Who’s Next To Be Inducted Into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame?

The latest batch of nominees for The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame have been announced and once again, Iggy Pop and The Stooges have both been excluded.  One of these years Jann Wenner and company will get it right.  Maybe.  For now, these much luckier acts, nine in total, will be counting on enough votes to put them through.  Let’s go over the names one by one:
Afrika Bambaataa
When you mention his name, few will recognize it.  Even less people have heard his music.  But all should be aware of the importance of this pioneering hip hop artist.  A former gangbanger turned peace activist, the once-named Kevin Donovan (according to the Internet Movie Database) paved the way for the global emergence of rap.  30 years ago, according to Wikipedia, he started having “block parties” in the Southern Bronx area of New York.  In 1978, he established his own group: the Zulu Nation.  By the start of the next decade, he began his long recording career.
Like many influential artists, he rarely enjoyed commercial success.  His most important single was his first.  Planet Rock was issued in 1982 and featured a sample of Kraftwerk’s 1977 single, Trans-Europe Express.  Hip hop was never the same.  The following year he released Renegades Of Funk which was covered nearly 20 years later by Rage Against The Machine.  (The latter was a rock radio hit.  The former was a flop.)
One of the most profilic rap artists, his most recent releases were two versions of the same album.  In 2005, there was Metal and Metal Remixes.
What are his chances for rock immortality?  Not very good.  With more prominent names on the ballot this year, his chances are quite slim.  Since this is his first nomination, it’s quite likely he’ll have another chance in the years to come.  He’s only 50 years old so it’s also very likely that by the time he gets inducted, he will be alive to enjoy the honour.  But not this year.
The Beastie Boys
Imagine it.  Three upper class white guys with Jewish roots combine their mutual loves of punk rock and hip hop into one obnoxious yet irresistibly commercial mix.  Far less productive than Afrika Bambaataa, Mike D (Mike Diamond), Ad Rock (Adam Yauch) and MCA (Adam Horowitz) have nonetheless done for rap music what Elvis did for rock and roll.  They brought it to the mainstream.  The same year that Aerosmith remade Walk This Way with Run DMC (another important hip hop trio), The Beastie Boys unveiled their debut, License To Ill, which was produced by the great Rick Rubin.  It became the first rap album to top Billboard’s sales chart.  It would not be the last.
What was once exclusively the terrain of Black Americans is now a truly international music movement.  Vanilla Ice aside, white rappers like Kid Rock and Eminem are equally as respected as guys like Ludacris and LL Cool J.  And that’s all thanks to The Beastie Boys.  (Did you know that “Beastie” originally stood for Boys Entering Anarchistic States Towards Internal Excellence?)
Paul’s Boutique, the 1989 follow-up to License which was produced by The Dust Brothers, was a late bloomer, an album that was initially not as commercially or critically acclaimed as its predecessor.  Today, it’s considered a highly influential album.  Other full-length releases like Check Your Head (which featured the band playing traditional rock instruments while rapping), Ill Communication and Hello Nasty kept the trio’s profile high throughout the 1990s.
Initially believed to be sexist brats who hated gay people (according to Alan Cross, the working title of License To Ill was Don’t Be A Faggot), The Beasties became far more socially and politically conscious in the 1990s.  Freeing Tibet from the clutches of imperialist China became an important personal cause (which inspired the star-heavy annual Tibetan Freedom Concerts).
With rap starting to get its due at The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame (Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five were inducted last year), The Beastie Boys are the strongest hope this year for a hip hop act to be so honoured.  It’ll be a total shock if they don’t make the cut on this, their first nomination.
A return nominee, this four-piece from New York still hasn’t got any respect from voters.  (Check out what I wrote about their chances last year here.)  Will their fate be different this time around?  I say no for the exact same reasons I gave in 2006.
The Dave Clark Five
Another rejected act from last year, Tom Hanks cited them as inspiration for his 1996 directorial debut, That Thing You Do!  (This was my view on their previous nomination.)  Unfortunately, like Chic, they’ll have to settle for just being nominated.  With so many highly successful names on the ballot this year, it’ll be very difficult for this British Invasion-era quintet to break through.
Leonard Cohen
The lone Canadian nominee, it’s remarkable that this long-admired poet has yet to be enshrined in The Hall Of Fame.  Like The Beastie Boys, he comes from a Jewish background, although his upbringing was more middle class.  Born in Montreal in 1934, Cohen would initially make his mark with books of prose in the 50s and 60s.  Near the end of the decade, he started a solo musical career with his album, Songs Of Leonard Cohen.
Never a huge or reliable hitmaker on his own, nor terribly productive for that matter (he’s only made 11 studio albums in 40 years), he found greater success through other people’s interpretions of his material.  Judy Collins scored a hit with Suzanne.  The Neville Brothers remade Bird On A Wire for the 1990 movie of the same name.  Bono and the much missed Jeff Buckley, among others, took individual stabs at Hallelujah.  Jennifer Warnes trumped all of them by making a whole album of Cohen tunes.  (He made a guest appearance on the most famous song from the record, First We Take Manhattan.)  According to Wikipedia, there are over 30 Leonard Cohen tribute albums.  I’m Your Fan and Tower Of Song are the best known titles.
That being said, his music has found a greater audience through movies than it ever did on the radio.  McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Pump Up The Volume and Natural Born Killers are just three of the many films to showcase particular numbers in his catalogue.  His unmistakably foreboding baritone is the dead giveaway.
And if that’s not enough to convince voters to induct him, why not throw in a couple of his sexual conquests, as well?  There was a one-night stand with Janis Joplin (immortalized in Chelsea Hotel #2) and his ’90s relationship with the beautiful Rebecca DeMornay.  Eat your heart out, Hugh Hefner.
Then again, he might be a sentimental favourite this year, thanks to his victorious lawsuit against his former manager who screwed him over money he may never collect.  (Many in the business can relate to that awful mess.)  A master lyricist who’s long suffered from depression and dark thoughts (a point not lost on comedian Roger Abbott of The Royal Canadian Air Farce who’s humourously impersonated Cohen for years), it’s no wonder so many alternative acts have drawn inspiration from his work.  Besides, his name still carries a lot of weight.  He’s already in The Canadian Music Hall Of Fame and The Canadian Songwriters Hall Of Fame.  This year, it’s The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame’s turn to honour him.
She can be a monster, a colossal pain in the ass, and egomaniacal.  She can make questionable decisions (speaking with a faux-British accent, agreeing to be photographed with Vanilla Ice, dating Vanilla Ice).  And she doesn’t always have the courage of her convictions (like cancelling the original video for American Life because of its anti-war sentiment).  But of all the artists up for induction, Mrs. Ritchie is the surest bet of them all.
Just look at these career stats:  12 number one singles in America and Britain (19 in Canada and 22 in Japan, her highest individual total in a single market).  39 number one dance hits in America.  Of the 47 songs that have hit Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart, 36 peaked in the Top 10.  Every studio album she’s ever released has gone platinum.  (Like A Virgin remains her biggest seller with over 10 million copies sold domestically.)  Six of them topped Billboard’s sales chart.  (Only Barbra Streisand has more with eight.)  Overall, she has sold between 200 and 250 million records, an estimated figure but incredible nonetheless.  She’s batting 6 for 25 at the Grammy Awards.  And she’s won a simply astounding 68 MTV Video Music Awards.
Not bad for a woman who wasn’t supposed to have all this success.  Believe it or not, Cyndi Lauper was supposed to be the bigger star.  But while Lauper pretty much disappeared from the mainstream at the end of the 1980s, Madonna continues to be highly regarded and controversial.  From her entertaining self-titled debut in 1983 to 2005’s Confessions On A Dance Floor, her much appreciated return to form, with memorable moments in between, she’s had quite the career.  The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame honour is hers for the taking.
John Mellencamp
Before the release of his first album in 1976, his first manager, Tony DeFries (who was guiding David Bowie simultaneously), changed his last name to Cougar, a temporary annoyance that would inevitably be discarded 15 years later.  In the end, while it made this Indiana singer/songwriter sound cooler, the change was unnecessary.  The songs were the real star of the show.
Another cantankerous American superstar, who hit the Top 40 a number of times before the decade was through, Mellencamp’s massive success really begins with American Fool, his fifth album, in 1982.  (It remains his only number one seller.)  Smash hits like Hurts So Good (which peaked at number two in America) and Jack & Diane (his only number one single) were all over the radio.  The videos for those tracks were endlessly played on video channels, which also helped sell tons of albums.  The following year came Uh-Huh and a name change.  For the rest of the decade, he would be John Cougar Mellencamp.  (He’d drop “Cougar” altogether for the release of Whenever We Wanted in 1991.)
From American Fool to Mr. Happy Go Lucky, Mellencamp made a strong, lasting impression with rock radio audiences.  Seven of his biggest songs (Hurts So Good, Lonely Ol’ Night, Paper In Fire, Cherry Bomb, Get A Leg Up, Again Tonight and What If I Came Knocking) all hit number one on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Chart.  Since then, it’s been very difficult for him to compete with the next generation of rockers.  After Your Life Is Now was issued in 1998, Mellencamp struggled to crank out more hits.  Things have gotten so bad for him that he broke one of his longstanding rules (never licensing his music for TV ads) to sell records.  In the end, Our Country only succeeded on Adult Contemporary stations, despite being heard in those famous GM Truck commercials.  (It peaked at #88 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart and failed to break through on rock radio.)
Nevertheless, his back catalogue speaks for itself.  He’s written and recorded lots of good songs, he’s well-respected (especially for his association with Farm Aid) and he’s a genuine rock and roll bad ass (multiple marriages since he was 17, bad personal habits, rabid perfectionist), all strong reasons why he’ll receive the Rock Hall honour this year.  He deserves to be inducted, regardless.
Donna Summer
Disco music owes a great debt to this woman.  Without her contributions to the genre, it might not have survived.  (The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack would most certainly not be as popular as it turned out to be.)  After paying her dues in Europe for the first half of the ’70s, Summer was signed by Casablanca Records in 1975 where she would conquer her own country’s music charts.  The song that changed everything was Love To Love You Baby, a cheeky epic produced by Pete Bellotte and co-written by Summer and Georgio Moroder with a strong emphasis on rock, an unusual approach for a dance single.  Featuring her own multiple orgasms (something she was reluctant to go through with and which later freaked out her uptight Christian parents), the almost 20-minute track singlehandedly extended the life of the growing underground dance scene.  Prior to its release, disco songs were short and tight like old school rock.  It was hard to really get going on the dance floor when these numbers only lasted a few minutes.  Summer’s debut American single changed all that.  Now it was possible to dance to a single song for a far longer period of time.  (DJs appreciated these epics for reasons that should be obvious.)  As a result, more epics were issued.  The Saturday Night Fever album is loaded with them.  (Disco Infernal by The Trammps remains a classic standout.)
It took two years but Summer would follow up that pioneering breakthrough (a number two smash on the Hot 100) with a number of substantial Top 5 mainstream successes starting with I Feel Love in 1977.  Her commercial peak came at the end of the ’70s and the start of the ’80s.  Last Dance, Bad Girls, a remake of MacArthur Park, Hot Stuff, Dim All The Lights, On The Radio, The Wanderer and even a duet with Barbra Streisand, No More Tears, became radio staples.  From 1975 to 1979, Summer accumulated twelve number one dance singles and topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart four times.
Another important commercial achievement were the three consecutive number one double albums she had starting with Live & More in 1978 and followed by Bad Girls and her greatest hits set in 1979.  As the phony Disco backlash started gaining momentum in the early ’80s, Summer switched record labels (she became David Geffen’s first signed act) and inevitably re-tooled her sound.  In 1983, She Works Hard For The Money became a Top 5 hit and in 1989, This Time I Know It’s For Real hit the Top 10.
Despite many periods where Top 40 success was stubbornly elusive, Summer has remained a popular dance artist.  Since 1994, she’s had three more number one dance hits.  Still active in the new millennium, her most recent single, I Got Your Love was a Top 5 dance hit in 2005.
In a year where the most recognizable names are the best bets for induction, Donna Summer should be one of the honourees. 
The Ventures
You know their biggest hit:  Walk Don’t Run.   What you might not know are the number of lives that number two single changed.  George Harrison, Gene Simmons, Joe Walsh, Steven Stills, Joe Perry, Elton John and many others, if Wikipedia is to be believed, all have cited this one song has having a strong influence in their young lives and future musical careers.  While this Seattle-based instrumental outfit did have other hits (their version of the Hawaii Five-O theme was a Top 5 smash, for instance), nothing topped their 1960 signature blockbuster.
After failing to find an audience initially with a singer onboard, they eventually decided to stick with bare instrumentation.  Incredibly, it was the best decision they ever made.  They’ve sold well over 100 million records worldwide.  Although they were most prominent in the ’60s, the band have experienced a couple of resurgences.  First, during the punk explosion in the late ’70s and again in the mid-90s after Quentin Tarantino threw in some surf instrumentals on the soundtrack to his terrific Pulp Fiction.
The band is still active today despite line-up changes and deaths.
But is this the year they get honoured?  I don’t think so.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, September 30, 2007
10:20 p.m.
Published in: on September 30, 2007 at 10:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

