Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Roger Ebert: My Role Model As A Critic



There are times in life when you hear about the death of a celebrity and you feel sad.  Then there are a few times in life when the death of a celebrity brings you a lot of heartache.  More than sadness, this loss truly affects your life.

Many people who have heard about the death of Roger Ebert feel sad.  To those who read his articles and turned to him for film recommendations, his loss means so much more.  It is the end of our trusted friend who we would turn to for advice.  We may not always agree with him, but we appreciated his rationale as to why he liked or disliked movies.

I remember the day I heard that Gene Siskel had died.  I felt sad.  I felt that Siskel & Ebert had ended.  No more discussion of films receiving “Two Thumbs Up” or “Two Thumbs Down.”  I felt like this was an end of an era.  In a way, it was.  The majority of society would hear that a film received “Two Thumbs Up” from Siskel & Ebert to show that both critics liked the film.  Could we really take as much pleasure in “Ebert and random guest?”  Not as much.

I could have viewed Ebert as the surviving member of a marriage, but with only Ebert remaining, he became MY critic.  Roger Ebert became the person who I would turn to for film recommendations.  I didn’t just see if he gave the film, “Thumbs Up.”  I would read the articles.  Film after film, I wanted to know what he thought about them.  I wanted to know his views.  Even if he disagreed with me on a film, I wanted to know why.  I wanted to hear his justification for a negative review and understand what he saw or didn’t see in a film.

Not only would I read his reviews for more than 13 years, but I even bookmarked his website on my phone so I could turn to it to read his opinion of different films.  Roger Ebert did not just have recent reviews, but he actually had years of previous reviews available for viewers to read free of charge.

If there is one reason why I think that people should have turned to Roger Ebert to see what he thought of films… it is because he was a great guide to finding great films.  Some critics are too tough on movies and give the majority of them negative reviews.  Some critics are too generous with movies and give too many of them a perfect score of 4 stars.  Roger Ebert was fair.  He was neither too tough nor too generous.  He knew that if he gave a film 4 stars, it would bring a lot of positive buzz to that film.  He was not going to do that unless if he felt that it was truly special.

If there is a second reason why his film reviews were worth reading… they were well written and entertaining.  Sometimes it is easy to like or love something, but hard to describe it with such passion.  Roger Ebert is the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize.  Almost 40 years later, I am so grateful that he received that honor early in his life instead of having to wait years for such recognition.

Most people do not know this… Roger Ebert was unable to speak or even eat food for years.  He had battled cancer for years.  I remember that he had battled cancer, but then I found out a few years later that he had been completely unable to speak.  I was reading his reviews for years without realizing what he had truly gone through.  He could no longer talk.  He would have to be fed through a tube.  In such a difficult physical state, it would be completely understandable if he had retired.

He did not.

Roger Ebert continued to write film reviews.  He continued to work full time.  Unable to speak, he still had his eyes to see movies, his ears to hear the dialogue, and his hands to write the reviews.  Cancer may eventually take his life, but it was not going to stop him from writing reviews.  He could continue to do this while many daily readers, myself included, had no idea that he was mute.

After a few years of him being unable to speak I learned of his struggles.  I appreciated what he was doing even more.

The world has lost the most famous film critic.  For me, I lost my favorite one.  I hope right now Roger is up in Heaven watching some new movies with Gene Siskel.  Roger is able to eat the popcorn and able to have a friendly verbal banter with Gene over their opinions of each film.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Divided Movies

I remember hearing that Quentin Tarantino was going to make a film called Kill Bill.  Then I remember the day I heard that he decided to divide the movie into two movies.  I did not like that the film was going to be divided.  In hindsight, it was a good decision because the film would have been over 4 hours in length otherwise.  I do not feel that there would have been enough scenes that should have been cut from the films to combine them into one film and keep the length under three hours.

