Holy Grails – The Noble Search for Cinema’s Lost Treasures


One of the best things to happen to cinema over the last few years has been the emergence of digital archiving.  Sure, it is sad to see classic film stock disappearing as the norm, but there is a reason why movies are better suited for the digital realm.  If you have a digital backup for your film, you are better able to transfer it, download it, and make multiple duplications without ever losing video or sound quality.  When a movie exists as a digital file, it is set in stone visually and aurally as long as it is never erased.  This has become beneficial for people out there who do consider film restoration a passionate endeavor in life.  For years, film restorers have had to contend with the forces of time undoing all their hard work as they try to keep some of our most beloved films looking pristine.  Now, with digital tools at their disposal, preservationists can undo the years of wear and tear on most old films and make them look even better than when they were first released.  The advent of DVD and Blu-ray has given more studios a reason to go into their archives and dust off some of their long forgotten classics, and because of this, restorations have not only become a noble cause for the sake of film art, but also a necessity.  While there’s no trouble finding most movies in any studio archive, there are a few gems that usually have alluded archivist whereabouts for years, and these are known to film historians as the “Holy Grails” of cinema.
It’s hard to believe that there was once a time when film prints were considered disposable.  Back when the studio system was first starting up, it was commonplace for production companies to dispose of their used film stock once a film was no longer in rotation at the movie theaters.  This was done so that they could either make room for new releases, or to prevent any accidents from happening at their studio.  The reason film prints were considered dangerous to store in a warehouse back in the 20’s and 30’s was because they were made from nitrate, the same material used to make dynamite.  Several fires have happened to film vaults over the years because of nitrate film spontaneously combusting, including a 1967 incident at the MGM Studios in Culver City, CA.  Incidents like this, as well as the careless disposal of early films, are the reason why 90% of all films made before 1920 are lost to us today, according to Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation.  It wasn’t until the mid-30’s that filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin and Cecil B. DeMille started to actively preserve older movies, and their efforts have helped to keep many of these classics alive.  One thing that helped was the fact both Chaplin and DeMille had ownership over their work, so they could keep the original negatives preserved in their own collections and safe from studio hands.  Also, by keeping their films in good condition and preserved well enough to have them screened over and over again, it helped to convince the studios that it was worthwhile to do the same.
Even with better efforts to keep films archived and in good condition, older film stock still wears out over time and with many of them still made out of very volatile materials, many have just rotted away to ash in the vaults.  That is why many archivists have fully embraced the digital revolution, because it has enabled them to preserve many of these disappearing classics for posterity in a definitive way.  But, before a film can be preserved, the damage must be undone, and again digital tools are what saves these movies in the end.  There is a whole class of digital artist out there whose whole job is to scan older films from the best sources available and touch up the scratches and marks on every single frame.  Now that High Definition has become the norm in home entertainment, the results of film restorations are held to a much higher scrutiny, and that has led many studios to take better care of their whole catalog of flicks, which is nothing but a good thing for cinema as a whole.  The fact that some classic films like The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Casablanca (1943) look so good after so many years is a testament to the great efforts made by restorers over the years.  It would be unthinkable to see these kinds of films all scratched up and with faded coloring, which is why film restorations has to be an essential part of the studio business.
But, while beloved classics benefit from better care, some films have not been so lucky.  Early cinematic history is unfortunately a lost age for many film historians, because so much of it is gone.  We only know that many of these movies exist purely because of documentation from their filmmakers, or from a piece of advertisement that has been uncovered in an archive or private collection.  Sometimes movie trailers have popped up for a movie that no longer exists as a whole, like the early “lost” Frank Capra film called Say it with Sables (1928).  There are a few that have risen above the rest as films that are clearly calling out to be rediscovered and preserved.  These are the “Holy Grail” films, and some of them have become famous merely because of their elusiveness.  Like Indiana Jones searching for the Lost Ark, film preservationists have searched the world over for any evidence of the existence of these “Holy Grail” pieces of cinema.  Part of the allure of these films is the fact that they have remained unseen by the public for many years, and in some cases, never seen at all, and yet when given just one titillating glance from a press photo or from a storyboard proving their existence, it’s enough to send film nuts on a mad search.
Probably the most famous example of a lost and found “Holy Grail” film is Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking classic Metropolis (1927).  Lang’s film was made during the height of silent film-making and is considered to be the era’s crowning achievement.  Made in Germany before the rise of Hitler, Metropolis was the most expensive film of it’s time, and showed to the world that European cinema was on par with the film industry emerging in Hollywood at the same time.  However, when the movie made it’s debut in America, it was subjected to heavy cuts due to it’s more pro-Socialist themes, taking the run-time down from 145 minutes to just under 2 hours.  The Nazi regime also destroyed most of the film’s early prints, as well as the original negatives, making a full restoration impossible to do over time.  For years, the shorter cut of Metropolis was all that audiences had to see, and while it did regain it’s reputation as a cinematic classic, it remained an incomplete vision.  Film preservationists had to fill in the missing gaps with title cards explaining what was missing for many years, but while a Blu-ray release was being prepped in 2008, something miraculous happened.  A print of the original uncut version of the movie was found in Argentina in a private film collection.  The Lang Film Foundation in Germany quickly picked up the find and made their best efforts to reincorporate the lost scenes.  Even though the restoration couldn’t make the new scenes look as beautiful as the rest of the movie, due to the damage on the film stock, we are now fortunate to have a nearly complete version of this monumental film.
The saga behind the rediscovery of Metropolis’ uncensored cut gives many people hope that these “Holy Grail” movies can someday be found, and the odds of that happening improves more all the time.  There is a more concerted effort to find lost treasures tucked away in film vaults across the world, and while some “Holy Grails” have remained elusive, the fruits of the film restorers’ labors are still reaping many rewards.  Many of these finds have emerged from private collections and some unlikely places.  Sometimes it’s thanks to a very forward thinking film technician or vault librarian who saved these treasures from early destruction, sometimes without even knowing it.  A 1911 short movie called Their First Misunderstanding, the very first film to feature legendary actress Mary Pickford, was discovered in a New Hampshire barn in 2006.  Even a simple mislabeling has been the fault of some of these classics being lost.  The first ever Best Picture winner at the Oscars, 1927’s Wings, was considered gone forever due to negligent care of the original nitrate negative at the Paramount Studio Vault.  But, the film was rediscovered in the Cinematheque Francaise archive in Paris, found almost by accident when the archivists were going through their back stock, and it was quickly given a more permanent and secure place in the Paramount vault.
Sometimes, like Metropolis, it’s not a whole film that gets lost, but rather fragments that are removed and then later discarded against the wishes of the filmmaker.  These are not what we commonly know as the Deleted Scenes that inevitably have to be trimmed by the editor to make a movie work more effectively.  What I’m talking about are pieces of the movie that are removed even after the film’s first premiere, leaving big chunks of the finished film out of the public eye for whatever reason.  Sometimes these cuts were made because of censorship, and done at the protest of the filmmakers.  Or they were trimmed for the purpose of time constraints.  Back in the late 50’s and early 60’s, there was a trend for big Hollywood pictures to be shown as Roadshow presentations; meaning they were special events complete with printed out programs, musical overtures played while the audience took their seats, and special intermission at the halfway point of the movie.  These were often 3 hour plus in length programs, so when these Roadshow movies had to make it to less grand theaters across the country, it meant that the whole show had to be trimmed to meet time constraints, including removing scenes from the actual movie.  Recently, film restorations have tried to reassemble these old Roadshow versions, and while many of these have been found intact, like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Spartacus (1960), a few have still yet to be fully restored.  Movies like George Cukor’s A Star is Born (1954) and Stanley Kramer’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) have been given partial restorations that do their best to make these films feel complete again with the best elements left available.
Sometimes, there are films that remain lost merely because they’re being withheld by a particular artist or by the production company that made it.  This usually is because the film’s are an embarrassing black mark on the person or studio’s reputation and they would prefer that it remains unseen.  But, the downside of withholding a known property is that it will inevitably raise people’s curiosity about these films, and it will in turn will put pressure on the filmmakers to make it available again.  The most notorious example of this would be the 1946 Disney film Song of the South, which the Disney company refuses to release to the public, due to fears that it will spark controversy over its racial themes.  Though not necessarily a “Holy Grail” film, due to the fact that it was available for many decades to the public and can still be seen by anyone who can secure a bootleg copy from Asia, we’ve still yet to see a fully restored version made by the Disney company.  One withheld film that surely would be considered a “Holy Grail” type would be Jerry Lewis’ notorious film The Day the Clown Cried, which has been seen by only a small handful of people in Mr. Lewis’ inner circle.  Supposedly because of the Holocaust setting and Mr. Lewis’ less than genuine depiction of the tragedy, the film has been kept hidden from the public, probably to spare Jerry from the controversy that could arise from it.  Still, rare behind the scenes footage did emerge last year, which has raised people’s curiosity about it once again.  We may someday get a true glance at both movies, but that choice is still determined by the ones who originally made them.
