Category Archives: Focus on a Franchise

Focus on a Franchise – The Exorcist

What scares us the most as an audience usually differs from person to person.  Any one of us could be scared of anything, from spiders to ghosts to even clowns.  But, what ends up making us scared comes from a personal place and what baggage we bring with ourselves in everyday life.  Fear is a personal manifestation of the feelings of rejection, revulsion, and anticipation that coagulate beneath the surface, and are triggered by an external force that brings all those feelings out at once.  And the strange thing is that many of us like the feeling of being scared, as long as we know that we’ll be alright in the end.  That is the feeling that Hollywood seeks to exploit when they try their hand at horror, but again, everyone’s fears are different.  There are some instances when everyone’s fears do line up and it ends up driving the best of horror movies to great success.  But, which example in the genre has managed to do that best.  Well, given my own personal reactions, I can tell you that one of the most effective and interesting franchises to ever come out of the horror genre is the Exorcist series.  The original film that started the franchise is of course an all time great, but what sets it apart, along with it’s follow-ups, is the effectiveness of it’s atmosphere and iconography.  With it’s Gothic imagery, it’s almost oppressive use of darkness, it’s unrelenting look into the mind of pure evil, and it’s occasional use of shocking horrific moments, The Exorcist movies stand as probably the bleakest of all horror to ever come out of the Hollywood machine.  It’s also a franchise that has not been immune to highs and lows in quality, but even that disparity between each installment is fascinating in it’s own right.  In this article, I will be looking at the franchise as a whole (the good and the bad) and see how it has made it’s mark within the horror genre, as well as look at how the peculiar sidetracks it has taken over the years have made it one of the most unique horror franchises in the industry as well.

THE EXORCIST (1973)

Directed by William Friedkin

There are few if any horror films that can claim the kind of prestige that The Exorcist has.  It is, without a doubt, a masterpiece of a film-making and an icon of the genre.  But, why did this film perform as well as it did?  To put it simply, it was a perfect example of everything falling into place at the right time, with a near flawless execution.  The story is simple enough.  A young child named Regan (Linda Blair), the daughter of a famed actress (Ellen Burstyn), suddenly begins behaving strangely at home, which then evolves into violent behavior.  Soon after, supernatural events occur and it dawns on the mother that her child might indeed be possessed by something evil.  She resorts to calling upon the help of a tormented priest named Father Karras (Jason Miller) who finds that the demon possessing Regan is no ordinary spirit but something far sinister and powerful, which then leads him to calling upon a renowned exorcist who has had a personal history with this particular demon; Father Merrin (Max von Sydow).  What most people remember most from the movie is the now iconic Exorcism itself, as Fathers Merrin and Karras perform one of the most harrowing rituals every put on screen.  This scene is chilling on it’s own, but it’s elevated even more by the exceptional building of tension that we’ve seen up to that point, watching poor Regan become tortured by the demon inside her, transforming her into a literal unholy monster.  It stands out so much from horror movies before or since it’s creation, and that’s because of the “matter of fact” way it was staged.  Director Friedkin, coming straight off his Oscar-winning success with The French Connection (1971), made the brilliant decision to shot the movie like a drama rather than a horror picture, and that perfectly heightens the terror on screen, because it feels so unnatural.

One thing you’ll notice about the movie is the brilliance of it’s stripped back aesthetic.  The movie doesn’t rely heavily on jump scares, dramatic lighting, nor music cues to heighten the tension of the movie.  It all builds naturally through the atmosphere in the movie, and seeing the slow degradation of Regan over time.  In fact, despite having one of the horror genre’s most famous musical themes (courtesy of Mike Oldfield), the film is devoid of any background music, giving it a stark realism it might not otherwise have had.  The cinematography also brilliantly conveys a natural, unfiltered dread as well.  Shot with mostly natural, diffused light, the film has this coldness that permeates the entire movie.  By the time you get to the exorcism finale, you have already been immersed in this moody, oppressive atmosphere long enough that you forget you’re watching a movie and instead feel like your seeing real life unfold; and it’s terrifying.  The cast likewise brilliantly adds to the level of authenticity to the production.  While veterans like Max von Sydow, Ellen Burstyn, and Lee J. Cobb all give exceptional performances, it’s Linda Blair in her breakout role that really makes the movie memorable.  The fact that an actress of her young age had to endure such painstaking feats in order to make you buy into her possession, including the groundbreaking make-up by Dick Smith, is really something amazing.  You see this little girl completely disappear into this demonic monster, and it is the stuff of nightmares.  Whether she’s mutilating herself with a crucifix, twisting her head all the way around, or floating feet off of her bed, Regan’s presence on screen has come to define the genre since.  Special mention should also go to actress Mercedes McCambridge, who went un-credited as the voice of the demon.  Her gravely delivery further drives home the chilling transformation.  The movie is considered a classic for all the right reasons, and it’s iconic status is rightfully deserved.  Few other movies in the horror genre can claim to be half as effective or scary as this restrained masterpiece.

EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC (1977)

Directed by John Boorman

Everything about the first Exorcist was justifiably celebrated; the atmosphere, the performances, the direction, everything.  But, what was most celebrated was the subtlety, and matter of fact-ness that it approached it’s subject matter with.  Now, imagine a sequel that was devoid of all that subtlety, as well as lacking any restraint whatsoever.  That is what we got with Exorcist II; not just one of the worst sequels to a horror movie ever made, but also one of the most baffling.  Director John Boorman brought his own cinematic style, which tended to favor the surreal over the terrifying, which he honed on quirky cult classics like Zardoz (1974).  While his style works just fine for films like Zardoz and later Excalibur (1981), it proved to be a terrible match for the Exorcist.  Linda Blair returns as Regan, who is now seeking therapy worrying that the demon who possessed her is still there.  She is also investigated by newcomer, Father Lamont (Richard Burton), who is seeking answers in the “spoilers” death of Father Merrin from the previous movie (Max von Sydow also returns in a few brief flashbacks).  The movie sets much of the action with the mental clinic that’s treating Regan, and the overly stylized setting as well as the flashy way in which it is used points to exactly why this movie failed.  It forgets exactly what made the original so terrifying, which was the show of restraint on the part of the filmmakers which heightened the realism.  Here, Boorman wants you to notice his direction, and while the movie is at times beautifully shot, it is never in any way scary.  The only redeeming value of the film is that it misses the mark so badly, that it can sometimes be hilarious to watch; but again that reflects terribly on it’s connection to the original.  It’s flashy and garish, and in no ways feels like a natural continuation of the original.  Richard Burton’s barely caring performance doesn’t help much either.  It should’ve been obvious to John Boorman that a swarm of locusts doesn’t come anywhere near as being scary as a possessed child vomiting green projectile while strapped to a bed.  And it’s a lesson in cinema showing that style cannot support moments of horror alone.  the more natural approach it turns out makes a movie much more terrifying.

THE EXORCIST III: LEGION (1990)

Directed by William Peter Blatty

After the baffling embarrassment that was Exorcist II, the franchise went into dormancy for over a decade.  Then, it found new life thanks to the efforts of the unlikeliest of saviors; it’s original creator.  Screenwriter turned novelist turned filmmaker Blatty was the man who crafted the original novel on which the first movie was based on.  When it came time to adapt The Exorcist’s literary sequel, conveniently titled legion, Blatty took it upon himself to not only adapt the book himself, but also assume duties as director as well.  And remarkably, he proved to be quite adept at it.  While, Exorcist III  is not as perfectly executed as the first movie, it nevertheless feels much closer in spirit to it’s predecessor.  It retains the right amount of atmosphere, it takes it’s story much more seriously, and it is genuinely terrifying at times.  The film centers this time around the character of Lt. William Kinderman, the detective from the first movie who was played by Lee J. Cobb.  Here, the character is played by George C. Scott, who does a commendable job of filling the late actor Cobb’s shoes.  In the movie, he’s investigating a series of murders that bear the trademarks of a notorious serial killer called the Gemini Killer.  Only one problem, the Gemini Killer has been dead for 15 years.  The investigation leads him to a mental hospital where he finds a horrifying discovery; one of the patients is the once thought deceased Father Karras (Jason Miller returning to the role).  Blatty’s film, whole not perfect, nevertheless does an excellent job of returning the franchise back to it’s roots.  In particular, the atmosphere is spot on, and subtle in all the best ways.  The movie also has what is widely considered to be the best jump scare in film history, which is a real testament to Blatty’s direction.  But, the movie’s true best element is the unforgettable performance of Brad Dourif as the Gemini Killer, who we learn is possessing Father Karras alongside the demon from the first movie.  Dourif is absolutely terrifying in the film, to the point of being hypnotic, and more than anything he is the reason this movie is worth watching.  It took a long time, but this was the movie brought this franchise right back to it’s place as one of the most terrifying in cinematic history.  Not bad for someone who literally wrote the book on this stuff.

EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING (2004)

Directed by Renny Harlin

The franchise would once again take a long sabbatical again until Hollywood would once again come calling.  This time, however, the results wouldn’t turn out quite so well.  But, strangely enough, this would also prove to be the most fascinating years out of the franchise because what we got was an unexpected experiment in film-making out of the Exorcist franchise that I don’t think anyone ever expected.  Started by rights holders, Morgan Creek Productions, the series was about to look back in time and present the untold story about how Father Merrin became an exorcist in the first place.  After the first director dropped out, the project was given over to writer turned director Paul Schrader; best known for his darker themed films like Affliction (1998) and Auto Focus (2002), as well as the screenplay for Taxi Driver (1976).  Schrader faithfully executed the script he was given, but the producers had second thoughts when they saw his more cerebral approach.  So, they chose to re-shoot the entire film under the direction of Renny Harlin, whose better known for his work in action films.  This move didn’t exactly work out either, and the film unsurprisingly flopped.  This movie, again, showed us exactly what doesn’t work in this franchise and that’s the lack of subtlety.  Renny Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning is a loud, in your face  gore fest that felt more akin to the style of it’s era rather than a natural continuation of the franchise.  The scares are predictable, and it makes heavy use of some truly awful CGI effects.  The only thing it shares with the other Exorcist movies is it’s name as well as the character of Father Merrin, this time played by a rather lost Stellan Skarsgard.  Nothing is added by this film overall to the franchise, making it just feel like a shameless cash grab as a result.  And for that, it marks a low point in the franchise, one which could have resulted differently, which we would soon could have happened.

DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST (2005)

Directed by Paul Schrader

When we hear about re-shoots, we often speculate about an alternate version of a movie that we’ll never be able to see.  Most of the time, a re-shoot happens to alter one or two scenes to help a struggling film feel more cohesive.  Rarely do you see that happen to an entire movie, and even rarer do you see that alternative version make it to theaters as it’s own film.  But, that’s exactly how we got this fifth installment in the Exorcist franchise; one that should’ve never happened in the first place.  After Beginning’s failure at the box office, Morgan Creek realized too late that they may have made a mistake shelving Paul Schrader’s version and decided to give it a theatrical release of it’s own.  Schrader was given the most minuscule of post-production budgets in order to finish his film, and while it does present something closer to his original vision, it still feels like one that is compromised.  Still, Dominion does have one benefit, which is that it feels more in character with the spirit of the franchise.  The film is interesting to watch alongside Renny Harlin’s version, because it shows how two different directors can take basically the same plot, which has Father Merrin investigating a submerged church in the Egyptian desert that’s built upon a pagan temple, and come up with a completely different feeling movie.  While it still pales in comparison to the terrifying moments of The Exorcist and Exorcist III, it does much better at maintaining a sense of Gothic atmosphere that Renny Harlin completely ignored.  Skarsgard also is much better in this version, bringing a lot more depth to the character of Father Merrin, as we see what evil drove him back into God’s service.  Neither this or Beginning stand very strong as horror movies, but together they make for one interesting lesson in storytelling on film; contrasting Schrader’s more subtle approach with Harlin’s flashier one.  Dominion did only slightly better among critics than Beginning, but it did receive some welcome praise from a high place, and that was from William Peter Blatty, who commended it as a film in the true spirit of the original.  Regardless, it’s still something of a miracle that Dominion saw the light of day at all, even with a rather lackluster roll out by the studios.   It’s not anywhere near the height of the franchise, due to it’s still lackluster story, but it at least made an attempt to feel like it belonged in the same family as it’s predecessors and not feel like a lame attempt to follow a trend.

So, while the results have been wildly incoherent, the Exorcist miraculously has become a franchise that still has legs many years later.  The original of course is a timeless masterpiece that still manages to remain chilling even today.  And Exorcist III has managed to climb out of the shadow of it’s predecessor and become a beloved cult hit in it’s own right.  The best thing though is that you don’t have to watch the whole of the series in order to appreciate it’s finer parts.  The first and third installments stand perfectly well on their own apart from their lackluster follow-ups.  Exorcist II basically serves as a bizarre cautionary tale about how not to make a sequel, and the two back to back prequels offer an interesting look at how a movie can differ so greatly depending on who’s directing it.  But, personally for me, I admire The Exorcist franchise (at it’s best) for taking it’s scares seriously and not exploit them for shock value.  I grew up in the Catholic church, so some of the themes and iconography were all very familiar in the films.  As I’ve grown older, my views on religion have changed significantly, but at the same time, it’s still be a part of me, and it’s what follows me into my experiences viewing these movies.  It’s my own kind of baggage that these movies prey upon to bring out my fears, and that’s probably why I find The Exorcist one of the most frightening films ever made.  For me, it brought out my worst fears, of losing my soul as well as control over my own self, and that’s what keeps it resonating for me so many years after viewing it for the first time.  I still marvel at the incredible seriousness that the movie takes with it’s subject, which as we’ve seen can be mishandled to the point of silliness in other films.  The Exorcist franchise is horror film-making taken beyond the point of simple scares, and into the realm of creating genuine dread.  Exorcisms may not in fact be a real thing, but these movies have sure convinced us all that they could be.  Nothing is scarier than feeling the sense that our worst fears can manifest into real terror, and The Exorcist managed to turn that kind of fear into high art and an unforgettable experience.

Focus on a Franchise – The Alien Quadrilogy

For as long as science fiction has existed as a genre in film-making, there has been a long tradition of movies centered around extra-terrestrial life.  The concept of life beyond our own planet is a compelling one, and there are certainly many avenues to explore with it as well.  There’s the peaceful visitor angle explored in films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and of course E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).  There is also the hostile threat angle explored in War of the Worlds (1953), The Thing (1982), and Predator (1987).  Oftentimes, the most popular alien based movies fall under the monster movie angle, making the creatures symbols of terror meant to frighten movie goers everywhere.  No where else have we seen this type of movie realized more vividly and more frighteningly than in the Alien franchise.  The brain child of writer Dan O’Bannon, the Alien series is among the most of sci-fi pictures ever made, taking the genre out of it’s goofy, B-movie past and turning it into the stuff of nightmares.  This was largely due to the completely earnest efforts of it’s filmmakers to never sugarcoat the terror and to fully immerse the audience in an atmospheric dread the likes of which we had never seen before on film.  The other interesting aspect of the Alien franchise is how it evolved over the years; sometimes in good ways like with the beloved sequel, Aliens (1986), and other times in bad ways, like with the two follow-ups there after.  In this article, I will be looking at what is called the Alien Quadrilogy, which is the set of 4 films that launched the franchise and were centered around the character of Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver).  So, I won’t be including the Alien vs. Predator spinoff series here, nor the recent prequel films, Prometheus (2012) or Alien: Covenant (2017), since they are unrelated to the Ripley story-line.  So, let’s head into the darkest reaches of space and learn why in space, no one will hear you scream.

ALIEN (1979)

Directed by Ridley Scott

It’s hard to believe now how daring a movie like Alien was when it was made back in the late 70’s.  For the longest time, science fiction was a pool of campiness and cheap special effects.  And only two years prior, Star Wars had revolutionized the genre with an emphasis on action adventure.  But, the makers of Alien had a different outlook on the genre that would end up making it really stand out in the grand scheme of things.  Dan O’Bannon’s original concept called for a vision of alien life that was far darker than anything we had seen before; a destroyer of civilizations and something far better left undiscovered.  While the concept was watered down over many subsequent drafts, the idea still struck a cord in Hollywood, and the film managed to make it’s way into 20th Century Fox, who were already hitting a high after the success of Star Wars.  Thankfully for O’Bannon’s script, Fox brought on board a director who could do justice to the bleaker vision of the story.  That director was newcomer Ridley Scott, a visual artist turned filmmaker with only one other film made before this (1977’s The Duellists).  Scott drew inspiration not from the sci-fi genre during his production, but from horror flicks that were beginning to become popular at the time, such as those from the likes of John Carpenter and Wes Craven.  As Scott saw it, this was a haunted house movie set in space, and it gave him the right frame of tone to craft his movie around.  And to make that vision feel even more effectively disturbing, he called upon the skills of artist H. R. Geiger to design much of the movie, including the alien himself.  Geiger’s neo-gothic designs in particular help to set the Alien movies apart, and their deeply unsettling nature is still iconic to this day.