In the years since Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2, there have been several other films that have been divided into two films.  After making six successful Harry Potter films, the final book was divided into two movies.  This meant that seven books were turned into eight movies.  The final book in the Twilight series has been turned into two movies as well.  Therefore, four Twilight books have been turned into five movies.

When Peter Jackson decided to turn the Lord of the Rings trilogy into movies, he made one movie for each of the books.  Now he has decided to take The Hobbit and turn it into movies.  Yes, I said movies.  More than one.  Did he decide to divide The Hobbit into two movies like the final books in the Harry Potter or Twilight series?  No.  He has decided to take one book and turn it into three movies.

When I looked up The Hobbit on Amazon.com, I am seeing a hardcover book with 319 pages.  The first Hobbit movie is 2 hours and 49 minutes.  I do not expect either of the sequels to be shorter in length.

When Mel Brooks made the movie Spaceballs, he joked within the movie that the sequel would be called, “Spaceballs: The Search For More Money.”  This leads me to an important question.  Are some of these books turned into multiple movies for the sake of making more money or do the filmmakers feel that the books have so many details that the movies must be made into two (or even three) movies?

Had Peter Jackson taken The Hobbit and turned it into two movies, I would probably give him a pass on this one.  He is a very talented director.  I feel that he did an amazing job making the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  But I truly feel that taking a 319 page book and turning it into three movies feels like overkill to me.  I saw all three Lord of the Rings movies in the theater.  I have decided to wait until The Hobbit movies are on DVD before I rent them.  I truly do want to see these films, but I do not want to spend possibly over nine hours in the theater to see them.

Was it truly worth taking one book and turning it into three movies?  I do not know yet.  On the financial side, that will depend on how much money the three movies make.  If the decision to make three movies (instead of two) allows the filmmakers an additional $100 million, I have no financial argument against filmmakers making a living.  I will never argue that filmmakers should give up financial gain for the sake of pleasing me.

My final argument will be based on whether or not making three films was necessary for the telling of The Hobbit.  Putting money aside, my question will be simple.  Will the audience believe that The Hobbit is worth turning into three movies at a length of over nine hours or should it have been limited to two movies with a length of six hours?  It is up to the audience to decide, whether in the theater or from their homes while watching the movies on DVD.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

NBA Musical Chairs

This article is dedicated to Jonathan Abebe, who absolutely loves the L.A. Lakers.

The NBA has free agency.  The MLB, NFL, and NHL also have free agency, but none of these sports has had such an active free agency period as the NBA has in 2012.  It used to be a league in which the addition of one player could turn a team into an instant contender for the NBA title.  Now we have teams in which several of the best players in the league would sign with one team.  This would create several super teams and many teams depleted of their star players.  This is not only due to pure free agency, but due to players demanding to be traded before they become free agents.  If a team is about to lose its captain, it would be better for that team to get something in compensation for the loss of the player.

Whether you love him or hate him, this is Lebron James’ NBA.  Two years ago, Lebron James and Chris Bosh decided to join Dwayne Wade with the Miami Heat to form a super team.  Lebron James announced his decision to sign with the Miami Heat on an ESPN special called The Decision.  By leaving the Cavaliers in such a public way, it was extra painful to the fans of his former team.  This would have probably been less painful had he informed the team a few weeks earlier.  That way, the audience would have just learned which “new” team he would sign with.  Cleveland Cavalier fans were watching The Decision while hoping that he would resign with their team.  Giving his fans hope only made it worse when they learned he would be leaving their team.

In the two years since Lebron James left the Cavaliers for the Heat, his new team went to the NBA Finals twice.  They lost the championship in the first year and won it in the second year.  As much as people may be upset with Lebron James for leaving the Cavaliers, his decision to create a super team with three great players actually did pay off for him.  As vilified as he has been over the last two years, he has an NBA Championship.

The Miami Heat, with three star players, will probably be even better in the upcoming year.  They signed a fourth star… Boston Celtics’ Ray Allen.

