Frozen – Review

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Sometimes Disney Animation has found itself to be it’s own worst enemy.  By this I mean that when they have a hugely successful film at one point in time, it will put a lot more constrictive pressure on whatever they have coming up next.  And when you’re in the business of making animated films that take 3-4 years to create, it’s very hard for a company like them to correct course in order to do repeat business.  For the most part, Disney has had better luck than most, but there has been a pattern in Disney’s history of some of their most ambitious films failing to meet expectations, while audiences gravitate to the less ambitious but entirely groundbreaking follow-ups.  This started back when Fantasia (1940), a film that Walt Disney put so much of his own effort into, flopped at the box office; and in the following year,1941, modestly budgeted and slapped-together Dumbo became a huge success.  The same thing happen again to Disney with the costly Sleeping Beauty (1959) and it’s follow-up 101 Dalmatians (1961), and once again with The Black Cauldron (1985) followed by The Great Mouse Detective (1986).  The trend actually reversed in the 90’s with the disappointing Pocahontas (1995) following-up The Lion King (1994); Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) following The Emperor’s New Groove (2000); and finally with Treasure Planet (2002) following Lilo & Stitch (2002).  Suffice to say, both trends have been common in Disney’s history.
So, when trends tend to dictate the success rate of your output, it’s understandable why Disney has stuck so closely to the genre that has given them the most success; the fairy tale.  In the last five years, we have seen no less than three fairy tale adaptations from the Disney company; 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, 2010’s Tangled, and this year’s new release, Frozen.  It’s clear that they are aware of their tradition and are very intent on carrying it on generation after generation.  But following formula does have it’s risks, and that sometimes comes about when breaking from tradition has actually paid off for the company.  As I illustrated earlier, sometimes a project that looks like a sure winner will fail to perform either when a new trend will appear or when people lose interest in the formula.  Frozen comes to theaters with a lot of expectations on it’s shoulders, which can be both a benefit and a curse to it’s prospects.  Last year, Disney found success with the very well made Wreck-it Ralph (2012), which was a huge departure from the Disney formula that paid off in a big way.  This only puts Frozen in an even more difficult situation of following this success up by returning to it’s traditional roots.  This is the knowledge that I brought with me when I saw the movie, and while Frozen does a fine job of making a beautiful and engaging animated film that I’m sure will please audiences worldwide, I can’t help but feel that some of that tradition did have a negative effect in the end.
Frozen is the 8th fairy tale adaptation from Disney, and the second taken from a story by Hans Christian Anderson.  Based, loosely, off of the story of The Snow Queen, the film follows the lives and adventures of two princess sisters in a fictional Scandinavian kingdom called Arrendale.  The eldest sister, Elsa, has been cursed from birth with the power to magically create ice and snow, which her family tries to conceal from the world and even from the younger sister, Anna.  After their parents are killed at sea, Elsa is soon crowned Queen and forced into facing the kingdom that she has been shuttered away from all her life, all the while struggling to control her powers as they become more powerful and erratic.  After an argument at her coronation ceremony with Anna, Elsa accidentally reveals her sorcery to the public, which leads her to flee into the mountains in exile.  Anna, hoping to reconcile with her sister, follows after her and leaves her fiancee Hans in charge of the kingdom.  While on her journey, she gets help from an ice gatherer named Kristoff, his reindeer Sven, and an enchanted snowman named Olaf.  Unfortunately for Anna and Elsa, the lack of control over the Queen’s powers has left the kingdom clouded in an eternal winter, and the bond between them is not so easily mended.
One of the things that I can say that the movie does very well is it’s story-line.  I’d say that this is the most competently put together fairy tale adaptation that Disney has done since Beauty and the Beast (1992).  While I did like aspects of both The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, I do feel that they had something lacking in the story department.  And let’s not forget the complete mess that was Pixar’s disappointing Brave (2012).  With Frozen, it is clear that the filmmakers actually put in the effort to make the story as compelling and consistent as it possibly could be.  I especially like the fact that this movie is a little self-aware of its Disney and fairy tale tradition, and at times finds funny ways to poke fun at it.  At one point in the movie, Anna falls deeply in love with Hans, a very Prince Charming-type character, and they agree to marry, even though they only met that same morning.  Elsa rightly points out that love at first sight is not true love, and I’m sure that many people have been wanting to hear someone say that in a Disney movie for years.  Despite these few meta moments in the film, the story actually does work well within the familiar fairy tale tropes and overall feels very much in line with some of the best Disney fairy tales.
One of the other things that worked very well for Frozen was the voice cast.  I’m glad that Disney chose not to cast any big celebrity names in this film, and instead went for the people who were the best match for the characters.  Certainly the casting of Elsa and Anna were important, and here they cast Broadway actress Idina Menzel (Wicked) and TV actress Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) in the respective roles.  Idina in particular delivers an exceptional vocal performance as Elsa, and helps to make her one of the most compelling Disney characters that I’ve seen in quite a while.  Kristen Bell is charming as Anna, and while the character is a little too perky at times, Bell manages to get the finer parts of the character right.  Another Broadway vet, Josh Gad (The Book of Mormon), shows surprising restraint as the comic relief character Olaf, who would have come across as obnoxious if played by the wrong actor.  Instead, Olaf’s comical hi-jinks actually compliments the film very well, and Gad’s performance has a lot to do with that.  Also, actor Jonathan Groff (TV’s Glee) gives a nice eccentric performance as Kristoff, helping him to stand out from the typical leading man in Disney movies.  I particularly liked how Kristoff externalizes conversations with his voiceless pet reindeer Sven, and yet it seems like it’s exactly what Sven would say if he had a voice.  Overall, everyone does their job well here and creates a well rounded cast of characters that I know will quickly become popular to fans young and old alike.
So, how come my review sounds a bit down on the film.  Well, it’s a complicated feeling that I have about this movie, and it really has to do with where Frozen fits within the Disney formula.  Like I’ve said before, Disney’s legacy has been both a blessing and a curse for some of the movies in it’s catalog, and some of that works against Frozen.  While I think the story is pretty solid, and does a commendable job of injecting new ideas into the Disney formula, the movie as a whole feels a tad too unfocused.  The problem I had with the film is that one character in particular, this being Elsa, was so strong and had such a compelling role to play in the story, that it kind of overwhelmed everything else.  And unfortunately, her story-line is not the thing that gets most of the focus in the film; instead Anna’s story-line is given precedence.  This would be more of a problem if Anna was an uninteresting heroine, but thankfully she’s better than that.  Somehow, I felt that the script put too little emphasis on it’s most interesting character, and that was not a good thing in my book.  Also, as solid as the story-line is throughout most of the movie, it does have a rather weak ending.  And this comes after a really strong final act that has some really out of left field twists.  What I think happened was that the writers didn’t know how to end their story, and instead they just slapped together a really pat and underwhelming epilogue that doesn’t feel at all like it belongs in the same movie.
When it comes to judging new Disney films, I try to leave tradition at the door and just judge a movie on it’s own merits.  But when you have movies that rely so heavily on where they stand among other classics, I can’t help but include tradition as a part of my assessment.  Frozen tries very hard to be a return to the classic Disney fairy tale standard that was set so high with movies like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.  Unfortunately for Frozen, I feel like it’s striving for something that it really shouldn’t try to reach for.  The reason why The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were such astounding successes in their time is because they weren’t trying to match their predecessors.  There was a 30 year gap, between Mermaid and the last fairy tale film before it, which was Sleeping Beauty, so the pressure on it was much less.  As a result, The Little Mermaid could play by it’s own rules and in the end it set a new standard for the Disney fairy tale.  Beauty and the Beast, likewise, built on that new standard while at the same time sticking to it’s own rules.  Frozen, unfortunately, plays it safe and that’s why I feel it falls short of those previous classics.  That being said, it comes the closest to that standard than Princess and the Frog and Tangled, and especially Brave ever did.
One thing I will say that Frozen does live up to with the previous classics is with it’s musical score.  The songs fit much better in this movie than they have in any other previous Disney musical in the last 20 years, which is quite a feat.  Some songs in it are just okay, but there are a few that really stand out.  One particular song called “Let it Go,” sung by Elsa during her exile, may just be the best song I’ve heard in an animated film since “A Whole New World” in Aladdin (1992).  Yes, even better than any song from The Lion King.  It helps when you have a Broadway-trained singer like Idina Menzel singing it, and she uses those impressive pipes to full effect here.  It’s the kind of song that will give the audience chills (no pun intended) and in a good way.  The songs were written by Broadway vet Robert Lopez and his wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, both of whom have written some very non-Disney appropriate music in the past for musicals like Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon.  Despite their previous work, their musical numbers here actually are very clean and fit right in place in the overall Disney songbook, especially “Let it Go”.  Also, I want to add that the visual look of this film is outstanding.  This is the first 70mm Disney fairy tale since Sleeping Beauty, and the filmmakers make great use of the wider frame.  The landscapes down to the interiors of Elsa’s ice palace are all a wonder to look at, and it really makes this a world well worth delving into throughout the movie.
So, maybe I’m being unfair to the film by having too high a standard, but having grown up with Disney movies all my life, I feel like I have to hold something like Frozen up to some higher scrutiny.  The film for the most part does pass the test, but I would be lying if I said that I thought it was a masterpiece.  It’s just okay.  In the pantheon of Disney films, I would put it somewhere in the middle and maybe a little bit more into the better half.  It’s just a testament to how much I care for the Disney legacy, and how many great films they have made in the past.  On the bright side, Frozen is one of the better films that Disney has made in the last decade; though I will say, I enjoyed Wreck-it Ralph a tiny bit more.  I do hope that the movie does well, and I’m sure that most people will like it better than I did, and they should.  It does do well by the Disney Fairy Tale brand, and both Elsa and Anna have earned their place alongside Snow White, Belle, Cinderella, Ariel, and the other Disney Princesses.  Despite it’s flaws, it does take the Disney formula in the right direction and elevates the animated medium as well.  It says a lot when Disney actually has done something better in the last couple of years than Pixar.  For all accounts, this is the movie that Brave should have been.  So, while the Disney tradition has clouded my opinion on some aspects of the movie, I do like what Frozen represents, which is a solid story-line with great characters, who more than most films in the last decade, do deserve to be a part of the Disney legacy.
Rating: 7/10

Collecting Criterion – The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

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The Criterion Collection is known for being the distributor of some of the greatest and underseen classics of yesteryear, but they also have a reputation for putting out modern films as well.  In fact, if you look at the complete collection entirely, you’ll see that a good percentage of the titles are ones from the last 20 years or so.  This does open up the debate over whether or not the Criterion Collection has a high enough standard over which titles it includes, considering the fact that it takes time for a film to earn the status of a classic.  Some of Criterion’s more controversial choices for inclusion in recent years have included the films of David Fincher (#476 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, #627 The Game), a film by Girls star and creator Lena Dunham (#597 Tiny Furniture) and also the movies of Michael Bay, I kid you not (#40 Armageddon, #107 The Rock, both now out of print).  This begs the question of what makes a film a classic and if Criterion are the ones responsible for making that decision.  I’m sure that Criterion would themselves say that they choose titles not because of their status as a classic, but on whether or not it’s a title that will sell well in the video market.  The fact that they devote so much time and effort to make the editions of their titles so good is one of the things that has set them apart.  And the reason why they choose to release films from contemporary directors is so that they can get the filmmakers’ actual input on the release of their films in the collection, as well as their approval.
One director who has not only had his whole filmography released under the Criterion label, but has also had his career boosted by the Collection as well, is Texas-born filmmaker Wes Anderson. Anderson is a very polarizing director, mainly due to his very distinctive style.  His films usually are identified by their quirky story-lines and characters, their unconventional use of pop songs (mainly from the 60’s and 70’s) to underscore a scene, the bold use of colors and deliberate composition in the cinematography, and last but certainly not least, the presence of the great Bill Murray.  Some people either love Wes Anderson’s movies in all their eccentricities, or loathe them as being nothing more than style over substance.  While I can see how some people dislike Wes Anderson’s style, I for one can’t get enough of it.  I have yet to see a Wes Anderson film that I didn’t like; even the one that left me a little underwhelmed (Criterion #450 Bottle Rocket) was one that I could still appreciate.  And part of what has made me a fan of Wes Anderson’s work has been the excellent Criterion releases devoted to his films.  So far, six of his movies have been released as part of the Criterion Collection: the aforementioned Bottle Rocket (1996), #65 Rushmore (1998), #300 The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), #540 The Darjeeling Limited (2007), and coming next February, #700 Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), which was my personal pick for the best film of 2009.  One film in particular does stands out, mainly due to it’s early popularity, as a film that really began to define Wes Anderson’s status as a filmmaker: that being #157, 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums.

