Tuesday, May 29, 2012

10 FAVORITES (58): Would You Like a Franchise With Your Movie?

Last week, I talked about how this Summer (just like some of the more recent Summers) is a season of "Franchise Films" being released in movie theaters.  And for some of my friends, it seemed like I was rather cynical about the quality of these types of films.  While I do question the studios insistence on rolling out sequel after sequel to films that clearly don't need them, there are several Movie "franchises" I quite enjoy.  Now, I put the word "franchise" in quotation marks because like a lot of the actors (and even some of the writers and directors!) involved in these films, the word does not do proper justice to some of these movies.  A "franchise film," for me, has more to do with the marketing surrounding a movie.  That includes all the toys, books, lunchboxes, sheets, backpacks, toaster ovens, weed-whackers and what-have-you that have that marketable title branded on their product box.  So because of all the paraphernalia that goes with most of these movies, they unfortunately get categorized as "franchise films," even if the term is rather condescending (I mean, the Oscars don't typically love these types of films!).  But there are certain "film franchises" that, no matter what, manage to turn my head in their direction (so to speak!).  This week's 10 FAVORITES is all about "film franchises" and how these particular ones have kept my attention (as well as the attention of many a movie-goer!) throughout the years.


In many online polls, The Man of Steel manages to top the list of America's Favorite Comic Book Hero (or at least eke into every top 3!).  And there are good reasons.  His story is the ultimate standard when it comes to origins, secret identity, complex villains, traditional values, etc.  The 1978 Richard Donner-directed film was quite well-done with its casting and its flow.  It was followed by a pretty good sequel ("Kneel before Zod!!!").  However, the franchise tended to drop off the radar with some poorly produced sequels (Superman IV was quite laughable!).  They did try a reboot and, despite some good buzz, Superman Returns was ultimately a misfire (I mean, The CW's Smallville was more liked by fans!).  Let's hope the next reboot will be slightly better.

Pirates of the Caribbean
Who knew that a Disney ride would yield such a delightful set of films?  The answer is: Those marketing geniuses at the House of the Mouse.  When it comes to marketing, no studio can hold a candle to Disney.  Colleges offer business courses on Disney's marketing model.  It's that powerful.  And with this "franchise," Disney has spared no expense.  And let's face it, without Johnny Depp, these films would not be as popular. His Oscar-nominated (!) characterization of Captain Jack Sparrow has become the stuff of legend.  While a fifth film as been announced (they really should have left it a trio!), the four they have done have made enough money to keep audiences happy for quite some time.

For me, Spider-Man's origin story has always been more engaging than that of Superman's.  Maybe it's because I identified more with Peter Parker and I am quite moved by the Marvel mantra that is "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility."  The first Spider-Man film was fascinating and extremely enjoyable.  Like Superman, it was followed by a very good sequel (in fact, my brother likes Spider-Man 2 more than Spider-Man!).  The third one was a little much for my taste (Tobey Maguire's "version" of "Bad-Spidey" was just a big "Stop it!").  I am looking forward to the reboot coming this July, even if the trailers aren't enticing me in the way they should (most trailers these days suck anyway!).

The Muppets
You thought these delightful characters would be higher, didn't you?  Yes, I have made no secret about my love for the genius that was Jim Henson and the everlasting joy his creations will bring me.  The only reason that Kermit and friends don't make it into the Top 5 of this list is that I first fell in love with these guys through Television and their seminal variety series The Muppet Show.  All that said, The Muppet Movie and the two films that followed it will forever be on my "Rainy Day" watch-list.  They even charmed me with their post-Henson films (Christmas Carol, Treasure Island, etc.).  And their Oscar-winning comeback film from last year was touching and entertaining at the same time.  Good times...such Good times!

The Lord of the Rings
Talk about a series that has influenced all forms of media.  J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth has had an influence on Music (Led Zeppelin), Books (J.K. Rowling has cited Tolkien as a major influence), Stage (there was a moderately successful musical version of Tolkien's books), Television (where would Game of Thrones be without Tolkien?) and of course Film.  Peter Jackson's hugely successful trilogy is unlike any other and will always be revered by many.  While he is busy working on Tolkien's prequel The Hobbit (slated for release this Christmas!), we can marvel at the cinematic wonder that is The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

Star Trek
Like The Muppets, I got to know my pals from the United Federation of Planets through the landmark TV series (more from The Next Generation than the Original, but Rodenberry's influence was clear!).  But the films were ever-present in my childhood, especially the far superior Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country (II and VI, respectively).  Though most of the odd-numbered Trek films have manage to tick off a lot of diehard fans, some of them are more enjoyable than one would think.  And J.J. Abrams 2009 reboot was just the charge the "franchise" needed to rekindle interest.

