Sunday, April 18, 2010

2D or not 3D? That is my question.

The Internet has caused a lot of technology to be obsolete and severely cut into the profit margins of the entertainment industry.  Depending on who you ask, theatre attendance is down (blamed by the MPAA on piracy) and DVD sales are down (also blamed on piracy). Indeed, the news headlines are filled with stories about how brick & mortar video rental chains are losing large business to internet downloads and internet rental services such as NetFlix. So, this has forced the entertainment industry to rapidly evolve their business model by investing in new technologies and gimmicks in the hopes of getting asses back into movie theatres, where they can recoup the largest percentage of profits.

Hence, 3D in cinema.  With the experience that simply cannot be replicated at home with a reasonable price (the glasses alone will set you back $150+ per pair, the TV will cost over $3000), they are able to tack on an extra $3-5 on the price of a ticket, all for the promise of a more enhanced movie experience.

I call bullocks.

While 3D films have been with us for years, back with the red and green lenses, computerized technology has allowed it to be done much more effectively, now using polarized lenses which do not distort colour.  While we were only seeing a few films a year since 2005 with 3D, the phenomenon has exploded as the film industry has caught onto the profitability of 3D cinema.

I don't pretend to speak for all movie goers, and if it does enhance the experience of the film or helps realize the vision of the film maker, then by all means, yes, 3D is a great thing.  However, I wonder if the film industry's intentions are misplaced if they wish to achieve long-term profitability and success. With 3D films now coming out on almost a bi-weekly basis (at least fifteen films released in 2009, at least 20 films in 2010), studios are also taking 2D films and converting them into 3D.

When films are shot specifically with the technology in mind, the results are breathtaking.  Avatar (2009) is probably the most notable, shot with cameras specifically designed to achieve the types of shots that James Cameron wanted.  With the sheer amount of detail packed into each frame, it goes beyond eye candy and starts venturing into eye crack.  But otherwise, once you get immersed in the storyline, you actually start to forget that you're watching a 3D film to begin with.

This was the case with Up (2009), which pretty much has you fall in love with all of the characters, and does have all the beautiful visuals that one would expect to find in a Pixar film.  It's all done in such a subtle manner and it doesn't have stuff jumping out of the screen to poke your eyes out (as is the case of Monsters vs. Aliens (2009), in which the opening scene is a person playing with a paddle ball, which repeatedly attacks the audience).

Filmmakers are pretty divided on the issue, with some of them actually preferring the 2D versions over the 3D versions.  This is the case with Louis Leterrier, director of Clash of the Titans, which was a remake. The film was originally shot in 2D, but was converted to 3D, pushing its release two weeks later.  Critics compared the two and felt that the 2D version was superior, as did the director.

Sadly, this has become more of a gimmick than anything else, with even more 3D films on the horizon.  Thankfully, most exhibitors are giving the option of going watching the film in 2D, scaling back the costs to a more reasonable level.  As it stands, you know it's going to excess when we can look forward to a Jackass 3D movie and Step Up 3D. 

As home technology drops in price, the interest in 3D will also start to wane, leaving theatres with the costs of maintaining their expensive 3D digital projectors and the film industry blaming this all on illegal downloads and piracy.  Howabout we start investing more dollars in developing and promoting new talent, taking risks on different and inventive film properties, and putting money into education and furthering the art form? Making movies that challenge audiences, make them think, entertain them, would probably cheaper and more profitable in the long run than just doing another remake/sequel/reboot.

Film review: Kick-Ass (2010)

Comic book superheroes are big business in the film industry today with no signs of slowing down.  With most of the major comic book heroes already adapted into films (X-Men, Spider-Man, Superman, Batman), they've ventured into the lesser-known characters, and now into the new books that aren't quite household names yet.

Enter Kick-Ass, the alter ego of a high school student Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), your average American teenager.  Years of comic book consumption have left him with a taste of the superheroics, despite the absolute lack of motivation (his parents weren't killed in a back alley), superhero training (he's just an average student with no athletic skills) or powers (no radioactive spiders, gamma ray exposure, etc.). With his internet-purchased costume and his motivation, he sets out to set the wrong things right...but boy, is he going to get his ass kicked.

To help him along the way are two actual superheroes, the vigilante Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his young sidekick Hit-Girl (Chloƫ Grace Moretz), who actually do have the training and weaponry to take down the bad guys, and are going to use it to take down the city crime boss. But as much as Dave is in over his head, he has to do the right thing, as even a lack of power does come with great responsibility.