But, all in all, Alien is an iconic film because it is so thoroughly is confident in it’s identity.  You never feel for once while watching the movie that your experiencing a compromised vision.  It is dark, disturbing, and relentless in it’s tension.  O’Bannon’s deeper mythology may have needed to be parred down, but it doesn’t ruin the experience one bit, and it even makes the film feel more mysterious as a result; making us ask who or what was the Space Jockey and how did this alien creature destroy so much life?  The cast of the film also help to fit within the tone of the film.  Since the story is centered around a group of space freighters, it makes sense that all of them have a grittier sense of character to them, and the movie does a great job of making them all feel authentic and personable, and more than just lambs to the slaughter.  And every death in this movie is more than impactful, especially the iconic chest-burster scene with the late John Hurt.   That moment in particular is probably the first thing that comes to mind when anybody mentions this movie, and really it’s the thing that cemented this film’s legendary status.  Ridley Scott’s direction also perfectly captures the atmosphere of the story.  It’s bleak, but oddly beautiful at the same time.  He not only set a high standard for the sci-fi genre hereafter for this movie, but with horror films too.  His use of oppressive darkness and misty steam filled corridors is amazingly effective.  Not only that, but he has the good sense to keep the “Xenomorph” alien creature hidden in the shadows until shown for maximum impact, like in the vent chase scene.  The first Alien alone is a compelling story of survival, and probably unbeknownst to Scott and his team, the lone survivor of this story, Ellen Ripley, would go down as one of cinema’s greatest heroines; but her time was still yet to come in this series.

ALIENS (1986)

Directed by James Cameron

The success of the first Alien left a strong impression on Hollywood, showing that audiences were willing to see darker films within the sci-fi genre.  It also set the bar pretty high thereafter, leading to a lot of pressure on Fox to make a follow-up sequel that could live up to the original.  After Ridley Scott passed, choosing instead to make films like Blade Runner (1982) and Legend (1986), Fox looked elsewhere for someone to guide the franchise.  James Cameron, who was hot of the success of The Terminator (1984), was tasked with the role of making a sequel to Alien.  To many people’s surprise, not only did he accomplish this, but some would even say that Cameron made an even better movie than the original.  Cameron’s sequel, Aliens, works as well as it does because he made the smart choice to not just copy what had been done before, but instead make a different kind of movie altogether.  Aliens is completely different in tone, style, and plotting than the original film.  Where Ridley Scott attempted to make a horror movie, Cameron instead made an action flick; just set in the same universe.  And it completely works.  The Xenomorph creatures are still just as terrifying, especially the monstrous Queen, but the film spends less time building the dread around them and instead finds it’s energy with the characters engaging these monsters in combat.  The plot is very different too, with less emphasis put on the different ways that the characters will die in the film, and more centered around how they can strategize their chances of survival and be able to destroy these creatures.  We are also introduced in this movie to the idea of the Weyland Yutani corporation as this antagonistic force (personified through a sleazy corporate representative played by Paul Reiser) who we learn are somewhat responsible for spreading the Xenomorph’s presence across the galaxy.  Here we find Cameron injecting some political subtext into the franchise, that more or less enriches a standard good vs. evil plot.

But what really makes Aliens an iconic film more than anything is then character of Ellen Ripley.  Though already established in the previous Alien movie, Ripley didn’t really come into her own as a character until this sequel.  We delve far deeper into her character, finding that she is far more than just a survivor, but a resourceful fighter as well.  Sigourney Weaver makes a triumphant return here, emboldening Ripley with far more grit and resolve than any heroine that we had seen in a movie up to that point.  Strong female protagonists have long been a common motif in James Cameron movies, like Sarah Conner in The Terminator or Rose in Titanic (1997), but Ripley is his true greatest achievement in writing character, and she has since become an influential character for all cinema.  Before, Hollywood didn’t believe that action films headlined by women could never work, and both Cameron and Sigourney Weaver proved them all wrong.  That alone is a great legacy for this film.  Weaver was praised so much for her standout work in the movie that it even earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, the first of her career.  At the same time, her performance is perfectly balanced with a strong cast around her.  Each actor in the ensemble manages to rise above the stereotype of tough guy space marines and actually become interesting individuals in their own right.  Particularly memorable are Michael Biehn as the noble Corporal Hicks and the late Bill Paxton as Private Hudon, who nails some of the film’s sillier lines (“Game Over Man!!”).  There’s also a tender, emotional performance from young Carrie Henn as the orphaned child Newt, who manages to turn into a surrogate daughter for Ripley.  Their relationship gives the movie surprising heart at it’s center, and makes us feel more connected with their plight.  It also gives more weight to the iconic confrontation between Ripley and the Queen, with Ripley uttering the now legendary line of “Get away from her, you Bitch.”  Captivating in it’s action, progressive in it’s themes, and unafraid of changing the course of it’s franchise, Aliens is a textbook example of how to do a sequel right.

ALIEN3 (1992)

Directed by David Fincher

Unfortunately, future installments of this series would fall way short of Aliens example.  A third film in this franchise wallowed in development hell for several years, with no one knowing quite what to do with it.  Several directors were brought on board at various times, including Ridley Scott mulling a possible return.  Eventually, Fox landed the project into the hands of commercial and music video director David Fincher, who was to make his feature film debut here.  Fincher unfortunately found that he had been saddled with a project that was doomed from the beginning.  The film started shooting without a finished script and the entire run of production found Fincher being inundated with a ton of studio interference.  Sigourney Weaver also made a lot more demands this time around as a condition of her returning to the franchise, and some of them (like the insistence of not having gun violence present in the story) ended up neutering the gorier vision that Fincher wanted to put on screen.  It all makes the film feel far more compromised a vision compared to it’s predecessors.  While some of the ideas present are interesting, like Ripley finding herself in an all male prison, which is a scary place on it’s own even without the Xenomorphs, the movie never gels into a compelling film overall, nor works as either horror or action adventure.   Sigourney Weaver is still okay in the film, but it gives her nothing worthwhile to do like Aliens did.   The film even alienated audiences further by killing off the beloved characters of Hicks and Newt right from the beginning, completely wiping all development for Ripley’s character, giving her nothing to fight on for. Fincher’s direction is unfocused, which is not surprising since it’s his first feature.  He has since disowned the movie and now looks back on it as a learning experience in how not to make a film.  Still, the movie does earn points with the extra polish given to it’s visual effects.  The Xenomorphs in this film are outstanding, and genuinely terrifying.  If only the film around them didn’t look so drab, and the story wasn’t so boring.

ALIEN RESURRECTION (1997)

Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Several more years would pass before Fox decided to revisit the Alien well again.  This time, they were eager to return to the more horror driven thrills of Ridley Scott’s original.  And when you think of someone who can pull off a sci-fi horrorshow, you instantly think of the director of Amelie (2001), right?  Okay, French director Jeunet is an odd choice to give the reigns of this franchise over to, but no one can deny that he is a strong artistic eye, something that he showed off well in his earlier films Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1997).  In truth, there are some interesting artistic choices in Alien Resurrection too, but that’s about it.  Resurrection is a very fascinating failure, mainly in the fact that so many talented people involved managed to make such a horrible movie.  The story itself is pointless, finding Ripley revived centuries after her death in Alien3 thanks to genetic cloning.  But Ripley here is not the same Ripley as we’ve grown to love before, mainly due to the fact that her genetic code is mixed with that of a Xenomorph alien.  It could have been an interesting character element, but the movie never explores it fully, instead focusing too much on tired action scenes that we’ve seen a million times before.  Weaver in particular seems very disinterested this time around, and it’s clear that she returned just for the paycheck only.  The movie really is just a whole lot of unnecessary retreading of stuff already done better in other alien movies.  It’s surprising that such a unoriginal script would come from the likes of Joss Whedon, who’s clearly better off working with vampire hunters and Marvel superheroes as his subjects.  But, even with a messy production as it stands, the film does come off as a beautiful trainwreck at times, taking the series into some demented places, which is somewhat better than the dreary dullness of Alien3.  Still, it’s a big drop-off from the stellar heights of where this series began.

Despite the ups and downs that the Alien franchise has experienced over the years, it is still as influential today as it was when it first began.  Countless sci-fi horror blends made in the years since have the original to thank for showing Hollywood that it could work.  The series is also responsible for propelling the careers of two of our greatest filmmakers, Ridley Scott and David Fincher, although Scott looks back more fondly on his experience than Fincher does.  Scott in fact has managed to find his way back into this world and explore it even further with his prequel set of films, finally being able to explain more about this world that he could only hint at before in the original Alien.  Now, some would argue that he was better off leaving some of those things a mystery and that these new films, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant are unnecessary retreads, but that’s up to debate (personally I thought Prometheus was alright; not Alien or Aliens good, but not bad either; I have yet to see Covenant as of this writing).  The best thing about this franchise, however, is that it’s a series that pushed boundaries and changed Hollywood largely for the better.  The original showed that you could make a movie that was horrifically gory without being schlocky.  The franchise also showed that you could switch genres midway through and still retain the same identity.  And most importantly, it made Sigourney Weaver the first ever female action movie star, and showed that in an era dominated by the likes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone that women could headline an action flick just as effectively.  That, in the end, could be Aliens’ most honorable legacy and female action stars today like Charlize Theron and Scarlett Johansson have Sigourney Weaver and Ellen Ripley to thank for that.  In addition, H. R. Geiger’s designs for the Xenomorph alien continue to be a work of pure nightmarish genius.  Honestly, if that design hadn’t captured our imagination as well as it did, there probably wouldn’t have been a franchise at all.  The Alien Quadrilogy stands as a truly iconic series, with daring visuals, one hell of a great heroine, and probably the most terrifying monsters we will ever see on the big screen.   

Focus on a Franchise – Harry Potter: Part Two

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The one thing that most readers of the J.K. Rowling novels observed as the series went along was how the latter books took a considerable dark turn in the narrative.  Whatever the reason, Rowling’s novels dealt with heavier and heavier themes as it headed towards the homestretch, finding the titular boy hero in ever more dire situations.  The notion that this was children’s literature seemed to not apply anymore, and I’m sure that if you asked Rowling herself, she would probably say that she never intended these stories to be just for kids, and these later novels are proof of that.  Death, and the inevitability of it, became the overarching theme of the last four novels of the series, as well as the effect it has on Harry as a whole.  In the story, Harry has to face the deaths of loved ones, put himself and his friends in harms way, and come to the realization that in order to defeat his mortal enemy, Voldemort, he will have to either kill, or be killed (or perhaps both).  Safe to say, things get pretty dark on this side of the Potter franchise.  Gone is the joyful wonderment of the earlier stories, but it’s a maturity that needed to happen for the series to reach it’s full potential.  What many fans and critics all agree with is that Rowling concluded her epic series in a very satisfying fashion.  Harry’s journey does come full circle and little is left unresolved.  And while many of the more shocking moments from these latter novels did leave fans upset, I’m sure that no one would want to see the story done any other way.  Knowing how effective Rowling completed her epic story must have been a relief to those trusted with bringing the books to the big screen, but doing them justice, with all the darker themes involved proved to be a challenge in it’s own right.

The Harry Potter franchise went through something of a makeover in the third and fourth entries, Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and Goblet of Fire (2005), and those two films would lay the groundwork for everything that followed after.  Just as I had in my first part of this retrospective (which you can read here), I will be examining the Potter franchise film by film, this time focusing on the final four.  Like before, I will avoid giving plot summaries and instead focus on the different highlights of each film, and how the series progressed with regards to it’s storytelling, the performances, and it’s realization of the wizarding world itself.  I will be discussing some spoilers as well, so be forewarned.  The interesting thing about the last half of the Potter franchise is that unlike the first four, which had a shifting number of directors at the helm, all of the remaining films were directed by one man; British filmmaker David Yates.  Yates was given the daunting task of steering this massive franchise home, and for someone with few credits outside of television at the time, he proved to be a surprisingly effective choice.  In fact, not only did he manage to close out the Potter franchise in a grand way, but he’s now the man in charge of shepherding J.K. Rowling’s new big screen franchise, the Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; having signed on to direct all five planned films in that series.  So, now that were ready, let us delve into the final four movies of this franchise and conclude this two part retrospective of the Harry Potter franchise.

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HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (2007)

After the shocking revelation of Voldemort’s rebirth, and the death of one of Hogwart’s students (Cedric Diggory) at the hands of the dark wizard in the previous film, the Wizarding World would never be the same afterwards.  Order of the Phoenix deals with the immediate aftermath of those events, putting Harry and his friends in a far more uncertain and paranoid time.  The titular Order, we learn, is an organization devoted to stopping the Dark Lord’s return, and it’s made up of the adult figures in Harry’s life, including his beloved godfather Sirius Black (with Gary Oldman returning for the role).  What is interesting about this particular film in the franchise is that it was an adaptation of the longest novel in Rowling’s series (a whopping 870 pages), and yet of the single book adaptations, it had the shortest run-time; about 139 minutes.  To do that, you can imagine that a lot of the book was cut down, but overall, I think it was something that had to be done.  Not to disparage Rowling as writer, but Order of the Phoenix was the book that suffered the most from unnecessary filler, and I commend the filmmakers for actually cutting the story down to it’s most essential elements.  And they did this mostly by finding the core of the story and focusing just on that, itself being Harry coming to terms with growing older and knowing that loss and suffering will be following him on his journey going forward.  In the books, Harry becomes a lot more moody and aggressive, which does come out a little bit in Daniel Radcliffe’s performance, but in a more subtle way.  The film does also deals with Harry’s maturity in an effective way, showing his talents as a teacher when he helps his fellow students learn essential spells for fighting the Dark Arts in secret, congregating in the Room of Requirement, which sees it’s first appearance in this movie.

Some new important characters get introduced in Order as well.  My favorite would have to be Luna Lovegood (played to absolute perfection by newcomer Evanna Lynch).  Perhaps of all the students at Hogwarts, Luna is the one I most identify with, just because I was also an oddball kid whose head was in the clouds most of the time, so I guess that’s what makes her one of my absolute favorite characters in the series, and it made me very happy to see her so perfectly realized here.  Also introduced were two of the most loathsome characters in the series overall.  The first is the unhinged and sadistic Bellatrix Lestrange, a witch with strong ties to Voldemort.  She’s played by Helena Bonham Carter, which seemed like appropriate casting considering Carter’s affinity for the gothic and bizarre, which has found it’s way into many of her performances, including this one, and she is very good in the role.  The other addition however probably stands as the most hated character in the series overall, that being Professor Dolores Umbridge.  Umbridge is a thoroughly unpleasant character, pretending to be wholesome and gentile, while at the same time taking delight in suppressing other people’s rights and even subjecting them to torture, like having students write with an ink quill that drains the writer of their own blood.  She is played by actress Imelda Staunton in a phenomenal performance.  You’ve got to give her credit for bringing so much into a character that’s so despised.  The movie also delivers an amazing set piece in the Ministry of Magic, the wizarding world’s center of government.  It’s also the setting for one of the series greatest moments, the showdown between Voldemort and Dumbledore, which does not disappoint in the movie.  Overall, Order of the Phoenix is the Potter franchise at it’s most efficient, knowing what to cut out and what to leave in, creating a well rounded movie in the process.

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HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE (2009)

Released two years after Order of the Phoenix, the longest gap between any of the films in the franchise, we were treated with the sixth film in the franchise.  The Half-blood Prince picks up right after the events of Order, showing the aftermath of Voldemort’s attack on the Ministry, and Harry dealing with the loss of Sirius Black in the confrontation.  Like the previous film, this story is focused on one crucial thing, and that’s the relationship between Harry and Dumbledore, who spend far more time together here than in all the previous films.  This is a movie that focuses far more on filling out the gaps in the narrative, in particular regarding the backstory of Voldemort himself, as Harry and Dumbledore try to piece together exactly how the Dark Lord was able to cheat death.  We learn for the first time about Horcruxes, which we learn is what Voldemort has used to keep himself alive, having split his soul into seven different objects, all of which Harry will have to destroy in order to defeat him.  The film does an effective job of filling us in on how everything in the story now ties together and showing us what Harry must do to finally vanquish the enemy.  Unfortunately for the film, this is what also makes the story feel kind of weak here.  Of all the latter Harry Potter films, this one is sadly the weakest, and that’s mainly because it feels like the story has stalled a bit, in order to fill us in on all the details.  The presentation also feels a little more muted than usual, choosing a more languid pace than previous films, along with a sickly muted color palette (though beautifully shot by acclaimed cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel).  After the brisk pacing of Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, this movie really felt like the franchise slamming on the breaks, and it suffers as a result.