The movie follows the struggling relationship between members of an affluent, but fractured family.  The patriarch, Royal Tenenbaum (a perfect Gene Hackman) finds that the funds that have helped to support his decadent lifestyle have been drying up, and this leads him to turning back to the family that he had all but cut ties with years ago.  The once proud family, made up of three former “wonder kids” now in their adulthood, are also struggling to take control of their lives.  Chas (Ben Stiller) a Wall Street hot shot in his youth, who’s now struggling to keep everything afloat as a single father after his wife had died in a plane crash.  Adopted daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) gave up a promising career as a playwright in order to settle down in a now loveless marriage with psychologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray).  And Richie (Luke Wilson), the youngest, had a promising career as a tennis phenom, before he began to lose his game and faded into obscurity.  Etheline Tenenbaum (Angelica Huston), the mother, has manged to keep her house in order despite the hard times with the help of her accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), who has suddenly shared his growing affection with her.  This prompts Royal to step in and reclaim his family before he loses them forever.  And how does he do this?  By telling them all that he’s dying of cancer, which is a flat out lie.
The film is a loaded one to be sure, and I wouldn’t disagree that Wes Anderson sometimes struggles to keep everything in check over the course of the run-time.  But, The Royal Tenenbaums is nevertheless a very effective and charming movie.  What makes it work so well, no doubt is the cast.  Gene Hackman is outstanding as Royal Tenenbaum, and he steals every moment he’s on screen.  What I love is the fact that Royal is so likable in this movie, even when he’s doing and saying the most horrible things.  Wes Anderson’s scripts, which he co-writes on every movie (this time with co-star Owen Wilson), are known for their sly, and rather outlandish sense of humor, and no character better exemplifies that than Royal.  I especially like the way that he takes little consideration of other peoples feelings, even when he’s in direct conversation with them.  An awkward exchange with Chas at a cemetery in particular is both an uncomfortable and laugh-out-loud funny moment in the movie (“Oh, that’s right.  We’ve got another body here.”)  Gene Hackman alone would been enough to watch this movie, but the rest of the cast is also excellent.  Angelica Huston brings a lot of class to the character of Etheline and helps to give the film its moral center.  Gwyneth Paltrow is hilariously deadpan as Margot.  Ben Stiller and Luke Wilson deliver some of their best performances as well.  And Anderson regular Bill Murray is absolutely hilarious in his few moments onscreen.  Add in Owen Wilson as ticking timebomb next-door neighbor and author named Eli Cash, and you’ve got a very well rounded cast.
If the film has a flaw, albeit a minor one, it’s the fact that it feels unfocused.  I mainly see this as a byproduct of trying to fit too many things into one film. The cast of characters is enormous, and trying to give everyone enough screen time is a daunting task for any filmmaker.  The Royal Tenenbaums was made in the early part of Wes Anderson’s career, at a time when he was still figuring things out.  Looking back on the film, you can see that his style was still forming at this point in time.  The Royal Tenenbaums would be Anderson’s last film to feature a kind of naturalistic aesthetic look to it, as he began to head in a much more whimsical and cartoonish direction with his next film The Life Aquatic.  I think that the more subdued visuals of Royal Tenenbaums is probably why this film has remained to date one of Wes Anderson’s more popular films.  It’s undoubtedly his most mainstream film to date, though The Royal Tenenbaums is not a conventional Hollywood movie by any means.   But as a part of his overall body of work, I see this movie as one of his lesser efforts.  I still love it, don’t get me wrong, but when I think of a Wes Anderson movie, this is not the one that comes to mind.  I think of his later films as being the ones that really define him as a director, given how much more assured they are.  But, I am glad to see how well this film has held up both as a movie and as a part of the director’s full oeuvre.
What is significant about the Criterion edition of this film is the fact that it was released as part of the collection almost instantly.  Like I had said before, sometimes it takes a while for a film to achieve classic status, and only then it may find it’s way into Criterion’s catalog.  The Royal Tenenbaums, however, was selected to be a part of the collection right when it left theaters; the shortest window ever for a Criterion title.  The choice was made probably because of the fact that Wes Anderson’s previous film, Rushmore, sold so well under the Criterion label in the years after it’s premiere.  Adding The Royal Tenenbaums seemed like a no-brainer choice, especially after it’s own successful run in theaters.  But, what’s even more remarkable is the fact that Criterion had the exclusive rights to the film’s DVD release, thanks to a deal with Touchstone Pictures who financed the movie, and they made the movie available to the mass market.  You have to understand that this was an unusual move on Criterion’s part.  Up until that point, Criterion released their titles in small quantities and usually limited the availability to a few select retailers nationwide.  In my home town, I would usually only find a Criterion movie section in my local Barnes & Nobles, and that was it.  So, the fact that The Royal Tenenbaums was so widely available was a significant game changer for both Wes Anderson and Criterion.  I’m sure that for many people, Royal Tenenbaums had to have been their first Criterion title, which opened up the gates for a whole new audience for the distributor.
The Royal Tenenbaums DVD release back in 2002 was an enormous success, making the movie one of Criterion’s best-selling titles.  Last year, they revisited the film again with a Blu-ray edition, which helps to give this 12 year old film a fresh new look.  The movie is stunning in high definition, as is every other Wes Anderson film.  This is probably why the director has become a favorite among Criterion collectors like myself; his bold use of colors brings out the full potential of the color range and brightness in a Blu-ray presentation.  The blu-ray edition also carries over every bonus feature from the previous DVD release.  Among the extras found here are a Director’s commentary by Anderson himself.  There’s an interesting filmmaker profile of Wes Anderson made by none other than acclaimed documentarian, Albert Mayles.  There are also a dozen or so behind the scenes clips of the actors at work on the set, along with some interviews.  There’s also a fun little faux talk show made by Anderson called The Peter Bradley Show, which highlights miscellaneous people involved with the film like extras, grips, and the late Kumar Pallana, who played Royal’s butler in the movie.  Also included in the set are original artwork pieces by Wes Anderson’s cousin and resident company artist, Eric Anderson, whose style perfectly compliments the movie.  In fact, the Criterion Collection has used Eric Anderson’s artwork for every one of their Wes Anderson titles, including using some of them as the cover art for each edition, including this one.
So, The Royal Tenenbaums stands as not just an important release for Wes Anderson, but as a groundbreaking movie for their the Criterion brand as well.  I’m sure that a lot of people have this film to thank for introducing them to both Criterion and Mr. Anderson.  The film has aged very well over the years, though I think that it’s clear that Anderson has clearly moved on to bigger and better movies since then.  The Royal Tenenbaums was a launching point for him; an opportunity to show what he can do with more tools at his disposal, and I’m happy that the end result was as successful as it was.  My hope is that Wes Anderson continues to stick by Criterion and have every one of his releases available under their label.  The one holdout is last year’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012), but I’m sure that a Criterion edition is in the works for it in the near future.  The years ahead also looks bright for the director.  His next film, The Grand Budapest Hotel is set for release next March and the trailer alone is enough to make me smile.  I also like the fact that Wes Anderson’s style has clearly become so identifiable now, that it received a SNL send up this year that was both mocking and reverential at the same time.  It even included narration from Alec Baldwin, who was also the narrator in The Royal Tenenbaums, showing just how impactful this film has been.  Even if you find Wes Anderson’s style a little too quaint, The Royal Tenenbaums is still worth watching.  If anything, this Criterion edition will give this film the stunning presentation that it rightly deserves.
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Flicks and Picks – The End of the Blockbuster Video Era

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Though it was long seen coming, it finally became official this last week.  Blockbuster Video is no more.  While this is a sign of how things have progressed in home entertainment for mostly the better, with on-demand and streaming video making it easier for the consumer to watch whatever they want, it does also bring an end to an institution that has been at the center of many cinephiles lives.  Apart from some independent holdovers here and there, you rarely will find a video store in your local neighborhood today.  But back in the day, finding a store devoted to video rentals was as easy as finding a McDonald’s.  The decline of video stores over the years certainly has had to do with the advancements in streaming video, but the dominance of Blockbuster Video as a company also played a role as well.  In a way, by working so hard to become the top dog of the video rental market, Blockbuster also facilitated it’s own downfall when the market changed once again.  Though the end of Blockbuster was inevitable, and needed to happen, it does leave a gap for those of us who’ve built their love for film through renting from their local video store.  The video rental experience, while not exactly life-changing, is something that most film lovers have been through at some point in their lives, and this week it has now become a thing of the past.   In this article, I will look back on this era that Blockbuster Video defined, and what it’s end means for the future of home entertainment.
In the late 80’s, we saw the emergence of VHS, which gave studios and filmmakers the ability to make films available for purchase after their theatrical release for the very first time.  Before, audiences had to wait for airings on television before they could see their favorite films again, and that also meant having to put up with commercial breaks as well.  When VHS tapes started to be produced by the studios directly, it led to the creation of a niche market, with stores opening up across the country, directly geared toward filling that public appetite.  Being able to own a movie as part of a collection is a commonplace thing nowadays, but when home video sales began, it was an exciting new frontier and it had an influence on the film industry almost instantly.  Not only did the rise of home video affect the number of theatrical runs that a movie would have, but it also drove the movie studios towards film preservation and restoration as well, because of course, presentation matters for home viewing.
But, like with most new technology, VCR tape players were very expensive, and buying a movie to play in it was also not cheap at the time.  Some retailers even had to pay prices as high as $100 per movie in order to have it available in their stores.  So, in order to get more out of their product, and to let audiences have better access to the movies they wanted, video rental services came into being.  Like checking a book out from a library, consumers would be able to rent a movie for a certain amount of days at a low price.  This business model worked extremely well and led to boom in VCR sales.  Video stores popped up all across the country, both locally owned and franchise operated, and home video sales very quickly became a major part of the film industry as a whole.  But, it wasn’t just studio films that benefited  from this new market.  Independent producers saw an open opportunity in this new industry, and before long a whole Direct to Video market opened up, thanks to video stores allowing to indiscriminately sell and rent out a whole variety of films as a way to fill their shelves with more product.  In these early days, it was very common to see a diverse collection of independent stores in your hometown, as it was in mine.  There were stores that I grew up with  in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon that went by such varied names as Silver Screen Video or Flix & Picks, and choosing a rental from these places certainly had an affect on my growing interest in movies at a young age.
But that changed in the mid 90’s when the video rental industry became more standardized.  Out of this period of time came a chain of stores known as Blockbuster Video.  Blockbuster was founded in 1985 in Dallas, Texas, and started off as just another local retailer like most other stores, before it began to expand rapidly.  In the late 90’s, it was common to find at least one local Blockbuster in your area, and by the end of the decade, Blockbuster was unrivaled in the home video market.  Their rise had the negative affect of forcing all of the other competition out of business, which benefited them for the time being, but it would come back to bite them in the years ahead.  Blockbuster may have been ruthless to the competition, but to become the best in the industry, they did manage to do many beneficial things that did revolutionize the market.  For one thing, they were the first national retailer to begin video game rentals.  Their standardization of rental pick ups and drop offs also revolutionized the way we rent movies, making the drop off slots at your local store a life-saver late at night.  Also, Blockbuster was also the first chain to begin working within the film industry to create exclusive promotions and deals on upcoming releases.  Despite seeing a lack of choices in rental stores happen because of Blockbuster’s dominance, I don’t believe that consumers cared much about it as long as Blockbuster still operated efficiently.
Most film lovers will attest that they’ve probably spent a good amount of their time in a Blockbuster store.  While many of us could find exactly what we wanted at any time, there was another side effect that also changed how we grew up watching movies after spending time in a Blockbuster, and that effect would be the impulse rental.  I’m sure most of you out there have come out of a Blockbuster Video at one time with a movie you’ve never even heard of instead of the one you wanted, simply out of curiosity.  Having a variety of choices seems normal now, but not until video rental came about did consumers have that level of control over what they were able to choose.  Before, you would have been limited to the whatever was playing on TV or in your local cinema, but stores like Blockbuster made consumer choices as simple as a quick scan through their shelves.  For cinephiles, I’m sure that part of their growing love for films started out of making a surprise choice in the local video store, and with stores as big and as well stocked as Blockbuster, those surprises could have come from even the most obscure of titles.  Blockbuster was also handy for film students like me whenever we had to watch a film as part of an assignment.  Whether it was a film we knew or not, at least we had the comfort of knowing that there was a place we could look for it in a hurry.
In the later years, however, the market began to change again.  The internet revolutionized video streaming in the later part of the 2000’s, and our reliance on Video and DVD for home entertainment purposes soon became a thing of the past too.  Even though Blockbuster cleared out all comparable competition, they were ill equipped to take on the likes of a Netflix.  What Netflix did was to eliminate the middle man in video rentals, and have movies sent directly to the home through the mail, which made it unnecessary for anyone to go out to a store and rent a movie anymore.  Blockbuster tried it’s own rent by mail service in response, but by then the damage had already been done.  Netflix had surpassed Blockbuster as the number one rental service and the former giant had to begin downsizing in order to survive.  Soon, Redbox emerged and took away even more business from Blockbuster, appearing as convenient vending machines in grocery stores for anyone looking for an impulse rental.  Like most all other forms of retail, the trend has moved towards online shopping, and Blockbuster is one of the biggest to have fallen, mainly because their business model was one that couldn’t adapt in the digital age.  All that’s left for Blockbuster is it’s still recognizable name, and even that is owned by someone else now (it was purchased by DirectTV in 2011 for the branding it’s on-demand service).
Because Blockbuster eliminated much of the competition beforehand, it has actually made the transition to on-demand video renting faster and less rocky.  There was no large grouping of various retailers resisting the the changes in the market; only Blockbuster.  And now that they are gone, the era of land-based video rental shops has ended with them.  Sure there are independent stores in certain areas that still serve nostalgic purposes, but their clientele is limited.  Now it is more commonplace to hear that people have a Netflix account rather than a Blockbuster card.  But Blockbuster still left a legacy that will not be quickly forgotten, especially among longtime movie aficionados.  Many of us can still remember moments when being close to a Blockbuster came in handy; whether it was for a late night impulse rental, or for a quick bit of research, or for merely wanting to see a movie that you missed the first time around.  For many people, the first time they watched a particular movie, it was probably not in a movie theater but through a rental from big blue.  I can certainly say that I credit my local Blockbuster for helping me experience so many different types of movies.  One of my favorite films of all time (Seven Samurai) came to me out of an impulse rental from Blockbuster, and I will always be grateful for that.
So it’s a bittersweet end for the onetime giant.  Their closure spells the end of an institution that has been a big part of all of our cinematic experiences, but it’s a closure that was necessary.  Netflix and Redbox are just much better and convenient services, and Blockbuster was a relic that was standing in the way.  But, as we move forward, will those two also fall prey to the same fate as Blockbuster.  My guess is probably not.  Blockbuster had the unfortunate circumstance of being the top force in a market that was destined to fall.  Netflix and Redbox, however, have relished in the fact that they stand in direct competition with each other, and that has led to new and creative avenues for both companies.  Unlike Blockbuster, Netflix has branched out and generated their own exclusive content, including comedy specials and original shows like House of Cards, which not only makes it a great rental service, but also a competitor to broadcast TV.  And Redbox is able to make itself available in locations all across the world without having to set up the infrastructure of an entire store chain.  And with Amazon and Walmart entering the market with their own video streaming services like AmazonPrime and VUDU, it’s showing that the rental market is one that is going to continue growing in this new direction.  Blockbuster is certainly done as an independent company, but without it ever being there in the first place, the rental business would certainly never have gotten to where it is now, and that’s the legacy that it ultimately will leave behind.

