Category Archives: Focus on a Franchise

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.



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


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.



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.”


Focus on a Franchise – Spider-Man


Super hero movies dominate our movie landscape right now, with Marvel Comics clearly leading the charge.  And if there was a character in the Marvel stable that has truly achieved iconic status both on the page and on the screen, it would be Spider-Man.  Created in 1962 by the great writer/editor Stan Lee and fellow artist Steve Ditko, Spider-Man has since become Marvel’s most prolific character, and has even challenged DC comics’ Superman and Batman in terms of international popularity.  Naturally, with a character as popular in comic book form as Spider-Man is, it seems natural that he would also make an impact on the big screen as well.  The task of bringing the web-slinger to the big screen was given to director Sam Raimi in the early 2000’s and his first attempt was not only a success, but it even shattered box office records, becoming the first movie ever to make over $100 million in it’s opening weekend.  Raimi would go on to make two more Spider-Man movies, with mixed results.  Although Raimi is no longer behind the reigns of the Spider-Man franchise, the impact of his trilogy can still be felt today in the recent crop of superhero movies.  This week, I will be looking at the Sam Raimi directed films in the Spider-Man franchise, and how they work individually as movies and as part of the whole Spider-Man mythos.
First of all, one has to look at what makes a Spider-Man movie work in the first place.  It has to center around the coming-of-age story of it’s main protagonist and Spider-Man’s alter ego, Peter Parker.  Parker is unlike most other super hero characters in that he’s still not a fully matured man yet in his story-line.  He’s a fresh out of high school teenager who’s still trying to balance a normal social life while at the same time fighting crime, thanks to his extraordinary abilities.  His powers are also not genetically inherent like they are for other superheros like Superman and Wolverine.  They come to him after a genetic mutation he receives due to a bite from a radioactive spider.  These are the fundamental aspects that each Spider-Man story-line must follow, and for the most part, each Spider-Man film has stayed true to the origin.  The varying degrees of success come from whether or not the movies are able to let an audience buy into the believe-ability of the character.
Casting also matters, especially when it comes to Spider-Man himself, and Sam Raimi gave those honors to actor Tobey Maguire.  While I’m mixed on Mr. Maguire as an actor on the whole, and I think he may have been a bit too bulky to play the slimmer looking Spider-Man that I remember in the comics, I do think he brought out the charm in the character, and he definitely nailed the socially awkward and nerdy aspects of Peter Parker in his performance.  The same care with the casting also factors in with the many foes that Spider-Man faces, and some of those characters are what really makes or breaks these kinds of movies.  Each film does take the character seriously, mostly, and you can tell that Raimi set out to make genuinely fun movies.  So, let’s take a look at how they work individually.
The triumphant arrival of Spider-Man to the big screen.  After years of trying to get this film off the ground, Marvel finally brought their beloved character to cinemas in a movie that was not only ambitious, but unique.  It follows the comic origin pretty effectively, perhaps even a bit too much so.  Peter Parker visits a science exhibition with his classmates Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and Harry Osborn (James Franco), and unexpectedly runs into contact with that fateful spider bite.  The next morning, he discovers that he has gained extra-ordinary abilities like super strength, the ability to stick to walls and shoot webbing from his wrists, and most importantly something called his “Spider Sense,” which alerts him to oncoming danger.  Peter selfishly uses his powers for financial gain at first, until his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) is killed by a criminal that Peter unknowingly ignored.  From that point on, he vows to use his powers to fight crime, while hiding his identity to protect those he loves, particularly his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), who helped raise him.  Things get complicated when Harry’s father, a corporate tycoon and mad scientist Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) gains powers of his own and becomes the supervillain, The Green Goblin.
It’s clear to see why this movie became such a success when it first came out.  It was colorful, action packed, and had a unique sense of humor.  The action sequences hold up and the look of the characters is particularly well done.  Spider-Man’s costume, in particular, is perfect.  Practical and iconic, and yet still something that you could believe was put together by a teenager, it’s a costume that instantly makes the character pop on the screen.  The Green Goblin’s costume is even more spectacular, departing a bit from the look in the comics, while still feeling right for the character.  The helmet itself even becomes a character in the movie, with Norman Osborn’s inner monologue taking on a life of it’s own through the helmet.  Sam Raimi’s inventiveness with his camera work has become his trademark, and the film hits it’s high marks whenever the director lets loose and has a little fun with any particular angle or set-up.
Unfortunately, the movie feels a little flat apart from these aspects.  It’s not a bad movie by any means; it’s just underwhelming.  I always thought that this first Spider-Man felt a little hollow; like it hadn’t found it’s footing yet.  Sam Raimi certainly made a pretty film, but his grasp on the story feels a little routine.  Remember how I mentioned that the movie followed the origin a little too closely; that’s because the movie feels like it’s going through the paces as you watch it.  It’s a problem that most origin story-lines have in superhero franchises, given all the heavy exposition that each has to deal with.  This film unfortunately succumbs to this as well.  The performances are also sort of lackluster, because no one in the film seems to understand their roles yet.  Dafoe especially suffers in this movie, playing over-the-top as the Green Goblin in a way that doesn’t quite work.  He actually is more effective without the mask as Norman Osborn.  The scenes where he speaks to himself through a schizophrenic conversation do work well, and they are some of the movie’s highlights.  Overall, the first Spider-Man is a noble beginning for the character, but one that is too flawed to be considered one of the all-time greats.
SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)
Sam Raimi’s follow-up sequel is a whole different story.  Spider-Man 2 is far and away the best movie to date in the whole franchise, and a text book example of how to make a great superhero movie.  Not only that, it probably stands as one of my all-time favorite superhero movies ever; right alongside The Avengers (2012) and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.  Quite a step up from the disappointing first film.  In this movie, Peter Parker struggles in his new life as a crime fighter.  Unfortunately, he’s lost the friendship he had with Harry Osborn, who is vowing revenge against Spider-Man for the death of his father.  Mary Jane’s budding career as an actress is also creating friction between her and Peter.  On top of this, Peter is beginning to lose control over his powers, which seem to be decreasing.  He seeks help from a mentoring scientist named Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), who unfortunately succumbs to a failed experiment that causes metallic tentacles to be fused to his spine.  Overcome with vengeance and obsession, Dr. Octavius becomes Spider-Man’s new nemesis, Doctor Octopus, and he unfortunately begins causing mayhem around town at a time when Peter is unsure whether he still has it in him to be the hero.
