Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Escape to A Dark Room: My Movie Blog Book


"Dedicated to all who know the joys of a dark room – who know what it means to be wrapped up in watching a great movie."

And a special dedication to Sidney Myrie ( - 1982) aka “Papa”, my grandfather, and the greatest storyteller I have ever known.

If you’re anything like me, you absolutely hate to miss opening credits (though many movies these days begin the action without them), so I hope you’ll pay attention to the brief but sincere acknowledgements:
To Therese – if all you were was the most wonderful, exciting, open-hearted and pragmatic woman I’ve ever met, that would be more than enough. But, on top of all that, you’re my one-woman book production team. Your input is impeccable, your contribution is indelible; living without you – impossible.

To my family, including – but certainly not limited to – my Mom, Melrose Edwards, Dad Michael, brothers Kurt and Rico, Uncle Eric, my four fantastic children, Aaron and Israel and Zachary & Gabrielle and my former wife, Jacqueline Chin Depass

To my former colleagues on the board of the Cinematograph Authority of Jamaica (essentially the Film Ratings Board), and in particular, to former Chairman, Mrs Joyce Archibald.

The staff and management of The Palace Amusement Company, in particular Mr Lincoln Forbes, a living repository of knowledge on the history of the Jamaican cinema business – and an exemplary human being.

To Mrs. Jean Lowrie-Chin, Founder and Managing Director, and all my former colleagues at what was initially PRO (now PROCOMM),where my reviewing career took wing.

The editorial staff – past and present – of the Jamaica Observer, where Mike@the Movies came into being.
To all the people who, in person, by mail, and online, have offered commendation, criticisms, good wishes and argument – all of which have strengthened me over this journey.
And to anyone whose name is not on this page, but should be, know for a certainty, you are in my heart

About The Author

Born in Montego Bay, Jamaica, Michael Edwards has parlayed an innate curiosity about a wide range of topics into an accomplished and diverse media career. He has been reviewing films - in print, and on radio, TV and the Internet - for over 20 years, and has also contributed numerous music, visual and performing arts reviews to several publications.
He now lives in Portland, on the island's east coast, with his wife, food critic, designer and writer Therese Edwards.


From Drive-In to Hard Drive: My Movie Journey (thus far)

I grew up five minutes’ drive (or a considerably longer walk) from a drive-in movie theatre. This one had the added allure of being a seaside drive-in, so the pounding Caribbean surf was often a welcome counterpoint to the score and soundtrack of the particular film being shown.

Sadly, the seaside location that was such a boon for the aesthetics, was also the key element in its downfall. Deadly Hurricane Gilbert, which ravaged the island in 1988, did not spare the property, and with the cinema world moving toward the multiplex and - inexorably - to the digitally produced and displayed films of today, the owners, who then enjoyed (and still do) a virtual monopoly on commercial film exhibition, decided against reviving the drive-in.

Thus died an important element of my enduring passion for watching movies. Thankfully, the Harbour View Drive-In was far from the only movie house back then, just the closest. So there were other places,  - and most of them covered - where I could go to get my movie fix. Again, the vagaries of the media and entertainment business have subsequently claimed many of them. The Carib, once the grandest single-screen cinema in the Caribbean (now a five-screen multiplex), and the dual-screen Sovereign Cineplex are all that remain in the metro Kingston area.

But whilst they remained, the city's cinemas rivalled the local libraries and bookstores as "2nd homes" for me; within their walls, I would while away many an hour absorbing single, double and triple bills, depending on the day and time (Saturday mornings and afternoons inevitably meant triple bills). In my early cinephile days, I was an omnivore, indiscriminately devouring thrillers, comedies, westerns, dramas, period pieces and Kung Fu movies with equal relish.

Truthfully, I can't remember the first movie I ever watched. I can however, remember the first one for which I wrote a review - that honour goes to John Boorman's lush re-telling of the Arthurian legend, "Excalibur" (1981). Curiously, the review was written in Spanish, part of an assignment for my 10th grade (fourth form as we knew it) Spanish class. My then limited facility with the language meant, of course, that I kept it quite simple, but it made enough of an impression on my teacher to earn me a B.

My English-language reviewing career had a bit of a false start some years later when I attempted to publish a review of Abel Ferrara's "King of New York". I had sent it, admittedly unsolicited, to a local magazine with the unimaginative title of "Lifestyle"(long since defunct). Ego notwithstanding, I don't believe that the rejection was a matter of inferior writing or formatting; more inferior PR; up to that point, my "body of work" consisted of a few poems and a Letter to the Editor published in the then sole daily newspaper, and the magazine’s editor was clearly loath to grace the publication with the work of an unknown. Happily, I was subsequently tapped by said editor to write a couple of essays, just not film review.

Publication would come in the early 90s, via an entirely new rag, and one in which I had a more direct hand. I was then working with a PR firm ( oh, the irony) and the CEO of said firm had been commissioned by the aforementioned daily newspaper to create a new pull-out aimed at luring teen and young adult readers. The publication, called "Chill" would prove to be the forerunner of the teen-oriented publications run by both daily papers today. It included, inter alia, a drama serial and a film review (both written by me). My choice of films were unfortunately, determined by the local monopoly exhibitor, so the merits of my first review, Martin Scorcese's "The Age of Innocence" for a youth publication were dubious at best (needless to say, I rather enjoyed the movie).

The reviews continued regularly thereafter, but the publication - or more specifically the PR firm's directorship of it - was relatively short-lived. With The Gleaner firmly in control of the editorial, my services were apparently no longer required.