What I do love is the fact that film restoration is no longer looked at as just a noble cause, but rather an essential part of cinema as a whole.  With data back-ups as common as they are now, we are far less likely to see catastrophic losses of film like we did before digital tools were made available to us.  Today we can securely preserve the works of our present as well as restore the classics of our past.  And the search for the most intriguing “Holy Grails” of cinema will undoubtedly continue to inspire both archivists and treasure hunters for years to come.  Now that we’ve managed to see Metropolis become complete, the focus now shifts to the next big find, like the lost Lon Chaney thriller London After Midnight (1927), the most notable victim of the MGM fire; the lost director’s cut of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1943); or the full 7 1/2 hour version of Erich von Stroheim’s legendary silent epic, Greed (1924).  Some of these films may sadly be forever lost, but the hope always remains.  The great thing about these searches though is that it demonstrates the importance of preserving our cinematic legacy.  Martin Scorsese illustrated this idea beautifully in his 2011 film Hugo, where a young boy helps to rediscover a long forgotten filmmaker, whose legacy has all but disappeared due to the destruction of his original film prints.  Thanks to passionate film preservationists like Mr. Scorsese and the people that work in film foundations and archives around the world, our cinematic legacy is no longer disappearing, but is instead coming back to life again more and more.


300: Rise of an Empire – Review


Portraying history on film accurately is often harder to do than portraying pure fiction.  In many ways, it is almost impossible to make a 100% accurate historical representation work, because cinema is all about making the artificial feel real.  Some movies feel more true to history than others, and yet the best loved historical films are the ones that, for the most part, play very loose with historical facts.  Case in point, Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning Braveheart (1995).  The movie is a slap to the face of anyone who takes the history of William Wallace and the Scottish Rebellion seriously, and yet it’s still an enormously entertaining movie, and also a personal favorite of mine.  Gladiator (2000) likewise is pretty loose with history, only it gets away with it more because of the fact that it has a fictional character at it’s center.  When a movie takes real history and changes it to the point where it no longer resembles the truth, it could be argued that the story has crossed into the realm of fable story-telling, which is itself an honored narrative tradition.  People always have embellished real events in order to make them sound more interesting.  George Washington never threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River, but we like to think he did.  A Roman general never turned into a Gladiator who then defied the Caesar, and yet we still welcome the idea of it.
Basically, we all enjoy telling tall tales to make our heroes greater than they were, and one of the most obvious examples of taking history and turning it into a larger than life fable in recent years is the 2007 Zack Snyder film, 300.  Based off of the real historical account of Spartan King Leonidas’ last stand against the invading Persian empire, as well as the graphic novel by Frank Miller, 300 was somewhat of a surprise hit when it was first released.  The years after Ridley Scott’s Gladiator hit the Oscar jackpot were not kind to sword and sandals epics.  Both Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004) and Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004) failed as historical retelling and as entertaining action flicks.  Not to mention Ridley Scott’s own epic follow-up, Kingdom of Heaven (2005) fell flat.  So, when Zack Snyder’s 300 was being developed, I’m sure many people had their doubts as well.  It’s not hard to see why, since the movie (like the graphic novel) doesn’t even remotely try to take the history of the event seriously.  And yet, after grossing $200 million domestic, those doubts went away.  300 was a unique film that actually fictionalized history in a way that everyone could accept.  By making the legend of Leonidas so outlandishly over the top to the point of pure fairy-tale level accuracy, it actually made the meaning behind the event much easier to digest.  Naturally, with a film this successful, it’s inevitable that a follow-up would come in it’s wake, though it’s surprising that it took so long for this sequel, Rise of an Empire, to make it’s debut.
As far as movie sequels go, 300: Rise of an Empire has a lot that works in it’s favor and a lot that that works against it.  One of the things that unfortunately hinders the film is the familiarity everyone has with the original movie.  Zack Snyder did not direct the sequel, instead giving the reigns over to newcomer Noam Murro.  Snyder did co-write the screenplay and there’s no mistaking the fact that this movie strictly adheres to the first film’s formula.  This movie is actually more like a side-quel rather than a true sequel.  The events of the first film happen concurrently with the events in this movie.  So, pretty much if you haven’t seen the first 300, you won’t be lost because this movie will constantly remind you of what happened with Leonidas and his 300 spartan soldiers, since it’s happening at the same time.  Only, Leonidas (played in the first film memorably by Gerard Butler) is barely even seen here, shown only in brief snippets pulled from the first film.  Rise of an Empire instead follows a whole different group of characters not even attached to ancient Sparta.  And this is one of the more jarring problems with the movie.  What made 300 work so well was our interest in the Spartan characters; their culture, their devotion to their king and countrymen, and their fearlessness in the face of danger.  That focus on the characters is a bit more scatter-shot in Rise of an Empire, though not to the point of sinking the whole narrative.
At the center of Rise of an Empire is the Athenian navy, led by their commander Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton).  Themistokles is tasked with holding the Persian navy back while Leonidas’ army delays the invading Persians on land, all in the hope that their brave sacrifice unites all of Greece together to fight as one.  The Persians are led by the power hungry Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, reprising his role from the first 300) and his own naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green) who has helped the Persian king rise his way to the throne to become the “God King.”  Most of the movie follows the same trajectory as 300, as the majority of the run-time is devoted to a string of bloody, stylized battles.  To the movie’s credit, it doesn’t merely try to copy 300 exactly in these fight scenes, and having all the action scenes take place on warships in the middle of the Aegean Sea is a nice change of scenery.  The standoff between the two navies is the main centerpiece of the movie, and the film rarely departs from this set-up.  This is both to the film’s benefit and it’s detriment.  The good thing is that the movie is actually very well focused, and like the first movie, isn’t overstuffed with a lot of convoluted plotting.  The downside of this however, is that most of it feels like a retread of things we’ve already seen, with no new ground gained in  the process.  For people who wanted a sequel in the truest sense, this might be a disappointment since the story-line only expands the narrative rather than continues it.
But, as a standalone piece of mindless entertainment, the movie surprisingly still works, though not as successfully as the first film.  Everything in this movie is a mixed bag, from the story to the characters.  When the movie does something wrong, it’s distracting and drags the film down; but when it gets something right, it does it exceptionally well.  There were some action scenes that I did enjoy well enough, and then there were others that were so uninspired that I just tuned out; an opening battle scene in particular felt very bland.  For those who enjoyed the stylized blood splatters and slow mo swordplay in the first movie, you’ll be happy to know that there is plenty more of it in this film; perhaps a tad too much.  The characters and performances are also a mixed bag.  Australian newcomer Sullivan Stapleton has the physique and the fighting skills down for the role of Themistokles, but he’s a charisma black hole every time he speaks, and remarkably enough, only makes you long for the star magnetism of Gerard Butler.  The other Athenians are also equally bland.  I couldn’t care about a single one of them, which was probably the biggest fault of the movie.  The only interesting characters on the heroic side are the ones returning from the first film which includes Game of Thrones‘ Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo and David Wenham as the lone surviving “300” spartan Dilios.  Unfortunately, their screen-time is limited to only a few scenes.
The film’s best element, and the one thing that makes this movie work as well as it does, is Eva Green’s performance as Artemisia.  Eva Green steals this movie in a big way and you can tell she’s having the time of her life doing it.  Artemisia is one hell of a villainess and she manages to outshine even the big, bad Xerxes himself.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a character like this who not only worked as a great villain, but actually improved the movie every time she was on screen.  She’s the most three-dimensional character in a film that is severely lacking in them, and her back-story is worthy of a film all it’s own.  She’s the kind of character that actually demands more screen-time and thankfully the film delivers on that.  Every scene she’s in is a gem, and remarkably, her interactions with Themistokles actually help to improve his characterization as well.  It’s actually really surprising to see a character this good in a movie like this, and that’s a testament to how good an actress Eva Green is.  She’s most well known as the Bond girl opposite Daniel Craig’s 007 in Casino Royale (2006), but this performance couldn’t be more different.  Here, she has the right balance between sexy and ruthless, as well as displaying unmatched charisma.  Her fight/sex scene in the movie with Themistokles is a particular highlight, and it displays perfectly Ms. Green’s fearlessness as a performer.  Her performance as Artemesia is much better than the movie is really asking for, and in the end, it is what makes the movie worth watching.
