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The Hollywood of Texas


Just outside the window of Pocket’s Grille, a large, rustic water tower announces the name of the small Texas town of Smithville much like the giant HOLLYWOOD sign does in California. Inside the restaurant, people sit around enjoying their meals and conversation amid large signs and props from the 1997 movie Hope Floats. One might think that the owner, Troy Streuer, has a mere obsession with the film, but the truth goes deeper than that; the movie saved his business. “I was literally about to close my door. I’d been open like 8 months or so and I wasn’t making it. And all the sudden, Hope Floats starts filming and everything turns around. I have this deep love for [the film] because it somehow got me over the hump.”

The movie, starring Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick Jr. was the first of more than 80 movies, television shows, and commercials that have filmed in Smithville, bringing in a significant revenue stream and putting the town on the tourist map.

It is All in the Name

Adena Lewis, Director of Tourism and Economic Development for Bastrop County and former President of the Smithville Chamber of Commerce, credits the town’s mayor for putting Smithville in the limelight. “Because of the smart thinking of Vernon Richards, our mayor at the time, the name of the town, Smithville, was used in the film. [The producers] came to him and asked him if they could repaint the name on the water tower to match the name of the town in Arkansas that was in the script. Vernon said ‘that’s kind of an expensive thing to do. Why don’t you just use the name of our town?’ The location guy said that was entirely too complicated a process. Vernon said ‘why don’t you just give me a dollar.’ The guy reached into his billfold and gave him a dollar and Vernon said ‘you’ve just bought the rights to use the name of the town Smithville in your movie.'”

That thinking became a tradition as more films came to Smithville. “If you walk in the Hall of City Hall, you’ll see framed dollar bills or dollar checks from lots of production companies that have come to Smithville,” Lewis added. “It’s become a tradition to collect a dollar from them in order for them to be in Smithville.”

A Location Destination

Many big productions have since been filmed within the few city blocks of Main Street including Doonby starring John Schneider, Beneath the Darkness with Dennis Quaid, Lost in the Sun featuring Josh Duhamel, and Oscar Winner The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt. More recently, the pilot for the television show Kevin (Probably) Saves The World was filmed in town.

Filmmaker Peter Mackenzie wrote and directed the 2013 movie Doonby and had planned on shooting at Spiderwood studios in nearby Elgin, Texas, when a producer recommended Smithville for location shooting. “I drove down and it was incredible. It was exactly what I’d written. ‘Oh yea, there’s the police station. Oh yeah, there’s the bar.’ It was absolutely perfect as a film set. I knew I was in good company because on the other corner the Coen brothers were doing scouting.” Mackenzie sees the value of the town as a shooting location. “You’ve got this little town itself which is a dream to film in with locations everywhere you look. You have this wonderful countryside all around it.”

April Daniels, the Executive Director of the Smithville Chamber of Commerce, echoes Mackenzie’s thoughts. “Mostly people come here because they want to shoot onsite. They want to shoot our beautiful old main street buildings. They’ll put up new awnings for us or they’ll paint the side of our buildings or paint signs. For Kevin (Probably) Saves The World, they dressed up the windows up and down the street.”

Smithville has a film commission that interfaces with the production companies before and during the filming process. Skeeter Sewart, the film commission’s chairman, volunteers his time to help producers find locations. “What we try to do is when the movie contacts me, I show them around and show them what [the] locations are and then give the heads up as to what fees and permits and everything else is required.”

When a film is on location, it brings in a lot of traffic and business for the town. Sallie Blalock owned the Katy House Bed and Breakfast for 20 years. She recalls when The Tree of Life was shooting, the producers went out of their way to minimize the disturbance of bringing in trailers and finding places to park them. “Terrence Malick did not want to disrupt the town at all so he rented every property that was for sale or rent so they didn’t have to bring in trailers and a lot of equipment.” She appreciates the business that production companies bring. “Valero came and did three or four commercials in town and filled up the bed and breakfast for three days in the middle of the week. You can’t beat that.”

If You Film It, They Will Come

While many of the residents appreciate the film industry for the revenue it brings directly, there is another benefit to having movies shot in town. Lewis recalls when she first joined the Chamber of Commerce she noticed that a lot of people coming into town were coming because of Hope Floats. “I don’t think any film has been as popular in bringing tourists to us as that original [film]. People still come here to get married, see the house.”

Sewart also sees the benefit tourism brings to the town. “They come in, they eat at Pockets, they buy gas. If their car breaks down, they get it fixed. It brings in revenue.”

A True Love Story

To say the town has a love affair with the movies is not just an understatement; the movies have a love affair with the town as well. Streuer has made lasting friendships with many of the production crews, many of whom return for new projects. “I think once you get that reputation of being easy to work with from the government standpoint all the way down to the people, I think that really carries.” When the crew members move on to become producers and directors later in their careers, Streuer states that “they remember Smithville and they come back.”

Peter Mackenzie calls Smithville home as well. “These are close family friends, not just acquaintances. All the actors who were on Doonby have all stayed very close to the people of Smithville. They all consider it as a place where they have a bunch of friends. John Schneider is in love with the place and is always around. Several of the other actors become very much a part of the world in that little town in Texas.”

Sallie Blalock recalls Dennis Quaid helping out the town in its time of need as it recovered from the wildfires of 2011. “Dennis Quaid was in the police station to shoot a scene for Beneath the Darkness when he noticed a barrel in the hall and asked what it was for. The Sherriff said it was for Blue Santa and it was usually full of toys for kids. This was right after we had the wildfires and everybody was tapped out and the barrel was empty.” Quaid brought his band in and held a sold out concert and the proceeds went to help the town with the Blue Santa.

The Challenge for the Future

Unfortunately, the love affair has been a bit strained lately as production companies have begun to opt for locations in other states. Lewis explains that it all comes down to money. “Every year at the legislature, we have to fight to get funding for the Texas Film Commission,” she said. “Texas was a leader for a long time, and now we get competition from Georgia and Louisiana. We’d never paid money to get people to come, we’d just given them a percentage back on what they spent in Texas as an incentive. We used to be the leaders on that and now we’re not.”

Sewart sees the changes as well. “The pilot [for Kevin (Probably) Saves The World] was filmed here. Now they film it in Georgia because the incentives are better. If Kevin was being filmed here, because it’s a series, they’d be here every day. Now I hear they’re just outside of Atlanta.”

Despite the legislative woes, Smithville’s old water tower stands like a beacon, bringing a bit of Hollywood to Texas. Movie makers and lovers from all over the country visit Smithville to catch a bit of Hollywood magic. Working amid the props from that first film, Streuer recognizes the magic of the movie making in his restaurant. Even after 20 years since the film’s debut, Streuer still sees the residual impact from Hope Floats in Smithville. “People still come to see the town and they still come in here.”

 

This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of TexasLiving.

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Thanos Is A Good Guy

The latest big bad on the big screen has to be Thanos, the purple giant of the MCU playing havoc with Earth’s mightiest heroes in this week’s Avengers: Infinity War. The character comes directly from the comic books where he has been a villain for most of Marvel’s cadre of heroes since his inception in February 1973 in Iron Man #55. Thanos’ biography in the comics is varied and random, owing to the fact that he has been written by several writers over the years; each adding to the back story as needed by the story they were writing at the time. Invariably, he is depicted as having little regard for any life other than his own and willing to kill anyone or anything to achieve his goals. This attitude is most commonly characterized as pathologically evil—a label not entirely unearned, but actually not as accurate as one might think. When looking at the MCU version of Thanos within the scope of RPG morality, many would assign the chaotic evil alignment to him, but actually, Thanos falls more accurately in the alignment of extreme Chaotic Good.

In role playing games, there are nine alignments; three variations of each of the two principle categories of good and evil and a neutral alignment smack-dab in the middle. The sub categories are lawful, neutral and chaotic, making the alignments chaotic good, neutral good, lawful good, lawful evil, neutral evil and chaotic neutral and true neutral. Lawful characters act within the confines of established law and societal morality. They do good or evil according the laws under which they operate. Chaotic characters have no regard for the laws of civilization, nor any societal morals or imperatives. Chaotic evil is characterized by a complete disregard for any life and a willingness to kill anyone who would get in the way of whatever goal the character has set. They are only concerned with achieving the goals. While this description fits the Thanos of the comics, the version brought to the big screen differs in one key aspect. For chaotic evil to apply, the goals must be evil or entirely selfish in nature. The big difference between Chaotic Evil and Chaotic good is the motive for the goals. Both alignments have no compunction about killing or destroying, rather they differ on the reason why.

In the film Infinity War, the character is portrayed by actor Josh Brolin, albeit with a CGI facelift and body shape. Through a very nuanced performance, Brolin brings a deeper thread to the Titan’s back story and actually creates a sympathy for his situation. The writers gave Thanos a motive for his nefarious goal of instantaneously wiping out half of the universe’s population with a snap of his infinity-gauntleted fingers. Thanos was raised on Titan, a paradise of peace and prosperity for generations until greed and excess threatened to destroy the planet if things didn’t change. Thanos warned his people that overpopulation and over consumption would destroy them if they didn’t reduce their population by half. They ignored him and continued until his predictions came true. Driven by this tragedy, Thanos then went out with his forces and began culling the population of the universe whether or not they wanted or needed his help. Of course, he met much resistance to his efforts and that is when he realized he needed the infinity gauntlet to achieve his goals of mercifully putting the races out of their misery. His underlings, on the other hand, are more in line with lawful evil as they act out his orders for their own selfish reasons, while spouting Thanos’ desire for mercy.

That need for mercy is how Thanos falls into the alignment of chaotic good. He thinks he is performing an act of mercy for the greater good as he sees it. No one ever said “good” was a universal concept, especially when considering a chaotic alignment. In his perception, he is saving the universe from itself and anything he does to that end is justified, including sending mercenaries to take the stones and kill anyone who would stop them. It is for this reason that he is chaotic good and not chaotic evil.

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Infinity War Has No End

The summer 2018 movie season has just launched what will be the reigning king of the annual box office with Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War. This much anticipated installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) ties all of the previous MCU films together in a tight package that spans galaxies and offers parts for almost every super hero and supporting character in the franchise. In fact, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that almost every preceding film has set up the events in this movie. With all of that setup and with all the money Disney/Marvel has spent building up the hype, this movie is poised to be the biggest blockbuster or the biggest failure in the studio’s history. And for all that, the answer to the question of success or failure is not revealed in this movie, as Avengers: Infinity War is simply a setup for the next Avenger’s movie to be released in summer 2019.

When the greater MCU was announced after the successes of Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger, there was a lot of talk about how the Avengers’ ensemble films would play out. Kevin Feige said early on that the Avengers would end up in the Infinity War and that the story would span two movies. Some fans were pumped by the news, while others expressed disappointment. Marvel responded to the fan’s outcry by saying that there would not be an Avengers: Infinity War part 2 and changed the working title to Untitled Avengers Movie.

This was a lie.

There HAS to be an Avenger Infinity War part 2 if for no other reason than Avengers: Infinity War doesn’t finish the story at all. In fact, it just stops in the middle of the climax with no resolution to the dramatic events unfolding during the climax. Whatever they do entitle the film, it is going to be Infinity War part 2.

Part 1 offers fans all the excitement the hype promises by tying the dangling threads of previous films such as Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther into a complicated but easy to follow story that carries the MCU heroes battling the minions of Thanos on Earth, on Titan, and in a place called Nowhere among others. The film reveals the location of the final Infinity Stone, known as the Soul Stone and demonstrates what the stones do individually and together. We even see the return of characters believed long dead.

The recurring theme of sacrifice carries throughout the film as most of the heroes offer to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. In fact, it has been a foregone conclusion that one of the primary heroes will not survive the Infinity War and much discussion has been devoted to guessing which one will make that ultimate sacrifice. Rest assured no one will guess correctly.

The movie is very entertaining and in many ways, quite satisfying. But I cannot say I left the theater satisfied. In fact, when the credits started rolling, no one clapped, which is testament to the complete lack of satisfaction this film provides with regard to the story at the film’s end. Is it worth seeing? Yes. Is it good? Yes. But don’t go thinking you’re going to get the whole story. It isn’t finished yet. Do go see it, if for no other reason that to know what’s coming in the next Untitled Avengers movie. Of course, Marvel can pull a fast one and resolve all the issues that Infinity War creates in one of the other films in the pipeline like Ant Man and the Wasp or Captain Marvel.

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Play The Game

As a child of the 70’s and a teen of the 80’s, I find shows that delve into the pop culture of those decades particularly compelling. I thoroughly enjoyed the Netflix series Stranger Things which featured so many Easter eggs of the 80’s it has become a cultural phenomenon for this decade. Easter eggs are small hidden references in media that harkens to another film, show or game. Cultural Easter eggs are also the point of Stephen Spielberg’s latest film, Ready, Player One, and viewers will spend much of the film trying to identify all of them. The movie is an adaptation of the novel by first-time author Ernest Cline, a self-described child of 80’s culture who takes the title from the experience of playing most 80’s video games. While most viewers will find satisfaction in this film looking for and identifying the parts of 80’s pop culture that are significant to them, the movie does work on its own merits as well, although it does have to overcome one or two challenges to do it.

