Wednesday, April 24, 2013

KMSU Spring Pledge Drive

89.7 KMSU FM "The Maverick" is currently holding its spring pledge drive. If you listen to Sounds of Cinema from this station, please consider making a financial contribution. You can make a pledge by calling 507-389-5678 or 1-800-456-7810. You can also make a pledge online at the the station's website.

If you listen to KMSU and enjoy its content, please help to ensure that the station stays on the air. In stressful and uncertain economic times we all have to take extra care in how we spend our money. But it is also important to remember that we demonstrate what we value by where and how we spend our money. Consider the impact that KMSU's program has on the community. Many of the programs, especially those that are locally produced, provide a very important service to the listenership and to the Mankato area as a whole.

It's also important to remember that pledges are not just about money. Space and funding are at a premium across higher education and in these times of strained budgets college radio stations have been sold to generate short term cash. When you make a pledge to KMSU you demonstrate that the station is valued by the community and that helps justify its continued existence.

On Sunday, April 28th, those listening to Sounds of Cinema from KMSU will hear a special pledge drive episode. Those listening from 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona will hear the regularly schedule program.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

'Die Hard' Replay

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema was a replay of the Die Hard retrospective originally broadcast in February. You can find additional commentary on the Die Hard series here.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Why Roger Ebert Matters

Film critic Roger Ebert died on April 4, 2013 at age 70. He was the most visible, prolific, and influential film critic of the last thirty years and his work shaped the way the public thought about movies and the way aspiring critics wrote about film. A writer for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 up until his passing, Ebert was also the author of numerous books, contributed commentary tracks to DVDs of classic films like Citizen Kane and Casablanca, and maintained a very popular blog.

Ebert rose to national prominence through the television show Sneak Previews which began airing on public television in 1975. In 1982 the show moved to commercial syndication and was retitled At the Movies. The weekly program was co-hosted by fellow Chicago film critic Gene Siskel and the two men brought serious but fun discussion of the movies into the living rooms of millions and in the process coined the now iconic phrase "two thumbs up." After Siskel’s death in 1999 Ebert continued to host the show with Richard Roeper until the program ended in 2010.

Ebert’s combined impact across a variety of mediums was tremendous but the ultimate value of his life’s work was the way it encouraged listeners and readers to think about the movies. The Hollywood marketing machine would prefer if audiences don’t think and just obediently consume whatever product they thrust upon us. What film critics do, and Ebert was a leader in this regard, is to incite consciousness on the part of the viewer.

The attempt by critics to make viewers think about cinema is mostly carried out through the weekly grind of evaluating new releases. But Ebert went further. He and Gene Siskel used their television program to highlight trends in motion pictures that they found abominable, namely the slasher films of the 1980s and Hollywood’s attempts to market violence and warfare to children. They also highlighted filmmakers that they deemed important and dedicated entire episodes to discussing the work of directors like Stanley Kubrick and Quentin Tarantino. Ebert also took on the film industry itself, criticizing the MPAA’s rating system and critiquing the distribution strategies of Hollywood studios and national theater chains that virtually quarantined independent and art house cinema from most mainstream movie houses. And Ebert offered advice and criticism for his colleagues, writing rules of ethics for movie critics and questioning the usefulness of top ten lists.

One of Roger Ebert’s lesser known accomplishments was his efforts on behalf of independent and minority filmmakers. When Spike Lee’s feature Do the Right Thing was accused of potentially inciting racial violence, Ebert was one of the film’s most vocal defenders. He also was a staunch advocate of the documentary Hoop Dreams and took the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science to task for failing to recognize it with an Oscar nomination. In the opinion of film critic Wesley Morris, “No major critic did more for black movies than he did.”

Ebert also provided a platform for independent filmmakers. Some of this occurred through his reviews in which he encouraged viewers and readers to go beyond the offerings at the local multiplex. But Ebert took the initiative and began a yearly film festival now known as Ebertfest, which provided a venue for audiences to screen cinematic gems of past and present that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to view.

Ebert was among the most successful film critics for a variety of reasons. First, he was a very good writer with a biting wit and a snappy prose style. Readers often delighted in his negative reviews, which could be very droll, but he was also very elegant about movies worthy of praise. Later in his life, Ebert proved to be equally graceful while writing about other topics from politics to his own health challenges, and in 2011 he published a memoir, Life Itself.

Ebert was also successful because he never condescended to the audience. Sometimes critics get too cerebral or their judgments take on a false pretension. Ebert would have none of this and he liked to quote film critic Robert Warshow:  “A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.” In other words, Ebert wrote about how he thought and felt about the cinema he watched and he did not contrive excuses for so-called low-brow movies that he enjoyed nor did he apologize for beloved movies that he did not like.

In addition to making him accessible, this approach also made him authentic. Readers never felt as though they were being strung along and Ebert was honest about his own reactions while also making allowances for other people’s tastes and accounting for the purpose of the movie. If he felt that a film was suitable for its intended audience, such as the fan base of a genre, he acknowledged that and reviewed the film relative to equivalent movies.