Fortunately, the movie is not without some other positive elements.  For one thing, it does carry over the visual look of the first movie very well, without feeling like a direct carbon copy.  Taking the action to the sea helps to make this film feel distinct, and there are some very spectacular visuals at play here.  Think of the naval battle scenes from Ben-Hur (1959), but in the 300 style, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what this movie is like.  To director Murro’s credit, he does keep things from feeling repetitive, and actually makes the action moments feel fluid and easy to follow.  He may not have the same command over the style that Zack Snyder has, but he still manages to keep everything grounded and believable, which is saying something in a film like this.  At the same time, there’s no mistaking this as anything other than a follow-up to 300.  The visual style is what makes these films distinct from every other sword and sandals epic out there.  There’s no dramatic departure from formula or style; you want another 300 movie, you’ve got one.  300 was groundbreaking at the time for having completely CGI’ed environments and set-pieces for it’s live action actors to interact with.  Today, that kind of technique has become more commonplace, so you would think that by doing the same thing in Rise of an Empire it would feel stale, but remarkably enough it still manages to work in it’s favor.
The movie also works well as a pseudo-parody of the first movie.  Though not intentional, I did pick up on some subtle jabs at the first movie’s more notable excesses.  Most of these come out of Artemesia’s sarcastic asides, which play well into her character.  She even manages to mock Xerxes over-the-top extravagance at one point in some biting put downs, and who could blame her; Xerxes is one of the most ridiculous looking villains in movie history, with his golden thong and chain link piercings all over his body.  Also, audiences noticed an underlining homo-eroticism in the first movie that couldn’t be ignored, with all the scantily clad Spartan men forming close, but never sexual bonds between battles.  In this movie, that homoerotic subtext is actually touched upon slightly; sometimes in a joking way, though not always.  In fact, there’s a slight hint that the main character Themistokles could be bisexual, given that he devotes just as much passion towards the men that serve under him as he does to the women that he lays down with, and sometimes he even has a stronger kinship to those same men.  Perhaps I’m reading too much into the movie, but I was happy to see that the film actually touched upon this subtext rather than just cast it aside like the first movie did.  The film also smartly avoids going too over the top with some of the series’ more notorious excesses.  There are fewer grotesque creatures in this film, which actually makes it slightly more historically accurate than the first movie; but of course that’s all in perspective.
So, is 300: Rise of an Empire a worthy sequel, or more importantly, is it worth watching at all.  I would have to say that it is a lesser movie than the first 300, but still an enormously entertaining flick in it’s own right.  The film does work as an action movie, and anyone who wants to see stylish swordplay in action will not be disappointed.  I’d say it’s worth checking out just for Eva Green’s Artemisia alone, because she is that good a character.  As a sequel to 300, it probably could’ve been better.  I certainly wanted to see this movie build more onto the last film’s narrative, especially with the way that 300 ended.  Also, the blandness of Themistokles and the other Greek soldiers in the movie really makes the absence of Leonidas and the 300 Spartans feel all the glaring.  Showing the other side of the story is fine, but not when the more compelling story has already been told.  Other than that, I was genuinely pleased by what I saw.  I actually came to this movie with low expectations, since I saw the 300 as a perfectly fine standalone piece.  This side-quel that we got didn’t blow me away, but it didn’t disappoint either, and in some ways actually exceeded my expectations; especially when it came to the villain.  Overall, I see it as a worthy companion piece to the first movie.  It may be wrong to show little concern for the truth in real history when making a movie, but sometimes it’s the legends that make the history come alive for us today.
Rating: 7/10

Top Ten Failed Oscar Bait Movies


When we look at all the movies that have taken home the top award at the Oscars, there will naturally be a few that will divide public opinion over whether they were deserving or not.  The Academy Awards are never 100% correct and usually they have made efforts to correct past mistakes whenever they’ve snubbed a film that has gone on to become a classic.  But there’s one thing that’s for sure and it’s the fact that earning an Oscar is tough game for anyone.  Studios pour millions of dollars into Oscar campaigns, and even still they may come up empty.  Like most political campaigns, it all comes down to persuading a large group of people to all think the same way, and in order to do that, the studios will more than likely appeal to the hearts rather than the minds of the voters.  One thing you will notice about many Oscar-winning films is that they usually have a message or a cause behind it.  Hollywood is a politically minded place, so it seems natural that they would honor films that speak directly to their worldviews.  Many well-deserving message movies have been awarded at the Oscars over the years (1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird for example), but every now and then, the movie industry tries a little too hard to appeal to the emotions of the Academy’s voting block.
That is when you see what we commonly refer to as Oscar-bait movies.  While you can say that pretty much any film released around award season is an Oscar-bait movie, the ones that do earn the moniker though are the ones that are so transparently crafted for this purpose.  The definition of an Oscar-bait movie is not easily defined, but characteristically it is the kind of movie that panders to it’s audience and demands recognition, whether it is deserving or not.  And usually when they pander, they will do so in the most embarrassingly manipulative ways.  There are some common characteristics that usually defines these kinds of movies: they usually center around a great tragedy (the Holocaust being one of the most exploited); they will have a main character that is handicapped in some way; they usually shoehorn their message in so awkwardly that it actually defeats the purpose of the story; and are more than likely it is too simplistic to be taken seriously.  Not all Oscar-bait movies fail; and some are actually very good as a stand alone film.  You could argue that some of this year’s favorites fall into this category (Dallas Buyers Club, for example).  But when you do recognize that some movies are made purely for Awards attention, it does cast a dark cloud over some of the choices that the film industry has made.  What I find fascinating are the failures in this particular class of film, mainly because some of them are among the most notorious failures in cinema history.  What follows are my picks for the 10 films that tried too hard to win the gold and failed the hardest.
J. EDGAR (2011)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
This one had all the makings of a sure-fire Awards juggernaut.  A notorious historical subject with numerous exploits to draw a story from.  An A-list star (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the lead, backed up by a strong supporting cast.  A script by recent Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black (2008’s Milk).  And it was directed by one of the Gods of Hollywood; Clint Eastwood.  So, what went wrong?  This is one movie that I think illustrates the idea of Hollywood trying too hard.  There’s no real focus to this movie, despite some nobly mounted attempts.  The lack of focus only highlights the flaws in the movie and anything that does work gets overshadowed.  Black’s screenplay seems more interested in the personal demons of the notorious FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, but it never really establishes exactly why Hoover was the monumental force that he was famous for being.  I do admire the film’s bold attempt to depict Hoover’s secret homosexuality honestly in the movie, but that only gets overshadowed by the heavy-handed delivery of the film’s subtext.  Not to mention the horrendous old-age make-up used on DiCaprio and his co-star Armie Hammer.  Clint Eastwood is known as a subtle and no-nonsense director, but this film is very uncharacteristic of his style, and not surprisingly, it fell short of his usual success at the Oscars.
Directed by Peter Kassovitz
The Holocaust has regrettably become one of the most overly used subjects for Oscar-bait movies.  The success of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) at the Oscars sparked a frenzy in  Hollywood to try to find more interesting stories to tell from this heartbreaking period in history.  While more discussion of the Holocaust is a good thing, few film have been able to match what Schindler’s List accomplished.  It was a gritty, brutal film that took it’s subject seriously and brought the horror of it all to life in a way that felt natural.  Jakob the Liar was the complete opposite.  The film makes the horrible mistake of trying to be a Holocaust movie as well as a starring vehicle for comedic actor Robin Williams.  Now Mr. Williams can be a versatile actor and has pulled off a great dramatic performance now and again (i.e. his Oscar-winning work in 1997’s Good Will Hunting).  But, this movie doesn’t allow him to expand his dramatic chops.  Here, the film has Robin acting as a shopkeeper in a Jewish ghetto who impersonates a radio program, delivering news of the war in a fun way in order to give hope to the people in his community.  That’s right, this is a film that allows Robin Williams to do his comedy shtick, in a Holocaust movie!!  While the film isn’t too offensively out of tone, this nevertheless feels like a blatant attempt to give Robin Williams an Awards season boost, which thankfully backfired.  The movie was dumped off in early September, effectively leaving it forgotten by Awards time.
