Category Archives: Tinseltown Throwdown

Tinseltown Throwdown – Mary Poppins vs. My Fair Lady

Whenever I spotlight movies with similar plots and thematic elements in this series, it’s usually a competition between movies that are indirect competition, whose standing as a movie doesn’t necessarily need to be defined with it’s comparison to another.  But there are instances in Hollywood history where movies were indeed made to compete against one another, and in some cases, the behind the scenes story of these competitions becomes just as intriguing as the movies themselves.  Such was the case with the year 1964, when the big budget movie musical saw a brief revival in the early part of that decade and hit a high point when two studios actively jumped in and took shots at placing itself atop with their own additions to the genre.  Surprising to many is that this cutthroat competition at the box office involves two musicals with the unlikeliest of settings to appeal to a broad American audience; that being turn of the century Edwardian England.  The two movies in question were of course the Broadway to Hollywood transplant that was Warner Brothers’ My Fair Lady (1964) and the cinematic original Mary Poppins (1964) from Walt Disney Productions.  Today, these two movies are quaint, audience pleasing relics of a bygone era in old Hollywood, but it may surprise many that behind the scenes, these movies involved a back and forth war between two studio giants that saw the making and breaking of creative partnerships between the executives and the talent involved.  Despite the turmoil behind the scenes, the movies still became huge successes for both parties, and both remain perennial favorites for cinephiles everywhere.  But based on their weaknesses and strengths, it is interesting looking at how they stack up together, especially considering their shared history.  So, let’s take that jolly holiday back to Golden Age Hollywood and see which lady remains the fairer.

First off it is interesting looking how these two movies came into being in the first place.  My Fair Lady had previously started on the Broadway stage in 1958, with music and lyrics by the team of Lerner & Lowe, the same people who turned Camelot into a massive hit on the stage a couple years prior.  The musical itself was based on the famous play Pygmalion by English playwright George Bernard Shaw, which itself was inspired by the Greek myth of the same name.  The musical added songs, but still retained the core plot, characters and whit of Shaw’s original piece.  Lady of course was a smash hit and Hollywood took notice immediately.   Warner Brothers won out in a bidding war with other studios and began development immediately on a screen adaptation.  Unfortunately for them, the movie languished for a while as it became harder and harder to fill the different roles with actors that would fit.  In the end, it was decided that the original Broadway cast would be carried over, except for one notable exclusion; the original Eliza Doolittle, Julie Andrews.  According to historians, Andrews was passed over because Warner Brothers’ head Jack Warner didn’t view her as a big enough name to carry a movie this size.  Rex Harrison, the other lead in the musical playing Professor Henry Higgins, was just coming off a major role as Julius Ceaser in Fox’s Cleopatra (1963), which shielded him from the same scrutiny, so unfortunately for Ms. Andrews, who had yet to make the jump from stage to screen was denied her shot, despite the rave reviews she had earned before in the role.  Jack Warner instead turned to Oscar-winning screen legend Audrey Hepburn for the role of Eliza, which turned a few heads in the industry because Hepburn did not have a musical background.  She had sung on screen before, including the song “Moonriver” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), but that was a far cry from what she was going to undertake as Eliza Doolittle, which is not an easy role.  And indeed, even Jack Warner began to have second thoughts, even after passing over Julie for Audrey.  He made the controversial decision to dub over all of Audrey’s singing tracks with an uncredited vocalist named Marni Nixon, who had previously done dub work for Deborah Kerr in The King and I (1956).  Unfortunately, the news of this replacement broke through and became a scandal of it’s own, which sadly reflected back on Audrey Hepburn and damaged her reputation as a vocalist on screen for some time after.

“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.  You find the fun, and snap…the job’s a game.”

Meanwhile, Disney was in the midst of it’s own tumultuous development of a big screen musical.  Instead of taking a known property from the stage, Walt Disney and company set out to create one from scratch, adapting a well known children’s book series to screen.  This two languished on for years, as Walt Disney had to contend with Mary Poppins’ notoriously stubborn original author P. L. Travers in order to secure the rights.  The back and forth with Ms. Travers itself inspired it’s own movie called Saving Mr. Banks (2013), starring Emma Thompson as Travers and Tom Hanks as Disney.  Walt did eventually get Travers on board, though just barely, and set out to make Mary Poppins the culmination of all his cinematic prowess that he had gained up to this point.  With a collection of catchy songs by the Sherman Brothers and top notch talent assembled from across the studio, Disney had the movie ready to roll.  There was only one issue left; who would play Mary?  As it turned out, Walt had a gift land right into his lap as Warner Brothers discarded one of the top tier Broadway talents off of their My Fair Lady adaptation, and she was suddenly available.  Walt, who was also a fan of Broadway, had been trying to sway Julie Andrews over to his studio ever since her introduction in Camelot, and not one to miss an opportunity, he took full advantage of Jack Warner’s misstep.  Julie Andrews was offered the role of Mary Poppins without ever auditioning, and she gladly accepted the part on the spot.  With their Mary in place, Disney’s production went into full swing, just as Warner Brothers was deep into production with their Andrews-less My Fair Lady.  With high expectations for both, they entered cinemas months apart, Poppins first in the summer and then Lady in the late fall, and were both immediate smash hits.  Indeed, their competition lasted long into the next year and gave a huge boost to the then flailing movie musical genre.  This extended well into Oscar Season, where My Fair Lady came out on top with the Best Picture honor, but Julie Andrews (the one Jack Warner thought was not ready for the movies) earning Best Actress, in a race where Audrey Hepburn had been completely shut out of.

“The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain.”

It might be easy to view this as a case of Audrey Hepburn being horribly miscast in the role of Eliza Doolittle, but that entirely not true at all.  Audrey’s performance in My Fair Lady is actually quite strong and divorced from all the controversy surrounding her casting in this film, one could look at this movie and believe rightly that Audrey Hepburn is actually perfectly cast in the part.  It’s Warner Brothers, and Jack Warner in particular, who are responsible for shaping the controversial reputation of her role in the film with their terrible mismanagement of the back stage drama that unfolded.  When she’s onscreen, Audrey is magnetic.  She brings an infectious energy to the role, does surprisingly well with Eliza’s cockney accent in the early part of the movie, and just looks flat out amazing in the lavish dresses.  In many ways, the reason why her performance falters in the overall movie is not her fault at all.  It’s an incomplete performance, made all the more noticeable by the fact that Marni Nixon’s melodic voice is so different than her own.  Nixon has a thoroughly stage trained voice meant to invoke power, whereas Hepburn’s singing voice comes from a more earthbound place.  That’s not to say they couldn’t make Hepburn’s more natural tones work for the role.  Over the years snippets of Hepburn’s real vocal tracks have emerged and they prove that she indeed had the vocal range to deliver in this role, but sadly we get the mismatch that occurs in the final film, and it is a negative reflection on the film.  No inconsistencies exist in Mary Poppins on the other side.  Walt knew fully well of the gift he was granted with the angelic voice of Julie Andrews it is used to the fullest in Poppins.  From “Spoon Full of Sugar” to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” to “Feed the Birds”, Julie’s Mary imbues the movie with unimaginable grace, and her Mary remains to this day one of the most beloved movie heroines of all time.  Not only that, but Julie also shows a maturity in front of the camera that you wouldn’t expect from a Hollywood novice, and it immediately brought her fully off the stage and onto the screen.  And yes, Jack Warner realized this as well, only after it was too late.

But, My Fair Lady does have many elements that make it stand out strong in comparison to it’s competitor, and in some ways is even superior in comparison.  One is the story itself.  Mary Poppins is a thoroughly entertaining piece of cinema on the whole, but one nitpick that someone might make about it is that it’s light on story.  Mary Poppins, a magical nanny, swoops into the lives of the Banks family and through a series of extraordinary events, manages to repair their fractured relationship before leaving to return to wherever she came from.  It’s the nature of adapting a narrative from a episodic series like the original Poppins books that the movie itself would take on an episodic structure.  That’s essentially what we get in Mary Poppins.  It’s a movie with interconnected adventures loosely tied together, and as great as those individual adventures are, they really don’t have much bearing on the overall story.  Much of the narrative drive of Mary Poppins is not focused her, nor the Banks children but instead on George Banks, the father (played superbly by David Tomlinson) who’s the only character with an arc in the movie.  Mary Poppins, throughout the entire movie, remains mostly an enigma, providing instigation to the plot rather than any active participation.  By comparison, the character arcs in My Fair Lady are far more layered and intriguing.  Taking it’s cue from George Bernard Shaw, Lady has much more bite to it than Mary Poppins.  It takes the risk of introducing it’s characters in a not so flattering light upfront, with Eliza Doolittle introduced being a brash, unsophisticated street vendor and Henry Higgins introduced as a misogynistic high class jerk who looks down on the poor.  It’s a story about transformation, as Eliza goes from Cockney to classy, and in turn she forces a change in Higgins where he begins to learn the error of his ways and softens his brash façade.  A tried old tale of a selfish man believing that he can craft the perfect woman, only to find that a perfect woman is one that doesn’t need him in order to feel complete, and him in turn forced to change his ways to prove his own worth.  Shaw reinvisioned it for his own time in Pygmalion, and the musical perfectly carries that forward through song, and you can see the same story play out in more a modern reimagining like Pretty Woman (1990) and She’s All That (1999).  Overall, it’s what gives My Fair Lady extra cinematic weight over the more airy Mary Poppins.

“Winds in the east, mist coming in.  Like somethin’ is brewin’ and ’bout to begin.  Can’t put my finger on what lies in store, but I feel what’s to happen all happened before.”

Another thing that My Fair Lady has over Poppins is a more commanding second lead.  Much has been said about the controversial choice of casting Dick Van Dyke as a cockney voiced chimney sweep in Edwardian London.  True, Dick Van Dyke is a national treasure and a still living legend as of this writing, and his presence in Mary Poppins is a welcome one, especially in the musical numbers where he excels.  However, the accent is notoriously bad, as the all-American star of stage and screen finds it well out of his range to convince us he’s a Cockney.  Compared to his co-star whose Englishness is gracefully on display through the whole movie, he definitely looks a bit out of place, though his chemistry with Julie is strong.  In My Fair Lady, we get Rex Harrison at the height of his power as a performer.  In a sense, this was a difficult role to undertake, as Henry Higgins is not an easy character to like.  With such a backwards, toxic view of the opposite sex, how are we ever to believe that Henry Higgins can be a worthwhile romantic foil for Eliza Doolittle by the end of the movie.  Somehow, Rex Harrison manages to balance all that perfectly in his performance.  His delightfully salty insults carry this edge of ridiculousness that helps to soften the blow and make the character intriguing to the audience.  Only an actor with the kind of presence as Rex Harrison could believably pull this off, because if you were to say the things that Henry Higgins says to Eliza in the movie outside of context in the real world, you’re probably opening yourself up for a workplace harassment suit.  An interesting side note about Harrison’s performance in the film is that he refused to do a dub track for himself.  As a veteran stage actor, he was used to delivering a different level of performance with every show, and he wanted to maintain that even in the movie.  If they pre-recorded his voice, it wouldn’t match what he was giving them in front of the camera.  So, unlike his fellow actors, he had his vocal tracks recorded live on the set instead of in a separate booth later.  If you look closely in the movie, there are hidden mics sewn into his costumes, such as a tie or a corsage pinned to his suit, just so they could capture his singing in the moment.

One of the things that both movies actually illustrate brilliantly together is the level of production design that went into making them.  Despite the fact that both movies are set in Edwardian London during the early part of the 20th century, it will amaze many to know that both movies were actually shot entirely in sunny Burbank, California and completely indoors on soundstages at their respective studio lots.  In fact, it’s quite possible that both movies were shooting simultaneously within only a mile distance from one another; I know, I’ve walked that actual distance between the studios, it can be done in less than 15 minutes (depending on the timing of the crosswalks).  It’s amazing how both films are still able to convey an authentic sense of time and place even under these conditions.  You never question the fact that you’re looking at studio built sets that invoke the feeling of the outdoors.  In some cases, they really pulled out all stops to convey authenticity, like the Ascot Gavotte sequence in My Fair Lady, where the crew actually had real race horses gallop at full speed across the different ends of the stage to make it feel like the characters were at a real track.  Still, there are several moments in My Fair Lady where it’s hard to shake off the stage bound origins it derives from.  It’s a very interior heavy film, and a lot of the movie is set within people’s homes and far fewer set out in the open streets.  Mary Poppins on the other hand expands far beyond the limits of the soundstage.  Spends much more of it’s time outside, which feels authentic and detailed even though it’s all still in a soundstage.  With a combination of brilliant set design, plus exquisitely detailed matte paintings done by the legendary Peter Ellenshaw, Mary Poppins gives you a more fully enriched and alive London, which feels remarkably real to the viewer.  The movie even broke ground by placing it’s actors in an animated world (Disney’s strong suit) in a still impressive to this day visual effect.  Though My Fair Lady has top notch production values, Mary Poppins on the whole is the movie that takes the most advantage of it’s cinematic options and in general feels the most alive.  When you can convince an audience that they are indeed in cold, damp London, England and not in a scorching hot soundstage in Burbank, California, you know you’ve done right.

“The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.”

In the end, audiences were blessed with two classics that have indeed withstood the test of time to remain cinematic favorites to this day.  Indeed, for some it’s hard to choose one over the other, because they are both so brilliantly crafted and offer different experiences.  The one thing that binds them together is the fact that one movie benefitted from the callous oversight of the other and created this fascinating “what if” scenario that cinephiles have speculated over.  How different would things have been had Jack Warner not shunned Julie Andrews and allowed her to play the role she had created for the stage originally?  Would Mary Poppins have been the masterpiece that it is had someone else filled Andrews place in the role?  Would Audrey Hepburn have escaped that unfortunate cloud of controversy that would leave a mark on her otherwise flawless career?  Certainly in the end Julie Andrews got the last laugh.  Upon receiving a Golden Globe win before her inevitable Oscar, she thanked in her speech the man responsible for making it happen, Mr. Jack Warner, in a not so subtle dig at the man who thought she was not ready for the big screen.  It is indeed unthinkable to imagine anyone else in the original role of Mary Poppins than Julie Andrews, and it was a stroke of great timing on Walt Disney’s part to bring her on board the moment she was available.  And of course she would carry that on into an even bigger role as Maria von Trapp in the juggernaut that was The Sound of Music (1965) a year later.  One thing that I hope no one overlooks is that Audrey Hepburn was not an inferior replacement; she was a great Eliza Doolittle in her own right.  I think taken on that alone most audiences today will recognize that she is indeed one of the things that makes My Fair Lady a continuing classic to this day.  Mary Poppins is indeed the more ambitious of the two, but My Fair Lady holds it’s own with impressive production values and great performances to it’s credit as well.  It’s a close call competition that leaves a stellar legacy for both productions that are both “loverly” and “practically perfect in every way.”

“It’s a Jolly Holiday with Mary.  No wonder that it’s Mary that we love.”

Tinseltown Throwdown – Shrek vs. Monsters Inc.

You would be hard pressed to find a career within the movie industry that has experienced the kinds of highs and lows of those that happened to Jeffrey Katzenberg.  Once a rising star executive at two major studios, Katzenberg had a notorious falling out with one that led to his eventual and lucrative collaboration with some of Hollywood’s biggest players, creating a new landmark studio which he then left behind to pursue a new game-changing venture that ultimately became one of the biggest blunders in media history.  The story of Katzenberg’s rises and falls are no doubt going to become the stuff of Hollywood legend, but there is no doubt that such tumultuous career could only belong to a creative executive who throughout his whole life has done nothing but bold steps.  He first began his meteoric rise through the ranks at Paramount Pictures, where he managed to successfully revive the Star Trek franchise for the big screen.  After that, he followed the then President of Paramount, Michael Eisner, to a new assignment at the Walt Disney Studios, where the latter was taking the reigns as the new CEO.  Under Eisner’s watchful eye, Katzenberg was put in charge of the dwindling animation department; a field that Katzenberg knew nothing about.  But, despite the lack of experience, Katzenberg oversaw a revival of animation at the studio with what is now known as the Disney Renaissance.  However, his relationship with Eisner soured despite all the success, and he parted ways with Disney in a highly publicized feud that in many ways scared Katzenberg’s reputation in Hollywood.  But, in a few months time, Katzenberg teamed up with two of the biggest names in showbiz, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, to co-create what ultimately would be his most lasting legacy; Dreamworks Animation.