James Bond
Whether he looks like Sean Connery or Daniel Craig, Agent 007 is always smooth and cool.  After 23 films (with 24 AND 25 on the way!), Ian Fleming's James Bond has become the ultimate super-spy and everyone's favorite hero. If I had to pick a favorite Bond film, it would be a contest between the earliest ones (Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger).  However, the two recent ones (starring the brilliantly reserved Daniel Craig) have been must-watches (especially Quantum of Solace!).  I have a feeling that we'll always have Bond to watch, either "shaken or stirred!"

Harry Potter
For a series that (compared to all the other "franchises" here) is pretty much the youngest of the group, this boy wizard and company have fared pretty high on this list.  J.K. Rowling's exciting and mega-successful (and I can't stress the "mega" enough!) novel series has enraptured a whole generation of young readers.  When Warner Brothers and British producer David Heyman embarked on making the film versions of her 7-book series, little did they know that it would become the most successful film series in the world.  In the United States alone, all 8 films (the 7th book having been split into 2 parts!) have grossed almost $3 million (Worldwide, the figure is about 3 or 4 times that!).  The series has made superstars of its 3 young leads (In his Broadway ventures, Daniel Radcliffe has managed to recoup investments within 3 months!).  And J.K. Rowling herself will never have to be on welfare ever again!  That's pretty good for character conceived on a delayed train.

When it comes to superheroes, it is The Caped Crusader who figures into my childhood quite prominently (For those who might disagree, blame my brother!).  Director Tim Burton had me spellbound with his take on the character.  Both Batman and Batman Returns were essential viewing into my young adulthood.  Though the "franchise" was almost destroyed by the work of director Joel Schumacher (Batman had a Bat-credit card, that's all I'll say!), it was resurrected to great glory by the brilliance of writer-director Christopher Nolan.  Nolan had an even darker and more psychological take on the character and his origin story.  Christian Bale has given new dimensions to Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego that have not been explored before.  And need I mention the ingenious Oscar-winning work of the late Heath Ledger as Batman's arch-nemesis, The Joker. I wait with baited breath the final installment of Nolan's Batman trilogy (with the always charming Anne Hathaway taking risks as the sensual Catwoman) and forever cementing Batman's place in my life.  (NOTE: I know I have utilized The Dark Knight Rises trailer a couple of times on this blog already, but I just love this trailer!!!)

Star Wars
For those who really know me, this cannot be a surprise.  In a sense, it is the "Mother of all Franchises" as it was one of the first major blockbusters and has amassed more money in merchandise than Batman, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings put together.  It is also a "franchise" that is completely original in that the entire universe that the series lives in was created in the mind of master filmmaker George Lucas (compare that to most of the other "franchises" on this list which are based on books, comic books or even rides!).  And even though I make fun of them a lot (and there are a lot of problems with them!), the prequels made in the early 2000s are somewhat enjoyable.  But they cannot hold a candle to the original series.  Both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are brilliant pieces of American cinema, and the 1977 original is perfection when it comes to Fantasy storytelling.  When it comes to unique qualities, there is nothing like Lucas' world and the complex characters which inhabit it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS: Reboots and Remakes and Sequels, Oh My!