O’Reilly’s Ignorance On Full Display Yet Again

It was an embarrassing moment, not even close to being surprising.  Fox News Channel personality Bill O’Reilly, while in the middle of a discussion about the historic struggles black people have had to deal with in America, was telling a story on his nationally syndicated radio program, The Radio Factor, on the afternoon of September 19th.  He talked about taking Rev. Al Sharpton to dinner "a few weeks ago" at a restaurant in Harlem called Sylvia’s.  They had a great time, the food was good and they had first-rate service.
Then he had this to say:
"And I couldn’t get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia’s restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it’s run by blacks, primarily black patronship. It was the same, and that’s really what this society’s all about now here in the U.S.A. There’s no difference. There’s no difference."
What to make of this rather patronizing statement?  Did O’Reilly truly believe he was being complimentary when he expressed amazement that in 2007 African American citizens are capable of running a thriving business?  Why did race become so important to this story anyway?
It’s that phrase, "even though it’s run by blacks" that sticks out so awkwardly.  Does he have such a low, overall assessment of black people in general that this is the most positive thing he can say about a highly-regarded soul food restaurant?  What happened to saying, "Yeah, that Sylvia’s is a great place.  I highly recommend it."?  Is that so difficult?
Sadly, that wasn’t the only regrettable remark he made that day.  Before he even talked about taking Rev. Sharpton out to dinner (more on that in a moment), he offered this nugget of stupidity regarding an entire race of people:
"I think black Americans are starting to think more and more for themselves. They’re getting away from the Sharptons and the [Rev. Jesse] Jacksons and the people trying to lead them into a race-based culture. They’re just trying to figure it out: ‘Look, I can make it. If I work hard and get educated, I can make it.’"
As Lord Alfred Hayes would say, "Oh my word!".  In his astoundingly ignorant mind, O’Reilly thinks that black people have never been independent thinkers and have solely relied on the collective wisdom of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, two controversial civil rights leaders also known for putting their feet in their mouths from time to time, to get through life.  He thinks they’re slow to putting their own thoughts together (translation: they’re stupid) and only now, in 2007, do they realize the benefits of a strong work ethic and a solid education.  As Red Foreman (and my father) would say, "What a dumbass."
How quickly he forgets about Jesse Owens, Frederick Douglas, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., Arthur Ashe, Muhammed Ali, Berry Gordy Jr., and many other important figures of history.  Were they all sheep?  Did they not follow their own instincts, their own ideals and their own dreams, to achieve greatness?  Were they not individuals in the truest sense of the word?
Getting back to the Sharpton anecdote, O’Reilly had this to say about the customers at Sylvia’s:
"There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming, "M-Fer, I want more iced tea…it was like going into an Italian restaurant in an all-white suburb in the sense of people were sitting there, and they were ordering and having fun. And there wasn’t any kind of craziness at all."
An honest question:  in the long history of the restaurant business, has any person a) referred to a staffer as a mother fucker and b) not been banned as a result of such appalling disrespect?  There’s a very good reason that kind of behaviour isn’t common in any respectable eatery, no matter who’s running it.  It’s bad for business.  How Bill O’Reilly finds the calm atmosphere of Sylvia’s a revelation worthy of a radio anecdote says everything about him as a person and broadcaster.  (I’ll give you a hint.  It starts with ass and ends with hole.)
But then again, this is nothing new.  As the invaluable Media Matters For America and FAIR have both helpfully pointed out, O’Reilly has made questionable remarks about race, among other topics, for years.  He’s referred to Mexicans as "wetbacks" and claimed that Americans don’t want them "clustering in" their "neighbourhoods".  He believes that liberals only care about the crisis in Darfur because black people are getting killed.  He hopes that Sunni and Shiite Arabs "kill each other" in Iraq and believes "[t]hey have fun…tortur[ing] each other" and "blowing each other up".  ("This is what Allah tells them to do, and that’s what they do," he alleged on the January 24th, 2007 edition of The Radio Factor.)
It goes on and on and on.  One wonders how any self-respecting Television network would ever entertain the idea of keeping him on the air, let alone hiring him in the first place.  Oh right.  He’s on Fox.  My mistake.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, September 27, 2007
1:59 a.m.
Published in: on September 27, 2007 at 1:59 am  Leave a Comment  