For Katzenberg, starting his own animation unit at Dreamworks was more than just a creative endeavor; it was also about besting Disney at their own game.  This was readily apparent from the get go, as it became suspiciously convenient that both Disney and Dreamworks had computer animated movies with insects as characters being developed at the same time (1998’s Antz and A Bug’s Life).  The same would apply for a number of other simultaneous releases within the same year, like two movies with a Latin American setting (Dreamworks’ The Road to El Dorado and Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove) or two movies about aquatic wildlife (Dreamworks’ Shark Tale and Disney’s Finding Nemo).  Because the movies were so close together, you couldn’t say one was copying the other due to the lengthy production periods that animated movies need to be completed, and there were enough different elements in each one to dispel any complaints of plagiarism.  But, even still, there was a definite strategy behind Dreamworks’ direct challenges to the powerhouse that was Disney.  And the reason why it worried Disney was because Dreamworks was successful at it.  Katzenberg not only was redefining the animated movie over at Dreamworks, with it’s more edgy style, he was also getting the mainstream audiences to jump on board as well.  The PG-rated The Prince of Egypt (1998) became the first non-Disney animated film to cross the $100 million mark at the box office, and Antz‘s more adult humor became much more of a hit with the critical community than the “safe” family friendly A Bug’s Life.   But one of the most crucial head to head battles occurred twenty years ago, in the year 2001, when Dreamworks delivered it’s first true mega hit, Shrek,  into theaters, with Disney and their animation partner Pixar delivering another film centered around a monster protagonist called Monsters Inc. only a few months after.   The head to head battle at the time certainly favored Dreamworks, and it also sparked a rivalry with the two studios that would come to dominate the following decade.  But in the years since, does Shrek still come out on top of Monsters, or did the long game work in the latter’s favor.  More than anything, this rivalry certainly reveals an interesting window into what drove the future of animation into the new millennium.

“Monsters Incorporated.  We scare, because we care.”

Animation was in a state of flux at the time that Shrek and Monsters Inc. made their way into theaters.  The hand drawn style that Jeffrey Katzenberg had helped bring back from the dead and dominated the decade prior, was again falling behind, thanks in no small part to the rise of computer animation.  The double blow of these two movies in the same year no doubt was one of final death blows to traditional animation, especially after Disney’s own Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) crashed and burned that same Summer.  Dreamworks’ rise came at an opportune time, as Disney was itself struggling once again, and were relying upon Pixar to keep their reputation afloat.  Though Dreamworks’ rivalry was geared to target Disney directly, Pixar would end up being the most effective weapon for the studio for a time, and that in itself was a tenuous alliance.  Pixar was looking to break free once their contract was up after the movie Cars (2006), which would’ve put Disney in a precarious position if they had to face off against two rivals instead of one.  More than anything, the inability to deal with the competition from Dreamworks and the rocky relationship with Pixar is what led to an abrupt end to Michael Eisner’s reign at the head of Disney, and ultimately to Bob Iger who’s first order of business was to finally buy out Pixar completely and make it an official part of the company.  All the while, Pixar continued to build on every movie they made, and push animation further.  Monsters Inc. was an especially important moment for the studio, as it was the first film to be directed by someone other than Pixar founder John Lasseter.  In the director’s chair this time was Pete Doctor, who would go on to direct classics like Up (2009), Inside Out (2015) and the recent Soul (2020), while also ascending to the Creative Director of Pixar role after Lasseter’s departure.  While continuing the studio’s high standard of animation, Monsters Inc. would also help to define the thing that would help Pixar to differentiate itself from competitors like Dreamworks the most; it’s heartfelt devotion to story.

“We can stay up late, swapping manly stories, and in the morning, I’m making waffles!”

Comparing the two movies, there is one thing that is clearly apparent between the two, and that is it’s sense of humor.  They are both very funny movies, but there is a clear distinction behind the target of the comedy.  Shrek is first and foremost a satire; specifically with an intent to mock the Walt Disney Company.  Though based on a children’s book by William Steig, Shrek becomes over the course of the film a deconstruction of fairy tale tropes and characters, with the titular ogre often being the one dolling out the sarcastic commentary that drives home the absurdity of the world he lives in.  By contrast, Monsters Inc.‘s comedy is more situational and character driven.  Sure, there are satirical elements thrown about with the way that the world of the monsters is constructed to reflect our own, but it’s largely in the background, with the humor being derived more from character interactions.  Shrek also has that, but it’s very apparent that Katzenberg wants to bring more attention to the satirical bits that particularly take shots at his old employer.  This is evident in the scene when Shrek and his companion Donkey enter the kingdom of Dulac, home of the villainous Lord Farquad.  Dulac is clearly based on the faux fairy tale aesthetic of a Disney theme park, where everything is clean and orderly.  A bit of this scene does get a little mean-spirited, especially with the “It’s a Small World” parody song, though I will admit the scene where a frightened Dulac citizen runs away from Shrek while still staying within the roped queue line is still pretty hilarious and on point.  There are no sharply satiric gags in Monsters Inc., as it takes it’s jabs at the soullessness of corporate culture a bit more seriously, but at the same time, I would say it is still a very funny movie.  The big difference between the comedy of the two movies could easily be summed up as Monsters is more Laurel and Hardy while Shrek is more Marx Brothers, considering where each individual movie targets it’s funniest moments.

The characters themselves are also an interesting dichotomy of where the movies differ.  The protagonists themselves are presented in interestingly different ways.  Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) begins his story as an outsider, content on his solitude and deeply cynical towards the idea of fairy tale endings.  James P. Sullivan, or Sully for short (voiced by John Goodman) is a monster on top of his game and a strong believer in the status quo system.  But, over the course of the story, Shrek begins to let go of his cynical edge and opens up to allow more people into his life, namely the wisecracking Donkey (voiced by Eddie Murphy) and the enchanting Princess Fiona (voiced by Cameron Diaz).  The growth of Shrek’s character finds a nice parable within movie itself through the metaphor of onions and their layers.  Sully’s journey comes less from a growth and more of a sacrifice, and he finds his notion of content life shaken once he encounters a little human girl he names Boo.  In the monster world, human children are considered toxic and radioactive, so Sully has been taught to avoid contact, except when he’s harvesting screams for energy production.  Once he meets Boo, he learns that all the precautions he was taught to uphold were made off of false information, it shakes his belief in the system that has defined his whole life.  Both Shrek and Sully make fundamental changes, but they both start and end in different places.  Shrek is softened while Sully is hardened.  At the same time, it doesn’t change their characters entirely; Shrek remains a grouchy ogre through it all, but now he is able to let others into his world, while Sully remains a kind monster at heart, but less gullible and more determined to set things right even at his own expense.  What both movies get right is in showing how their adventures shape the person that they are destined to be, or in a more metaphoric sense, peeling away the layers of the onion.  Part of the reason why both movies resonated so well with audiences is that both Shrek and Sully work as engaging and lovable heroes that we the audience immediately grow attached to.

“Twenty-three nineteen.  We have a Twenty-three nineteen!!”

One thing that is also comparable about the two movies is that much of the stories center on the protagonist’s relationship with their comedic foil.  Shrek and Sully are largely the straightmen to their zanier counterparts, Donkey and Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal).  The chemistry between the characters in their selective films are similar but the resulting level of laughs can differ.  Don’t get me wrong, Billy Crystal is very funny in the role of Mike Wazowski, but it’s something that doesn’t feel too out of character for him either, even as he’s playing a one-eyeballed creature.  Eddie Murphy on the other hand delivers a stand-out comedic performance as Donkey, and humor resonates a little more because it does feel more out of place in the grand scheme of the movie.  It’s Eddie Murphy, delivering his usual high energy zaniness, but done through the body of a talking donkey, which makes the character even more hilariously unpredictable.  In a way, I feel that Eddie Murphy is having to pull a lot more weight with his role and making it his own, while Billy Crystal is doing his part but not in a particularly ground-breaking way.  Mike Wazowski is a sidekick character that we are largely already familiar with, while Donkey is not, and that helps to give Shrek a little bit of an edge.  Where Monsters manages to counter that edge is in the role of the antagonist.  In the movie Shrek, Lord Farquad is as stock of a villain as you could’ve expected (though still voiced well by John Lithgow).  In many ways, he exists more as another pointed jab at Katzenberg’s former boss Michael Eisner, as they share similar jawlines; though Farquad’s short stature is a closer resemblance to Katzenberg’s own height, so I guess it’s him taking a bit of his own medicine too.  In contrast, Monsters Inc.‘s Randall Boggs (voiced by Steve Buscemi) is a far more menacing rival, with a motivation that’s far more sinister.  Given the childish motivations of Farquad’s plans (marrying Princess Fiona against her wishes) and the insidiousness of Randall’s plans (kidnapping children for cheap energy extraction), the stakes just feel a bit higher in Monsters Inc. as a whole, and as a result the story resonates a bit stronger.

There is a lot to say about the character, humor, and plotting to separate the effectiveness of the two films, but what about the level of animation.  In a way, I think that Shrek actually succeeds a little better at world building, as it broke a lot of new ground at the time with regards to environmental animation.  There is a lot of variety in the locations found throughout Shrek; from the ogre’s swamp, to the sanitized (and phallic) Dulac, to the lushness of the Enchanted Woods, to the imaginative Castle on top of a volcano.  By contrast, Monsters Inc. doesn’t quite take advantage of it’s locals.  We only get the smallest sampling of the larger world of the monsters, and how their society is modified to accommodate creatures of all shapes and sizes.  The majority of the movie is set solely within the confines of the Monsters Inc. facility itself, which kind of minimizes our view of the world at large itself.  It’s like the movie holds back from an even grander tale by just limiting everything to a single location.  The movie does expand out towards the end, once Sulley, Mike and Boo travel into the expansive and mind-blowing Door Vault at Monsters Inc.  But where they saved the big showpiece for the end, Shrek delivers through the whole movie, and delivers a rich bit of variety throughout.  But, as good as the environments are in Shrek, the character animation leaves much to be desired.  For some reason, Dreamworks believed in recreating as much photo-realism with the human characters as they could, which sadly dips into the uncanny valley region, especially with Princess Fiona.  With Shrek being the most caricatured character, he fares a bit better, but let’s just say the years haven’t been kind to all the other character models in ShrekMonsters Inc. on the other hand features incredible character animation that stays true to the cartoonish look that Pixar has always strived for.  The fur on Sully was especially ground-breaking for it’s time, and set the standard for rendering realistic looking hair and fur for computer animation in the years after.  Shrek proved through it’s own mistake that animation should adhere to stylized character models, and thankfully Dreamworks has moved more in that direction over the years, especially with their human characters.  Both movies certainly broke new ground in computer animation in their own way, but I feel that Monsters Inc. is the one that holds up better over time given all the advances that have been made since.

“Oh, you were expecting Prince Charming?”

There’s no doubt that after all is said and done, the the most lasting thing that Jeffrey Katzenberg will leave behind in Hollywood is the legacy of Shrek and it’s influence in turning Dreamworks into a powerhouse in animation.  It’s probably even enough to overcome the embarrassing failure of Katzenberg’s most recent creative endeavor, Quibi, which turned into a $2 billion catastrophe that couldn’t even take off in the middle of a streaming boom.  Though Katzenberg has long moved on from the animation giant that he helped to build, his influence can still be felt there, and that’s largely due to the standard that was set by Shrek.  Dreamworks Animation is defined by it’s hard edges, and willingness to be a little irreverent towards old Hollywood tropes.  Shrek no doubt is the best version of this mission statement, but I can’t help but feel that the edge has been dulled over time.  One thing that hasn’t helped out Shrek much is the over-abundance of sequels and spin-offs that have stemmed from it.  In a way, Shrek being as highly marketable as it was, became the very thing that the original film was mocking in the first place; a soulless corporate cash cow.  In the meantime, Monsters Inc. grew in stature and still is fondly remembered to this day.  It didn’t even entertain the idea of a sequel until after Shrek had made three already, releasing Monsters University (2013), a full 12 year later.  Monsters’ other long legacy, no doubt helped by director Pete Doctor, was in continuing the importance of emotional story-telling.  The film’s closing moment, where Sully reunites with Boo, is a moment that will warm anyone’s heart, and its something that Pixar continues to strive for with every new film thereafter.  I think that’s the ultimate result of the contentious rivalry between Dreamworks and Disney/Pixar; while Dreamworks can launch movies off like a rocket, Disney and Pixar make movies that burn long into the night.  Shrek is a ground-breaking movie, and one that still has entertainment value, but I think is most potent element is sadly tied up in the past, when it was more in vogue to knock Disney down a few pegs.  In the years since, it has proven much more effective to be a timeless, evergreen story rather than a sharp-tongued satire forever anchored to a specific moment in time.  And that is why Monsters Inc.  continues to remain a perennial classic, while Shrek is looking more and more like a relic.

“Kitty!!!”

Tinseltown Throwdown – Outbreak vs. Contagion

The 2020 pandemic almost at times feels like we are living through a movie in real time.  Acts of heroism and selflessness within our hospital walls; families suddenly stricken with the hardship of loosing their financial security; dysfunction at the highest levels of our governing bodies.  If it all weren’t so tragically real, this day and age would make for a harrowing thriller.  And I have no doubt that once Hollywood does eventually land on it’s feet after this is all over, we will see multiple dramatic recreations of this period of time.  In many ways, real life has eclipsed fiction with it’s unpredictability.  But, in the past, we have seen Hollywood take a shot at dramatizing the possible effects of what a worldwide pandemic may be like.  The only problem is audiences up until now had no interest in movies centered around medical crises.  Most global pandemics don’t quite have the grisly sort of fatality that’ll intrigue audiences, as many of them are slow, possibly less lethal diseases.  So, for many pandemic movies, the filmmakers usually spice things up by adding something else to the mix, like a plague of zombies.  This is evident in things like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) or Will Smith’s I am Legend (2007).  Usually it’s a story about science run amok or about the fragility of human civilization, but as we can see, the disease alone has not been the thing that has interested filmmakers about pandemics, but rather the fallout that comes after.  What is rare in Hollywood is a movie that actually takes a good serious look at the actual steps taken towards combating an out of control viral outbreak.  Given how COVID-19 has taken over pretty much every part of our lives this year, it’s interesting to look at some of the few movies that actually have dramatized what a response to a pandemic would look like, and in some cases it’s interesting to see just how close and how far some of them actually came to showing what would actually happen.

The last time a global pandemic raged through the human population with such a ferocity as COVID-19 has, cinema was still in it’s infancy.  Whatever little documentation we have of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic has been the historical basis on which we have drawn from for most of our understanding of viral outbreaks.  COVID-19, like the 1918 Flu, is a respiratory disease with a very high transmission rate, but up to now has been thankfully less lethal; helped greatly by the lessons we learned from the last outbreak and the advances in medicine we’ve made since then.  But because Hollywood didn’t yet exist during the 1918 pandemic, there is little to no film documentation that chronicled the horrors of that plague.  So, Hollywood has had to rely heavily on past tense information or just use their imagination.  Now, there are two different ways that a Hollywood movie can dramatize a pandemic on screen; either remain very true to the scientific realities of a pandemic, or just make a whole lot of it up to punch up the drama.  Two of the most noteworthy pandemic movies represent both of these examples.  One is the movie Outbreak (1995) from director Wolfgang Petersen, and the other is Contagion (2011) from director Steven Soderbergh.  The former takes the pandemic concept far less seriously and uses it as a backdrop for your typical Hollywood action movie set pieces.  The latter delivers a deadly (no pun intended) serious dramatization of each step of a global pandemic.  Each has it’s set goals, and having watched both of them in the middle of an actual pandemic does offer some interesting insight into the different ways to tackle the same subject from differing angles.  The question isn’t does one more accurately depict a pandemic better than the other, because there is no question that the more scientifically sound Contagion comes out on top.  What is more intriguing when analyzing both movies is whether or not they do their job well in actually turning a pandemic story into a compelling piece of cinema on their own.

“Why can’t they invent a shot that keeps time from passing?”

First of all, you’ve got to look at the time periods in which the movies were made in order to see how they viewed what a threat of a pandemic would actually look like.  The movie Outbreak came out in the middle of the 1990’s, which was both a time of relative good health on the medical front globally, but also one where new emerging diseases sparked periodic anxiety.  Take for instance the emergence of Ebola in sub-Saharan Africa in the mid-90’s.  This devastating disease really worried a lot of people across the world, because of the high level of suffering the infected endured before succumbing to the bug.  Thankfully, it was found out that Ebola outbreaks could be easily isolated because of it’s low transferable rate, or as the World Health Organization (WHO) calls it the R0 value.  But still, the world took notice and wondered what would happen if the disease made it’s way over here.  At the same time, the world was also dealing with the fallout of another devastating pandemic that sadly went unchecked for years; the AIDS pandemic.  Because LGBTQ were scapegoated for much of the spread of the sexually transmitted HIV virus that caused AIDS, the treatment of this particular pandemic was sadly never given the right amount of containment, and it ended up ravaging it’s way through the oppressed queer community.  In the mid-90’s, Hollywood was finally acknowledging the devastating reality of an unchecked pandemic like AIDS, especially after losing some of their own to the disease, and the need to take pandemics more seriously became much more paramount as a result.  For the movie Outbreak, they use the examples of these notorious pandemics as the basis for their own.  It starts from Sub-Saharan Africa like Ebola, and it’s transmission through human contact is similar as well.  It’s origination from primates takes it’s inspiration from the HIV virus, but that’s where the comparisons end.  From there, we see Hollywood’ imagination go wild, and it’s not exactly true to science from that point on.

