.  It’s an important symbol, what with humankind evolving into a hybrid race with the digital world, eerily close to the predictions of such novelists as William Gibson.   It makes sense that Lex Luthor, the evil, ambitious businessman, is the most popular villain in Superman’s canon.  He represents innovation, spurred by capitalism, gone amuck.  Lex is the cynic.  Superman is the optimist.

Does Zack Snyder understand Superman?  Can he rightfully interpret the character, as Christopher Nolan promised, in a modern context?  We won’t know until the film plays in 2012.  There’s a lot on Snyder’s shoulders now.  He could either inspire a generation, or drag it further into the muck.  With the future coming faster than ever, we can’t afford the latter.

National Treasure

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: A heedless, fun, and solid piece of summer entertainment in the best Hollywood tradition.

Review:  Cinema, like any other creative endeavor, slides on a scale between pretentious and pretense-less.  ‘National Treasure’, a deliriously patriotic and good-humored entertainment, somehow falls on the pretense-less end without sacrificing its ambitious quasi-historical narrative.  Disney assembled an excellent cast, with Nicholas Cage, Diane Kruger, Jon Voight, Sean Bean, Harvey Keitel, and Christopher Plummer, and they all seemed to have a blast hamming it up in this traditionalist matinée adventure.  Disney’s major collaborations with producer Jerry Bruckheimer have been mostly quality throwback stories with nostalgic sensibilities.  ‘National Treasure’ is not innovative, but it’s done well, as it hits all the popcorn flick story beats with heedless abandon.  In this sense, it is without pretense, knowing exactly where it stands.  On the other hand, central to the plot is a rather loose but very positive interpretation of American history that bubbles up into brief soliloquies.  Despite A-list talent, such diversions could have easily crippled its decent B-movie plot, but because of the story’s philosophical nature, it works.

The best thing about ‘National Treasure’ is that it actually has a good central theme, that is, all history is family history.  This is best illustrated in the excellent prologue when young Benjamin Gates sneaks into his grandfather’s attic in search of secrets.  Grandpa (Christopher Plummer) finds him there and rewards his quest for knowledge by summing up the film’s McGuffin, setting up the narrative desire succinctly in the first few minutes.  Above all, we learn that Ben’s lifelong desire to find the titular treasure comes from his love for his family.  His knowledge of American history is merely that love extended.  Also, by starting out with young Ben, we get a sense of time’s fluidity and how entangled past and present become over the film’s course.  Extrapolating, the moral of the story is clear: History is integral to our identity, and such entanglement, as is the protagonist’s desire, should be ours as well.

As I am fond of maintaining, sound is half the picture, and composer Trevor Rabin (formerly of progressive rock outfit Yes) really sold the film.  The score reinforces the scenario’s grand implications, deftly mixing epic brass with electronic and rock elements, a genre-bending feat indicative of Rabin’s roots.  The themes of depth of history, love of family, and acceleration toward a technology-laden future all find a musical spouse in Rabin’s work.

One last note before I close: The awkward finale, which features not one, but two fake-out endings, actually has a thematic purpose, though subtle.  The Freemasons, integral to the historical background, had only three levels or degrees in the period in which the titular treasure was supposedly hidden.  Therefore, the three treasure rooms, and their corresponding character reactions, correlate to each degree.  What seems excessive makes sense, with a little perspective.

Classic Review: Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★1/2

Summary:  Stanley Kubrick brilliantly uses provocative social-satire to show the world the Cold War’s insanity.

Review: I enjoyed watching ‘Dr. Strangelove’ a lot, and had I been around to appreciate some of the attitudes and paranoia of the Cold War, I probably would have enjoyed it even more.  What makes this film so entertaining is that it shows the absolute worst-case scenario, that most dreaded fear for mankind-Nuclear Holocaust — but it does so in such a wonderfully humorous way.