Sun TV Workers No Longer Unionized, CRTC Finally Grants Quebecor’s February Proposals

The Canadian Media Guild is no longer representing the workforce at Sun TV.  As a result, without any public fanfare, the CMG has removed the “Sun TV” link from its official website.  (It originally appeared in a list on the home page in between “S-VOX” and “TVOntario”.)  All of the updates that you would find after clicking that link are no longer accessible normally.  (However, after doing a Google search on the site, they can still be seen in cached versions.)  Also, when examining the list of union branch managers, there’s a blank space under “Sun TV Branch Manager”.
The union was having an extremely difficult time trying to secure the very first collective bargaining agreement for the demoralized workers at the struggling Toronto station.  The final union update regarding the negotiations was posted on June 4.  It advertised a June 6 meeting for Sun TV employees to decide for themselves whether or not they were still committed to the cause.
According to Staff Representative Glenn Gray and National President Lise Lareau, they weren’t.
Each wrote separate emails to me in response to my burning questions about the sudden disappearance of Sun TV mentions on the official CMG site and to confirm what I had recently suspected, that the union was no longer representing the workers at the station.  Gray gave me a basic overview of what happened while Lareau expressed disappointment with the lack of solidarity and enthusiasm for fighting for a deal.
“All of the original [union] activists have left Sun [TV],” Gray wrote.  “[T]here were significant layoffs shortly after we became the bargaining agent and the talks were protracted.”
“Because we were not successful, after numerous attempts, in engaging employees in the bargaining process, we applied to the CIRB [Canadian Industrial Relations Board] to have the bargaining certificate rescinded.  The employees were advised of our application.”
“The Board rescinded the bargaining certificate on August 30, 2007,” he concluded.
The outspoken Lareau, who has long been critical of Quebecor’s plans for Sun TV (and God knows she hasn’t been the only one), began her message by offering three reasons why the union wasn’t making any progress in not only its dealings with management but also with the employees it was trying very hard to champion:
“What happened at SunTV was very sad for many reasons, in my view.  It was a combination of:
1. Local managers not committing to the bargaining process so the result was that it took way too long to get a contract and ultimately, employees lost faith in the whole thing.
2. Quebecor appeared to neither have a plan for this entree into English TV nor an interest in it; and continues to exhibit no sign of putting any money into original *programming* (as opposed to repurposed stuff from the Sun newspaper).
3. For many employees, this is their first job.  They see SunTV as a place to start and they don’t want to stick their necks out.  Their sheer desire to work in this business is being exploited.  I had hoped we could offer them a collective backbone to demand Quebecor do better…as an employer and as a broadcaster.  But it wasn’t to be.”
Hard to disagree with any of that.
“Ultimately,” she continued.  “we felt that without their support (for whatever reason), we would do them harm by continuing to bargain in a weak position.  So we really felt we had no choice but to leave.”
Judging by these comments, it was a lose-lose situation for all involved.  A sad state of affairs for a story with few positives.
No matter one’s views on unions, though, from what’s been observed by this website, the CMG put in the maximum effort required to make working conditions better for Sun TV employees, despite their lack of success.  Over the course of many, many months, they were professional, made reasonable demands and were more than willing to talk things out with Quebecor over outstanding disagreements.  Honestly, what more could they have done?  It would take a smarter individual to think of something that hasn’t been mentioned. 
Some people, no matter how hard you try to win them over, will never be persuaded by your point of view, whether it’s because of fear or skepticism, or perhaps a combination of the two.  Either way, you can’t blame the union for exiting.  One can only take so much frustration before accepting reality.
It’s now understandable why solidarity is so crucial in these negotiations.  Without it, significant progress can’t be made.  How could it in an atmosphere of impenetrable division?  What matters now is the future of Sun TV and its workers.  This website has long argued the pointlessness of securing a deal with the station whose future remains clouded in uncertainty.  Numerous rounds of layoffs have reduced the station to a skeleton crew.  How can it possibly survive for very long?  (In fact, its continuing existence remains surprising.)  It’s now up to surviving staff to decide their fates.  They can ride things out hoping in vain for a reversal of fortune or they can seek the counsel of the CMG in order to find better employment elsewhere.
If it was me, I’d choose the latter.
Meanwhile, the CRTC continues to prove its irrelevance.  Back in February, The Financial Times reported that Quebecor put forth a proposal to the regulatory body (which was also noted in this space).  It wanted permission to allow Sun TV to expand its reach to markets in Ottawa and London by implementing two new transmitters.  This website snickered at the possibility of viewers in those cities having the opportunity to see top-notch programming like Here’s Lucy and The Beachcombers, neither of which have much of a following in the Toronto-Hamilton area.
Apparently, the CRTC disagreed.  Thanks to CMG National President Lise Lareau mentioning it in her email, believe it or not, Quebecor’s proposal was approved on September 14.  Despite “interventions” from CHUM (who very briefly owned Sun TV), Rogers and CanWest, the Commission ruled that Quebecor has two years to build the transmitters and as long as they don’t “solicit local advertising in Ottawa and London”, everything will be peachy.  Can you believe it took seven months to arrive at this decision?
Knowing full well how toothless and ineffectual the Commission is, Quebecor has long been getting away with license violations.  For instance, it wasn’t supposed to allow Toronto Sun editorial views to be aired on its much derided late afternoon newscast, Canoe Live, as former Toronto Star Media Critic Antonia Zerbisias has previously noted.  But no one’s stopping them.
Furthermore, as Lareau noted in her email to me, with regards to the station’s refusal to work out a deal for its embattled employees, “Ironically and — doesn’t it say more about the CRTC — SunTV appears to [have been] rewarded [for] all this, not to mention the fact that it’s not living up to its original CRTC license to program for 2nd generation Canadians…What a kicker.”
Indeed.  Also, Canada’s largest newspaper publisher has been granted permission to broadcast digitally.  Great.  With friends like the CRTC, who needs enemies?  Right, Quebecor?
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, September 20, 2007
5:19 p.m.
CORRECTION:  This piece erroneously noted in its original version that the CMG was “trying to secure a second collective bargaining agreement for the demoralized workers at the struggling Toronto station.  (The previous one expired in January 2006.)”.  According to National President Lise Lareau, Sun TV never had such an arrangement in place before.  They were, in fact, working towards their first agreement.
When she originally brought the mistake to my attention, I expressed confusion.  I had long been under the impression that this was the second go-round for contract talks.  As she explained in her third email, “There was no company-wide contract of any kind in place.  People had individual arrangements.  We organized the station in summer 05 (it had gone on the air in 04).  And we worked to get an agreement starting in late 05 through 06 and half of 07.”
“Where you might have become confused,” she continued.  “is that by law, when collective bargaining is underway, conditions of employment have to be ‘frozen’ until agreement is reached.  So individuals’ contracts could not be changed while the talks were on.”
She concluded thusly:
“Interesting to see what happens to their contracts now….”
Let the speculation begin.
At any event, special thanks to National President Lareau for clearing this all up.  My apologies for the error.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, September 21, 2007
6:48 p.m.
Published in: on September 20, 2007 at 5:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge Of The Sith