This year, one of the most high-profile free agents decided to go for the best contract available instead choosing one of the best teams to win a championship.  New York Knicks’ fans fell in love with Jeremy Lin.  He signed with the Houston Rockets because they offered him the most money.  I think that he was hoping that the Knicks would match the Rockets’ offer (Lin was not an unrestricted free agent), but the Knicks decided to let him leave the team.  Jeremy Lin will earn over $25 million in the next three years, so even if he does not have the same success that he had in his breakout 2012 season, he will be financially set for life.

The biggest winning team in the 2012 NBA musical chairs has to be the L.A. Lakers.  They landed two of the best players of the last decade.  Through trades, they landed Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.  The addition of these two amazing players will make the L.A. Lakers one of the top contenders for an NBA Championship in 2013.   While neither the Magic nor the Suns wanted to lose their star players, these players were given up for compensation instead of their teams losing them to pure free agency.  Dwight Howard had been seeking a trade and would have left the Orlando Magic as a pure free agent if he was not traded to a team that he would view as a contender.  The Magic did receive compensation for him, but had they forced him to play for their team in this upcoming year, they would have received no compensation next year since he would become an unrestricted free agent.

The case of Steve Nash leaving the Phoenix Suns was one of the more positive bright spots that I have seen in recent years.  Steve Nash was an unrestricted free agent.  He could have just signed with the Lakers and the Suns would have received no compensation.  But he did not want to leave his former team on bad terms.  He planned a sign/trade deal in which he would resign with the team and then be immediately traded to the Lakers.  This way, the Lakers got Steve Nash, the Steve was able to switch teams to a contender, and no bridges were burned with the Phoenix Suns.

I think that the Suns fans will forgive Steve Nash because he did not leave his team without compensation.  His number will probably be retired by the Suns.  But when a typical player switches teams, it will be harder for him to look at a team as his home.  Dwight Howard spent eight seasons with the Orlando Magic, but won’t be remembered by their fans fondly since he demanded to be traded by the team.  If he does not have a great career with the Lakers, he may not get his number retired by the team.  That brings up one additional player…  Shaquille O’Neal.  Just like Dwight Howard, Shaq left the Orlando Magic for the Lakers.  After winning three championships, he played for several different teams.  He also won a championship with the Miami Heat.  He is having his #34 retired by the Lakers.  If Dwight Howard wants to be remembered as a Laker, he will have to have true success as a Laker.  That may mean that he would have to win multiple championships.

With the way things are going in the NBA, it may be possible for Dwight Howard on the Lakers to win many championships as well as for Lebron James on the Heat.  But for teams that have just lost their star players, is it even worth watching the team when you know it will be significantly worse in the upcoming season?  Does anyone thing that the Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics, or Phoenix Suns will have a chance of winning a championship next year?  I would hope that the fans could be hopeful.  Maybe one of those teams may have the next Jeremy Lin on the roster and the team will be even better than the previous year.  But the next Jeremy Lin may leave his team as well when he becomes a free agent.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Girl Who Didn’t Go Wild


There is a difference between doing something outrageous on camera and having something done to you.  People seem to sue big companies over many things that they did themselves.  Ten years ago, I remember a guy who was 57 years-old at the time who sued fast food restaurants for making him fat.  His name is Caesar Barber.  Instead of embracing his decision to go after the fast food industry, people laughed at him and his lawsuit never went to court.  People tend to not believe that a 57 year-old doesn’t know that eating fast food every day is not healthy.

The case I am about to talk about really did have a victim who was right to sue the company that violated her rights.

I have never seen a Girls Gone Wild video, but over the years I would see commercials for the franchise on television.  The premise is simple.  Some girls at parties get wild and decide to expose their breasts in public when cameras are around.  They know that by flashing in public (especially when cameras are in sight), that someone will see what they did.  Joe Francis, the businessman who created Girls Gone Wild, decided to take these wild and crazy videos and make them available for the public to purchase.  The lesson… if you are a college student on a wild trip to Cancun and you decide to flash your breasts when cameras are around, you better realize that someone in the future may be paying to see that footage.