STAR! (1968)
Directed by Robert Wise
One of the earliest examples of Hollywood going for Oscar gold, and failing in spectacular fashion.  Only a couple years after the booming success of The Sound of Music (1965), 20th Century Fox decided they wanted to invest in another grand-scale musical starring Julie Andrews.  They reunited her with Sound of Music director Robert Wise and chose for the film’s subject legendary English stage performer Gertrude Lawrence, a role that seemed to be a perfect fit for Ms. Andrews.  The film hoped to piggy-back off of the success of Music, and Mary Poppins (1964) for that matter, but unfortunately Fox failed to predict how public tastes would change in the coming years.  By the time Star! was released, it was seen as too old-fashioned and audiences could not have been less interested.  Unfortunately, Fox had gone over-budget on the film, and the movie bombed almost instantly.  The Sound of Music may have been an awards juggernaut in 1965, but it had the luck of being exactly what the audiences wanted at the time.  Star! showed that you can’t repeat that kind of success twice in a row, even with all the same players; something that commonly happens with many Oscar-bait movies in the years since.  Ironically, Star! lost out at the Oscars to another musical; the grittier, and much shorter Oliver (1968), directed by Carol Reed.  The ingredients may work well, but it all depends on whether it’s what we ordered in the first place.
RADIO (2003)
Directed by Michael Tollin
This is one of the more notorious types of movies that we consider Oscar-bait; the ones that center around a character with a disability.  Usually the uncomfortable factor comes from the fact that these characters are most often portrayed by able-bodied actors, who we know don’t suffer from these real ailments but they still try to make us believe that they do.  Sometimes this works in movies if the actor does put the work into making the disability feel real and honest; like with Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (1988) or Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump (1994), or to a minor extant with Colin Firth in The King’s Speech (2010).  I would’ve put Sean Penn’s notorious performance in I Am Sam (2001) here, but I left it out because Penn’s a good enough actor to almost pull it off.  Almost.  Unfortunately, Cuba Gooding Jr. was a little out of his league with his role in the movie Radio.  Mr. Gooding is a good actor, but his performance is uncomfortably bad in this movie, mainly because he brings little depth to the character.  All we see is a actor trying to play mentally-challenged and it just derails the entire film.  Not only that, but it makes the movies feel like another pandering attempt to earn the actor an Oscar, which is only deserved if the performer actually shows restraint and humanity in the role.  It reminds me of the now infamous monologue delivered by Robert Downey Jr. in the movie Tropic Thunder (2008).  You never, ever go “full retard.”
Directed by Mimi Leder
Another common trait among Oscar-bait movies is the film with a message.  Now, most movies have their hearts in the right place and can present a message that is well worth delivering.  The way that an Oscar-bait movie can ruin this is by taking away all subtlety out of their message and tries to force feed it to an audience.  That is the problem with a movie like Pay it Forward.  The movie presents the idea of spreading harmony around the world through random acts of kindness done for a stranger, thereby leading that same person to do the same for others, and so on.  This pyramid level, trickle-down theory sounds inviting enough and surely deserves a better movie than this.  The problem with Pay it Forward is that it doesn’t trust it’s audience to pick up the message naturally, so the message is delivered by characters who are far from realistic and who speak in trite, on-the-nose philosophical dialogue that no normal human being says in reality.  The most obnoxious example of this is the character of Trevor McKinney, played by Haley Joel Osment in his first post-Sixth Sense starring role, who comes up with the titular theory of the movie.  The character is little more than an adorable tool used by the filmmakers to draw up sympathy for the movie’s message, considering that he has no other personality otherwise.  The even more insulting aspect of the film is the fact that it tries to drive home the message by killing off Trevor at the end.  That’s exactly what you want in a feel good message movie; a child’s horrible death.  The movie was thankfully overlooked by the Academy, and showed that you can’t always pander your way to a award.
Directed by Alan Parker
Historical dramas are also a sure-fire way to gain attention from the Academy, especially if they have a message to them too.  Come See the Paradise is a largely forgotten historical drama that centers around the internment camps set up here in the United States to hold Japanese American citizens during WWII.  One of the more regrettable actions taken by the US government in recent history, it has become the subject of many films since.  Alan Parker’s movie made such an attempt, depicting the events of this time in our history through a fictionalized account of an white American soldier (Dennis Quaid) who is drafted to fight in the war, while his Japanese American wife (Tamlyn Tomita) is held captive in one of the camps.  The film could have worked, had it not made the mistake of indulging too much in the love story at it’s center.  Like most other failed historical romances, this movie leaves the historical elements as an afterthought, making it all look like the filmmakers were using them as a means to make their flimsy love story feel more important.  Sometimes it can work in a movie (1997’s Titanic); sometimes it fails (2001’s Pearl Harbor).  Come See the Paradise falls short of these films mainly because it just feels lazy.  Alan Parker’s direction lacks subtlety and it just makes the movie feel like a historical soap opera, rather than an honest account of the trials that Japanese Americans faced in the camps.  History matters to people, and any lackluster attempts at it will make people see films like this as pandering.
Directed by Tom Shadyac
Oh, Robin Williams.  Are you really this desperate to win another Oscar?  Patch Adams is a notoriously misguided movie, but it’s also distinctive for showing us the depths to which Hollywood would sink to trying to win an Oscar.  The real Patch Adams, Dr. Hunter Doherty Adams M.D. is an award winning medical doctor known for helping his patients recover through the use of laughter and fun.  He’s also someone who takes his profession seriously and works hard to help people around the world.  This movie doesn’t acknowledge that and, like Jakob the Liar, instead uses the film to let Robin Williams act like a clown and do his own brand of shtick.  The film’s most shameful act, however, is in how it shifted aspects of the real Patch Adam’s life in order to make a more “interesting” story-line.  Patch lost a close friend and colleague in a tragic murder early in his career, and the movie includes this in the plot.  But it does the shamefully pandering act of changing the sex of the real life person to turn him from a male into a female, so that the movie could have a love interest for Patch, which did not in fact exist.  This alone gives you some idea of just how desperate some movies are for Oscar attention.  Thankfully, the film was rightfully panned before the Academy could even consider it.  Also, the real Dr. Adams has been strongly critical of the film, and with good reason.  It’s better to be honest with your film’s subject matter, especially when he can still speak for himself, and shows a lot more intelligence and creativity than the movie ever did.
Directed by Steven Zallian
Here’s a rare example of Hollywood actually attempting a remake of a Best Picture winner, in the hopes that it will have the same outcome.  The original All the King’s Men won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1949, along with a Best Actor award for it’s star Broaderick Crawford.  The remake was undertaken by Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zallian (Schindler’s List), who brought together top-tier talent to craft a lavish production based off the original.  The cast included Sean Penn, playing Southern politician Willie Stark, who was supposed to be inspired by the real-life Huey Long.  Also on board was a cast of A-list actors, like Jude Law, Kate Winslet, and Anthony Hopkins.  It all looked like the makings of a movie destined for the Academy’s top award.  Instead, the movie was delayed a full year, was dumped off in early September, and was critically panned on release.  What went wrong?  Again, it’s Hollywood trying too hard to win the gold.  Steve Zallian’s script and direction both lacked subtlety, not to mention Penn’s wildly over the top performance.  Everyone could see what the true purpose was behind this movie long before it even made it to theaters, which was to wow the Academy with it’s lavish production values and all-star cast; and no one was buying it.  The reason why I put it so high on this list is because of how so much was done to achieve so little, and how the hype only helped in dooming the final product.  It proves that you can’t manufacture a sure-fire Oscar caliber film, especially if it’s a remake of another winner.
 Directed by Stephen Daldry
This film reads like an Oscar-bait movie checklist.  Child with a mental disorder? Check.  Grandparents are Holocaust survivors? Check.  Father dies tragically in the 9/11 disaster? Check.  My god, even the main character’s actual name is Oscar.  Couple that with incredibly pandering dialogue and self-empowerment message so full of itself that it would make even Oprah gag, and you get a text-book example of an Oscar-bait movie.  This film, probably more than any of the others so far, was manufactured solely for the purpose of winning multiple Oscars.  There’s not an inkling of authenticity in this entire movie.  It makes it all the more insulting do to the fact that there were so many talented people involved, and none of them are good (except maybe actor Max von Sydow).  This film is notorious for a lot of things; particularly for the image of Tom Hanks falling from the top floors of the Twin Towers on 9/11.  But, what makes me dislike the movie more than anything else is the main character, Oscar.  He’s Trevor from Pay it Forward, only less subtle and far more obnoxious.  And again, he’s less of an authentic child and more like a tool used by the filmmakers to hammer home the message.  This, honestly, is one of the worst movies I have ever seen in my entire life, and I’ve seen a lot of bad movies.  The reason it doesn’t top my list here is because it nearly succeeded at it’s goal.  It inexplicably managed to earn a nomination for Best Picture, despite being critically panned.  Still, it probably illustrates the most blatant example on this list of a movie made purely as Oscar-bait.