This movie works in almost every way.  It’s well written, well acted, and the action scenes are phenomenally staged.  Sam Raimi even changed the screen size for his franchise, from the 1.85:1 aspect ratio for the first film to the 2:40:1 widescreen for the sequel, knowing that this movie was going to be much bigger than before.  First of all, let me highlight the performances, particularly Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus, or Doc Ock as he’s commonly known.  His performance as the villain works in every aspect where Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin failed.  Doc Ock has a couple over-the-top moments, but they are balanced by many other scenes where the character is cold and menacing.  Not only that, but the character has a fully developed arc that helps carry the film along.  The special effects team also did an amazing job complimenting Molina’s standout performance with their animation of Doc’s mechanical arms, which become characters in their own right.  A stronger villain also helps to elevate the effectiveness of the hero as well, and Tobey Maguire’s performance as Spider-Man is infinitely better in this movie.  Supporting characters also shine, especially J.K. Simmons as Peter Parker’s blusterous boss at the Daily Bugle newspaper.
And, of course, there are the exceptional action scenes.  An extended sequence on top of an elevated train car is an especially memorable part of the movie, and probably one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed.  If the movie has any flaw, it’s that the final act loses steam towards the end.  It’s not a bad ending, but it kind of lacks punch after that amazing train sequence.  Otherwise, everything else is done perfectly.  Spider-Man 2 holds together mainly because it finally lets Sam Raimi tell the Spider-Man story that he’s always wanted to do, and not have to be burdened by cumbersome exposition.  He also brought on board a veteran screenwriter, Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People, Paper Moon), to refine the dramatic aspects of the story, and this move helped to make the movie not only exciting, but poignant as well.  Best of all, it certified that the Spider-Man franchise wasn’t just popcorn-faire, but also a landmark series with at least one genuine classic to define it as such.  Unfortunately, this achievement would be short-lived.
SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007)
Spiderman 2‘s reception was so positive that it made many people excited for what was to come next.  Unfortunately Spider-Man 3 proved to be a big letdown.  I wrote an article last year about “Second Sequels,” and how many of them usually don’t work.  This movie would be a perfect example of that, and the reasons are very fascinating.  Apparently Sam Raimi and Columbia Pictures, the company financing the movies, were never on the same page when it came to how the next Spider-Man movie should go; particularly when it came to the choices of the villains.  Sam Raimi wanted a more classic villain like Sandman, while Columbia executives wanted to use the fan favorite villain Venom.  What we got in the final film was both, both awkwardly shoe-horned together into a story-line that would have worked better with just one of the two.  Not only that, but the movie also wraps up the Harry Osborn plot that’s been building over the entire series, so you have a film with three different villains.  Sufficed to say, the movie suffers from having to cram in too much into too little time.  Not only that, but it takes away from Peter Parker’s development, which could have had an interesting arc centered around him finding the alien symbiote virus.
Where does the movie falter?  There are too many things to count.  Perhaps the biggest blunder of the movie is the way it handles the character of Venom.  Never mind the horrible miscasting of Topher Grace as the villain and his alter ego Eddie Brock.  What should have been one of the most iconic villains in the whole franchise is given just 10 short minutes of screen-time towards the end of the movie, and has little significance to the plot as a whole.  It’s clear that Sam Raimi didn’t want the character in the movie at all and was just fulfilling an obligation to the studio.  Unfortunately, by promising to use the character, he sabotages any real attempt to make the story work as a whole.  It’s clear that Sandman (Thomas Hayden Church) was the character that Raimi wanted at the center of the movie, and his purpose in the plot makes no sense once Venom starts to become a factor.  Many of the other problems within the film are all pretty notorious (Emo Peter Parker, the omelette making scene, the dreaded dance number), but the fundamental problems with the movie stem pretty much from the compromised nature of the story-line.  The movie would’ve benefited greatly from having a central villain in the movie, like Spider-Man 2‘s Doc Ock.
As flawed and schizophrenic as the movie is, it’s not the worst superhero movie ever made however.  There are some things that do work.  When Sam Raimi is on his game, he can still deliver some memorable moments, particularly a scene where Sandman first comes to life.  Done entirely without dialogue, the scene shows the character slowly pulling himself together from millions of grains of sand.  It’s a poignant and captivating scene that shows effectively the kind of movie that Raimi was going for.  Church’s performance is also effective, if a little too underplayed.  Oddly enough, the performances from the leads in this movie are the lackluster ones.  It’s seems that Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst lost interest in the series at this point in their careers and are just sleep-walking through their roles.  That or they just didn’t believe in this particular plot.  The only actor who seems to be having fun while making this movie ironically enough is James Franco, who was probably the weakest actor in the other films.  Here, he’s actually fun to watch.  This is probably because it came at a time when Franco was starting to move away from the matinee idol persona and into the bohemian weirdo that we know him as today; and oddly enough it works here.  Spider-Man 3 is a bad movie, but it’s flawed in a way that makes it oddly fascinating and watchable.  I actually view this movie more often than the blander first film.  Still, it is a disappointing follow-up to the genuinely great second film.
So, while the Spider-Man franchise is a little disjointed, it’s nevertheless has done it’s job and has helped to turn the iconic comic book character into a true force at the box-office.  This weekend, Spider-Man makes his fifth appearance on the big screen; surpassed only by Batman, Superman, and Wolverine in total number of films.  I only wanted to focus on the Sam Raimi trilogy for this article, because I consider the rebooted Amazing Spider-Man series as an entirely different franchise.  Upon re-watching all these movies again, I was actually struck by how much they have influenced today’s recent batch of superhero movies; particularly the one’s made by Marvel.  It could be said that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man contributed to what we know now as the Marvel house style of film-making, with it’s colorful cinematography and emphasis on humor within the action scenes; similar in how Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies are now influencing the darker, grittier style of DC’s recent film adaptations.  Unfortunately, Columbia Pictures’ parent company Sony still holds the film rights to the character of Spider-Man, so we won’t see the web-slinger joining his Marvel comrades at Disney any time soon for one of the upcoming Avengers movies.  Still, I do admire what director Sam Raimi did with the character during his tenure in the franchise.  Not only did he make the hero fly off the page, but he also set the trend for everything that would come afterward.

Focus on a Franchise – Back to the Future


We all believe that we can predict which movies will be a hit and which ones are destined to fail, usually when we get our first glimpse of the trailer or poster, but every now and then, there will be a film that not only blows away our expectations, but will also change our outlook on the movies overall.  One such movie that had this kind of impact was the 1985 classic Back to the Future.  Directed by Robert Zemekis and produced by Bob Gale, Back to the Future quickly became a benchmark film for the 80’s, and redefined what kind of movies could become blockbusters.  Released at a time when Star Wars and Indiana Jones dominated the cinemas, this modestly budgeted film stuck out oddly due to it’s success.  On it’s own merits, the movie is really just a high concept comedy that plays more on the nostalgia of the 1950’s than it does on it’s special effects, of which there are actually very little.  And yet, we mention this movie in the same breathe as these other bigger hit films, and that’s mainly due to the fact that Back to the Future hit it’s bulls-eye with largely the same audience as these movies and continues to hold up nearly 30 years later.  It’s very clear to see why.