He is a deliciously evil villain.  The way he shamelessly tantalizes you with temptation knowing full well how vulnerable you are.  The way he reels you in like a squirming trout caught on a hook.  The way he plays you like a fiddle.  He is the true master, a heartless scoundrel, a political hack with only galactic domination on his mind.  Good luck standing in his way.  His increasing power is no match for mere mortals or young Jedis.  Your fate is in his hands which is just the way he wants it.
Ian McDiarmid’s portrayal of Emperor Palpatine in Revenge Of The Sith, the sixth and final Star Wars movie (really the third episode of the series), is magnificent, easily the best interpretation of the character he’s delivered.  Every time he appears on screen, especially in the latter stages of the film, you feel his dark presence, you hang on his every word and you can easily understand why anyone would follow him.  He is a seductive beast.  If Hell required a new ruler, he wouldn’t have to audition.  The job would be his.
As he inevitably transforms himself from a quietly shady political figure in The Republic, as seen in The Phantom Menace and Attack Of The Clones, to Lord Sidious, the truly hideous ruler of not only the Sith, practitioners of the dark side of The Force, but also the galaxy, the creepier and deadlier he becomes.  He is a terrific nemesis, a cackling figure of unapologetic malice.
But it’s a wasted performance in a unnecessary movie.  Despite being the best looking production I’ve ever seen, Revenge Of The Sith, like the other two Star Wars prequels, feels perfunctory and not entirely engrossing.  It only exists to fill in plot gaps and to tie this "first" trilogy to the second.  As a result, this "back story" never compares favourably to the original trilogy.
Let’s be clear here.  The action sequences, the special effects, John Williams’ timeless, goose pimply score, and the sound are first rate.  Even though it can be a little disorienting following all of the incredible detail put into all the visuals (some of which are clearly inspired by Blade Runner and Citizen Kane) because there’s so much to take in, technically speaking, it’s perfect looking.  But when the movie catches its breath and tries to tell a story with these characters, it’s a letdown.  We simply don’t care about them, with the notable exception of Palpatine who gets just the right amount of screen time.
It’s never been understood why writer/director George Lucas cast Hayden Christensen in the role of Anakin Skywalker.  When he’s not acting stiffly in scenes with Natalie Portman (his pregnant, secret wife) and Ewan McGregor (his Jedi master, Obi-Wan Kenobi), he’s trying too hard to scowl in an evil manner.  Ultimately, he’s less convincing here than he was in Attack Of The Clones.  In his scenes with Palpatine, he doesn’t hold his own.  The real villain makes him look like a third-rate amateur.  And his wild mane of hair looks too fake, as well.
The movie begins as every Star Wars movie begins, with familiar studio and production company logos, a one-line graphic that puts a space-age twist on "Once upon a time…", the greatest title music ever heard and three paragraphs explaining what we’re about to see.  The Clone Wars continue to rage while Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, whose term of office has expired but remains in power because of the conflict, has been kidnapped by an old, wheezing droid named General Grievous.  After battling various enemies in space, Anakin and Obi-Wan manage to sneak onboard Grievous’ ship to retrieve The Phantom Menace.
When they find Palpatine, he’s not exactly tied up or in any serious kind of danger.  He’s resting comfortably in a fancy swivel chair, waiting patiently for them.  (You would think Jedis would sense all of that beforehand, but I guess The Force had the day off.)  Soon, Count Dooku (the great Christopher Lee who was wonderful in Attack Of The Clones) is eager for a lightsaber duel.  The results of this encounter please Palpatine who believes he’s found his new apprentice.  He senses anger and fear in Anakin and urges him to give in to all of these feelings in order to make him stronger.  By the end of the picture, he’s completely embraced the dark side, thanks entirely to Palpatine who constantly feeds him paranoid propaganda about the Jedis taking over the Senate and ultimately, the Republic.
After over 20 minutes of non-stop action, the movie slows down long enough to remind us of the unconvincing romance between Anakin and Padme Amidala, a relationship that has long felt forced and obligatory.  Anakin starts having recurring nightmares about his new bride.  He senses they’re a premonition about Padme that he can’t stop which turns into an unrelenting obsession.  Palpatine, who could easily put Miss Cleo out of business, already knows all about this and in one marvellous scene, he tells Anakin a revealing anecdote that underscores, in his mind, the strong benefits of embracing the dark side of The Force.  If Anakin aligns with him, nothing bad will ever happen to Padme, he promises.  The young Jedi, desperate to alter a foreboding future, is listening closely but is struggling with his Jedi principles and ideology.  It’s only a matter of time, though, before his confusion leaves him for good and he fully embraces Palpatine’s role for him, a tragic choice as we all know.
Before that transformation occurs, though, in between a number of dramatic sequences that don’t feel as natural as they ought to, there’s more gripping action and more stunning visuals.  Sadly, despite their untouchable excellence, they can’t overcompensate for lacklustre heroes who aren’t nearly as interesting or as smart as the villains and a story that isn’t nearly as emotionally involving as it should be.  The Empire Strikes Back, this isn’t.
I am a child of the Star Wars generation.  For my third Christmas, the year the first film was released, I requested Star Wars sheets (or "sheeps", as I mysteriously called them).  Rather than just wrapping them unopened, my parents had a more magical approach.  On Christmas Eve, they waited until I finally fell asleep.  Then, after carefully and temporarily relocating me to another piece of furniture, they removed the linen from my bed and replaced it with the Star Wars "sheeps" I was dying to own.  Then I was gently placed back under the new covers still asleep and blissfully unaware of everything that had just transpired.  The payoff came when I woke up.
As the years went by, I would see Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi numerous times (initially, out of order) and fully embrace the series’ weirdly spiritual mythology.  Like many young kids, I had it bad for Princess Leia and loved imitating Darth Vader’s infamous breathing.  We all felt connected with these characters, especially the heroes who we unashamedly rooted for.  We loved their sense of humour, their quirks and their bravery.
It’s impossible to feel the same way for the heroes of the prequels.  From The Phantom Menace to this movie, Revenge Of The Sith, I’ve found it very difficult to muster much enthusiasm for them.  Hayden Christensen isn’t Mark Hamill, nor is he James Earl Jones.  Natalie Portman, one of the most beautiful women working in the movies today, is no Carrie Fisher.  And Ewan McGregor, so good in Trainspotting, doesn’t compare to Alec Guinness.  Without a strong emotional investment in them and the story itself, all that’s left are exquisitely detailed footage and compelling action.
Maybe if it was some other movie, that would be enough.  But this is Star Wars.  No matter how great it looks and how technically brilliant it is, the plot and characters have to be equally first-rate.  And they’re not.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
2:15 p.m.
Published in: on September 18, 2007 at 2:16 pm  Comments (1)  