The movie centers around a young man in a dystopian future where people escape the pain of daily life by plugging into a virtual reality world called the Oasis where people can become anyone they wish to be. Many people chose to become super heroes or characters from films and TV. The Oasis is so pervasive that its virtual economy drives the real world economy. The Oasis was designed and built by two men who have become legends to users and when they end their partnership, it creates ripples across the world. One of them dies and leaves his stake in the oasis to the person who can complete three puzzles in the Oasis to unlock Easter eggs and win the contest. Much like the sword in the stone, no one has proven worthy to win the challenge. Until now.

The Hero of the film is Wade Watts (AKA Parzival), portrayed by Tye Sheridan, a loner who competes in the contest as a loner without the benefit of a “pack.” He does, however, have other loners that have become friends while idolizing the mysterious player known only as Art3mis. Parzival and his friends soon realize that in order to beat the corporate team known as the IOI’s to the win the game, they must pool their knowledge. But even then, will it be enough?

The film is almost entirely CGI, since most of the engagement is in the Oasis, with the occasional back story being film with the real actors. One would think that with this technological advantage the 3-D version of the film would be spectacular. Unfortunately, it did not use the technology to its advantage and the 3-D was subpar, even though the imagery was very good. The textures were some of the best yet, especially the skin textures of the character’s avatars. It was difficult to distinguish between the CGI and the actual film sets in some scenes.

The acting was probably the biggest challenge the film facing it, as most of the cast are unknowns and their performance was rather stiff and stilted. Add the fact the CGI avatars suffer from the CGI inability to convey the subtleties and nuances of human expression and the performance suffers accordingly.

The story does fall into the standard quest formula with the requisite challenges the protagonist must overcome to reach his goal, but the characters do a good job of driving the story through the plot by being engaging and easy with which one can identify. The other challenge is that the film is long at two-and-a-half hours and drags at times. If the script had been tightened up, the film would have flowed much better.

Ready, Player One is a good movie to enjoy in the cinema, although not necessarily in 3-D. Spend the time watching for the Easter eggs that are individually significant, as there has to be at least one. Parzval drives a DeLorean that is a mash-up of Marty McFly’s time machine from Back to the Future, the Ghostbuster’s hearse and KITT from Knight Rider. The Iron Giant makes an appearance, as does King Kong, and MechaGodzilla. The reference to the 1980 film Excalibur was my personal favorite.

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The Black Panther Claws the Box Office

A second super hero movie has the internet all atwitter this week with accolades such as “historic” and “triumphant” pretty much for the same reasons.  Last year’s Wonder Woman was the first female super hero movie and the first directed by a woman.  This year, “The Black Panther” is touted as the first super hero movie with a Black protagonist and directed by a black director.  Now the veracity of that claim can be and has been debated, but that is irrelevant to the quality of the film.  The Black Panther is a character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (not the only black one) that interacts with the Avengers.  His character was introduced in 2016’s Captain America Civil War and played a major role in the events of that film.  In this movie, we learn more about the Black Panther and his alter ego, King T’Challa, ruler of the fictional African country of Wakanda, but the focus of this movie is not really T’Challa or the Black Panther.  One could argue the movie is actually about Wakanda.  As Wakanda is in Africa, it follows that this movie will feature predominately black characters.  In fact, the only principle characters that are not black is Andy Serkis’s Klaw and Martin Freeman’s Ross.  Given the setting of the movie and the characters, one would expect certain social commentary about race relations.  This film does not shirk in this regard, and in fact, is a bit “in your face” about it, almost too much so, which is the only problem I have with this otherwise enjoyable action movie.

One observation that bears notice is that story told in “The Black Panther”, while set within the MCU, has absolutely no bearing on the greater MCU story arcs. There is no mention of the Infinity Stones, the Avengers or any other heroes at all.  In fact, it almost seems as though Freeman’s Ross was tacked on just to tie it in, as his presence really doesn’t move the plot much.  Having said that, he does offer a bit of humor.

The rest of the cast turn in solid performances.  Chadwick Boseman reprises his role as King T’Challa and brings the same brooding strength to this performance.  His likeable naiveté dares the viewer not to like him.  His skills as the Black Panther, while impressive, are still developing and he finds himself in dire straits on more than one occasion.  Boseman conveys this and portrays T’Challa’s learning process convincingly.

Angela Basset stars as T’Challa’s mother and brings out his humanity along with Letitia Wrght’s performance as Shuri, T’Challa’s sister.  We also meet his ex-girlfriend and the general of the king’s guard, who all serve to help T’Challa face his first major challenge as king: A literal challenge for the throne from his American cousin, Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan.