For many people (myself included), Back to the Future is the kind of movie that inspires us towards visual storytelling.  It’s a film that has ambition and confidence well beyond the limits of it’s budget.  In essence, it shows us that any story can feel epic in scale when given the right vision behind it.  This movie was a turning point for director Zemekis, whose career up to this point was defined more by comedies like Used Cars (1980) and Romancing the Stone (1983).  Back to the Future opened the door for him to make more ambitious films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and the Oscar-winning Forrest Gump (1994), though each one of them does feature the same sense of humor that Zemekis perfected in Future.  But, despite Zemekis’ desire to branch out, he was also grounded by the same success from Future, which inevitably led to Universal Studios demanding sequels.  This led to the creation of a Back to the Future trilogy, with the second and third movies being made back to back and released a year apart.  This was both good and bad, because while the two sequels are alright on their own, they are clearly inferior to the first movie, and as a trilogy, the whole thing doesn’t hold up.  I think that may have been partly because of Zemekis interests were elsewhere, or the fact that nothing lined up right for the trilogy to work.  Either way, looking over each film, I find that the Back to the Future franchise is one of the more puzzling in movie history.
The one that started it all.  In the nearly 30 years since this films release, it has become an almost universally beloved classic.  It’s iconic in every way; the script, the performances, the production design.  Hell, even the flaws in this movie have become iconic moments for some people.  The premise for the film is highly imaginative, and yet simple enough for anyone to understand.  We follow the adventures of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) as he travels back in time from 1985 to 1955 in a time machine invented by Doctor Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd).  While in the past, he runs into his father George (Crispin Glover) and mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson), who in this time period are still in high school.  And due to interference by his presence in the past, Marty has disrupted the timeline of his parents falling in love, which means he could be wiped from existence if he doesn’t get them back together.  With the help of the younger Doc Brown, Marty tries to find a way to get his parents back together and get back home to his real time, which becomes even more complicated when the high school bully, Biff Tannen (Thomas Wilson) has his eyes on Lorraine as well.
There’s so much that works well in this movie, and it’s largely due to the confidence behind the filmmaking and the performances.  For one thing, the screenplay is rock solid, and probably one of the best that has ever been written.  Zemekis and Bob Gale both co-wrote the script over a long period of time, and had to cut and rewrite it constantly, but the end result proved to be worth it.  What essentially makes the script work is in how it fully exploits it’s concept, particularly through it’s sense of humor.  It’s an interesting idea that they touch upon, that being the experience of seeing your parents when they were your own age.  And of course, this is played up perfectly in the film when Marty learns that his father was a nerdy peeping tom and his mother was a little slutty and a cheater in school.  The time travel concepts are laid out very effectively in the movie without being too overwhelmingly detailed.  Doc Brown is able to make every scientific notion seem plausible, even when it’s bogus (I highly doubt that 1.21 jigawatts is an actual scientific measurement, for example).  It’s both the humor that make the movie work so well, and the script is endlessly quotable with lines likes “Lorraine, you are my density” or “You built a time machine, out of a Delorean,” and of course, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads,” just to name a few.
The film is also benefited by some phenomenal performances.  Michael J. Fox seems so perfectly suited for the role of Marty McFly, which makes it all the more unusual that he was not the first person cast in the part.  Originally, actor Eric Stoltz was cast as Marty, but Zemekis felt that he wasn’t fitting right in the film after having shot a number of scenes.  So, they waited until Fox was on hiatus from his role on the hit TV series Family Ties and finished the film with him in the movie.  Since then, it has become an iconic part in the actor’s career, and he plays it to perfection in the movie.  Christopeher Lloyd is also perfectly cast in the role of Doc Brown, making him delightfully eccentric, without pushing him in too cartoonish a direction.  In many ways, Doc Brown is the character that we remember most from the movie, and that’s not a bad thing either.  Lea Thompson and Thomas Wilson also provide memorable performance as Lorraine and Biff, respectively.  But my favorite performance has to be Crispin Glover as George McFly, just because it’s such an out there performance in what is otherwise a straightforward movie.  It’s befitting for the avant garde actor like him, and it is impressive when he plays Marty’s father, despite Crispin being 3 years younger than Michael J. Fox in real life.  Just watch his hilarious mannerisms in the movie, and see how he takes a simple line like “Stories!” and puts a whole different spin on it.  It’s things like this which helps to make Back to the Future the masterpiece that it is today.
Because the first film was such an overwhelming success, and because the ending hinted at continuing the adventures of Marty and Doc, it was probably inevitable that a sequel would be made one day.  After completing Who Framed Roger Rabbit over at Disney, Robert Zemekis and Bob Gale began work on the follow-up to their huge hit.  The surprising development to come out of their writing process was the idea to not just make one sequel, but two back to back.  This was the first time that a studio had ever attempted a project like this, and it showed that Back to the Future Parts 2 and 3 were going to be much more ambitious than the film before them.  Unfortunately, success is a hard thing to replicate, and these sequels are clear examples of this.  The story picks up right where the first one left off, with Marty and Doc headed to the future; the far distant year of 2015.  While there, the time machine is stolen by an elderly Biff Tannen, who uses time travel for his own ends and disrupts the time lines in catastrophic ways.  In order to fix everything, Marty and Doc have to return to the past of 1955 and set things right, even while the events of the first film are taking place in the background.
While there is still a lot to like with this movie, it feels like a letdown when compared to the first film.  Part 2‘s biggest problem is that it’s unfocused, and also restrained by the limitations put on it by the first movie.  Zemekis had a lot to live up to with this one, and after watching this movie and the ones he made around the same time, you can see that his heart really wasn’t in it this time.  He doesn’t do a horrible job directing by any means, but it’s clear that this project was more of an obligation than a story he really wanted to tell.  Also complicating things is the fact that some elements from the first movie had to be dropped, because not everyone was on board.  Crispin Glover refused to do the movie, so George McFly’s role was significantly diminished.  Also, the movie looses steam when it takes the story back into the past.  Some people thought the idea of having a new subplot happen in the events of the old film was a clever idea, but for me, it just makes me think of scenes from a better movie, and how much less I care about what’s going on in this new story.  I was much more interested in the stuff we’ve never seen before, like the future setting and the alternate 1985, both of which exploited the time travel aspects of the movie much better.