X-Men: The Last Stand

It’s been a disappointing franchise.  The first film was a close call for me.  With too many characters vying for screen time, not all of them beautifully portrayed or interesting (beyond their special gifts), overall, it didn’t fly.  The second never did recover after the entertaining first ten minutes.  A weak villain, an unexciting plot and an overlong running time thoroughly sank it.  As a result, I had low expectations for number three.
But much to my surprise, despite its flaws, X-Men: The Last Stand is the best of the series, good but not great and almost a miss.  As Cosmo Kramer would say, "It’s a Festivus miracle!"
In X-Men (2000), we were introduced to Professor Charles Xavier (a perfectly cast Patrick Stewart), a wise old mutant in a wheelchair (with those cool "X" logos) who runs a special private school for young kids with special powers.  We learned about the falling out he had with Magneto (the excellent Sir Ian McKellan), a fellow mutant with a strong disdain for the persistent prejudice humans feel for his kind.  Professor X is the mutant Martin Luther King Jr. to Magneto’s Malcolm X.  The former wants humans and mutants to co-exist peacefully while the latter is more than willing to go to war against his enemies, the deeply xenophobic United States Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison) being the number one target, in order to preserve freedom for himself and his followers.  Think "mutant power" instead of "black power".
The good professor and his allies – Storm (Halle Berry, who I felt was miscast) and Wolverine (the charismatic Hugh Jackman’s breakthrough role), among them – helped foil Magneto which led to his incarceration in a special non-metal prison.  (He’s able to manipulate and control large objects made of that substance with his mind not unlike Yoda, hence the need for the alternate material.) 
In the second movie, the X-Men required his assistance for a special rescue mission.  (Another mutant-hating baddie (Brian Cox in one of his least interesting performances) had kidnapped Professor X.)  And now, we have this movie which has some of the best action sequences I’ve seen in quite some time.  In fact, they’re the reason I enjoyed the movie.
The movie opens with a couple of flashbacks.  In the first one, Professor X, not yet in that snazzy wheelchair, and Magneto are not yet enemies.  They meet a young Jean Grey at her parents’ home.  She might be the most powerful mutant they’ve ever discovered, which is precisely why they want her to enrol in their special private school. 
At the end of the second film, she was killed off and when the movie returns to the present she’s waiting to be resurrected by her grieving boyfriend, Cyclops (James Marsden).  Still haunted by her death, she calls out to him – "Scott.  Scott." – until he arrives at the scene of her demise.  A well-timed laser blast from his eyes into the ocean where she drowned somehow results in her re-birth.  After briefly rekindling their romance (they always had zilcho chemistry, unfortunately), a tragedy occurs.
That’s one of the delights of this movie.  There’s genuine suspense regarding the fates of our heroes.  Some make it, some die spectacularly.
Meanwhile, Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) has been apprehended by the authorities after learning some important news.  A "cure" for mutantism has been discovered and plans are underway to offer it to anyone who can’t handle the terminal alienation from humans any further.  (A mutant politician, well played by an unrecognizable Kelsey Grammer, feels conflicted about it, as does the community at large.)  Rogue (Anna Paquin), the cute girl with the powerful kiss of death, is one of the few eager to lose her powers after seeing the announcement on live Television.  With her frustrated boyfriend, Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), starting to spend time with another cute mutant named Kitty (Canadian Ellen Page), time’s a-wastin’.  Others publicly protest outside the clinic where the cure is being offered.
The romantic elements of these films were always the least interesting with the exception of the Wolverine-Jean Grey pairing.  (He was Cyclops’ rival for her affection.)  Once she’s back resting at the mutant school, Professor X informs us that she has a split personality.  Thanks to his schooling and medical know-how, the good side is able to control her magnificent superpower and use it for noble purposes.  The bad side?  It makes her oversexed and full of rage.  After briefly seducing Wolverine, she flees and eventually aligns herself with Magneto, who’s building an army of mutants to do battle with the humans.  But first, he needs to rescue Mystique (still up to her shape-shifting tricks) and get a full report on what she’s learned about the cure.
X-Men: The Last Stand is far from a perfect movie.  It’s a bit uneven in the first act, after three strong opening scenes, where it’s not so action-heavy.  It lags a bit in places.  The dialogue isn’t Shakespeare.  Don’t expect any deep thoughts in any of the conversations here, the provocative premise notwithstanding.  (Very little time is spent debating the ethics of the cure.)  It’s mostly straightforward and serviceable with the occasional and completely unnecessary cliche.  ("Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." "The best defence is a good offence.")
As always, there are too many characters competing for our attention and it’s easy to lose track of who’s who from time to time.  As a result, it’s not always possible to form immediate emotional attachments to them.  (They need more than gimmicks to keep us involved.)  But as the film progresses and nicely picks up momentum, it’s surprising how much we care about the outcome.  The intensity of the action, surprisingly, makes those attachments somewhat unnecessary. 
The romantic subplots, continued from the earlier chapters, for the most part, lack spice and conviction, as they always did but they’re thankfully given the bare minimum of scenes here.  The plot, while interesting, is very much a high concept (it can be summed up in a sentence, in other words).  Everything is a set-up for the real joy of the film:  those astounding action sequences.
From Jean Grey’s battle with Professor X to the Golden Gate Bridge sequence to Mystique’s rescue to the Juggernaut/Kitty chase to the exciting third act and everything in between, these are some of the best directed action scenes I’ve ever seen.  Bloodless and yet remarkably brutal.  Who would’ve thought that Brett Ratner (a last-minute sub for X-Men’s regular director, Bryan Singer, who was preoccupied with Superman Returns), the guy responsible for two bad Rush Hour pics (haven’t seen the third one yet), a dreadful Hannibal Lecter remake (Red Dragon), and a crappy heist picture (After The Sunset) would be capable of making the best movie in the series, the only one I enjoyed?
The stellar special effects, the beautiful cinematography, the crisp editing and those jolting foley effects, along with the actual action, are blended seamlessly to the point where you constantly blurt out "Cool!".  Why?  Because you can’t contain your excitement.  I also liked the movie’s sense of humour.  Most of the quips are funny.
Still, the movie could’ve been more than just an efficient action film.  In fact, in the beginning, it looked like it wasn’t going to work for me. (In the first half, before the movie found its rhythm, I was leaning towards a mixed review.) With fewer characters to focus on, more compelling dialogue and more consistently engrossing dramatic sequences to complement the violence, X-Men: The Last Stand could’ve been something special.  That being said, Brett Ratner was the right choice to direct this movie.  Action scenes were always his strong suit (the first Rush Hour provides the evidence) and thanks to his confident work on this third X-Men movie, he’s got a difficult job ahead trying to top what he’s accomplished.
This might not be the last movie in the series, if the final scenes are any indication.  But considering how long it took to get a decent movie out of these old comic book characters, maybe it’s best to quit while you’re ahead.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, September 14, 2007
2:00 p.m.
Published in: on September 14, 2007 at 2:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

Flashback: Assessing Premiere Magazine’s 1992 Summer Movie Predictions (Part Four)