That’s not to say that everything in this movie is terrible.  There are some welcome highlights.  One is the addition of Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent to the cast as the delightful Professor Horace Slughorn.  The character is absent-minded and self-serving, but Broadbent brings a nice bit of congeniality to the character that helps to make him endearing.  There’s also a graciously hilarious sequence when Harry takes the “Liquid Luck” potion in order to effectively coax out information he needs from Professor Slughorn.  It’s a much need light moment in an otherwise dour film, and it also lets Daniel Radcliffe show off his comedic chops for once as Harry, something I’m sure that he’s wanted to do for a long time in the role.  Also, the relationship with Dumbledore is well developed here, and Radcliffe and Michael Gambon are superb in their scenes together, especially in the climatic and sometimes hard to watch scene where Harry has to force feed a poisonous potion to Dumbledore in order to find a Horcrux.  The backstory scenes are also incredibly moody too, especially one where Dumbledore meets Voldemort as a child (played by Ralph Finnes own nephew, Hero Finnes-Tiffin, who is excellent).  But, all the good elements can’t seem to help the movie as whole, which just feels off in it’s pacing.  Jokes that should have been hilarious fall flat and a lot of the joyfulness of previous films feels missing here.   Also, the film sadly misses the opportunity to go more in depth with the mystery of the title itself, the identity of the Half-Blood Prince.  Spoilers, it’s Professor Snape, who is absent for most of the movie, which seems like a waste.  I do however want to give some praise to actor Tom Felton here, who has played the sometimes one note Draco Malfoy throughout the series.  Here, he’s finally able to show some depth in the character and he at last gives a memorable performance, showing effectively the weight of his conflicting morals when he’s called upon to do the most evil of acts.  Half-Blood Prince is not the series worst, but it is an unfortunate bump in the road towards a satisfying conclusion.

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HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART I (2010)

Warner Brothers made the controversial decision with the last book in the series in choosing to split it up into two films.  The benefit is that they would gain another film for the series, extending it to eight instead of seven, but the downside was that the story might be stretched too thin in each film, making it less impactful than it should.  Still, for some, it’s a decision that makes sense, considering that The Deathly Hollows is a substantial book (at 759 pages) and that unlike Order of the Phoenix, you couldn’t cut a lot of it out without losing something valuable.  So, what we got was two movies devoted to depicting the final chapter of the Potter franchise, and for the most part, it’s a decision that works.  Sadly, this precident has become popular in Hollywood in general, and now it’s commonplace for major franchises to split their final chapters into two-parters, like the Twilight and Hunger Games series, and not all of them managed to do it as well as Potter did.  One thing that helps Harry’s final chapter is that it has a stronger break-off point to split the story up, giving each film a nice full narrative.  The first film, while maligned by some fans for having the same languid pacing as Half-Blood Prince, actually benefits the most from the split narrative.  Part 1 in fact may be my favorite of the latter Potter films, and third overall behind Goblet  and Azkaban.  I just found it a fascinating watch as an experiment.  Could you really make a Harry Potter film without Hogwarts in it.  This movie proves that you can, with Harry, Ron, and Hermione living on the run as fugitives, escaping Voldemort’s disciples The Death Eaters, who have taken over the Ministry and are hunting them down.  It’s that feeling of a world flipped upside down that really drives the narrative along and makes this movie a captivating watch.

What I particularly like about this movie is the way it delves deeper into the relationship between our three main heroes.  Ron and Hermione in particular are given much more depth here, and the growth of their characters is touching and heartbreaking as the story goes along.  Both Rupert Grint and Emma Watson deliver standout performances, and like with Daniel Radcliffe, it’s amazing to see how far they’ve matured as actors since they first showed up in The Sorcerers Stone nearly a decade earlier.  It’s clear in this film that they are no longer children, but full-fledged adults, who now have a sense of pain and loss weighing on their shoulders.  There is a fantastic scene halfway through the movie that really encompasses the growth these characters has gone through, and it’s after Ron has abandoned his friends after a fight.  Harry cheers up the grieving Hermione by leading her in a dance, which doesn’t seem all that important, but in the movie it is a brilliant character moment, and one that was not in the books.  There are other key elements introduced in the story, namely the titular Deathly Hallows.  In an amazing and beautiful animated sequence, we learn that the Hallows are three objects that are capable of cheating death, those being the all powerful Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone which brings life back to the dead, and as Harry soon realizes, the Cloak of Invisibility which he’s long had in his possession.  The film also brings back a long absent character, house elf Dobby, who is very much improved as a character here, both in terms of his construction as a CGI character as well as his personality.  His return is short-lived however, as he is slain while helping Harry and his friends escape the clutches of Bellatrix Lestrange at Malfoy Manor, giving this movie a poignant moment to close on.  All these elements make Part 1 of The Deathly Hallows one of the series best.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART II (2011)

It all comes down to this.  After a decade of build-up, with seven previous movies rounding out the story, we finally come to the final confrontation between good and evil in the Wizarding World.  Picking up right where Part 1 left off, Part 2 finds Harry and his friends at a bleak breaking point, and Voldemort in possession of the Elder Wand, which it turns out was being used by Dumbledore up until his death at the end of Half-Blood Prince.  After finding one more Horcrux in the vaults of Gringott’s Bank in London, Harry and his friends soon learn where they will find the remaining hidden Horcrux; in a room somewhere inside Hogwarts.  At that’s where the final battle commences.  Harry and his friends quickly dispose of Voldemort’s cronies at the school, which includes Snape, and those loyal to Harry including Professor McGonagall and the remaining Order of the Phoenix members help to prepare the castle for attack.  The movie on a whole is one big giant climatic battle, which is both the film’s strength and it’s weakness.  While it is a spectacular, epic showdown that is well-paced and captivating, it also has the disadvantage of making this singular film feel very one-note.  The movie feels less like a complete movie, and more like an extended final act; which to be fair, it does very well.  But even still, it makes it less watchable on it’s own than any previous Potter film, because it feels the most like part of a story rather than it’s own thing.  It’s the same problem that plagued the final Hobbit movie, where everything was more or less tied to wrapping things up rather than delivering a complete standalone narrative.  Even Part 1 felt more complete.  Still, despite it’s shortcomings, Part 2 is a satisfying conclusion to this series.

The final battle within Hogwarts is massive and full of eye-catching moments.  The film really shows how comfortable director David Yates had gotten with directing on a massive scale.  The performances are universally strong, especially Daniel Radcliffe and Ralph Finnes in their iconic roles.  To see these two facing off against each other finally is very satisfying, especially in seeing how much more confident Harry has become over the years, becoming fearless in the face of evil and certain death.  We also get to finally see the long awaited moment when Ron and Hermione kiss for the first time, bringing closure to this long developing romantic subplot.  But, the movie’s greatest triumph belongs to the absolutely brilliant segment in which we learn about Severus Snape’s full backstory.  Heavy spoilers ahead.  Harry is given Snape’s memories as the professor is dying from his wounds, and Harry is able to view them through the Pensieve dish in Dumbledore’s office, a plot device introduced in Goblet of Fire and featured heavily in Half-Blood Prince.  In those memories, both we and Harry learn that Snape and Harry’s mother Lily were childhood friends and that Snape was indeed protecting Harry out of his love for Lily, even beyond her death.  The scene is an emotional one, and proves once and for all that Snape was a true hero in the end.  Alan Rickman delivers some of his best work in this sequence, especially the moment when he’s clutching Lily’s body after her murder by Voldemort, utterly devastated.  And Rickman forever endeared himself to a whole generation of fans with one simple, perfectly delivered line; “always.”  The actor’s recent passing earlier this year only made this moment and line more poignant, and he deserves all of the praise he’s been given.  All of this makes Deathly Hallows Part 2 a very satisfactory end.

So, there you have it.  What seemed like a long shot at first ended up proving to be a masterstroke in the end.  In ten years and eight films, we managed to see J.K. Rowling’s grand vision come to life, and it became one of cinema’s greatest journeys as a result.  While not perfect all the way through, the series nevertheless feels very complete as a whole.  It’s especially fun watching it the whole way through and seeing the children grow up before your very eyes.  Considering the scale of the whole undertaking, it’s miraculous that they ever managed to make it through the entire series in one piece overall.  The franchise launched quite a few careers, as well as gave us some career defining work from some beloved veterans.  But, more than anything, it made Hogwarts and the wizarding world around it feel real.  All of us who watch the movies or read the books wishes that a place like that could exist in real life.  It’s probably why J.K. Rowling has expanded the lore of her novels and created things like the Pottermore website, which allows for the fan community to come together online, find out which house they belong to at Hogwarts, and feel like they are a part of this grand fantasy themselves.  Even today, five years after the conclusion of the series, do we still see the impact of the movies in pop culture and elsewhere.  Universal Studios theme parks have their own sections devoted to recreating landmarks from the films, including Hogwarts itself, which immerses the fan-base even further in the world.  But, what I think is the series greatest contribution is the near perfect way it captures the essence of what it’s like to grow up in school; as the innocence and optimism of youth shifts into a deeper understanding of the hardships that await us in adulthood.  Harry was the perfect surrogate for this kind of journey, and it’s great to see a movie franchise that brought his story so perfectly to life.  It cast it’s spell on us and we couldn’t have asked for anything better.

Focus on a Franchise – Harry Potter: Part One

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Many of the franchises that I have covered in this series usually evolved over many years, and sometimes decades, adapting to the times and taking interesting turns the further they went along.  That wasn’t so much the case with the Harry Potter franchise.  Based on author J.K. Rowling’s sprawling, seven volume epic series of novels, Harry Potter was a huge gamble for Warner Brothers to take on in the early 2000’s.  They had to build a franchise around a cast of young characters in a genre that had, until that time, not clicked at the box office.  And the big problem with planning such a long lasting franchise starring child actors is that they eventually grow up; fast.  And yet, Warner Bros. benefited from having a source material with a built in audience that not only could work on the big screen, but in deed lended itself perfectly to the medium.  Rowling’s grand magnum opus was a phenomenon that deserved all of it’s praise, and the pressure was on to make the films just as engaging as the books themselves, and do it quick (8 films in 10 years).  As we know now, the franchise was a smash hit, and managed to fulfill it’s promise of capturing the full breadth of Rowling’s narrative.  Following the titular hero on his adventures at the Hogwarts School of Wizarding and Witchcraft, the Potter franchise is both surprisingly faithful to the spirit of the novels, but distinctive in it’s own right as a cinematic achievement.  Despite all it’s success, it wasn’t without some hurdles over time, especially in the beginning, but by the release of the eighth film in 2011 (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2), everyone could agree that this was one of the most monumental film franchises ever.

Because there is a lot to talk about with each film, I decided to do something different with this series and spread my discussion over two parts.  For this first article, I will go over the first four films in the Harry Potter franchise, and then discuss the final four in the next entry of this series; hopefully before the release of the spin-off movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them this Thanksgiving.  I’ll avoid going over plot summaries, since I’m sure that most of you already know these stories intimately by now.  What I will write about is the way that the franchised progressed, movie by movie, and how this massive series built itself up to what it became in a relatively short amount of time.  I will examine the development of the cast, the different visionary approaches to the same story, and more or less discuss how well each brought the world of J.K. Rowling’s universe to life.  So now, let’s grab our brooms, don our robes, and hold out our wands as we look back at the franchise about the “boy who lived,” Harry Potter.

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HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE (2001)

Directed by Chris Columbus

So, a lot of anticipation led up to the premiere of this first Harry Potter film.  Fans of the books couldn’t wait to see this story come to full life while, at the same time, were worried that it wasn’t going to live up to their imagination.  The film certainly had a sizable budget behind it, as well as the backing of everyone at Warner Brothers, hoping the boy wizard would be the next big thing.  And indeed, their gamble paid off, becoming a huge box office success and the highest grossing film of 2001, even in direct competition with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, which was released only weeks after.  But, here’s the thing; yes the movie was popular, but was it any good?  The answer is, kind of.  Unfortunately for Sorcerer’s Stone, in hindsight, it is universally viewed as the weakest film in the series, and it’s easy to see why.  My own big problem with the movie is the fact that it’s not well directed.  Chris Columbus has proven to be a fine producer over his many years in Hollywood, but his track record as a director is a bit shakier.  Some of his movies are beloved (Home Alone); some are not (Pixels).  While Harry Potter doesn’t represent Columbus’ worst work ever, it still shows a lot of his short-comings as a filmmaker.  Namely, the fact that his movies lack any style to them.  Sorcerer’s Stone is beautifully constructed, but the uninteresting cinematography and simplistic staging only reinforces the fact in the mind of the viewer that they are watching something shot on a soundstage, and not in a living, breathing world.  Couple this with the fact that the movie is afraid to remove anything from the book, so you have a movie that feels both flat and bloated.

But, that’s not to say that the movie is a failure either.  There is still plenty things to like and at times the film can be quite watchable and absorbing.  Despite Chris Columbus’ short-comings as a director, I do give him credit for at least establishing all the pieces that would come to define the series in the years ahead and making them all appropriately iconic.  Hogwarts is wonderfully realized, and effectively epic in scale.  The production design overall is solid, with costumes, sets, and visual effects feeling all appropriately magical, if perhaps a little too basic.  But, what’s most special about this movie, and for the franchise overall is the stellar, all-star cast.  Many of Britain’s best character actors can all be found here, including Richard Harris as Professor Dumbledore, as well as Maggie Smith, Richard Griffiths, Robbie Coltrane, David Bradley, and John Hurt all giving their best.  It should also be mentioned that they lucked out with the casting of Alan Rickman as Professor Snape, in what would be the greatest role of his stellar career, and a perfectly matched one too.  But, it’s the casting of the main roles of the children where the movie really shines.  Emma Watson and Rupert Grint click almost immediately in the crucial roles of Hermoine Granger and Ron Wesley respectively, and so do many of the other young stars.  The only one who seems a little out of his league in this first film, unfortunately, is Daniel Radcliffe as Harry himself.  I don’t see that as his fault, though, considering that he’s got to play the boring, every-man protagonist here, and I think that too much was expected of him so early on.  He at least looked perfect for the role.  As we would see in future movies ahead, his growth as an actor and his role as the character would take many unpredictable turns in the years ahead.

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HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (2002)

Directed by Chris Columbus

Filmed simultaneously with Sorcerer’s StoneHarry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets made it to theaters exactly a year later.  And while the movie improved on the original in some ways, it also sadly had some of the same problems.  For one thing, the filmmakers seemed uncertain whether or not to cut moments from the book, so again they hedged their bets and included just about everything.  This results in a movie that runs a staggering 162 minutes (the longest in the whole series) and you feel every bit of it.  While it is neat to see so much time devoted to showcasing this amazing world, there are still plenty of things that could have been cut down.  The Quidditch Match scene for example, while beautifully executed and epic in scope, goes on for way too long and could have done with a couple edits.  Some of the plot detours could have used some better focus and time management too, like the whole Polyjuice Potion segment.  Still, the movie does excel better than it’s predecessor.  Chris Columbus manages to utilize his directorial tricks more effectively here, giving the movie a better cinematic look overall.  He also manages to deliver on tone much better.  The scenes within the Forbidden Woods and the titular Chamber are effectively creepy without feeling toned down.  In addition, the film actually takes some chances by being shockingly violent at times, including a moment where Harry’s arm is brutally stabbed by the fang of a ferocious giant serpent.  But, that’s not to say that the movie veers too quickly into darker territory.  It’s still a film aimed at audiences of all ages (perhaps a little too much so) and it still retains an aura of wonderment overall.

