Saturday, May 24, 2008

A Summer Blockbuster Movie Quiz

As regular readers of this blog probably already know, Beth of the lovely voice laid down a challenge for me at the first of the year. The challenge was simply this: I must create and post one pop culture quiz a month in A Shroud of Thoughts. The quizzes can have a single theme or simply be a collection of random things. At the end of 2008, the reader who has accumulated the most points throughout the year will win a pop culture related prize. For those of you curious about the prize, I decided that it will be a pop culture related key chain of the winner's choice, to cost no more than $5.00 (minus sales tax). The price limit is for the simple fact that I can't afford platinum plated key chains... I'll provide the answers around the end of the month.

Since this is Memorial Day weekend and Memorial Day was once the traditional beginning of the summer movie season (now I think it is more like the first weekend of May), I thought I would devote this quiz to summer movie blockbusters.

1. What summer blockbuster now regarded as a classic was released on August 25, 1939?

2. The Sea Hawk, released on July 1, 1940, starred Errol Flynn as Captain Geoffrey Thorpe. What was the name of his ship?

3. Released on June 30, 1948 in the United Kingdom and July 30, 1951 in the United States, what was the title of this David Lean adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel?

4. What classic film starring Steve McQueen, released on July 4, 1963, centred on a group of Allied prisoners of war escaping from a Nazi PoW camp?

5. Jaws, released June 20, 1975, was based on a novel by what author?

6. In Star Wars, now known as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, what actor did George Lucas consider for the role of Obi Wan Kenobi before Alec Guiness?

7. What was the original name of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark?

8. Twister helped cement what now established Hollywood tradition?

9. Before Willem Dafoe was cast as The Green Goblin, what other two actors were considered for the part in Spider-Man?

10. What three other directors had been set to direct Iron Man before Jon Favreau?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Recreating New York

It is a fact of life that cities change over time. In fact, most cities change drastically even over a few decades. This can present a problem for filmmakers trying to recreate a specific city at a particular time. This problem is perhaps even greater when it comes to New York City, which due to its sheer size tends to change more than many other cities. For that reason, when shooting period pieces filmmakers have had to come up with various means of recreating the city at a particular point in its history.

This is especially true when a film is set over one hundred years ago. Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York was set in the "Five Points" district of New York City in the early 1860's. Quite naturally, New York City has changed a lot in those 141 years, so that shooting on location would do no good. Scorsese then had to find other means of recreating Lower Manhattan circa 1863 and 1864. Having wanted to make a film about the gangs of New York in the 19th century since the Seventies, Scorsese had already done considerable research on the city during that era. His production designer Dante Ferretti would do further research, including examination of period photographs. Finally, the sets were built at Cinecitta Studios in Rome. Among these sets were recreations of Five Points, part of Lower Broadway, and part of Upper Manhattan. Even New York's harbour in the era was recreated. The water tank at Cincetta was filled and then enhanced with a bluescreen behind it for the CG background. CG (courtesy of Industrial Lights and Magic) was also used to enhance the sets. ILM ultimately created 45 CG shots, using both two dimensional and three dimensional matte paintings, in order to capture the size and scope of New York City in the 1860's. Ultimately, one can debate the over all quality of Gangs of New York and even debate its historical accuracy with regards to the portrayal of events and people in the film, but one thing that has not been debated its rather accurate recreation of New York City around 1863 and 1864.

Another film which faced the problem of recreating New York City from a specific era was Peter Jackson's 2005 remake of King Kong. The movie begins and ends in New York City in the year 1933. Filming on location in New York City itself was impractical for the simple reason that the city has changed enormously since the release of the original King Kong in 1933. Indeed, even the iconic Empire State Building has changed over the years. To this end, Jackson and his team decided to recreate several blocks of New York City from 1933 on a vacant lot in Seaview, a suburb of Wellington, New Zealand. Production designer Grant Major went so far as to recreate the finer details of photographs from the era, feeling that they had to make their version of New York believable. Ultimately, sets were build for Time Square, Herald Square, various city streets, and a low rent district. Jackson's New York City of 1933 would further be enhanced by CGI and miniatures.

The Empire State Building itself presented problems. Not only would filming atop the building be impossible, but even if it was, the building has changed a good deal since the Thirties. Today the top of the Empire State Building is filled with radio antennas and microwave stations; in 1933 it was still pristine. They then had to recreate much of the Empire State Building. Most of this was done through CGI, but sets were built of lobby, stairways, the observation deck, and the cone atop which Kong meets his fate. To do so the filmmakers went beyond visiting the actual skyscraper. They also examined a large number of photographs from the era.