Premiere’s Pick:  Far And Away
It could’ve been called Sure As The Moon or The Irish Story.  Regardless, Ron Howard’s first attempt at an old-school epic was a risky proposition in the summer of 1992.  It wasn’t a sequel like Honey, I Blew Up The Kid or a three-quel like Alien 3.  There was no built-in audience for its storyline and it wasn’t based on an existing work.  Set in the late 1800s, its two leads speak with Irish lilts in their voices.  Shot in glorious 70mm, it runs nearly 2 and a half hours.
Tom Cruise and his then-second wife Nicole Kidman (yet to be respected as an actor in her own right at the time) play polar opposites in their second on-screen collaboration (Days Of Thunder and Eyes Wide Shut were the others).  He’s the poor son out for vengeance after the untimely death of his father.  He blames Kidman’s aristocratic dad and goes after him only to get a pitchfork in the leg courtesy of his daughter.  (I wonder how many times Kidman relieved this moment during her divorce from Cruise.)
Once he’s healed, they’re off to America to explore The New World together.  Unsurprisingly, despite their differences, they fall in love.  He thrives by fighting while she struggles with jobs no rich girl would ever consider.  The film’s best moment is its climax:  the Oklahoma land rush where many gallop away like madmen to secure a piece of their future.
I screened the film about a week before its wide release at a special sneak preview and loved it.  It’s one of Cruise’s least appreciated pictures.  Director Howard would find far more success later on with the cleverly constructed Oscar winner, A Beautiful Mind, and his best film, Apollo 13.  All three would make an ideal triple bill.
Premiere expected it to make money.  In the end, it made back its budget and not much else.  59 million altogether.  Kidman would eventually receive the respect she so rightly deserves as an actor thanks to performances in To Die For and The Hours.  Her portrayal of Virginia Woolf at her lowest in the latter earned her a Best Actress Oscar.  After three nominations for his work, Cruise is still waiting for his golden trophy.
Where The Film Actually Placed:  Eighth
The Real #5:  Unforgiven
The sleeper hit of the summer.  Premiere mentioned it briefly in its summer preview issue but never expected it to do as well as it did.  In fact, they weren’t the only ones caught by surprise.
Written many years earlier by David Webb Peoples (who also wrote Blade Runner), Eastwood sat on the script for nearly a decade until he was old enough and ready enough to tackle the lead role.  Originally entitled The William Munny Killings, Eastwood is the title character, a formerly notorious gunslinger in the old west, widowed with children, who’s wooed back after an irresistible request from a whorehouse.  One of the prostitutes has been slashed by a john and it’s up to Eastwood, his best friend Morgan Freeman and Canadian actor Jaimz Woolvett to take care of business before collecting their reward.
A thoughtful character study about the possibilities of permanently repressing violent tendencies, it wasn’t supposed to click.  The western was dead.  Movies released in August aren’t expected to make that much money.  But the conventional wisdom was wrong.  The film is excellent, one of Eastwood’s best, and connected with audiences and critics right from the get-go.  (Gene Siskel, on the other hand, famously panned it.)  After receiving a number of Oscar nominations, it was reissued in February 1993 where it added to its already impressive total.  (The film would end up being named Best Picture and Gene Hackman, who played the ruthlessly corrupt sheriff, Little Bill Daggett, would snag the Best Supporting Actor trophy.  Eastwood had to talk him into doing the role before he would accept.)
After all was said and done, Unforgiven earned 101 million dollars domestically.
Premiere’s Pick:  Patriot Games
After negotiations with Alec Baldwin broke down (he played Jack Ryan in The Hunt For Red October), Director Philip Noyce turned to Harrison Ford who unwittingly found himself anchoring yet another franchise, albeit briefly.  Based on the best-selling novels by Tom Clancy, Patriot Games, the second film in the series, much like its predecessor, was a hit.  Surprisingly, despite being far more action-packed, it made less money.  (83 million to Red October’s 121 million.)
The entertaining action thriller spawned another sequel two years later, Clear And Present Danger (also good), which outperformed the earlier chapters with its 122 million take.  In 2002, Ben Affleck became the third actor to play Jack Ryan in The Sum Of All Fears.  It made 118 million.
Premiere called it right again with regards to Patriot Games’ financial prospects (“Alec Baldwin becomes…George Lazenby?”, as they put it.  The latter played James Bond once in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.) but the film was not the fourth biggest film of the summer.
Where The Movie Actually Placed:  Sixth
The Real #4:  A League Of Their Own
Premiere’s Pick:  Housesitter
This very funny comedy about a con artist (Goldie Hawn) who pretends to be an architect’s wife (Steve Martin) in order to make his former girlfriend (Dana Delany) jealous and win her back after she turned down his marriage proposal didn’t do nearly as well as Premiere hoped.  “[I]t’s the date movie of the summer,” they declared.  But despite being a good movie, Housesitter only accumulated 59 million at the box office.
Where The Movie Actually Placed:  Tenth
The Real #3:  Sister Act
Premiere’s Pick & The Real #2:  Lethal Weapon 3
After batting 0 for 18, they finally got one right.  The third installment in the Riggs/Murtaugh saga didn’t quite make it artistically but commercially, it was robust, just as the magazine predicted.  Its grand total domestically was 145 million, just shy of LW2’s final take of 147 million.  It remains the most successful Lethal Weapon movie.  A fourth chapter surfaced six years later to much critical disdain.  It made a healthy 130 million.  The original only made 65 million.
Will there be a fifth?  Maybe if they make Riggs anti-semitic.  Nah, that wouldn’t work.  Nobody would believe it.
Premiere’s Pick & The Real #1:  Batman Returns
It’s better than the 1989 original.  There’s two compelling villains instead of one.  And its flaws notwithstanding, it’s a good comic book movie.  Despite all of that, Premiere Magazine made an accurate prediction:
“Less than the first one.”
Indeed, this Batman made nearly 100 million less than its predecessor.  (Maybe The Joker should’ve returned?)  Batman Returns made 163 million in North America without the presence of a black Robin.  (Marlon Wayans was reportedly going to play him before it was decided that the character wouldn’t be involved in the story.)  Batman made 251 million.  Batman Forever, the third movie in the revived series, would do a bit better in 1995.  It made 184 million.
After the pummelling Batman & Robin received in 1997 (it still managed to take in 107 million domestically), it would be an eight-year wait for the next movie.  When Batman Begins arrived in the summer of 2005, the impossible happened.  Roger Ebert gave it a good review.  It wrapped up its theatrical run with a 205 million bounty.  Expect another sequel, The Dark Knight, in 2008.
Premiere’s Full List Of Predictions (Overall Score: 2 for 20)
 1. Batman Returns
 2. Lethal Weapon 3
 3. Housesitter
 4. Patriot Games
 5. Far And Away
 6. Boomerang
 7. The Last Of The Mohicans
 8. Trespass (AKA The Looters)
 9. Death Becomes Her
10. Alien 3
11. Single White Female
12. Honeymoon In Vegas
13. Pinocchio (Disney Re-issue)
14. A League Of Their Own
15. Honey, I Blew Up The Kid
16. Universal Soldier
17. Singles
18. Encino Man
19. Buffy The Vampire Slayer
20. Sister Act
The Top 20 Grossing Summer Films Of 1992
 1. Batman Returns ($162,831,698)
 2. Lethal Weapon 3 ($144,731,527)
 3. Sister Act ($139,605,150)
 4. A League Of Their Own ($107,533,925)
 5. Unforgiven ($101,157,447)
 6. Patriot Games ($83,287,363)
 7. Boomerang ($70,100,000)
 8. Far And Away ($58,883,840)
 9. Honey, I Blew Up The Kid ($58,662,452)
10. Housesitter ($58,500,635)
11. Death Becomes Her ($58,422,650)
12. Unlawful Entry ($57,138,179)
13. Alien 3 ($55,473,600)
14. Single White Female ($48,017,402)
15. Encino Man ($40,693,477)
16. Mo’ Money ($40,227,006)
17. Universal Soldier ($36,299,898)
18. Honeymoon In Vegas ($35,208,854)
19. 3 Ninjas ($29,000,301)
20. Raising Cain ($21,370,057)
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, September 9, 2007
11:09 p.m.
Published in: on September 9, 2007 at 11:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

Flashback: Assessing Premiere Magazine’s 1992 Summer Movie Predictions (Part Three)

Premiere’s Pick:  Alien 3
It had been six years since the previous chapter in this lucrative franchise was released.  That would be Aliens, James Cameron’s entertaining sequel to Ridley Scott’s scary 1979 original, both commercial hits.  Neither director was involved with number three and it showed.  It was up to former music video director David Fincher to deliver the goods for his first movie.  For some, he did.  For the rest of us, we’ll stick with the first two.
Premiere Magazine revealed that it was a difficult shoot (“…fourteen-hour days, six-day [work] weeks…”) and Fincher felt the pressure from 20th Century Fox who had a lot of money riding on the movie.  Premiere called it right when it predicted “[a] big opening…and a big drop-off.”  The film made over 20 million in its first weekend but ultimately grossed 55 million overall.  But once again, it picked the wrong placement.
Fincher would put the experience behind him and develop a good reputation as a burgeoning talent with hit and miss commercial appeal.  He followed up Alien 3 with the much more effective Seven, which remains his biggest hit, in the fall of 1995.  Then came The Game with Michael Douglas in 1997, Fight Club (his second collaboration with Brad Pitt) in 1999, Panic Room with Jodie Foster in 2002 and this year’s Zodiac with Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal.
There would be one more sequel in the series:  Alien: Resurrection which is easily the worst entry thus far.  Tribute Magazine reported in 2001 that a fifth movie was on the way but that never materialized.  Instead, Ridley Scott released his director’s cut of Alien which was just as good as the earlier version.  Alien 3 just doesn’t measure up to either of them.
Where The Movie Actually Placed:  Thirteenth
The Real #10:  Housesitter
Premiere’s Pick:  Death Becomes Her
This is one of Robert Zemeckis’ least effective summer movies.  (What Lies Beneath is even worse, actually.)  Two women (Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn) fight over a plastic surgeon (Bruce Willis) who continually performs unnecessary enhancements on their bodies which result in unforeseen complications.  Isabella Rossellini, in one of her most elegant roles, also appears in the film.
Premiere thought it was an “either/or” proposition.  (“Either it tanks or it kills.”)  In the end, it did just ok.  58 million in ticket sales altogether.  The biggest triumph for the movie was its special effects which would go on to win the 1993 Best Visual Effects Oscar.  Too bad the movie wasn’t all that funny.
Where The Movie Actually Finished:  Eleventh
The Real #9:  Honey, I Blew Up The Kid
Premiere’s Pick:  Trespass (AKA The Looters)
The overreaction to the 1992 Los Angeles Riots over that whole Rodney King business pretty much killed this movie’s chances for box office glory.  Originally entitled The Looters and scheduled for a July release, the very squeamish Universal Pictures pushed it back to Christmas Day (!) and had it renamed Trespass.  Unsurprisingly, it got trampled to death in a stampede of holiday blockbusters (Home Alone 2 and Aladdin, to name a couple.).  Its overall take:  14 million.  Not good.
It’s a shame because the movie is good.  Ice T, Ice Cube, Bill Paxton and William Sadler all give believable performances in a story that worked for me when I saw it in my local cinema.  Premiere Magazine summed up the plot thusly:
“Two white firemen looking for loot fight it out with two black crime lords in an abandoned building in East St. Louis.”
Robert Zemeckis co-wrote the screenplay.
The Real #8:  Far And Away
Premiere’s Pick:  The Last Of The Mohicans
Another movie that was supposed to be out in July, this most recent cinematic update of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel was wisely moved to late September where it destroyed Billy Crystal’s directorial debut, the hilarious and criminally scorned Mr. Saturday Night.  A decent-sized hit, the Michael Mann-helmed epic made 76 million in the fall of 1992.  (He would go on to make another great picture:  Heat, with Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro.)  Curiously, if it had performed as well during its originally scheduled summer release, Premiere would’ve actually gotten one of its predictions absolutely right.  It would’ve indeed finished seventh overall.
The Real #7:  Boomerang
Premiere’s Pick:  Boomerang
Much like Tom Hanks, Eddie Murphy fell into a bit of a slump between 1989 and 1991.   There was his first film as a director, Harlem Nights, which disappointed many and Another 48 Hours which fell below expectations (it’s a guilty pleasure for me).  Nevertheless, this comedy about a womanizing advertising executive (who’s very particular about feet) who meets his match in Robin Givens ended his brief dry spell.  It ended up earning 70 million during its summer run in 1992.
Premiere called it right but just missed the correct placement by one position.
The Real #6:  Patriot Games
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, September 9, 2007
9:05 p.m.
Published in: on September 9, 2007 at 9:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

