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Of Mice and Magnanimity

Pascal Covici was a Romanian Jewish immigrant who came to the U.S. as a twelve-year-old with his family just before the start of the 20th century. In the 1920s, he became a bookseller and editor, and by the 1930s was running a high quality small publishing house called Covici-Friede. He was sometimes the target of self appointed guardians of public virtue, as when he was the first publisher in the U.S. of Radcliffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, the first 'above ground' book to deal openly and sympathetically with lesbianism, and when he published books that were a great deal better, but heavily laced with profanity and obscenity by the standards of the time. Covici-Friede, always on an insecure financial footing at the best of times, disappeared after 1939, but how the firm failed, and what Covici did afterwards remain a story of permanent interest. Covici was for years the publisher and friend of John Steinbeck. He 'discovered' Steinbeck, but the early years of his discovery were ruinous. Steinbeck apparently came to him with one of his first books in the early 1930s, and Covici thought it good, but told Steinbeck it would never sell. He chose, however, to publish it anyway. He was right; the book got some friendly reviews, but had very poor sales, so that Covici lost money. Steinbeck came to him with another book, and Covici again told him that it was good but would not sell, nonetheless publishing it anyway, and losing even more money. There may even have been a third such expensive plunge. Finally, at the end of the 1930s, Steinbeck came up with Of Mice and Men. Mice was a huge success, but too late; Covici went broke. He moved to Viking Press, a much larger publisher, as an editor, taking Steinbeck… Read More

There is Heart in Video Games, Mr. Spielberg

Back in June the USC School of Cinematic Arts hosted a panel on the future of entertainment to mark the grand opening of the their new Interactive Media Building. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, along with Microsoft’s Don Mattrick (now Zynga’s Don Mattrick), were the featured guests at the event. Though the group of entertainment giants made some very apt predictions pertaining to a handful of mega-budget movies failing miserably (this summer’s Lone Ranger, White House Down, and R.I.P.D. as examples) the men seemed more than out of their league deconstructing the video game medium. Indeed, Spielberg and Lucas were both comfortable and prophetic in discussing the further niche-ification of the motion picture market, as audiences are growing weary with Hollywood’s drive to create one $250 million dollar film as opposed to several more personal projects, Variety notes. With Hollywood’s mega-budget films dominating the theatres and further ousting smaller projects, the two close friends also voiced that video-on-demand services will grow and profit by showcasing the films smothered by the shadow of the Hollywood blockbuster. But much like the late Roger Ebert refusing to believe that video games are an art form, the aging filmmakers aimlessly began to critique video games not only by stating that they were without heart, but that they were compromised only of violent actions or in a sporting environment. Spielberg and Lucas need to play more video games instead of making assumptions from their adverts. Though the most heavily advertised games are indeed popular because of their multiplayer focus, and though many of these games are shooters, Spielberg and Lucas haven’t experienced the single player campaigns rich with a deep lore that supports a slew of well-written and heavily developed characters. Halo 4 for example, a game known for its expertly crafted multiplayer features, also… Read More

BARBARA KAY: KFC’s ‘hot shot bites’ ad campaign leaves me cold

Walk down the endless hot sauce aisle at any kitchen specialty store and you may conclude, along with me, that the whole concept of hot sauce is an intrinsically masculine obsession. I deduce this from the names of the various sauces. Their common theme seems to be the gastronomic pleasure to be derived from a taste sensation so extreme it causes pain to the palate, gut and – eventually – the rectum. Their names indicate a spirit of playful competition: each strives to project both the highest physical risk combined with the lowest sociological male status. Their target market seems to be young, adventurous blue-collar males of, to be kind, arrested development in the humour department. Let’s just say they’re pitching to the polar opposite of metrosexual gourmands who choose their organic arugula by the leaf. But enough with telling, when showing makes the case. Here is a randomly observed, and very partial list of hot sauces on the market: “Da’ Bomb,” “Trappey’s Red Devil,” “Trailer Trash,” Satan’s Blood,” “Redneck Ass Whoopin’,” “Mean Green Motherf*****,” “Toxic Waste Extract,” “Megasoreass,” and – a personal favourite – “Bin Laden Wanted Dead or Alive Hot Sauce.” It’s all clean, man/boy mocking fun and obviously a successful marketing technique. Perhaps it was during a perusal of the hot sauce aisle that a member of KFC’s advertising team got the bright idea of jumping onto a similar humour wagon for KFC’s newest product, “hot shot bites,” chicken nuggets with a kick. But marketing chicken nuggets can’t be targeted at one demographic; it has to be pitched to the general public, so they took the basic idea – that hot sauce releases dormant impulses in an explosive way – and came up with a 18-second ad that they assumed (perhaps correctly) would appeal to a mass… Read More