But maybe the most important reason why Roger Ebert was so respected and so influential was that he loved the movies and it showed in his work. Because he loved cinema and cared about it he demanded greatness. That enthusiasm was recognized by those who read his work and received his criticism.

Perhaps one of the most impressive testaments to Roger Ebert’s legacy occurred in the hours following the public announcement of his death. Tributes and eulogies popped up all over the web and news programs of all sorts set aside time to discuss his impact on the culture. Among those paying public tribute to Ebert were many great and varied directors including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Michael Moore, Spike Lee, Kevin Smith, and Wes Craven. It is difficult to imagine any filmmaker, much less a film critic, receiving accolades from such a wide spectrum of directors.

In reflecting on Roger Ebert’s career I realize that I owe him quite a bit. Some of this is professional. As a writer I have a great deal of respect for his body of work and I looked to Ebert as a role model for what critics can and should do for their audiences.

But what I owe to Roger Ebert is also personal. Movies were always important to me. I think that for a certain segment of the population movies are one of the primary ways in which we learn about the world, both literally through documentaries and historical dramas, but also figuratively through stories and the unique aspects of cinematic art. I learned much of what I understand of politics and power through Planet of the Apes, about heroism from Star Wars, of the destructive power of greed from Scarface, about the dark side of the human heart in Apocalypse Now, of social and community responsibility in Jaws, and of the heartbreak of mortality and the redemptive power of art in The Fountain. Of course movies aren’t everything but they are something and for me they were as much a part of my understanding of reality as any other major influence in my life.

What Roger Ebert did was introduce me to the possibilities of thinking about the movies in a meaningful way. Because when I started to think about films in terms of their form and their meaning I suddenly had the basic tools to start thinking about how I thought about reality itself.  For those of us who go through life largely understanding the world through the cinema—and with the proliferation of television and online videos that is nearly everyone in the developed world—this is a critical skill. As Ebert once said, “Film criticism is important because films are important.”

Many of the tributes to Roger Ebert have declared his passing the end of an era. In one sense that may be true, as film criticism has moved from newspapers like Ebert’s own Chicago Sun-Times and onto the web. But the era of film criticism to follow will owe a great deal to the legacy of Roger Ebert. The many online video review programs, whether they are hosted by professional critics or enthusiastic fans, are a direct descendent of Siskel and Ebert’s syndicated banter and the way in which films are reviewed in text and in spoken word will certainly aspire to the wit and insight that Ebert so exemplified.

The balcony may be closed but Ebert’s thumbprint will remain for years to come.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Dueling Chainsaws

Evil Dead is the newest remake of a horror classic from the 1980s. The original film, directed by Sam Raimi, was a particularly nasty piece of work. The story concerns a group of young adults who gather in an isolated cabin for a weekend getaway and are attacked by demonic forces. The 1983 picture was renowned for its intensity and gore and the film features a lot of mutilation and bloodletting. But despite the violence, The Evil Dead is also a lot of fun; the moviemakers possessed a sense of humor and their film has a mischievous way about it.

The new version, directed by Fede Alvarez, is not exactly a carbon copy of the original film but it retains the tone and basic premise of Raimi’s picture. A new slate of characters face the same situation in an equivalent setting and (occasionally familiar) carnage ensues. The 2013 version retains the gore and recalls many of The Evil Dead’s signature visuals while expanding the narrative and using modern technology (via a considerably bigger budget) to update the presentation to suit the expectations of a contemporary audience.

As with many remakes, Evil Dead was met with skepticism and downright hostility from its fan base. This is understandable. The horror audience has seen many of their most beloved titles abused in half-assed productions like 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 2006’s The Omen, 2008’s Prom Night, and 2010’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Part of the problem is that many of these films were snared by one of two traps: either the filmmakers deferred to the original picture and created a movie with all the artistic merit of a paint-by-numbers worksheet (see: Psycho) or they strayed too far and lost the essence of what made the original film special (see: The Haunting).

In his review of the new version, David Edelstein dismissed the remake as a mere cash grab. He writes:
“The magic of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead had everything to do with its time, place, and resources. It was the ne plus ultra of the late-seventies/early-eighties splatter films — only handmade, kicky, exuberant where others of its ilk were plodding. Its technique wasn’t secondary — it was the whole shebang. . . . But the passing of the torch from Raimi to Alvarez is not a momentous occasion. In the end, who really cares? Five years from now, will you want to watch this bloody $14 million extravaganza or Raimi’s shoestring original, which was Amateur Hour elevated to pop art? Evil Dead just bleeds money.”
Edelstein’s review provoked a response from Matt Singer at Indiewire, who argues that the new version is superior to the original film:
Alvarez's "Evil Dead" certainly doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it does put a fresh pair of stylish (and quickly blood-soaked) rims on this old jalopy. On a technical level, it's light-years beyond Raimi's version . . . The original "Evil Dead" billed itself as "the ultimate experience in grueling terror," a title the new "Evil Dead" more than lives up to. By the end of the film, you've watched people carve up their own faces, shoot each other at point blank range with nail guns, and saw off their limbs (that's right, guys: limbs plural). It's the ultimate experience in feeling like a wrung-out sponge. If you want an "Evil Dead" movie to scare you, gross you out, and deeply unsettle you, I think you'll be satisfied by Alvarez's version.
These two reactions outline the perils of critiquing remakes. Edelstein is concerned with authenticity and original films are usually deemed to be more “authentic” than remakes. Raimi and company were the originators of The Evil Dead and so their film is deemed to be more authentic, and it is assumed that authenticity makes it inherently superior. This also partly explains why, as Singer points out in his article, Evil Dead II from 1987 is not considered with such hostility. The sequel—which is for all intents and purposes a remake—is often regarded as superior to the 1983 film and is a source of admiration instead of resentment. But the sequel was made by most of the same people who created the original and so it is regarded as an “authentic” remake. This would also explain why the promotional materials for the 2013 film took pains to inform the public that the new version was “from the producers of the horror classic.”

