Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Phantom Menace: The Second 'Star Wars' Revolution

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace was released twenty years ago this week. It was the most anticipated film not only of 1999 but in all of Hollywood history to that point. The backlash against the film is legendary and the panning of The Phantom Menace has obfuscated how important the first Star Wars prequel was to cinema history. The following essay, originally broadcast in 2015 as part of a series of commentaries about the state of Star Wars, argues for the legacy of The Phantom Menace.

Sixteen years after completing the original Star Wars trilogy with Return of the Jedi, George Lucas returned to his galaxy far, far away with the prequel trilogy, which told the backstory of the existing films. It is an understatement to say that the Star Wars prequels, which began with 1999’s The Phantom Menace, continued with 2002’s Attack of the Clones, and finished with 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, were regarded as a disappointment by fans and critics alike. It’s also uncontroversial to say that the new crop of movies, starting with The Force Awakens, are intended to distance the series from the prequels and preserve the Star Wars brand for the future.

What may be controversial, and which I will argue here, is that the prequel trilogy—and in particular The Phantom Menace—was as significant and as influential of a cinematic event as the original Star Wars.

If nothing else, 1977’s Star Wars was a landmark movie because of the technology that was invented in the process of making it. On the level of technical craft, The Phantom Menace has some equally groundbreaking accomplishments; unfortunately those accomplishments are embodied by Jar Jar Binks. There had already been computer generated characters in movies, namely the dinosaurs of 1993’s Jurassic Park, but there is a difference between creating an animal versus a sentient being who communicates and interacts with the other human performers. The latter requires a subtlety in the performance that calls upon a different set of skills. Although Jar Jar Binks is among the most reviled characters in Star Wars (or any other movie for that matter) the fact is that without Jar Jar we don’t get Gollum of Lord of the Rings or Caesar of Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Along with creating totally digital characters, the Star Wars prequels also innovated entirely digital environments. This was another important breakthrough. Where movies like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park were filmed in a physical space and then inserted digital characters or other elements in post-production, the Star Wars prequels reversed this; the movies were essentially animated films with live action components. This has had a profound impact on the way movies are made. First, the digital back lot has become a reality and on big budget studio films the most involved and time consuming portion of the filmmaking process is no longer the shoot with the actors but the post-production period in which digital technicians shape the material. Second, a whole new kind of movie has been made possible: the motion capture film. This hybrid of animation and live action moviemaking allowed Robert Zemeckis to make The Polar Express and James Cameron to create Avatar.

This leads to the third technical accomplishment of the Star Wars prequels and that is creating a standard for the quality and quantity of the work. Previous to The Phantom Menace the average tentpole film might have 400 effect shots. Virtually every shot of the Star Wars prequels was digitally enhanced in some way—that’s about 2000 shots per film—and they are of uniformly high quality. This same density of digital effects can be seen in The Avengers and 300.

There was another technical innovation spearheaded by the prequels: digital filmmaking. Attack of the Clones was the first feature film to be shot entirely with digital cameras. This was quite controversial at the time and whether or not this was good for the motion picture industry continues to be a matter of fierce debate. But the fact of the matter is that the future of cinema is digital and, for better or worse, Star Wars led the way in that conversion.

In each of these cases, whether it was computer generated characters or digital cameras, the filmmakers of the Star Wars prequels devised an entire process to get from a concept to a finished product. That infrastructure created new kinds of filmmaking jobs while ending old ones, reshaped the way that movies are made, and altered the expectations of the audience. In short, the prequel trilogy was the second Star Wars revolution.

The technical breakthroughs of the Star Wars prequels don’t excuse the many flaws of those films. But when it comes to taking stock of the legacy of Star Wars it’s a mistake to stop counting the series’ impact in 1977 or even 1983. The prequel trilogy has directly shaped contemporary motion picture production perhaps even more so than the original movie.

Read more essays on the past, present, and future of Star Wars here.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

More Songs Inspired by Movies

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema altered the show's music format a bit to feature songs inspired by films and movie stars. Here’s a look at some other songs that fit the profile.