Directed by Michael Cimino
This movie tops the list mainly because no other film has crashed and burned more heavily in it’s quest for Oscar gold than this one.  Michael Cimino set out to create an epic to end all epics with Heaven’s Gate and he had the clout in Hollywood to do it after his hugely successful The Deer Hunter took home Best Picture in 1978.  United Artist bankrolled his follow-up, hoping to capture that same success with Cimino and take home a Best Picture win for themselves.  What ended up happening was an out-of-control production where the budget skyrocketed and the prospects of an Oscar win dimmed very quickly.  Eventually, the film was released after costing $44 million (well over $250 million today) and it made only a 1/10 of that back at the box-office.  Not only that, but the movie only managed to scrounge up one Oscar nod in the end; for Art Direction.  It lost, of course.  Heaven’s Gate is still considered one of the biggest blunders in Hollywood history.  Cimino’s reputation as a director never recovered, and United Artists went into bankruptcy, eventually having to sell itself to a bigger studio, MGM.  And all because they wanted their shot at a big Oscar win.  It’s not a particularly bad movie by any means, and 30 years later it did get a Criterion home video release, which I wrote a review of earlier.  The reason I put it at the top of the list is because it represents the biggest failed attempt to create an Oscar winning movie.  Much like All the King’s Men, it shows that you can’t just can’t manufacture Oscar glory; only King’s Men didn’t cause the same level of destruction that Heaven’s Gate did.
So, with Oscar Sunday happening tomorrow, I’m sure there will be a lot of second guessing among those who tried hard to win, and didn’t get it.  This year, I think there were fewer film’s that were screaming out for Awards attention.  Sure, some of them are clear examples of the movies that the Academy likes to honor, but I think this year’s nominees were genuinely made for the purpose to entertain and to inform.  None of them seem transparently manipulative or are as pandering as the films that I highlighted on this list.  The reason why these movies have a notorious reputation has less to do with the stories themselves, and more to do with the presentation.  Audiences, particularly those who vote for the awards, are much more aware and intelligent than some filmmakers like to think they are, and they can tell when they are being manipulated; most of the time.  If a movie tries too hard to appeal to the hearts rather than the minds of it’s audience, that same audience will not take it seriously.  All movies are manipulative, but if there’s no substance behind it, then it becomes obvious to us that the filmmaker’s only motive behind the manipulation was to garner attention.  I think that’s why I like the Oscars more than most other awards.  The members who vote are from a diverse crowd of the industry elite, and they don’t all agree on the same thing, and are even less easy to manipulate as a whole.  It’s that unpredictability that makes some of these failed attempts so fascinating, because really there’s no easy way to work the Academy in your favor.

The 2014 Oscars – Picks and Thoughts


It is upon us once again.  The Super Bowl for film nerds.  The final Shoot Out for all industry insiders.  We have finally reached the end of another Awards season, with the Academy Awards now only a week away.  Sure, the Hollywood community has been handing out acclaims and numerous statuettes for a month or so, but for some, the only thing that matters in the end is getting that little golden man named Oscar.  It’s amazing how this one award, out of all the others, has become the pinnacle prize for all things cinema.  I think that it’s mostly due to the legacy behind it.  The history of the Academy Awards is just as fascinating as anything else that has come from Hollywood.  All the careers that have been given a boost; all the backstabbing that happens behind the scenes in order to beat out the competition; and also all the “what were they thinking” winners that we’ve seen throughout the years.  2013’s Oscar nominees are interesting, because of how varied they are.  It’s been a while since I’ve seen a year where the race for the top award has been this wide open, which is a good thing, because the more suspenseful the race, the more interesting it becomes.  For this article, I thought I would go through all the nominees in the top categories and share with you who I think will win, and who I think should win, and also share some of my general thoughts overall on these races.
Nominees: Eric Warren Singer & David O. Russell (American Hustle), Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine), Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack (Dallas Buyers Club), Spike Jonze (Her) and Bob Nelson (Nebraska)
Being a writer, this and the following category are the ones that I take particular interest in, as well give a particular scrutiny towards.  What I find very weird with this year is that the choices for this and the other writing category highlight the strange standards that the Oscars use for considering a screenplay original or adapted.  In this category, we have two films that are based off of true life events (American Hustle and Dallas Buyers Club), and yet they’re considered original enough to be included in this category.  That may make the creators of the other movies upset, because their films come from completely original ideas.  I do, however, like the line-up here, and one of those questionable inclusions is indeed my own personal pick.  Bob Nelson’s Nebraska script is clever and witty, but maybe a little too low key compared to the rest.  Woody Allen already has won several times, so I think his Blue Jasmine script will also not be honored.  Dallas Buyers Club is a movie more notable for it’s performances than it’s writing, so I think the Academy will pass on it too.  Now, between American Hustle and Her, I definitely choose the one that I got more entertainment value out of, which would be American Hustle.  That being said, I believe the Academy will actually honor originality this year, so that means Spike Jonze will win.
WHO WILL WIN: Spike Jonze for Her
WHO SHOULD WIN: David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer for American Hustle
Nominees: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke (Before Midnight), Billy Ray (Captain Phillips), Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope (Philomena), John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), and Terrence Winter (The Wolf of Wall Street)
This category also has the same questionable standards that it’s sister category has.  Before Midnight is considered an adapted screenplay, even though it’s not based off any source material and is merely a sequel to two other movies.  The Wolf of Wall Street also is very loosely translated from the memoir of it’s main subject, Jordan Belfort, so you could make the argument that it’s more of an original piece of work than an adapted one.  But, despite the standards that the Academy used to make their selections, we do have a set of some very interesting choices in this category.  First of all, Before Midnight is merely nominated as an acknowledgement to a critically acclaimed movie, so it has no chance of winning.  Captain Phillips is more of a directorial achievement than a writing one, and I actually found the script to that movie as it’s weakest element.  Comedian Steve Coogan showed he had a talent for writing drama with Philomena, but it’s also out of the running.  So it comes down to Wolf and 12 Years.  My own choice would be Wolf of Wall Street, again just because of the entertainment value.  But, I think the Academy was more impressed with the gritty realism of 12 Years a Slave, and I wouldn’t blame them for choosing that one either.  Some people complain about scripts that go for the heart rather than the mind, but 12 Years managed to do both perfectly.
WHO WILL WIN: John Ridley for 12 Years a Slave
WHO SHOULD WIN: Terrence Winter for The Wolf of Wall Street
Nominees: Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), Bradley Cooper (American Hustle), Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street) and Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
The supporting actors category is probably the one that turned the most heads this year with some of it’s selections.  This years nominees includes a first time actor (Barkhad Abdi) two actors known more for their comedic work receiving nods for the second time (Bradley Cooper and Jonah Hill), as well as an actor who hasn’t made a movie in over six years (Jared Leto).  Also, I feel that some even better performances got shut out of this category for reasons unknown (Daniel Bruhl for Rush and Colin Farrell for Saving Mr. Banks).  But, even still, everyone nominated still did fine work here.  Looking them over, you would think that the more traditional choice of Michael Fassbender for 12 Years a Slave would be the favorite.  But ever since the nominations were announced, it has been Jared Leto who has emerged as the clear favorite.  And it’s a position that I can’t argue with.  Leto clearly put the most effort into his role, loosing a ton of weight in order to play the AIDS-stricken, transgender hustler Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club.  But the reason why it’s the standout among the others is because Leto also gave the character personality and charisma, which helps to back up the physical transformation that he made for the character.  That’s why he is the undisputed favorite in this category, and probably the safest bet at this year’s Oscars.
WHO WILL WIN: Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club
WHO SHOULD WIN: Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club
Nominees: Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), Julia Roberts (August: Osage County), and June Squibb (Nebraska)
Let me get this out of the way first: NOT JENNIFER LAWRENCE.  Don’t get wrong, I enjoyed her work in American Hustle.  I even thought it was better than her Oscar-winning performance in Silver Linings Playbook.  But, when compared to the other performances in this category, I think it’s really unfair to call her the odds-on favorite to win.  Jennifer Lawrence is definitely the girl of the moment, but I don’t think celebrity power alone should guarantee you an award.  Thankfully, it seems like that sentiment has taken hold in the last few weeks, and Jennifer Lawrence’s “sure thing” is now looking like a much tighter race than before.  Lupita Nyong’o’s heartbreaking performance in 12 Years a Slave is gaining a lot of traction, and she has a SAG award win to back that up.  Hopefully it’s enough to put her over the edge on Oscar night.  And although a win for Nyong’o would make me happy, I do have to say that I’m pulling for an upset for Nebraska‘s June Squibb.  84-year old June Squibb gave one of my favorite performances of the year, and was definitely the highlight of Alexander Payne’s film.  The Academy likes to honor old-timers from time to time, and while I think it’s a long shot, I would love it if they honored Ms. Squibb for her delightful work in that film.