Again, the cast is the shining element of this film.  All the key players return, along with some welcome additions.  Jason Issacs brings an appropriately menacing and sneering turn as the villainous Lucius Malfoy, father of hated Potter rival Draco (played by Tom Felton).  My favorite addition to the cast though is Kenneth Branaugh as the pompous Professor Gilderoy Lockheart.  The famed Shakespearean thespian and filmmaker delivers a delightfully hammy performance that enables him to steal every scene he’s in and it’s an overall inspired choice of casting.  The child actors are also improved as well, especially Radcliffe as Harry, although he still hasn’t shaken off the bland, wide-eyed wonder expression that plagues his performance in these first couple films (seriously kid, it’s your second year at school; you should be used to this stuff by now).  This was also sadly the final screen performance of actor Richard Harris, as this movie was released posthumously after his death in between films.  He thankfully finished all his scenes before passing, and manages to deliver a wonderful swan song of a performance here.  The movie is also notable for the introduction of Dobby, the series first fully CGI animated principle character.  While he was annoying to some (mostly because he was unfairly compared to Lord of the Rings Gollum, who also was introduced that same year) the animation on the character was no less groundbreaking for it’s time and his presence helped to give this movie a much more magical feeling overall.   It may not have been the fully realized Potter film we’ve been wanting to see just yet, but this entry nevertheless showed us that better things were to come for the franchise, and with Chris Columbus stepping aside as director, we would see that those better things were much closer than we expected.

harry potter and the prisoner of azkaban

HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004)

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Now this is more like it.  After Chris Columbus’ departure, Warner Brothers tapped Mexican filmmaker (and future Oscar-Winner) Alfonso Cuaron to direct the third feature in the series, and his input made a whole lot of difference.  Cuaron proved to be a perfect choice because he brought a very distinct sense of style to the movie; something that would go on to define the rest of the series thereafter.  The film no longer looked basic, but instead had visual flair to it.  With artistic tricks like ink-blot transition fades, impressionistic framing, and Cuaron’s trademark long takes, this became a film that not only stood out from it’s predecessors, but also made Harry Potter distinctive from other films too.  What Cuaron also did to change the face of the franchise was to take it out into the real world.  Instead of shooting entirely around the vicinity of the studio lot that most of the original films were made in, Cuaron shot several exterior scenes on location in the Scottish Highlands.  Because of this, the movie has an authenticity that the first two films didn’t.  The universe of Harry Potter finally felt like a lived-in, functioning world, and that’s the biggest and most rewarding contribution Prisoner of Azkaban made to the franchise.  At the same time, the film still feels like a natural continuation to what came before, and in addition to the great artistic leaps that this movie made, it also benefited from a renewed focus on the story.  Prisoner of Azkaban finally delivers some much needed insight into Harry’s backstory, including the truth behind the murder of his family, and why his importance in this world matters.

Because of the more introspective details of this plot, it puts Harry’s personal journey more into the spotlight, and this in turn leads to one of the film’s other great improvements.  For the first time in the series, Daniel Radcliffe finally shines as the character of Harry.  He gives his best performance to date here, and I think that it’s because the series finally allows him to emote rather than react to what’s happening.  It basically becomes a difference between performing and acting, and here, Radcliffe finally figured out how to embody the character.  And it makes sense; Harry finally learns more about how the tragedies that shaped his life and how nothing is what it seems, making his inner turmoil all the more defining to his character.  It also helps that Radcliffe had fantastic role models in the cast to help guide his acting abilities to new heights, such as the additions of Gary Oldman as Sirius Black and David Thewlis as Reamus Lupin, both giving standout performances.  Also worth noting is the recasting of Dumbledore, with veteran actor Michael Gambon assuming the role after Richard Harris’ passing.  While I admire Harris’ take on the character, I actually thing Gambon proved to be a better fit.  Harris was a bit too ethereal as Dumbledore, while Gambon’s version came across as much more accessible, and a lot more natural as a result.  The movie also makes the wise choice of cutting out any unnecessary scenes, making this movie feel much less bloated than previous films.  Quidditch is portrayed to the bare minimum, and more time is devoted to the things that matter, like character relationships.  While some things are curiously left out (the true authors of the Marauder’s Map) there’s nothing in this movie that shouldn’t be here, and that’s refreshing.  Prisoner of Azkaban changed up the franchise in the best way possible, and that’s why it’s considered by most to be the best in the series.

harry potter and the goblet of fire

HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE (2005)

Directed by Mike Newell

While I do admire Prisoner of Azkaban a great deal, and what it brought to the franchise as a whole, I actually would consider it’s successor to be my own favorite film in this series.  Azkaban revolutionized and set the tone for the rest of the series, but I believe Goblet of Fire is the one movie that perfected it.   My reaction may have to do with Goblet also being my favorite book from the series, but it’s not without a lot of remarkable film-making that helps to earn it that distinction as well.  Director Mike Newell takes what Alfonso Cuaron built in the last movie, and amps it up to 11.  The scale is bigger, with all the Triwizard Tournament sequences making a colossal impression; as does the impressive Quidditch World Cup that opens the feature.  Not only that, but the characters themselves go through many life-altering changes.  Romantic relationships come more into focus in this movie, with Harry finding his first crush in his fellow student Cho Chang (Katie Leung).  Ron and Hermoine’s budding romance is also explored further, with sometimes very hilarious results.  Conflicts between characters are also given more insight, as Harry begins to feel more of the pressure that his celebrity status in the Wizarding World and the negative effect it has.  His friendship with Ron hits a few hurdles, as Harry seems to achieve glory without any effort and Ron sees it as a betrayal.  I love all of this deeper stuff injected into the story, making the movie feel more than just a spectacle, but instead closer to the rich narrative that J.K. Rowling had imagined.

New members of the already stellar cast once again proves the ambitious casting choices of the series paying off so far.  Brendan Gleeson delivers a delightfully unhinged performance as the curmudgeonly Mad Eye Moody, a character that both commands attention in every scene and brings some very welcome comic relief.  Many other great British character actors bring plenty of flavor to the film as well, including Miranda Richardson as the nosy Rita Skeeter and Doctor Who‘s David Tennant delivering a very slimy performance as Barty Crouch Jr.  Also, future sparkling vampire Robert Pattinson shows up as Hogwart’s resident hunk, Cedric Diggory.  But, the film’s greatest addition to the series is the role that was probably the most crucial casting choice overall apart from Harry himself, and that’s the role of the primary villain; Lord Voldemort.   After teasing his return for three movies, Voldemort finally shows his ugly face in the climax of this feature, and the filmmakers should be commended for getting someone as noteworthy as Ralph Fiennes for the role.  Fiennes performance is iconic; both mesmerizing and terrifying at the same time.  The way he goes from cool confidence to seething rage in an instant is frighteningly realized and the whole resurrection scene near the film’s end is easily one of the series finest moments, if not the best overall.  Because of this dark turn, the franchise would likewise never be the same after this.  The wizarding world would become a much darker place, where even Hogwarts would no longer be a safe haven, and the films commendably adopted that newer, darker tone gracefully.

So, there you have the first four features in the Harry Potter franchise.  Unlike most series that tend to loose luster over time, Harry Potter is one of the few examples where it managed to get better the longer it went on.  Much like how the children at it’s center grew up and matured, the series itself started off unfocused and uncertain, only to gain confidence as it kept growing.  Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets are by no mean bad movies, but they do pale in comparison to where the series would ultimately go in the years after.  I can’t stress enough how important Prisoner of Azkaban was in finally setting the tone for the series and helping to give it the distinctive character that it was lacking up to that point.  But, when looked at entirely, you can’t deny that it does faithfully bring to life J.K. Rowling’s imaginative story; especially with regards to the characters.  Just as with the novels themselves, I believe the real appeal of the Potter series is the incredible way that it perfectly captures the experience of childhood within a school environment.  Sure, this a world of witches and wizards, but the interconnected relationships between characters are as real as anything we’ve all experienced when going through school.  Just like all of us, Harry and his friends have to deal with the pressures of homework, the dangers of school bullying, as well as the reliance of friends in times of crisis.  Rowling’s genius is in the fact that each of her novels is devoted to an entire school year, making the progression of the narrative feel familiar to any of us who recall our memories of school based on all the different levels of development we achieved.  For the start of this franchise, we would see the sweet innocence and promise of youth give way to the harsh realities of adulthood just across the horizon, and that’s what awaits us in the final four films of the Harry Potter franchise.  So, until then…

….to be continued.

Focus on a Franchise – The Godfather Trilogy

the godfather brando

As we enter the homestretch of Awards season, you hear a lot of complaints about how the committees in charge of selecting the winners of these selected awards tend to be a little snobbish.  We’re hearing those complaints again, only this year they are in response to the perception that the Academy is too exclusionary to non-white actors and filmmakers.  Not to delve too much into the current controversy, but there is truth into Hollywood’s sometimes narrow minded view of what’s deserving of awards and what’s not.  But, it’s not exclusive to just films that come from people of different backgrounds.  The Academy Awards have long had the reputation of excluding what you would call genre fare in favor of classier entertainment, favoring prestige over box office value.  That’s why many of the big winners over the years have tended to feel out of touch with the public perception, and many of the choices now seem perplexing in retrospect (How Green Was My Valley over Citizen KaneOrdinary People over Raging Bull, etc.).  But there are thankfully genre films that are so monumental that even the Academy can’t dismiss them and they’ve managed to cross the threshold and gain their genre the recognition it deserves.  We’ve finally seen over the years the Academy honor the Western (Unforgiven) the horror film (The Silence of the Lambs), and even fantasy (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King).  But, even more remarkable is when Hollywood can overlook the fact that some of these movies are also part of ongoing franchises, ignoring the whole name recognition and just honoring them as singular cinematic achievements.  And this is especially true for the only time that a movie and it’s sequel have ever triumphed at the Oscars; those being the first two films in The Godfather trilogy.

The Godfather trilogy is one of cinemas most beloved and unexpected franchises.  However, calling it a franchise is often disputed by some critics, who view the different movies as a singular narrative; which can be argued given that the first two movies are both sourced for the most part from the novel written by Mario Puzo.  But, despite that fact, each film in the series is unique and continues the story in it’s own distinct fashion.  And, especially with the first two, it would become of the most monumental pair of films in cinema history.  The movies were made during the renegade early years of the 1970’s, when studios were allowing for a lot more creative freedom to their filmmakers, many of whom were breaking new ground with the kinds of stories being told and the kinds of film-making styles being used.  One of the artists that emerged from that class of film-making was Francis Ford Coppola.  The Italian American director started off as a screenwriter in the industry and he ended up winning an Oscar for writing Patton (1970).  Soon after, he was given his first opportunity to direct and he chose a story that was close to his own roots as a descendant of Italian immigrants to America.  Puzo’s The Godfather was a huge best seller when it was first published, chronicling the highs and lows of the fictional Corleone crime family.  What Coppola found in the novel was this grand sweeping tale of the immigrant experience in America as well as it’s unfortunate ties to the Mafia, and as a result it becomes the quintessential story of America in itself.  In this article, I’ll be looking at all three films of the Godfather trilogy, and how each built upon this magnum opus from it’s larger than life director.

godfather part 1

THE GODFATHER (1972)

Well, what can you say about The Godfather that hasn’t already been said.  It’s a classic in every possible way and rightfully has earned it’s place as one of the greatest movies ever made; if not the best.  Everything about this movie is iconic to this day: the lush and often gritty cinematography by Gordon Willis: the endlessly charismatic Oscar winning performance by Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone; the unforgettable transformation of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone; the endlessly quotable dialogue.  Nearly everything in this movie has become ingrained into our culture and we are all the better for it.  The Godfather is a movie that illustrates the pinnacle of what film-making can do, and it came at a time when Hollywood really needed it.  During the tumultuous counterculture movement of the 60’s and 70’s, Hollywood was desperate to find an identity that was in tune with the changing times.  With The Godfather, they found a movie that spoke to the new generation while still maintaining a certain bit of old Hollywood prestige.  I think the thing that makes Coppola’s movie so brilliant is it’s earnestness.  Up until that time, Gangster pictures were often played over the top and were dismissed as purely sensational genre fluff.  The Godfather plays with the Gangster flick, and portrays that world in the most realistic sense possible.  It’s not sensationalized or glamorized.  It merely shows us what that world was really like, warts and all.  At the same time, there’s also a truthful current of the importance of family and how morality becomes relative when the law is corrupt and the criminals are more or less responsible for building up our society.  That’s the brilliance in storytelling that Coppola brought out in The Godfather.

But, what people remember most from this movie is the progression of the characters, and in particular, the evolution of young Michael Corleone.  Yeah, Brando’s Vito is the face of the franchise, but Michael is the focus and his story is the most remarkable thing about this franchise.  When we first see Michael at the wedding of his sister Connie (Talia Shire), we see an all-American boy who’s managed to escape the shady family history in order to become his own man.  But, as the film progresses, Michael is plunged back into the world of crime after a few tragedies befall his family; the first being an attempted assassination of his father, and the second being the brutal massacre of his older brother Sonny (James Caan), who was supposed to be the true heir of Vito’s empire.  Michael at first reluctantly returns to this world of organized crime, but with every step he takes, he delves deeper into what he’s capable of, becoming more ruthless and unforgiving, and by the end, he has risen to the top of this empire that he originally wanted no part of.  Coppola takes us on this character journey in a grand and passionate way.  Michael doesn’t just become a criminal, he is shaped by moments that form his character, and in him we see a reflection of what this kind of life could do to a person.  In particular, the brilliantly staged restaurant scene where Michael commits his first murder and the stunning and groundbreaking Baptism montage at the end, both showing us the pivotal shifts in Michael’s character, and both are brilliantly performed by Pacino.  All of these elements make The Godfather the monumental epic achievement that it still is today, and it greatly established Francis Ford Coppola as one of cinemas most unique voices.

godfather part 2

THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)

The Godfather would go on to be a box office success and would win multiple Oscars for Picture, Actor (Brando) and Screenplay; though strangely not for Director (Coppola lost to Cabaret‘s Bob Fosse).  Amazingly when studio Paramount asked if there was a chance to sequelize the film, Coppola actually agreed to it.  Usually a prestige film that wins multiple Oscars will be left to stand alone, but Coppola knew that there was plenty of story left in Puzo’s novel that he had to leave out in the first movie that he could still draw from.  Not only that, but thanks to the goodwill he generated from the first movie, Coppola could not only make a sequel, but he could make it bigger than ever before.  The Godfather Part II is epic in every way, and many regard it the best film in the franchise, and that’s a sentiment that I quite agree with.  It doesn’t have as many of the instantly recognizable iconic moments as the first Godfather, nor the novelty of being our introduction into this epic tale, but it makes up for it in the sheer scale and spectacle of it all.  It’s The Godfather brought to it’s full potential.  What I love best about the movie is not just the story, but the way that it’s presented.  We follow up the story of Michael Corleone where it left off, as he continues to deal with competing forces in the crime world, but that is paralleled with the story of his father Vito as a young man; played this time by then newcomer Robert DeNiro, who won a Supporting Actor Oscar for his work.  The parallel stories are both fascinating, especially when contrasted with one another; Vito’s rise clashed against Michael’s fall.

One other thing that I think is an improvement from the previous film is the way the supporting cast is integrated into the story more.  Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen in particular gets much more screen-time, as does Diane Keaton as Michael’s long suffering wife Kay, who also manages to get the ultimate revenge on Michael in the end.  But, the true revelation in the cast is John Cazale as Fredo.  Here we see one of the most interesting developments in the Godfather saga as Michael’s elder brother betrays him behind his back and it ultimately leads to probably Michael’s most brutal act of all in this entire series when he retaliates.  Cazale perfectly captures the spitefulness and insecurity of Fredo, and makes him one of the most interesting characters in the whole story.  Newcomers Lee Strasberg and Michael Gazzo also add great support in the roles of Hyman Roth and Frankie Pentangeli, two men who become obstacles to Michael’s rise in power in different ways.  But, of course, Pacino still owns every moment he inhabits in this movie, and watching him turn Michael into an unforgiving tyrant is chilling.  Coppola also takes advantage of the larger canvas that he’s given.  The Godfather Part II utilizes it’s locations much more effectively than the modest budgeted first film did.  In particular, the period detail put into the turn of the century New York City scenes with young Vito is amazing.  The iconic rooftop scene is still a masterpiece of staging, as is the stairway assassination moment that follows it.  The Godfather Part II proved that even prestige films could spark a franchise, and both parts of the Godfather feel like a complete realization of this amazing tale.  The film would become the first ever sequel to win Best Picture at the Oscars, and Coppola would also finally be recognized as Best Director as well.