Both Gangs of New York and the 2005 version of King Kong concerned themselves with realistic recreations of New York in their respective periods. This was not the case with the 2003 movie Down With Love. Set in New York City in the early Sixties, the movie is an homage to the sex comedies of the Sixties, particularly those starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day. Because of this it is not an actual recreation of New York City in 1962, but instead a recreation of New York City as presented in the sex comedies of the era. The film was then shot largely on the New York City backlot of Universal Studios. To further recreate New York City as filtered through the sex comedies of the Sixties, extensive use was made of CGI, 3-D matte paintings, and footage from the period. Since Down with Love portrayed a movie fantasy version of New York City, many of the city's landmarks were actually moved blocks away from where they are in reality. In one shot, the Chrysler Building can be seen behind and to the left of the Pan Am building. Kim Novack's apartment presents a view from which she can see the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and the Chrysler Building! While Down with Love presents a wholly unrealistic version of New York City from 1962, it does present a convincing recreation of the Big Apple as it was portrayed in the Rock Hudson and Doris Day comedies.

There can be little doubt that New York City will continue to change and evolve over the years. As a result, filmmakers wishing to make period pieces will have to find various means to recreate the city during given eras. If they have any concern for accuracy, this will mean a good deal of research. Fortunately, the development of CGI has helped filmmakers a great deal. The days when cities were unconvincingly recreated on studio backlots or, worse yet, inside studios, are long gone. Today a filmmaker can rebuild New York City as it was in 1863, 1933, or even a 1962 that never actually occurred.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The A-List of Pop Culture

In a recent article entitled "Iron Man Builds, Speed Racer Burns" published on Box Office Mojo, Brandon Gray expressed his theories as to why the movie Speed Racer failed at the box office. He thought that part of the reason that Speed Racer bombed was that it "..wasn't as culturally prominent as Scooby-Doo or The Flintstones.." He observed that "..the less popular brands of similar vintage have typically translated into box office failure..," using Thunderbirds and Josie and the Pussycats as examples. In discussing the article with me, my best friend summed it up quite simply as Scooby-Doo and The Flintstones belong to the A-list of pop culture, while Josie and the Pussycats belong to the B-List of pop culture, at best.

The term "A-List" has long been used of the most popular, most successful movie stars, those whose credit on a theatre marquee nearly always means instant box office, but I think my best friend's analogy is perfectly on the mark. Quite simply, I think we can speak of an A-List of pop culture. The A-List of pop culture would consist of those TV series, comic books, comic strips, characters, and so on whose presence in a movie title generally means success at the box office. These TV series, comic books, comic strips, characters, and so on that belong on the A-List would be those of which nearly everyone knows. Quite simply, they would be part of the collective consciousness of the English speaking world.

Examples of pop culture artefacts that would belong on the A-list are not hard to find. Comic book characters such as Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man would obviously be on the list, as would such literary characters as Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan. TV series that would belong on the list would be I Love Lucy, Gilligan's Island, and the original Star Trek. The A-List would include such cartoons as the aforementioned Scooby-Doo and The Flintstones, as well as such cartoon characters as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and so on. Unlike the A-List of movie stars, the A-List of pop culture would be a long one, as it would include every pop culture artefact that is known to nearly everyone.

Of course, the A-list of pop culture would not be static and it would tend to change over time. Some pop culture artefacts would drop off the list as their popularity declined, while others might be added. The comic strip Red Ryder might well have made the A-List of pop culture in the Forties, but now I suspect the name is familiar only to fans of the movie A Christmas Story and fans of vintage comic strips. In 1969 Scooby-Doo was probably only known to a few children at best. Nearly forty years later everyone has heard of the cartoon franchise. The A-List of pop culture will naturally change over time, as things increase or decrease in popularity.

Here I must point out that simply because a property is on the A-list of pop culture does not automatically mean that any movie based on it will become a roaring success. Superman definitely belongs on the A-list of pop culture, yet Superman III and Superman IV both bombed at the box office. For that matter, Superman Returns did not do as well as one might expect for a Superman movie. Another example of an A-List character whose film translated into failure is the Lone Ranger. Released in 1981, The Legend of the Lone Ranger died at the box office. There are a number of factors that determine a movie's success or failure at the box office, and simply being on the A-List won't automatically guarantee success the box office, especially when it comes to bad movies.