WHO WILL WIN: Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave
WHO SHOULD WIN: June Squibb for Nebraska
Nominees: Christian Bale (American Hustle), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) and Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
This is one of the year’s most competitive races.  In any other year, each one of these performances who be a clear favorite, so the fact they all have to compete with one another shows just how hard a choice this category will be for most voters.  One thing that they all can take pride in is that they beat out Tom Hanks for a nomination, in one of Mr. Hanks’ better years.  One thing the nominees I’m sure are also pleased with is that they have legendary actor Bruce Dern within their midst.  Dern’s performance is touching and note-perfect in Nebraska, but unfortunately, I don’t think this will be a year where the academy honors someone for their whole body of work on top of their performance in a particular film (i.e. Henry Fonda in 1981’s On Golden Pond).  No, this year it comes down to three standout performances from Matthew McConaughey, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Ejiofor is unforgettable in 12 Years a Slave, and would be deserving of the award, but I think he lacks the star power to put himself over the top.  McConaughey and DiCaprio have much more goodwill built up in their favor, and I think McConaughey has the edge, considering the career-changing year he’s had.  My personal pick however would have to go to DiCaprio for Wolf Of Wall Street.  His performance in that movie was easily my favorite of the year, and the one that I think showed the most range out of everyone in this category.  It’s a clear choice for me, but a difficult one to predict this year.  And hey, if McConaughey doesn’t win Best Actor for Dallas Buyers Club, he’s pretty much guaranteed an Emmy for his work on HBO’s True Detective this fall.
WHO WILL WIN: Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club
WHO SHOULD WIN: Leonardo DiCaprio for The Wolf of Wall Street
Nominees: Amy Adams (American Hustle), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Judi Dench (Philomena) and Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)
Very much the opposite of the Best Actor race, this category has a definite front runner.  Cate Blanchett has enjoyed a considerable lead in the last few months, having won every award up to this point.  And indeed, I don’t see her coming away a loser in this category at all.  But, did she indeed give the best performance out of all those nominated in this category.  While I have to say that I did enjoy her work in the film, I wouldn’t consider Cate Blanchett to be my own choice for Best Actress.  In truth, I actually like two other performances more than hers.  One was the incredibly dynamic performance put in by Amy Adams in American Hustle, who managed to shine the brightest in a movie full of Oscar-nominated performers.  The other is the very underrated work by Sandra Bullock in Gravity; you have to respect an actress who can carry a movie all on her own like she did, especially when it’s as complex as Gravity was.  If I were to pick one over the other, I would choose Amy Adams.  She’s one of the best and most versatile actors working today, and I think it is only fitting that she should be honored for her most dynamic role to date.  However, despite my hopes for an upset, it seems like nothing will stand in Cate Blanchett’s way towards a Best Actress win; not to say that she’s undeserving.  On a side note, I like Meryl Streep, but really Academy?  Do you have to nominate her for everything, even when the movie isn’t good?  I would rather see Emma Thompson sitting in her place right now at this year’s Oscars.
WHO WILL WIN: Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine
WHO SHOULD WIN: Amy Adams for American Hustle
Nominees: David O. Russell (American Hustle), Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity), Alexander Payne (Nebraska), Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) and Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)
The directing categories often coincide with which ever movie wins Best Picture, but not always.  Last year’s winner, Ang Lee, won for Life of Pi out of luck due to the fact that his toughest competition was not even given a nomination (Ben Affleck for Argo).  This year, there were no obvious snubs, so it makes the race a far more competitive category this time around.  Alexander Payne is the least likely to win due to his film being the most low-key, and Scorsese has already claimed this prize once before.  Russell has been on a roll lately with Hustle, as well as nods for Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and The Fighter (2010), but I think he still hasn’t found the traction needed to put himself over the top yet.  Instead, the two front-runners are directors who both would make history with a win.  If Alfonso Cuaron wins for Gravity, it’ll make him the first Latino director to win the Award.  If Steve McQueen succeeds for 12 Years a Slave, he would be the first Black director to win.  Both men are very deserving of the honor, but if I were to guess a winner, it would be Cuaron.  12 Years a Slave is an impressive piece of work, but it also is very traditionally made as well.  Gravity on the other hand pushes the limits of film-making in all sorts of ways, and clearly shows the more impressive directorial effort.  Steve McQueen showed an impressive effort with only the third film he has ever directed, and hopefully someday he will win the award outright, but this year you just can’t ignore Alfonso Cuaron’s more groundbreaking work.
WHO WILL WIN: Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity
WHO SHOULD WIN: Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity
Nominees: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, and The Wolf of Wall Street
Finally we come to the big award of the night; the one that the studios waste big money on every year.  Having seen all 9 nominees, I am happy to see that six of them were on my end of the year Top Ten.  While many of them are very deserving of the nomination, it is clear that some of them have a better chance than others.  As I see it now, it has become a race between two heavy hitters, with maybe one or two underdogs that could potentially upset.  The leading candidates are Gravity and 12 Years a Slave right now, and honestly at this point, I have no idea who will win.  This is made even more complicated by the fact that one of the bell-weather awards this season, the Producers Guild Awards, ended in a tie for the first time in it’s history.  This has led some to believe that the Oscar race could very well end up in a tie as well, which is a strong possibility.  If I had to make a choice, I would have to go with Gravity.  It was my favorite movie of 2013, and the last time my top movie for the year won Best Picture was in 2006, with Socrsese’s The Departed.  It wouldn’t bother me if 12 Years a Slave won the award, and an upset made by American Hustle or Wolf of Wall Street would be welcome as well.  But, I think Gravity is the movie of the year and should be honored as such.  Still, a little part of me does want to see that tie happen.  It may throw off a lot of office Oscar polls, but it would be historic nonetheless.
So, these are my choices for the winners of the 2014 Academy Awards.  I know I probably won’t be 100% right, since this is one of the more unpredictable races in recent memory.  But, I will say that for most of the nominees this year, the honors have been well deserved.  Thankfully, I managed to catch most of the top nominated movies this year, so that I’m able to make educated assessments of each award.  Some of the other categories like Best Documentary Best Animated Film were ones I couldn’t make predictions on because I haven’t seen all the nominees just yet.  I did manage to watch the Short films nominated for this year (my picks are Feral for Animated and Just Before Losing Everything for Live Action, in case you’re wondering).  Overall, regardless of whoever wins, what I do enjoy most about these awards is the legacy that it leaves behind year after year.  Every year, we see new names added to the ranks of Oscar winners, and it’s an exclusive club that anyone in the film industry would do anything to be a part of; and have.  Likewise, an Oscar-winning film carries that distinction far beyond the Awards themselves, and seeing them all together we more clearly understand the sometimes turbulent but nevertheless fascinating history of cinema.  In any case, my hope is that the March 2nd ceremony proves to be an enjoyable one overall.

Collecting Criterion – Videodrome (1983)


The Criterion Collection is notable for presenting and preserving some of the world’s most beautiful and life-affirming movies in it’s library.  But, at the same time, Criterion has also made an effort to preserve examples of the truly bizarre and grotesque from cinema’s history.  Apart from some classic B-movie horror films from Hollywood like 1958’s The Blob (Spine #91), there are other bizarre movies in the Criterion library like the Andy Warhol-produced Flesh for Frankenstein (#27), or the silent occult documentary Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Years (#134), as well as the works of avant-garde filmmakers like Luis Bunuel (#102 The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (#17 Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom).  While some of the most shocking and button-pushing films have come from international releases, where censorship standards are much looser, Criterion has also sought out some shocking movies that are come from closer to home.  Case in point, some are films from our neighbor to the north, Canada, and one of their most celebrated and challenging auteur filmmakers; David Cronenberg.  Cronenberg’s film career is an interesting one, considering that some of his movies have actually become mainstream hits (1986’s The Fly, 2005’s A History of Violence, and 2007’s Eastern Promises), but some of his earlier and more obscure films are worth a revisit too, and thankfully he has allowed Criterion the opportunities to give them the presentations they deserve.
One particular title of Cronenberg’s that has been given new life as a Criterion title is his sadly little seen psycho-sexual thriller, 1983’s Videodrome (#248).  Videodrome was one of Cronenberg’s most ambitious films in the early part of his career, riding high off the success of his previous thriller Scanners (1981).  The film featured a then rising-star James Woods in the lead, as well as Blondie lead singer and pop icon Deborah Harry as his love interest.  The film also featured some groundbreaking make-up effects that brought to life some of the film’s more shocking moments.  Unfortunately, the film didn’t click with audiences the same way that Scanners did, or for that matter, his follow-up success with The Fly.  Videodrome‘s lukewarm reception from critics and audiences may have had less to do with it’s gory elements, and more to do with it’s satire on the media and politics of the day.  The movie is a hard one to define simply, given the story-line’s heavy reliance on explaining how TV broadcasting works, but it’s a film that still sticks with you long after you’ve seen it.  In many ways, the movie has benefited from the passage of time, as many of the themes in the film are actually playing out more clearly in society today, and this is probably why the film has developed a devoted cult following over the years.  Criterion’s edition of Videodrome helps to carry Cronenberg’s vision into the new century with both a deserving restoration that quite literally will blow away your TV and a slew of extra features that really plunges the viewer right into the center of the madness behind the film.