Ever since Star Wars in 1977, Summers have become the season of blockbuster movies.  But within the last few years, studios have tweaked the formula when it comes to choosing and marketing their projects slated for the Summertime.  As I've said before, studios like what they know because they believe people like what they know.  So the last few Summers have become the 3 or 4 months in which studios roll out their sequels or prequels or mid-quels to famous moneymakers.  Even now, the studios have run out of "quels" to make, so they rely on the reboots or the remakes of older (and definitely marketable) moneymakers.  We are in the Age of the Franchise Films and Summer 2012 has become no exception.  Between the beginning of May and the end of August 2012, studios have or will have released a total of 10 sequels/prequels, 2 remakes, 1 reboot and 1 film that is part of a major franchise but cannot officially be called a sequel (though it has made more than enough money worldwide to warrant at least a couple of sequels!).  The quality of each of these films and whether they will one day be compared with the likes of Citizen Kane or Gone With the Wind remains to be seen.  However, the sheer amount of these types of films does signal to me (and other critics) that studios are more concerned with quantity rather than quality (what else is new?).  With Marvel's The Avengers slowly climbing to the top of the All-Time Box-Office champs list, it can be fairly predicted that the other major blockbusters will be prime box-office hits over the next few months.  That being said, it doesn't feel like studios will be feigning away from the idea of producing more Franchise Films.  So take a look below at the trailers for some of these films that have yet to grace our Summertime.  Ask yourself as you watch these a few questions: Is quality being overhauled for the sake of the almighty dollar potential?  Do these Franchise Films warrant so much attention? And, most importantly, which ones fascinate you most to the point that you will be in the movie lines with the rest of America when it comes out?

Men In Black 3 (May 25)

Prometheus (June 8)

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (June 8)

The Amazing Spider-Man (July 3)

The Dark Knight Rises (July 20)

The Bourne Legacy (August 3)

Sparkle (August 10)

The Expendables 2 (August 17)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

10 FAVORITES (57): There's No Cliché Like Old Clichés

You know when you're at a party, and you're telling a friend about a great Movie or TV program you just saw.  You're getting really into it and everyone can see by the look on your face how much you enjoyed this artistic endeavour you witnessed.  You finish telling the story and how much you loved seeing something so fresh and new...then there's that one person at the party who says: "I've heard that story before!"  Hello, I am that one person!  Or at least I often feel like that person.  We are in a day and age where no story is new and everything seems recycled.  Development departments at most studios and corporations now won't shell out big bucks to produce or publish a Movie, TV Show or Book where the plot elements aren't at least somewhat familiar (and proven to be familiar with a large audience!).  People like what they know.  Change is uncomfortable and too risky (especially where a lot of money is concerned!).  These plot elements that these execs love so much fall under a rather dubious nomenclature: Cliché.  A Cliché is a type of story that is done so often that its dramatic effect has waned to the point of nothing (or almost nothing).  It can be a character or a plot element or the entire plot itself or even the way in which the plot is presented.  It doesn't matter what it is, it's probably a Cliché.  Now, as a writer myself, I've never had a problem with utilizing clichés in my own work or seeing them in the work of others (unless they are poorly executed!).  The trap really is that most clichés are double-edged swords (and I'll explain that as we go along today!).  There really are too many to list here (you might want to try looking at tvtropes.org for a couple other examples!).  So for this weeks 10 FAVORITES, I've decided to run through some of the most common and/or the ones that always seem to attract my attention.  And its at this point that I'm going to stop putting an accent on the "E" in "Cliché " because it's annoying and comes off as really pretentious!


Breaking the Routine
This one mostly applies to TV Shows, especially ones that decide to do something different for "Sweeps."  Sometimes the show decides to change its format for say one episode (The West Wing, 30 Rock and M*A*S*H all did it!).  Sometimes the writers want to bring a challenge to the actors like do a whole musical episode (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Scrubs and Grey's Anatomy!) or have their characters pull a Freaky Friday (watch next week's Glee, if you don't believe me!).  And then there are the shows that enter a whole "Alternate Timeline" or "Parallel Universe" for an episode or two (Bones, Friends, the entire third season of Fringe and any Treehouse of Horror episode of The Simpsons).  All of these examples are some form of what I call: Breaking the Routine.  By the way, NBC's Community has done every single one of these things (because it's awesome!).

The Never-Before-Seen Twist
Law & Order used this tagline more often than they used the "Ripped From the Headlines" tag.  This cliche is often used on TV proceedurals especially in the respective network's promos for the episode in which it is used.  They tout it like it is the most outrageous and surprising thing you've ever seen since the last time the show pulled this trope.  The so-called "Twist" comes out of nowhere within the story, though these days most people can see it coming from a mile away.  In fact since 1992's The Crying Game, no "Twist" is as surprising as that one!