And so we can’t help but laugh.  We laugh at the comically insane general who orders U.S. B-52’s to bomb the Soviets and purposely start a war.  We laugh at the crazily patriotic captain of one of the planes, with his cowboy hat and goofy southern accent, who vows to do his patriotic duty come hell or high water.  We laugh as the President of the United States and the Soviet Premier, who are evidently VERY good friends, argue about what to do, and we laugh at the bumbling politicians in Washington who scramble to call the bombing off, lest they set off a Soviet super-weapon.  We laugh because the situation is so absurd.  It’s so goofy and ridiculous and hilarious throughout.

But then the ending comes, and we see a montage of nuclear explosions (for the Russian super-weapon has gone off) that seems oddly out-of-place with the rest of the film.  All of the sudden there’s a sinking feeling in our stomach, and the last feeling of this film is that of sorrow.

Why such a sad ending?  It’s because Kubrick is reminding us of something: While incredibly funny, the seemingly absurd situation in ‘Dr. Strangelove’ is not so far from possibility.  Sure, it seemed ridiculous in the film, but the threat of sudden, unexpected war, people not knowing what to do or how to stop it, and total annihilation is actually a reality.  The film’s insanity parallels that of the Cold War and really of all war.  Escalation, growing militaristic tension, and the constant hatred of the “other” can only lead to tragedy.  Had the United States and the Soviet Union persisted in this, we likely could all be dead now, much like the ending of the film.  It was only through reconciliation and reaching out on both sides that allowed for the Cold War to end, and even now there is still tension with other countries due to it.  Let’s hope we never run into an ending like ‘Dr. Strangelove’.

This film is one of Kubrick’s many cinematic masterpieces.  His strong sense of storytelling shines through brilliantly here, and his message is as powerful as any he has given.  Few people could have mixed something so funny with something so meaningful, and few movies are stronger for it.

Cult Classic: Army Of Darkness

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary: A strangely exciting epic and a fitting end to the ‘Evil Dead’ series.

Review:  The ‘Evil Dead’ trilogy’s progression is certainly peculiar.  1981’s ‘Evil Dead’ was a low-budget horror film set in a cabin-in-the-woods; ‘Evil Dead II’ in 1987 was an outrageous action-horror-comedy in the same scenario.  And then came ‘Army of Darkness’ AKA ‘Evil Dead III: The Medieval Dead’ in 1993, a horror action comedy epic with slapstick elements set in medieval England.  How we got from point A to point B is still a mystery to me.

Well, not really I guess.  After all, at the end of ‘Evil Dead II’, Ash (Bruce Campbell) does get transported back to the middle ages, so I guess it makes sense.  I guess… Anyways, he sets out to return to his own time, along the way defending a castle and its people.  They’re terrorized by the same evil he has combated in the first two films, the dark forces of the Book of the Dead.

The highlight is an epic battle at the end against the Army of Darkness (a vicious horde of the living dead) that, believe it or not, is somewhat reminiscent of the Battle of Helm’s Deep from J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’.  It makes good use of stop-motion effects in the vein of Ray Harryhausen, the man behind the effects in ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ and the original ‘Mighty Joe Young’.  Though these effects feel dated, they none-the-less have a certain charm.  This movie is overall much more action oriented than its predecessors, and yes, Ash’s chainsaw and shotgun are back for more fun as well, though this time around it’s not nearly as gory.

I really love the way that Ash handles himself in this film.  He cracks so many one-liners, whether it’s to the “primitive screwheads” he’s protecting or the armies of the dead, he just can’t seem to resist a dry witticism.  It’s made the film wonderfully quotable.  The comedy in general is upped from ‘Evil Dead II’, and it’s certainly entertaining, with nods to the Three Stooges and funny illusions to other films.  Unfortunately it’s had its effect on the films ‘horror’ aspect, and so it really doesn’t feel scary at all.  Like ‘Evil Dead II’, though, it’s so fun that you really don’t worry too much.
‘Army of Darkness’ is one of those once-in-a-lifetime movies. Its blend of genres may seem unorthodox, but it certainly feels fresh.  To use a time-worn cliché, it’s a rollercoaster ride of a film that goes up and down and in crazy directions that leaves you strangely satisfied at the end.  Like its prequel, there’s only one word that can sum this film up: Groovy.