There is still a lot that I like in the movie though.  Thomas Wilson really picks up the slack and makes Biff Tannen a memorable and effective villain; even more so than he did in the first movie.  What’s really impressive about his performance is how many different versions of the character he plays in the movie, spanning 4 different time periods, and one alternate reality.  He also plays the part way over the top in a way that works to the films advantage.  I also like the fact that we are now in 2014 as I’m writing this, and we’re no where near matching Zemekis’ vision of 2015.  No flying cars, or hover boards, or self-lacing Nike Shoes; which is kind of sad.  Though while a lot of the predictions never panned out, there are some future inventions that the movie actually predicted correctly, like 16:9 flat screen TVs, video conferencing, and facial tracking on cameras.  Also, while the story has many flaws, it does feature one of the best cliffhangers in movie history.  Marty gets stranded in 1955 at the end of the film after an electrical storm sends the time machine away without him, taking Doc Brown with it.  Within a moment, a car drives up behind Marty and he is soon approached by a Western Union messenger (played by SCTV’s Joe Flaherty) who has a letter for Marty from Doc dated from 1885.  It’s a brilliant bit of writing that really sells the idea of playing around with relative time.  What was just an instant for Marty was an eternity for that one letter, and it’s the one moment in the movie that actually lives up to the promise of the first film.  Of course, with a heavy cliffhanger like that, you’d hope there’d be a good follow-up.
The conclusion of the Back to the Future trilogy is a mixed bag like it’s predecessor, but still an interesting movie in it’s own right.  Continuing from the first movie, we find Marty recouping with 1955’s Doc Brown as they try to figure out how to get 1985’s Doc back from the past and return them both to their right time and place.  The two of them soon learn that the future Doc is killed by a ruthless cowboy named Mad Dog Tannen (played by Thomas Wilson), and they realize that they have to do more than rescue him.  Marty manages to make it back to 1885 in a Delorean Doc had hidden in an abandoned mine and he discovers that it’ll take some coaxing to remove Doc from this time period that he’s become accustomed to.  As Marty and Doc devise a plan to return home, they encounter a lonely school teacher named Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen), who Doc grows an attraction to.  Eventually, everything leads to the usual race against time and the usual showdown with the villainous Tannen.  And this is mainly where the movie falters.  It’s just retreading familiar territory once again, showing that the filmmakers didn’t have the same confidence in their concept that they should’ve had after the first movie.  By the third film, the premise had been stretched out thin and it was clear that the series had exhausted all it’s potential.
That’s not to say that the movie is bad at all.  I actually enjoy watching this movie, even more so than Part 2.  For one thing, it’s actually a competently done Western, even with all the sci-fi stuff included.  Back in the 80’s and 90’s, Westerns were out of vogue, so this film was very appreciated by anyone who was a fan of the genre at the time.  This film also feels a bit more focused than Part 2, having the story play out in one setting rather than hopping back and forth through different time periods.  The actors also look like they’re having more fun this time around, especially Christopher Lloyd, whose Doc Brown is focused on more in this movie.  The love story between Doc and Clara is a contentious point for people who are critical of this movie, and while I do recognize how out of place it does feel, I still find it charming, and Mary Steenburgen is very likable in the film.  I think the movie actually works better as a love letter to Westerns than it does as a sequel to Back to the Future.  That clearly seemed to be how Zemekis approached it, with the beautiful Monument Valley being featured prominently in certain scenes, as well as cameo appearances by famed Western character actors like Harry Carey Jr. and Pat Buttram.  As a capper to a film trilogy, it’s fairly anti-climatic, but as a standalone film, it’s still worthwhile entertainment.
So, the thing I take away from the trilogy as a whole is that it’s hard to make a series work together as one narrative when it was never planned that way.  The first film is a classic in every sense of the word, and probably could have retained that distinction even without the sequels.  Part 2 and 3 have some nice elements to them, but ultimately disappoint as follow-ups.  In the end, did this series really need to be a trilogy?  I can understand the idea of doing a sequel, considering how the first film ended, but what ultimately happened was that the filmmakers chose to play it safe, rather than go all out with the concept.  Word is that Zemekis and Gale wanted to actually take Marty and Doc on an epic tour through history in the sequels, but they were unfortunately tied up by the ending of the first movie where Doc says that they need to go to the future to fix Marty’s “kids,” which left them with a plot thread that they were obligated to finish.  Not only that, but they also had to take along Marty’s girlfriend in the DeLorean, which became problematic when they had to recast the role between films (Elizabeth Shue played the character in Parts 2 and 3).  It shows that even success has a downside, because it almost never gets repeated, at least not in the same way.
But, even with the problems in the trilogy, Back to the Future has become one of Hollywood’s most popular franchises.  The first film is still rightfully considered a masterpiece and has become one of the most iconic films of the 80’s.  One of the film’s many fans, as it turned out, was then current President Ronald Reagan, who loved the film so much that he even quoted from it in one of his State of the Union speeches.  No matter what your politics, to have the President of the United States honor your film like that is praise of the highest order.  The Courthouse Square, a set piece which features prominently in each film, is still found on the Universal Studios back-lot today, and is considered sacred ground to both fans and filmmakers alike who visit there.  Even the sequels have left an impact in the years since, and are still enjoyed by many.  The Nike corporation even made special limited edition shoes recently, based off the futuristic ones in Part 2 to put up for auction to raise money for Michael J. Fox’s charity to fight Parkinson’s disease.  It just shows that even with it’s complicated structure and history, the Back to the Future franchise has a dedicated fan-base that it rightly deserves.  All in all, it’s a series made up of one genuine masterpiece and two disappointing but still very entertaining sequels.  It’s not perfect, but few other franchises are.

Focus on a Franchise – Friday the 13th


After complaining last week about horror franchises that never end, I decided to actually examine one such franchise that has been going on now for over 30 years and still has managed to remain relevant in audience’s eyes.  I’m speaking, of course, about the Friday the 13th franchise, and it’s seemingly unstoppable central villain, Jason Voorhees.  Few other characters have spawned as many movies as Jason has, especially in the horror genre.  For a total of 10 feature films, 2 spin-off crossovers, and one forgettable remake, Jason has earned a place in the pantheon of iconic movie monsters.  Truth be told, I was familiar with the Jason character in general, through cultural osmosis, but I’ve been unfamiliar with many of his films.  Also, the ones that I have seen, I hadn’t seen all the way through.  So, this week, I set out to watch all 10 of the canonical Jason movies (thanks to AMC Network’s movie marathon for the Halloween season).  Albeit, these films were in the edited form, but I was still able to take away from them how the character has been built up over the years and how each movie made an impact on one another.  And watching the series the whole way through led me to some interesting observations.
First of all, what is my take on the series as a whole, before I delve into each one individually?  For the most part, I think the character of Jason himself stands up much better than the movies that feature him.  I actually began to like him more the further I went into the series.  I love the fact that, for the most part, Jason never changes.  He’s an unstoppable killing machine put on this earth to brutally murder randy teenagers who cross his path.  What also surprised me was how every film in the franchise actually followed that same formula through every entry; with mixed results.  The best parts in each movie are when Jason takes out his victims and the unique ways in which he does it. The low points are when the plots slow down to explain away what makes Jason tick.  In the end, who cares.  Jason just is; enough said.  Overall he makes for one memorable character that deserves a long running series; even when not all of the movies are up to the same standard.  Now, let’s take a look at the Friday the 13th series in more detail.
FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)Directed by Sean S. Cunningham
The one that started it all, and a movie that you wouldn’t have expected to have started such a long running series.  Set around the fictional Camp Crystal Lake in New Jersey, a group of camp counselors begin to fall prey to a sadistic serial killer who picks each one of them off, one by one.  Many believe that the killer could be a former camp attendee named Jason Voorhees, who they thought had drowned in the lake years before and has now been resurrected to exact his revenge.  Eventually, only one survivor named Alice (Adrienne King) seeks refuge with Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) in the hopes that she may have answers regarding her murderous son.  But as it turns out, mild-mannered Mrs. Voorhees has been the killer all along, hoping to avenge her son and keep the camp closed.  Alice soon escapes and fights back against Mrs. Voorhees, eventually decapitating her with a wood ax.  The film ends with Alice taking a boat across the lake to safety, but before she can reach the other side, she is attacked from behind by the decaying remains of Jason.
Friday the 13th was highly criticized when it was first released, but I think time has helped to give this film the strong reputation it deserves.  It’s a well-crafted movie that does represent the best qualities of the horror genre.  It’s shocking without being too exploitative and it’s story-line actually offers up some nice surprises.  Betsy Palmer in particular gives an effectively chilling performance as Mrs. Voorhees, where she is able to balance the motherly aspects of the character well with the psychotic aspects, making her a well-rounded villain.  What pleased me most about seeing this film is that all of the traits of a Friday the 13th movie are used here to their full potential, even when the iconic character isn’t present.
FRIDAY THE 13TH: PART 2(1981)Directed by Steve Miner
Released only a year after the first movie, which started off the short release pattern seen between the movies in the 80’s, Jason Voorhees made his full-fledged debut in this sequel.  How he went from a child to a full-grown adult between films is never explained fully, but you’ll quickly forget about that once the killing starts.  And Jason’s first victim turns out to be Alice (one again played by Adrienne King), which sets off the feeling right away that this was a new beginning for the franchise.  Again, camp counselors are murdered one by one leaving just one survivor in the end to face Jason in a final showdown.  She manages to outsmart the killer by finding the shrine Jason has set up in his old home with his mother’s rotting remains.  Ginny, the final survivor, puts on Mrs. Voorhees sweater and makes Jason think that she is his mother, which manages to work, leading Ginny to subdue the monster by stabbing him in the back with an ax.  The movie does an effective job of introducing Jason into the series as the killer, but the film suffers a bit by just following the same story-line as the first, more or less.  Albeit, there’s not much more you can build upon in the first place, but it just felt like the film didn’t take enough chances apart from adding Jason, and just felt like more of the same, something that’ll plague most of the films yet to come.
FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3 (1982)Directed by Steve Miner
Perhaps the most gimmicky of the Jason films, at least up to this point, this film became the first one to be shot in 3D.  So, pretty much you’ll be seeing a lot of things pointing straight at the camera while watching this movie.  That works well enough when you see someone’s eye get poked out with an arrow as it shots right off the screen, but when you start to see someone holding a shovel out in front of them for no reason other than to take advantage of the 3D gimmick, then it begins to take you out of the film all together.  That’s part of the problem with Part 3; it just seemed to be made solely for the purpose of producing 3D gore.  The story-line is exactly the same as the others and even steals some of the better scares out of the first two, including the body coming out of the lake scare.  What is noteworthy in this film however is that it introduces one of the most iconic elements of the Jason character; the hockey mask.  Surprisingly, for something that has become so synonymous with the character, it is given very little importance in this film.  Jason just casually picks it up in a garage and puts it on and that’s that.  But I guess like everything else in this series, the small things gain significance over time.
FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER (1984)Directed by Joseph Zito
Obviously with a title like that, you would think that this was meant to be the final Jason film, as parent studio Paramount Pictures wanted to put the series to rest after the previous movie had under-performed.  Of course, this wouldn’t be the end of Jason Voorhees by a long shot; and in fact this movie would be the start of what would be known as the “Tommy Jarvis Trilogy” in the series.  Jason once again begins murdering teenagers around Camp Crystal Lake, until he runs into the Jarvis family.  Trish Jarvis (Kimberly Beck) holds up her family in the lakeside cabin they call home, including her younger brother Tommy (a pre-Goonies Corey Feldman).  Eventually Jason follows them to their final refuge and is about to kill Trish when he is suddenly distracted by a quick thinking Tommy.  In a weird finale to the film, Tommy distracts the monster by shaving his own head and making himself look like a young Jason without his mask.  Once subdued, Jason is soon brutally killed by a crazed Tommy, to Trish’s horror.  You heard that right, Jason meets his match, and it’s Corey Feldman.  The ending to this film is a strange one, but it certainly left a much better impression on the series than the previous two films had.
FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NEW BEGINNING (1985)    Directed by Danny Steinmann
Set several years after the previous film, we find Tommy Jarvis (now played as a teenager by John Sheppard) still haunted by the ordeal he went through as he recovers in a halfway house for troubled youths.  One of his fellow residents named Joey is murdered in cold blood by another resident, and this incident suddenly begins a string of other murders.  No one knows who is doing it until Tommy and a younger resident named Reggie spot the masked man in the act.  This leaves Tommy powerless as he is still deeply haunted by Jason, but eventually he gets the courage to face his fears and subdue the murderer.  Once the masked man is killed, we find out that it wasn’t Jason after all, but the father of the murdered Joey, seeking vengeance on the halfway house and its residents.  This is the best of the Tommy Jarvis films and probably the best entry since the first Friday the 13th.  It manages to give the story some depth when it needs it, but still keep the gory aspects as ridiculous and gruesome as ever.  I liked the twist at the end that the killer was only posing as Jason, which was an interesting change of pace.  The only aspect I didn’t like though was actually Tommy Jarvis himself.  Actor John Sheppard just kind of sleepwalks through the film and makes Tommy a rather passive protagonist.  Honestly, when you’re making Corey Feldman look like the better actor, then you’ve got a problem.  The film does close on an interesting note, however, when Tommy dons the mask and looks as if he may become the next Jason himself.
FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VI: JASON LIVES (1986)     Directed By Tom McLoughlin
Unfortunately, the follow-up film drops that interesting idea from Part 5 in favor of more of the same.  The film finds Tommy Jarvis (now played by Thom Mathews) digging up the body of Jason in the hopes that he can destroy him once and for all, just in case he might come back.  To his dismay, the body of Jason is reanimated once the coffin is open by a sudden bolt of lightning.  And, like a hornet returning to it’s nest, Jason goes right back to Crystal Lake and begins killing teenage camp counselors once again.  Tommy follows him there and manages to get Jason back into the lake by tying a huge boulder to the monster and drowning him once again.  There’s not much to this plot and it rather weakly ties up the Tommy Jarvis story-line.  What’s interesting about this film is that it introduces more self-referential humor into the series, much like what we’ve seen in the Scream films; for good and for bad.  There’s a hilarious bit where Jason takes out a bunch of paint-ball shooters in the woods and Jason’s first victim is none other than Horshack from Welcome Back Kotter, or more specifically actor Ron Pallilo.  But some of the other bits of humor seem either too forced or out of place.  Overall, the story-line felt like a step backwards after the interesting turns it had taken in the previous installments.
FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD (1988)    Directed by Joel Carl Buechler
This film could be considered Jason meets Carrie, although the title character from Stephen King’s famous novel plays no part in this story-line.  In this movie, we are introduced to Tina Shepard (Lar Park Lincoln) who has telekinetic powers that she struggles to control.  She is being brought back to Crystal Lake for treatment after an incident years ago with her powers had killed her father and left her in a mental institution.  While at the lake, she attempts to bring her father back to life, but unintentionally she resurrects Jason, still anchored by the stone at the bottom.  Once free, Jason begins attacking a group of vacationing teenagers housed at the lake, some of whom Tina has befriended.  Tina soon learns that her powers are an asset rather than a curse, as she uses them to combat Jason and protect herself.  Eventually she manages to return Jason back to the lake and hopefully has him destroyed for good.  This film adds a lot of new things in the series and does them right.  This is by far one of the better entries in the franchise, even if it has some of the same flaws as some of the other films.  I like the injection of another supernatural element into the story-line, which could have been problematic if done poorly, but here it actually works.   Lar Park Lincoln’s performance is much better than it needs to be and she manages to create a compelling protagonist in Tina.  Also, we finally get to see what lies under the mask and a lot of credit goes to the make-up crew for creating a truly terrifying look for Jason.  We see that he is now more creature than man, helping to make this both a terrifying and enriching entry into the series.
The title for this film is misleading because Jason doesn’t make it to New York until the final act.  A better title would’ve been Jason’s Final Voyage, because the majority of the movie takes place on a ship travelling up the Jersey Shore; which looks an awful lot like Vancouver, BC.  This film is much weaker mainly because it is one of the more gimmicky Jason movies.  Mainly we just watch how many ways Jason can kill his victims on a boat, and that’s the movie.  There’s some character development around a teenage girl named Rennie and her fear of water at play in this movie, but that’s about it.  The film does gain some steam towards the end once Jason and the survivors reach dry land on Manhattan Island, mainly because they exploit the locals pretty effectively.  When Jason chases down Rennie and her boyfriend down a subway, it’s effectively harrowing.  Most of the rest of the movie is far less terrifying and oftentimes more unintentionally silly.  I usually find that when a film series has to start injecting gimmicks into it’s story-lines, its a sign that the series is losing it’s way, and Jason Takes Manhattan is a clear example of that.  That being said, Jason is still the best element in the movie, and he gets one really great moment when he faces down a champion boxer and takes his head off in one blow.
JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY (1993)Directed by Adam Marcus
After a decade long run and 8 total films, Paramount was done with Jason and they sold the rights to the character over to New Line Cinema, the home of another horror icon: Freddy Kruger.  Out of this deal, New Line started off their Jason “era” with this entry, the ninth in the series. Unfortunately this is the worst one by far.  Here’s a “clever” idea for you; Jason dies in the first scene in the movie, but then transforms into a parasite that invades human bodies and turns them into monstrous killers.  This lame idea somehow made it passed the development stage and became the basis of this really stupid movie.  The Jason parasite makes no sense whatsoever, not even in the convoluted logic that has been built up in this series over the years, and sadly reduces the effectiveness of the character as a whole.  Not only that, the plot and the supporting characters are also laughably bad.  Even an attempt to create a bad-ass supernatural bounty hunter named Creighton Duke (Steven Williams) falls flat.  For a while, this movie was so notoriously toxic that it killed the franchise for many years; not a good start for New Line Cinema.  It’s a reaction that I totally understand.  After watching all the films in succession, this was the film that nearly made me give up on the marathon.  Yes, even Jason going to Manhattan didn’t make me want to stop watching the series.  One particular interesting note about the film though is that after Jason is dragged down to Hell at the end, his mask is left behind, only to be dragged away by the claw-like glove of Freddy Kruger; a sign of things to come, but not for a long time after.
JASON X (2002)Directed by James Isaac
Nearly ten years after Jason Goes to Hell sank the franchise, New Line tried once again to make another Jason film, and this time they attempted probably the biggest and most outlandish gimmick of them all; taking Jason into Outer Space.  Now a premise like that would lead you to believe that the series was getting desperate and that anything that made Jason a viable character before was now gone; but you would be wrong.  Jason X fits squarely in that “so bad it’s good” category that you usually see happen to a lot of the SyFy channel brand of films.  In fact, the movie does have the same look and feel of one of those notorious SyFy movies, like Sharknado.  I think that has a lot to do with the execution done by director Isaac and his crew.  The movie is reverential towards the Jason character and all of the common elements that make up a classic “slasher” movie, but it also plays out everything with it’s tongue firmly planted in its cheek.  The characters are thinly drawn stereotypes on purpose, the CGI effects are atrociously awful, and the murders are so outlandish that you can’t help but laugh through it all.  That helps to make Jason X not only tolerable, but probably the most thoroughly entertaining film in the series.  Credit goes to the filmmakers for finding the right balance in this film.  Unlike Part VI, every gag works here.  And not only that, but it goes a long way towards enhancing the Jason character even further; especially when he becomes part cyborg towards the end.  It’s great to see a film series actually change pace and tone 10 movies in and make it work.  It’s no masterpiece, but I’m glad I stuck in there long enough to make it to Jason X, especially after the garbage that was Jason Goes to Hell.
And so, that’s my look at the Friday the 13th franchise.  After seeing all ten films, I can appreciate the fact that people hold up Jason Voorhees as one of the icons of horror.  I like that what started off as a small scale murder mystery in the first film has grown more outlandish over time, eventually leading to Jason being the first mass-murderer in space.  While about half of the series is fairly forgettable (Parts 2, 3, 6, and 8) to just downright awful (Jason Goes to Hell), there are a couple films that do stand out as effective, like the memorable first entry and Part 7.  Also, the series did create one gonzo of a finale with Jason X, which kind of falls into a category all it’s own.  I didn’t look at the Freddy vs. Jason crossover because I felt that’s a separate franchise set apart from this, other than the tease in Jason Goes to Hell.  Also, I’m ignoring the bland 2009 remake, mainly because it reinforces my initial complaint about how remakes are diminishing the horror genre as a whole by completely missing the point about what made these horror classics work in the first place.  Jason’s rampage in cinemas may be over for now, but his legacy is still ongoing and it’s one that has left an impact on the genre for the better.