The story itself is definitely a product of it’s time, and yet still very much ahead of it’s time, and very accurate in some of it’s predictions.  Max Renn (James Woods) is a sleazy cable TV programmer who is looking for the next big thing to draw in audiences to his channel, which caters to a very adult audience.  The problem is that by pushing the envelope with every new show, he has found that audiences have become desensitized and are no longer shocked by what has been putting on the air.  This leads to the discovery of a video tape called Videodrome.  Videodrome, on the surface, looks like a sado-masochistic snuff film, which even Max Renn finds uninteresting at first.  But, over time, he becomes hypnotized by the tape and watches it continuously over and over again.  He sends his girlfriend Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) to investigate the source of the tape, which she does willingly, but she soon disappears.  It’s not long before Max receives more Videodrome tapes, only this time with Nicki featured in them.  Max soon starts hallucinating as he watches, with bizarre things happening to him like a cavity opening up in his chest from which he pulls out a fleshy, blood drenched pistol.  Max tries to uncover what’s happening to him psychologically, what’s happened to Nicki, and the secrets behind Videodrome, which soon leads him into the depths of a deep-seeded political conspiracy.
It’ll be readily apparent that Videodrome is not for the casual viewer.  It can even be quite disturbing at times, particularly when Max starts becoming overwhelmed by the hallucinations that are plaguing his mind.  These scenes in particular are the standouts in the movie, and feature some of the film’s most impressive visual effects.  Made long before CGI would become the norm in film-making, every special effect in this movie had to be done with practical elements.  Some of those effects are still impressive today, like when Max’s TV screen starts to expand out and become almost malleable, which soon causes Max to rub his face into it (an image which Criterion uses for the box cover).  Also, the part where Max reaches into his own chest is another impressive effect, one of which I’m sure will make one or two viewers queasy upon seeing it.  What pleases me most is that Cronenberg’s vision is truly a unique one, and this movie probably more than any other manages to make those visions come to life in unforgettable ways.  Cronenberg definitely has an affinity for taking everyday things and giving them a grotesque and almost monstrous quality.  That is certainly true in the later parts of the movie when Max carries a gun around that seems to have been fused to his hand in a puss-riddled fleshy shell.  Again, some really sick stuff, but Cronenberg’s effects team did go all out and made this grotesque imagery something really special.
The film is also interesting given the themes of it’s story.  In many ways, it actually predicted many things that came true in the years since it’s release.  Sure, the movie is dated a bit by the limits of technological advances known in it’s time, but some of the ideas behind the movie have held up well.  The idea of technology and media content leading individuals towards obsessive behavior is something that we have seen play out in our society over the years, and it’s a central idea within the plot of Videodrome.  With the internet giving us access to any kind of content we want, with very little in the way of restrictions, it becomes more likely that anyone can become consumed with the impulsion to obsess over certain things.  Not only that, but like the audiences that Max Renn is catering to with his channel, we are becoming more and more desensitized to what we see on the internet.  Likewise, when we obsessive over certain things, we become more susceptible to manipulation; whether it is by our political leaders or by those around us.  That’s what Videodrome ultimately leads up to with it’s messages, and it’s amazing to think that Cronenberg and his team were contemplating these larger ideas in a time long before anyone had even a notion of what was to come with the internet.  The idea that we become slaves to our lives in interactive media is probably the film’s most unsettling element and the one that continues to keep this film relevant so many years later.
A lot of credit should go to the cast for making this film work.  This may have been the point in James Woods career when he was beginning to be typecast in sleazy businessman roles (something which he has struggled to break out of ever since), but his performance as Max Renn is still a very strong one.  Woods perfectly captures the slow devolution of the character as he plunges deeper into madness.  You forget how good of a leading man he can be sometimes, and this movie gives him a starring role that perfectly fits his talents as an actor.  The film pretty much rests on his shoulders and he managers to carry it through, even when it moves into it’s truly bizarre moments.  Deborah Harry doesn’t have as much screen-time, but she’s used very effectively in the movie as well.  She’s particularly unsettling in those hallucinatory moments, and there’s a sensuousness to her performance that really makes her a standout.  Rarely do you see music icons feel completely comfortable in an acting role, but Deborah manages it very effectively, and not once will you feel like she’s out of place.  I also like the whole look of the movie as well.  This film definitely has an early 80’s schlocky style to it, reminiscent of slasher movies like Nightmare on Elms Street, but Cronenberg balances that out with some really interesting stylistic choices.  During some of the more sensual, hallucinatory scenes, the film starts to feel more like a film noir thriller.  Also, the actual design of the “Videodrome” seems inspired by the style of Stanley Kubrick, in terms of it’s set-up and lighting.  It all adds to a very interesting cinematic vision, one of which feels uniquely Cronenberg.
So, how good is the Criterion Collection’s edition of the movie.  First of all, the restoration of the movie is excellent.  The film is, of course, limited to the low-budget production that it is, and will not look as fresh and sharp as something that was made more recently, but for a 30 years old movie like this one, it looks outstanding on blu-ray.  The colors in particular, something that is particularly evident in Cronenberg’s style, really pops out in high-definition.  And for an early 80’s flick, the film elements have really held up well, especially in contrast with the VHS video playback that you see periodically in the movie. That alone shows you just how superior a good high-definition presentation is.  The extras also give us a detailed look at the movies making and it’s legacy.  You get two great audio commentaries; one from Cronenberg himself, and the other with stars James Woods and Deborah Harry.  There are also numerous making-of documentaries on the films special effects, a gallery of production materials and behind the scenes photos, as well as a short film called Camera which Cronenberg made specially for the Toronto Film Festival in 2000.  My favorite extra, however, is a feature called Fear on Film, which is a 26 minute round-table discussion with Cronenberg himself and some of his film-making peers; John Landis and John Carpenter.  Seeing these three iconic directors discussing their work and horror cinema in general together is a real treat, and well worth the price of the Criterion edition alone.
So, is this a Criterion title worthy of the brand.  As a cinematic achievement, I would absolutely say yes.  David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is an expertly crafted film that really holds together and has actually become more interesting as a story-line since when it first premiered.  Would I recommend it as part of your own Criterion collection.  That all depends on your own tastes.  Like I said before, Videodrome is not for everyone, and I’m sure that there will be more than one person who will be either grossed out by it, or will probably not get the meaning of it at all.  I for one found it to be a very interesting cinematic experience, and I would recommend the movie as at least a rental.  For many people, these kinds of movies are made for specific audiences, and Cronenberg’s films are still are an acquired taste for many people, much like the works of David Lynch.  One thing that I find interesting is that I actually prefer Cronenberg’s films to Lynch’s.  Both directors have made careers out of examining the grotesque and the bizarre in everyday life, but I feel like Lynch is more style over substance; again, it all comes down to cinematic tastes.  In the end, I highly praise the job that Criterion has done on this title, especially with the Fear on Film extra feature that accompanies it.  It’s a challenging piece of cinema, but one that I’m sure will help you admire the Cronenberg style and want to explore it deeper.  Just don’t give into it’s hallucinatory pull.
“Long Live the New Flesh.”

True Romance – The Problems with Modern Hollywood Love Stories


With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, we commonly see Hollywood try to capitalize on the romantic mood of this time of year.  Of all the genres in film-making, the one that seems to have stayed strong year after year is the Romance genre, which benefits from a very specific audience that usually makes up a good percentage of the film-going public; that being people looking for something to watch on a date.  But, what I find interesting about this year is that there has been a significant reduction in the number of romantic movies in theaters.  In fact, this Valentine’s Day has only one wide release that you could consider a traditional romantic movie; the Colin Ferrell-headlined Winter’s Tale, which has to compete in it’s opening weekend with Robocop.  How’s that for date night counter-programming.  The foreseeable future also looks absent for the romantic genre, with not a single wide release film until April 25’s The Other Woman, and that one might be considered more of a slapstick comedy.  I don’t know if this is just a fluke in the schedule, or a sign that the romantic genre has suffered a backlash, due to a recent string of notable failures.  I can see how the latter could be true.  Some truly horrendous movies have come from the genre recently, and I see it as a result of the genre’s current troubles with tone, character development, and just overall lack of definition.