“Go without a mask.  You’ll see better.”

Contagion on the other hand almost plays out like a handbook from the Center for Disease Control (CDC).  Truly, upon watching this movie in the last week or so, I was struck by just how on the nose it was with regards to showing the moment by moment happenings of a global pandemic crises.  Made almost 9 years before the COVID-19 outbreak, Contagion is eerily prophetic.  It’s a respiratory disease that spreads rapidly, originated in China, causes a devastating impact on the global economy, and it exposes the fractures within our disease response system.  The one major difference is that COVID-19 is far less lethal than the one in the movie, which ends up killing in the millions within a two month span.  As bad as COVID-19 is, it’s global death rate remains low, and some countries have managed to successfully irradiate it altogether; sadly America is not one of them.  Contagion’s disease really shows us a worst case scenario and it is refreshing to see a movie where the science is focused on so intently.  The movie shows a well researched analysis of how a pandemic response would play out, both when it’s running effectively and when it is not.  At the time of the movie’s making, the most noteworthy pandemics we had known in the new century were the short lived ones like SARS, the Bird Flu, and the Swine Flu.  The H1N1 Swine Flu in particular served as a dramatic inspiration for Contagion, because it was the one freshest in everyone’s mind.  The 2009 outbreak led to the most widespread roll-out of Disease Control protocols in a long time, though it stopped short of extreme measures like social distancing and stay at home orders.  Contagion examines what would happen when that next step was needed, and sadly, reality and fiction would collide in less than a decade.

One of the biggest differences between the movies is no doubt the style of film-making.  Wolfgang Petersen has built a career making big, bombastic action films.  From his groundbreaking war pic Das Boot (1981), to his gritty natural disaster epic The Perfect Storm (2000), to the sword and sandals extravaganza Troy (2004); he is a director that likes to make his movies big and loud.  Unfortunately, pandemics don’t offer a lot of action, because it’s just doctors in PPE trying to keep people alive in hospitals.  So, for Outbreak, he pushes the science to the background and instead adds a lot of melodrama to the story.  The movie turns into a conspiracy thriller halfway through, with the military brass wanting to flex it’s muscles in response to the outbreak of this deadly disease.  It’s a very 90’s movie, where there is a lot of posturing and virtue-signalling from the movie stars playing doctors.  Dustin Hoffman’s lead character does some pretty reckless actions in order to diffuse the warmongering actions of Donald Sutherland’s General at Arms, and it makes the movie less about teaching it’s audience about the real threats of a pandemic, and more about a good guy vs. bad guy showdown.  Subtle, this movie is not.  Sutherland’s general even chooses to use a nuclear option to eradicate the disease; which would’ve seemed far fetched in the Clinton years, but maybe not so much during this current Trump administration.  Soderbergh’s approach, by contrast is extremely stripped back.  There are no explosions, no virtue-signalling, and very little melodrama.  The multitasking filmmaker basically treats the movie like a docudrama, showing every moment with the utmost sincerity towards the subject.  It’s refreshingly informative, but perhaps a little too dry as well.  Say what you will about Petersen’s bombastic style; it’s often entertaining.  Depending on what you’re looking for, something sober or something explosive, each movie offers it’s unique take on the issue of viral pandemics.

“Godzilla, King Kong, Frankenstein all in one.”

One of the most interesting things that both movies do have in common besides the infectious diseases is that they both feature all-star casts.  Outbreak has the previously mentioned Hoffman and Sutherland, but all features the likes of Kevin Spacey, Rene Russo, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Morgan Freeman.  Not to be outdone, Contagion has Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cottilard, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, and Gwyneth Paltrow as patient zero.  It’s a stellar line up of Oscar caliber talent lined up on both sides, but the difference between them is in how they are used.  Outbreak unfortunately saddles it’s incredible cast with a laughable, illogical script.  Dustin Hoffman suffers the most, because he’s got to carry the dramatic weight of the plot on his shoulders, and it’s clear that he really is not all that into the performance.  The one nice thing about watching Outbreak today is that you do see Kevin Spacey get infected with the disease and he suffers to the point of bleeding out of his eyes,  Given what we know now about Spacey, this moment does have a nice cathartic undertone now.  The cast of Contagion are much better served by the script to their movie.  Contagion doesn’t waste time building character motivations, nor does it try to give any of them a self-aggrandizing savior moment.  The movie plops all these disparate characters into the situation of a pandemic out of control, and defines them by their actions in response.  The performances for the most part are muted, but that serves the purpose of the film perfectly.  Damon comes off very believable as a protective father trying to keep life for his beleaguered daughter as normal as possible .  Fishburne is very convincing as the overwhelmed CDC director.  The only downside for the cast in the movie is that there is perhaps too many of them.  The movie jumps from story-line to story-line so rapidly that few if any of the subplots ever feel fully fleshed out.  Marion Cottilard’s kidnapping subplot in fact seems to have been forgotten about for almost a third of the movie.  Even still, it does a good job of keeping the through-line of battling the disease the driving force, and every actor is committed to each role they play.

What I think really puts Contagion ahead is the fact that it gives us a more provocative look at society in general with regards to how we respond to something like a pandemic; something of which that has become more profound during this year.  Outbreak keeps things fairly small, so that it doesn’t have to delve too much into the moral grays of society.  For Outbreak, it’s a clear good vs. evil plot as the enlightened doctors face down the interference of ignorant military personnel.  That’s basic Screenwriting 101, but the true science behind disease control is that viruses hold no allegiance to ideology.  Everyone is at risk, and to turn the film into a clear cut battle of ideas, the disease must take a back seat.  Contagion does a much better job of showing that the frailty of civilized humanity is not a by product of a pandemic, but rather it exposes the cracks that are already there.  This is perfectly encapsulated in the character played by Jude Law, a renegade journalist that tries to use the pandemic crises to further his own career.  He uses his platform in the movie to tout an unproven drug treatment as a cure for the disease and secretly profits off the sale of the same drug.  Sound familiar.  Sure, the character exists as a means of giving the story something of a antagonist, but as we observe in the movie, his success only happens because of the desperate greed that society is driven towards in self-preservation.  By not educating ourselves and listening to science, we have made it easy for grifters like the one in this movie to get away with their shenanigans, and that’s a harsh indictment on all of us as a whole that this movie makes.  Even the “good guy” scientists in the movie are not beyond making selfish acts, like when the CDC director recklessly instructs his wife to leave one of the hot spot cities, which inevitably leaks to the public and causes the public to start panicking.  By not letting the audience off the hook, Soderbergh creates a far more resounding message in his movie, and given what has happened this year, it’s any wonder why we didn’t see this crises coming.

“We are fugitives of the law.  Idiocy is our only option.”

Neither movie is perfect, but Contagion is far more interesting to watch in our current pandemic ravaged world right now.  Outbreak comes from a more innocent time that viewed widespread pandemics as more fodder for science fiction.  And indeed, that has been the way Hollywood has treated the threat of pandemics on the big screen; as something far-fetched.  I’m honestly surprised that Contagion not only took the genre in a far more serious direction when it did, but did so with so much scientific insight that it nearly predicted the future.  We know the truth far too harshly now that pandemics are all too real.  It’s happening now, it’s happened before, and it will happen again.  Hopefully, the lesson of 2020 will prepare us for something worse in the future, but then again, I’m sure that they thought the same thing back in 1918.  Anyone looking for something light and escapist can look to Outbreak, with it’s cheesy quaintness.  It’s a product of it’s time, and while not even remotely worth seeing to inform yourself about the way pandemics work, it is ridiculous enough to show just how off the mark Hollywood can get sometimes in a hilarious way.  If anything, it’s far more offensive as a waste of a good cast rather than an affront to cinematic story-telling.  Contagion on the other hand is very informative and eerily true to life.  It’s not for anyone looking for an edge of your seat experience, but at the same time, you’ll be blown away by just how close it actually got to predicting the current predicament we are in now.  For anyone needing a clear cut explanation of how Disease Control works and how to do it properly, Contagion offers the best possible example that I think has ever been put on screen.  It’s provocative without being patronizing, and shows us exactly how our own actions have an effect on our ability to fight these kinds of devastating diseases.  In this regard, Contagion ultimately remains a very positive film even with the horrible tragedy at it’s center, because it shows science as a rescuing force in our world, something we should be spotlighting more often.  For the movie, misinformation is the real enemy of good health, and by sticking so close to the actual reality of disease science, we see a perfect visual playbook there to guide us through the right way to deal with a pandemic.  If only we had followed it from the beginning.

“Somewhere in the world, the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat.”

Tinseltown Throwdown – Rocky vs. Raging Bull

Fall is in full swing and the holidays are upon us.  So, let’s talk about sports movies for a bit.  Cinema’s long history has given us a wealth of great sports related films throughout the years.  Football, basketball, and especially baseball, the many great American pastimes have provided plenty of uplifting tales of underdog heroism.  And the same goes for the many international sports, like soccer, rugby, and even cricket.  But if there was one sport in particular that has become something rather poetic for filmmakers and audiences alike, it would be boxing.  There is something about the sport of boxing that has lent itself so passionately to the art of cinema.  Perhaps it’s the grueling nature of the sport that feels so cinematic, especially when captured within the ring itself.  Maybe it’s the psychological and physical tolls taken on the the individual boxers that provides so much drama.  Each boxer depicted in these movies becomes almost mythical in a way, as they’re struggles inside the ring become almost like a echoes of the troubles that have plagued them on the outside, and we the audience see that these fights are more than just trading blows.  It’s probably why boxing movies have won more Oscars than any other sport in film.  It goes all the way back to 1931’s The Champ, where Wallace Berry won Best Actor for his portrayal of a tragic but lovable heavyweight champion.  Since then, every generation seems to have it’s own iconic portrayal of the life of a champion boxer, whether it’s classics like Gentleman Jim (1942), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) and Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), to modern hits like Million Dollar Baby (2004) and The Fighter (2010).  But there are two boxing movies in particular that have particularly risen to become the pinnacle of the genre, and both are unsurprisingly major awards winners; 1976’s Rocky and 1980’s Raging Bull.

It should be interesting to note the time period in which both movies were first released.  The late 70’s were a turbulent time in America.  Watergate had risen distrust in the United States government to an all time high, and the country was firmly divided.  At the time, even the newly elected President, Jimmy Carter, couldn’t find a way to mend the broken nation that had been suffering the scars of the Vietnam War and the unthinkable corruption behind Watergate.  At the same time, Hollywood was going through it’s own period of transition and upheaval.  The 1970’s was the decade of the director; a period where maverick filmmakers were given creative license that they had otherwise never had under the old studio system.  This allowed for bolder, grittier artistic expression, with the directors rewriting the rules of film-making as they went.  Films made in this time were decidedly rougher, more documentary like, and audiences were embracing this so-called New Hollywood.  Out of this period emerged many filmmakers who would go on to change the industry forever, like Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, William Friedkin, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.  But not everything from this era represented a rejection of establishment; there were crowd-pleasers made as well.  Enter a less renowned, but not to be forgotten filmmaker named John G. Avildsen, who just happened to stumble upon the right kind of movie at the right time, taking a chance on a script written by a struggling actor named Sylvester Stallone.  That movie would be the story of a fictional amateur boxer from Philadelphia named Rocky Balboa who gets his one big shot to prove his worth.  That movie would not only surprise everyone by becoming a big hit, but it even became an inspiration for a country to believe in hopeful once again.  At the same time, Martin Scorsese was closing out a turbulent decade for himself with a very personal and harsh portrayal of real life boxer Jake LaMotta with his new film Raging Bull.  What is interesting when looking at both movies is how they both strongly make their case for being the quintessential boxing movie, but with wildly different tones and stories.  Both are undeniably classics in their own right, but which one does the better job of portraying the mythic life struggle of a boxer.

“You’re going to eat lightning and you’re going to crap thunder!”

It’s interesting to look at the boxers themselves.  Rocky Balboa, a fictional character who no doubt was inspired by many similar boxers of the period and most likely also by the actor portraying him, is a working class stiff with the determination to make something better of himself.  Jake LaMotta, who was a real life professional boxer, starts out at the top of his game and only ends up sliding downward.  These are the obvious differences between the movies; one is a feel good triumph while the other is a tragic portrayal of hubris.  But, they are both highly celebrated, and that’s mainly due to the incredible strength of both characters.  Sylvester Stallone became an overnight success story with the release of Rocky, finally achieving that success in Hollywood that had long alluded him.  And in many ways, it mirrors Rocky’s own story of working hard to prove his worth.  For his portrayal of Jake LaMotta, Robert DeNiro took a decidedly different route.  DeNiro was already firmly established in Hollywood, having already won a Supporting Actor Oscar for The Godfather Part II (1974) and having already established a great working relationship with director Scorsese in both Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976).  But, with Raging Bull, he chose to not just make the boxing scenes feel authentic, but to also make Jake LaMotta look and feel as nasty as his reputation spoke to.  DeNiro went through a full body transformation during the making of the movie, putting on nearly 50 lbs. in order to play LaMotta in his overweight post-boxing days.  It’s interesting that both movies illustrate the rough life of a boxer, as both have demons that they want to excise, with the ring as their escape.  But while Rocky manages to pull himself up, LaMotta just continues to drag himself down, succumbing to pride, jealousy, and just his own bad judgment.  And yet, even in the closing moments, Scorsese and DeNiro give Jake LaMotta a bit of a bittersweet reexamination, as he literally takes a look at his own reflection and decides to move forward.  In the end, that’s the hardest match he’s ever had to win.

“You didn’t get me down Ray.”

It’s interesting to note how one movie works as a textbook example of the genre, while the other challenges it’s conventions and still represents it perfectly.  It probably has to do with the characters themselves.  Rocky, despite being a little rough around the edges, is quite lovable.  Stallone gives him an undeniable charm, and you see that reflected in the magnetic way that he earns the love and respect for all those around him, as he depends on their support to get to the top.  The movie has some wonderful tender moments between Rocky and his love interest Adrian (Talia Shire).  There’s also a great mentor/ trainee relationship that builds between Rocky and his trainer Mickey (played by an unforgettable Burgess Meredith).  The great thing about these relationships is that they help to build Rocky up for us the audience.  As they grow to like him more, we do too, and that enables us to want to see him succeed by the end.  It’s also fascinating to watch how his determination clashes against the myopic perception that is given to him by the champion he’s about to face, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).  To him, Rocky is just a step towards another fight, but to Rocky it’s so much more.  In Raging Bull, the fights only make up the background of his story.  Martin Socrsese is far more interested in seeing how the fighter exists outside the ring, and he shows how the fight sadly never leaves the fighter, even after the bell has rung.  Jake LaMotta is so wired into the sport that even the slightest provocation is enough to send him into fisticuffs.  We see that reflected in his world, as he’s constantly arguing with his wife Vicki (Cathy Moriarty) as well as his friend and manager Joey (Joe Pesci), who’s prone to violent outbursts himself (as evidenced by that legendary beat down he gives to Frank Vincent’s Salvy in the movie).  In this way, we see where the characters wildly differ, because we see where one uses the ring to be a monster while the other uses it to become a champion.

There’s a lot to be said about the different ways the movies are filmed as well.  Rocky is nothing out of the ordinary for it’s era.  It was shot in the same gritty, documentary style that was typical of the 1970’s.  And really, that’s all you need for this kind of story.  Rocky is a movie for mass audiences, but done economically enough to feel authentic, so that’s why John G. Avildsen’s direction is clean and unobtrusive.  He only saves the more emotional, cinematic stuff for the finale, as the final fight between Balboa and Creed is colorful and bright, elevating it’s almost mythic stature.  Everything else almost feels subdued, as we are almost ease-dropping into the lives of these characters.  Martin Scorsese on the other hand, treats the entirety of Raging Bull as a bold cinematic expression.  He shot the entire movie in black and white, which was oddly enough a reversal of a trend for cinema in that time.  Monochromatic movies had been almost treated as a relic of the past by filmmakers of these maverick days of cinema, so it’s interesting to see it used here.  In a way, Scorsese sort of revived the black and white movie, which has made sporadic returns throughout the years.  It’s also the one and only time that he would ever shoot a movie like that, showing just how important it was to telling of this particular story.  Scorsese’s use of black and white is probably a reflection of how he wanted to portray LaMotta’s story; stripped of all flashiness and laid bare for the viewer.  The boxing matches in particular even take on this otherworldly appearance, with the smoke filled grays of the environment almost make the scenes glow.  There’s something conventional about the way that Rocky appears, and that’s in a good way.  We in a way expect to the final fight in Rocky to look as bright as it does.  But it’s the stark bleakness of Raging Bull‘s colorless hue that unsettles us as a viewer and that helps to create a whole other experience that is no less enriching.