Flashback: Assessing Premiere Magazine’s 1992 Summer Movie Predictions (Part Two)

Premiere’s Pick:  Honey, I Blew Up The Kid
This underwhelming sequel to the charming 1989 blockbuster, Honey, I Shrunk The Kids (which made 131 million theatrically) effectively ended the idea of future sequels.  Despite terrific special effects, it wasn’t nearly as funny and sweet as the original.  Premiere Magazine correctly predicted that “it won’t really work for either kids or adults–but enough of them will come.”.  It just got the placement wrong.  The film made close to 60 million in the summer of 1992.
Where The Movie Actually Finished:  Ninth
The Real #15:  Encino Man
Premiere’s Pick:  A League Of Their Own
There really were professional female ballplayers.  From 1943 to 1954, The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (it had three other official names, according to Wikipedia) filled the vacuum that World War II created.  It was a period where women were expected to do “men’s work” while their male counterparts fought Hitler and his allies, and this extended to the sports world.  The roots of the feminist movement and America’s Title IX policy can be traced back to this time in history.
Director Penny Marshall saw a 1987 documentary about the league, attended a 1989 players’ reunion and later swiped the title for her fictional version, written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (who frequently collaborate with Billy Crystal).  Despite the fact that she was riding high on the success of her excellent Awakenings and had a first-rate cast along with a moving and very funny script, Premiere Magazine was decidedly unconvinced of its box office potential:
“They chew, they spit, they scratch their crotches…but it’s not a packed house.”
Wrong.  The film was a monster finishing with close to 110 million in overall revenue.  (Only 3 other films that summer hit nine digits.)  Geena Davis had her second big hit in a row following the even better Thelma & Louise.  Future Monk co-star Bitty Schram had a memorable supporting role.  (“There’s no crying in baseball!”)  Jon Lovitz taught us the joy of “a pickle tickle”.  And most importantly, Tom Hanks began an extraordinary, ongoing run of critically acclaimed commercial juggernauts after a few, bitter disappointments.  It remains one of the most remarkable comebacks by any actor in film history.  2 Best Actor Oscars (won back-to-back; a rare feat) and 2 other nominations later, he continues to add to his treasure trove of hits.  He is still one of the most bankable stars in the business.  Pretty impressive for a guy who starred in The Bonfire Of The Vanities.
Where The Movie Actually Finished:  Fourth
The Real #14:  Single White Female
Premiere’s Pick:  Pinocchio
For its seventh theatrical run in America, Premiere Magazine expected this beloved 1940 Disney cartoon to outperform Honey, I Blew Up The Kid in a year where there were few family films.  What they didn’t mention is that the film was widely available on videotape and laserdisc, a significant “Stumbling Block” that should not have been omitted.
That being said, the film did squeeze another 20 million dollars out of eager young audiences wanting to see the film the way it was meant to be seen:  on a giant screen.
Where The Movie Actually Finished:  Out Of The Top 20
The Real #13:  Alien 3
Premiere’s Pick:  Honeymoon In Vegas
Nicolas Cage and Sarah Jessica Parker play a couple who impulsively marry in Las Vegas but their relationship is tested when Cage offers her to gambler James Caan for a weekend to settle an outstanding poker debt in this terribly unfunny Andrew Bergman comedy.  The deceased Pat Morita has a funny cameo as a cab driver, though.  And we shouldn’t forget The Flying Elvises, the skydiving team that plays a pivotal role in the film’s third act.  (Cage would later be briefly married to Elvis’ daughter, Lisa Marie.  His Elvis rumination remains strong despite the failed relationship.)
Premiere expected it to be a big date movie but alas, it only performed marginally.  Its total take:  35 million.
Where The Movie Actually Finished:  Eighteenth
The Real #12:  Unlawful Entry
Jonathan Kaplan’s formulaic thriller about a creepy, corrupt cop (brilliantly played by Ray Liotta) who spends way too much time obsessing about Kurt Russell’s hot wife, Madeline Stowe, after their traumatic experience dealing with a home invader failed to get a single mention in Premiere’s summer movie preview.  Despite the complete snub, the film took in a healthy 57 million.
Premiere’s Pick:  Single White Female
You know you have a hit movie on your hands when Saturday Night Live does a decent parody of it.  Remember Pat, the androgynous character played by Julia Sweeney?  In a skit that aired in the fall of 1992, Pat has a roommate that cops her look and tries to steal her lover played by Dana Carvey.  (“In the dark, you look like kd lang!”)  In the movie version, Jennifer Jason Leigh (in a great performance) moves in with Bridget Fonda (also in fine form) after the latter places a personal ad requesting a roommate.  Unfortunately, Leigh is a bit of a psycho and becomes so obsessed with Fonda (and her boyfriend, Steven Weber) that she not only steals her appearance (including her famous short haircut) she does creepy things for her approval.
Directed by Barbet Shroeder, who made the sensational Reversal Of Fortune, Premiere correctly expected it to be a hit.  Again, they just got the placement wrong.  The August film ultimately made 48 million.
Where The Movie Actually Finished:  Fourteenth
The Real #11:  Death Becomes Her
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, September 9, 2007
5:03 p.m.
Published in: on September 9, 2007 at 5:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

Flashback: Assessing Premiere Magazine’s 1992 Summer Movie Predictions (Part One)

Envisioning the future correctly is next to impossible (unless you’re Al Gore).  That’s why psychics exist “for entertainment purposes only”.  Otherwise, they’d be cleaning up at the track while keeping their perfect gift to themselves.  (Greedy gamblers on a hot streak aren’t the sharing type.)  To make a prediction about anything and commit it to print is a fool’s game.  No matter how great you think your prognosticating abilities are, you’re bound to make a bone-headed pick on more than one occasion.  (I offer this as a personal example.)  But that doesn’t stop anybody from making silly guesses now, does it?
Back when it was a real publication (and not an online-only venture), Premiere Magazine made interesting predictions of its own.  For instance, every year, they would list what they believe would be the Top 20 grossing films of the summer.  It was a fun way to get people talking and arguing about the next batch of warm weather blockbusters.  (Other titles that didn’t make the list would be saved for a supplemental article in the same issue.  Curiously, not every summer release warranted a mention from the magazine so the overall coverage was strangely incomplete.)
Very slowly, over the last several years, I’ve been going through my old entertainment magazines, which includes a small number of Premieres.  (I bought numerous issues between 1992 and 1996.)  Recently, I just finished reading the June 1992 issue.  (Tom Cruise, Ron Howard and the then-exquisite redhead Nicole Kidman, who were promoting the underrated Far And Away at the time, were on the cover.)  The issue featured the magazine’s picks for the summer season that year.  How well did they do?  Let’s examine the evidence 15 years after the fact:
Premiere’s Pick:  Sister Act
On paper, this sounded like a bang-on prediction.  Despite winning an Oscar for playing a real psychic in Ghost and receiving good reviews for her performance in The Long Walk Home, Whoopi Goldberg had yet to prove herself as a leading lady.  The only reason she kept getting movie roles, particularly leads through much of the 1980s, was because of home video.  Her theatrical failures became VHS gold.
How everything changed because of this 1992 sleeper.  For two consecutive weeks before its nationwide release, it was sneak previewed in select theatres.  The audiences who attended those screenings loved what they saw and got the word out.  By the end of its long, fruitful theatrical run, it made 140 million dollars domestically.  Who knew that gospel singing nuns and the Nevada mafia had such strong crossover appeal?  Premiere didn’t.
Where The Movie Actually Finished:  Third
The Real #20:  Raising Cain
His first movie after The Bonfire Of The Vanities, Brian DePalma returned with a horror movie that starred John Lithgow.  Released in August 1992, the film ended up making 21 million.  Premiere gave it a short notice in their summer movie preview.
Premiere’s Pick:  Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Long before it was a highly regarded TV series, it was a terrible movie.  Kristy Swanson was the original hero in a film that featured pre-stardom performances by David Arquette, Ben Affleck and a big-haired Hilary Swank.  (It was also Paul Reubens first project after being caught masturbating in a public porno theatre.)
The magazine predicted that it “[c]ould upset Encino Man, but don’t stake the rent.”  In the end, creator Joss Whedon’s first foray into movies was a dismal flop.  The film made less than 20 million and it was far from critically acclaimed.  Five years later, he tried again by turning the original idea into a series.  The result was much more satisfying.
Where The Movie Actually Finished:  Out Of The Top 20
The Real #19:  3 Ninjas
An implausible story of three pint-size ass-kickers was another unexpected late-summer hit.  It made 29 million and started a franchise.  One of the sequels inspired the creation of a video game for the Sega Genesis system.  Premiere never mentioned it in its summer preview.
Premiere’s Pick:  Encino Man
Pauly Shore’s breakthrough hit did a bit better than expected in a highly competitive month.  (Lethal Weapon 3, Sister Act, Far And Away, and Alien 3 were all released in May 1992.)  The story of a couple of high school losers (Shore and future Hobbit Sean Astin) who discover a frozen caveman (Brendan Fraser) which somehow makes them worthy of attention grossed 41 million.  All three stars would find steady employment thereafter, although Shore’s film career would pretty much die after 1996’s Bio-Dome.
Where The Movie Actually Finished:  Fifteenth
The Real #18:  Honeymoon In Vegas
Premiere’s Pick:  Singles
Cameron Crowe’s underappreciated cinematic valentine to the Seattle music scene would ultimately not get a summer release as originally scheduled.  It was pushed back to September where it sadly failed to find an audience.  The film made less than 20 million during its brief theatrical foray.  The soundtrack, however, was a multi-platinum smash which featured a who’s who of Washington State rock, both past (Hendrix) and present (Pearl Jam) along with an epic track by an unknown Chicago group called The Smashing Pumpkins.
The Real #17: Universal Soldier
Premiere’s Pick: Universal Soldier
The magazine came close with this one.  Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren (where are you now?) are soldiers who die in one war and are then brought back to life by state-of-the-art technology to fight another one but their rivalry remains.  Lundgren’s the heel, The Muscles From Brussels is the hero.  Ally Walker plays a reporter.
Despite being mediocre, it found a modest audience to the tune of 36 million.  2 straight-to-video sequels followed and then in 1999, Universal Soldier: The Return, Van Damme’s only sequel, had a very short theatrical visit.  It remains the last time he’s appeared on the silver screen in North America.  Despite the fact that he’s never stopped making movies, his titles go straight-to-video here while playing exclusively in foreign theatres.
The Real #16:  Mo’ Money
Premiere mentioned it briefly in their summer preview but obviously didn’t think it stood much of a chance when it opened in July.  Its total box office take:  40 million.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, September 9, 2007
2:56 p.m.
Published in: on September 9, 2007 at 2:57 pm  Comments (1)  