Thor: The Dark World – Review

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Marvel Studios has built something up that we rarely see fully realized in movies and that is a wholly compatible universe where all of their comic heroes can coexist within, while at the same time maintaining their own unique worlds in their selective franchises.  From this, we have seen the big screen translations of famed Marvel characters like Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor become hugely successful, with The Avengers movie series being the orbital force that binds everything together.  While this has been a strategy that has brought about some very great results in the last few years, such an ambitious project is bound to hit a few pitfalls eventually.  For me, that happened this summer with the release of Iron Man 3.  While still a huge success at the box-office, the movie suffered from a lack of focus in it’s story-telling and became the first disappointment of the so-called “Avenger Initiative” thus far.  My worry after seeing the lackluster Iron Man 3 was that the individual films dedicated to each super hero were only going to turn into bland appetizers in preparation for the Avengers main course; and they would no longer be able to stand on their own as a singular movie.  With Thor: The Dark World being released this week, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier following in April 2014, I was afraid that these two characters were going to fall into the trap as Iron Man, and were only going to drag down Marvel’s master plan even more.
Thankfully, my worries proved untrue after watching Thor: The Dark World.  This second installment in the Thor franchise is a genuinely entertaining and overall worthy addition to the “Avenger Initiative” project.  Following up on the previous Thor film, as well as The Avengers movie itself, The Dark World manages to build upon what we’ve already seen and make it bigger and more epic without ever losing it’s focus.  I think that’s what helps it succeed where Iron Man 3 floundered; that ability to keep things under control.  The first Thor was directed by Kenneth Branagh, who was an unusual choice for such a project in the first place, given his notoriety as an actor and director of Shakespearean productions and small scale dramas.  But Mr. Branagh not only managed to create a successful first outing for the god of thunder on the big screen, his style of directing proved to be a great tone setter for the series as well.  The Dark World follows through on that foundation and manages to not only work as a sequel, but also stand very well enough on it’s own as a movie worth seeing.
Picking up right after the events of The Avengers, we find Thor (Chirs Hemsworth) leading his armies in battle in an attempt to restore order to each of the Seven Realms, of which Earth is also included.  At the same time on Earth, we find Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a physicist and love interest of Thor in the first movie, discovering dimensional anomalies in the city of London, England.  After examining dimensional portals in a warehouse, Jane is pulled through one suddenly, which takes her into a secret vault containing a powerful super-weapon called the Aether.  Jane unwillingly is turned into a host for the Aether as it enters her body, and she is sent hurtling back to Earth.  In no time, Thor finds her and whisks her away to Asgard, the kingdom of Thor and his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins).  There, they keep her safe, as an ancient race of aliens called the Dark Elves arrive to reclaim the Aether for themselves, which they plan to use to destroy the Seven Realms together in one catastrophic event called the Convergence.  Disobeying his father’s stubborn orders, Thor knows of only one way to take Jane out of danger’s way, and it means calling upon the help of his treacherous brother, and main Avengers villain, Loki (Tom Hiddleston).
For a very complicated plot such as this one, I’m surprised that the filmmakers involved managed to not lose control of it and have everything end up as a convoluted mess in the end.  I believe what helps to carry the story through are the characters themselves.  Chris Hemsworth has now had two films to develop the character of Thor over, and his performance in this movie shows just how comfortable he has become with the role.  He’s charming without coming across as smarmy or self-indulgent.  Unfortunately, the film doesn’t give him much to do until the second half, which would have been more of a problem if there weren’t any other strong characters there to pick up the slack.  The rest of the cast is more or less in tact from the first movie, and they all fit well within the story-line without seeming superfluous.  Natalie Portman, especially, improves upon her role from the first movie, in that she has an integral part to play this time, other than being the love interest character.  I like her resourcefulness throughout the movie and the ways that she avoids being just another damsel in distress.  Anthony Hopkins also brings great gravitas to the character of Odin, but you wouldn’t expect any less from an actor of his caliber.
The movie’s brightest spot, however, is the character of Loki.  He has been the one that has improved the most over time, and I think that it’s largely because of his evolution, aided by actor Tom Hiddleston.  In the first Thor movie, I found Loki to be a rather bland villain; and when it was announced that he was going to be the primary baddie of The Avengers (2012), I was very doubtful of the choice.  Thankfully, the character went through a major transformation between the films and not only proved to be a great antagonist for The Avengers, but one of the film’s highlights as well.  I think what happened was that they stripped all of the doubt and worry from the character’s persona and just made him unapologetic in his sinister ways, thus making him a much more memorable villain.  That characterization has carried over into The Dark World and the movie is better for it.  Loki gives the film a significant jolt of adrenaline every time he’s on screen, which helps the movie greatly whenever it starts to slag.  He gets all the best lines, and his chemistry with Thor is even more entertaining than the chemistry between Thor and Jane.  Tom Hiddleston looks like he’s having a lot fun here with the role, and that sense of fun becomes very infectious for audiences watching the film.  I’m sure that the growing number of Loki fans out there will be very pleased with how he’s used in this movie.
The downside of having Loki present, however, is that he steals so much of the effectiveness away from this film’s more principal villains.  The portrayal of the Dark Elves is really the one thing that keeps this from being a truly great film.  They are very forgettable and uninteresting bad guys on which to center the film around, and sadly, the movie never really delves deeply into them as individual characters.  They’re not terrible villains by any means; and definitely not the awful, slap-to-the-face villains that Iron Man 3 presented us.  There’s just not much to say about them other than they are mean and they want to destroy.  The leader, Malekith, is played by a former Doctor Who, Christopher Eccleston, and he does the best he can with his underwritten character.  The problem that I have with their function in the story-line is that we never really get to understand what the Dark Elves are.  They are an ancient race bent on destruction, but it’s never explained exactly where they come from or what they plan to do once they have enacted their apocalyptic plans.  That being said, their look is unique and they have a very memorable looking spaceship that is used effectively in scenes throughout the film.  Perhaps if there wasn’t a better villain already taking up screen-time in the movie like Loki does here, then maybe the Dark Elves would have worked better, but unfortunately they stand as one of the weaker elements in the film.
That being said, I am glad that the movie doesn’t fall into the trap of being just a lead-up to different movie.  In some ways, that actually makes it an improvement over the first Thor.  Thor (2011) was a wonderful film in it’s own right, but it was also tied a little too closely with the “Avengers Initiative” Phase 1 plan, and that led to some awkward shoehorning of elements from the overall Marvel universe.  In this movie, the references to other Marvel characters are minor, allowing the story-line to stay more focused within Thor’s world.  Sure, there are mentions here and there of the “New York Incident,” especially when Loki enters the film’s plot, but even these moments make sense in their placement within the film.  There’s also a great cameo halfway through the film that I won’t give away, but it makes perfect sense once you see it.
I also think that the film did an excellent job with it’s visual look.  Asgard has been expanded upon from the first movie, which rarely left the confines of Odin’s immense palace.  In this film, we are given more overview of the surrounding world that Thor calls home and it is beautifully realized.  I especially like the different ways that the production design team worked in Nordic styles into the look of Asgard.  At one point in the movie, there is a fierce aerial battle in the skies over Asgard and the warships that the Asgardians use to battle the Dark Elves are made up to look like flying Viking longboats.  It’s clever visual elements like this that makes Thor’s world feel unique, while at the same time easy to understand.  Also, bringing the action on Earth to London helps to blend the visual styles of the different worlds together.  The original film brought Thor to New Mexico, which significantly clashed with the scenes set in Asgard.  Here, by taking the setting to an Old World city like London, the filmmakers manage to keep the blending of styles consistent throughout the whole movie.  Thor feels much less like a fish out of water in the Earth scenes here, which helps with the character’s familiarity with our world in the story.  First time film director, Alan Taylor, tackles both sides very well, and while he may not have the same extravagant style as Kenneth Branagh, he nevertheless manages to keep all of the elements of the film working together.  Perhaps it’s because he’s worked in both kinds of genres for so long, directing episodes of both Game of Thrones and The Sopranos, that he was able to find that right sort of balance.
Thor: The Dark World may have some faults in the story-line and in some of the characterizations, but it mostly succeeds as both it’s own stand alone film and as part of the Marvel universe as a whole.  This was a breathe of fresh air after being severely disappointed with Iron Man 3.  What is most pleasing about the film is that the filmmakers were able to actually make a movie that exists more within Thor’s own world than what we’ve seen before.  I view this film as being only slightly better than the first in that regard, but both films have about the same strengths and weaknesses.  What makes the Thor movies so interesting, and perhaps more interesting than any of the other Marvel films, is that they are grounded more in fantasy than anything else.  Iron Man and Captain America are identified as science-fiction works, but the Thor movies play by different rules, and as a result, you can actually get away with more of the cheesy, swashbuckling elements in the plot.  Marvel films do deliver consistently on the action front, but when a movie like Thor unashamedly indulges itself in some of the more operatic moments, it feels very natural and appropriate.  What I love most here, though, are the little character touches.  It’s hard to think that a small thing like Thor hanging his hammer on a coat rack would be so endearing to me in this film, but that’s how well it works.  I’m happy to see Marvel pick itself up and do well by their hammer swinging hero, and I hope that it marks an improved trajectory for both “Avengers” Phase 2 and for Thor’s own series as well.
Rating: 8/10