Based on the graphic novel by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr, Kick-Ass manages to live up to its title and then some.  The source material plays out like a Hong Kong action flick, over-the-top in just about every manner possible.  Blood, gore, violence, curse words (yes, there's an 11-year old that uses the c-word), and sex.  Surprisingly, the filmmakers didn't wuss out when making this film, leaving it a much more faithful adaptation than Mark Millar's last graphic novel, Wanted. Indeed, director Matthew Vaughn had to finance this film independently, given the very objectionable things that his pre-teen actress was doing during the film.

In terms of the storyline, the filmmakers do make some creative decisions in order for this film to work and to satisfy some of the expectations of the moviegoing audience (ie: those that don't read comic books).  Overall, the film does follow the comic book faithfully, made simpler by the fact that the original comic book story is only 8 issues long, unlike other comic book films which need to pick and choose from 40+ years of comic book history.  The changes do benefit the film, however. Dave Lizewski is a lot more likeable than in the comic book (he's depicted as a creepy stalker) while Big Daddy and Hit Girl's origins are more conventional (Big Daddy's origin is much more mundane in the comic book). Sex is also toned down (but not by much), as they've eliminated the nudity of the comics and kept in all the violence and curse words.

More importantly, they also ramped up the action, which is surprising, given the unlimited "visual" budget of a comic book (why spend $100K on 3 weeks of processing in the render farm when you can pay a guy a couple hundred bucks to draw a page?).  The action in the comic books is already soaked with red ink, but the film goes on to add rocket launchers and Gatling guns (I won't spoil the rest).

The humour is also largely intact, partly owing to the witty dialogue and Nicolas Cage's intentionally dead-pan performance.  The over-the-top violence also leaves the audience laughing and cheering in disbelief.  And did I mention over-the-top violence and curse words?  The original comic book wasn't not meant for kids and this movie is definitely not meant for kids.  This is an interesting dichotomy, considering that the film does pander to adolescent fantasies, much like Wanted.  Regardless, leave 'em at home for this one, folks. 

As one of the better postmodern comic book movies to come out, Kick-Ass lives up to its title and then some, and in many ways is superior to its source material without diluting the original idea.  Definitely worthy of a night out.

Film List: Best Use of Product Placement in Film Narrative

Lists?  Who doesn't love lists?  Well, apart from the fact that they are usually limited in scope, not arranged by any particular rhyme or reason, people love 'em.  Welcome to the first list on this blog.  Note that a version of this previously appeared on UGO, when they hosted Screenwriters Voice.  As that is no longer available online, I'm redoing this from memory and updating it.  Without further ado...

Love it or hate it, product placement is a vital part of movie making, especially in a world of escalating film budgets. Movies like Transformers feature extensive product placement, even making exclusive deals with General Motors for cross promotion. Some purists feel that product placement can undermine the effectiveness of a film's message, such as Total Recall, which features all the product placement typical of a summer blockbuster, yet has an anti-corporate satirical theme.

Most of the time, the brands featured are highly interchangeable.  For example, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial was originally supposed to feature M&Ms, but was changed to Reese's Pieces.  Castaway could have easily featured the main character as a UPS or Purolator employee rather than FedEx.  But, product placement is often at its most effective when it's cleverly incorporated into the film's narrative, as these are often real-world consumer goods and brands that the viewers use and associate specific meaning. The film world will also seem "real" because they're not using fictitious brands.

So, in no particular order...

10: Idiocracy(2006)
Writer/director: Mike Judge
Products/brands referenced: Starbucks, Fox, Fuddruckers, Costco, Mountain Dew, Frito-Lay, Carl's Jr., Hormel, Lexus

In Mike Judge's vision of the future, intelligence has been out-bred by stupidity, with the smart ones having small families and the not-so-smart ones reproducing in much larger numbers. As a consequence, Lt. Joe Bauer (played by Luke Wilson), an average guy from the present day, ends up being the smartest man on the planet after being frozen for 600 years. And the planet is in chaos.  Corporations have taken over everything, down to people being named after products (the American president is Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho) and replacing the water supply with a sports drink (the fictitious Brawndo). Starbucks is now a chain of brothels and Carl`s Jr.`s slogan has become, "F*** you, I`m eating!"

While developing a cult following, Idiocracy was severely under-marketed, resulting in a box office gross of less than half a million dollars. Some critics have suggested that this was due to the negative light in which Fox (the distributor of the film) is being portrayed, as well as the anti-corporate message. Films like this are not likely to receive compensation when brands are featured in this manner.