At the same time, simply because a property belongs to the B-List or even C-List of pop culture does not mean that any film based upon it will bomb. An example of this is the recent hit Iron Man. Prior to the movie Iron Man was a character that probably only comic book readers had ever heard of. He was probably unknown to the general public. That having been said, the movie had some very effective trailers and received largely glowing reviews upon its release. Although based on a B-list character, the movie Iron Man was a hit at the box office because it was a very good movie. Another example of a B-List property which was translated into a hit movie was Transformers. Prior to the film I rather suspect the only people who had heard of Transformers were men between the ages of 30 and 25 who had played with the toys and watched the cartoons as children. It seems to me that if the movie Transformers had only depended upon the cultural prominence of the toys or cartoons for its success, it would then have failed miserably at the box office. Fortunately for the film, director Michael Bay created the perfect popcorn movie for the late summer--a huge special effects film in which giant robots engage in a running battle between the Hoover Dam and Los Angles. The film clicked with audiences and as a result it was a success.

Ultimately, I think that considering whether properties belong on the A-List could actually be useful in considering the potential success of a film. In many respects, this is something we already do. From Josie and the Pussycats to Tranformers, pundits have considered whether a property has enough name recognition to make it a success as a film. To me this is simply another way of considering whether they are on the A-List.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Producer Sandy Howard R.I.P.

Sandy Howard, a producer of film and television responsible for the movie A Man Called Horse and the Seventies version of The Island of Dr. Moreau, died Friday at the age of 80.

Howard was born on August 1, 1927 and grew up in the Bronx. As a teenager he wrote short stories published in the magazine Liberty. He entered show business as a publicist for Broadway shows. At the age of 19 he became a director on the children's show Howdy Doody. He produced The Barry Gray Radio Show from 1951 to 1958. He also produced Captain Kangaroo.

In 1958 Howard entered the world of prime time television, creating the earl reality show Night Court U.S.A., in which people discussed cases before a Los Angeles judge. He wrote, directed, and produced the series. He also produced the 1959 TV drama Police Station and the 1963 comedy series Mack & Myer for Hire. His career in film began when he directed the movie Tarzan and the Trappers in 1958. He would only direct a few more films, Diary of a Bachelor (1964) and Gammera the Invincible (1966) among them.

It was in the realm of producing movies that Howard found his niche. In 1964 he produced his first film, Diary of a Bachelor. He would go onto produce such films as A Man Called Horse (as well as its sequels), Man in the Wilderness, The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977), and Circle of Iron.

I don't think anyone can deny that the quality of the films Howard produced could vary considerably. He produced some truly bad films, such as he Eighties exploitation films Angel and Hollywood Vice Squad. But he also produced a few very good films, such as A Man Called Horse, Man in the Wilderness, and the 1977 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau. Given there are producers who have never even produced one good film, I guess that can be considered an achievement in and of itself.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Mad and Playboy Cartoonist Will Elder Passes On

Will Elder, one of the early cartoonists for Mad and the creator of the long running Playboy comic strip Little Annie Fanny, passed on Wednesday at the age of 86.

Will Elder was born Wolf William Eisenberg in the Bronx on September 22, 1921. While still in grade school he took to drawing caricatures. Alongside fellow future Mad Al Jaffe and Mad founder Harvey Kurtzman, he attended the High School of Music and Art. He studied at the National Academy of Design for only one year before he was draughted to serve in World War II. Eisenwerg served in with the 668th Topographical Engineers, where he was part of the team who made maps in preparation for the invasion of Normandy.

After World War II Wolf William Eisenberg changed his last name to "Elder." He joined with Charles Stern and fellow High School of Music and Art graduate Harvey Kurtzman to form the Charles William Harvey Studio. Operating between 1948 to 1951, the Charles William Harvey Studio provided comics for Prestwood Publications (Prize Comics), Timely, and other publishers. Among the talents who passed through the doors of the studio were Dave Berg, Jules Feiffer, Rene Goscinny, and Russ Heath. It was in 1950 that Elder found himself at EC Comics, inking the art of John Severin. Among the titles the two worked up on were Two Fisted Tales, Weird Fantasy, and Frontline Combat.

When Kurtzman founded Mad at EC in 1952 as a comic book which parodied other comic books, he brought Elder in as one of its founding artists. It was Elder who created many of the early classic parodies in Mad and its sister magazine Panic (which only ran from 1954 to 1956). In fact, it was a story in Panic that brought Elder his first real bout with controversy. The story in question was a parody of "The Night Before Christmas" in which Elder used visual puns (such as animals, including mice, hanging on meat hooks for the line "Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse..."). There was so much uproar over the story that Panic found itself banned in the state of Massachusetts.