“He doesn’t know it’s a damn show! He thinks it’s a damn fight!”

You will also never find more brilliantly edited movies anywhere.  The movie Rocky all but invented the training montage, which has become a staple of both boxing movies and all movies in general.  Underscored by Bill Conti’s now legendary musical theme, the training montage is almost a movie within itself, conveying so much story in such a short amount of time.  It’s often imitated, but rarely matched.  And the reason it works as well as it does is no doubt because of how well it is edited to the rhythm of Conti’s music.  By the time Rocky makes his final run up the steps of the Museum of Art and he does that triumphant dance at the top, you feel absolutely uplifted as a viewer, almost like you’ve trained alongside Rocky yourself.  There is almost a lyrical way to the editing of the movie, with the edits and the music almost working together to tell the story and that extends all the way to the final match.  Which is very much in contrast with how Raging Bull is edited.  Pieced together by the unmatched champion of her profession, Thelma Schoonmaker, Raging Bull treats the fighting matches as an almost wild experience.  She mixes in slow motion as well as sped up footage at almost random points, illustrating just how chaotic a boxing match can be, but it’s not in the service of showing us the fight in a fully realistic sense.  She uses her edits to convey what a boxing match can feel like for the boxers themselves, with each blow almost creating lapses in time for the fighter, which no doubt conveys the brain damage that they go through.  The movie otherwise is relatively calm outside those boxing scenes, with Scorsese holding the camera steady for the most part.  In those chaotic boxing scenes, we find Scorsese and Schoonmaker finding the real window in the mind of a boxer, which fills us in to how the character behaves for the rest of the movie.  In this sense, both movies use their editing to convey the mythical sense of the sport, in ways that only the medium of film can.

But what is most interesting about both films is that they speak to different personal aspects of their creators, and how they both reflect different points of success through their subjects.  For Rocky, it is a movie about dreaming; hoping that you don’t blow your one shot once you’ve got it and then riding that opportunity to a better life.  That’s what was on Sylvester Stallone’s mind as he began writing the screenplay for the movie.  He was a struggling actor who had tried for years to find his big break in the business.  He was not typical leading man, being a little rough around the edges.  In Rocky, he imagined a rise to fame that he himself hoped he could have for himself.  Ever the avid boxing fan, Stallone saw in this amateur boxer a version of himself, taking on an impossible job and proving everyone wrong.  In the end, it’s not about winning the fight, but showing that you are more than just a gimmick.  Rocky was only supposed to stand up against Apollo Creed for ten rounds, knowing that the fight was never going to be in his favor.  But what Rocky proves is that he can not only fulfill his obligation, but he could even give Apollo a worthy challenge as well.  So even when Creed is declared the winner, Rocky still feels like a champion, because he proved he was a worthy fighter.  Stallone may not have gained any awards for his work, but Rocky gave him a lasting career as an actor, and I’m sure that makes him feel like a champ all these years later.  At the same time, Martin Scorsese approached Raging Bull with a different set of eyes.  In the late-70’s, Scorsese was recovering from a drug addiction, something which he feared would ruin his career forever.  Having cleaned up, he wanted to make a movie that almost therapeutically reflected his own struggles, and he found that in the story of Jake LaMotta.  I almost think that’s why Raging Bull is such a harsh narrative with regards to it’s subject, because it was coming at the same time that Scorsese was so hard on himself.  For Rocky, we see someone hoping to show his worth, while Raging Bull shows us what happens after that rise to worthiness has crested.  Indeed, Scorsese almost became a different director after Raging Bull, and for the better, as it enabled him to continue on for the next forty years with a renewed outlook on life.

“If you win, you win. If you lose, you still win.”

It’s hard to say which one comes out on top as the better movie, because they are both masterpieces in their own way.  Rocky would go on to spawn a long running franchise, and even has led to a spin-off series of it’s own, Creed, which has extended the Rocky legacy even further.  Though Stallone’s film career has been through it’s ups and downs, his portrayal of Rocky Balboa is still something that makes him an iconic star in Hollywood.  When accepting his Golden Globe for the movie Creed in 2016, he thanked his “imaginary” friend Rocky Balboa, for as he said, “being the best friend an actor could ever have.”  The city of Philadelphia still celebrates the star and the character as a symbol of their city; including having a statue of Rocky sitting atop those famous steps.  At the same time, Scorsese honors Raging Bull as a pivotal turning point for his career as a filmmaker.  Not only did it allow him to excise some of the demons of his own past, but it allowed him to build his artistic senses even further.  He was able to continue building that meaningful friendship and collaboration with his leading man Robert DeNiro, which has extended many decades, even extending to today with the release of The Irishman this week on Netflix.  DeNiro likewise views Jake LaMotta as an important part of his experience as an actor.  He still claims it as his most important role, and he’s got a nice Best Actor Oscar to back that up.  In the end, how you view the movie in direct competition comes down to personal taste.  If this were a boxing match, I’d say that it’d come down to a draw, but for me I honestly would re-watch the more inspirational Rocky more times than the harsher Raging Bull.  Bull may be more artistically daring, but Rocky has the better story.  Even still, they are true icons of cinema, and without a doubt the best movies made about the sport of boxing to ever grace the silver screen.  Whether triumphant or sour, these movies are true champions.

“Yo Adrian!!!”

 

Tinseltown Throwdown – Iron Man vs. Man of Steel

Of all the things that Marvel has changed over the last decade in Hollywood, perhaps it’s most influential would be the concept and execution of a shared cinematic universe.  There have been serialization in movies before, but never to this magnitude, and with this many seperate franchises involved.  And the experiment has become on of the most astounding success stories in cinema history, with Avengers: Endgame currently on it’s way to the all time box office crown.  Because of Marvel’s success with it’s shared universe, the last decade saw many more studios try to build up cinematic universes of their own; all to varying degrees.  Some proved surprisingly successful (The Conjuring universe), while many others fell flat (GhostbustersThe Amazing Spider-Man), and some failed in the most spectacular of fashion (Universal’s Dark Universe).  While Marvel’s example was largely the blueprint for many of these wannabe cinematic universes, few of them could ever figure out exactly how to harness it and make it work for them.  What most didn’t realize is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe succeeded both by it’s superb organization, but also by sheer luck.  It came at the right time, when audiences were willing to follow along with a large arcing narrative that’s pieced together through multiple films.  And because they came at the right time, they created a foundation that has helped to support everything that has followed after, and with seemingly no competition.  It’s that foundation that more than anything has become responsible for it’s success, and to see how it stacks up with another like minded cinematic universe, it helps to take a look at where things started to determine what makes and breaks such an endeavor.

If there was any cinematic universe that could compete with the likes of Marvel for cinematic dominance, it would be it’s own competitor on the comic book shelves; DC comics.  Before Marvel began it’s rise to box office dominance, it was DC who had long been the standard bearer when it came to comic book adaptations.  Richard Donner’s classic Superman (1978) was for the longest time the quintessential super hero movie, showing for the first time how stories and characters from the comic book page could be translated faithfully to the big screen.  A decade later, Tim Burton introduced Batman to the big screen with his 1989 film, which further increased the box office appeal of comic book characters.  It wouldn’t be until the turn of the millennium that Marvel finally jumped in with their first entry into the genre, naturally focused on their most popular character from the comics, Spider-Man.  Sam Raimi’s 2002 broke all sorts of box office records at the time, and ushered in an era of box office dominance that continues to this day.  For much of the 2000’s, DC and Marvel were equally competitive at the box office, with Raimi’s Spider-Man films and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy trading places constantly atop the box office charts.  But, one thing that Marvel didn’t have was the organizational support that DC had with their parent company Warner Brothers.  So, in comes producer Kevin Feige who established Marvel Studios, with the intention of not only giving the publisher more creative control over it’s characters, but also to create a shared cinematic universe where all of them could coexist on the big screen.  An idea like this seemed natural, since it’s largely what goes on in the comic books themselves, but what shocked most people was the fact that Marvel planned to launch this with the most unlikely of characters; Tony Stark aka Iron Man.  Iron Man is an icon now, but a decade ago, he was largely viewed as second tier compared to the likes of Spider-Man.  But, it was a gamble that paid off and in many ways it was the key to the success of everything that followed after.  Iron Man was the pivotal foundation and it becomes all the more apparent when you stack up where his place at the start of a cinematic universe compares to another, with DC beginning it’s own universe on the back of it’s most iconic character; Superman.

“They say that the best weapon is the one you never have to fire.  I respectfully disagree.  I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once.”

Iron Man had long been in development for years, with few people ever seriously interested in making the film, or playing the character.  For a while, Tom Cruise expressed interest in playing Tony Stark, but the movie never materialized, and ironically Tom ended up being the foundational face of one of the most embarrassing launches for a failed cinematic universe ever, with his remake of The Mummy (2017) which was supposed to begin the Dark Universe.  The newly formed Marvel Studios finally took the character seriously, and knew right away that to make the character work, it needed people who were the right match.  Luckily they struck upon the likes of Jon Favreau, who as a director brought a unique sense of mixing action and humor that in many ways perfectly suited the wise-cracking character from the comics. But Favreau’s greatest decision would end up proving to be his casting choice for Iron Man.  You would think that the original inclination would be to go with a movie star of Tom Cruise’s caliber, but instead Favreau sought out Robert Downey Jr. for the role.  It’s true that Downey does bear a natural resemblance to Tony Stark as he’s been envisioned on the the comic page, but at the time, casting him in the role was seen as a huge risk.  After years of struggling through a crippling drug addiction and spending time in prison for multiple violations, Downey’s career as an actor was pretty much dead, so casting him in anything was a huge risk.  But, Marvel saw it Favreau’s way and took the chance, and it proved to be the beast choice they could ever make.  The reason for this is simple; Robert Downey Jr. was the only choice to play Tony Stark, because he is Tony Stark.  Stark himself is a self-destructive, arrogant character who seeks redemption and a chance to better himself, and that turn for the character closely mirrored Downey’s own spiral and climb back out of the abyss.  Both him and Favreau knew that it wasn’t the iron suit that made the hero, it was the person inside, and for the movie to work, you needed to faithfully capture that aspect of the character.  Downey’s contribution became the example that all future casting choices had to follow, and from the Marvel side, their continued success comes from knowing that you cast based on the person and not on how well they’ll look in the costume.

“Born on Krypton and raised on Earth, you had the best of both and were meant to be the bridge between two worlds.”

That has in many ways been where most other cinematic universes have fallen apart.  For DC, they have had a mixed result from their casting choices.  Some have worked out really well, like Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman or Jason Momoa as Aguaman, while others failed miserably, like Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor.  But where DC found itself at a disadvantage was not merely in how they cast the character, but in the lack of insight into knowing who these characters really are.  This was apparent in the movie that was meant to launch their own cinematic universe, titled Man of Steel (2013).  Steel was their relaunch of the Superman mythos, using their most iconic hero as a the foundation on which they would build the universe.  But one thing that we’ve come to learn from building a cinematic universe with already established characters is that if you are going to start from scratch, you need to find a way to make the character feel fresh again.  Marvel managed to do that successfully with both the Hulk and Spider-Man, largely by ignoring all past character development and just having the characters already established with their powers.  Man of Steel, however, opted to go right back to the beginning and show us Superman’s origin story again, which only made the movie feel superfluous, because it’s a story-line we already know and are not surprised by.  Not only that, but the movie lacks any real insight into Superman as a character, instead putting every development in his life up as a mark of destiny; that he was always meant to be this hero, and none of it feels earned in the end.  Actor Henry Cavill is fine in the role, and does indeed look the part, but his Superman doesn’t inspire us as well as past Supers like Christopher Reeve.  There never is that moment where he makes the choice to be Superman; to be that crusader for good in the world.  Iron Man devotes half it’s movie to watching Stark build and refine his super suit, showing how he’s devoting himself to becoming an ideal, using his skill set towards a greater purpose.  Man of Steel’s Superman just exists because the universe needs him to.

There truthfully is no comparison between characters, since Tony Stark is a mere mortal man who builds himself into a hero, while the other is a god among men who must learn the best way to use his gifts in life.  One starts as a hero, while the other grows into a hero.  But there is plenty of similarities that both movies share, and it mainly has to do with how they establish themselves as the bedrock of their cinematic universes.  Again, Marvel establishes it’s cinematic universe much better, but one can almost argue that they do it a bit too much in the movie.  For instance, there are Easter eggs thrown about all over the movie, that for some eagle eye viewers hints at movies that would be coming in the future, like seeing Captain America’s shield subtly placed on Tony Stark’s workbench in his underground lab.  The introduction of S.H.I.E.L.D. is also executed well as a part of the movie, with Samuel L. Jackson’s end credits appearance as Nick Fury now becoming the stuff of legend.  But the movie also sets up threads that never followed through in the MCU, like the introduction of the Ten Rings terrorist group, which was meant to allude to Iron Man nemesis The Mandarin, and we all saw how disappointing that thread turned out to be.  Marvel sometimes falls into the trap of planting too many seeds that never fully take root, and that’s apparent in Iron Man, where it seemed they got too carried away sometimes with their fan service.  Man of Steel by comparison plays it a little closer to the chest with their hints at a larger universe.  For the most part it sticks closely with Superman’s story-line, and only throws in the barest sampling of Easter eggs, like a brief glimpse of corporate logos for LexCorp and Wayne Enterprises.  With those, they could easily tease the things that we knew were coming next in the pipeline, namely Lex Luthor and Batman, and not have us distracted with universe wide elements known only to those who had read the comics.  Of course, they would blow it with the Easter Egg heavy Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but at least Man of Steel knew to remain focused solely on Superman for the time being.

“Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe.  You just don’t know it yet.”

The other advantage that Man of Steel carried with it is the fact that Superman has a far more legendary rogues gallery.  Because of this, the stakes feel a little higher in Man of Steel than it does in Iron Man.  For someone as over-powered as Superman to feel vulnerable, you need to have him face a threat on an equal level, and Man of Steel does that with the character of General Zod, played by Michael Shannon.  A surviving Kryptonian like Superman, Zod matches the same power level, but combines this with a merciless, genocidal ambition for conquest.  General Zod seeks to make Earth the new home for his people, and that means wiping out the native human population in the process, which Superman has lived among and been raised by since he was sent there as a child.  For Superman, the fight with Zod is a confirmation of his duty to be Earth’s protector, and the movie does go out of it’s way to show that the confrontation with Zod is going to be the test of his full potential.  Even the much maligned death blow that Superman uses to stop Zod has a purposefulness in the story, because it places doubt in Superman’s mind if he did the right thing or not; which despite being out of character compared with the comics, does show a crucial development in his character that shows that he still is capable of being vulnerable.  Sadly, it didn’t help that director Zack Snyder made the baffling defense of this choice by saying that he believed Superman had to kill in order to learn that killing is wrong (???).  By contrast, Iron Man’s first nemesis is just a rival seeking to outshine his accomplishments out of pure pettiness, personified in the character of Obediah Stein.  Sure, they got an acting legend like Jeff Bridges to play the part, who does have a menacing presence in the film, but Stein’s whole plan is just to build another Iron Man suit, only bigger, becoming the Iron Monger.  Overall, he’s a weak villain that keeps the stakes pretty small in the original Iron Man.  And that has been the case with most of the Iron Man films, where the hero far outshines the villains, despite having excellent actors filling the roles like Mickey Rourke and Ben Kingsley.  In the end, Man of Steel benefited from a stronger villain, who almost made up for the lack of personality found in the hero himself.

For the most part, I did find more to like in the movie Man of Steel than dislike, but at the same time, it’s hard to ignore that it’s many flaws put the DCEU on such a rocky footing to begin with.  A lot of that falls on the clearly miscast choice of director with Zack Snyder.  Snyder was never a good fit with the character of Superman, because his style is so morose and devoid of light.  He makes a fine choice for stylistic and gritty comic adaptations like 300 (2007) and Watchmen (2009), but not for a character as inspirational and good-natured as Superman.  The biggest complaint about Man of Steel usually falls on the film’s muted color palette, which drains the joy out of the movie.  It’s a far cry from the lush, bright colors of Donner’s original, and for comic book fans especially, it probably felt like a betrayal to see the blue and red of Superman’s costume be so de-emphasized.  Man of Steel almost feels like a holdover from another era, where filmmakers almost felt ashamed of presenting a superhero dressed in brightly colored tights and a cape, and instead chose to make the costumes a little more modern and edgy.  Marvel on the other hand, not only has chosen to faithfully translate their comic character’s looks to the big screen, but they seem to celebrate it as well.  In Iron Man, during the process of building his final prototype for his suit, he decides to add a little “hot rod red” to the color scheme, matching the gold and red colors that the character model is famous for in the comics.  This example has follow through with every Marvel character since, with Spider-Man returning back to his tights and Captain America proudly donning the red white and blue across his armor.  More than anything, this brought the super hero genre out of it’s misguided tilt toward gritty make-overs and instead showed that it indeed was worthwhile to embrace everything fun about the characters, even their campy looks.  Only now are we seeing DC finally adopt that ideal as well, with the light-hearted Shazam being the most recent example.  Unfortunately, the Snyder style stuck to DC for far too long and hampered any chance of it striking the same chord with an audience that Marvel managed to achieve.

“I was bred to be a warrior, Kal.  Trained my entire life to master my senses.  Where did you train? ON A FARM?”

It’s hard to think what Marvel’s Cinematic Universe might have been like had Iron Man had not been it’s starting off point.  Jon Favreau’s deft and well-intentioned approach is what Marvel needed for the launch of their ambitious plans, and it is remarkable that it was all built around an actor who once was considered to be un-hirable in Hollywood.  The tables have certainly turned, and not only is Iron Man now an A-List super hero in the same league as Superman and Batman, but he’s even carried Spider-Man under his wing.  Robert Downey Jr.’s on-screen charisma no doubt endeared the character to fans around the world, and it’s clear why he gave it his all over so many years.  You could say that the life that Iron Man saved above all was that of the actor playing him.  The movie saved his reputation, has kept him clean and sober for over a decade now, and has made him fans all over the world, something he certainly indulges as he promotes the movies worldwide in a fashion not all that dissimilar from the persona of Tony Stark.  Hollywood loves a redemption story, and the real life one involving Robert Downey Jr. has been just that.  Sadly, Superman’s most recent big screen outing hasn’t carried that inspiring story along with it.  Henry Cavill, a talented actor in his own right, felt burdened by the lack of direction with his character and after a while, he felt that it just wasn’t worth continuing, so as of right now, Superman’s future on the big screen is once again in limbo.  If DC had put more effort into the character, and given him a story arc as inspiring as that of Iron Man, they may have been able to hold onto their actors as long as Marvel has managed to hold onto theirs.  The saddest part is that Cavill’s Superman doesn’t get the closure that he deserves, which is especially unfortunate considering how satisfying the departures in Avengers: Endgame turned out.  It all shows that when you plan to build a major cinematic universe, it helps to make sure that you are getting it right the first time, and that involves a little bit of risk, a whole lot of luck, as well as embracing what made these characters beloved in the first place.  That’s why Marvel are the kings of Hollywood right now, because they gambled and won, whereas DC tried to put their best horse forward and had him stumble out of the gate in a race he shouldn’t have started in the first place.  All the more remarkable is that all of this, the MCU and this era of cinematic universes, was all started by a once disgraced actor playing man who built a suit of iron in a cave with a box of scraps.

“I…AM…IRON MAN.”

Tinseltown Throwdown – Dante’s Peak vs. Volcano

The disaster film has had many ups and downs throughout the history of cinema; mostly downs.  Sure, you have your Oscar-winner Titanic (1997), but most of the time the genre is marked by many sub-par efforts that either end up laughably bad (1996’s Twister) or just plain bad (2004’s The Day After Tomorrow).   And the common fault with most disaster films isn’t whether or not they can make the disaster appear real or not; in fact, most of the time, these types of movies are wonderful showcases for the best advances in visual effects.  No, the thing that most of these types of movies struggle with the most is how they tell their stories.  In reality, disasters as a moment in time are quite brief.  Usually when a movie tackles something like an earthquake or a tornado as a part of their story, they have to film the run-time with a lot of extra filler, because those natural occurrences last minutes at the most.  There are ways around such problems.  Movies like Twister and San Andreas (2015) manage to keep the story momentum going by making their films not just about one disastrous event, but a whole string of them.  And movies like Titanic and The Poseidon Adventure (1972) get their dramatic tension not from the incident itself, but from the aftermath, and all the desperation that comes about from the characters trying to survive.  It’s easy to forget that the human drama is the essential part of any disaster movie, and oftentimes these movies fall apart because the filmmakers seem so disinterested in their stories.  The worst kinds of disaster movies are usually the ones where human beings are treated purely like lambs to a slaughter, except whichever character the bankable movie star is playing, as they somehow miraculously survive without a scratch.  This is a genre that has many different types too, with no natural or man-made disaster seemingly unexplored, and there was a period of time when the genre was so prolific that it often resulted in direct competition with like-minded films.

This was the case in the late 90’s, as digital effects were starting to become a more useful tool in Hollywood.  Though the genre saw a renewed interest in this decade, it’s roots go back further.  Disaster movies were always brought out the best in big screen entertainment, and even the early days of the talkies saw it’s fair share; like San Fransisco (1936) where Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy survive through the 1906 earthquake, or In Old Chicago (1937) where Tyrone Power and Alice Faye try to endure the Great Fire of 1871 that consumed the city.  But the genre didn’t hit it’s peak until a producer named Irwin Allen stepped into Hollywood during the 1970’s.  Not only did Allen develop films that utilized the best visual effects available at the time, but he also invented the idea that these disaster films should also include all star casts as well.  With movies like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno (1974), Allen made the disaster film not only the most visually stunning productions of their time, but also the most star studded, making them must see entertainment and huge box office successes for their time.  Though the blockbuster era would overtake the box office reign years later, Allen’s disaster flicks are still gold standards for the genre, and their influence no doubt was still felt once the genre saw it’s revival later on.  Already mentioned films like Titanic and Twister were breakthroughs in terms of using CGI to bring the epic scale of these events to life, and Hollywood saw this genre as the perfect showcase for this new technology.  And with a huge swell within a particular genre, you are bound to see movies that bear very many similarities.  I already wrote about two such films, Deep Impact (1998) and Armageddon (1998) here, but a very competition happened a year prior with a more earthbound type of disaster; the eruptive duel between Volcano (1997) and Dante’s Peak (1997).

“Isn’t it beautiful, nestled all nice and cozy right up against the mountain?

“Yeah, just like Pompeii.”

Before examining the ways that these movies distinquish themselves apart from one another, and what makes one better than the other, one thing needs to be made clear.  Neither of these movies are good.  A large part of why the disaster film disipated as a genre before the 90’s were over is largely because of movies like these, both of which flopped hard.  And the major problem that affects both of them is the same as with most other bad movies in this genre; they’re boring.  Both movies unfortunately cannot fill their run-times with anything interesting apart from the disasters themselves, and this ends up making the movies feel very hollow.  This also means that the movies also resort to having the main characters do stupid things in order to move the plot forward, instead of doing what a normal, rational person would do, which is to flee an erupting volcano immediately.  The movies’ attempts at humanizing the characters are also fairly lame, and often resort to generic stereotypes or worse.  They are essentially movies where the visuals matter more than the story, and the screenplays are just your 101 basics.  For some reason, these movies also like to fit in a lot of side characters, which makes character development even more impossible; my guess is that this is a holdover idea from the Irwin Allen days, but just without the star power to make us identify with the characters quicker.  That being said, the movies do feature some large scale visuals; though time has not been kind to the early CGI used.    Still, you can see the money spent on the screen, and in some cases, points where the movie went above and beyond what was to be expected.  But, there are fundamental differences that make one less bad than the other, and it primarily involves the actual source of the disasters themselves; the volcanoes.

volcano 2

“We’re going to put as many people in front of it as it takes”

The big difference that separates the two movie is the plausibility of their concepts.  Dante’s Peak has a relatively more earthbound story, setting the movie in the gentle and serene location of a rugged mountain town named after the titular peak.   The volcano in question is also what you would imagine; a cyndrical, snow-capped peak not unlike the many mountains of the Pacific Northwest, which themselves were formed through volcanism.  The movie clearly takes inspiration particularly from the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980, so even though the movie takes a lot of liberties with the sciences and realities of volcanic activity, it at least counts on the audience’s familiarity with an event like St. Helens to draw a parallel.  Volcano on the other hand doesn’t seem to care about the science of volcanic activity and just seems more content to set their movie anywhere just so it would look cool.  This is especially true by the fact that they set the movie in Los Angeles, a place rarely affected by the impact of volcanism, and that they place the source of the volcano in the world famous La Brea Tar Pits.  Here’s the most jarring problem with that; tar pits are not a bi-product of volcanic activity.  They are the result of trapped methane gas and porous rock, and are great places to find fossilized remains because of the way it traps and preserves, not destroy and reshape like volcanos do.  The fact that the filmmakers of Volcano think that Tar Pits naturally lead to lava shows that they clearly were not doing their homework.  Yes, Dante’s Peak is ludicrous at moments too, but it grounds itself with at least some basic knowledge of how volcanoes work.  There is an interesting moment in the movie where the Geological Society official, played by actor Charles Hallahan, states real life instances of volcanic warnings that proved to be false alarms but still resulted in communities losing valuable tourism income.  Though a minor point, it does show that the movie at least tried to underline itself with something based in reality.  At the very least, the movie treats the science with a little more respect.  There aren’t instances of characters diverting lava with a barrier to make it change direction, as if it were flowing water and not a viscous material that can layer upon itself and climb over obstructions.

The movie Volcano is the far more ridiculous of the two because of this, but some of that does work to it’s advantage.  The movie at the very least devotes a better amount of it’s run-time to the disaster itself.  It thankfully spares us any more character development, and it almost becomes endearing just how much the movie doesn’t care about the people in it.  The problem with Dante’s Peak is that it takes far too long to get the to meat of the film, which is the eruption.  Far too much of the first half involves Geologist Harry Dalton (played by a very oddly cast Pierce Brosnan) seeing the warning signs and no one taking him seriously.  Of course the movie resorts to this cliche, which has been seen in countless movies before like Jaws (1975), Jurassic Park (1993), and also all the way back with The Towering Inferno.  We get a lot of this too, as clear signs are dismissed in a very irrational way, clearly intended on the filmmakers part to stall the inevitable in order to pad the movie.  In addition to this, the movie also gives us a very labored courting relationship between Dalton and the town’s mayor, Rachel Wando, played by Linda Hamilton.  All these set ups end up getting dropped once the mountain erupts, so devoting so much time to it seems pointless.  At least with Volcano there are no warning signs.  The volcano just manifests suddenly without too much build-up, and all the drama is drawn from the results, rather than the lead-up.  I do appreciate that Dante’s Peak at least attempted to make more out of itself than just the disaster, but when the characters are this dull and the pacing is so flat, it does test your patience.  The eruption is almost like a welcome release in the end, and I’ll say this, the second half of the movie is much better in general, and delivers it’s spectacle well without overdoing it.

dantes peak 2

“A man who looks at a rock must have a lot on his mind.”

The movie’s also differ greatly when it comes to their casts.  Both drift heavily away from the all-star days of Irwin Allen, and instead just spotlight their headliners, with the remainder of the cast filled by capable character actors.  In this regard, the cast of Dante’s Peak fares a tad bit better.  Pierce Brosnan filmed this movie in between Bond films, so he looks a tad bit disinterested with his mind obviously elsewhere.  Still, that 007 charm does carry over, and even though the character is fairly limited in development, he still manages to maintain screen presence throughout.  Linda Hamilton also does a capable job of playing her role.  No stranger to action films, she holds her own in the movie’s more climatic moments, and thankfully she does so without invoking any similarities with Sarah Connor from the Terminator series, her most famous role.  And surprisingly, the two have chemistry, even if their relationship in the movie feels contrived.  That’s a fair bit better than what the cast of Volcano gives us.  Tommy Lee Jones is in such a “doing it for the paycheck” mode with his performance in this movie.  Considering that in the same year he delivered an endearing performance in the very fun Men in Black (1997) shows just how bad his work is here, because we know he’s capable of better.  Surprisingly, it’s Anne Heche who comes out of this looking better, and her performance is almost as bad.  There’s little I can tell you about either character, because the movie does little to make either one memorable.  But, the bar was lower for Heche in comparison, so she  had less of a case to make.  Shockingly, she was given the brunt of blame for Volcano’s box office failure, because the movie came out around the same time she did from the closet.  Her public declaration of her sexuality and then relationship with comedian Ellen Degenres was pointed unfairly as the reason why audiences stayed away, which shows just how much times have changed.  It’s a good thing now that homosexuality is no longer a blight on one’s career, but sadly Anne Heche was unfairly scapegoated for something that was the studio’s fault, not hers.

The one other aspect that sets the film’s apart is the way they capture the spectacle of their events.  The CGI of the mid to late 90’s doesn’t quite hold up to scrutiny compared with today’s standards, despite some rare exceptions (Juuassic Park).  The movie Dante’s Peak does benefit from a minimal reliance on the film-making tool, and only uses it for the more impossible moments, like the pyroclastic flows swallowing the town, or a torrential river clogged with debris.  What I do appreciate best about Dante’s Peak is that it mixes in the CGI with a lot of detailed models, which has sadly fallen into a lost art in recent years as computers have replaced the technique.  Looking at making of materials for the film, you can see how the movie managed to create a believable mountain and it’s destruction through very intricate models, which helps to maintain a realistic quality to the movie in general.  They even built false hillsides for certain scenes on film studio lots in Vancouver, BC, just so they could demolish this environment in a controlled fashion and make it look authentic.  That sense of detail was expensive (over $100 million before inflation), but every dollar is there on screen.  Volcano doesn’t have that air of authenticity, as they obviously couldn’t destroy large swaths of the streets of LA.  But that movie’s way around this is no less impressive.  For the production, 20th Century Fox built a lifesize replica of the intersection of Wilshie Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue in midtown LA, out in the Mojave Desert.  This included false facades of landmarks like the Tar Pits, the Petersen Automotive Museum, and the LACMA Museum Complex.  From this set, they could demolish all they wanted, and still have it look like Miracle Mile in Los Angeles.  The movie still relies more heavily on the CGI portions, and because of that over reliance, it’s effects don’t hold up as well as Dante’s Peak.  But, both movies do have a lot of ambition behind them, which makes you wish it was focused on better stories.

volcano 1

“I’m not paper; I’m lava. What beats lava?”

So, overall, I would say that Dante’s Peak works much better as a film than Volcano.  It’s far more grounded, it has a better cast and it doesn’t rely too heavily on film-making short cuts like CGI.  Even still, it is a very flawed movie, and at times quite boring.  Volcano in some ways benefits from being so laughably ludicrous that it becomes entertaining, but that doesn’t make it any better.  Dante’s Peak is in general a much better made movie.  Regardless, both movies were responsible for the quick burnout that the disaster film faced.  Despite the successes that came after them, these two movie were pin pointed to as examples of wasteful spending by Hollywood, and many future disaster films were shelved or canceled as a result.  It didn’t help much that the failure of Kevin Costner’s Waterworld (1995) was still on the industry’s mind at the time, and studios became more weary of creating elaborate sets such as the ones used for these two films.  At the same time, no one suffered much from these failures.  Brosnan continued to play James Bond for several more years, unscathed.  Tommy Lee Jones had Men in Black  to quickly help people forget that Volcano even existed.  And Hollywood has learned that supporting someone’s LGBTQ identity is actually a net gain rather than a detriment, and Anne Heche has thankfully been let off the hook for the movie’s failure that she was unfairly singled out for.  I doubt that these movies will ever be looked at as anything but examples of how fleeting trends can be in Hollywood, even within the robust disaster film genre.  And even today, the genre is still in need of some fresh ideas.  I would gladly watch either Dante’s Peak or Volcano over any of Roland Emmerich’s awful disaster movies.  What interests me is how both films seemed to fail at the same time, and over the exact same subject.  Maybe it was just that audiences didn’t find volcanoes all that interesting, or because the moment of reckoning for this volatile genre just happened to fall at this time, bringing both films into it’s own path of destruction at the worst possible time.

dantes peak 3

“I’ve always been better at feeling out volcanoes than people and politics.”

Tinseltown Throwdown – The Lego Movie vs. The Emoji Movie

One thing that you’ll notice about the way that the movie industry works is that whenever one brand new idea manages to translate into success, a dozen more just like it will follow in it’s wake.  I’ve written about copycat films before here, but another thing that I’ve noticed about the continuous cycle of like minded films that the industry pushes out regularly is that the quality of each film takes a steep decline almost immediately depending on how big the trend is.  Usually one big success manages to open the doors for a long in development project that finally has it’s moment to shine, but after a while, it becomes apparent that the industry runs out of fresh properties and ends up scrapping the barrel.  And just like that, the craze ends up dying before it’s time should really be up.  We’ve seen that happen a lot in recent decades where trends have risen and fallen with great frequency.  The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series beget a whole slew of new fantasy franchises, some good (The Chronicles of Narnia) but mostly bad (remember Eragon; of course you don’t).  The dystopian YA craze saw a short life span with the success of The Hunger Games  (2012), and it was over pretty much even before the final film in the Games series was released.  Right now, the shared cinematic universe craze is seeing a downward slide, with Ghostbusters, Universal’s monster filled “Dark Universe” and the DCEU all failing to capture even an ounce of what Marvel Studios has built for themselves.  What the ends of these crazes usually have in common is that they all end by sinking to the rock bottom level with the worst movie that can possibly be made to capitalize on another’s success.  That’s certainly the case with the two movies that I am spotlighting in this article; the beloved Lego Movie (2014) and the very maligned Emoji Movie (2017).