Apocalyptic Cinema – Making Disasters Entertaining in Movies

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One thing that we often see in human nature are destructive impulses; or to be more specific, we all like to see something get destroyed.  Whether it is a benign thing like blowing down a house of cards or something more extreme like an implosion of a building, we just enjoy watching something that was built up be taken down.  Hell, we even do it to each other through schadenfreude; whether it’s in politics like the Anthony Wiener scandal, or the rise and fall of a Hollywood star like Lindsey Lohan.  Our culture seems to relish destruction as a part of entertainment.  I don’t necessarily find this to be a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t get out of hand.  And that’s usually what we find in a lot of movies as well.  Disaster films have been a staple of movie-making for generations, but in recent years, we’ve seen visual effects work become sophisticated enough to the point where destruction looks authentic enough to be believable.  But, when we start to see movies become ever more comfortable showing widespread destruction as a part of their storytelling, there starts to be a question about where the line must be drawn.  Is it right for us to feel entertained when we see things like the White House or the Capitol Building being destroyed?  How about the entire world?  In this article, I will look at the highs and lows of disaster film-making and how the audiences reactions to them reveal the extremes to which people want to be entertained.
A lot of the reason why Disaster films exist is because they are a great showcase for special effects.  Going all the way back to the silent era, we’ve seen filmmakers use primitive but successful effects work to create larger than life destruction.  You could even look at some of the early Biblical epics like Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 version of The Ten Commandments as early examples of a disaster movie.  The film had a moral message yes, but there were many audience members I’m sure who saw the film just because they wanted to see the grandiose destruction caused by the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea.  As special effects have become more sophisticated, so has there been an increase in disaster movies.  Soon films were crafted around some of the most famous disasters in history, like In Old Chicago (1937), which depicted the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, or San Francisco (1938), dramatizing the famous 1906 earthquake.  It wasn’t until the 1970’s, however, when Disaster films could be declared a genre all to itself.  In that period, we saw a glut of disaster related movies made specifically for the purpose of being epic, star-studded extravaganzas, with the latest is special effects work on display.  These films included Earthquake (1974), starring Charlton Heston; The Poseidon Adventure (1971), with Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine; and The Towering Inferno (1974), with Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, just to name a few.
The rise of the disaster movie genre in the 70’s began to die down in the 80’s, mainly due to the rise of Science Fiction and Fantasy films as a showcase for effects work, but the genre lived on as it began to evolve.  In the 1990’s, we saw the emergence of a filmmaker who would go on to not only redefine the genre, but make it all his own.  This filmmaker was German born director Roland Emmerich, and over the course of his career, you can see that nearly 80% of his filmography is made up of disaster movies.  The movie that put him on the map in the film industry was a film that actually redefined two genres in one, and that was 1996’s Independence Day.  The movie was essentially an alien invasion narrative, but what Roland Emmerich did was to use the techniques utilized in popular disaster films as a means to make the destruction caused by the aliens look and feel as real as possible.  In the movie, we see catastrophic explosions engulf entire cities, destroying landmarks before our very eyes, including the White House itself.  This was a film that not only drew upon our greatest fears of total annihilation, but it also made it feel completely real.  Independence Day was a phenomenal success when it premiered, and it made the disaster genre a force to be reckoned with.  As for Emmerich, he has stuck mostly with the genre that had made him a player in Hollywood, with mixed results, with successful but ludicrous films like Godzilla (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and 2012 (2009) all falling into that same mold as Independence Day.
But, what was interesting about the success of Independence Day was that it revealed something about how we react to seeing destruction on film.  In the movie, famous landmarks like the Empire State Building are blown to pieces and thousands of people are destroyed in seconds before our very eyes.  And this is what we consider entertaining?  Maybe entertaining isn’t the right word.  I think movies like Independence Day do well because it allows us to face our fears and indulge that sinking feeling of helplessness.  It’s not so much the scenes of destruction themselves that we find so entertaining, but the framework around them.  While watching a disaster movie, we need to feel the impact of the destruction, and that’s why so many disaster films have to finish with a happy ending.  In Independence Day, the colossal destruction closes the first act of the film.  The rest of the movie details how humankind copes with the aftermath, and how they fight off the invaders despite the odds against them.  You have to go through a lot of darkness before you can appreciate the light at the end of the tunnel, and that’s what has defined the best films in the genre.  If a film takes a bleak outlook and doesn’t give the movie a satisfying resolution, then it’s going to fail.  This has been the case with other disaster films, like 2009’s Knowing, which leaves everyone dead and earth uninhabitable at the end; sorry to spoil it for you.  Even the laughable 2012 left room for some hope for humanity, and not surprisingly, it did much better.
Disaster films have to thrive on that feeling of hope.  We become enthralled when we see something grand get destroyed, but it’s what rises from the ashes that makes us feel grateful in the end.  That’s why we enjoy watching controlled demolitions; old buildings must come down in order to make way for something better.  That’s helps us to understand why we accept destruction as entertainment.  Many films skirt that line very often, but the way a disaster film can get the audience on its side is through the characters.  Characters in disaster movies must be likable and easy to identify with.  It also helps if they are not thinly drawn stereotypes as well, but fully defined people.  Emmerich’s films have tended to have lackluster characters, which is why casting makes a difference in his movies, and other ones like them.  Independence Day worked well because you had charismatic performances from actors like Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith, who helped to balance the film out by creating characters you wanted to root for.  Other disaster films tend to miscast their roles, making their characters’ story-lines a little more hard to swallow.  Case in point, John Cusack in 2012.  Cusack is a fine actor when a movie calls for it, but when your character is a mild-mannered author who somehow is able to outrun the eruption of a Supervolcano; that I have a hard time buying.  Now it’s difficult to say that a character needs to believable in a movie centered around a fictional disaster, but sometimes it does matter.  Likability of the characters is what separates the good disaster films from the bad ones, and unfortunately that’s something you rarely see work effectively.
For the most part, disaster films exist because they are showcases for the newest techniques in special effects.  The human element in the films are crucial, but they do play a lesser part in the creation of the movies as a whole.  But, when the balance of these films aren’t settled in the right way, then they do run the risk of seeming either lackluster or worse, exploitative.  This was an issue in Hollywood in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks in New York City, where we saw a level of destruction in real life that we could only comprehend in movies before.  Soon after, the Independence Day style destruction of city-scapes in movies stopped for a while, because that imagery became all too real for us and seeing it on the big screen afterwards would’ve been seen as insensitive.  Now that time has passed, we are seeing that kind of destruction depicted again, but it took a while for us to get there.  What I think makes audiences understand the level of acceptability in disaster imagery is the balance between the level of destruction in the movie and how it functions within the narrative.
Even though it came out months before 9/11, I think that the Michael Bay film Pearl Harbor (2001) feel into that unacceptable exploitation category because it didn’t find that right balance.  In the movie, the famous attack is depicted in gruesome detail, but it lacks any resonance because it is just the backdrop to a rather lackluster love triangle plot.  A lot more respect could have been paid to the real men and woman who died on that day instead of having everything hinge on fictional characters that we care so little about.  Pearl Harbor felt more like a shallow Hollywood attempt to exploit a tragedy for the purpose of creating a film that showcased impressive production values and matinee idol stars.  In other words, it was a movie driven more by marketing than actually informing audiences about the real event.  If you don’t find that right balance in a disaster movie, than your film will not be believable, as was the case here.  Pearl Harbor failed as a movie mainly because it knew what it wanted to be, but the filmmakers didn’t know how to make it work.  They were trying to follow in the footsteps of what has ultimately been the only disaster film to date to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture; that being director James Cameron’s Titanic (1997).  The reason why Titanic worked and Pearl Harbor didn’t was because it had a balance to it.  The love story at the center of Titanic, while not the most engrossing, did keep the narrative moving and it did endear the characters involved to the audience before the pivotal event happens.  Also, James Cameron put so much detail into the recreation of the ship’s sinking, and every moment of that is well executed on screen. No shaky cam or needless destruction is present in the climatic moments of the movie.  It works because the film was, dare I say, respectful to the actual disaster and to the victims of the event as well.
Making disaster movies thoughtful turns out to have been a secret to the genre’s success.  Going back to my example film once again, Independence Day, we see that the film works despite it’s more ludicrous moments by actually having characters work out logical answers to their dilemmas. It’s not enough to have the characters just move from one disaster to another without explanation, like in 2012   Or to have our characters helplessly standby as the world crumbles around them and inject stale philosophical points about why it all has happened, like in The Day After Tomorrow.  We want to see our characters be problem solvers and actually deal with the apocalypse like its something they can come back from.  That’s why, despite it’s many flaws, Independence Day succeeds.  Mankind coming together to help “Take those sons of bitches down,” is an ultimately inspiring thing.  Whether it’s against nature, or the extraterrestrial, or against our own selves, we enjoy watching characters pull themselves out of a struggle.  That’s why I think World War Z succeeded this year, despite all the naysayers who predicted it would fail (myself included).  The movie looked like another exploitative take on the zombie sub-genre, but the finished film was a more thoughtful examination about how the survivors of the catastrophe try to deal with the problem and learn to survive.  Sometimes it helps to treat your audience to a more thoughtful story about survival, rather than just destruction.
Disaster films will always be around as long as there is an audience for them.  And as long as filmmakers actually treat its audiences’ intelligence levels more respectfully, then we’ll also see the Disaster genre gain more respectability in the film community.  I like the fact that Disaster films have become such an acceptable part of cinematic history, that it’s now commonplace to spoof it as well.  This summer, we got not one, but two comedies centered around apocalyptic events: Seth Rogen’s This is the End and Edgar Wright’s The World’s End.  Both films are hilarious takes on the genre, but they both know what makes a good disaster film work in the end and they exploit those elements perfectly.  It comes down to characters you want to root for and wanting to see them overcome even the complete destruction of society as we know it.  Even though the film’s are played for laughs, the same basic elements hold true and the filmmakers who made them know that. Overall, destruction becomes entertainment because we look forward to the process of renewal.  Disaster movies fail if they indulge too heavily in the destructive parts or leave the audience with no satisfying resolution.  It’s human nature to enjoy seeing something blow up, but we also enjoy seeing something good rise out of the rubble of the destruction, and in the end, that’s why we enjoy good a disaster movie.