My next regular reviewing opportunity would come by even greater serendipity. I was walking the row of shopping malls in Kingston's midtown area when I passed Susie's, then an already popular coffee bar and brasserie. Normally, I would have avoided the place as it's prices were generally way outside my then meagre earnings (I was then "self-employed" as a features writer) but I decided 'what the heck, one coffee and pastry can't hurt.'

It turned out to be quite a profitable decision, as there I encountered a journalistic colleague who at the time was moving out of the Lifestyle department at the rival daily paper which had by then been established. Our conversation invariably led to the paper and I enquired, quite casually, about the absence of their regular film reviews. The writer had gone off to start a family, he pointed out. Then, without any further prompt, my colleague suggested that I should seek to replace her.

Long story short, within a couple of weeks of that meeting, I was the regular film reviewer for the Jamaica Observer. (I did many other features over the course of a ten-year tenure at the Observer, but that's another book.) I was reunited with the said local film exhibitor, Palace Amusement, which at the time still hosted (rather parsimoniously, I might add) screenings for media and other " invited guests" in advance of the films' commercial opening. There was a certain camaraderie in those sessions, and the post-screening discussions were often rowdy affairs, with much cross-talk.

Because of its monopoly position, the exhibitor had a tendency to balk at unfavorable reviews of its offerings, which tended to fall squarely in the Hollywood mainstream. In the face one too many such reviews (whether from my hand, or otherwise, I don’t know), they decided to suspend the preliminary screenings, thus putting paid to my regular review practice - but only temporarily, of course.

The Cinematograph Authority
I interject this here because not only does it encompass a great leap forward in my reviewing career, it also, ironically gave rise to a strange and sometimes strained, reunion with the folks at Palace Amusement or, as I’m fond of referring to them, the monopoly exhibitor.
In early 2008, shortly after the previous year’s general elections, I was invited by the then Minister of Culture (on the recommendation of the then Prime Minister, no less) to join the Board of the Cinematograph Authority, an organization which I had previously heard of only in passing. Ninety-five per cent of Jamaicans have never heard of the Cinematograph Authority (my estimate, down from at least 99% prior to my tenure), but it is essentially, a Ratings Board – NOT a Censorship Board – for films shown commercially. Its basically the equivalent, in Jamaican context, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) though nowhere near as well funded.
My tenure as a member lasted three years, which is the mandated life of each Board, although one individual did not make it through the entire three years. It involved meeting twice weekly (most cases) at the head offices of the monopoly exhibitor, located in a kind of “fringe” area (not quite the heart of Downtown; and too far south of National Heroes Circle to be lumped into “Cross Roads”). There, beginning around 11, we would view usually two films, but sometimes one and, on rare occasions, three per sitting. For that we (the five members) were paid a stipend too pitiful to even mention here, and even that was held up for the better part of TWO YEARS, thanks to a callous and inefficient bureaucracy who felt it ought not to be beholden to a bunch of people whose only public service consisted of watching films and deciding who else could – or could not – watch them.
Still, for a movie buff like myself, that’s a high exposure on a consistent basis, and even though it was mostly Hollywood drivel, these were first-run features. Even though I don’t – yet - derive direct income from my blog (, with movie tickets running as high as the equivalent of USD13 a pop, the savings from viewing over 150 films without charge (plus a crappy but filling lunch)  adds up to a decent bit of passive earnings.
More valuable, ultimately, is the positioning it provided for me – and still does. Despite the work of the bootleggers, I was seeing some of the films before the general public got a chance, and before the public in several overseas markets (including the UK) got a chance. This helped to give my posted reviews (some of which constitute the next section of this book), an added currency and credibility, provided of course, that I didn’t allow too much time to elapse between “ view” and “review”.
My tenure ended, quite abruptly (not to mention ironically) in June of 2011, at the hands of the said Prime Minister who so enthusiastically initiated it. I can take some amount of poetic justice in the fact that events elsewhere in the political arena meant it would prove to be among his last acts in that office, but my own life was also moving into a dynamic new phase of its own, including a departure from Kingston – where I’d lived for the better part of 44 years, to Portland.
By the time of my “ascent” to the Cinematograph Board, the film landscape was already dominated by the Internet, DVDs and multimedia, thus somewhat reducing my dependence on the local exhibitor (not withstanding the aforementioned ). In particular, 2005 saw my advent as a blogger, though initially on jazz - one of my other passions - rather than on film. It soon followed however, and despite technical glitches, and varying levels of access to technology, I have remained a movie blogger ever since. At the time of this writing, the blog has attracted just over 27,000 total pageviews – maybe not a staggering figure, but really quite commendable, all things considered.

Why do I do it?

That is of course, the big question, and the answer is stunningly simple:  I love it. To elaborate, there's something deeply resonant in the use of moving images to tell stories. Storytelling is what it's all about, and beneath the costumes, special effects and action sequences, the best films, like the best books, are the ones that tell stories in a compelling manner, you know -"Once upon a time....." and take it from there.

Granted, even the best movies leave less to the discretion of the audience than the best books, but the best of them leave one with a feeling of having been transported, of one's disbelief having been suspended. Now, just as water reaches a boil at varying temperatures according to altitude, so different persons have different points at which they allow their disbelief to be suspended.

The basic premise, however remains: movies help to remind us that we're alive (and as redundant as that sounds, we need it). For that reason, I'm grateful to have been associated with them as a reviewer for the past 20 years and counting.

On the following pages, I humbly present some of the fruits of that association. It's a mixed bag of toppers and turkeys, blockbusters and obscure indies, covering a wide range of genres. Except where indicated, the reviews were initially published on my blog, The Emx blog ( ).

As with any great story, you'll enjoy it a whole lot more if you sit still.

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