Basic Stereotypes
In the old days, Movies and TV Shows utilized a lot of ethnic stereotypes (see Gone With the Wind or Speedy Gonzalez cartoons or any Western where the Native Americans were prominent characters!).  As the years went by and studios were under pressure to be more politically correct, shows like All In the Family, Barney Miller and Murphy Brown utilized those stereotypes cleverly and weaved them into their humor.  As we moved into the 21st Century, a whole new crop of stereotypes showed up: The gay guy, The nerd and (most recently) The sarcastic hipster.

The Call is Coming from Inside the House (aka You Trusted the Murderer!)
My name for this cliche is actually the name of the old urban legend (used in horror films like Black Christmas and When a Stranger Calls) that has the poor frightened girl in more danger than she realizes.  But in my definition of this cliche, I refer to "the House" as basically the hero's (or heroine's) life.  In most mysteries or horror movies now, the serial killer ends up being someone that the leading lady or the investigator has trusted the whole time. Remember the ending of Scream, the first one (SPOILER ALERT!!!).  The murderous "Ghostface" turned out to be trusting Neve Campbell's brooding and smoldering boyfriend (wickedly played by Skeet Ulrich) and his metero-goofus friend (played by perennial goofus Matthew Lillard) - the two friends were in it together to kill Drew Barrymore and just got off on the terror they struck in the town.  On TV: NCIS, CSI, Bones and Castle have all used it at some point or another.  In fact, FOX's Emmy-winning 24 thrived on this cliche.

Unseen Characters
Here, Google these names: Vera Petersen, Maris Crane, Stan Walker, Mrs. Wolowitz, Carlton the Doorman and Wilson Wilson.  All of these are examples of TV characters that we often hear about (and in some cases even hear their voices!), but we never fully see their faces.  Usually it is because an actor could not physically be cast in the role, because the description of the character went so over-the-top in some physical attritbute that no actor or actress could fit that part without disservicing the character.  Whatever the reason, these characters get used in sitcoms often.

The Beauty and the Schlub
Tale as old as time...and it goes right "to the moon!"  It's basically a variation of the Beauty and the Beast tale in which a beautiful wife is married to one of the schlubbiest guys you will ever meet.  Witness the classic sitcom The Honeymooners (and it's animated parody The Flintstones).  It has been used several times over the years (Marge Bouvier was apparently one of the prettiest girls in high school when she met Homer J. Simpson!), however in the late '90s there was a slight twist on it.  It started to seem that comedy writers decided to up the shall we say nagging quality of the wife and the ineptitude of the schlubby hubby (look at Everybody Loves Raymond or The King of Queens or even Family Guy and all of the couples on Modern Family!).  It almost could be called "The Shrew and the Schlub!"

Team So-and-So Vs. Team The Other Guy (aka The Basic Love Triangle)
The Love Triangle has been around for centuries, dating all the way back to Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (are you Team Rebecca or Team Rowena?).  But it wasn't until recently that it has taken on a whole new dynamic, and all you fangirls out there know darn well what I am talking about.  It's like the fans of the book or movie have to join a "team" of other fans who root for the relationship that they want to see happen (even if both choices look like their the same pile of milquetoast, sorry Twihards!).  If you don't believe me about the influence that Stefenie Meyer's Twilight has had over the last couple years, just look at the latest book-to-movie phenomenon The Hunger Games.  Suzanne Collins' popular trilogy has taken on the same kind of fan base and therefore main character Katniss Everdeen must pull a Bella Swann and chose between her two leading men.

24 Hours Earlier... (aka How We Got Here...)
Remember Sunset Boulevard's format, with the story unfolding after you know that the narrator lies in a pool dead from a bullet in the back.  Writer-Director Billy Wilder was praised for his trailblazing technique.  Since then, it has been used so many times in so many different ways (usually with some kind of title card that says "24 Hours Earlier" or "2 Days Ago" or "Many Moons Prior").  Every crime proceedural since the '90s (from The X-Files to NCIS to Law & Order: SVU to Criminal Minds to this week's season finale of Castle!) has used this at least once.  Even sitcoms have taken a shot at it (a classic Wings episode parodied Mr. Wilder, while the short-lived FOX show Grounded For Life seemed to use it all the time!).  And dramas like LOST and The West Wing used it a couple of times, especially during Season Premiere or Season Finale time!