THE GODFATHER PART III, Al Pacino, 1990, © Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection, GD3 095, Photo by:

THE GODFATHER PART III (1990)

For many years thereafter, Godfather Parts I and II were seen as one of cinemas greatest achievements; a double feature narrative unlike any other.  And for many years, it was thought that the narrative that Coppola wanted to tell was open and shut; that there was nowhere else to go.  That was until Francis Ford Coppola announced that he was creating a third Godfather.  A lot of people doubted that it could be pulled off, especially considering that it had been over 15 years since Godfather Part II had been made and that those films had gained iconic status by this point.  Coppola was also going through a rough patch in his post-Apocalypse Now (1979) years, making diverse and uncharacteristically less successful choices in projects like One from the Heart (1981), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) and Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988).  Still, he managed to convince Paramount to green-light the project and he got back most of his key players, including Pacino returning as Michael.  The film had all the right elements in play and a lot of potential behind it once it made it’s way to theaters.  Unfortunately for Coppola, all the goodwill he earned for the original two Godfathers didn’t help him much.  The film received a very mixed reception from both fans and critics, and those who hated the film were especially livid by what they had seen.  They saw the movie as a betrayal and have since labeled Part III as one of the worst sequels ever made.  But, is it really that bad?

I think one of the reasons that the response to this movie was so extreme was because of how beloved the first two were.  The iconic nature of Parts I and II set the bar extremely high, and it is impossible for any film to match it.  So, is it the worst sequel ever made? I don’t think so, but it’s nowhere near as good as the first two either.  I merely see the movie as being just okay.  It’s well made and does feel like a Godfather movie for the most part, but it’s also sadly very forgettable too.  There’s no iconic moments that I can remember and overall I feel like this was just a superfluous story not really worth telling.  Coppola’s just rehashing things that made his Godfather films memorable before, but adding nothing new to it.  Most of the hatred aimed at this movie seems to stem from Coppola’s terrible casting of his own daughter Sofia in the key role of Michael’s daughter Mary, and yes she is pretty terrible.  We would learn in the years after that Sofia Coppola would better follow in her father’s footsteps as a director and not as an actor; the response to her acting here possibly influenced that career change too.  But, as bad as Sofia is, I feel that the movie still gets some worthwhile performances overall, especially from newcomer Andy Garcia as Vincent Mancini, bastard son of Sonny Corleone, who proves to be a valuable ally over time to Michael, and possibly an heir.  Talia Shire’s Connie also returns and has her character come full circle, becoming just as ruthless as her brother.  Pacino doesn’t have as great of a role this time as the older Michael (given how Part II perfectly rounded out his character) but his performance still feels genuine, and he does manage to lay to rest Michael’s story in a convincing way.  Does The Godfather Part III betray the series as a whole.  I honestly think that seen together with it’s counterparts that it does hold up as part of the complete experience; it’s just not as strong as the rest of it.  It can be ignored if you prefer the classics, but it’s also not even remotely a betrayal of the series.  It’s just an extended epilogue, and nothing more.

So, overall the Godfather trilogy is a collection of one amazing two part story, and one polarizing final chapter.  Regardless of how well the entire experience holds up, there’s no denying that Francis Ford Coppola’s epic trilogy is one of cinema’s most monumental achievements.  It would go on to influence so much of film-making in the years to come, pushing the boundaries of what kind of stories you could tell and how much the filmmakers can get away with in terms of language and violence.  Numerous filmmakers today look to The Godfather movies as an inspiration and you can see it’s fingerprints just about everywhere.  The films of Martin Scorsese owe a lot to the success of The Godfather, and I’m sure that there wouldn’t have been as much interest in the history and influence of the mob in America reflected in movies like Goodfellas (1990) and The Departed (2006) had Coppola not popularized it first.  Popular shows like The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire also owe a lot to The Godfather as well, and in some cases even share a cast member or two (Godfather Part II supporting actor Dominic Chianese “Johnny Ola” would play the pivotal role of Junior Soprano in the hit show).  And to this day, we still quote this movie endlessly whenever we tell someone to “make an offer he can’t refuse,” or say that someone “sleeps with the fishes.”  The Godfather has held up well over the years and will continue to stand as one of cinema’s crowning jewels.  And it also proved that the Academy can sometimes overlook it’s strict standards and embrace a franchise film every now and then.  It just has to be a movie so good that it can’t be ignored anymore.

Focus on a Franchise – Scream

scream ghostface

With Halloween looming just around the corner, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight another horror franchise in this series, and examine how it progressed over time, and whether or not it stayed true to it’s original concept.  What I decided to do this week was honor the the recently departed horror icon Wes Craven with a spotlight on one of his most popular titles, that being the Scream franchise.  Wes Craven’s movies may not be to everyone’s tastes, and I wouldn’t exactly consider myself a huge fan of his either, but there’s no denying that he is one of the kings of the horror genre; probably without equal.  No other horror film director was as prolific nor as resilient.  He’s as synonymous to the horror genre as John Ford is to Westerns, and though many of his movies aren’t what I would consider masterpieces, you can’t help but admire him for becoming a master of his craft.  Horror as we know it today owes a lot to the film-making style of Wes Craven.  Craven brought gore into the mainstream of the horror genre.  What Dario Argento pioneered in the art house independent market, Craven made it work in Hollywood.  He began with low budget schlock-fests like The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) before making his big bloody splash in the 80’s with A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the movie that turned Craven into a household name and introduced the world to one of Horror’s most iconic monsters; Freddy Kruger.  Over time, Wes Craven had trouble living up to the legacy of Elm Street, but that was until he reinvented himself again in the late 90’s with a new horror movie that turned the genre on it’s head, in more ways than one.

When Scream premiered in 1996, the horror genre had largely lost a lot of it’s luster, in no small part because few if any horror movies ever felt original.  Most horror franchises usually would start strong and then later peter out the longer they went on.  The sequelizing of these movies became monotonous to audiences who saw the same cliched things happening over and over again without ever getting better.  Wes Craven, to his credit, was not only a contributor to the horror genre, but also an appreciator as well, and over time he was compelled to address the declining state of the genre.  One thing that he did observe in the mid nineties was the rise of movie savvy audiences who were more keenly aware of all the different tropes that make up a horror movie, given that many of them had grown up with them in their youth.  He also observed the way that some horror movies over time would develop cult followings, and how that would in turn drive the success rates of some franchises.  Though it was well before the rise of the internet, which would compound this phenomenon to unprecedented levels, Wes Craven did see a new kind of horror movie culture that had emerged and he saw in it a new kind of subculture worth exploiting for a horror movie.  He found the voice he needed to tap into this newer, younger audience with screenwriter and Dawson’s Creek creator Kevin Williamson and the end result became a movie that not only dissected horror cliches, but also revitalized them for a new generation.  It was horror for the MTV generation, and for better or worse, Wes Craven had changed the genre once again.  For this article, I will be looking at the Scream series as a whole and see how it fared from the groundbreaking first film all the the way through it’s less effective follow-ups, and how they reflected the back on the career of it’s creator as well.  Fair warning; some spoilers ahead.

scream 1

SCREAM (1996)

This is the one that started it all, and is in-arguably one of the most influential horror movies of all time.  Wes Craven’s movie stands out for a number of reasons; it modernized the genre, it was self-aware in ways that most horror movies weren’t, and it introduced a new iconic monster to the genre that would become quite literally the face of a franchise; Ghostface.  The movie starts off with bang in it’s opening prologue, and talk about a movie wanting to make a statement right off the bat.  In it, a lonely girl named Casey (Drew Barrymore) is confronted over the phone by a mysterious stranger who asks her about her favorite scary movies.  Playful at first, the conversation quickly turns menacing as Casey learns she’s not alone and that whoever is on the other line is out to get her.  Soon, she is chased down by a person in a black robe wearing a ghost mask and wielding a knife.  Suffice to say, she doesn’t make it.  It’s an effectively gruesome and tense scene that sets the tone perfectly, both with the horror elements and also with the self-aware critiquing of the genre itself.  The rest of the movie introduces us to Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), who will inevitably be the focus of all the horror tropes going forward in this movie along with the remainder of the franchise.  She’s  accompanied along the way by Deputy Dewey (David Arquette), who’s trying to find a link between all the murders happening in town by the “Ghostface” killer, as well as by reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) who is after a story to help boost her career.  Over time, Sidney learns that she’s target number one on the killer’s hit list, and that even her friends like boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich), horror film nerd Randy (Jamie Kennedy), and class jock Stuart (Matthew Lillard) might be the killer behind the mask.

Overall, I would have to say that this movie is easier to respect than to admire.  For one thing, I do like the way that Wes Craven turns the horror genre on it’s head by making us aware of the horror movie cliches before they happen, helping to make this movie both frightening as well as refreshingly silly.  One of the best things about Craven’s style is the way that he doesn’t take himself too seriously.  He goes for the ridiculous and absurd constantly in his movies, which was a staple of Nightmare on Elm Street.  The same thing happens here too whenever necessary, particularly in some of the more gruesome killings, like Rose McGowan’s character getting crushed in a retractable garage door.  But, where the movie falters is in the plot itself.  However clever the death scenes may be, the movie sadly gets bogged down in a generic thriller plot involving Sidney and the mystery around her family’s dark history.  Of course, horror movies aren’t renowned for their intricate plots, and using a cliched story may be by design on Craven’s part, but it still acts as an inhibitor to the overall movie.  In addition, time hasn’t been kind to this movie either.  What seemed groundbreaking back then feels very dated today, probably because the movie is so steeped in it’s time period.  It’s a 90’s movie down to it’s core, which may give it some nostalgia value today, but probably not positive overall.  But, at the same time, whatever faults it has as a story doesn’t diminish it’s impact.  This was a highly influential movie that really shaped the language of horror for a decade thereafter.  There were so many copycat horror films that tried to do the same thing in the following years, but never quite made it.  For me, it’s a respectable benchmark in the genre, but one that never did rise up to the level set by it’s brilliant opening scene.  But, the question remained; could Wes Craven ever rise to that level again?

scream 2

SCREAM 2 (1997)

Released right on the heels of the first movie, with little over a year in between, Scream 2 picked up right where the last film left off.  And, remarkably that quick turnaround for Wes Craven yielded a superior product.  This, to me is the best film in the franchise, because it fixes most of the story problems of the first movie and it plays upon the self aware aspects of the genre in an even more pointed way.  Taking Sidney into college provides the film’s subtext with even more ammunition, as this movie gets to poke fun at the way that younger audiences respond to horror movies at the time.  Since the murders of the first movie, Sidney’s has turned into a mild celebrity, with her ordeal having been adapted into a movie itself.  As a result, she is hounded by the spotlight, having to re-confront the reality of her worst life experience constantly.  This becomes even worse when it seems that a copycat killer is on the loose, bringing “Ghostface” back from the dead.  Given the first movie’s phenomenal success, the meta narrative actually manages to self-examine itself, making the observations by the characters feel all the more resonant and the use of the cliches a lot smarter.  And it doesn’t address horror movie cliches only, like the seemingly indestructible killer or the predictably timed death of two lovers after they’ve had sex.  It also critiques sequel cliches as well, like how the stakes and scale are raised but the same results still happen.  And the way that the first Scream influenced so much of horror in it’s wake, including turning Ghostface into an instant icon, helps Wes Craven address the cult like following that horror movies can have in a much more effective way here, given that it actually happened it to this franchise in reality.

Like what most great sequels do, it ups the ante without having to rehash old ideas.  This is evident right from the opening scene, which manages to both surpass the first movie’s opening while at the same time poking fun at it.  It involves a couple (played by Omar Epps and Jada Pinkett Smith) going to a theater to see the film adaptation of the murders in the first movie.  The audience around them proves to be full of rabid fans, all coming to the theater in the “Ghostface” costume.  Though most of crowd is friendly, if a bit rowdy, the couple soon learns too late that a real killer is among them.  This leads to a chilling revelation as the couple are slaughtered there in the theater as the movie plays along with a tongue-in-cheek recreation of the first movie’s opening scene.  It’s a brilliant juxtaposition that represents the best of Wes Craven’s horror movie tropes; his mercilessly gruesome vision and his macabre sense of humor.  Thankfully, the remainder of the movie lives up to the opening and the two sides of Craven’s style help to elevate the story rather than get in the way.  Even with all the horror movie cliches being lampooned, it still manages to offer up a few surprises.  Like I said, spoilers coming, and one of the film’s more pleasant surprises is the revelation of the murderer, who turns out to be the mother of Billy, the original film’s killer, played here effectively by Laurie Metcalf.  It’s a nice nod to another horror franchise, as this movie uses the Mrs. Voorhies twist of Friday the 13th (1980) to great effect and makes the murders in this movie revenge killings, which is a logical next step to go with for a sequel.   Overall, Scream 2 surpasses it’s predecessor in every way and shows that Wes Craven had enough good ideas for more than one movie in this franchise.

scream 3

SCREAM 3 (2000)

Unfortunately, this is where all the good ideas ran out.  Naturally, the success of the first two movies led to a third film, but none of what made the other two movies effective translated over.  I think one big reason for this is the loss of Kevin Williamson as screenwriter.  Instead, Wes Craven had this sequel written by newcomer Ehren Kruger, who has since gone on to be the writer behind the Michael Bay Transformer movies.  That should give you an indication of the intelligence level of this movie.  While not one of the worst horror movies I’ve ever seen (being largely saved by Wes Craven’s stylistic direction), this movie is still remarkably stupid. The self-aware humor that defined so much of the first two movies is clumsily handled here.  There’s even an awful deus ex machina element where Jamie Kennedy’s Randy (who was killed off in the previous movie) somehow had left a tape for the main characters to find where he details exactly how a trilogy capper works, giving them insight into how they should respond to the new set of murders happening around them.  Also, this movie has one of the most preposterous twist endings that I’ve ever seen.  Even Scooby Doo and his gang would laugh at how stupid a choice the main killer ends up being.  The movie’s one saving grace is the addition of some genuinely funny comedic actors like Parker Posey and Patrick Warburton into the mix, both of whom are sadly underused before they are inevitably killed off.  Parker Posey, in particular, actually elevates the material here, making what could have been a horribly written obnoxious character into a welcome comic relief.  It seems like all those years working in Christopher Guest movies paid off for her improv skills.  Her character gives me the feeling that Wes Craven wanted to go into a more comical direction with this movie, but somewhere down the line he lost control of the tone and it ended up not working as well as he hoped.  Sadly, with a dumb downed plot and a lazy screenplay, this was a big step backwards for the franchise and one that put it on ice for over a decade.

scream 4

SCREAM 4 (2011)

The decade long gap in between Scream 3 and Scream 4 proved to be a transition period for the horror film genre.  The result of the first Scream‘s success proved to be an era of a lot of failed wannabes, all trying to match Scream’s more crass and self-aware style.  Instead of originality taking hold, we got a lot of ludicrous horror movies that tried to be too clever for their own good.  This was the era of the PG-13 horror flick, which were aimed more at the teenage set, which Scream so effectively connected with despite it’s R-rating.  And of course, PG-13 gore is not at all scary.  But, thankfully at this same time, fresh new ideas were made in response to the watered down Scream clones with R-rated fare like Saw (2004).  There were also new horror filmmakers emerging like Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects) and James Wan (The Conjuring) who helped to bring credibility back to the genre as well.  During this time, Wes Craven had developed his name into a brand, which had it’s good points as well as it’s bad.  The good side was that he was able to lend his name to projects that normally would’ve gone under the radar, like his 2005 thriller Red Eye, but the bad side was the standard to which he had to live up to.  Thus, after years away from the genre he helped to reshape, Wes Craven delivered another Scream sequel, and quickly proved that this was a franchise way beyond salvaging.  It’s not as stupid as Scream 3 (though some moments come close like a character telling the “Ghostface” killer that he can’t die because he’s gay and that it’s against the genre rules), but it commits an even worse crime of just being boring.  Mainstays Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and David Arquette return, but they are sidelined by a new group of teenage victims, all of whom are bland genre archetypes.  In a sense, Scream 4 became just another wannabe, which is sad given that this came from the series’ original creator in what turned out to be his swan song as a director.  It’s too bad that a decade of waiting didn’t yield anything more for this franchise than just a cash in for the studio that made it.

Overall, the Scream franchise may be a clunky and inconsistent addition to the horror genre, but at the same time you can’t help but respect it.  It did modernize the genre at a time when it was desperately needed and it also allowed audiences in on the joke as it gave away some of it’s tricks.  One only wishes that it had been more effective at getting it’s point across with each movie.  The only time where I felt that the franchise got the formula down perfectly was in Scream 2, a movie that was much better than it had any right to be.  The first Scream is a mixed bag, but it’s high points far outweigh the bad, and it’s impact is still something to respect, even if it did spawn some rather lame results.  Sadly, Wes Craven had a hard time living up to that legacy, but even still, it’s admirable how he managed to rewrite the rules of the genre consistently throughout his career.  Scream may seem dated today, but you can honestly say that about any horror film made by Wes Craven.  He liked to have his movies reflect the era that they existed in and that’s a great sign of an evolving filmmaker.  He embraced the new attitudes and tastes of his audiences and rewarded them with the things that they wanted, even if he wasn’t always successful at it.  And what made him so effective in the horror genre was his ability to make effective monsters.  Ghostface is rightfully as iconic as other horror mainstays like Jason Voorhies and Freddy Kruger, and one of the scariest aspects of this killer is that it’s iconic nature is what fuels it’s resurgence throughout every movie, living on a mask for new killers.  Unlike it’s peers, Ghostface lives on because someone always picks up the mantle and dons the mask again, keeping the cycle going.  It’s a movie monster built out of legend rather than mysticism, making it all too realistic and as a result, even more terrifying.  That’s the great legacy of Wes Craven’s Scream franchise; connecting the horror genre with the modern world and showing how the subculture of horror can even bring out monsters of it’s own.  We live in a modern society today where horror is not so imaginative and copycat killings are sadly all too real in our society.  In the end, Wes Craven gave horror a new face, and it was one that was horrifyingly human.

Focus on a Franchise – The Cornetto Trilogy

three flavors cornetto

The definition of a franchise may be looser here than I normally would define it within these articles.  The truth is that none of these movies have anything in common other than they have the same director, much of the same cast, as well as reoccurring themes and sight gags.  And yet, the self-proclaimed “Cornetto” trilogy is considered one of the most beloved trilogies of recent years.  The brain child of Writer/ Director Edgar Wright and his lead star and co-writer Simon Pegg, the Cornetto films are three hilarious spoof-movies that perfectly send up different action genres with broad laugh out loud humor and witty, rapid fire dialogue.  Given the sad state of spoof movies today, which are dominated by the horrible Scary Movie (2000) knock-offs, these British imports are a breath of fresh air, and more honorably compliment the genre that was once home to the great minds of Mel Brooks and the Abrams-Zucker team.  In fact, Edgar Wrights approach to genre spoofing is more akin to the Mel Brooks style, in that he’s clearly trying his hardest to accurately recreate his target of parody while also mocking it relentlessly.  As Mel Brooks once said, ” I make fun of the things I love,” and that’s exactly what the Cornetto movies are all about.  Edgar Wright’s trilogy is a love letter to the kind of movies that he himself admires, and while there’s a clear intention to make audiences laugh with each movie, there’s also the sense that the director is indulging himself in the style and excesses of the movies he’s parodying.  Even though there’s a self-aware element to all of the movies in the Cornetto Trilogy, it doesn’t spoil the experience and in fact it’s actually what makes these movies so fun to watch.

Now those of you unfamiliar with the trilogy, you’re probably asking, what is a “Cornetto?”  Well it’s the name of an ice cream cone brand sold in the United Kingdom; think their equivalent to the Drumstick brand found here in America.  So, why use this as the name for a trilogy of movies mostly unrelated to ice cream?  There are two reasons for this.  First, the presence of the ice cream is consistent briefly through each of the three films, which is one of many links that they share.  And second, when pressed to come up with a name for this trilogy, Edgar Wright made reference to famed Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy (1993-94) which consisted of three movies each titled and themed around the colors Blue (1993), White (1994) and Red (1994), the colors of the French national flag.  Wright took that same idea and labeled his trilogy around three different Cornetto ice cream flavors.  Sure it was meant as a joke, but the name and the different flavors actually compliment the films perfectly.  You have Strawberry representing the bloody gore of Shaun of the Dead (2004), you have Classic Blue representing the authority of the police in Hot Fuzz (2007) and Mint Chocolate Chip representing an alien invasion in The World’s End (2013).  But, it’s not just the ice cream that brings these movies together.  Part of the fun of watching these movies is seeing all the connecting threads, including reoccurring sight gags as well as where the returning cast members will show up.  Also, Edgar Wright’s distinctive style is as much a part of the trilogy’s character as anything else.  His use of quick, hyper editing for mundane activities in each film is especially hilarious to watch.  The Cornetto Trilogy became a franchise based more around style and content rather than story, but it still works well when viewed as a complete entity.  In this article, I will be looking at each film in the trilogy and show how each one built on the other and enriches the viewing of the whole.

shaun of the dead

SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) – “STRAWBERRY”

Before the idea of a trilogy was ever in anyone’s mind, there was Shaun of the Dead.  This marked the film debut of Edgar Wright, who had previously developed the critically acclaimed sitcom Spaced (1999-2001) for British TV along with Simon Pegg.  Anyone who’s seen the sitcom will easily spot the influence that it has on this movie.  Shaun perfectly transplants the duo’s comedic style over the big screen, and Wright and Pegg couldn’t have picked a better genre to spoof than the zombie flick.  Edgar Wright clearly pays homage to the film-making styles of directors he admires in each movie, and in this case it’s the originator of the Zombie genre, George A. Romero.  The movie also begins many of the reoccurring themes and gags that would come to characterize the trilogy in the years to come, in particular the themes of perpetual adolescence and the individual taking on the collective.  Shaun of the Dead centers around Shaun (Pegg) who along with his best buddy Ed (trilogy co-star Nick Frost) must fight to survive a Zombie apocalypse as it invades English suburbia.  The two battle their way across town to save Shaun’s estranged girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) her roommates Dianne and David (Lucy Davis and Dylan Moran) as well as Shaun’s Mum (Penelope Wilton) and step-dad Philip (Bill Nighy), so that they can go to their favorite pub, The Winchester, and in Shaun’s words, “have a nice cold pint, and wait for all of this to blow over.”  Of course they soon learn that this is easier said than done.

Shaun of the Dead is a classic comedy in every sense of the word.  The gags are rapid fire and it often takes multiple viewings to catch them all.  But, what makes the movie even more remarkable is how well it works as a Zombie horror flick as well.  Edgar Wright does not tone down any of the violence in the movie and some of it does get quite gory.  There is even a scene late in the movie when one of the team members dies and needs to be put down before they turn that is actually quite tense and could easily be seen in a straightforward horror movie.  That shows the effectiveness of Edgar Wright’s style, where he manages to accurately recreate the look and feel of a genre, without sacrificing the comedy.  Wright always viewed his movies in the Cornetto trilogy as “Trojan Horses,” where audiences go in expecting one thing and are treated to something unexpected, and that’s definitely true with Shaun.  But what really makes the movie work as a whole is the chemistry between the two leads, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.  The funniest parts of the movie always involve these two, whether it’s the scene where they’re deciding which vinyl records in Shaun’s collection to throw at the heads of zombies or when they about whether dogs can look up.  The rest of the cast is also great with their own quirks that perfectly offset the mayhem that’s going on around them.  I especially like the gentile English attitude that Shaun’s Mum and Step-dad have during the chaos that happening around them.  The twists on horror cliches always work in the movie, while at the same time keeping them fresh.  From beginning to end, Shaun of the Dead strongly reasserts how to make a genre spoof work, while simultaneously being a expertly made send-up of the genre on it’s own.

hot fuzz

HOT FUZZ (2007) – “CLASSIC BLUE”

A few years later, Wright & Pegg followed up their debut with another spoof, this time taking on cop dramas in the style of action film directors like Michael Bay and Kathryn Bigelow.  Edgar Wright often cites his two favorite movies as Bigelow’s Point Break (1991) and Bay’s Bad Boys II (2003), both of which are referenced and parodied beat for beat in some of the movie’s most hilarious moments.  But, where Wright and Pegg milk the most comedic potential  out of this style of film-making is by setting it within the confines of a quaint English village.  The movie centers on super-cop Nick Angel (Simon Pegg), who’s reassigned after he becomes so good at his job that he makes all the other police officers in London look bad by comparison.  He transfers far north of the city to the village of Sandford, which Chief Inspector Butterman (Jim Broadbent) proudly proclaims is the safest town in the country.  There, Nick is paired up with Private Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), who’s child-like fascination with policing ends up annoying Nick at first.  But, after a few days on the job, mysterious deaths begin occurring, which are quickly dismissed by the police department as accidents.  But the keen eyed Nick suspects that foul play is involved, which would challenge Sandford’s long standing murder free record, and his chief suspect is the sinister looking grocery market owner, Simon Skinner (Timothy Dalton).

The great thing about Hot Fuzz‘s placement in the Cornetto trilogy is that it really cemented the idea of the series as a whole.  The idea for making a trilogy of spoof movies actually came about during the release of this movie, after many critics and fans noticed the carried over gags and themes between this and Shaun of the Dead.  There are a lot of carryovers from Shaun, chief among them the famous frozen treat, and Hot Fuzz not only puts them to good use, but also expands upon them.  Edgar Wright’s style is also heightened here, perfectly capturing the excess of the Michael Bay style, which contrasts perfectly with the quaint English countryside setting.  Overall, I actually think that Hot Fuzz is the strongest of the movies in the trilogy, just because it is so relentless.  Every gag is aggressively staged and the surprises in the plot are so bizarre that they’re brilliant.  It’s especially hilarious when you learn about the conspiracy behind the murders, and who’s really behind it.  The spoofing of police activity is also hilariously executed, whether it’s the search for an elusive swan, or the epic scale shootout at the end.  Pegg and Frost are of course at their best, especially when they’re delivering snappy one-liners right out of the most cliched action thriller.  But it’s also the supporting cast that really livens up the film, made up of many great British character actors like Paul Freeman, Billie Whitelaw, and Stuart Wilson.  Also, future Game of Thrones Hound Rory McCann makes a hilarious impression as a simple-minded strongman.  Pretty much everything about this movie is perfectly constructed to spoof it’s genre and more than any other movie in the trilogy, it defines the intention that the filmmakers wanted to put into their comedy.

the worlds end

THE WORLD’S END – “MINT CHOCOLATE CHIP”

By the time The World’s End came around in 2013, both Edgar Wright and his stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost had gone on to make other, bigger projects.  Wright worked on a film adaptation of the comic series Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010), while Pegg and Frost worked on their own project together called Paul (2011).  But, throughout their years of success, they still had the intention of completing the trilogy they started.  Thus, after their spoofs of zombie horror and violent cop thrillers, the trio set their sights on science fiction and made their parody of an alien invasion movie.  The film mocks the sci-fi genre as a whole, but in particular, it clearly pays homage to the style of John Carpenter, who covered similar ground in his sci-fi classic They Live (1988).  The plot follows the exploits of Gary King (Pegg) as he seeks to fulfill an adolescent dream of finishing a legendary pub crawl that he attempted with his high school buddies, Andy (Frost) Oliver (Martin Freeman), Steven (Paddy Considine), ad Peter (Eddie Marsan), whom Gary dubs the Five Musketeers.  Gary’s friends begrudgingly accept the challenge, though they all have grown-up lives now and are increasingly frustrated with Gary’s immaturity.  But, their trip down memory lane takes an odd turn when they soon learn that their hometown has been overrun by robot duplicates, all under the control of the alien force known only as The Network (voiced by Bill Nighy).  Gary and his friends ultimately must make the choice, complete the crawl or survive with their humanity intact.

The World’s End was meant to culminate all the themes and gags that Wright & Pegg started in Shaun of the Dead and continued on through Hot Fuzz, and it does an absolutely brilliant job of capping the trilogy.  It may not have the novelty of Shaun, or the rapid fire regularity of Fuzz, but it still is a consistently strong movie in it’s own right.  In fact, it might be the most story driven movie in the trilogy, as each of the characters has a very strong arc that carries them to surprising conclusions.  I especially like how some of the roles are reversed this time around, with Simon Pegg this time taking on the role of the immature man-child, while Nick Frost is given the role of the grown-up, career driven man.  The rest of the cast are also well used here, including Martin Freeman and Paddy Considine who are bumped up to co-star status this time after making only cameos in the previous films.  Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike also contributes a well needed female presence and there’s even an appearance by another 007, only this time it’s Pierce Brosnan.   The movie hilariously plays around with many sci-fi tropes and some of them are done surprisingly well.  The way that the robots are built like plastic dolls is a really clever visual idea, as well as the way each one glows internally whenever they are ready to attack.  I also like the name Blanks that the characters give to the robots (though I would have preferred Smashy, Smashy Eggmen, which is one of the best lines in the movie).  But, overall, it leaves the trilogy with suitable closure, as the continuing gags and themes in the trilogy come full circle.  Even the Cornetto reference is suitably mocked as just a wrapper caught in the wind.  The World’s End is the most subdued and mature of the movies in the trilogy, and that’s exactly what was needed to lay this series of comedies to rest.

While it wasn’t designed that way, the Cornetto trilogy still represents all the best things that a great trilogy encapsulates.  It builds over time, making each installment bigger and better than the one before it and it stands on it’s own together as well as separated into its different parts.  It’s best to have seen each one individually, so that you can spot all the different overlapping references as you go along.  Usually it takes multiple viewings to catch them all.  Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg are almost always very sneaky with their visual and verbal gags; some even go under the radar for many years.  It took multiple viewings for me to get the Aaron Aaronson gag in Hot Fuzz, but once I caught it I was amazed how subtly it was done.  Even the broader gags are brilliantly done, and most if not all of them still age well over time.  I’m also impressed by the thought and creativity that goes into each film.  Edgar Wright works on many levels as a filmmaker here, as he tries to balance original stories with many inside references while at the same time using every film-making trick in the book and have it all work cohesively in the end.  The end result has made him and his team some of Britain’s greatest and most original humorists of the last decade.  Wright, Pegg and Frost will probably work together again in some capacity, but it’s unlikely that this will become the Cornetto Quadrilogy.  Edgar Wright intended this to be his parody of the Three Colors Trilogy, and it’s meant to stay that way.  It’s hard to argue that there’s any better way to showcase the originality of their comedic talents.  It certainly puts to shame all other recent comedy spoofs.  Top to bottom, this is the King of comedy trilogies, and it shows that a franchise can be built around common themes and jokes rather than a singular plot.  It’s only fitting that a trilogy with so many hidden treats should bear the name of a ice cream in the end.  YARP!!!

Focus on a Franchise – Die Hard

john mcclane

If there’s one genre that has churned out countless spin-offs and unnecessary sequels, it would be the action film genre.  And not just any kind of action films; usually the one that you’ll see countless iterations of year after year will be the cops versus criminals sub-genre.  It’s an easy, go to plot-line to exploit for cinematic purposes, mainly because all the elements are so easily defined.  Morals are clearly delineated, with no gray areas between the good and the bad.  The good guys are clearly righteous and the villains are wholly despicable.  And, as is often the case, the task of saving the day is left to one lone wolf who breaks all the rules in pursuit of justice.  While this can fall prey to formula far too often, it doesn’t mean that crime based action movies aren’t without some bright spots.  Last year brought us the Keanu Reeves headlined John Wick (2014), which was a surprisingly engaging movie with perfectly choreographed shootout scenes and an engaging revenge plot at it’s center.  However, sometimes when one movie in this genre becomes a surprise hit, it ends up leading to a franchise that stretches the already thin premise of the first movie too much.  Liam Neeson’s Taken (2008) is a perfect example, where the first reasonably entertaining film spawned two tedious and painfully bad sequels.  Given the relatively easy production turnarounds that these action movies have, it’s easy to see why this happens so often.  But, if there’s a franchise that has clearly defined the genre, and has been stood the test of time, it would be the Die Hard series.