For as long as I have been writing this Tinseltown Throwdown series of articles, this one will mark the biggest disparity ever between the actual movies.  There is clearly a victor here and I will say that it is not The Emoji Movie.  To show you just how big of a gap exists between these two movies in my opinion, Lego appeared on my best of the year list for 2014, while Emoji topped the worst films of last.  There couldn’t be any wider a distance between these movies, and yet they are in many ways linked together.  The Emoji Movie’s existence is due to the success of The Lego Movie, as like with a lot of other copycat movies, one studio tries to mimic the other without understanding how they got to that point in the first place.  In particular, Sony (the studio behind Emoji) believed wrongly that product recognition was the key to making The Lego Movie popular, so they latched onto one other pop cultural trend that has widespread recognition and exploited that.  To be honest, something could have been done with the cultural phenomenon of emoji texts if the filmmakers had any sense of story-telling.  They could have made a social comment on the way that texting is creating a shift in human interaction, and a story about Emoji’s could have evoked a deeper meaning of how communication has been broken down into simplistic symbols rather than complex expressions.  But no, the movie doesn’t do that; instead it follows a formula that is almost cut and paste from the Lego Movie but without the subtlety or human connection.  Essentially, both movies are inter-textual celebrations of their selective products, but while one manages to connect with a soul at it’s center, the other is just a shallow and vain attempt to capitalize on our familiarity with what it’s selling.

“Everything is awesome.”

It can be argued that both Lego Movie and Emoji Movie both derive from a long line of inter-textaul movies, which is a class of film where much of the comedy and drama is derived with the combination of different elements from various types of media.  You see this most often in spoof movies, with Mel Brooks and the team of Zucker-Abrams often making fun of many different specific targets like movies, songs, genre cliches, etc.  There have been other movies that have also gone the extra lengths to include many different intellectual properties as a part of their story, even when they are from competing companies.  Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) took the unprecedented step of having characters like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny on screen together for the first and maybe only time.  A similar cross platform attempt was made in Wreck-It Ralph (2012), this time with video game characters instead, and while it is brief, the one scene where the title character is in a self-help group with Bowser, Dr. Robotnik, and General Bison was a dream come true for many fans of those games.  Steven Spielberg is even mining our sense of nostalgia with his upcoming Ready Player One (2018).  But, to make inter-textual reference work, it must be in the service of a relatable story.  The Lego Movie managed to do this by making it’s world feel cohesive as a whole, where all these different inter-textual elements co-exist and much of the humor and story is mined from their interactivity.  Emoji Movie makes the big mistake of establishing the fact that the characters are aware of their existence and function as part of a phone’s mechanics, and it diminishes their interaction with their own world to just being a showcase for different apps.  It becomes clear very early on that all that the Emoji  Movie is interested in is selling the viewer on the glorious capabilities that a smart phone has, and it zaps away any power that a narrative may have throughout the film.

“My feelings are huge. Maybe I’m meant to have more than just one emotion! I have so much more.”

Where The Emoji Movie fails the most is in justifying what it means in the end.  Essentially, it falls into the standard “be yourself” narrative, where our main character, Gene the “Meh” emoji (voiced by T. J. Miller), learns to accept that being different from everyone else is not so bad.  By itself, this isn’t a bad narrative to go with, but the movie lacks the focus to actually drive that meaning home.  In fact, at times it contradicts the notion of individuality, as much of the chaos left behind in this story is a direct result of Gene not fulfilling the function that he was created for.  As the movie establishes, Gene is one of many citizens of an emoji community, all of whom are personifications of commonly found emoji’s on your standard phone keyboard.  Their daily role is to stand within their select cubicles and be scanned whenever they are selected by their user as part of a text message.  Gene’s inability to control his emotions make it impossible for him to be a functional part of the emoji board, so a more sensible direction for the story to go would be for Gene to venture out into the world and learn where his peculiarity may be more at home.  But instead, the movie has Gene force the status quo of society to make it so that he can be an emoji that has multiple expressions, which the movie seems to view as a triumph.  Isn’t it a little unfair that Gene gets to have a special exception to the rule, which takes attention away from the other emoji’s that have no other expression.  In the end, it’s a story that just serves a surface level hero’s journey, without making their hero worthy of any of it.  By contrast, The Lego Movie dissects the hero’s journey narrative, by having it’s hero be thrust into a series of events he has no control over and having to tackle the mistaken notion that he’s “special”, when in reality, everyone has that ability to be special within them.  In the world of Lego, you could say that everyone is awesome, as long as they show it.  Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) grows up to be special, while we are supposed to accept that Gene is special and worth supporting.  One earns our sympathy, while the other seems forced fed to us.

The brilliance behind The Lego Movie is not just in how funny it can make all the pop culture references work, but in how it manages to tie everything together under one underlying theme; the power of creativity.  In the world of Legos, the highest honor one can have in life is to be a “master builder”.  As the movie establishes, Master Builders can create anything out of the building blocks they find around them and become almost superhero like as a result.  In fact, a few master builders actually are superheros, like Batman (one of the film’s most hilarious characters). But Emmet stands out because he follows the instructions rather than creating freely, and this drives a wedge between him and the master builders, who begin to wonder if he really is worthy to carry the load of wielding the legendary “piece of Resistance” (which as we learn is the cap to a tube of krazy glue). This clash of free reign expression and following the rules manifests itself throughout the movie and culminates in the film’s most brilliant scene, as we discover that Emmet and his entire world are really just a construct of a child’s imagination, who’s playing around with his Dad’s intricately assembled sets.  The father, played by Will Farrell, treats the Legos with a seriousness that has no room for creative expression, and as we learn, his idea of what the Legos are worth is far different than his son’s.  But, the discovery of what his son has built in his playtime opens the father’s eyes to a different understanding, and it establishes what is at the heart of the story; that value of Lego toys is not in the product itself, but in the experience of creating with them, something that bonds different generations together, including a father and son who now have a common love for something fun.   The Emoji Movie never makes the case that it’s saying anything more than “aren’t phone apps cool.”  The user at the center of the story, a teenage boy named Alex, never once has a connection with the characters that exist within his phone.  For the most part, they prove to be an annoyance to him more than anything.  It contrasts deeply with how Emmet is connected to the parallel story-line between the boy and his father, because Emmet was selected out of all the toys around him because of the boy’s personal connection with his perceived good-naturedness.  The stakes exist, because the boy has imagined a special purpose for Emmet because of how it relates to his own relationship with his father.  Emoji Movie never once make us care for the future of it’s characters and that’s where it really falls short.

“I only work in black and sometimes very, very dark grey.”

But, apart from their narrative differences, there is one other thing that drives down the quality of The Emoji Movie, and that’s it’s lack of identity.  Upon watching the movie, you can just tell that this was a movie crafted without passion.  Every story point is calculated by the demands of a studio that seems to have formulated what a movie like this actually needs.  Like I stated before, it’s a movie that wouldn’t exist had The Lego Movie not come before it, and that becomes evident in the way that it just wholesale copies that film in many different ways.  Pop Culture references are abound, as is the many different licences that the movie flaunts as a part of their world.  But, what Lego Movie manages to do better is to make those different references function as a part of it’s world, and also not be afraid to mock them from time to time as well.  Batman doesn’t just make an cameo appearance, he’s one of the central members of the team, and his personality is so exaggerated that he almost becomes a unique personality in his own right, separate from all his previous incarnations.  What does The Emoji Movie do?  It just has the Poop Emoji show up every now and then just so they can throw in a poop joke to make the little kids laugh (made all the more painful that they dragged an esteemed actor like Patrick Stewart into the role).  And even more shameless pull from The Lego Movie comes in the form of how it portrays it’s female lead.  Both movies have heroines that have a rebellious side to them, but one has more layers to her personality than the other.  As seen in Lego Movie, the character of Wyldstyle (voiced by Elizabeth Banks) puts on a punkish exterior to hide insecurities underneath, and part of her arc in the story is to eventually soften herself to the point where she’s not afraid to share another side of herself to others.  The similar character of Jailbreak in Emoji Movie (voiced by Anna Faris) takes a similar character design, with black hair and clothing, but has none of the depth to match the personality.  She’s dressed that way, because she no longer wants to be a princess emoji, and that’s it.  It’s a very surface level form of personality and makes her feel so uninteresting by comparison.  The same can be said about the rest of Emoji Movie, as it becomes clear that there was no attempt to find any depth in the story.  The Lego Movie’s creators, Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, clearly opened up their toy box with the intent to have some fun with it, and the fact that they found deeper meaning in it all was just icing on the cake.  Emoji Movie is just there to be a product.

Which gets us to probably the most infuriating aspect of The Emoji Movie, which is the shameless way that it shills for other products.  Essentially, the movie’s story-line has it’s characters moving from one phone app to another, never once endearing us to their journey and instead just uses the different changes of scenery as a mini commercial for each selective app.  This should be evident right from the moment that the characters stumble into a “Candy Crush” game, and it just gets to be infuriatingly self indulgent once they enter a “Just Dance” sequence.  There is no commentary given to any of the different places they visit; all it essentially says to the audience is “Hey let’s check out YouTube, or let’s find our way to Dropbox, or isn’t it lovely here in Instagram.”  The script for this film might as well have read “place your ad here” over and over again.  And a movie like this needn’t be a feature length commercial, as The Lego Movie has demonstrated.  Lego had to prove a lot of naysayers wrong when it first went into development, as on the surface it too would have appeared to have been nothing but a feature length commercial for a singular product.  But, with it’s heart in the right place, and direction from Lord & Miller that actually utilized the potential of such a premise, The Lego Movie managed to make us forget about the commercialism behind it and instead allowed us to enjoy it as a film in it’s own right.  It became first and foremost a movie, and the fact that it was tied to a product was irrelevant.  The Emoji Movie sadly doesn’t understand that and it instead tries to mask it’s narrative shortcomings with unending reminders of it’s commercial origins.  With that, it can’t hide it’s soulless identity as just a tool for consumerism, delivering the idea that the more vibrant a collection of apps and emojis, the livelier the world will be.  The Lego Movie’s  miraculously manages to honor the appeal of Lego toys, without ever forcing a consumerist intent on it’s audience.  Lego’s popularity speaks for itself, and the movie never tries to assume otherwise, nor force it down our throats.

“Nobody leaves the phone. Delete them.”

The Lego Movie managed to perform a magic trick of escaping the perceived commercialism of it’s premise, and surprise all of us with it’s potent and surprisingly heartfelt story.  The Emoji Movie just ended up being exactly what you thought it would be, and in some ways even worse.  For one thing, the only quality thing about The Emoji Movie is the animation used to bring it to life, which makes it doubly insulting that it’s used on something so crass and soulless.  Emoji is built upon a studio mandate which lacks all vision and is created just to spotlight the different brands that paid to be seen within this movie.  The fact that it is marketed towards kids is even more insulting, because it teaches them no worthwhile lessons, and instead drives younger people to be more attached to their phones.  The idea that the climax of the movie hinges on the teenage boy communicating through the ideal emoji on his phone, instead of you know going up to a person and talking to them in person, is a clear sign of the wrong kinds of values we should be promoting in our culture right now.  The Lego Movie is commercial too, but it does a great job of making us forget that and just enjoying the story it wants to tell.  It’s characters are also more appealing and have worthwhile arcs to their stories.  But, where Lego truly shines is in the fact that it touched upon universal meaning in it’s message.  The story is essentially about people coming together through shared interest, and the fact that it’s through Lego toys is beside the point.  There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing a father and son grow closer together as they play with their Legos, and teach each other the value of creativity and unity through that experience.  That’s where Lego Movie found it’s heart, and what Emoji Movie clearly did not understand.  In the long run, Emoji Movie represents the pitfalls of trying to capitalize on a craze, because the choices of how to sell a movie eventually begin to overwhelm the choices in the making of a movie, and Emoji had no intent on ever being it’s own unique thing.  As Lego Movie states, “Everything is Awesome,” but Emoji Movie is far less so.

“You don’t have to be the bad guy.  You are the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe.  And you are capable of amazing things.  Because you are the Special.  And so am I.  And so is everyone.”

Tinseltown Throwdown – Independence Day vs. Mars Attacks

There is often a very fine line between the movies that we are meant to take seriously and those that are meant to be farcical in nature.  Sometimes a movie might be so pretentious that it makes us laugh out loud, while other times a comedy’s tone might be set so wrong that it ceases to be funny.  If one or the other falls into the opposite effect, it’s usually the sign of a terribly executed film.  But, that’s not always the case either.  One genre in particular where you see the lines blurred between the profound and the ridiculous is in the realm of sci-fi.  Pretty much every film made in this genre requires a level of suspended belief on the part of the viewer, and it’s up to the one telling the story to decide how far they will go.  There are many cases in the early days of sci-fi where you couldn’t really tell if the film’s creators were sincere or foolish when they made a genre flick.  Many films often felt like they were accidentally hilarious, due to cheap looking effects or awkward performances, or a combination of both.  That’s why sci-fi became known as the “B-Movie” genre.  Still, there were some sci-fi films that did take the genre more seriously like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Forbidden Planet (1954), which helped to elevate the genre with a sense of credibility.  Since then, the Sci-Fi genre has existed with these two different shades that continues to define it.  Most of the time, they are distinct from each other, though there are some films that dare to mix the two together a little.  Star Wars, for example, indulges in plenty of campiness, but does so in a completely earnest way allowing us to take it more seriously.  Sci-Fi movies that follow the earnest or campy route usually avoid direct comparisons with each other, but sometimes a close release schedule and similar plotting provides an interesting contrast, and shows just how important the differences within the genre really are.

That proved to be the case in the summer of 1996, when we saw the releases of Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day and Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks released just a mere month apart.  When you look at them on the surface, it’s hard to see how either of them could be comparable.  Roland Emmerich’s film is a mega-budget blockbuster that revolutionized visual effects in Hollywood and wowed audiences with it’s unprecedented sense of scale.  Tim Burton’s film is a throwback love letter to B-movies of the 1950’s; intentionally cartoonish and lavished with plenty retro nostalgia and flavor.  One movie takes itself seriously, the other does not.  And yet, there are some striking connections.  Both movies feature an invading alien force, both include the on-screen destruction of landmarks across the world, both center on a beleaguered American president who finds himself increasingly overwhelmed; hell, it even features a crooner in a supporting role (Day’s Harry Conick Jr. and Attack’s Tom Jones).  But even apart from the visual and thematic thing that the movies have in common, it’s also interesting to see how they differ in their execution.  Independence Day is earnest in it’s depiction of widespread destruction, and plays most of the situation with a sense of dread and suspense.  But sometimes the thematic elements are done in such an unsubtle and gun-ho way that it ends up becoming ridiculous by the end.  Mars Attacks is a parody all the way through, and never once intends to raise the tension level.  But in being so self-conscious about it’s intentions to mock it’s particular genre, does Mars Attacks also spoil the joke in the process and stops being funny?  That’s the interesting comparison that comes from analyzing these two sci-fi flicks from the summer of ’96, and by picking through all of their defining features, we can see just how thin that divide in the genre really is.

“Hello Boys!!! I’m BAAAAACK!!!”

First of all, let’s look at where the movies differ the most, which is in the visual department.  Independence Day came out at a time when CGI technology was just coming into it’s own in Hollywood.  Just a few years earlier, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) brought dinosaurs back to life in a strikingly realistic way.  Roland Emmerich and his producer/ co-writer Dean Devlin saw the potential of CGI for a whole different purpose and that was to push the boundaries of scale on the big screen.  They took the premise that we’ve seen a million times before in Sci-fi, which is the arrival of aliens riding around in flying saucers, only they did it in a way that we’ve never seen before.  Here, the alien saucers were not only bigger, but could cover entire cities; and those were just the small ones.  With the tools at their disposal, Devlin and Emmerich revolutionized the genre and showed that this silly, old premise could still present a sense of awe on the big screen.  The sequence where the saucers make their first landfall, coming out of the clouds and descending over New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. is still a chill-inducing moment of cinema.  Mars Attacks, by contrast, feels pretty quaint, but that’s not it’s fault at all.  Tim Burton made it intentionally feel dated, because he wanted to invoke the memory of of the B-movie sci-fi flicks, with all the kitsch that they were famous for.  All in all, Attacks is lovingly designed and appealingly retro.  However, unlike Day, it has the disadvantage of feeling inauthentic at times.  Burton is trying to give his movie a retro look, but with the modern tools of today, which kind of detaches the illusion just a little bit.  It unfortunately feels a little too polished to be a B-movie.  Independence Day may not be as imaginative visually, but it at least feels authentic to what it’s supposed to be, which gives it a slight edge in terms of the visuals.

“Don’t run! We are your friends!”