Will They? Won't They?
This can be referred to as the Maddie and David or the Sam and Diane or the Booth and Brennan or (my personal favorite recently) the Hermione and Ron.  Sexual tension between two characters can be quite palpable and can even make the audience really root for the relationship to move forward.  But, as I said above, cliches can be double-edged swords and none are more double-edged than this one.  It divides people more than the above Love Triangle fangirls do.  If they go forward and have the relationship, two camps pop up.  One saying they've "Jumped a Shark" (witness Who's the Boss?) and the other shouting "Hooray" and creating cute nicknames (Glee's Finchel).  If they don't get together, the same two camps pop up.  Audiences are disappointed that the writers are dragging it out and critics are often applauding the choice not to jump into bed.  It changes the dynamic of the series, and some shows survive it while most shows flounder in the change.

Ensign Red Shirt
Poor Ensign Red Shirt!  He's that guy that the show hired to basically be the other guy that is NOT the main character that goes into the dangerous situation with the rest of the crew and pretty much doesn't come out alive.  The name of the trope comes from the classic sci-fi series Star Trek in which almost every landing team consisted of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and -well, you guessed it!- Ensign Red Shirt (he doesn't need a real name, because basically he's not important!).  Ensign Red Shirt has changed with the times though.  On Star Trek: The Next Generation, he became Ensign Yellow Shirt.  And on most crime proceedutals, he is often Officer Whats-his-name or Agent That Guy.  And most often we learn a little something about him just before he bites it.  It's like the writers feel guilty so they have the main character talk to him like they're old buddies.  And he always has something he has to be ready for by the weekend (like his daughter's piano recital or a family reunion he isn't looking forward to or an anniversary dinner with the wife!).  You know an Ensign/Officer/Agent Red Shirt is gonna kick the bucket when he mention's little Katie's piano recital!  Poor Officer Red Shirt!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS: Where are all the Superheroes?

It is May and all forms of Entertainment knows what that means.  On Broadway, the Tony Award Nominations are announced signaling the end of the current Theatre Season.  On Television, that wonderful time known as May Sweeps ushers in countless Season Finales of all the Broadcast shows.  And in Film, the Summer Movie period begins and major blockbusters come rolling in to theaters (along with all the money they make for all the Hollywood Studios!).  The first one of these blockbusters for this Summer is Marvel's highly anticipated action-adventure film The Avengers featuring the stars of Marvel's previous films Iron Man, Captain America and Thor.  Based on the successful Marvel Comics series, The Avengers is about the assemblage of a group of powerful Superheroes from the Government-created super-soldier (Captain America) to the scientist who you "wouldn't like when angry" (The Incredible Hulk) to the arrogant and rich inventor (Iron Man) to the Norse God of Thunder (Thor).  Each use their individual powers and strengths in creating the ultimate team against some powerful enemies.

I am one of the many people excited to see this movie as it opens in U.S. theaters this weekend and I do plan to see it before the weekend is up (hoping my schedule allows so!).  But as I was thinking about this movie and seeing the many advertisements (and product endorsements) this film has aired on Television, I started to think about our Culture and what kind of heroes (or superheroes?) exist today.  But what is the definition of Superhero?  A Superhero, as I have come to define one, is a person who uses his or her special abilities and knowledge for a greater good.  They use their talents to benefit others.  To relate it to Marvel: With their great power, comes their greater responsibility.  So as I started to think of the people in today's Culture that would qualify (be they from the world of politics, sports, entertainment or business), I realized this is a question that is completely subjective.  I mean, yes the standard names came to mind as potential contenders (President Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Bono, The Dalai Lama, or anyone who volunteers to serve and fight for their country).  But for each person I came up with, I thought of several people who might disagree or have reason to disagree (and do so loudly!).  So instead of coming up with a list of people I think could be considered for Superhero team (a la The Avengers!), I decided its time to pose the question out there in InternetLand.  And believe me I know I could be getting some strange answers, but I'm going to ask anyway: Who in our Culture do you consider to be a Superhero?  You can answer in the comments below (just keep your language civil and clean!).  They can be from anywhere: politics, entertainment or even your own life (if there is someone in your life you believe to be a Superhero!). Maybe if we find enough Superheroes in this world, we should have them "Assemble!"