More Missing Sun Media Writers

It can be frustrating and aggravating.  Infuriating and upsetting, as well.  No matter how great the effort, it’s extremely difficult to repress those feelings when examining the current state of Sun Media.  This website started focusing on the beleaguered newspaper conglomerate late last year in a Loser Of The Year installment.  Noted in the piece were the unusually high number of employees who had mostly disappeared from The Toronto Sun.  Few of the exits were ever properly reported in the flagship tabloid and only a small number of exiting columnists announced their departures in farewell columns.
Thanks to emails from Lydia Lovric and blogger Fading To Black (whose site I contribute occasional items to), some burning questions about the missing columnists have been answered.  (The Toronto Sun Family Blog has also been a consistently good source of information.)  But it remains perplexing why Quebecor, the parent company of Sun Media, which also publishes The Winnipeg Sun, The Calgary Sun, The Ottawa Sun and The London Free Press, has put profit ahead of integrity and basic human decency since they overtook the mostly tabloid newspaper chain in the late 1990s.  Now that the company has successfully purchased Osprey Media, it’s the largest newspaper corporation in Canada.  That couldn’t have happened if it wasn’t rolling in dough.  As this site has maintained since 2006, there has been no legitimate economic reason for the ousting of so many of its workers, whether you know their names or not.  And furthermore, they tend to fire the wrong people.  (TV Critic Bill Brioux, now with The Canadian Press, and Val Gibson, the former Intimacies columnist, were tossed overboard while political pundits Salim Mansur, Michael Coren and Rachel Marsden still safely remain.)
After continuing to cover more shameful employee firings and “retirements”, as well as other subjects like the controversial editorial policy change regarding the signed Point Of View commentaries, for a number of months in the first half of 2007, it became increasingly depressing and disillusioning to keep track of all the bad news.  So, I stopped reading the daily print edition of The Toronto Sun.  I continue to visit the paper’s official website but there are days where I don’t feel the need to check it out.  With fewer columnists I value and trust, what’s the point?  The saddest part is how much I don’t miss reading the paper every day.
Since that time, more columnists have gone missing and once again, for the most part, their absences have not been fully explained.
Readers know why Sid Ryan and Marianne Meed Ward haven’t been published since July.  They’re involved in the upcoming Ontario provincial election on October 10.  (Meed Ward revealed in her July 15 column that she’s running for a seat representing Burlington.  Although he didn’t mention it in his July 13 piece, Ryan is campaigning in Oshawa.)  Ottawa Sun columnist Geoff Matthews signed off officially after a seven-year stint on May 3.  But announcements like that are rare.  The unofficial motto appears to be, “Out of sight, out of mind.”  Before the Quebecor era, that wasn’t the case.
So, why hasn’t Holly Lake been seen in any of the Sun Media papers since February?  Ditto Link Byfield of The Calgary Sun?  What about his colleague Jose Rodriquez?  He hasn’t had a column published since June 9.  Is he on vacation?  If so, when’s he coming back?  What happened to Paul Stanway of The Edmonton Sun, and Ross Romaniuk and Shahina Siddiqui of The Winnipeg Sun?  Where’s Andre Boily, another Sun Media columnist?  Why haven’t there been any more columns from Jim Chapman (last appearance: March 24), Allison Graham (last appearance: April 28), Nicole Langlois (last appearance: February 8), and Sean Twist (last appearance: February 3) in The London Free Press?
Anyone with credible information about any or all of their whereabouts can reach me by email.  I’m still wondering what happened to the other missing columnists I wrote about in December.  Reliable tips on this subject are always welcome here.
One wonders how many others will suddenly vanish like the many before them.  One thing’s for sure.  It’s hard to be optimistic with so much pessimism staring you in the face.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
10:54 p.m.
UPDATE:  Mike Jenkinson, the former Comment Editor and columnist for The Edmonton Sun who was let go on April 16, sent me an email this morning with updates on two of his former colleagues I mentioned in my piece:
“Paul Stanway left the Edmonton Sun earlier this year to become the communications director for Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach.”  He further notes about Stanway’s departure, “This was announced in the Sun.”  Jenkinson started working for the provincial government himself on May 1st.  He announced on his website that day that he’s now working as “a public affairs officer for Sustainable Resource Development.”.
Back to his email:
“Jose Rodriquez became editor in chief of The Calgary Sun, and probably doesn’t have time to write columns anymore.”
My thanks to Mike for his message.  Check out his blog here.  Thanks, also, to The Toronto Sun Family Blog which noted the original story here.  Keep those emails coming.  I still want to know what has happened to all of these missing columnists.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
1:19 p.m.
UPDATE 2:  Butch McLarty, the founder of Alt-London (“Southwestern Ontario’s MOST VIEWED, INDEPENDENT NEWS & VIEWS BLOG”), has given The Toronto Sun Family Blog updates on three London Free Press columnists.
Jim Chapman and Alison Graham haven’t been filing columns in a while because, like Marianne Meed Ward and Sid Ryan of The Toronto Sun, they’re running for seats in the upcoming Ontario provincial election.  (Chapman’s running in the London-Fanshawe riding and Graham is competing in London West.)
Also, McLarty revealed to blogger John Cosway that Sean Twist “refused to sign the Sun Media freelancer’s agreement several months ago and is now doing work for the CBC part-time.”
Thanks to Butch for passing on the information and to TSF for posting it.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
5:36 p.m.
UPDATE 3:  Blogger Neate Sager, who also works at The Ottawa Sun, informed The Toronto Sun Family Blog about the whereabouts of Sun Media columnist Holly Lake.  He says that she “left to take a PR job, I believe with a health professionals’ association. Not sure which one.”
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, September 6, 2007
3:11 p.m. 
Published in: on September 4, 2007 at 10:55 pm  Leave a Comment