There is a charm about low budget and independent moviemaking that glossy Hollywood productions cannot replicate. This is especially true when the story of the production becomes as familiar as the movie itself. Knowing how much time and effort was spent making a film can impact the way we see it and the stories shared on commentary tracks, interviews, documentaries, and convention appearances become fused with the picture. Unfortunately, that does not necessarily make for good film criticism. A lot of people work really hard on every movie, including every horrible piece of shit you’ve ever seen. (I’m sure a lot of people worked really hard on The Host.) Knowing the behind-the- scenes story can elicit admiration or sympathy but it isn’t the job of film critics to show mercy. As critic Sam Adams recently tweeted, “It's not that critics don't know how hard it is to make movies. It's that we have a responsibility not to care.”

Singer’s defense of the new Evil Dead is problematic because it ignores the role of authorship. If a writer transcribed The Great Gatsby word-for-word and then claimed it was his or her own take on the story most readers and literary critics would cry bullshit and rightfully so. That isn’t exactly what Alvarez has done with Evil Dead but it is close. One of the reasons why The Evil Dead stuck out in 1983 was its novelty. There was nothing else like it in the horror film marketplace at that time. That isn’t the case in 2013. Everything about the remake is about replicating the original film and creating a new version of it. Rather than challenging the audience or the medium, the remake of The Evil Dead is intended to recreate, mass produce, and commoditize the original picture. In other words, The Evil Dead 1983 is a piece of art but Evil Dead 2013 is an industrial product.

There is an argument to make that is that none of this really matters or at least does not matter as much as some fans and critics would have us believe. Artists rip off or retell their stories and the stories of others all the time. Books like Beau Geste, Dracula, and The Wizard of Oz were adapted into films multiple times and popular songs like “Yesterday” are constantly rerecorded by new artists. The relationship between the original version and the new version (especially when they are in the same medium) may be a relevant part of our evaluation (we don’t want to condone plagiarism, after all) but film criticism isn’t determined on a single-issue. If a movie—original, adaptation, or remake—is technically accomplished and is an interesting and entertaining piece of cinema—and the new Evil Dead is that—then at the very least the filmmakers have succeed in film making.  When we purchase a movie ticket and settle into our theater seats that may be all that really matters anyway.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Look Back at Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert passed away today at age 70. He was the most visible, prolific, and influential film critic of the last thirty years and his work shaped the way the public thought about movies and the way aspiring critics wrote about film. Ebert was the author of numerous books, contributed commentary tracks to DVDs of classic films like Citizen Kane and Casablanca, and maintained a very popular blog. A writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert rose to prominence with fellow Chicago film critic Gene Siskel through their syndicated television show in which the two men coined the now iconic phrase "two thumbs up."

Here are a few memorable Ebert moments:

Ebert Defends Better Luck Tomorrow
At the 2002 Sundance film festival Ebert defended Asian filmmakers against criticism over racial representation in their film Better Luck Tomorrow. This aggressive but practical and fair-minded defense was indicative of the way Ebert approached the movies.

Review of Taxi Driver
Taxi Driver was considered shockingly violent at the time of its release. Siskel did not like the movie but Ebert did. Note how he questions Siskel's judgement, arguing that his partner wasn't really evaluating the movie Martin Scorsese made but the movie he wanted the director to make. That's an important lesson for critics to remember.

"Women in Danger" Special
In the 1980s Siskel and Ebert took a stand against the slasher films that were so popular at that time and dedicated a special episode of their show to examining the trend. Whatever we might think of these films in retrospect (I happen to disagree with some of their arguments), this kind of criticism was and is important as it forces audiences to think about the value of the entertainment being thrust on them by Hollywood.

"Is Hollywood Selling War to Kids?" Special
An interesting companion to their "Women in Danger" special, Siskel and Ebert examined the way that Hollywood depicted combat in the 1980s and how films like the Rambo series glorified war while marketing tie-in products to children.

Ebert Named a Chicagoan of the Year 2011
In 2006 Ebert lost his ability to speak due to cancer treatment but he continued to write for the Sun-Times right up until his death and wrote a memoir, Life Itself, published in 2011. In the last few years of his life he used a computerized voice to communicate. Here is a video of Ebert reflecting on being named a Chicagoan of the Year in 2011.

Retrospectives on Roger Ebert's life are popping up all over the web. Here are a few worth checking out: