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Weekend Reel Reads: Money, Festivals and (Yes) Star Wars

Features
by Steve Greene
November 11, 2012 12:19 PM
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Weekend Reel Reads is a regular feature that gathers lengthier stories related to the world of film criticism you may have missed during the week. If there's anything you think would be ideal for future installments, please let us know at critic@indiewire.com.

Return of the Jedi

If "Star Wars" isn't the most analyzed film of all-time, it's surely in the conversation. With the decades of dissection and scrutiny, it's inspired comparisons to countless other works, whether to find stylistic similarities or directorial influences. The always dependable Brian Phillips penned a piece for Grantland comparing the original sci-fi juggernaught to..."Casablanca." At the outset, the connection may seem tenuous, but Phillips' greater argument is that the two films share more than just plot or character details. The two have an unwinking quality to them that makes them more effective as well-crafted pieces of escapist pop art.

"In the original trilogy, though, and in Casablanca, all the mixed-up old elements are turned inward. Grand Moff Tarkin may be a cheekbone-for-cheekbone copy of Major Strasser, but he doesn't know it. If you'll forgive the expression, Star Wars and Casablanca are postmodern without being self-aware. They're coherent, self-contained worlds that, because they're made out of stories that have been fulfilling wishes forever, happen to conform in a particularly accessible way to both the weirdness and the innocence of our desires. They're fully operational miniatures of the kind of world to which we want to escape when we're at our most simple and open and thoughtless."

Harrison Ford's Complicated History with Han Solo

As more news of the impending additions to the Star Wars saga hit the web this week (with an incredible amount undoubtedly on the way), one figure firmly in the crosshairs of the news cycle is Hans Solo himself, Harrison Ford. The Huffington Post's Mike Ryan compiles, from both archival videos and on-set accounts, the roller-coaster relationship between Ford and his character. The actor who devoted so much of his energies into "Yeah, I'll bet you have" may or may not be the same one that ends up a part of the new project.

"By 'Return of the Jedi,' something had changed. Ford had become a superstar after playing Indiana Jones in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' and received high marks for his performance in Ridley Scott's 'Blade Runner,' so maybe it was now that Ford decided that Han Solo wasn't as interesting as characters like Indiana Jones and Rick Deckard. And Ewoks aside, most 'Star Wars' fans (including the one writing this piece) agree that there was something missing from Ford's performance in 'Jedi.' Ford had wanted Solo killed off at the end of 'Jedi,' something that Lucas, in the end, refused to do. (Rumors persist that, in the original treatment, Solo was flying the Millennium Falcon in the assault on the second Death Star, not Lando, and perished during that battle.)"

Two Interviews with Roger Deakins

One of the stars of "Skyfall" is a man never seen on-screen. Roger Deakins, long considered one of the masters of the cinematography craft, has reached center stage with the latest Bond installment. This past week, two different sites featured interviews with Deakins, discussing both his involvement with his most recent project and his overall career. Jack Giroux's Q&A approach for Film School Rejects and Matt Patches' profile format for Hollywood.com both provide insights into how Deakins helped create the sumptuous Bond visuals.

"How about for the Shanghai fight sequence? How much planning went into that and the use of neon lights?
Well, there was a lot of planning for that. Originally, it was talked about shooting that on location in Shanghai, because we were actually going to do a lot of shooting in Shanghai. That got whittled down, so we didn’t do much there. To shoot it on location would have been such a restriction. We talked about the big billboard advertisements, so we thought it’d be really great to use that and to make it about reflections. Obviously it’s in an office building with glass, but they’re mirrors in a different way. That’s how that evolved."

"Deakins grew up watching Bond, but his goal was never to pay homage or feel indebted to the 50 year history of the series. 'I think each sequence is done differently,' says Deakins. 'The heavy action we shot very simply, with one or two handheld cameras. I think you can get too caught up in technique. You can lose the plot, really.' When it comes to shooting set pieces, Deakins stays away from the manic style of many modern blockbusters. Technology allows him to move the camera like a madman, but he doesn't. 'If [the performance and script] are not inherently exciting then you're not going to do anything with a camera. The camera reacts to what's in front of it. I react to the actors.'"

AFI: Mastery, Brutality Across Five Categories

Sometimes it's difficult to gauge how much weight AFI Fest carries outside of Los Angeles. It's a helpful resource for southern California cinephiles to catch up on some of the biggest titles from the past year's festival circuit, but since the festival's premieres are often films that open to wider audiences soon after, drawing a connection between the program for any given year can be a difficult task. But Fandor's Jackson Scarlett explains that a key element of the festival is in the way it approaches each of its programming sections, designations which can sometimes blend together with beneficial circumstances.

"Situated at the end of the calendar year, American Film Institute’s AFI Fest encourages assessment, with viewers taking the 'temperature' (as director Kim Ki Duk put it in a Q&A) of contemporary independent and international cinema. A cursory viewing of the listings shows one trend heating up: the dissolution of national cinemas as 'containers' for film styles. In a conversation with Associate Director of Programming Lane Kneedler, he commented on relatively recent recategorizations. 'We used to have very strong national categories in our programming, and that was very helpful for our marketing—things like New Asian Cinema and Latin American Masters.' But, he continued, 'the geographical boundaries and borders become ever more porous and ever more invisible.'"

Gross misunderstanding

As readers of the various Indiewire outlets may already know, not all box office numbers are created equal. Arthouse totals may be more vital to the value of a film than a mainstream Top Ten placement. In a cover story for the Columbia Journalism Review, Edward Jay Epstein examines the world of box office numbers and wonders why they continue to be a vital part of the weekly film conversation. Those looking for more on the financial side may enjoy Epstein's overview of where the real money of the movie business is made. (It's not in theaters.)

"A top executive at Time Warner recently did the math for me, demonstrating that between 85 and 90 percent of its entertainment earnings comes from licensing its movie and TV titles to television; it is more or less the same story at the four other largest studios. (Paramount, because it ceded its television production arm to CBS when they split, is the only major studio without a television production arm.) The reason that licensing is so immensely profitable is that studios do not have to pay advertising, print, or logistical costs, as they do when distributing a movie to theaters. Almost all money received—except for residuals paid to actors’ and others’ guild pension plans—goes to the bottom line. The same is true with the new business of licensing products to Internet companies, such as Hulu, Netflix, Apple’s iTunes Store, and Amazon, for streaming. The continued cranking of this money machine depends on the studios’ retaining absolute control over these intellectual properties—a requisite that, given the threat of digital piracy, is reshaping strategies for how they release movies."

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And though it's not exactly a piece about film, Edward Copeland's unbelievably exhaustive account of the history of "St. Elsewhere" is stunning in its thoroughness. It's surely a treat for fans and an incomparable overview for anyone interested in learning more about the series on the occasion of its 30th anniversary.

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