Tamara Favazza was in one of those videos.  She did not flash the camera.  Instead, someone else lifted her tank top.  The footage was used in a Girls Gone Wild video.  She found out about it later.

Recently, Tamara won a $5.77 Million judgment against the makers of Girls Gone Wild.  She deserved to win because she did not choose to expose herself.  Therefore, it was not her choice to have her breasts shown in public.

When people do something stupid in public that is caught on camera, the people who were filmed may regret their actions.  At the same time, those people would not have legal recourse to sue over actions that they chose to make.  Tamara Favazza did not choose to expose her breasts.  She was not a Girl who had “Gone Wild.”  She was a victim.  That is why her lawsuit was justified and I’m glad that she won in court.

The makers of Girls Gone Wild should have looked at the footage and asked themselves if any of the women in the videos were unwilling participants in their exposure.  After seeing the footage of Tamara, they should have deleted it because she did not choose to be exposed.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

John Carter: $200 Million Film Without A Star


You may not have seen the film John Carter, but you probably heard about it.  This $200 Million box-office bomb has had led to Disney Studio Chief Rich Ross’ decision to resign from the company.  When a film loses money (in this case, a lot of money) people want to know what went wrong.  Was it a bad movie?  Was it poorly advertised?  Was it a great movie that audiences were just not interested in seeing?

You don’t have to see the movie to understand what went wrong.  The film has a 51% approval rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website, so slightly more than half of the critics liked the movie.  That does not signify whether the movie will be successful or not.  So the critics and word-of-mouth did not make John Carter bomb.  I’ll explain the biggest mistakes that occurred.

Think fast… Who is the star of the film?

John Carter is played by Taylor Kitsch.  I did not know the answer by watching the trailer because I did not recognize him.  He’s a no-name star.  I’m not just saying that because I didn’t know who he is.  If you look at the films that he has made prior to this one, he has very few film credits.  Disney invested $200 Million to make a movie, and did not spend $20 Million on an actor who audiences would be familiar with… like Will Smith or Russell Crowe.  If a studio wants to make a sci-fi action movie, Will Smith would have been the perfect choice.  He’s Mr. Fourth of July.  No actor in the last 20 years has been more successful in sci-fi films than Will Smith.  To spend $200 Million to make a movie and not to put a known star in the picture is a huge mistake.  We’ll never know if Will Smith could have made this movie profitable, but if he was the star (and if it came out on July 4th), the movie would have made a lot more money than it did without a star.

But… Avatar had an unknown star?  Didn’t it?

The main actor in Avatar was Sam Worthington, but he wasn’t the star of the film.  The actual star was the director, James Cameron.  Avatar was James Cameron’s first feature film since Titanic (the highest grossing film of all time).  People know the effort and planning that goes into films by James Cameron.  He waited 12 years to make another feature film, and that film earned more money than Titanic did.  There are very few directors who call sell a film based on his or her name.  James Cameron is one of them.

The director of John Carter is Andrew Stanton, who won two Academy Awards for Disney animated films.  Sure he won two Oscars, but people don’t watch films based on his name.  While Andrew Stanton won Oscars, he has been known as an animation director, not an action director.  Disney has been known to be successful mainly through the production of animated films, not action movies.

But didn’t Disney prove that it could be successful in making action movies with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise?

The star of Pirates of the Caribbean was Johnny Depp, who was even nominated for an Oscar for his role in the first film in the franchise.

Disney and other studios need to learn that when they invest $200 Million to make a movie, they should have a well-known star or a very well known director.  Had they hired a random, unknown actor as the lead in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, it may have not been successful.  Small films can be successful based on the reviews.  People usually see big-budget action films because they want to see something fun and exciting.  They also want to see one of their favorite actors or actresses when they go to the theater to see that fun and exciting film.  To spend so much money on the production of a film, and to make the film without either an unknown actor or very well-known director is a bad decision that cost Disney a lot of money.
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