Focus on a Franchise – Indiana Jones


New ideas come about and change the course of cinema on occasion, but what usually drives the engines of the film industry is their reliance on sturdy film franchises.  You’ll find within a given year that most of the movies hitting the market are either sequels or a sequel to a sequel.  Now while many films don’t necessarily lend themselves well to a becoming a franchise, there are some that have kicked off a series that continues on long after their initial start.  For good or bad, we see film studios invest a lot of money into building up a franchise, mainly because they are great at generating revenue from a devoted fanbase and are easy to replicate with each new installment. Some  franchises have become so popular that they’ve been more defined by their whole than by just any individual film.  The most memorable franchises usually revolve around one of two things; an iconic character whose exploits become grander in each new series installment, or a richly detailed world that builds its cast and geography the longer that its story can go on.  These franchises have become such a major part of the legacies of Hollywood studios that I want to focus on them individually in a new series of articles.  In these posts, I’ll look at each entry of a franchise and examine how they work individually and as part of the whole of their series; as well as the histories and the interesting aspects of each film.
Appropriately enough, the franchise that I plan to look at first is also one of my absolute favorites:  The Indiana Jones Series.  Following the adventures of Dr. Henry Jones Jr. (aka Indiana Jones), the films in this franchise have become some of the most beloved in the last half-century.  The brain child of Star Wars creator George Lucas, Indiana Jones was meant to be a throwback to the action serials of the 1930’s and 40’s; a long forgotten genre in cinema.  Star Wars was a similar throwback to the sci-fi serials of the 50’s, so George Lucas naturally saw the potential of the character as a central figure to build a franchise around this idea.  To help him realize it, George Lucas approached his colleague and friend Steven Spielberg to direct the introductory film, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).  Spielberg, coming off the disastrous premiere of his WWII comedy 1941 (1979), gladly accepted the project, given that he had the same kind of enthusiasm for old serials that Lucas did.  The casting of Harrison Ford as Dr. Jones seems like a no-brainer today, but would you believe that Harrison Ford stepped into the role only after Magnum P.I.‘s Tom Selleck turned it down.  This collaborative team up is both exceptional and unique, mainly because it has never changed over 30 years and 4 films.  Only the screenwriters and the supporting cast changes. Mr. Spielberg directed every entry, with George Lucas producing and Harrison Ford being the one and only Indiana Jones.  Knowing these details behind the films, lets now look at each one individually.
The introductory film of the franchise is also the one that people regard as the best.  Everything that makes an Indiana Jones movie what it is can be seen laid out in this film.  The swagger and resourcefulness of the main character; the mystery surrounding the central artifact; the international conspiracies and villains that Indiana Jones must battle against; and most importantly, the franchise’s sense of fun.  The story finds Indiana Jones on a quest to seek out the biblical Ark of the Covenant before a group of Nazis can get to it and unleash the God-given power it holds.  Making matters worse, Dr. Jones arch-rival, French archaeologist Belloq (Paul Freeman) is aiding the Nazis in their search.  With the help of an old flame, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), and an Egyptian handyman named Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), Indiana Jones finds himself in a globe-trotting adventure to keep the Ark safe from evil forces.  It’s a straight-forward adventure that keeps things simple, and that’s the film’s greatest strength.  It’s an escapist adventure that relies upon the strength of it’s characters and the excitement in it’s action scenes.  It’s that timelessness that makes the film resonate 30 years after it was made.
There are so many iconic moments in this film; the most famous probably being the scene where Indy is chased by a giant boulder.  Spielberg’s direction plays a large part in making the film so memorable, because few other directors can make extra-ordinary moments like that one feel so believable; he’s also very good at creating iconic moments.  The writing, done by Lucas and Phillip Kaufman, is also well balanced; earnest when it needs to be and tougne-in-cheek silly at just the right times, much like the serials it’s trying to emulate.  It’s no surprise that Harrison Ford owns the role he plays.  From the first moment he steps into frame to the final scene, he is Indiana Jones.  He manages to keep the character intimidating and rugged all throughout the story, even in the lighter moments; I especially like the way he freaks out when he finds a snake in his lap (“I HATE SNAKES.  I HATE THEM”).  The rest of the cast is also just as strong.  Karen Allen makes Marion Ravenwood one of the strongest heroines in any action film.  She is no damsel in distress (though she does need saving in some instances) and is Indiana’s equal in almost every way.  Paul Freeman’s Belloq, while not too intimidating, is still an effective villain for this film and his ability to outsmart Indiana Jones does provide the movie with some extra tension.  Also, there is a memorable turn by actor Ronald Lacey as the creepy Nazi agent Toht; a character that has little to do with the overall plot, but is a welcome addition nonetheless.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is a perfect example of how to kick start a franchise.  It stands on it’s own as a great adventure, but it also leaves room to continue the adventures of Indiana Jones beyond it’s running time.  Raiders is briskly paced and very satisfying, which helps to give the audience an appetite for more.  It was a huge success upon it’s initial release, grossing $212 million (which is over $600 million in today’s money), and it even received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. I’m sure that Lucas and Spielberg had a sequel in mind long before they had the success of the first film, but it would prove to be a shakier road than they realized.
Three years after Raiders, Spielberg and Lucas released what is definitely the darkest entry in the Indiana Jones series.  Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom first finds Dr. Jones escaping a Shanghai crime lord, accompanied by a pampered night-club singer named Willie (future Mrs. Spielberg, Kate Capshaw) and an orphaned Chinese pick-pocket named Short Round (Ke Huy-Quan).  After escaping a sabotaged plane in the Himalayan mountains, they find themselves in an impoverished Indian village, which has had a mystical stone stolen from them, along with many of their children.  Dr. Jones agrees to help the village find the stone and the children, which they track down to Pangkot Palace, home of the titular Temple of Doom; where a Thuggee cult hold their secret ceremonies.  Their leader, Mola Ram (Amrish Puri), is amassing more sacred stones in an attempt to gain mystical power and he holds Dr. Jones and his companions captive; even brainwashing Indiana in the process.  All of this makes Temple of Doom a very dark and sometimes disturbing film, especially when the villain has the power to rip a still beating heart out of a living person.
The movie had a mixed reception in it’s first release.  Both Spielberg and George Lucas also have misgivings about their finished film.  According to the making-of documentary on the film’s DVD, George Lucas blames the darker tone of the film on the fact that he was going through a nasty divorce at the time.  The film also made a lot of people angry because it received a PG rating despite the graphic violence on display.  The backlash actually led the MPAA to create a brand new rating (PG-13) in direct response to this movie; a legacy that I’m sure the filmmakers didn’t expect or want.  Also, feminists were outraged at the way the character Willie Scott was portrayed, saying that she was an ugly stereotype of a “kept” woman and “damsel in distress.”  The controversies surrounding the film ended up overshadowing the movie itself, and while it still made a lot at the box office, it was still seen as a fall-off from Raiders.