Adapted from a 1979 Roderick Thorp novel called Nothing Lasts Forever, the first Die Hard was released in the summer of 1988 to wild acclaim and huge box office.  While it still featured many of the same features typical of most 80’s action flicks, like the over-the-top pyrotechnics and the excessive gun-fire, it did break the mold from the genre with it’s characters.  In particular, the character of Lieutenant John McClane.  McClane was unlike any action hero seen on the big screen up until that point.  He was snarky and pop-culture savvy, and unlike the Stallones and the Schwarzeneggars before him, he wasn’t left unscathed by his ordeal.  Over the course of the movie, John McClane takes a beating, getting cut and bruised relentlessly, leading to a very weakened shell of the man just surviving off sheer adrenaline.  By humanizing the hero, the movie managed to make the character more relatable to audiences of all types, and in turn made him an endearing icon of the genre.  This is largely due to a very charismatic performance from Bruce Willis, who up until this point was more of a romantic lead on television, as one of the stars of the show Moonlighting.  After Die Hard, Bruce Willis would become the model of the new, modern action hero and it would be a career path that he would continue for years after, as well as continuing in more Die Hard sequels that followed.  In this article, I will be looking at each of the movies of the franchise; from the monumental first film to the awful and unnecessary final film.  In addition, I will be looking at how well the movies moved the brand forward and how well they stuck to the formula overall.  And with that, welcome to the party, pal.

die hard

DIE HARD (1988)

Directed by John McTiernan

Here is the one that started it all and launched a whole new era in action film-making.  Seen today, Die Hard may seem cliched and too familiar to anyone coming to it fresh, but that’s only because most of the tropes we see in action movies today were done here first.  Die Hard has become the go to Bible for how to make a solid action movie for many contemporary filmmakers, and that’s a strong testament to it’s legacy.  The story actually was inspired by the classic Irwin Allen spectacular The Towering Inferno, about a group of characters trapped in a burning high-rise.  Author Roderick Thorp took that idea and added a heist plot to the mix and this was the result.  Bruce Willis, as stated before, is perfectly cast as John McClane; a tough as nails New York cop thrown completely out of his element while vacationing in Los Angeles.  But Willis’ performance is even overshadowed in the film by his co-star Alan Rickman, who amazingly was making his feature film debut here.  Rickman plays the central villain Han Gruber and he steals every scene he is in.  His dry delivery bounces off of Willis’ manic performance perfectly , making it one of the best hero versus villain dynamics in movie history.  Reginald VelJohnson of Family Matters fame also lends great support as the lone sensible cop on the scene and McClane’s sole contact to the outside world.  In addition, the setting itself (the fictional Nakatomi Tower) becomes a character in the movie, proving to be just as perilous to John McClane as the bad guys who inhabit it.  Overall, it’s easy to see why this movie has become the classic that it’s seen as today and thankfully it’s still a lot of fun to watch.

die hard 2

DIE HARD 2: DIE HARDER (1990)

Directed by Renny Harlin

So, with the monumental success of the first movie, it was inevitable that a sequel would follow.  And while Die Hard stands perfectly well on it’s own, there were more possibilities that could be explored with John’s story; like maybe showing him on the job on his home turf.  Surprisingly that’s not what the filmmakers did with this sequel.  What we got instead was John McClane going through the same kind of mayhem as before, only now it’s at an Airport.  The story this time finds John McClane wrestling with an espionage plot where armed mercenaries (led by William Sadler’s Colonel Stuart) wreck havoc with the flight controls and cause disorder on the airport runways in order to smuggle out a criminal drug lord (played by Franco Nero).  For some, this movie is probably a let down compared to the first, and it does indeed feel a little bit like a rehash at times.  But, there is still a lot to like in this sequel.  For one thing, Bruce Willis is still solid, making John McClane just as snarky and resilient as ever.  The setting of the airport (Dulles International, to be exact) also gives the movie a fresh new feel as well.  The movie amps up the comedic bits as well, without being too distracting.  Some of the meta humor here really works, especially when John McClane keeps complaining about how this stuff keeps happening to him.  The supporting cast is fine, particularly Dennis Franz as a fellow police officer, though the character dynamics don’t quite have the same effect as in the first film.  If the movie has a major fault, it’s with the antagonists, who are nowhere near as memorable as Rickman’s Hans Gruber.  But even still, with a solid lead performance by Willis and some wild action set pieces, like the famous ejector seat scene, this is a sequel that makes continuing the franchise worth it.

die hard with a vengeance

DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE (1995)

Directed by John McTiernan

Now we finally see John McClane on his home turf.  With John  McTiernan returning to the directors’ chair, Die Hard With a Vengeance marked probably the biggest departure for the series.  Instead of having the story confined to one singular location, the story instead takes John McClane on a wild goose chase all across New York City.  Led by an ominous voice on the phone (supplied with outstanding menace by Jeremy Irons), John McClane is led up and down NYC solving puzzles and finding clues, all in the hope of averting another terrorist attack perpetrated by the unknown villain on the phone line.  It’s great to see the series actually shift gears and try something different, and for the most part Die Hard With a Vengeance does a good job of that.  Bruce Willis, looking a little gruffer this time around, still manages to make John McClane just as appealing as ever.  Only this time around, the story brings in a new character for McClane to interact with; that being a civilian caught up in the mayhem named Zeus Carver (played by the always great Samuel L. Jackson).  The movie is at it’s best when Willis and Jackson share the screen, mainly because they work so well off of each other.  Unfortunately, the movie is only half a great film, because once the plot finally starts to unravel, it becomes less fun.  It turns out that the terrorist on the phone is actually Simon Gruber, brother of Hans, which is a plot revelation that goes nowhere in the end and only ends up being a ham-fisted way to link this movie up with the original.  In my opinion, the movie is better off without this detail, and some of the intrigue is lost once we finally put a face to our villain.  Jeremy Irons is a great actor, and he’s alright in this movie, but his character becomes less menacing once we actually learn his true nature.  Beyond that, the movie still has some impressive set pieces, like an escape from an aqueduct tunnel, and Willis gets a co-star that is able to match his charisma and help elevate it as well.

live free or die hard

LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD (2007)

Directed by Len Wiseman

For about a decade, it looked like the Die Hard franchise would stand solely as a trilogy, and then suddenly news broke that another film was in the works, with Bruce Willis attached.  The oddly titled Live Free or Die Hard (taking the phrase from the New Hampshire state motto) has an aged John McClane assigned to help bring an internet hacker (Justin Long) into custody after a few others are suddenly found murdered.  While on his way to Washington D.C., where he’s going to leave the hacker with the Feds, McClane soon becomes the target of the same organization out to kill the hacker; a group of cyber-terrorist led by a former government IT expert (played by Timothy Olyphant).  A lot of fans of the series saw this as a cash-in and an insult to the bombastic series that they grew up with.  Probably the biggest complaint came from the fact that the movie was rated PG-13 as opposed to the R-rating that the other films received.  Even John McClane’s “yippy ki-yay motherf***er” catchphrase was drowned out by a gunshot, making a lot of fans upset.  Surprisingly, I’m one of the few that doesn’t have a problem with this movie.  It’s nowhere near as good as the original, of course, but for what it is, I thought that it still kept the spirit of the series alive.  For one thing, Bruce Willis still delivers a fine performance as John McClane.  I still like how he’s able to still laugh at how crazy his life is and that he’s still able to toy with the bad guys by making snarky insults at them.  Some of the action scenes do go over the top a bit, but it still kept me entertained and it was neat to see the formula play out in a newer, high tech world.

a good day to die hard

A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD (2013)

Directed by John Moore

Unfortunately the mild success of Live Free or Die Hard made film executives believe that they could get even more out of this series and the end result was this clunker.  This is the one film in the series that absolutely no one likes, including me.  Honestly, as someone who has grown to love this series over the years, as flawed as some of the entries may be, this sequel is one of the most depressing experiences that I’ve ever had watching a movie.  None of the elements that made Die Hard a standout in the past are present here.  This movie really doesn’t feel like it belongs in the franchise at all.  It’s a poser and an undisputed cash-in.  Here we find John McClane involved in a convoluted espionage plot involving nuclear scientists and the Russian mafia.  The only reason McClane is in Russia in the first place is so he can find his grown up son, Jack (Jai Courtney).  The plot is all over the place and there is no real reason for John McClane to be in it.  He has no impact on what’s going on, as opposed to how he constantly threw a monkey wrench into the bad guys’ plans in the previous movies.  There are no clear motivations by the villains or the heroes, and the plot instead relies on constant back-stabbings by the characters in order to motivate the story from one action set piece to another.  It’s just a lazy movie all around, and it unfortunately drags the once mighty Die Hard brand down with it.  Even Bruce Willis looks bored, and it’s clear that he’s just cashing in a paycheck here.  There’s no glimmer of wit or surprise, and especially nothing of value in the bland performances.  It’s a very sad end to a great franchise that turns something that was once extraordinary into just another wannabe.

Still, even given the downward trend of the franchise, it’s amazing to see the impact that the Die Hard franchise has had over the years.  The way that filmmakers cast their action movies changed with the introduction of Bruce Willis as an action hero.  You no longer had to be built like Schwarzenegger or Stallone in order to headline an action movie.  What Bruce Willis’ John McClane brought was attitude and charisma into the action genre, showing that an action star could look and act like the every-man in all of us.  It also revolutionized how violence could be shown on screen, making the bloodletting feel more realistic as opposed to being an obvious special effect.  Witty banter has also become a staple of the genre ever since, with many movies trying to match the underlying humor that became such a big part of the series.  And while many films have tried to recapture some of Die Hard’s charm, few have ever matched it.  The original Die Hard is an icon for good reason.  It broke the mold and did so by putting the emphasis on the characters.  The characterizations may not be particularly deep, but they still leave an impact on you and that’s mainly due to the earnest efforts of the actors.  Only recently has it begun to lose it’s luster, but thankfully it doesn’t reflect negatively on the original that made the most impact in the first place.  After a quarter of a century, Die Hard is one of the action adventure genre’s best and it’s collection of sequels do a fairly commendable job of keeping John McClane’s iconic status going strong.  Yippy ki-yay.

Focus on a Franchise – Hannibal Lecter

hannibal mask

Horror has always been largely considered a niche genre in the film industry, relegated to the fringes and often ignored by critics when awards season comes around.  And for the most part, it’s easy to see why.  Most horror movies are low-budget schlock-fests that usually just cater to a certain type of audience; mainly those who just want to have a good scare while in the theater.  But, that notion can be challenged whenever a filmmaker undertakes their own spin on the genre and creates a masterwork that includes all the elements typical of the horror.  Such is the case with the series of movies based off of the Horror novels by Thomas Harris.  The books themselves are hard to pin down genre-wise.  They follow the same principal outlines of most popular crime novels, but are at the same infused with Grand Guignol imagery that gives the readers a very macabre picture of the crimes the stories are focused on.  Obviously, adapting Harris’ novels to the big screen would require very careful direction to get the twisted tones right, which is something that this particular series has thankfully benefited from; for the most part.  But of course it’s not just the visuals and the plotting that has defined the franchise.  Each of Harris’ novels are their own standalone mysteries, but they’re linked together by the presence of one of the most memorable characters in literary history; and the main reason why this series has become as popular as it has.  That character of course is the notorious cannibalistic serial killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

Hannibal is unique among popular franchise characters.  While most series tend to focus on their heroes, the Hannibal Lecter series is one that’s centered entirely around it’s villain.  That helps to classify this series within the horror genre, because most horror franchises also center around their antagonists; such as Jason Voorhies and Freddy Kruger to name a few.  But, even among his horror brethren Hannibal is unique.  He’s intelligent, perceptive, cultured and above all else, seductive.  These character traits are particularly what makes him so terrifying.  No other character in film or literature has made evil seem so refined and appealing.  Like a well hidden predator, he lures you into a false sense of comfort with his graceful nature, but once he’s got a hold of you, then the savage animal is unleashed.  And boy, Harris’ novels and the movies they’ve inspired have not shied away from some of the gruesome details.  Indeed, Hannibal Lecter has deservedly earned his place as not just one of the horror genre icons, but also as one of cinema’s overall greatest characters.  Thus far, Thomas Harris has written four novels around the character and that has in turn spawned five film adaptations.  Though Hannibal is featured in all five movies, it’s the three that star legendary Welsh actor Sir Anthony Hopkins which stand out as the most notable.  And though Hopkins had the most influence in defining the screen presence of the character, he was not the first to play the part, nor the last.  I will be looking at the franchise as a whole in this retrospective (remake and prequel included) to get a good sense of how the series evolved over time and how it ended up becoming one of the most defining series ever in both horror and cinematic history.

hannibal manhunter

MANHUNTER (1986)

Directed by Michael Mann

Dr. Lecter’s first appearance on the big screen came in the form of this adaptation from Thomas Harris’ first novel, Red Dragon.  Director Michael Mann, coming off of his stint as the producer and showrunner of Miami Vice, undertook the daunting task of adapting Harris’ gruesome work to the big screen.  Part of that process included stripping down some of the more horrific elements of the novel, and instead focusing more on the characters and the investigation central to the plot.  As a result, Manhunter plays more like a thriller than as a horror movie.  That’s not to say that the film is any less effective.  Indeed, it actually works perfectly as it is, mainly due to Mann’s assured direction, which is not flashy and is consistently well-paced.  The story follows FBI profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) as he searches for a deranged serial killer named Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), aka “the Tooth Fairy” killer.  Graham, who runs into a lot of hurdles trying to identifying his ruthless target, takes the unorthodox approach of soliciting help from a former colleague and now incarcerated felon Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox), who understands more than Graham the mind of a killer.  Michael Mann did an admirable job of adapting the novel, but at the same time it’s not all that groundbreaking; it just stands as a solid crime thriller.  Petersen makes a good lead, and Noonan in particular steals the movie as the “Tooth Fairy” killer.  But, what is most interesting is Brian Cox’s take on Hannibal, with the name Lecktor re-spelled for some reason.  His Hannibal keeps in tone with rest of the movie, played much more natural than over-the-top, while still keeping the character true to the novel’s interpretation.  While still a great film, the focus remained away from the character of Hannibal, which served this movie probably for the better.  The same would not be true for the rest of the series.

hannibal lambs

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)

Directed by Jonathan Demme

Here we now have the groundbreaking movie that not only set the standard for the rest of the series to follow, but also became the genre defining title that helped put Dr. Lecter on the cinematic map.  The Silence of the Lambs may not only be the greatest horror movie ever made, but also the best crime thriller and best detective story ever brought to the big screen; though that’s up for debate.  There’s nothing in this movie that doesn’t work perfectly, from the direction by Jonathan Demme, to the outstanding and grim cinematography and art direction, to the career defining performances.  Perhaps the reason why the movie works so well is that it fearlessly adapts Harris’ second novel in the series to the fullest extant, with all the macabre elements intact.  Not only that, but it’s unafraid to go over-the-top as well, creating images that we the audience will never forget, as well as images we wish we could forget.  Hannibal returns again (now played by Hopkins), this time is called upon by FBI rookie Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) to help her track down a serial killer by the name “Buffalo Bill” (Ted Levine), who skins his victims before killing them.  Lecter and Sterling form an unlikely bond over the course of the story, somehow gaining each other’s respect because of their intelligence.  Even when Lecter makes his horrifying escape from prison, she knows immediately that he’ll never come after her, because he would “consider it rude.”  It’s that bond between the characters that ultimately elevates this film above all others, and thankfully the movie exploits every element of the characters’ progression to the fullest.  Hopkins’ over-the-top performance as Lecter is phenomenal and is perfectly complimented by Foster’s subdued work as Clarice.   Both actors deservedly won Oscars for their performances in this movie, and the film itself accomplished the impossible feat of being the first horror flick to ever win an Oscar for Best Picture.

hannibal 2001

HANNIBAL (2001)

Directed by Ridley Scott

Because of the popularity of The Silence of the Lambs, demand was high for a sequel to both the novel and the movie; which is funny considering that some people view Lambs itself as a sequel to Manhunter.  Still, Thomas Harris released his follow-up novel in 1999 under the name Hannibal, and Universal pictures quickly put the film adaptation into production with top tier talent involved.  Jodie Foster declined to return as Clarice Starling, but she was replaced with well respected and Oscar-nominated actress Julianne Moore.  Hopkins thankfully returned to the role that he came to own as Hannibal and direction was given over to one of Hollywood’s greatest visual artists, Ridley Scott, coming off of his huge success with Gladiator (2000).  The screenplay adaptation was done by none other than David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) and Steve Zallian (Schindler’s List), and the cast was rounded out by big names like Ray Liotta, Giancarlo Giannini, and an un-credited Gary Oldman as a man without a face.  With all this amazing talent assembled, how could this movie possibly fail.  Well, it did; critically anyway.  The movie was still profitable, but almost immediately it suffered a strong backlash from critics and fans alike, saying that the movie failed to capture the brilliance of Lambs and instead focused way too much on the gory details of the original novel without purpose.  Indeed, the movie is a failure in adaptation and execution and that’s partly due to director Scott not being a good fit for the material.  The movie does look pretty, but there is no meat to the plot at all.  The tone is unfocused, and that’s mainly because Scott put too much emphasis on showing the gore in the movie.  Lambs and Manhunter proved that less is more, because it helped to make the shocking moments stand out better and have more impact.  Hopkins is still great as Hannibal though, and it is a treat to watch him here.  If only the rest of the movie was worthy of his performance.

hannibal red dragon

RED DRAGON (2002)