“Electric Barbarella” by Duran Duran
Duran Duran took their name from the mad scientist (named Dr. Durand-Durrand) in the 1968 cult classic Barbarella. The band formed in 1978 and was at the height of its fame in the 1980s and 90s, in part due to salacious (for the time) music videos. In 1997, Duran Duran released the album Medazzaland, which included the song “Electric Barbarella.” It was touted as one of the first songs to be legally available for purchase online. If you listen closely you can hear some of the sound effects from Barbarella

“Candle in the Wind” by Elton John
Elton John’s 1973 hit “Candle in the Wind” was written as a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, who had died eleven years earlier. Interestingly, the songwriters had heard the phrase “candle in the wind” in reference to the late Janis Joplin. In 1997, Elton John revised and rerecorded “Candle in the Wind” in tribute to Princess Diana after her death by car crash and it became one of the biggest selling singles in music history.

“Along Came Jones” by The Coasters
The Coasters were an R&B group popular throughout the 1950s and 60s. They were known for lighthearted tunes like “Riot in Cell Block #9” and “Yakety-Yak.” The song “Along Came Jones” was inspired by the motion picture of the same name starring Gary Cooper and Loretta Young. The lyrics describe a generic western movie as told from the point of view of someone watching television.

“Space Oddity” by David Bowie
David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity,” which was the first track on Bowie’s eponymous 1969 album, was inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey. The song is about a fictional astronaut, Major Tom, who gets lost in space, much like the astronauts in 2001. Ironically, the BBC used “Space Oddity” as background music for the broadcast of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

“The Union Forever” by The White Stripes
The White Stripes 2001 album White Blood Cells included the track “The Union Forever,” which was inspired by Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane, a favorite film of Jack White. Most of the lyrics are taken from dialogue in Citizen Kane, so much so that Warner Bros. considered suing the band for copyright infringement.

“I’m the Droid You’re Looking For” by Nerf Herder
The band Nerf Herder takes their name from the insult that Princess Leia lobs at Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back and several of their songs make reference to pop culture and to movies, especially the Star Wars and Star Trek series.

“Valley of the Dolls” by Marina and the Diamonds
The 1967 film Valley of the Dolls has become one of the de facto show business cautionary tales. Adapted from Jacqueline Susann's novel, Valley of the Dolls tells the story of three women who are chewed up and spit out by the machinery of show business. The film had a popular title song performed by Dionne Warwick and the picture has inspired many other tributes and allusions.

“Jurassic Park” by Weird Al Yankovic
Another musician who has found a lot of inspiration at the movies is Weird Al Yankovic, who has made a career out of satirizing popular songs. His work oftentimes mixes one pop cultural reference with another such as fast food, consumer products, and movies and television shows. His 1993 album Alapalooza opened with “Jurassic Park,” a parody of the song "MacArthur Park” written by Jimmy Webb and performed by Richard Harris.

“The Red Shoes” by Kate Bush
Based on a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, the 1948 feature film The Red Shoes was about a woman who must choose between the man she loves and a career as a ballerina. The film inspired British musician Kate Bush who released the album The Red Shoes in 1993. Along with the album, Bush also released a companion short film “The Line, the Cross and the Curve.”

“Year of the Cat” by Al Stewart
Many of the lyrics to Al Stewart’s song “Year of the Cat” were inspired by the dialogue in the Humphry Bogart classic Casablanca.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Songs Inspired By Movies on Sounds of Cinema

The Sounds of Cinema episode for Sunday, April 28, 2019 will alter the show's music format a bit. Sounds of Cinema usually plays music from the movies but this episode will feature songs inspired by films and movie stars such as "Bette Davis Eyes" by Kim Carnes and "Gump" by Weird Al Yankovic. The show will also include reviews of The Curse of La Llorona and Teen Spirit.

Sounds of Cinema airs every Sunday morning at 9am on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, Minnesota and at 11am on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, Minnesota. The show can be heard over the air, online at each station's website, and on your mobile device using the Tune In app.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

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 or simply believe in independent media, 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 station's website.

This pledge drive has a $45,000 fundraising goal. The money primarily goes to KMSU's overhead expenses. Most of the local programs, including Sounds of Cinema, are produced by volunteers. Your pledges go directly to keeping the station on the air so that all of us can keep sharing our passions with you.

KMSU offers a variety of extraordinary and unique programming that is valuable to the community. The station allows local businesses, artists, and community organizations exposure they would not get otherwise. It is a truly independent voice in this community. Our playlists are not dictated from corporate offices nor are our views and opinions restrained by marketing departments and partisan talking points. Whatever goes over the air is the result of the dedication, effort, and passions of the station’s staff and volunteers. That feature is increasingly unique in broadcasting and KMSU represents something that the community ought to be proud of.