What also sets these two films apart is the cast of characters, or perhaps the way that the films are cast.  While Independence Day does feature some star power behind it, with Will Smith in particular being propelled to super stardom by his role, the overall cast is perhaps not used to their best abilities.  Some people in the movie do give decent performances (Jeff Goldblum in particular as the nerdy David Levinson), but the rest, I’m sad to say, are reduced to playing what are essentially a collection of stereotypes.  This is actually a problem with a lot of Emmerich movies, where he puts so little effort into creating unique individuality for his characters and instead just ends up defining them by what they are instead of who they are.  In some cases, that can unintentionally turn the characters into borderline offensive stereotypes, such as Harvey Fierstein’s effeminate boss to Goldblum’s character, or Judd Hirsch’s irritated old Jewish man.  What’s even more insulting is that these are actors who should know better than to play up the stereotypes of the communities that they represent.  Mars Attacks plays up some stereotypes as well, but they are namely of the types of characters that would’ve inhabited a B-Movie plot back in the 50’s (your military hotheads and damsel in distresses for example).  But, what is more impressive with Attacks cast is just how star studded it is.  Pretty much anyone that Tim Burton wanted to get is in this movie.  Not only does it feature Burton’s former Joker, Jack Nicholson, leading in a dual role as the President and a Casino Owner (probably as a nod to Peter Sellers multiple roles in Dr. Strangelove), but the remaining cast includes heavy hitters like Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnon, Sarah Jessica Parker, Rod Steiger, Martin Short, Jack Black, Natalie Portman, Annette Benning, Michael J. Fox, the afforementioned Tom Jones, and Pam Grier.  They even managed to fit in Hall of Famer Jim Brown as well.  And all for a throwback to old B-Movie Sci-Fi.  Unlike Independence Day, everyone in the film knows to be intentionally silly and not have that be a result of thinly defined characters.  They are archetypes as well, but better suited for their particular story.

Unfortunately, as impressive as the cast of Mars Attacks is, the movie doesn’t actually use them as effectively as you would think.  What ends up happening is that the movie is too overstuffed with characters, allowing the audience very little time to build a connection to any of them.  Nicholson’s President comes the closest to being an identifiable character worthy of investing in, but that’s only because he gets the bulk of the screen-time.  We barely get to know any of the other characters, which becomes especially problematic when they start to get picked off one by one by the Martian invaders.  There is even a shoehorned in romantic subplot involving Pierce Brosnon and Sarah Jessica Parker’s characters that is so not interesting, because we feel nothing for the characters.  I guess it was supposed to be another reference to awkward B-Movie romances, and it is kind of funny that both characters are reduced to disembodied heads by the point that they declare their love for each other, but still it doesn’t work as well as it should.  Independence Day by contrast does a better job of endearing it’s characters to the audience.  Though the characters are lazily written, Emmerich nevertheless devotes more time for us to get invested in their plight.  I think that it helps that he focuses in on three characters in particular; the ones played by Smith, Goldblum, and Bill Pullman as the President.  By centering the film on these three, we are able to get both the grand picture of the entire event, but with easily identifiable plot threads that open up a window to these characters’ own experiences.  Broad as they may be, they have arcs that pay off in the end.  Goldblum’s David gains more courage as he finds purpose in himself once he discovers the aliens’ weak point; Pullman’s President goes from being a timid leader to one that can inspire the whole world to fight back; and Smith’s hotshot pilot finally achieves his dream of reaching outer space.  Even Randy Quaid’s redneck pilot character gets an arch, and one that pays off in the most over-the-top way possible.  Independence Day may have had the less impressive cast, but it used them much more effectively.

“Forget the fat lady. You’re obsessed with fat lady.  Just get us out of here!”

One other big difference between the movies is the aliens themselves.  It could be said the the Martians are the real stars of Mars Attacks since they are the focus for most of the plot and are responsible for most of the gags in the movie.  Taking inspiration from the card game that the movie was based on, the Martians in Mars Attacks are also visually unique.  With the skull like faces and the bulbous, brain protruding heads, they are evocative of B-Movie aliens, but grotesque and off-kilter in a way that makes them unique. Interesting enough, each and every one of them is voiced by the same guy (veteran voice actor Frank Welker) who manages to get so much character out of just repeating the same word over and over again (Ack! Ack! Ack!).  More than anything, the Martians represent the more clear input from director Tim Burton, who clearly wanted to indulge in some of the more silly over-the-top campiness of B-Movie era sci-fi.  The film itself is intentionally a live action cartoon, and the cartoonish-ly evil Martians fit ever so well into that vision, allowing them to take center stage.  The aliens of Independence Day don’t quite get the same kind of love in their movie.  In fact, you could say they are the weakest part.  The movie eventually does have to show the aliens, but once we see them, the illusion of menace is greatly reduced.  We see the creatures as these vacant eyed creatures with translucent skin and giant craniums.  In essence, not all that untypical of most other aliens we’ve seen.  Once we learn that the aliens are just as fragile as we are, and not much bigger, they become less of a threat more quickly.  That’s the unfortunate result that happens in the latter half of the movie.  It was far more effective to have the aliens personified through the massive spaceships they pilot.  At least those were able to scare us.  Overall, the aliens in Mars Attacks works better because they are given the full attention of the story, while it seems that the ones in Independence Day were an afterthought.

The last thing that defines the difference between these two movies, and illustrates that fine line between the serious and the comical in the genre, is the execution of their different styles.  It is interesting that Independence Day attempts to make us take it far more seriously, and yet fills it’s run-time with a number of irreverent comical asides that breaks the tension up.  Make no mistake, the movie does have moments of sheer terror, especially in the harrowing destruction sequence where we see landmarks like the Empire State Building and the White House blown to bits, but then it’ll be followed with a bit of colorful dialogue from Will Smith or Randy Quaid, deflating the tension immediately.  Mars Attacks more or less remains firmly in the realm of comedy, never once crossing into more serious territory.  And that is primarily what become the biggest problem with Mars Attacks; that rigid adherence to tone.  Comedy, especially with parody, is especially hard to pull off without something there to balance it.  Tim Burton keeps things consistently ridiculous, but the tension is lost as we just begin to see the movie as a string of sight gags loosely strung together.  The parody only works when the jokes are able to land, and Burton seems to be too preoccupied with everything else to make it all work together.  Some sequences are funny, like a montage of the Martians destroying landmarks, with one flying saucer changing the trajectory of the Washington Monument’s fall for maximum civilian casualties.  But a lot of other gags fall flat, when they really shouldn’t.  Honestly, I get more laughs from Independence Day, just because of how out of place some of the humor is, making it land far better.  What Independence Day showed is that it works better in your favor to blur that line between the two styles.  Sometimes it makes for a messy, inconsistent tone, but it can be worth it if the result brings a bigger impact.  Mars Attacks, with it’s unwillingness to change tone, ends up being a even keel ride around a colorful carousel, while Independence Day with it’s sometimes unpredictable and awkward tone shifts, becomes a wild roller coaster ride that leaves far more of an impression.

“I want the people to know that they still have 2 out of 3 branches of the government working for them, and that ain’t bad.”

So, there you have the big differences between these similarly plotted, but wildly opposite toned Sci-Fi features.  One is an awe-inspiring thrill ride that unfortunately undermines it’s own tension with lazy writing.  The other is a well-intentioned and loving parody of old style Sci-Fi, that isn’t quite as funny as it should have been.  Both have value, but in the end, I think that the sum of Independence Day’s parts make it the more rewarding experience.  It may be wildly inconsistent, and just downright laughably bad in other parts, but you have to admire the boldness that Emmerich and Devlin undertook in order to get it made.  In fact, it still stands as career best work for both men, as everything they’ve made since then has failed to connect in the same way.  Mars Attacks on the other hand is one of Tim Burton’s more lackluster efforts.  The fact that Mars Attacks came right on the heels of Burton’s most critically acclaimed and award-winning film, Ed Wood (1994), probably hurt it’s reputation as well.  It’s just too over-stuffed with material that could have produced comedy gold, but just ends up getting drowned out by everything else.  Perhaps working with such broad material worked to Burton’s disadvantage, since his strength is more in the visuals of his movie, of which Mars Attacks still benefits from.  But, it’s narrow vision as a Sci-Fi parody limits it in terms of being a cinematic breakthrough, and that’s why it performed less spectacularly at the box office than the record-shattering Independence Day.  Day may be far from a perfect movie, but it’s ambition helps to make it a far more rewarding experience, and shows that in some cases, a little mixture of the serious and the absurd can create an overall rewarding film.  It’s a beneficiary of the best of both worlds in Sci-Fi.  Attacks has more interesting aliens, but Independence Day is the better invasion movie, giving the experience the right sense of awe that the genre deserves.  It’s a flawed masterwork that earns the points purely by reaching further to the stars.

“And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: ‘We will not go quietly into the night!’ We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”

Tinseltown Throwdown – Love Story vs. The Fault in Our Stars

Valentine’s Day; a long time traditional holiday celebrating the act of love and expressing love to others.  Everyone around this time of year is either preparing something special for their loved one, or are sending many valentines out to those that matter to them as an expression of their appreciation.  Either way, this is the season when romance is at the forefront and Hollywood knows very well how to focus on this time of year.  Romantic movies often are prepped for early February in order to take advantage of the date night crowds that you’d expect would be turning up at all the local theaters.  They usually run the full spectrum from romantic comedies, to romantic tragedies, to opposites attract romances, to puppy love romance.  Sometimes there is even romances from unexpected places, like between two robots in Wall-E (2008) or between a man and his AI assistant in Her (2013).  One or more of these will usually end up coming out around Valentine’s Day each year, although this year isn’t giving us much to look forward to with Fifty Shades Darker.  The unfortunate thing with romantic themed movies generally is the often difficult balance of tone that makes or breaks many of them.  Romantic movies, when done right, can touch audiences of all types, but when they are not (and this happens a lot) it can be infuriatingly off point.  Too many romantic films will tend to be too sentimental, or not have enough sentimentality, or in some extreme cases, fall into some really bad taste.  You often see too many romance that are too corny for their own good, and it’s usually the fault of lazy writing, or mistakenly believing that audiences will feel as strongly about these themes as the filmmakers do.  And that’s when you fall into the worst kinds of romantic films the pretentious kinds.  And if there is sub-genre of romance that falls victim to pretension far too often, it’s the ill-fated romance.

Hollywood loves to exploit il-fated romances in movies, because it’s a mostly sure fire way to illicit tears from their audience.  It’s the kind of movie that establishes a perfectly compatible couple falling deeply in love, destined to live the rest of their lives together, and through plot contrivances both small and grand, pulls the couple apart and dooms them to forever wonder how things could have been different.  When people go to see a romantic film, their hope is to see love triumph in the end, so when a movie denies them this, it creates an even more intense response to the story and characters within the film; hoping for any sign of hope.  It’s not always a bad thing for movies to exploit this in a romantic movie.  Perhaps the greatest romantic film ever made, Casablanca (1943), concludes it’s story with it’s ideal couple split apart at the end, and as the movie states, it’s for the benefit of the world that they remain apart.  Doctor Zhivago took the ill-fated romance to even more epic heights, with lovers torn apart by suffering and having their happy ending undone by the systems that overpower them.  And of course, there is Titanic (1997), which is the quintessential ill-fated romance.  But, even though those movies succeeded, it was largely due to the fact that they were telling larger than life stories where finding eternal love would be put more to the test.  Hollywood sometimes makes the mistake of thinking any tragedy in a romantic film will guarantee cinematic gold, and that’s when we see more of the ill-fated romances that fail to live up to that goal.  One particular sub-genre of this type has been romances centered around death, and in particular, the inclusion of terminal illness into a relationship.  There have been two famous romantic films in particular, from two very different eras, that has played around with this plot device, and it’s led them to varying degrees of success both commercially and critically.  Those movies in question are 1970’s Love Story, and 2014’s The Fault in Our Stars.

“I fell in love with him the way you fall asleep; Slowly, and then all at once.”

On the surface, both movies have little in common, plot-wise or with tone.  Love Story, directed by Arthur Hiller and starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw, is an opposites attract connection between a rich, aristocratic young Harvard student who falls in love with a working class girl that he met at the school library.  They quickly fall in love, admiring each other’s intellect over their social status.  After getting married and starting their plans for the future, Ali MacGraw’s Jenny suddenly becomes incurably ill, and their fairy-tale romance is over just before it could ever take hold.  The Fault in Our Stars, based on the novel from best-selling author and popular internet vlogger John Green, begins and ends with the aura of death weighing over the minds of it’s characters.  It is about two teenagers, Hazel (played by Shailene Woodley ) and Augustus (played by Ansel Elgort), who are both dealing with terminal cancer, and end up falling in love after meeting at a cancer patient support group.  Though both are unrelated, they nevertheless follow the same formula of milking audience sympathy through the presence of tragic illness.  You would think that it makes both movies pretentious and cynical, because it’s such an obvious ploy for tug at the heartstrings of their audiences.  But, I do have to say that what ends up separating the two is the fact that one movie plays this card better than the other.  You would think that it’s the elder of the two, since it’s the movie that actually wrote many of the cliches that we find in so many ill-fated romances today, but no.  The Fault in Our Stars actually is the better of the two, and that’s only because it does a better job of being more honest with it’s intentions.   Love Story, on the other hand, is so heavy handed in it’s delivery, that it undermines any sympathy that it was ever trying to mine from it’s audience.

“Someday you’re gonna have to come up with the courage to admit you care.”

I’ll just come right out and say that I think that Love Story is a terrible film.  I don’t think I’m breaking new ground with that statement.  The movie was largely panned across the board when it was first released too.  But, it was also a huge box office hit as well.  That’s the only reason why we still talk about this movie today.  It may have been pandering and obscenely cynical in it’s intentions, but it was effective.  It’s like what we see with movies like Transformers (2007) in the action film genre.  Those films continue to become lazier in their storytelling and more shameless in their pandering to the audience with every new installment; enough to enrage anyone who wants to hold up film-making to a higher standard.  But, as long as they continue to make money, the less they’ll be willing to try harder.  Love Story is the Transformers or romantic movies; a big, aggressive pile of mediocrity that somehow has prospered and has left it’s mark on the industry.  Since it’s release, Hollywood has continued to look around for their next Love Story, and it created the awful trend of making pandering romantic films that never earn the right to bring their audiences to tears.  How many times do we see death or illness shoehorned into a romantic movie, just for the sole purpose of eliciting cheap sympathy points.  You can blame Love Story for inspiring most of those junk food Nicholas Sparks novels that we’re inundated with every year.  But, out of Love Story’s legacy, we also get a movie like The Fault in Our Stars.  Stars is by no means a perfect movie either, since it does it’s own fair share of pandering as well.  But, there is a sincerity to it that helps it to rise above.  It’s tonally more consistent, it’s characters are more authentic, and it more importantly never tries to pull the rug out from under it’s audience.

Let’s examine tone for a moment, especially with regards to how each movie deals with the theme of tragedy in their respective stories.  For most of it’s run-time, Love Story is just about the act of love, and not about the external forces that bring them together.  We see that the characters love each other, but nothing is ever understood from that.  We are never shown why it’s so important for these two to be in love.  The movie just seems to be one big windup to the inevitable tragic conclusion, and that’s why it feels so cheap.  A lot could’ve been mined from the story to make the tragedy more poignant, like having the couple maybe doubt their relationships before ultimately growing closer together again through tragedy.  But no, it’s all fairy-tale romance and then sadness and despair, with nothing in between.  Basically the movie’s message is that life is not fair because fate tore two happy people apart.  The Fault in Our Stars deals with the specter of death in a different way by putting it front and center.  The characters are not blind-sided by tragedy; it’s an everyday reality that they all have to deal with.  It’s the time that they have before the inevitable that becomes the driving force of their love.  For Hazel and Augustus, love is not about defying the odds and making the world notice how much they adore one another.  It’s about being there through the hardest days of your life and knowing that you are not alone.  How is it possible that a romance between teenagers has a more mature attitude towards love than the movie about two college aged adults.  Stars has it’s tug at the heart-string moments too (some cringe-worthy) but it earns most of them.  And that’s because it’s more upfront with it’s tone.   You know that the couple at it’s center is doomed, and they know it too.  For them, it’s a love about the precious element of time, and not wasting it consumed with grief and believing that life isn’t fair.

“You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do it’s killing.  A metaphor.”