9: Toy Story (series)
Dir: John Lassatter
Products/brands referenced: Barbie, Mr. Potato Head, Etch-A-Sketch 

As children's toys come to life when their owner is not around, so do the memories of the people who are ultimately paying to see this film.  Having successfully secured licenses from multiple toy manufacturers (many of whom are competing), the filmmakers are able to utilize the familiar characters without having to go through the effort of creating them from scratch. This also leads to a humourous moment in Toy Story 2 which makes references to the unexpected demand for merchandise from the previous film.

8: Demolition Man(1993)
Products/brands referenced: Green Giant, Taco Bell, Armour Hot Dogs, Oscar Mayer, General Motors, Alka Seltzer

In the future, the Franchise Wars have destroyed all of the restaurant chains, leaving Taco Bell as the only survivor, while attention spans have been shredded to the point that commercial jingles have become radio classics.

While not exactly an Orwellian dystopia or even that much akin to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (outside of the bizarre plumbing system, the world just seems more sterile and sanitized rather than bad), this does lightly hint to the corporate penetration into our culture when songs intended to hawk products and services are now being voluntarily consumed by the public. The characters of the future gleefully indulge as they sing along to the Armour Hot Dogs jingle in the car, prompting the time-displaced John Spartan to lament, "Just toss me back in the fridge" as Linena Huxley belts out the last few notes.

7: Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me(1999)
Products/brands referenced: Heineken beer, Starbucks, Chilli's

Blatant product placement is a fixture of summer blockbusters and usually doesn’t go unnoticed by moviegoers, already jaded by the 15 minutes of commercials preceding their film. Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me is no exception, although the filmmakers have gone all the way to incorporate them into the storyline with hilarious effect.

While the Heineken beer reference falls flat on its face, the most notable of all is where Dr. Evil shares his base of operations with Starbucks Coffee. Given Starbucks’ reputation as a corporate empire, this is all handled tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at the brand and themselves.

6: Cabin Fever(2002)
Brands referenced: Listerine

As each member of the group starts to show signs of a deadly flesh eating disease, Marcy (played by Cerina Vincent) seduces Paul (played by Rider Strong) into a sexual encounter, believing that they're all going to die.  Immediately after the encounter, Paul goes off to the bathroom and pours Listerine on his crotch in an attempt to prevent infection from either the flesh eating virus and/or whatever sexually transmitted diseases Marcy may be carrying.

Out of curiosity, I went on the film's official message board and asked the director how they were able to get permission to use Listerine in the film.  As an independent film production, product clearances aren't always done and the production crew are aware of this, and will take the risk of being sued, as it will generate more publicity for the film. In this case, Eli Roth politely asked that I didn't rat them out.

5: Pulp Fiction(1994)
Brands referenced: Burger King, McDonald's, Sprite, Jack in the Box, Wendy's

"And in Paris, you can buy a beer in McDonald's. And you know what they call a Quarter Pounder in Paris?  Naw, man. They got they metric system there. They wouldn't know what the f*** a Quarter Pounder is. They call it a 'Royale with Cheese'."  -Vincent Vega

Tarantino generally forgoes actual product placement within his films, usually going with fictitious brands such as Red Apple cigarettes and Big Kahuna Burgers. As a result, he wasn’t likely reimbursed for this reference, but this oft-quoted segment in Pulp Fiction shows what a little bit of research can do to enriching the characters and dialogue. This is a reflection of the experiences Tarantino had when spending time in Europe, which included eating French fries with mayonnaise, having a beer in a movie theatre, and enjoying a Royale with Cheese.

In some respects, the dialogue is “filler”, but it is not wasted as it enriches the characters and makes them real. Jules and Vincent aren’t particularly nice people (they are hired guns, after all), but this allows the audience to identify with them.

4: Fight Club(1999)
Products/Brands referenced: Starbucks, Peps, Microsoft, Ikea, Volkswagen, Apple Computers

Products and brands take a literal beating in this film with corporate alienation as one of the central themes.  With products and corporations contributing to the modern diluted male, the producers of Fight Club bite the hand that feeds it and then stomps on it and slams it in a car door.

Given the anti-corporate message in this film and the abuse dished out to products on screen, it's surprising that they actually paid out to the filmmakers.  There are several examples to this effect: Tyler Durden and The Narrator selectively smacking cars with baseball bats, one of which happens to be a new VW Beetle; the exploding of an Apple Computer store; and using a large landmark to destroy a coffee shop (originally intended to be Starbucks).