Top Ten Favorite Villains

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One of the ways that you can gauge the success of a story is in the strength of it’s villain, or more specifically it’s antagonist.  A successful and memorable villain is something that can always make or break a good narrative, because when we follow a story-line, there has to be someone or something driving the tension.  A lot of the greatest villains that we’ve ever seen have not only effectively filled their role in a story-line, but have also become the thing we’ll enjoy and remember the most in them.  Cinema has given us a great variety of memorable villains over the years, and some of the best ones have not only stood out in their own films, but have transcended out into our pop culture in general.  I guarantee that the majority of Halloween costumes that are going to be worn in the next week are going to be based off famous movie villains.  Take a count next time at a Halloween party and see how many Draculas, or Darth Vaders, or Jason Voorhees you can spot in the room.  And it’s understandable; we as an audience love villains.  They are usually the most interesting characters and, depending on how diabolical they are, the most entertaining.  Actors often say that they enjoy playing the villain more than the hero, because it allows them to indulge in some of the baser aspects of the humanity.  In other words, it feels good to act evil.
So, as part of this Halloween season, I would like to share my own list of favorite villains.  Interestingly, after looking through them all, I noticed that not all of them are particularly scary characters or overtly mean-spirited.  The reason why I chose these characters is because they were the ones that left the biggest impression on me, and were part of the reason why I enjoy their individual films so much.  Mainly, these are the villains that I just love to hate.  Some are pretty obvious choices, while others might surprise you.  I’m was also surprised how so many of the characters on this list also start off seeming so normal at first, until you start to peel the layers back.  I think that’s a character development that I enjoy seeing the most; darkness hiding in plain sight.
But before I delve into the list itself, I want to share some of the villains that didn’t make the list that are still worth mentioning:  The Wicked Witch of the West (Wizard of Oz), Darth Vader (Star Wars), Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs), John Doe (Seven), Reverand Powell (The Night of the Hunter), Cruella deVil (101 Dalmatians), Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Saruman (The Lord of the Rings), Max Cady (Cape Fear, both versions), Hans Gruber (Die Hard), Voldemort (Harry Potter series), Annie Wilkes (Misery), and Frank Booth (Blue Velvet).  Now, here’s my list for you to read and rip apart if you wish.
10.
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MOLA RAM from INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984)
Played by Amrish Puri
Here’s the first choice that may surprise some of you.  Of all of the villainous characters in the George Lucas stable, how can I choose this character over Darth Vader?  The truth is that Darth Vader may be a great villain and a great character in general, but he never scared me as a child.  Mola Ram did.  Because of that, he left a much bigger impression on me and to this day, I still enjoy seeing this character every time I watch the movie.  Unarguably the best villain in the entire Indiana Jones franchise, Mola Ram stands out because he seems to be the very personification of unchecked evil.  His evil nature is shown most clearly in how he holds power over his cult of followers and in how he has exploited everyone towards his dark ambitions; including enslaving children.  He even turns Dr. Jones evil at one point, which is quite an accomplishment in itself.  Surprisingly, for such a memorable villain, he actually has very little onscreen time.  His first appearance doesn’t happen until halfway through the movie, but man what an entrance.  Indian actor Amrish Puri makes the most of his limited scenes and steals every moment he’s in.  Plus, no one has looked more badass pulling a living heart out of someone’s chest.
“Kali Ma. Kali Ma.”
9.
NoahCross
NOAH CROSS from CHINATOWN (1974)
Played by John Huston
Here’s an example of a villain whose true evil nature is hidden below the surface.  Chinatown is a great throwback to classic noir mysteries, and for the majority of the film, we follow along as Detective Jake Gittes starts to believe that energy supply tycoon Noah Cross isn’t the fine upstanding businessman that he pretends to be.  But, when the film reaches the final act, we learn that Mr. Cross has done far more horrible things than just illegal business practices.  We discover that he had raped his own daughter in the past and that a child out of incest was born as a result.  Jake confronts Noah about it, and it turns out he feels no shame about what he’s done.  In one of the greatest villainous lines ever delivered, Noah Cross explains the way he sees the world by saying, “Most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of ANYTHING.”  The scary thing about the character though is that he’s become so powerful and influential, that he’s now untouchable, and will probably go on doing his deprave things unimpeded until he dies comfortably at an old age.  A lot of credit goes to director turned actor John Huston for portraying that aspect of the character so chillingly.  Huston was an imposing figure both on and off the screen, and he makes Noah Cross one of the cinemas great villains in a terrifying yet subtle way.
“It’s not worth it Mr. Gittes.  It’s really not worth it.”
8.
HansLanda
COLONEL HANS LANDA from INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009)
Played by Christoph Waltz
You know you’re a memorable antagonist when you appear in the same film as Adolf Hitler, and you’re still considered the main villain.  That’s the case with Hans Landa, aka the “Jew Hunter”, in Quentin Tarantino’s WWII epic.  Brilliantly portrayed by Christoph Waltz in an Oscar-winning performance, Col. Landa is one of the greatest examples of portraying a character in the opposite way than what is usual.  The majority of time, Nazis are appropriately portrayed as sadistic monsters; best example being Amon Gothe in Schindler’s List, played brilliantly by Ralph Finnes.  What defines Hans Landa, however, is his pleasantness.  He’s polite and courteous, even when he’s committing the most evil of acts.  Behind that beaming smile we know there lies the mind of a true monster.  He lures you in with his pleasant personality, but the moment he turns silent and the smile disappears, that’s when you know you’re in trouble.  The only time he reveals his true nature in the movie is the scene where he chokes the double agent actress to death after returning her shoe, and of course once the deed is done, he smiles again like nothing has happened.  Both Christoph Waltz and Quentin Taratino deserve a lot of credit for creating a villain like this that changes around character archetypes, and as a result, created a true original in Hans Landa.
“Ooooo, that’s a BINGO.  Is that how you say it?”
7.
Maleficent
MALIFICENT from SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959)
Voiced by Elanor Audley
Disney Animation can be credited with creating many of the most memorable villains in cinema history, and it’s mainly due to the fact that their dark villains stand out a lot more in comparison to the usual light-heartedness commonly found in a Disney film.  In many cases, that contrast has led to some notably sinister villains and villainesses; some of whom have inspired some of our darkest nightmares in our childhood.  And if there was a Disney villain that you could pick out as the gold standard of the bunch, it would be Malificent.  The evil fairy from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty has not only become a memorable villain in her own right, but she has gone on to influence many other villains in animated films in the years since.  Anytime when you see an animated film’s villain transform into a giant monster at the film’s climax, it calls back to Malificent’s own transformation into a fire-breathing dragon in the finale of Sleeping Beauty.  That’s an impact that few other villains have had, and Malificent deservedly continues to be popular to this day.  Outside of her film appearance, Malificent has gone on to become the unofficial arch-nemesis of the whole Disney universe, thanks to highlighted roles in things like the Fantasmic show at Disneyland and in video games like Kingdom Hearts.  To be considered the top dog in a rogues gallery as impressive as Disney Animation’s, it’s understandable to see how impactful Malificent has been.
“Well, isn’t this a pleasant surprise.  I set my trap for a peasant, an lo, I catch a prince.”
6.
Longshanks
KING EDWARD I (LONGSHANKS) from BRAVEHEART (1995)
Played by Patrick McGoohan
Some of the villains on this list have made it here because they scared me as a child while other have made it because I find them so fascinating.  In terms of Longshanks, however, he made this list just because I find him so entertaining.  The movie Braveheart undoubtedly takes a lot of liberties with history in service of the story, and the portrayal real historical figure King Edward I is no different.  The reason why the film works is that it is unashamed about being a romanticized account of history, through both the writing of the story and the portrayal of it’s characters.  Longshanks, as he’s called frequently in the film, is probably the most transparent, mustache-twirling villain on this list, but he earns his place for just being so overt and over-the-top in his evilness that he becomes entertaining.  Actor Patrick McGoohan is a delight to watch in the role, and he takes such pleasure in being so diabolical.  A lot of the character comes out in the writing as well.  Every line that Longshanks delivers is a snarky put-down to someone else, whether it’s directed at William Wallace or to his own king’s council.  One of the reasons why I hold the film Braveheart in such high regard is because well Longshanks works as a villain.  And only the greatest villains are the ones that command repeat viewings.
“The trouble with Scotland, is that it’s full of Scots.”
5.
 hal9000
HAL 9000 from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
Voiced by Douglas Rain
HAL 9000 is one of the most unusual villains to have ever been conceived for a film.  What makes him such a frightening villain is the fact that he is all intelligence and no emotion, which as it turns out leads to the impulse to murder in this film.  HAL 9000 was created by scientists to perform all of the higher functions of a space shuttle while it’s crew hibernates on the way to their mission near the orbit of Jupiter.  Unfortunately, he was programmed to make sure that nothing got in the way of completing the mission.  With out much wiggle room or clarity in that order, HAL saw the crew itself as a threat to the mission’s success, and he begins killing them off one by one by cutting their life supports.  Only Astronaut Dave Bowman survives and he promptly shuts down HAL before he can do any more damage.  It’s amazing how director Stanley Kubrick could turn such a featureless and zero personality character into such a compelling villain, but the trick works to perfection here.  HAL 9000’s cold, emotionless voice helps in selling the chill factor, as does the omni-presence of the unblinking red eye.  And given our increasing reliance today on electronic devices in our everyday lives, the concept of a dangerous computer mind like HAL’s doesn’t seem that far fetched nowadays.
“I’m sorry Dave.  I cannot do that.”
4.
Mrs_JohnIselin
MRS. ELEANOR ISELIN from THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)
Played by Angela Lansbury
It’s a chilling thought to think that you greatest enemy in the world could be your own mother.  But that’s the case in the brilliant John Frankenheimer film, The Manchurian Candidate.  The film centers around a multi-layered conspiracy to assassinate a Presidential candidate that includes brainwashed POW soldiers, Chinese communists spies, a firebrand Senator that’s obviously inspired by Joseph McCarthy, and the Queen of Diamonds.  At the center of the conspiracy is Golden Boy war hero Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), who has been displaying unusual behavior since his return home.  When the mystery starts to unravel, we soon learn that the one pulling all the strings is non other than Raymond’s mother, Elanor, who is married to the fiercely anti-communist Senator and Vice-Presidential candidate John Iselin.  In one of the greatest casting against types ever, Angela Lansbury portrays a truly terrifying mother-figure in Elanor Iselin.  She creates a truly nasty character by balancing the motherly aspects of the character with the more vitriolic aspects.  She also portrays the Oedipal aspects of the relationship with her son in very fearless, and ultimately grotesque ways.  In a political thriller where political games leads to a lot of people doing bad things, Elanor Iselin stands out as a truly dangerous and ruthless manipulator.
“I wanted a killer from a world filled with killers and they chose you.”
3.
Joker
THE JOKER from BATMAN (1989) and THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
Played by Jack Nicholson (Batman) and Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
I’m cheating a little bit here, by selecting two different versions of the same character.  It was hard to pick just one, so I thought it was better to put the them together.  The Joker is not only one of the greatest cinematic villains, but also arguably the greatest comic book villain of all times.  A brilliant counter-point figure to the caped crusader, Batman, The Joker has that special ability to be laugh-out-loud funny one minute and then horrifically frightening in the next.  There have been 4 cinematic takes on the character (special mention to Cesar Romero in the 1966 film, and Mark Hamill in the 1993 animated feature Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.)  But the two most notable version are the ones played by Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger.  Jack Nicholson seemed to be born to play the part, and his performance in the Tim Burton directed feature proves that to be true.  Albeit, he plays up the funnier aspects of the character a little more, but when the movie calls for it, he can be truly terrifying in the role.  Heath Ledger, however, was not the choice people had expected when director Christopher Nolan cast him in the role for The Dark Knight, and he had to overcome a lot of doubt in the audience’s eyes.  Not only did he prove us all wrong, he set the bar even higher with his performance, creating one of the most terrifying villains to ever appear on screen.  Both versions have their merits, but I might rank Heath Ledger’s a little higher, just because of the impact he made.  That’s not to say that Jack’s version is any less fun to watch.  The great thing about the Joker is that like Batman, he will continue to be remade and reinterpreted in both films and comics for years to come.
“Wait until they get a load of me.”
“You want to know how I got these scars?”
2.
NormanBates
NORMAN BATES from PSYCHO (1960)
Played by Anthony Perkins
Like many of the other villains on this list, Norman Bates doesn’t come across as purely evil, until you start to look deeper.  Taking the term Mama’s boy to the ultimate extreme, Norman has become one the greatest villains in cinema history mainly because of how compelling his character is.  He seems so normal and harmless at first, which helps the audience to identify with him right away; that is until we see what he’s really capable of.  Director Alfred Hitchcock always enjoyed subverting conventional wisdom and Hollywood archetypes, and here he transforms the boy next door into a homicidal killer.  We don’t see Norman do a lot of killing in the movie, but that’s not what makes him terrifying.  It’s the psychosis behind the character that makes him a chilling villain.  Anthony Perkins pulls of that balancing act to perfection.  His charming personality in the first half of the film fools us into believing that he is no where near capable of committing murder and that the homicidal one is really his mother.  That notion proves wrong once we see his mothers rotting corpse in the basement and him in his mother’s dress with a butcher knife.  The most terrifying aspect though is that Norman has progressively been loosing more of himself to his psychosis and that he’s developing a split personality based on his mom.  The idea that he sits alone all day having a two way conversation with a rotting corpse is definitely enough to make anyone’s skin crawl and it definitely certifies his place among the most memorable villains ever.
“A boy’s best friend is his mother.”
1.
 alexdelarge
ALEX DELARGE from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)
Played by Malcolm McDowell
In most films, a villain will sometimes be a more compelling character than the main protagonist.  In Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, the main protagonist just happens to be the villain.  In this classic film, we are presented with probably the most compelling and memorable portrayal of a true psychopath, and the journey that his life takes.  Alex is an unapologetic violent thug who terrorizes the streets of his hometown along with his gang of followers, whom he calls his Droogies.  Much like the Joker, he also takes delight in doing the most horrible things, and never once feels guilty about it.  He is just pure unchecked evil, which makes his villainy all the more unsettling to watch, especially considering how young he is; in the original novel, Alex is only a teenager.  What makes Alex even more fascinating, however, is what happens to him once he becomes reformed in the latter half of the film.  After being arrested, Alex volunteers for a new experimental treatment, which leaves him docile and unable to give in to his more baser instincts.  As a result of this, he is unable to fight back, and all the people he has wronged start to take out their revenge in ever more increasingly violent ways.  It’s as if Alex is a lightning rod for all evil actions in the world, and if he’s not the one doing it, then he’ll bring it out in even the most good-natured people around him.  Malcolm McDowell plays both aspects of the character brilliantly and unlike most other villains, he makes Alex a villain we want to root for.  I wonder what that says about humanity; that we value even the most extreme of anti-heroes, or that there’s evil instincts in every one of us that we enjoy seeing others act out.  All of this is what makes Alex what I believe to be the best villain in movie history.
“I was cured alright.”
So, these are my choices for the greatest movie villains of all time. I hope that some of these picks are among yours as well.  Out of all this, it’s clear that a great villain has to come from a great story, but that’s not always the case.  Some mediocre story-lines can be improved upon if the villain is memorable enough.  The worst thing that a movie can do is to make their antagonist weak and insignificant, even if their hero is a compelling one.  Villains drive the tension of the film, so it’s essential to make them a worthwhile character. For me, the best villains are the ones that are unexpected and multi-layered.  Overtly evil characters can work some of the time, but the ones that will frighten us more are the ones that are the most like us, which shows the thin line that we all walk between right and wrong.  That’s what makes villainous characters such an integral part of our movie-going experience.  We just enjoy watching characters being bad and loving it.

Focus on a Franchise – Friday the 13th

jason

After complaining last week about horror franchises that never end, I decided to actually examine one such franchise that has been going on now for over 30 years and still has managed to remain relevant in audience’s eyes.  I’m speaking, of course, about the Friday the 13th franchise, and it’s seemingly unstoppable central villain, Jason Voorhees.  Few other characters have spawned as many movies as Jason has, especially in the horror genre.  For a total of 10 feature films, 2 spin-off crossovers, and one forgettable remake, Jason has earned a place in the pantheon of iconic movie monsters.  Truth be told, I was familiar with the Jason character in general, through cultural osmosis, but I’ve been unfamiliar with many of his films.  Also, the ones that I have seen, I hadn’t seen all the way through.  So, this week, I set out to watch all 10 of the canonical Jason movies (thanks to AMC Network’s movie marathon for the Halloween season).  Albeit, these films were in the edited form, but I was still able to take away from them how the character has been built up over the years and how each movie made an impact on one another.  And watching the series the whole way through led me to some interesting observations.
First of all, what is my take on the series as a whole, before I delve into each one individually?  For the most part, I think the character of Jason himself stands up much better than the movies that feature him.  I actually began to like him more the further I went into the series.  I love the fact that, for the most part, Jason never changes.  He’s an unstoppable killing machine put on this earth to brutally murder randy teenagers who cross his path.  What also surprised me was how every film in the franchise actually followed that same formula through every entry; with mixed results.  The best parts in each movie are when Jason takes out his victims and the unique ways in which he does it. The low points are when the plots slow down to explain away what makes Jason tick.  In the end, who cares.  Jason just is; enough said.  Overall he makes for one memorable character that deserves a long running series; even when not all of the movies are up to the same standard.  Now, let’s take a look at the Friday the 13th series in more detail.
 Friday1
FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)Directed by Sean S. Cunningham
The one that started it all, and a movie that you wouldn’t have expected to have started such a long running series.  Set around the fictional Camp Crystal Lake in New Jersey, a group of camp counselors begin to fall prey to a sadistic serial killer who picks each one of them off, one by one.  Many believe that the killer could be a former camp attendee named Jason Voorhees, who they thought had drowned in the lake years before and has now been resurrected to exact his revenge.  Eventually, only one survivor named Alice (Adrienne King) seeks refuge with Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) in the hopes that she may have answers regarding her murderous son.  But as it turns out, mild-mannered Mrs. Voorhees has been the killer all along, hoping to avenge her son and keep the camp closed.  Alice soon escapes and fights back against Mrs. Voorhees, eventually decapitating her with a wood ax.  The film ends with Alice taking a boat across the lake to safety, but before she can reach the other side, she is attacked from behind by the decaying remains of Jason.
Friday the 13th was highly criticized when it was first released, but I think time has helped to give this film the strong reputation it deserves.  It’s a well-crafted movie that does represent the best qualities of the horror genre.  It’s shocking without being too exploitative and it’s story-line actually offers up some nice surprises.  Betsy Palmer in particular gives an effectively chilling performance as Mrs. Voorhees, where she is able to balance the motherly aspects of the character well with the psychotic aspects, making her a well-rounded villain.  What pleased me most about seeing this film is that all of the traits of a Friday the 13th movie are used here to their full potential, even when the iconic character isn’t present.
Friday2
FRIDAY THE 13TH: PART 2(1981)Directed by Steve Miner
Released only a year after the first movie, which started off the short release pattern seen between the movies in the 80’s, Jason Voorhees made his full-fledged debut in this sequel.  How he went from a child to a full-grown adult between films is never explained fully, but you’ll quickly forget about that once the killing starts.  And Jason’s first victim turns out to be Alice (one again played by Adrienne King), which sets off the feeling right away that this was a new beginning for the franchise.  Again, camp counselors are murdered one by one leaving just one survivor in the end to face Jason in a final showdown.  She manages to outsmart the killer by finding the shrine Jason has set up in his old home with his mother’s rotting remains.  Ginny, the final survivor, puts on Mrs. Voorhees sweater and makes Jason think that she is his mother, which manages to work, leading Ginny to subdue the monster by stabbing him in the back with an ax.  The movie does an effective job of introducing Jason into the series as the killer, but the film suffers a bit by just following the same story-line as the first, more or less.  Albeit, there’s not much more you can build upon in the first place, but it just felt like the film didn’t take enough chances apart from adding Jason, and just felt like more of the same, something that’ll plague most of the films yet to come.
Friday3
FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3 (1982)Directed by Steve Miner
Perhaps the most gimmicky of the Jason films, at least up to this point, this film became the first one to be shot in 3D.  So, pretty much you’ll be seeing a lot of things pointing straight at the camera while watching this movie.  That works well enough when you see someone’s eye get poked out with an arrow as it shots right off the screen, but when you start to see someone holding a shovel out in front of them for no reason other than to take advantage of the 3D gimmick, then it begins to take you out of the film all together.  That’s part of the problem with Part 3; it just seemed to be made solely for the purpose of producing 3D gore.  The story-line is exactly the same as the others and even steals some of the better scares out of the first two, including the body coming out of the lake scare.  What is noteworthy in this film however is that it introduces one of the most iconic elements of the Jason character; the hockey mask.  Surprisingly, for something that has become so synonymous with the character, it is given very little importance in this film.  Jason just casually picks it up in a garage and puts it on and that’s that.  But I guess like everything else in this series, the small things gain significance over time.
Friday4
FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER (1984)Directed by Joseph Zito
Obviously with a title like that, you would think that this was meant to be the final Jason film, as parent studio Paramount Pictures wanted to put the series to rest after the previous movie had under-performed.  Of course, this wouldn’t be the end of Jason Voorhees by a long shot; and in fact this movie would be the start of what would be known as the “Tommy Jarvis Trilogy” in the series.  Jason once again begins murdering teenagers around Camp Crystal Lake, until he runs into the Jarvis family.  Trish Jarvis (Kimberly Beck) holds up her family in the lakeside cabin they call home, including her younger brother Tommy (a pre-Goonies Corey Feldman).  Eventually Jason follows them to their final refuge and is about to kill Trish when he is suddenly distracted by a quick thinking Tommy.  In a weird finale to the film, Tommy distracts the monster by shaving his own head and making himself look like a young Jason without his mask.  Once subdued, Jason is soon brutally killed by a crazed Tommy, to Trish’s horror.  You heard that right, Jason meets his match, and it’s Corey Feldman.  The ending to this film is a strange one, but it certainly left a much better impression on the series than the previous two films had.
Friday5
FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NEW BEGINNING (1985)    Directed by Danny Steinmann
Set several years after the previous film, we find Tommy Jarvis (now played as a teenager by John Sheppard) still haunted by the ordeal he went through as he recovers in a halfway house for troubled youths.  One of his fellow residents named Joey is murdered in cold blood by another resident, and this incident suddenly begins a string of other murders.  No one knows who is doing it until Tommy and a younger resident named Reggie spot the masked man in the act.  This leaves Tommy powerless as he is still deeply haunted by Jason, but eventually he gets the courage to face his fears and subdue the murderer.  Once the masked man is killed, we find out that it wasn’t Jason after all, but the father of the murdered Joey, seeking vengeance on the halfway house and its residents.  This is the best of the Tommy Jarvis films and probably the best entry since the first Friday the 13th.  It manages to give the story some depth when it needs it, but still keep the gory aspects as ridiculous and gruesome as ever.  I liked the twist at the end that the killer was only posing as Jason, which was an interesting change of pace.  The only aspect I didn’t like though was actually Tommy Jarvis himself.  Actor John Sheppard just kind of sleepwalks through the film and makes Tommy a rather passive protagonist.  Honestly, when you’re making Corey Feldman look like the better actor, then you’ve got a problem.  The film does close on an interesting note, however, when Tommy dons the mask and looks as if he may become the next Jason himself.
Friday6
FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VI: JASON LIVES (1986)     Directed By Tom McLoughlin
Unfortunately, the follow-up film drops that interesting idea from Part 5 in favor of more of the same.  The film finds Tommy Jarvis (now played by Thom Mathews) digging up the body of Jason in the hopes that he can destroy him once and for all, just in case he might come back.  To his dismay, the body of Jason is reanimated once the coffin is open by a sudden bolt of lightning.  And, like a hornet returning to it’s nest, Jason goes right back to Crystal Lake and begins killing teenage camp counselors once again.  Tommy follows him there and manages to get Jason back into the lake by tying a huge boulder to the monster and drowning him once again.  There’s not much to this plot and it rather weakly ties up the Tommy Jarvis story-line.  What’s interesting about this film is that it introduces more self-referential humor into the series, much like what we’ve seen in the Scream films; for good and for bad.  There’s a hilarious bit where Jason takes out a bunch of paint-ball shooters in the woods and Jason’s first victim is none other than Horshack from Welcome Back Kotter, or more specifically actor Ron Pallilo.  But some of the other bits of humor seem either too forced or out of place.  Overall, the story-line felt like a step backwards after the interesting turns it had taken in the previous installments.
Friday7
FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD (1988)    Directed by Joel Carl Buechler
This film could be considered Jason meets Carrie, although the title character from Stephen King’s famous novel plays no part in this story-line.  In this movie, we are introduced to Tina Shepard (Lar Park Lincoln) who has telekinetic powers that she struggles to control.  She is being brought back to Crystal Lake for treatment after an incident years ago with her powers had killed her father and left her in a mental institution.  While at the lake, she attempts to bring her father back to life, but unintentionally she resurrects Jason, still anchored by the stone at the bottom.  Once free, Jason begins attacking a group of vacationing teenagers housed at the lake, some of whom Tina has befriended.  Tina soon learns that her powers are an asset rather than a curse, as she uses them to combat Jason and protect herself.  Eventually she manages to return Jason back to the lake and hopefully has him destroyed for good.  This film adds a lot of new things in the series and does them right.  This is by far one of the better entries in the franchise, even if it has some of the same flaws as some of the other films.  I like the injection of another supernatural element into the story-line, which could have been problematic if done poorly, but here it actually works.   Lar Park Lincoln’s performance is much better than it needs to be and she manages to create a compelling protagonist in Tina.  Also, we finally get to see what lies under the mask and a lot of credit goes to the make-up crew for creating a truly terrifying look for Jason.  We see that he is now more creature than man, helping to make this both a terrifying and enriching entry into the series.
Friday8
FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN (1989) Directed by Rob Hedden
The title for this film is misleading because Jason doesn’t make it to New York until the final act.  A better title would’ve been Jason’s Final Voyage, because the majority of the movie takes place on a ship travelling up the Jersey Shore; which looks an awful lot like Vancouver, BC.  This film is much weaker mainly because it is one of the more gimmicky Jason movies.  Mainly we just watch how many ways Jason can kill his victims on a boat, and that’s the movie.  There’s some character development around a teenage girl named Rennie and her fear of water at play in this movie, but that’s about it.  The film does gain some steam towards the end once Jason and the survivors reach dry land on Manhattan Island, mainly because they exploit the locals pretty effectively.  When Jason chases down Rennie and her boyfriend down a subway, it’s effectively harrowing.  Most of the rest of the movie is far less terrifying and oftentimes more unintentionally silly.  I usually find that when a film series has to start injecting gimmicks into it’s story-lines, its a sign that the series is losing it’s way, and Jason Takes Manhattan is a clear example of that.  That being said, Jason is still the best element in the movie, and he gets one really great moment when he faces down a champion boxer and takes his head off in one blow.
Friday9
JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY (1993)Directed by Adam Marcus
After a decade long run and 8 total films, Paramount was done with Jason and they sold the rights to the character over to New Line Cinema, the home of another horror icon: Freddy Kruger.  Out of this deal, New Line started off their Jason “era” with this entry, the ninth in the series. Unfortunately this is the worst one by far.  Here’s a “clever” idea for you; Jason dies in the first scene in the movie, but then transforms into a parasite that invades human bodies and turns them into monstrous killers.  This lame idea somehow made it passed the development stage and became the basis of this really stupid movie.  The Jason parasite makes no sense whatsoever, not even in the convoluted logic that has been built up in this series over the years, and sadly reduces the effectiveness of the character as a whole.  Not only that, the plot and the supporting characters are also laughably bad.  Even an attempt to create a bad-ass supernatural bounty hunter named Creighton Duke (Steven Williams) falls flat.  For a while, this movie was so notoriously toxic that it killed the franchise for many years; not a good start for New Line Cinema.  It’s a reaction that I totally understand.  After watching all the films in succession, this was the film that nearly made me give up on the marathon.  Yes, even Jason going to Manhattan didn’t make me want to stop watching the series.  One particular interesting note about the film though is that after Jason is dragged down to Hell at the end, his mask is left behind, only to be dragged away by the claw-like glove of Freddy Kruger; a sign of things to come, but not for a long time after.
Friday10
JASON X (2002)Directed by James Isaac
Nearly ten years after Jason Goes to Hell sank the franchise, New Line tried once again to make another Jason film, and this time they attempted probably the biggest and most outlandish gimmick of them all; taking Jason into Outer Space.  Now a premise like that would lead you to believe that the series was getting desperate and that anything that made Jason a viable character before was now gone; but you would be wrong.  Jason X fits squarely in that “so bad it’s good” category that you usually see happen to a lot of the SyFy channel brand of films.  In fact, the movie does have the same look and feel of one of those notorious SyFy movies, like Sharknado.  I think that has a lot to do with the execution done by director Isaac and his crew.  The movie is reverential towards the Jason character and all of the common elements that make up a classic “slasher” movie, but it also plays out everything with it’s tongue firmly planted in its cheek.  The characters are thinly drawn stereotypes on purpose, the CGI effects are atrociously awful, and the murders are so outlandish that you can’t help but laugh through it all.  That helps to make Jason X not only tolerable, but probably the most thoroughly entertaining film in the series.  Credit goes to the filmmakers for finding the right balance in this film.  Unlike Part VI, every gag works here.  And not only that, but it goes a long way towards enhancing the Jason character even further; especially when he becomes part cyborg towards the end.  It’s great to see a film series actually change pace and tone 10 movies in and make it work.  It’s no masterpiece, but I’m glad I stuck in there long enough to make it to Jason X, especially after the garbage that was Jason Goes to Hell.
And so, that’s my look at the Friday the 13th franchise.  After seeing all ten films, I can appreciate the fact that people hold up Jason Voorhees as one of the icons of horror.  I like that what started off as a small scale murder mystery in the first film has grown more outlandish over time, eventually leading to Jason being the first mass-murderer in space.  While about half of the series is fairly forgettable (Parts 2, 3, 6, and 8) to just downright awful (Jason Goes to Hell), there are a couple films that do stand out as effective, like the memorable first entry and Part 7.  Also, the series did create one gonzo of a finale with Jason X, which kind of falls into a category all it’s own.  I didn’t look at the Freddy vs. Jason crossover because I felt that’s a separate franchise set apart from this, other than the tease in Jason Goes to Hell.  Also, I’m ignoring the bland 2009 remake, mainly because it reinforces my initial complaint about how remakes are diminishing the horror genre as a whole by completely missing the point about what made these horror classics work in the first place.  Jason’s rampage in cinemas may be over for now, but his legacy is still ongoing and it’s one that has left an impact on the genre for the better.

Not So Scary – Modern Horror Movies and the Lack of Genuine Scares

 

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Horror movies have been around since the very beginning of cinema.  From F.W. Murnau’s classic vampire flick Nosferatu (1922) to Universal Studio’s monster movies like Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), audiences have made watching scary films a long standing tradition.  And, like most other genres, horror has grown and evolved with the times, satisfying the changing tastes of it’s audiences.  In the 50’s, we saw the rise of the Sci-fi monster movies and in the 60’s and 70’s, “schlock” horror began to become popular, thanks to relaxed restraints over acceptable on-screen violence.  It is a genre that has more or less stayed strong in every decade and is much more adaptable than any other genre of film.  But, in recent years, I have noticed that there has been a severe drop off in horror movies that actually leave a mark.  It seems that today, studios are more interested in quantity over quality and its a trend that is having a negative effect on the genre as a whole.  My belief is that studios are using the horror genre as a way to generate a quick influx of cash, knowing that there is a built in audience of people who watch horror movies no matter what it is.  That’s why you see so many horror films quickly drop off after their opening weekend.  There seems to be the belief nowadays that you can pass off something as a horror movie if it has one or two big scares; but the reality is that the best horror films don’t always rely on things that make us jump out of our seats.
What makes a great Horror movie is the use of atmosphere.  This has been the case since the very beginning; back when cinema was still silent.  F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece Nosferatu shows exactly how atmosphere can be used to signify terror.  In the movie, we see how simple staging and effective use of shadows can be used to terrifying effect.  The vampire Count Orlok, played by actor Max Schreck, is able to strike at his victims using just his shadow, an image in the film that is made simply with the movie’s use of lighting, but still done with chilling effectiveness.  Early Hollywood horror films likewise made great use of atmosphere.  If you look at a movie like Dracula, there is actually very little on-screen violence present.  Instead, the film presents a feeling of dread through the gloomy atmosphere of the vampire’s castle.  Thanks to that, and Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance, you don’t need to see the bloodletting of Dracula’s victims in order to be scared.  This has helped to give these movies lasting power over so many years.  It’s amazing that movies made in the early days of cinema can still be scary, given all the limitations they had.  And given all the bad things we’ve seen happen to movie vampires in recent years (I’m looking at you Twilight), I’m glad that Lugosi’s version of the Count still can create a chill.
Understandably, the horror genre has had to grow and evolve with the times in order to survive, but for many years there was still an emphasis on atmosphere at play.  The more rebellious era of the 70’s allowed for more use of onscreen violence, and while many filmmakers perhaps went a little overboard in this period, there were a few that actually made an impact.  Dario Argento created films that were not only gory but also artistically staged like The Cat of Nine Tales (1971), Deep Red (1975) and the very twisted Suspiria (1977), which showed off how atmosphere could still be used to enhance the gore on film.  Director George A. Romero likewise used atmosphere effectively in a sub-genre of horror that he helped create; the zombie flick.  Despite the fact that these directors were given more leeway to do what they wanted, what made their early work so effective was in how they showed restraint.  You can show a lot more in horror movies nowadays, but sometimes what remains unseen becomes the scariest element, and that’s why films of this era managed to be effective.  The filmmakers knew when to be shocking and when to show restraint, based on what the horror movies that inspired them had done in the past.  But, as generations of filmmakers become more desensitized to what can be allowed in a horror movie, that sense of restraint also goes away.
The problem that I see in most modern horror movies today is that there is no self-restraint left in them.  For the most part, the filmmakers chose to throw atmosphere out the window in favor of “jump scares.”  A “jump scare” is when something suddenly pops onto screen out of nowhere in an attempt to make the audience scream and jump all at the same time, usually accompanied with a loud music cue to maximize effect.  A “jump scare” can work, when it is used sparingly, but too many films today are overusing it, which diminishes it’s effectiveness over time.  One of the best examples of a jump scare is actually in a film that you would consider more of a thriller than a horror movie; Jaws (1975).  The scene in question is when scientist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is investigating a shark attack on a fishing boat at night.  While examining the hole in the bottom of the boat, a severed head pops out suddenly, creating a genuine scare for both him and the audience.  This scene is effective because it is unexpected and is built up thanks to the atmosphere of the moment.  Also, it is one of the few times that director Steven Spielberg actually uses a “jump scare” in the movie.  The  fewer times it happens, the more effective it is, and unfortunately that’s a technique that few horror filmmakers today understand.  When you use a technique too many times, it becomes tiresome and the audiences become more aware of it.  Unfortunately, too many filmmakers get carried away and have too much fun creating these kinds of “jump scares.”
One other problem I have noticed with modern horror films is the over-abundance of CGI.  While computer effects can sometimes be helpful in a horror film, like making it look like a character has lost a limp or manipulating an environment in a way that defies physics, there is a larger problem of effects work making moments that should be scary less so.  The problem is that most computer effects look too artificial.  Of course, when you see puppetry and prosthetic work used in horror movies, they are far from realistic too, but those effects are at least are physical in nature and actors can still interact with them.  When you see a horror movie use CGI too much, you just know that the actors are reacting to nothing else but a green screen effect.  A recent movie like Mama (2013), loses all effective chills when you see the digital apparition in it appear.  This is more apparent in smaller budget horror films, which you can kinda excuse due to limitations in budgets.  But when a bigger budget horror film, like the upcoming Carrie remake, looks so pathetic because of the overdone CGI effects, then you begin to see how digital imagery has a negative effect on the genre.  Even a good horror film like World War Z suffered from some unnecessary CGI work, which had the unfortunate affect of making the zombies less frightening.  If ever there was a place where I wish horror filmmakers would show more restraint, it would be here.
One other problem that I see plaguing the horror genre is the lack of original ideas.  Today we are seeing an overabundance of the same kinds of ideas used over and over again.  Seriously, how many haunted house movies do we need?  Not only that, there are far too many remakes and sequels in the horror genre.  Do we really need seven Saw movies and four Paranormal Activities?  Horror sequels have become so absurdly common, that we have ridiculous titles like The Last Exorcism 2 and A Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia appear as a result; and yes that second title is real.  I see it as commerce taking precedence over artistic vision, and the fact that film studios are more likely to invest in something already established than in something new.  Every now and then, you do see a movie with a fresh idea come about, like Paranormal Activity in 2007, but even that was driven into ground with too many follow ups with diminishing returns.
Remakes are also a negative factor in horror movies today.  What you usually see in these horror remakes are films that get rid of all the atmosphere from the originals in favor of upping the gore factor and the scary bits; just because filmmakers have the ability to do now what could only be implied at in the past.  The problem with this is that it completely misses the point of what made the original films so effective in the first place.  A particular example is the terrible remake of John Carpenter’s The Thing, which loses all of the substance of the original in favor of just making the film as gory as possible.  Gore does not equal scary.  Filmmakers like Carpenter knew that, and that’s why they used gore sparingly.  The sad thing is that remakes try to one up these originals because the tools today are so much better; but it fails miserably every time.
Thankfully, despite the attempts by Hollywood to try to push the Horror genre into more exploitative territories, the classics still hold up all these years later.  Even a 90 year old film like Nosferatu still gives audiences chills to this day.  And I think that it all comes down to atmosphere.  It’s like how people tell ghost stories around a campfire.  Would you rather listen to the story that builds up to a chilling ending that’ll leave you with nightmares, or would you rather listen to someone’s story that gets caught up in the gory details and then just ends without a payoff?  That’s what’s being lost in horror movies today.  The classics knew how to build their stories around scary ideas, and not just the imagery.  The Twilight Zone became popular on television because it presented us with unsettling scenarios that made us anxious the longer we thought about them.  Not once did we see the monster on the wing of a plane attack William Shatner in the famous episode; it was the frightening possibilities that could have come about that made the episode scary and also Shatner’s paranoia in his performance.  The best horror movies have staying power because they knew that their audiences had the imaginations capable of filling in the gory details that remained unseen.
So, is horror a dying genre?  Of course not.  There is an abundance of terrible horror movies out there, but that’s only because the market has been flooded.  Every now and then, a fresh new idea comes along and not only makes an impact, but it will also go on to influence the genre as a whole.  One thing that I would like to see an end to in the horror genre is the over-abundance of terrible remakes.  Just looking at the new Carrie remake trailer makes me laugh, because it’s taking everything that worked in the original and makes it less subtle.  I believe it strongly; CGI, and shaky-cam for that matter, are making horror films less frightening.  They are showy techniques that ruin atmosphere needed for a good horror movie and I wish more filmmakers would show more restraint.  I’ve stayed away from horror films generally because of this, and the horror movies that I gravitate towards are ones that have been around a long time.  If you’re wondering which one I consider my favorite, it would be Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).  Talk about a film that makes the most out of it’s atmosphere.  I hope that other horror filmmakers take a look at what makes the classics as scary as they are, and learn the effectiveness of restraint.  You’d be surprised how much a little scare can go when it’s built up well enough.

Gravity – Review

 

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A realization of someones worst nightmare or a rousing adventure into the outer limits.  Either way you look at it, there’s no denying that director Alfonso Cuaron’s new space-set thriller Gravity is one unforgettable cinematic experience.  I was looking forward to this film ever since the first heart-pounding trailer made it to screens months ago.  I was worried a bit that the film would be a let down, because the marketing was so strong and the trailers were so intense, but thankfully my fears were moot once I saw the final product.  Gravity is a film unlike anything I have ever seen before and may very well stand as one of my picks for the best of the year.  It comes with my highest recommendation, though I should also stress that this film probably won’t be for everyone.  This movie is essentially a survival film set in the most unforgiving environment that mankind has ever ventured into; outer space.  And while this is something we have seen before in other sci-fi films (parts of Alien (1979) comes to mind), none of them have ever been done on this scale and with this kind of authenticity.  Harrowing would be the best word to describe the film’s benchmark action scenes, and believe me, they will be agonizing to some people out there.
The plot is beautifully simplistic; keeping everything focused on the situation at hand without any outside distractions.  In fact, the movie begins with the inciting incident in the very first shot, and the rest of the film just follows through to the very end as if it’s making things up as it goes along.  The story follows a couple of astronauts repairing a satellite in Earth’s orbit when suddenly their shuttle is struck by space debris from an exploded Russian satellite.  This incident leaves only two survivors, Astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), both of whom are left drifting in orbit without any way to get down.  Their only means of escape is to get to another space station within a reasonable distance.  This is not without peril considering that their oxygen supply is low and the debris field is headed back their way within 90 minutes.  This is essentially the plot to the film, and without spoiling what happens next, I will say that the film deftly handles this premise perfectly; letting things play out logically and keeping the main thrust of the plot in focus throughout the whole of the run time.
What is remarkable about the movie, and what helps to make it feel so real, is the way that Alfonso Cuaron has edited it together.  If you know anything about Cuaron’s work, you’d know that he is a fan of the extended tracking shot.  This technique is when the camera continues to roll and follow the action on-screen without ever cutting, sometimes for minutes on end.  This was prominent in Cuaron’s 2006 film Children of Men, which featured two such shots, both of which ran continuously for about 6 minutes in length.  That’s like an eternity in film editing and to pull one of these off requires a lot of pre-planned staging.  If one actor messes up the shot, it means that everything has to go back to where it started in order to get everything right in one take.  This is why the technique is rarely used, because of the extra effort involved, but it’s a challenge that Cuaron has gotten so good at doing, that it’s become a staple in his films.  Gravity is no exception. The opening shot alone runs continuously for 12 minutes before the first cut appears.  Now, of course, I’m sure the staging of this shot was helped greatly by the aid of CGI enhancement, but still it requires a lot of faith in the audience to stay involved.  And the shot is a remarkable way to introduce us into the film.  We see the Earth from space at first and then slowly, a space shuttle comes into view and we begin to hear the com chat of the astronauts, introducing them individually to us, all before the debris begins to rain down.
It’s a remarkable beginning to the film and I can’t think of anyone who won’t be hooked after watching this opening take place.  Cuaron has certainly mastered the art of the tracking shot and best of all, it actually goes a long way towards establishing everything we need to know in this movie, regarding the story, the characters and the setting.  The rest of the film continues to follow along in this style of story-telling, and I don’t think there is more than 20-30 shots in the entire movie.  You would think that a movie wouldn’t be able to sustain it’s tension over a long period of time if it didn’t cut to other things once in a while, but in this movie, it’s an essential element.  It adds to the claustrophobia felt in the characters predicament.  I don’t think any other film has done this good of a job portraying what it actually feels like to be in outer space.  As the characters are drifting around in space, you are right there with them, experiencing the emptiness of the setting. There is no external sound except what we hear from the astronauts’ transmissions.  When something big happens, it builds and builds the longer the shot goes on, which makes the tension even stronger.  Overall, you get that feeling of being un-tethered to existence and being consumed by the nothingness of space, which in the end is a very terrifying thing.
That’s why I think this film will put of some viewers.  I think that everyone will agree it is a good movie in the end, but for some people it will be a one and done experience.  This movie will test you; no doubt about it, and I think that’s a testament to the film’s authenticity.  This movie must have been very well researched because the atmosphere in this film is so fully realized.  Again, the editing has a lot to do with that, but the design and camera teams have likewise done a commendable job here.  I almost guarantee that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki will win an Oscar for his work, not only for the amazing tracking shots, but for the way he utilizes the effects work in this film as well.  This is an outer space that is not stylized or minimized; it looks about as real as actual NASA footage.  The way that the earth fills the screen in many shots is also a chief design element, and it really helps to establish the immensity of the setting.  And by making it all feel real, it all gives the viewer a “you are there” feeling, which only enhances the feeling of anxiety when something goes wrong.  Believe me, the audience I watched the film with was so tensed up by what they were watching that you could have heard a pin drop in the theater.  It’s rare to see a movie do that nowadays, when so many films are geared towards making an audience laugh and cheer at every turn, whether it succeeds or not.  For a movie to leave an audience silent throughout the whole showing is quite an accomplishment itself, so the filmmakers should be pleased in having done that.
And while there’s a lot of great work done with the style and staging in this film, I am pleased to see that the actors involved didn’t get lost in the thick of it all.  The cast is minimal to an extreme degree; meaning there are only two actors in the entire film that have any face time.  I should especially single out Sandra Bullock, since she is onscreen for pretty much the entire film, and she makes the most of it.  I believe this is the most impressive work she has done to date.  She captures both the vulnerability and the strength of the character in a very believable way, and makes Ryan Stone a character that we want to see make it out of this ordeal alive.  She is effectively our guide through this adventure.  We see everything through her eyes and every mishap she encounters is given a personal resonance that the audience will surely feel along with her.  Sandra Bullock manages to embody this character without a single inauthentic note in her performance, and that’s a pleasing thing to see in a challenging movie like this.  George Clooney’s performance may not be as nuanced as Sandra Bullock’s, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be either.  He’s supposed to be the handsome and charming astronaut character in this film, and that’s exactly what Clooney is good at. He provides the film with some much needed levity, and his inclusion is a good balance for the movie.  It’s rare when you get a film with a cast this small, but I’m certainly happy that the two actors involved made it work.
Any flaw you may find in this film may come from the different attempts the filmmakers made in extending the film’s run time, which is a surprisingly compact 91 minutes.  Admittedly, the film hits it’s lowest points when things start to settle down, but that is a rare occurrence.  Also, the authenticity feels as real as it possibly can be, but I don’t know if everything is scientifically sound. Some people may nitpick and say that some moments could never happen in reality, particularly towards the end, but I doubt that anyone will make much of a fuss over this film.  This movie is a standout and rightfully earns it’s place among other sci-fi classics.  Alfonso Cuaron crafted this movie as both an experience and an inspiring portrayal of man’s ingenuity in the face of nature’s extremes.  I can see this film inspiring a lot of other people to take an interest in space exploration, even when it turns just as many people off that kind of idea.  There are even some subtle loving nods to other sci-fi classics, like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Alien (1979), which shows where Cuaron had clearly drawn some of his inspiration.  Also, it makes sense that the voice of the unseen Mission Control commander in this movie is none other than actor Ed Harris, who played the same kind of role in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995).
This movie succeeds on every level, and I’m glad to see a film actually live up to it’s potential and deliver on what it promises.  The trailers for the film did a good job of conveying the intensity of the film, but the entire experience is something that everyone should take in, even though it will push a lot of people harder than they would like to.  I should also mention that I watched this movie in IMAX 3D, and if there was ever a film that was justified for this format, this was it.  The IMAX screen does a lot towards enhancing the vastness of the outer space setting, which made all of those heart-pounding scenes even more of an experience.  The 3D also was used effectively, if not entirely un-noticeable.  Sometimes you’d see a piece of debris shoot past the camera or a drop of liquid floating in mid-air, but otherwise everything else was subtly done in three-dimensions. Overall, one of the best cinematic experiences I’ve had so far this year, and I’m sure that many will share that same feeling.  I’m pleased to see a director like Alfonso Cuaron pushing his cinematic styles into new places, because it leads to unforgettable experiences like this one.  Hopefully, whatever project he chooses next will be as engaging as this one.  It’s rare to see a movie be “out-of-this-world” and so grounded at the same time; something all audiences must see just for the experience alone.
Rating: 9/10

Top Ten Movie Endings That Left Us Stunned

 

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This weekend we say goodbye to one of the most unforgettable and cinematic television shows of all time; Breaking Bad.  But, like all great TV shows, there is enormous pressure on this one to deliver on what will be the final 60 minutes of the series, given how every episode before has led up to this.  So many great TV shows try to go out big and even take some risks with their finales, in order to put a final stamp on everything.  What is interesting is that while TV shows benefit from having multiple episodes available to build their story-lines over time towards a big, shocking conclusion, movies on the other hand have very little room to give us a similar unexpected ending. Movies deviate little from the standard three act structure and it’s almost inevitable that everything in them leads to a nice clean ending where good triumphs over evil.  But, every now and then, there are movies that decide not to play it safe and throw out all audiences’ expectations in favor of an ending that challenges the very idea of happy endings all together.
It’s a risky thing for filmmakers to pull of, given that you have to set everything in motion in the story towards a finish that may anger people.  Not only that, movies have only a two hour limit to make us invested enough in what’s going on in order for the ending to have any impact.  For an movie ending to leave an audience stunned, it usually ends up doing one of a handful of things:  it let’s evil win in the end, or has the main hero suddenly killed, or has a deus-ex-machina interference steer the story in an entirely different direction.  While many films have tried this over the years, I have chosen ten here that I think represent the best stunning endings to a movie ever.  These are the endings that left a chilling impact once the credits started rolling and while some came at me like a punch to the gut, there were others that took their time and still surprised.  But what they all have in common is that they took major risks and still ultimately satisfied.
10.
THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007) – “I’M FINISHED”

You could say that this scene delivers on what the title promises.  But what’s surprising about it is the fact that it’s the note on which we leave this film.  Director Paul Thomas Anderson is known for his ability to throw in some way out-there endings to his movies, but this scene in particular is his most perfectly constructed and ultimately his most satisfying.  The movie There Will Be Blood follows the rise of an oil baron named Daniel Plainview (brilliantly played by Daniel Day-Lewis) who uses his intelligence and cunning to build a successful drilling operation, while at the same time running at odds with a local small town preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano).  The ending finds Mr. Plainview old and alone in his opulent mansion and being visited by Eli who’s looking to start up a business deal with him.  Most other films would have Daniel Plainview see the error of his ways and repentant to the underdog Eli; but not this film.  Instead, the atheistic Plainview turns the tables on false prophet Eli and he takes out his revenge, beating him to death with a bowling pin.  It’s an inevitable conclusion given that it’s what happens when you put two horrible people in the same room together, but the surprising thing is the joy that we take in seeing this scene play out.  A bad guy learns nothing and commits murder in the movie’s final moments, and that makes for a happy finish to this film.
9.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) – “STAR CHILD”

Stanley Kubrick’s grand opus has so many big things going on throughout it’s 148 minute running time.  So, how does he end it all?  By confusing the hell out of all of us.  And as a result, it became one of the most unforgettable and most debated endings of all time.  The film concludes with astronaut Dave Bowman finding a mysterious Monolith floating in orbit around Jupiter which then leads him into a Star Gate and on an unforgettable, trippy ride.  He soon finds himself in an eerie white room where he ages rapidly; ultimately revisited once again by the monolith and then transformed into a “star child,” a supposedly next step in human evolution.  The whole of 2001 is a mind trip, but it’s these last few ponderous scenes that leaves audiences bewildered all these years later.  It’s a genius move by Kubrick to leave things unexplained; instead letting the journey there be the thing on which to conclude the film.  It’s both awe-inspiring and a little unsettling, as we see the evolved Dave floating down to Earth.  Is this new being going to be a gift to human kind, or a harbinger of the end.  Kubrick didn’t need to answer that question.  The other-worldly image is enough to go out on.  And a little help from Richard Strauss doesn’t hurt either.
8.

SEVEN (1995) – “WHAT’S IN THE BOX?”

Some of the most shocking endings come about when the filmmakers make the decision to have the villain become the victor in the end.  That was definitely the case in David Fincher’s crime thriller Seven.  At the end of the film, a serial killer who’s been choosing his victims based off of the biblical Seven Deadly Sins willingly turns himself in.  The detectives on the case (played by Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman) make John Doe (Kevin Spacey) lead them to the location of his last murder.  What happens next is both shocking and unexpected; John Doe has planned this moment all along, having a package delivered to their very location containing the head of Pitt’s girlfriend inside.  John Doe wants the distraught cop to kill him as a fulfillment of his whole plan, which ends up happening.  It’s a challenging finale, because even though the villain is slain, he still got what he wanted.  The ending is one of the bleakest ever put on screen, defying most Hollywood conventions.  Few filmmakers would ever dare make audiences sit through a disturbing and often grim crime thriller only to deliver no peaceful resolution in the end; but Seven took that risk and gave us an unforgettable conclusion.  Given the right actor and a good build up, audiences can willingly accept an unforgiving ending like this.
7.

THE GODFATHER PART II (1974) – “FREDO SLEEPS WITH THE FISHES”

On the other end of the spectrum, here’s a case where the villain gets what he wants, and it destroys him.  Director Francis Ford Coppola concluded the first Godfather with another montage of slaughter, but this one has more of a sting based on who gets whacked in it.  In this one, we find Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) ordering his men to take his older brother Fredo (John Cazale) out into the lake to go “fishing.”  Inter-cut with the assassination of Corleone rival Hyman Roth (Lee Strasburg) and the suicide of turn-coat informer Frankie Pentangeli (Michael Gazzo), our final image of Fredo is of him quietly reciting the Hail Mary, which then cuts back to Michael staring out from his porch, lowering his head when the gunshot is heard.  This ending marks the complete disintegration of Michael’s soul and it’s a notorious conclusion to such an epic story.  While inevitable, it was still no less shocking to audiences to see a big movie end on such a grim note.  But that’s what makes the Godfather movies so memorable.  The fact that the once noble Michael became so ruthless that he would order the death of his own brother ruined any notion of redemption by film’s end and the final image of Michael sitting alone in his garden is a sad but suitable conclusion to the movie.  It’s a rare case where a bleak finish becomes the most satisfying.
6.

THE BIRDS (1963) – “LEAVING TOWN”

Alfred Hitchcock was no stranger to making his films dark.  Three years earlier he shocked the world with the murder thriller Psycho (1960).  But his bleakest ending would actually come in this follow-up.  While most Hitchcock movies have shocker endings, they almost always finish with the villain getting their comeuppance.  In The Birds, the antagonist is Mother Nature herself, so how does our cast of characters overcome this.  In the end, they don’t.  The final scene of the movie finds our main character Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) scarred both physically and emotionally after an attack from a flock of birds in her lover’s (Rod Taylor) safe house.  The survivors in the house must quietly flee and leave the bird infested town behind in order to get Melanie the help she needs.  The helplessness of this scene is what makes it so chilling.  At this point in the movie, the main characters have no options left but to leave everything behind, effectively giving up.  Few movies in this period of time would let a movie end with it’s heroes defeated so thoroughly; even a Hitchcock movie.  But the master director had the confidence to pull it off and as a result gave audiences an effectively bleak conclusion.  You  can still see the impact this film has had to this day in the way that modern disaster films have tried to copy the resonance of this ending; albeit with less successful results.
5.

BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) – “LOVERS AMBUSHED”

This ending isn’t surprising for anyone who knows the history behind the true life story.  Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) are gunned down after a long string of notorious bank robberies that garnered them national attention.  What makes this scene so shockingly memorable is the unflinching carnage of the moment.  We feel the characters’ pain as they look into each other’s eyes the moment before the bullets begin to rain out, knowing that there is no hope left for them.  The gunfire is loud and impactful, just further enhancing the brutality of it all.  Audiences had never seen this level of violence in a movie before, and this also led to a backlash from critics, many of whom claimed that the film was reveling too much in the onscreen violence.  Director Arthur Penn never meant for this scene to be exploitative at all.  The extended slaughter was meant to be impactful, making the conclusion more true to life than what movies had done before.  The scene continues to be memorable to this day, even after modern movie violence has diminished the shock value of this scene.  Bonnie and Clyde may have not been shocking as a historical retelling, but it did stun audiences enough to leave an impression on cinema as a whole.
4.

THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995) – “KEYSER SOZE REVEALED”

Once again, a shocking ending featuring Kevin Spacey.  Released in the same year as Seven, this became one of the most talked about movie twists ever.  Kevin Spacey’s character, Verbal Kint, tells his side of a story to Det. Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) about how he was the only survivor in his group of crooks who were ambushed by a master criminal named Keyser Soze.  The whole film, we are left wondering who Keyser Soze is and if he will reveal himself by the end of the movie.  The answer comes at the end when Det. Kujan lets Verbal Kint out of his custody, confident that he’s gotten all he can out of him.  But moments later, Kujan realizes that everything he has been told was actually a lie, pieced together from things and names right there in his office. Verbal Kint, who’s been seen as a cripple for the whole movie is seen dropping his limp and we soon realize that he was Keyser Soze the whole time.  This ending takes the incredible risk of making the audience accept the fact that everything they have watched so far was a lie, which can put off an audience if executed poorly.  The scene manages to work on the strength of Spacey’s performance and the confidence in the story that director Bryan Singer had.  Audiences were stunned by this lie pulled on them, but it made learning the truth all the more satisfying.
3.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) – “LUKE…I AM YOUR FATHER”

You rarely see a big franchise picture take a big risk and end one of their films on a shocking and downbeat note.  But that’s what George Lucas and company did in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.  In this movie, it seems like none of our main characters can catch a break in the unforgettable final act.  After being betrayed by his friend Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is frozen in carbonite and taken off by Boba Fett as a reward for helping Darth Vader (voice of James Earl Jones).  On top of that, young Jedi Luke Skywalker loses his right hand in a duel with Vader himself and is cornered and defeated.  But the moment that left audiences more stunned than any else was the moment when Darth Vader reveals that he didn’t in fact kill Luke’s father in the past; he is Luke’s father.  This was a bombshell to drop on audiences who had thought they knew where the story was going.  After this ending, anything was possible in the Star Wars universe.  It was risky for Team Lucas to make their characters suffer so much in what was effectively the middle film of a trilogy.  Thankfully for them, it was a risk that paid off and it solidified the Star Wars franchise as one of the greatest story lines ever put on the big screen.
2.
PLANET OF THE APES (1968) – “DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL”

One of the most famous twist endings of all time, this finale’s impact is still seen in Hollywood today.  This action thriller starring Charlton Heston was a bizarre ride when it was first released in the late 60’s, and while the ending fits well with the apocalyptic nature of the story-line, most audiences were still taken back by how impactful the final image was.  After crash landing on a strange planet run by intelligent, human-like apes, Astronaut George Taylor (Heston) escapes imprisonment from his militaristic captors and their leader, Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), only to discover that he can never go back to his home planet; he’s already there.  His trip through space has sent him thousand of years into the future and in that time, mankind has destroyed civilization through war, leaving only ruins behind.  One ruin in particular, the Statue of Liberty, is found by Taylor and his realization of what has happened leads to an unforgettable breakdown, which Heston milks perfectly.  The screenplay was co-written by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, and it shows.  This ending would feel right at home with any Twilight Zone episode given it’s bleak message and the hopeless state it leaves the character in.  Like most twist endings, it relies on the goodwill of the audience to work, and audiences accepted this ending as an appropriate conclusion to such a dark and weird film.  In many ways, it has gone on to become what most other twist endings strive to be, but few actually end up being.
1.
CHINATOWN (1974) – “FORGET IT, JAKE”
 
This ending may be one of the bleakest scenes in movie history, if not the most.  Private Detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) discovers some shocking truths about the case he’s studying; that not only has wealthy tycoon Noah Cross (a chilling John Huston) been illegally manipulating water supplies in Depression-era Los Angeles, but he’s also hunting down a daughter born out of an incestuous rape of his own legitimate daughter (Faye Dunaway).  Finding himself captive by the ruthless Cross, Gittes follows Dunaway’s Evelyn to the titular neighborhood, where lawlessness is rampant.  Evelyn tries to escape with her sister/daughter, but Cross’ men fire at her and the film concludes with Evelyn dead behind the wheel, Cross with possession of the girl she was trying to save, and Jake left helpless to stop all of this chaos.  Roman Polanski, the director, is a survivor of the Holocaust, so he knew too well how cruel life could be, but this was something few audience members were prepared for.  In a matter of minutes, this film goes from a loving homage of film noir to a Greek tragedy, and it’s a gut punch for anyone who expected things to be tied up all neat by the end.  It’s amazing to think that a Hollywood studio (Paramount) would give the okay to a film with this unforgiving of an ending, but in the end, it’s a commendable commitment that pays off. Jack plays the moment perfectly, looking as if he’s lost all hope in humanity, and I’m sure it’s a feeling likewise shared by many in the audience.  No other ending has really ever given an audience a shock to the system like this one, and there’s no other statement the film can say other than, “It’s Chinatown.”  Forget it?  No one ever will after seeing it.
And that’s my list of movie endings that left audiences stunned.  Some are definitive conclusions that can’t be topped (Chinatown, Bonnie and Clyde), while others blew open so many other possibilities that broke away from convention (Empire, 2001).  But, overall, these are endings that still resonate with us after the credits started rolling and have gone on to be influential as well as impactful.  Going out with a bang is something you can get away with more often in television, but it’s also pleasing to see a film take that big step as well.  Hopefully more films take a risk in the endings of their stories and break away from tradition in order to deliver something memorable.  It may not always be pleasant, but it will surely be memorable.

This is….