The characterizations do a lot to help define each movie as well.  I for one despise the character of Oliver Barrett IV, played by Ryan O’Neal in Love Story.  This preppy, rich white boy is about as mature as a whiny child, and any attempt by the movie to make feel sympathy for him fails in a big way.  He loathes the privileged life that his wealth and name has given him, and yet he still views himself with an air of superiority.  He doesn’t ask for a dime from his father, but feels persecuted when his university doesn’t give him a head start over other students with financial aid.  Ali MacGraw’s Jenny is not much more likable; claiming to be independent minded, and yet she’s submissive to the desires and choices made by her eventual husband.  The fact that they are also intellectual snobs also contributes to the loathsomeness of their characters, and it all ends up making me feel lees involved in their story arc overall.  Truth be told, both Love Story and The Fault in Our Stars are romances between a bunch of privileged white people, but Stars never adds this underlying bogus sense of persecution that Love Story adheres to.  What I do love about the characters in Fault in Our Stars is the fact that they always cherish the fact that they’ve made it through another day.  Life has been unfair to them, but they don’t lash out because of it.  What makes Hazel and Augustus appealing as characters is the fact that they try to always put the most positive spin on things.  They use gallows humor a lot in the story, and it’s done in an endearing way.  Whether it’s Augustus joking about his one leg, or Hazel saying she’s so excited that she can hardly breathe, it shows that these are two people defined by their situation and that they are not ashamed of the cards they’ve been dealt, making them much stronger overall.

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

There’s also the fundamental flaw of pretension that also makes Love Story a loathsome film overall.  The above quote is what the movie is most known for and it is a notoriously awful statement about love that essentially spells out the cynical motive behind this movie.  It’s the kind of statement that’s supposed to be a fix-all to every hardship that that the characters deal with and intends to reinforce the idea that love conquers all.  But, it’s not the case.  Love is powerful, but it needs support, and it’s a support that shouldn’t be dismissed as unimportant.  After driving his wife away after an argument, Oliver goes out searching for Jenny, only to find her waiting for him back at home.  He says he’s sorry, but she answers with the above statement.  It’s as if to say, you did something bad, but you don’t have to answer for it because we have love and that’s what makes it all better.  It’s enough to make me scream at the movie to say, “That’s not how love works!!”  Love is about finding the common ground between you and your partner, and helping to bring out the best in one another.  Here, Jenny just put adoration over common sense, not asking Oliver to change but instead conforming to what he wants out of her.  It doesn’t surprise me in the least, that this movie was written by a man and told from the man’s point of view.  Fault in Our Stars is also written by men, both in the source and screenplay, but it gives the point of view to the female voice and allows her to have her own say.  Most insultingly, Love Story concludes with Oliver repeating the words to his father, as if to say, “you couldn’t understand our love, so saying sorry means nothing.”  If I was Oliver’s father, I would have slapped him for saying that.  That’s the rage that this movie has put me in.  Contrast this with a moment in Stars between Hazel and her mother (played by Laura Dern), where the mom explains how she intends to live with grief and that it should be a feeling that Hazel should share.  It’s a touching moment that reinforces the idea that love is all about understanding, and it is the antithesis to Love Story’s cynical and selfish view.

So, despite it’s long-lasting legacy, Love Story is far from a great romantic film.  It’s a cynical, formulaic piece of junk food that hit all the right buttons in order to become a success.  The Fault in Our Stars plays by the formula as well, but with far less cynicism.  It has charm, wit, and a fair share of genuine heartfelt moments.  That’s why when stacked up against one another, there is no contest between which is the better film.  I think the best thing about The Fault in Our Stars is how it goes out of it’s way to more honest with it’s audience, as opposed to Love Story.  It doesn’t try to sneak tragedy into it’s story and instead puts the theme right up front for the audience, letting them know that it will only be a matter of time for these characters.  I also admire the fact that with a story centered around characters that are doomed to die young, it is a surprisingly cheerful movie for the most part.  You despair in the fact that Hazel and Augustus only have a short time together, but you are also inspired by the fact that they made the most of that time.  Compare that to Oliver and Jenny, who spend most of their time together complaining that the world doesn’t understand them, and then lament the fact that life hasn’t been fair.  You found each other; that should be enough to tell you that some things in your life has been good.  Both movies unfortunately stand out as being the quintessential love story of each of their respective generations, both of which are among the most self-indulgent that we’ve ever seen in our culture; the baby boomers and the millennials.  But, Fault in Our Stars succeeds because it runs contrary to the attitudes of it’s generation and shows to it’s audience the ideal of what love can truly be, which is hope and compassion in the face of hate and tragedy.  That’s ultimately what makes The Fault in Our Stars a better love story than Love Story, and it’s the ideal kind of date movie that should be watched on any Valentine’s Day.

“I cannot tell you how thankful I am, for our little infinity.  You gave me a forever, within the numbered days.  And for that I am eternally grateful.”

Tinseltown Throwdown – Pocahontas vs. The New World

pocahontas-new-world

Our own history as a civilization has provided Hollywood with countless inspiration for a variety of movies.  And oftentimes, historical events are so monumental, that they inspire multiple interpretations.  The same is also true with historical figures as well.  The interesting thing about how Hollywood presents history on screen is that oftentimes the interpretation changes based upon the values of the current day.  Heroes of older historical retellings can often be changed into the villains for more modern films.  New historical evidence presented can even make us view the same events in a new light.  Regardless of the truth behind the historical accounts, Hollywood has shown that the way we view history is as fluid as any other type of story-telling.  Some of the most beloved historical films in fact play very loosely with actual history.   Wildly inaccurate historical movies like Braveheart (1995) often get a pass because they have an emotional resonance that transcends the need to stay faithful to what actually happened.  In many ways, it’s expected of Hollywood to not be historically accurate when making their movies, because in order to keep to a manageable two hour running time, elements of history will inevitably have to be changed, condensed, or just expelled completely to serve the story.  The many different angles that can be taken with historical films leads to many interesting results, and it’s especially fascinating to look at how different films take on a real historical figure.  Perhaps the most extreme recent example I can think of wildly different portrayals of the same historical figure would be the two films depicting the life of Native American icon, Pocahontas; the daughter of a Powhatan chieftan in pre-colonial America who was one of the first to encounter and interact with the European colonists.  There could have been many angles to take with the character, but it’s surprising in the end that Pocahontas’ big screen identity is defined as a Disney princess in Pocahontas (1995) and as the subject of an art film named The New World (2005).

Cinematically, these two movies could not be more different.  When Disney decided to take a shot at adapting Pocahontas’ story to the big screen, it was at a time when they were aiming high in the middle of their successful Renaissance period.  Then studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg believed that Pocahontas could be the Disney Studio’s equivalent of a prestige picture.  It was taken markedly more seriously than some of the other films from Disney Animation; with less of the usual Disney trademarks like talking animals (although there was still magical elements and musical numbers).  It also took on headier issues like cultural intolerance, colonial exploitation, and interracial love, which you wouldn’t normally see in an animated feature.  But, even with it’s higher ambitions, the movie only became a modest hit for Disney; grossing far under expectations and being overshadowed by the supposed “B-picture” that came before it (The Lion King).  Some would argue that Pocahontas suffered from the historical liberties that it took to tell it’s story, while others would argue that it’s story was just not up to the same level as previous Disney films.  More often, the former of the two complaints would win out.  Historians were just not happy with the Disneyfication of real events and people, because they felt that it presented the wrong lesson and portrait of the person that Pocahontas was.  Only ten years after, we were given yet another movie depicting the life of Pocahontas, only this time from art house icon Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life).  Malick’s take on the character felt truer to history in a production sense (with authentic locations and visual sense) but at the same time still felt like a big departure from actual history.  So, do either of them stand out as a worthier interpretation?  What I find more fascinating in comparing the two is not the ways that they are different, but the ways that they are similar, and how that better serves them as a cinematic experience.

new-world-1

“Come, spirit, help us sing the story of our land.  You are our mother.  We, your field of corn.  We rise from out of the soul of you.”

Before we contrast the two films, we should probably look at the subject herself, and what her legacy has meant for the history of America.  Pocahontas, or Matoaka as she was first named, was born around the turn of the 17th century in what is now coastal Virginia.  Nicknamed Pocahontas, which in the Algonquian language means “playful one,” she was among the first native people to encounter the arrival of English colonists in North America.  When the colonists arrived in 1607, they established the settlement of Jamestown, and not soon after began clashing with the native population.  According to legend, one of the colonists named John Smith was captured by the Powhatan people and was brought forth to the chief to be executed.  Before Chief Powhatan lowered his club, Pocahontas laid her body upon Smith to spare his life.  This act of mercy is proclaimed as one of the moments in American history meant to represent an ideal of peace across cultures.  However, the historical account is often called into question (Smith himself is the one who documented it), and harmony among cultures is something that didn’t really pan out for much of Native American history thereafter.  But, what we do know for certain about Pocahontas’ life thereafter is that she left her life among her people and lived among the settlers, later marrying a tobacco farmer named John Rolfe.  Her iconic status grew when she visited England years later and was brought before the court of King James as a representative of the “New World.”  Her visit marked the first ever for someone from the Western Hemisphere to make it Eastward.  Unfortunately, she contracted smallpox before she could make her journey home at the age of 21.  Though her life was brief, her influence on native and colonial relations is still significant, and she remains a historically important figure in early American history.

Though well known in American history, Pocahontas has surprisingly not been the subject of many film adaptations.  It’s probably because Hollywood has had a complicated history with Native American depictions.  Like I stated before, the values of the times change, and for the longest time, Native American people were often portrayed badly in movies from the past; often playing the role of the villains in Cowboy flicks.  As we’ve developed a better understanding of native populations in America, the need to present them with more dignity and respect has become much more essential.  Disney, more often today, has been making an extensive effort to include more culturally diverse characters into their stable, and Pocahontas was their attempt to include Native Americans into the mix.  While you can’t really state that Pocahontas is a princess like so many of the rest, she’s often given inclusion within the “Princess” product line that Disney has.  Disney themselves were also guilty of less than flattering depictions of Native Americans in the past (the tribe in Peter Pan for example), so I can understand why they would want to embrace the character so much as part of their collection.  But in doing so, did they undermine the significance of the person in American history?   There can only be an answer to this by contrasting it with a more true life image of Pocahontas that we find in The New World.  The Terrnence Malick film is not without it’s own liberties as well, but at the same time, it tries to do what few other movies have, which is to examine the world that Pocahontas lived within and attempt to understand how this shaped her into who she was.

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“Pocahontas, the tree is talking to me.”

“Then you should talk back.”

The character of Pocahontas comes across very differently in both movies.  The two films do stress the identity of a free spirited individual.  As one character in the animated version states, “She goes wherever the wind takes her.”  In many ways, this is something that feels true to the actual person that Pocahontas was.  Pocahontas bridged the gap between two cultures, and in order to do that, she couldn’t be entrenched in tradition and committed solely  to her own racial identity.  She had to see the changing times that were ahead and embrace the change that was coming her way; whether it was for the betterment of her society or not.  This is handled a bit more delicately in the Terrence Malick version.  Both films cast authentic Native American actresses in the role of Pocahontas, and in The New World, they went as far as to cast someone age appropriate as well.  Then 15 year old Q’orianka Kilcher portrays a version of Pocahontas that feels very authentic.  Though of mixed Incan and Swiss-German descent, Kilcher is close enough to the physical likeness of the real Pocahontas, whose only physical representation is preserved in a English made portrait from her final years.  Her performance is also nicely understated, capturing the innocence of the young girl caught up in a turbulent time quite well.  Though she often has to work through some of Terrence Malick’s sometimes dense poetic indulgences, her performance still gives you a sense of a maturing and awestruck pioneer.  Disney’s Pocahontas, voiced by Native actress Irene Bedard, is a bit more heavy handed in her depiction.  Though Bedard is exceptional in her vocal performance, it’s the writing that lets the character down.  Disney’s Pocahontas changes little in the movie; starting off as stereotypically rebellious and naive as she begins to encounter the English settlers.  It’s the downside of portraying a historical character within a highly fictionalized world like animation; you lose some of the subtlety.  It makes her growth far less involving when she you have to buy into the fact that she’s speaking to an enchanted talking willow tree.  Which is why I give the portrayal in The New World the edge here.

 

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“There’s something I know when I’m with you that I forget when I’m away.”

I believe where historical critics took the most issue with the portrayal of Pocahontas’ story on film was in how it depicted the relationship between her and John Smith.  In reality, Smith and Pocahontas were mere countenances who’s paths crossed briefly during the early days of the Jamestown colony.  Like I stated earlier, John Smith is the only one who accounted for Pocahontas’ act of mercy, and he only shared it long after the fact.  But, I guess for the purposes of cinematic licence, John Smith needed to be a stronger male presence, and in the case of Disney, I think they fell victim to their own formula here.  Not only do Pocahontas and John Smith fill the lead roles in the animated film, but they also become romantically involved, in the fairy-tale romance kind of sense.  While this is natural in so many other Disney movies, the romance is so awkwardly fixed into this story, especially when you know about the real history.  In reality, John Smith was nearly 30 years older than Pocahontas, so Disney aged her up just for the purpose of giving her a love story and avoid controversy.  Truth be told, the movie does handle it okay (it’s probably the most mature Disney love story we’ve seen to date), but it’s clearly the most blatant attempt by the studio to give this story a more conventional appeal.  It would be more problematic if Disney alone was guilty of this, but surprisingly, Terrence Malick includes a romantic connection between Pocahontas and Smith as well.  This is actually a bit more problematic in The New World considering it’s cast age-appropriately with the 15 year old Kilcher sharing a kiss with 30-something Colin Farrell as John Smith.  While it’s out of place, the romantic angle is understandable from a filmmaking point of view, and Disney manages it a bit better by giving it more resonance.  Also, Disney’s John Smith is a more charming lead (voiced by a pre-scandal Mel Gibson), whereas Colin Farrell was still in his awkward, trying too hard, Alexander era phase.   In many ways, I feel Disney was unfairly singled out because of this, while Malick somehow was given a pass for doing the same exact thing.

But, perhaps the most striking difference between the movies cinematically is the way it uses the most defining moment of Pocahontas’ life; her self-sacrifice to save John Smith.  The movies both spotlight the moment, but their placements are very different and because of this, it defines exactly what sets the different depictions apart.  In The New World, the pivotal moment happens early in the movie, using it as a touchstone to set into motion all that would happen afterwards in Pocahontas’ life.  In the animated film, it serves as the climax, bringing to head the collision between cultures that has been building up so far in the story.  It’s a really interesting comparison, where you can see how the same event can serve as both the start and ending of a story, depending on how it’s used.  In Disney’s Pocahontas, the heroine’s moment of truth stands in contrast to the growing racial tensions between her tribe and the Jamestown settlers.  Her action inspires her father to reexamine his resolve to kill for vengeance and it in turn teaches everyone that peace between cultures is the better way.  It’s a well handled statement and It’s clear why Disney waited for this moment in the film to bring the legendary action into the story.  In contrast, Terrence Malick starts his narrative off with the moment of defiance, and then uses the rest of the movie to show the aftermath; how it affected the tensions between settlers and the natives, how it turned Pocahontas into a cultural ambassador, and how it moved her away from the culture of her youth.  Essentially, Pocahontas’ act of mercy becomes one of many pivotal moments in the development of her character, rather than her defining moment.  The New World essentially uses the story of Pocahontas a window into the experience of being in pre-colonial America, and it is there where Terrence Malick’s ethereal style kind of undermines the purpose of the story.  Where Malick’s film wants to create an experience, Disney’s film is more intent on delivering a lesson, and a noble one at that.  Neither is historically true, but in Disney’s case, it leaves you with a bit more to think about by film’s end.

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“I’d rather die tomorrow than live a hundred years without knowing you.”

I guess in the overall picture, the surprising thing is not that Pocahontas’ life became the inspiration for film adaptations, but that her journey to the big screen manifested in such unexpected ways.  An animated love story is something that I’m sure many historians never thought Pocahontas would find her way into.  And for the cinematically experimental Terrence Malick to take an interest in her story as well is something that I’m sure very few cinephiles and historians alike would’ve ever thought would happen.  And yet, we’ve ended up with two noteworthy and unique adaptations of Pocahontas’ life.  Neither work very well as a history lesson, but they are interesting cinematic experiments regardless.  I tend to favor Disney’s version over Malick’s.  Despite all of it’s formulaic flaws, it’s heart is in it’s right place.  I feel like Disney made the film as a means to right some of their earlier wrongs and give Native American cultures the same level of dignity as any other.  I especially like how she is embraced today as among one of Disney’s most endearing Princess characters, despite the fact that she’s somewhat out of place in that category.  The New World is also a flawed work of art that still has much to admire.  The cinematography by Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki is unbelievably gorgeous, as is the production design.  Malick’s poetic style may not be for everyone, but it can’t be disputed that his movies are beautiful to look at, and it’s interesting to see that style attached to Pocahontas’ story.  I’d say watch The New World in order to understand who Pocahontas was, and then watch the Disney version to understand why she’s so important.  They both serve their purposes, but the more resonant one will be the animated version.  Sometimes historical liberties are essential to help us learn more about figures from our past.  And in this case, Pocahontas evolved from a chief’s daughter, into an ambassador, to American icon, and is now viewed many years later as a princess.  That’s history for you.

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“You can own the Earth and still all you’ll own is Earth until you can paint with all the Colors of the Wind.”