Despite all of this, it might surprise you that this is actually my favorite film in the series.  Temple of Doom was the first Indiana Jones film that I saw as a kid, so it’s probably why I have such a strong attachment to it.  Harrison Ford is in top form here and he takes the character to new levels of awesomeness.  While Willie Scott as a character is obnoxious, and a big step down from Marion, I don’t think that it’s Kate Capshaw’s fault and she tries her best to make the character entertaining. Some people hate Short Round, but I think he makes a wonderful character and he works well in the movie.  But what I love best in this movie is the villain, Mola Ram.  He is the best antagonist in the series and actor Amrish Puri steals every scene he is in.  The film also features one of John Williams’ best and most complete scores, which is saying a lot.  One particular track called “Slave Children’s Crusade” is probably one of my all time favorite musical themes.  And the final 30 minutes of the film is what I believe to be the best continuous action scene in movie history.  While Spielberg and Lucas have reservations about the movie, I for one love this film completely and it remains my favorite one to this day.
After the backlash from Temple of Doom, it would take a few years for Lucas and Spielberg to return to the franchise.  In 1989, they decided to return the series back to it’s basics with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.   In this film, Indiana Jones once again finds himself racing against time to beat the Nazis to a religious artifact; this time, the Holy Grail.  Also on the trail, we find, is Indy’s own father, Dr. Henry Jones Sr. (played by 007 himself, Sean Connery).  Their search leads them through the catacombs of Venice, the mountains of Bavaria, to the heart of Nazi-led Berlin, and then finally the Turkish deserts.  Along the way, the two Joneses are betrayed and blackmailed by both a former colleague named Donovan (Julian Glover) and a sexy Austrian double agent named Elsa (Alison Doody).  The movie feels more like Raiders in tone and structure, but not in a way that it makes it feel like it’s ripping the former film off.
While I do like the film a lot, to me it feels weak in comparison to the previous two movies.  The film is just too uneven in tone and suffers greatly in it’s characterizations.  The most problematic problem for me is the villain, Donovan.  He is by far the weakest antagonist in the series, and that is mainly due to the way he is written.  There is no depth to the character; he’s merely there to service the plot whenever it needs a bad guy present to foul things up.  Julian Glover is a fine actor (check out his great work on Game of Thrones), but he’s completely wasted here.  Alison Doody brings a little bit of sizzle to her duplicitous Elsa, but the character is likewise underwritten.  Also, the film shamefully takes the character of Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott), Dr. Jones’ intelligent and loyal fellow professor from Raiders, and turns him into a absent minded cartoon simpleton.  So, what’s good in the movie?  Pretty much every scene with Indy and his Dad.  The pairing of Harrison Ford and Sean Connery works so well in this film, and their on-screen chemistry is a delight to watch. The movie also features some excellent action set-pieces, especially a show-down with a German tank in the desert.  While it is flawed, the movie does stand on it’s own as an action film, and I can see why so many other people consider this as one of their favorites.
Despite the success of Last Crusade, it would take 19 years before we saw another Indiana Jones film on the big screen.  With a gap in time like that, it’s almost inevitable that a film would fall short of expectations, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull certainly fell victim to this.  The movie is derided as the weakest in the series, to the point where some critics have called it the “franchise killer.”  The film finds an older Indiana Jones living in a post-war world where the Nazis have now been replaced by the Soviets, and old-age archaeological discoveries have been replaced with space age inquiries.  The film has Dr. Jones investigating the mystery surrounding the discovery of a Crystal Skull in the jungles of the Amazon.  At the same time, he runs afoul of Soviet agents, led by clairvoyant Agent Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), who hopes to use the Crystal Skull’s powers for mind-control programs against the Americans.  Indy is assisted in his search by a cocky young student named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), who we soon learn is the offspring of both Indiana and Marion Ravenwood, who makes her return to the series.  The movie is probably the most self-aware of the franchise due to all the references to Indy’s past adventures; the opening scene reveals that Area 51 is the location of the warehouse from Raiders.  The more over-the-top nature of the movie is also what probably turns a lot of people away from this film, and it is undeniably flawed.
So, it may surprise more people that I actually like this one.  After hearing from a lot of other fans of the series, I think I might be one of the few people who does support this film.  I recognize that it is flawed, but like I said, so is Last Crusade.  Probably the fact that my favorite film in the franchise is the similarly divisive Temple of Doom has played a factor in my less critical opinion of the movie.  One thing that I like in this film is Cate Blanchett’s performance as Agent Spalko; a significant upgrade of a villain compared to Donovan.  Also, Harrison Ford, even in his advanced years, is still in top form as Indiana Jones.  I also love the return of Karen Allen as Marion; let’s face it, she’s the only woman in Indy’s life that matters.  While the film has a lot that I do like, there are things that still weaken it.  Mainly, the character of Mutt Williams, who is not believable in any way as the son of Indiana Jones.  Also, the action scenes are a mixed bag.  We get some great scenes like a motorcycle chase through Dr. Jones’ college and a fight around an army of killer ants, but they are book-ended by weaker action scenes, like a heavily CGI-ed chase through the Amazon jungle.  But the sum of the whole works for me as a movie.  I even don’t mind the much derided “Nuking the Fridge” scene.  I also like the fact that the series moved forward to reflect the time period.  While some people hate the inclusion of aliens and UFO’s in the Indiana Jones series, I understand that by placing a throwback to classic serials in the Sci-Fi driven 1950’s, it seems natural to have them included in this story-line.  I’m an unapologetic defender of this film, and I believe that it has a deserved place with the others in the series.
The future is uncertain for the Indiana Jones franchise, due partially to the mixed results of Crystal Skull, and also due to the fact that the principal people involved are getting older.  Despite this, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg eventually want to make another one, and Harrison Ford has expressed interest in putting on the fedora for at least one more time.  Whether or not it will happen remains to be seen, but for right now, this appears to be it for the Indiana Jones film franchise.  The series is still one of the most successful of the last half-century and has left a lasting legacy over the years.  Long before the Disney Company bought Lucasfilm from George Lucas, you could easily find the character at home in the company’s theme parks all over the world; including a popular ride in Disneyland and a stunt show in Disney World.  Also, there was a successful series called the The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles that aired on TV from 1992-93, which helped to flesh out the character’s back-story.  To this day, Indiana Jones is still considered one of the most beloved action heroes in movie history, and he definitely stands as one of my favorites.  Interesting enough, as far as a George Lucas film series goes, I actually hold this one up higher than Star Wars.  I enjoy each film, warts and all, and I never get tired of them. I still regard Temple of Doom as one of my absolute favorite action films, and that will probably never change.  In the end, that’s what marks a great franchise; where you enjoy it so much that you’re willing to return to it over and over again as it continues to grow.