Guns and Hollywood: A Horrifyingly Cool Mix

I grew up on a healthy dose of James Bond films. I admired the suave superspy and not only respected his charm and sense of style but also his coolheaded nature in the most daring moments. He’s been the epitome of cool since his debut in the early 50s and still today people revere his taste in cars, girls, and gadgets. And indeed his gadgets, albeit cheesy at times, became his cinematic calling card. But despite the exploding pens and laser-equipped watches, as a young viewer I was always drawn to his most important gadget of all: his gun. Along with Han Solo’s blaster, Dirty Harry’s revolver, and Robocop’s futuristic Beretta, James Bond’s Walther PPK is almost as famous as the character himself. Often Bond and the other well-known fictional characters are seen striking powerful poses with their guns on the movie posters used to promote their films. The characters seem to be in control and their presence commands a silent respect from the audience. They have the gun and they have the power. When the curtains open, the projector begins to illuminate the screen and the specks of dust hover in the theater this admiration remains, but the craving for power grows stronger. As I grew into my teens and my obsession for all things Bond deepened so too did my allure to guns. I never owned a gun, never fired one at the time, and totally understood the consequences of using one, but since it was part of Bond’s identity, and since I looked up to that identity, how could I not crave it? Herein lies the problem. Thousands of Hollywood films feature the use of guns. Often times the repercussions are minimal and the lead character brandishing the gun is an expert with the weapon and has… Read More

BARBARA KAY: The Dog (Bite) Days of Summer

Earlier this month my esteemed colleague at the National Post, George Jonas, wrote a reminiscent column about irascible dogs. Dogs are a suitable topic for the dog days of summer, and – considering the additional time spent out of doors by children with exposed limbs – dog bites an even more timely theme. But, little did Jonas know, not being immersed as I am in the bizarre world of canine politics, that he committed an enormous faux (ahem) paw in his ruminations. The two dogs Jonas singled out as particularly ill-tempered were Soossee, a bitch “of uncertain breed,” but definitely containing some mastiff blood, and Muki, a Rottweiler hybrid, who bit him when he was a child, in the course of a dog fight Jonas attempted to break up. Later in his column, Jonas remarks: “Startle a Spaniel and it may cost you an upper lip; startle a Rottweiler and it’s likely to be an arm and a leg.” He is not wrong, but nowadays it is considered caninely incorrect to “stereotype” any breed, even though stereotyping is just another word for genetic line breeding. A mastiff is a larger version of a pit bull, and Rottweilers are first cousins to pit bulls. The genetic history of both the mastiff and the Rottweiler is rife with “impulsive aggression,” a consistent, often deadly trait, for which the pit bull (sometimes known by its image-laundering alias of American Staffordshire) is the poster canine. Many dog behaviourists (and I) call the cluster of breeds imbued with a genetically-endowed propensity for impulsive aggression – such as the mastiff, Cane Corso, Dogo Argentina and others -  “pit bull type dogs.” Most dogs will not attack humans under normal circumstances. Of those that have attacked humans, 70% are mixed-breeds, and 30% are purebreds. There are about 400 breeds of dog. Of… Read More

Can Comic Book Films Survive the Niche Threat?

The masked superhero visage is anything but an unfamiliar sight in today’s cinema climate. Even before their introductions on the big screen, heroes such as Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and the X-Men - and thus Wolverine - to name a few, had become household entities. Be it from the comics, the Saturday morning traditions that continue to this day, or the laughably cheesy TV series and serials, the general mythos behind the popular characters had found a means to weasel itself into North American minds young and old. Naturally the popularity of these characters exploded because of their cinematic adventures, supported by general audiences who had faint nostalgic memories of the costumed figures, as well as the minority of comic book fans whose knowledge of the characters and their universes was infinite. But as these characters move into multiple sequels and reboots, studio executives are beginning to explore lesser-known characters, a decision that is surely exciting for those who still have their noses wedged between the illustrated pages. But, will it move general audiences to fill the majority of their cinema’s seats? In the end this question may not be what matters. It will come down to how the studios market and integrate the newest property in correlation to their older, more developed, and popular cash cow titles. Surely the Avengers would have been a hard film to swallow if Marvel hadn’t taken the time to honour and develop the characters in their own films. Not to mention the story would have been crammed to the point of incomprehension due to the necessity to develop a mixture between the many origin stories and the film’s objective. Characters such as Hawkeye and Black Window would be lost in the mix and would merely muddle the film even more – X-Men: The Last Stand anyone? Luckily, Marvel… Read More
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