In 1956 Harvey Kurtzman and Elder left Mad, not long after it made the transition from comic book to magazine. Together the two would work on three short lived magazines. The first, Trump, was published by Hugh Hefner of Playboy fame. Unfortunately the magazine would only last two issues, although it would not be the last time Elder worked for Hefner. Later that year Elder would again work for Kurtzman on Humbug, a black and white humour magazine about the size of a comic book. It would only last eleven issues. It was in 1960 that Elder joined Harvey Kurtzman on his new magazine Help!, published by James Warren (later famous for horror magazines such as Creepy and Vampirella). The magazine proved to be Kurtzman's most successful after he had left Mad, lasting until 1960. Together for the magazine, Kurtzman and Elder created Goodman Beaver, a wide eyed, overly innocent fellow who would wander into situations of a satirical nature. One of the stories was "Goodman Beaver Goes Playboy," in which Archie and his friends from Archie Comics visit the Playboy Mansion for a night of carousing, smoking, and sex, all presided over by a devilish figure resembling Hugh Hefner. Archie Comics was not amused. They promptly sued and won.

While Archie Comics was not amused, Hugh Hefner certainly was. A fan of both Will Elder and Goodman Beaver, he hired Elder to create a similar comic strip for Playboy. Little Annie Fanny was a wide eyed innocent like Goodman Beaver, although she was extremely well endowed and subject to losing her clothing...often. The comic strip would run in the pages of Playboy from 1952 to 1988.

Elder would later work in commercial illustration. When Kurtzman briefly returned to Mad in the Eighties, Elder would return as well.

There can be no doubt that Will Elder was one of the great comic artists of the Twentieth Century, particularly when it came to humour. His style often involved hidden jokes and sight gags in the background. This would not only leave a lasting impression on Mad, but would influence filmmakers from the Zucker Brothers to Louis Malle. Elder also had an eye for detail. His art, whether from EC Comics or Playboy, was always loving and fully crafted. Elder was also a great, artistic parodist. He could easily duplicate the styles of other comic book artists. His brutal satire of Archie in the early pages of Mad (yes, he nailed Archie and the gang even before that Goodman Beaver story) perfectly caught the look and feel of an Archie comic book. Elder was truly one of the great humour artists of the 20th century.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (the Movie, not the Book)

The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis is one of those fantasy series that many of us have read as children and even as adults. And while it has been some time since I last read the series, I have always been of the opinion that Prince Caspian was the weakest entry in the series. It seems that this will not be the case with Walden Media's film adaptations of the books, as The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian is over all a better film than The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Of course, the weakness of the book are inherent in the movie. Of The Chronicles of Narnia, Prince Caspian easily has the weakest plot. In fact, it is a veritable cliche. Prince Caspian, the rightful ruler of the Telmarines, has been usurped by his evil uncle, Mriaz. Worse yet, the Telmarines long ago invaded Narnia and suppressed the Talking Beasts and other creatures to such a point that they are believed extinct. It was not particularly Lewis's most original plot, and it does not seem any more original in the film. That having been said, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian more than makes up for what is essentially a fairly weak plot.

Quite simply, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian is simultaneously a darker and funnier film than The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It has been 1300 years since the Pevenie children last visited Narnia, even though only a year had passed in their own lives on Earth. In that time Narnia has changed dramatically. Long ago the Telmarines siezed control of the land. The Talking Beasts and other creatures such as centaurs and fauns are no longer to be found. Miraz, ruling the Telmarines since his brother's death, is an oppressive tyrant who wants his nephew Caspian out of the way so he can permanently have the throne. Aslan has not been seen in so long that many Narnians think he does not exist. Narnia has changed, and not for the better.

While The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian is a darker film than The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it is also a funnier film. Much of the humour comes from the characters of Trumpkin, a somewhat cranky but good hearted dwarf, and Reepicheep, a swashbuckling mouse (lest anyone think the makers of the film were ripping off Puss in Boots from the Shrek franchise, I must point out Reepicheep appears in the book pretty much as he does in the movie). This film has a number of funny, quotable lines, much more so than the first one.

It is perhaps because The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian has more humour that it also seems to me to be a much warmer film than the first one as well. While I enjoyed The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it always seemed to me to lack any real emotional depth; it had less emotional depth than C. S. Lewis' original book. For me this made the film seem in some ways a bit distant and even cold. This is certainly not the case with The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, in which a good deal of emotional breadth is given to more than just the Pevenie children. Caspian, Trumpkin, Reepicheep, and even the villainous Miraz are very much three dimensional characters.

Of course, I must warn any Lewis purists out there that the movie does depart from the book in some respects. An entire action sequence is added to the film, as is one other scene, and others are padded out. Personally, I do not think this detracts from the story at all but has instead improved it. The action sequences are not only exciting, but look entirely realistic. And while the movie does depart a bit from Lewis's original work, it does remain loyal to its spirit.

Over all, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian is a worthy successor to The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It is also a worthy adaptation of Lewis's classic novel.