Directed by Brett Ratner

Only a year and a half after Hannibal had alienated audiences and readers alike, Universal quickly released this follow-up which again returned Anthony Hopkins to the role as Dr. Lecter.  Made almost as an apology for the previous film, Red Dragon was a return back to basics for the series, using The Silence of the Lambs as it’s source for inspiration.  Strangely enough, instead of moving forward with more sequels, this movie actually takes us back to the beginning, adapting the first Hannibal Lecter novel of the same name, which was also the source for Michael Mann’s Manhunter.  Some may think that it was a cheap way to keep an already waning franchise going, but by taking the remake route instead, the end result proved to be surprisingly effective.  I think the biggest reason why this movie worked as well as it did is because the screenplay was adapted by Lambs scribe Ted Tally, who has proved better than anyone that he’s the best person out there to capture the mood of Harris’ novels in a cinematic form; other than possibly Hopkins that is.  Also, the supporting cast helped out a great deal as well, with big names like Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emily Watson, and Ralph Finnes all filling out the roles.  Brett Ratner has had a shaky reputation as a filmmaker, but here he actually delivers well enough direction to make the movie work effectively.  If the movie has a flaw, it’s that it’s trying to hard to be just like The Silence of the Lambs.  Not that the movie is trying to be a knock-off, but it unfortunately causes the film to lack any identity apart from it’s predecessors.  By using the same sets as well as similar lighting and cinematography, it’s almost difficult to watch this movie and not feel like you’re also watching a scene left on the cutting room floor from Lambs.  The movie still works as a whole, but the fact that it’s still reminding you of a superior film is a detriment nonetheless.  But, at the very least, it gave us yet another oppurtunity to watch Hopkins at work, and it did blow some of the stench off of the series after Hannibal failed so miserably.

hannibal rising

HANNIBAL RISING (2007)

Directed by Peter Webber

Prompted by a threat from uber-producer Dino DeLaurentis that he would make another movie about Hannibal Lecter without the involvement of the author, Thomas Harris quickly drafted yet another Hannibal novel, only this time focusing on the character’s youth and origin.  Naturally a film adaptation followed, but what is interesting this time is that Harris took it upon himself to do the adaptation of his own novel for the screen.  Although Harris is a remarkable and peerless novelist, screenplay adaptation is a whole different style of writing, and this movie definitely shows Harris’ amateur status in this field.  The movie is very dull, lacking all of the macabre Grand Guignol excess that helped to define the series in the previous installments, and instead it feels like a grim period drama rather than a horror classic.  Though there are some horror moments thrown around here and there, none are particularly noteworthy.  It also lacks the presence of Anthony Hopkins, who obviously couldn’t play the role this time, considering that the film focuses on the character as a young man.  Instead, we get young French actor Gaspard Uliel in the title role, who has the evil stare of the character down, but none of the same charisma.  At this point in the franchise, it was clear that the character was played out, and even Thomas Harris was ready to let the character go.  This film was only prompted as a way for the original author to still keep control over the development of his most famous creation and nothing more than that.  So, in the end, it was still a positive exercise for Thomas Harris.  If only something better had come out of this other than an obligation of a movie.  It may be the final time we will ever get to see any new cinematic adaptations of the Hannibal Lecter, and it’s sadly a lackluster and forgettable way for such a great character to go out on.

Overall, the Hannibal Lecter series has a pretty turbulent record in quality, with one truly great masterpiece of a film, along with two pretty solid adaptations of the same story and two truly terrible sequels around it.  But then again, which horror franchise can you recall having as much an impact as this one.  The Silence in the Lambs in particular redefined all notions of what makes a movie a Horror film.  Parent studio Universal even was apprehensive about calling it a horror movie, instead calling it a “psychological thriller” in the hopes that it would gain more prestige from critics who usually looked down on the Horror genre.  In that respect, it probably worked, but Thomas Harris and director Jonathan Demme clearly stated that they intended their work to be considered part of the Horror genre, and indeed that argument has proven out over time, no matter what Universal says.  And this is largely part to the building of a franchise that has truly embraced it’s gruesome nature.  Michael Mann’s subdued take on the material is commendable, as is Brian Cox’s performance as the Doctor, but we all know that no one else brought out the best in the series better than Sir Anthony Hopkins.  His performance in Silence of the Lambs is truly one of the all-time greats; milking every ounce of potential out of the character and making it seem like a lot of fun at the same time.  It’s a performance that managed to redefine the way serial killers are portrayed in movies, and it’s often imitated but never matched.  How many scenes do you see now in movies where the main villain toys with his captors through a glass wall prison cell.  That’s all thanks to this series.  Harris’ novels and the film adaptations remain influential to this day, influencing everything from X-Files to True Detective, and has even spawned a critically acclaimed series on NBC.  And it’s all thanks to the charming cannibal at it’s center, who I’m sure would feast on all of this popularity with some Fava beans and a nice Chianti.

Focus on a Franchise – Austin Powers

austin powers

One thing that we’ve come to know in the last few decades is that big-budget comedies are going to suck, and also that big-budget comedy sequels are going to suck even more.  It’s become an unfortunate trend over the years, all but defining the declining careers of once great comedians like Eddie Murphy and Jim Carrey.  And it’s a shame because there was once a time when comedies could be both ambitious and funny.  Back in the 80’s, those kinds of movies were very common, like Ghostbusters (1984), The Naked Gun (1988), or Back to the Future (1985); films that were both ambitious in scale and vision, but were also side-splittingly funny on purpose.  That kind of movie went away in the decades thereafter, as comedies began to become more grounded and sketchy.  The obvious influence of the popular Saturday Night Live series affected many of the movies of this time period, since most of them centered around one or two of the show’s former cast members.  The late night show’s legacy has given Hollywood comedies the supply of fresh stars that they’ve needed, but it’s also limited what those same stars can accomplish outside of the show.  Again, the changing standards of comedies has made it so that comedy actors have to stay true to their late night image instead of branching out with bold, new ideas.  Old timers like Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray had the advantage of oppurtunities to make a Ghostbusters in a time when your stint on SNL didn’t define who you were.  Now, studios would balk at fresh faced sketch performers wanting to make anything ambitious like that today.  For many of them, their first starring role in a movie may very well be a feature length version of their popular SNL sketch; and we all know how well those turn out.  But if there is one SNL alum who proved to be the last of his kind in this area, it was comedian Mike Myers, who bucked the trend with his popular series of Austin Powers films.

Mike Myers spent seven successful years on Saturday Night Live, from 1989 to 1995, as both a performer and as a writer.  He managed to make a mark on the show with popular characters he crafted himself, like the very oddball Dieter and Simon, who reflected his own oddball style.  But it was the Wayne’s World sketch that he performed with fellow cast member Dana Carvey that would become his biggest hit.  In fact, he accomplished the near impossible by making a successful feature film adaptation of this sketch, even while still performing as the character on SNL.  Wayne’s World (1992) and it’s 1993 sequel, are anomalies in the SNL canon, as they are actually funny and manage to retain their identity even at a two hour run-time; only the Blues Brothers had been able to do that before, and no other SNL characters have done it since.  In the years that followed, Mike Myers unexpectedly took a hiatus after leaving SNL.  In those years, he was no doubt working on what was soon to become the Austin Powers series.  With those movies, he managed to create something of a love letter to the movies he watched as a child; mainly spy thrillers and heist movies from the psychedelic 60’s.  At the same time, he crafted a really unique character in Austin Powers.  Sort of like a James Bond if he were played by Peter Sellers, Austin Powers loves to party and have a “shagadelic” time in bed, while saving the world at the same time.  Being both a self-referential parody and a rollicking adventure, the Austin Powers series is definitely unique, and most importantly, very funny.   But it also represents one of the last times that a comedy was allowed to be ambitious and even weird.  In this article, I’m going to look at the Austin Powers franchise, and how it proved to be a turning point in ambitious epic comedies, being both the genre’s last hurrah, and also a harbinger of it’s decline.

fembots

AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY (1997)

The first Austin Powers is today considered a comedy classic, but it would surprise many of you that it wasn’t a huge box office smash.  Released quietly in the spring of 1997, the movie made a modest gross of $53 million, and both critics and audiences didn’t think much of it at first, probably believing the movie was too quirky to be taken seriously.  It wasn’t until the film’s home video release that the movie took off.  Word of mouth helped to make the film an underground hit and today it is now highly unlikely that you’ll find anyone who isn’t familiar with it.  And it’s easy to see what has made this flick such a classic.  It’s a perfect example of a parody film done right.  It pokes fun at it’s source of inspiration, namely the Bond franchise, but also celebrates it as well.  Also helping the film greatly is Myers performance.  His Austin is an obvious caricature of the time period, but there’s also a humanity underneath that endears him to the audience.  In less capable hands, Austin could have become an obnoxious clown, but thankfully the film makes him a hero worth rooting for, while at the same time laughing at his antics.  He’s goofy, but he also has a soul.  But probably Myers best work in the film was not in playing the lead, but in creating the film’s antagonist.  Pulling double duty, Myers also played the role of the villain; the aptly named Doctor Evil.  Evil is an obvious reference to frequent Bond adversary, Blofeld, but Myers added another hilarious layer by giving the character a not-so-thinly veiled voice based on famed SNL producer Lorne Michaels.  It’s a clever little touch like that which makes Austin Powers feel so fresh as a comedy and one that is unlike anything else.

What I love best about the movie is that every comedic bit in the film works.  They are all perfectly crafted to get a big laugh and they end at just the right moment.  Some of the bits even have the confidence to take wild detours without endangering the momentum of the script.  Case in point, a scene where Dr. Evil is attending a group therapy session with his son Scott (Seth Green).  It has nothing to do with the rest of the story, but it’s so funny that you don’t care if it comes out of nowhere, especially when Evil starts to recount his dark but hilarious backstory.  Other bits like Austin being awoken from hibernation in a labratory, and not being able to control the volume of his voice, or Dr. Evil complaining to his subordinate Number Two (Robert Wagner) about not having sharks with lasers on their heads, also contributes to the hilarity.  And what really helps to make the movie work most is that there’s not an ounce of cynicism in all of this.  Myers doesn’t try to hit you over the head with any message and nothing is presented in a mean spirited way.  It’s does what a great comedy always must do, which is to make it’s audience have a good time.   In many ways, this was a labor of love for Mike Myers that really paid off and showed that someone could redefine their film career with a fresh new idea executed with ambition and vision.  It may not have hit it’s mark right away, but it left an impact that has become hard to top since.  In the words of it’s main hero, it was “groovy, baby.”

evil and mini me

AUSTIN POWERS: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME (1999)

Given the surprise success of the first Austin Powers, it was inevitable that a sequel would follow in it’s footsteps.  What took many people by surprise, however, was just how big of a bump the series would get.  When the second film, The Spy Who Shagged Me, premiered in the summer of 1999, it actually made more in it’s opening weekend than the first film made in it’s entire run; a whopping $56 million.  After that, the final gross ended up at $206 million, showing that not only was Austin Powers a successful franchise, but also a force to be reckoned with.  And was the film worthy of the extra bump?  Absolutely.  It takes everything from the original film and amps it up to 11, making it one of the most ambitious comedy sequels ever made.  Thankfully, the good-natured sense of humor is still there, albeit not quite as fresh the second time around.  The follow-up takes place right after the first, with Austin again chasing after Dr. Evil, only this time, the two go back in time to the 60’s, reliving their glory days all over again.  The film rehashes a lot of popular bits from the first movie (like Will Farrell’s hapless minion Mustafa being not so easily disposed of), but it also newly introduced some of the series most notable features as well.  In particular, the addition of the characters Fat Bastard (Myers, once again) and Mini-Me, Dr. Evil’s midget clone.  The crude and mean-spirited Mini-Me (Verne Troyer) became one of the franchise most popular characters out of this film, and would continue to become a pop culture punchline well beyond his role in the movie.   A running joke about the shape of Dr. Evil’s space ship also became a favorite, and was also a sign that Myers still was able to deliver a lot of fresh and funny gags into this franchise.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t hold together as well as the first one.  It’s still hilarious, but the consistency of the humor was a little off.  Where the original managed to make every bit work cohesively together, The Spy Who Shagged Me tends to have one or two bits that lead nowhere, or end up being not funny at all.  The gross out jokes in particular feel rather out of place; especially the ones related to the character Fat Bastard.  Also a scene where Austin mistakes a stool sample for a cup of coffee just comes off as cringe inducing and mean-spirited.  But that’s thankfully a small portion of the film.  Overall, the jokes still hit their mark and the movie does hold up over multiple viewings.  This is primarily because the sense of fun is still maintained.  Austin is still likable as a character and the series still doesn’t try to take itself too seriously.  As a sequel, it actually manages to expand on it’s world, as silly as it is, and shows perfectly that even comedies can be epic sometimes.  In this case, it perfectly compliments the Bond films that it’s paroding, which themselves became sillier the more ambitious they got.  When most comedies of that era were succumbing to audiences that were becoming less interested in their grand visions, with failures like Ivan Reitman’s Evolution (2001) and Eddie Murphy’s The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002) being all too common, Austin Powers continued to be the genre’s last true epic series.

goldmember

AUSTIN POWERS IN GOLDMEMBER (2002)

Here is where we start to see the series coming off the rails.  Though still enormously successful at the box office, opening at $70 million and having a final gross of $216 million, it’s clear while watching the movie that the freshness of the original premise has been entirely used up.  At this point, Mike Myers was starting to stretch the concept thin, and few if any of the new jokes managed to be memorable at all.  The only fresh new idea put into this film was taking Austin back in time again, only now to the 1970’s, which offered a whole new era to poke fun of.  If only more could have been made of that.  In a way, Austin Powers became a victim of it’s own success; making it reliant on too many of it’s already over-used staple bits.  Mike Myers is still funny as Austin, but you can tell that he’s probably had enough with the character, and that he’s just fulfilling an obligation here.  The remaining cast also feels the same way.  Sorry Beyonce fans, but Ms. Knowles feels particularly out of place in this movie, seemingly cast just for her looks than for any acting chops she has.  She especially pales compared to the more timeless qualities of Elizabeth Hurley and Heather Graham in the previous two films, who both seemed to compliment Myers’ over-the-top goofiness much better.  Also, the same crude jokes that marred parts of The Spy Who Shagged Me are expanded upon here, and not to good effect.  At the same time, it also looked like Myers’ creativity ran out, as his newest character (the titular Goldmember) is about as bland as can be.   It may have been the most profitable film in the series, but I doubt anyone today would count this one as among their favorites.

That’s not to say that it fails completely.  Goldmember still has it’s moments, and it’s probably the funniest third film in a comedy series that’s ever been made.  It starts off spectacularly well with a prologue showing an action packed remake of Austin Powers, with none other than Tom Cruise playing the super spy.  Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Spacey and Danny Devito also cameo in the prologue as the other cast of characters (no surprise who Devito’s playing), and to top it all off, it’s revealed that Steven Spielberg is directing, making a rare cameo appearance.  It’s a great self-referential opening that is definitely worth seeing.  Also, the casting of Austin Powers’ father was a brilliant casting coup; the remarkable Michael Caine.  Caine’s presence here is a clever nod to the movies that provided inspiration for the character of Austin; old British crime thrillers from the psychedelic era like Alfie (1966) and The Italian Job (1969), of which Michael Caine was the featured star.   He’s very funny here as well, especially in a scene where he and Austin speak in true English, which is them basically talking gibberish in a Cockney accent.  While these moments do get a genuine laugh, it’s still apperent that the series was running on fumes, and I think Mike Myers himself saw that too.  After Goldmember, Myers retired the character and there hasn’t been a follow-up since, though rumors still persist of another film that  will probably never see the light of day.  So, for the moment, Austin’s reign as a box office champ is complete and it did mark the end of an era in comedy.

Austin Powers’ popularity is out of the ordinary, but it makes sense once you’ve seen the films themselves.  The best word to describe the franchise is good-naturred.   It’s just there to touch our funny bones and it succeeds with incredible regularity.  But, it’s inevitable decline also marked the end for movies of it’s type.  While it isn’t responsible for the decline of ambitious, epic comedies, it did represent the last time that Hollywood would ever take a leap of faith on something out of the ordinary in the genre again.  Instead, comedies in the last decade have tended to be much smaller in scale, usually depicting a slice of everyday life instead of something weird.  Judd Apatow’s buddy comedies come to mind.  Even the likes of Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler have opted to make movies that stick closer to reality; if you could call them that.  And if comedians try to do something a little more ambitious and weird, it ends up failing horribly.  Myers himself has fallen victim to this, as his 2008 film The Love Guru tried and failed to recapture some of that “mojo” from the Austin Powers series.  It’s an unfortunate result for someone who managed to not only capture lightning in a bottle once, but twice with this and with Wayne’s World.  But unfortunately that window of opportunity closed with the Powers series and comedies haven’t been the same since.  Will Austin Powers ever live again on the big screen, and is it better to let it go, so that another entry won’t get shot down by a less forgiving modern audience?  At the very least, this trilogy is still a fine example of ambitious comedy done right, and most of it still holds up many years later.  And that is most definitely “shagadelic.”