The story is full of intrigue and more than one plot twist and if the writers and producers had left it at that, it would have made for an outstanding movie.  But with the current social climate, they couldn’t resist attacking the perceived “white-dominated” power structure in the world that was only serving to keep down “those who look like us,” as Killmonger says.

Of course, the film will win the box office.  It is an MCU film, after all, and opening on a weekend bereft of any real box office competition.  The movie was enjoyable, but it doesn’t rank as high as Civil War or Guardians of the Galaxy, and while it is good, it is not quite historic or triumphant.  Movies should earn those accolades with plot, character and message, not by the gender or the color of the skin of the actor or director.  I still give it a thumbs up.

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Going Rogue One

One of the most heated debates raging in Science Fiction fandom is the Star Wars canon, and what is actually included in it. When George Lucas first released Star Wars in 1977, not he, nor the studios anticipated the popularity of the film and no one could have anticipated its longevity and wide ranging appeal. It has spawned three sequels, numerous books, a couple of cartoon series, several video games and three prequels. Each of these additions tells a different story based in the same universe, sometimes using the same characters. The debate rages over which of these additional stories is “real,” and which is entirely outside the main story. Some say that only the movies are canon, while others say everything is. This weekend sees the first cinematic “additional story” to add to the Star Wars Universe and it is going to add fuel to the fire of this debate.

Rogue One tells a story set between the end of Star Wars episode three, “Revenge of the Sith” and before the events of episode four, “A New Hope,” wherein a young girl, the daughter of the man who designed the dreaded Death Star, joins the rebellion to help the alliance get the plans that are the crux of episode four. I need not worry about spoilers inasmuch as everyone who has seen the original Star Wars knows that the rebels do indeed get the plans and destroy the Death Star. Having said that, one might ask why bother to see this movie. Two reasons: Felicity Jones and Darth Vader.

Jones plays Jyn Erso, a loner who saw her mother killed and father enslaved by the empire and grew up under the care of one of the more radical elements of the rebellion, Saw Gerrera played by Forest Whitaker. A reluctant rebel at first, she manages to motivate the rebels into attacking the empire to try to get the plans for the death star to exploit the weakness her father built into it. This is where the debate is going to rage. According to episode four, the alliance didn’t know if there was such a weakness. Leia even mentioned it to Han Solo by saying “I only hope a weakness can be found.” According to the events in Rogue One, they knew there was a weakness.

Jones does a great job of playing the reluctant hero, and she brings the viewer into Jyn’s tortured world and allows us to understand her motivations. We cheer at her victories and weep for her sorrows and we can’t help but think of her as the little sister who we know is in over her head. This is facilitated by the fact that she looks just like a younger Sara Michelle Gellar.

Vader is a bit of a surprise here, because he actually fights better here than he did in Empire Strikes Back. James Earl Jones reprises the role of Vader’s voice while three actors have credit for his actions. He doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but enough especially at the end when he is pursuing the stolen plans that will eventually lead him to Tatooine.

Several familiar characters enjoy appearances in this film. Of course, Darth Vader has a role, but so does Grand Moff Tarkin played by Peter Cushing’s face digitally stitched onto another actor. Also, princess Leia has a cameo with Carrie Fisher’s younger face digitally stitched onto another actress. The ruffian who roughed up Luke Skywalker in A New Hope makes an appearance as does C3P0 and Artoo.

There is another droid in this film, a reprogrammed imperial service droid is the partner of Jyn’s pilot Cassian Andor. The droid, K-2S0 is voice by Alan Tudyk who gives the droid a quick wit and a bit more humanity than even C3P0, if that is at all possible. As I watched the character’s interaction, I kept saying to myself, ‘that violates the laws of robotics.” But maybe that’s the point.

The film’s weakness is its beginning. Too many scene changes and too many plot threads make it difficult to follow along at first and it threatens to throw the viewer out of the story out of frustration. This is necessary to familiarize the viewer with all the moving parts of this story, since, unlike every other Star Wars movie, there is no text crawl at the beginning to set the stage. Fortunately it does pick up when the main story arc becomes clear.

While this is by far not the best Star Wars film, It isn’t the worst one either. There’s no Jar Jar Binks in this one. While it definitely won’t win an academy award (though it may get a technical nod), Rogue One is an entertaining escapist film. It will defiantly be water cooler discussion fodder for weeks as fan boys debate whether or not or even how it fits in the established Star Wars lore.

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