If you listen to KMSU and enjoy its content, please help to ensure that the station continues to broadcast its unique blend of programming. The reality is that radio—like everything else—costs money. Every piece of media that you hear, watch, or read costs somebody something to make into a tangible and accessible reality. Don’t kid yourself; music and movies and radio programs do not magically appear out of nowhere. They are the result of time and effort and investment. That’s where you come in. As consumers and citizens, we express what we want by the way we spend our hard-earned dollars. Every day we vote with our wallets whether it is at the market, at the local movie theater, or through a public radio pledge drive. And just like the goods of your favorite store, your support will determine whether or not KMSU’s product continues to exist.

It's also important to remember that pledge drives are about more than money. Space and funding are at a premium across higher education. When you make a pledge to KMSU you demonstrate that the station is valued by the community and that helps justify the station's continued existence.

Also, keep in mind that KMSU is a part of the Association of Minnesota Public Educational Radio Stations. This is a separate organization from Minnesota Public Radio and MPR's fundraising dollars  do not go to KMSU.

On Sunday, April 21st, 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 scheduled program.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Irish-Themed Films

For St. Patrick’s Day, today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema featured a look at Irish-related films. Here is a recap of the movies discussed on the show.

Little Nellie Kelly (1940)
Little Nellie Kelly was adapted from a successful stage musical but most of the story and songs were rewritten for the motion picture. Judy Garland appears in two roles, first as Irish immigrant Nellie Noonan Kelly and later as her daughter.

The Quiet Man (1952)
John Wayne plays an American boxer who travels to his birthplace in Ireland. There he falls in love with a local woman played by Maureen O’Hara. The Quiet Man is distinguished as one of the few Hollywood films in which Gaelic is spoken.

Finian’s Rainbow (1968)
Finian's Rainbow is a 1968 musical film adapted from the stage show and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Fred Astaire and Petula Clark. The film tells the story of an Irishman and his daughter immigrating to the United States while pursued by a leprechaun. At the time of its release, Finian’s Rainbow had a mixed critical reception but it’s now regarded as an underrated title from the end of Hollywood’s musical era. The Coen Brothers have named Finian’s Rainbow as one of their favorite films.

Barry Lyndon (1975)
Stanley Kubrick was renowned for his obsessive attention to detail. His 1975 film, the story of an Irish commoner who marries his way into British aristocracy, is one of the best examples of that Kubrick’s filmography.

My Left Foot (1989)
My Left Foot is the story of Irish writer and painter Christy Brown who was rendered quadriplegic by cerebral palsy but was able to create using the toes of one foot. The movie was adapted from Brown’s memoir and starred Daniel Day Lewis in the lead role.

The Crying Game (1992)
There is a whole genre of movies about the Troubles in Northern Ireland including Michael Collins, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Jimmy’s Hall, Hunger, and ’71 among many others. 1992’s The Crying Game tells of a burgeoning friendship between a volunteer in the Irish Republican Army and a kidnapped British soldier. This was the breakout movie for Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan who went on to make Interview with the Vampire, The End of the Affair, and Greta.

Patriot Games (1992)
Patriot Games is an adaptation of the book by Tom Clancy, in which Jack Ryan is targeted by a splinter group of the IRA. The movie has little to say about the politics of Northern Ireland, preferring to stick to the action and adventure, and it’s a darker movie than other adaptations of Clancy’s work. The soundtrack includes the theme from the film Harry’s Game (performed by Clannad) which was also about the Troubles.

Angela’s Ashes (1999)
Angela’s Ashes was adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning memoir by Frank McCourt. The story dramatizes McCourt’s childhood in Limrick, Ireland during the Great Depression. The movie has some terrific performances and an authentic feel for its time and place.

In America (2002)
Directed by distinguished Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan, whose other films include My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father, 2002’s In America was the story of an Irish family relocating to the United States and scratching out a living in Manhattan.

Once (2007)
Once is a musical love story that succeeds largely because of its soundtrack. Lead actors Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová are professional musicians and they are credited with writing most of the music and perform it in the film. The songs are great; Once sports one of the best original soundtrack albums of recent years and the songs link to the characters and their love story.

Leap Year (2010)
Leap Year was a 2010 romantic comedy starring Amy Adams. She plays a woman who wants her boyfriend to propose and Adams’ character decides to exploit the Irish tradition of Bachelor's Day in which women are allowed to propose marriage on February 29th. The movie got mostly negative reviews. Donald Clarke of The Irish Times wrote an especially scathing review that said Leap Year was evidence that “Hollywood is incapable of seeing the Irish as anything but IRA men or twinkly rural imbeciles.”