3: Wayne's World(1992)
Products referenced: Pizza Hut, Pepsi

Wayne's World takes the fourth wall (the imaginary wall between the characters and the audience) and drives a drives a delivery truck through it.  During one scene, Wayne and Garth are discussing creative integrity by not selling out to corporate interests.  And of course, while doing so they are eating Pizza Hut and drinking Pepsi, with their respective logos taking up a huge amount of screen space, and the duo smiling and giving thumbs-ups to the camera.

2: Minority Report (2002)
Products referenced: The Gap, Pepsi, Lexus, and others

While on the run from the law, John Anderton resorts to an eye transplant to avoid detection from retinal scanners placed all over the city.  This comes in handy when he ends up going into a clothing store (The Gap, of course) and he (or, more appropriately, the previous owner of his eyes) is immediately recognized by the store's recognition cameras, who then proceed to make recommendations based on his last purchase. At the time, this was a fairly ludicrous concept, but fast forward less than 10 years to today, and this is not that much far off.

By then, most internet-savvy individuals were already familiar with the way tracking cookies and web demographics will allow internet marketing companies to do targeted advertising towards individuals. Now, Facebook users also have advertising targeted at them based on their usage habits and what they enter in their profiles (eg: if your profile shows you as single, you will be bombarded with dating site ads). 

While computers aren't sophisticated enough to give back real-time results from facial recognition software, it's getting faster all the time, but while it's not quite ready to be used by advertising and marketing companies, that's not stopping them.  There's at least one company that manufactures and distributes content to video display terminals that are in specific public locations (shopping centres, subway stations) that can display targeted ads for individuals. Its software can make a surprisingly accurate guess as to an individual's gender, ethnicity, and age based on their appearance, while they can display specific ads just based on the time of day/month/year and the weather.

One Canadian company was able to increase the market exposure of Tim Hortons just based on the weather, showing ads for hot soups and coffee during cold weather, then showing ads for Ice Caps when it was warm outside.  Like Spielberg said, "Television watches us."

1: The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Brands and products referenced: Rubik's Cube, Marvel Comics

This film is partly responsible for the resurgence of the Rubik's Cube, thanks to a scene in which the protagonist Chris Gardner (played by Will Smith) solves one of them for an otherwise uninterested investment banker, who then offers him an internship with his company.

The film itself is biographical, although the Rubik's Cube incident was allegedly Will Smith's creative touch, having an interest in Rubik's Cubes himself (although he apparently learned how to solve the cube specifically for the film).  The puzzle is a universal icon, as most of us who grew up in the 80s remember having one, and also remembering peeling the stickers off.  As the film also takes place in the 80s, having the Rubik's Cube appear is appropriate and timely.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Product of an Underutilized Film School Grad

Despite spending the better part of a year's salary (as in, what I'm making now), I came to the unfortunate realization that film school is not a surefire ticket to employment and success. Accepting this was pretty difficult after the endless days and hours working on other people's vanity projects with absolutely nothing to show for it.  Three years in, I realized I was in a severe rut. Realizing that the film industry was not panning out to be a sustainable form of employment, I took the first job I could find (retail). I was depressed again.

Salvation came in the form of Vancouver based writers Dana Van Buskirk and Reg Seeton. At the time, they were running a website called TV Testpattern and were looking for TV and DVD reviewers. Given my severely underutilized arts degree in addition to my underutilized film school education, I wrote to them and was accepted into their ranks, first reviewing Without a Trace on a weekly basis, then whatever DVDs they needed to be reviewed.  This was often a painful process, as the vast majority of these films were all direct-to-video. Payment was in the form of DVDs, which helped reduced the cost of my movie habit.

More salvation came from Fangoria magazine, who offered me my first professional writing gig when Dana and Reg recommended me. This was Alone in the Dark, in which I realized I could get much more respect working as a film journalist than I did as a film crew member.

Upon the ending of my life as a retail sales clerk, I went back to school to sharpen my writing skills, all the while accepting the odd Fangoria gig or working as a film extra.  More on film extra work in a future post.

While my dreams of following in the footsteps of my heroes like James Cameron, John Woo, and Quentin Tarantino have not been forgotten, my ability to fund those dreams is somewhat limited.  But, without dreams, we have no goals, and with no goals, there is no drive.