Leprechaun Series (1993 – 2018)
Leprechaun was a horror-comedy series starring Warwick Davis. In each installment, the murderous imp pursues people who have taken his gold and dispatches them in horrifically creative ways. The original Leprechaun was Jennifer Aniston’s first feature film credit. The movie inspired five sequels (including such immortal classics as Leprechaun 4: In Space and Leprechaun in the Hood) as well as a reboot.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Academy Awards 2019: How (Not) To Fix a Ceremony in Trouble

The 91st annual Academy Awards will be broadcast tonight. Longtime listeners to Sounds of Cinema are probably aware that I’ve made my feelings about the ceremony quite clear in past editorials (see: 2009, 2012, and 2016). The Academy Awards is little more than a glitzy diversion, a stupid and meaningless fashion show masquerading as art appreciation. But the 2019 ceremony has suffered a series of public debacles that are worth commenting upon because they lay bare the way in which the Academy is failing cinema and the audience.

The origins of the present fiasco trace back to the middle of last year, before many Oscar nominees were even released. In August, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced changes to the 2019 ceremony including the creation of a new category for “outstanding achievement in popular film” and the decision to award four of the categories during commercial breaks. The announcement drew criticism from within and without and the Academy’s board of governors eventually dropped both initiatives. These changes were a transparent play to boost the Oscar viewership which has been steadily dwindling over the past few years.

The Academy Awards does need an overhaul both in style and in substance but the way the Academy went about it was all wrong. Firstly, there is no reason to create a separate category for popular films. The Academy has historically nominated popular titles for best picture including Mary Poppins, The Exorcist, Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Silence of the Lambs, The Lord of the Rings, and Mad Max: Fury Road. Creating a separate popular film category implies that these movies are not serious cinematic work. That’s wrong and that message would do harm to these films, to cinema, and to the Academy itself. Instead of encouraging the public to take movies seriously, the popular film award would do the opposite. It would further discourage the public from thinking critically about the entertainment they consume while continuing to silo films and audiences. It’s difficult enough to get the average moviegoer to see something besides the latest blockbuster and a separate popular film category would discourage viewers from seeing movies that would presumably take the Oscar’s top prize. The popular film category would actually worsen the Academy’s image as an out-of-touch institution. 

Secondly, omitting craft awards from the Oscar telecast would be damaging to the Academy’s stated goal to “uphold excellence in the motion picture arts and sciences.” It’s notable that the awards that would have been omitted from the broadcast include cinematography and film editing—the essential crafts of cinema—as well as live-action short and make-up and hairstyling. The Academy initially said that the categories withheld from the broadcast would rotate every year but it is highly unlikely that awards with star nominees like best actor or best director would be relegated to the commercial breaks. Like the proposed popular film category, this move would impose a tier system on the awards. Truthfully, that preferential treatment among categories already exists but this new format would exacerbate it. The message to the crew members laboring below the line—the people who work just as hard and oftentimes harder than the acting talent—is that they don’t matter. And that message wouldn’t be lost on the television audience. Intended or not, the home viewers would internalize the idea that the contributions of editors and cinematographers are somehow irrelevant to the art of motion pictures. This is perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the Academy’s bid for populism. It actually risks damaging the audience’s appreciation and understanding of cinema.

There are changes the Academy could make to the ceremony. For one, they could get rid of the supporting actor and actress categories. These awards are a joke anyway. Leading performances regularly vie for a supporting actor nomination to better the chance of winning. Take The Favourite’s Olivia Colman who is nominated for best actress while her co-stars Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz are both up for the supporting actress award despite the fact that Stone and Weisz are the real leads of that movie and Colman is a supporting player. This happens all the time. Manipulating the system creates an impression of dishonesty on the part of the studios and undermines the Academy’s integrity. The organization ought to scrap the supporting actor categories (but keep the best actor and actress) and institute a new award for best overall cast.

The best director award could also be eliminated. Unlike actors, writers, or any of the craftspeople, the director’s job is much more difficult for voters to evaluate. Consider Bryan Singer whose was fired off of Bohemian Rhapsody during its production. Bohemian Rhapsody was a financial success and it was nominated for several awards but there is little or no evidence of the behind-the-scenes chaos in the film itself. Just eliminate the best director category and include the filmmaker among those receiving the nomination for best picture (which is often the case anyway since many directors are also credited as producers).

There are also “populist” categories that could be added. Consider an award for “Best Trailer.” This would have the wide appeal that the Academy seeks and at the very least the home audience might actually see the nominees. Another category with mass appeal would be “Best Set Piece.” Nominees could include action or fight sequences as well as musical performances. Categories like these could allow for more mainstream films to achieve nominations, thereby appealing to the center, and do so while celebrating cinematic craftsmanship.

The Academy’s bid for populism stems from a struggle with its identity. The Oscar ceremony has changed very little since the first television broadcast in 1953 and the award show is a relic of Old Hollywood when film stars were mysterious and distant. Categories have come and gone over the years but then as now the Academy Awards is a gala event in which well-heeled celebrities dressed in tuxedos and nightgowns pat each other on the back while ostensibly celebrating the cinematic arts. It is an inherently exclusive and elitist event. But the Academy’s producers and the network that broadcasts it want to reach the Super Bowl audience. In purely commercial terms, the product is being marketed to the wrong consumer. The proposed changes to the Oscars attempted to remedy that but to potentially detrimental effect. But realizing that disconnect and correcting it might revitalize this institution.

Film appreciation is alive and well and is in fact is thriving online where commentators and fans create and share thoughtful articles and insightful videos about popular films as well as cult and classic cinema. The creators of that content and the viewers who consume it are the audience the Academy should seek. In order to connect with them, the format of the show has to change. The stuffy Old Hollywood dinner party format has to go in favor of a more pre-produced show. Pivot from celebrities and glamour to the craft of filmmaking. Make cinema the real star of the show and play to the audience’s love of it.

In this respect, the Academy could take a clue from sports. Something that professional sports leagues and their media outlets have done so well is turning athletic events into part of a narrative. Programs like HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel and ESPN’s SportsCenter have combined personal stories of athletes with knowledgeable analysis of the game and a complex understanding of the business. That format has proven successful in sports and it would translate well to entertainment.

In its present format, the Academy Awards—as well as the rest of the Hollywood awards circuit—is a glamourous facade whose structure is crumbling. But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a top to bottom reimagining of what the Oscars could be, an award show like this could entertain and educate and really celebrate the art of cinema in a way that doesn’t insult our intelligence or cravenly appeal to the lowest common denominator.  But at present the Academy is pursuing an audience that just isn’t there and it risks devaluing the very art form it is supposed to celebrate.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Best and Worst Films of 2018

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema revealed my picks of the ten best and worst films of 2018. You can find more, including rationales for each title and lists of honorable mentions and trends of 2018, here.

Best Films of 2018: 

1. If Beale Street Could Talk

2. First Reformed 

3. The Favourite 

4. Eighth Grade 

5. Free Solo 

6. The Tale 

7. Sorry to Bother You

8. A Star is Born

9. Chappaquiddick 

10. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse 

Worst Films of 2018:
  1. Acrimony
  2. Fifty Shades Freed
  3. Holmes & Watson 
  4. Death Wish
  5. Mile 22
  6. The Death of a Nation
  7. Gotti
  8. Life of the Party
  9. Dark Crimes
  10. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald 

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Sounds of Cinema 2018 Wrap Up Coming January 20th

The Sounds of Cinema episode for Sunday, January 20th will look back at the films of 2018 and count down my picks of the best and worst releases of the past year. Sounds of Cinema airs every Sunday morning at 9am on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, Minnesota and at 11am on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, Minnesota. You can hear the show over the air and live streaming from each station's website or by using the TuneIn app on your mobile device.

Until then, check out an archive of previous Sounds of Cinema year end wrap ups and here are some year end lists from other critics:

The Atlantic
The 17 Best Films of 2018 

The Guardian
Mark Kermode's best films of 2018

The Hollywood Reporter
Best Films of 2018

10 Worst Films of 2018

The 13 Best Movies of 2018, According to the IndieWire Film Staff 

New York Times
Best Movies of 2018 

The New Yorker
The Best Movies of 2018 

Rolling Stone
20 Best Movies of 2018

10 Worst Movies of 2018

These Are the Best Movies of 2018
The 10 Worst Movies of 2018

Vanity Fair
The 10 Best Movies of 2018 

Best Movies of 2018

Worst Films of 2018 

Washington Post
Best Movies of 2018