I should state that I have a little bias when it comes to talking about genre pictures like romantic movies.  Romance is a genre that I generally don’t understand and usually try to avoid, not because of themes or content, but because I rarely get any entertainment value out of seeing characters fall in love throughout an entire movie.  I do, however, acknowledge that there are films that do work well in the genre and can be quite uplifting as well.  I just gravitate more towards action oriented genres, although romantic subplots are indeed found in the movies I watch as well.  Some romantic plots in action movies can even more memorable than the ones that come from the romance genre itself.  What I mean to say is that I do like a good love story, it just all depends on the movie.  But, when a movie is clearly boxed in by the genre restraints put on it, I inevitably end up judging a book by it’s cover and in most cases, I’ll probably end up right.  Romantic films, probably more than any other genre, suffers from too little diversification.  There is a specific audience that goes to these types of movies, and the studios make every effort they can to meet those expectations.  But the fact is, there are fewer fresh ideas coming out of this genre and the studios are beginning to scrape the bottom of the barrel just so they can have anything that will draw the audience it wants.
I think one of these problems can be attributed to an issue that in fact is affecting all aspects of film-making; and that’s the overabundance of movies.  Now, it might be unusual to think that more movies out there is a bad thing, but it’s an issue that actually is causing a decrease in the quality of films out there overall.  Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ now famous op-ed from last year stressed that the studio system was going to implode on itself because of the out-of-control ways that movies are funded and distributed, and that’s something that the romance genre clearly suffers from.  Originally, there would be one standout romantic film released in every quarter of the year, which would do very well.  But, because of the increased flow of production, we have seen multiple genre movies all released at the same time.  This time of year has typically belonged to the romance genre, with movies like Safe Haven (2012) and Beautiful Creatures (2012) battling it out in the same weekend.  But, what usually has been constructive competition has ended up making it rough road for the romance genre, with very few entries actually gaining a foot hold at the box-office.  And when studios absolutely must have 5 or 6 new genre movies season, it means that less care is going to be given to the choices of stories given the green-light.
This is a trend that has come about more recently in the last few years.  Hollywood of course has had a long history with the genre, dating all the way back to the silent melodramas.  But, when we think about the most beloved romances out there, not all of them could be easily classified by any genre.  Sometimes, the most surprising love stories are the ones that are the most beloved, and the ones that have no suspense whatsoever are the ones we most revile.  Take for instance the classic film The African Queen.  The John Huston-directed movie follows a scruffy, callous boatman (Humphrey Bogart) and a stuck-up missionary widow (Kathrine Hepburn) as they travel through the heart of Africa on a small river boat.  Throughout the film, these polar opposites end up growing closer together and form one of the quirkier and more charming couples in movie history, and it all happens it what is essentially an adventure film.  The reason why this romantic plot works so well is because entertainment is drawn from the friction between the two main characters, which the two stars portray perfectly.  Romances can also work with even the most perfect of couples, as long as the outcome is unexpected.  The reason why Casablanca is held up as one of the greatest romances of all time is because the two lovers don’t end up together in the end.  It’s that parting of ways that we find so romantic because of how much each character longs for the other, and what they have to sacrifice for love.  As Bogart puts it so eloquently in the final scene, “We’ll always have Paris.”
 But what I think has happened to the romance genre is that it has become complacent.  Like I mentioned before, the genre is valuing quantity over quality, and that is leading to more movies that are exactly the same.  The strongest culprit of this would be the dreaded “Wedding” picture.  If the Romantic genre were like a sinking ship, “wedding” movies would be the anchor dragging it to the bottom.  In the last couple years, we have seen movies like Licence to Wed (2007), Made of Honor (2008), Bride Wars (2009), The Proposal (2009), and last year’s The Big Wedding all make it to the big screen and predictably get trashed by critics.  I think this is primarily because this sub-genre is characterized more than any other by it’s own cliches.  Pretty much every movie I mentioned can be summed up with the same story-line.  Girl wants to get married, problems ensue, girl ends up with the guy she really wants, the end.  The less interesting the plot, the less people are going to like it, and this sub-genre has become something of a joke over the last few years because of movies like these.  Bride Wars in particular turned out to be so insultingly bad, and probably the least progressively feminist movie ever, that even fans of the genre had to cry fowl.  It seems like filmmakers feel that just the sight of wedding traditions is entertainment enough, which is entirely the wrong way to look at your audience.  The reason why Bridesmaids (2011) became so popular was because it subverted this despised genre in hilarious ways, and that’s ultimately what people wanted in the end.
But is the genre completely helpless and without quality entertainment.  Not at all.  Usually all it takes is for one inspired idea, or a filmmaker who gives a damn like Nora Ephron or John Hughes, for a romantic film to work.  Last year, we saw two examples of quality movies from the genre, made by people who have already left their mark with these kinds of films before.  One was from Richard Linklater, which was Before Midnight, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.  Midnight is the continuation of a series of movies following the same couple as they reach different stages in their lives, which started with 1995’s Before Sunrise and continued with 2004’s Before Sunset.  These movies are almost universally beloved and respected and it shows that if the people involved are invested enough in what they are making, it can end up being a quality film.
Another movie that actually left a good mark on the genre last year was the film About Time, which illustrated how you could make a charming romance work by injecting a new idea into it.  The movie was written by Richard Curtis, who has become synonymous with the Romance genre over the years with his scripts for beloved movies like Love Actually (2003), Notting Hill (1999) and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994).  What Curtis did with this film to make it stand out, however, was to include a supernatural element; in this case, time travel.  While not entirely a novel idea, he nevertheless made it work with the film’s themes of awkward romances and regret, which in turn made it a more enriching film overall.
Having a unique voice helps to make a Romantic movie work nowadays, and it certainly is a breath of fresh air when a good one comes along.  The reason why many of the best ones hold up is because they treat their characters with dignity.  One of the biggest mistakes a person can make when writing a love story is to value one character’s worth over the other.  This sometimes gets into the tricky issue of gender politics, which can be a minefield if handled improperly.  Oftentimes, when a person writes a very poor love story, it’s because the male and female characters are played as generic stereotypes.  How believable is it when you see a movie where a girl has a hard time finding an attractive man, even when she has no flaws herself?  Hollywood has a problem with portraying body image correctly in movies, largely because they put glamour before everything else. Would Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) have been better if a fuller figure actress had played the main character, instead of the more petite Renee Zellweger?  I honestly think Hollywood should give something like that a shot.  Also, as a male, I feel like men are underdeveloped in these movies.  Either they are just the object of desire, or a sexist jerk who doesn’t understand the main girl’s feelings, and that’s it.  Sometimes it’s the girl who also gets the short end of the stick in this genre, by being too self involved in their own feelings, thereby being less interesting.  Overall, the best love stories are the ones where the characteristics of both individuals are given enough time to develop, because in the end, love is a two way road.
So, is Hollywood seeing a backlash from a long string of terrible genre picks.  It might be too early to tell.  One thing that I think may have happened is that the genre has evolved into something else that can’t be clearly defined by the genre norms that we’re all familiar with.  For one thing, the rise of Young Adult novel adaptations has changed the way we look at romantic plot-lines in movies.  With films like Twilight bringing romance into the supernatural realm, it’s safe to say that you can make any type of genre flick into a popular romance.  Hell, last year we even got a zombie love story with the movie Warm Bodies.  The reason this trend seems to be happening is because the audiences that would have normally gone to the movies as part of a date night are now seeing movies of all kinds, not just Romantic movies.  In many ways, Hollywood has actually done a fairly good job of making movies that appeal to both genders, like The Hunger Games series.  That seems to be why the traditional romantic movie seems to have disappeared recently.  Oh, it’s still there, only not as prevalent as it once was, and that might be to it’s advantage.  Less competition can help a genre film stand out and maybe even get a boost from a more discerning audience.  There will always be an audience out there that wants a good, old-fashioned love story and this is the perfect time of year to not only indulge in the same old thing, but to also fondly remember the ones that really touched all of our hearts.

Evolution of Character – Sherlock Holmes


One thing that we really gravitate towards in our culture are larger to life heroes.  There’s just something about extraordinary people righting problems in the world through extraordinary means that we find so appealing.  Or maybe its the idea that all of us may have some untapped power within us that can someday be useful.  Having super powers are an interesting concept that has come out of literature and cinema over the years, but not every great hero is defined by this.  Sometimes just pure talent can make a hero appealing.  And likewise, how we use theses talents that are given to us is also what separate us from being either the good guy or the bad guy.  While heroes have been around throughout the whole of our literary history, the idea of dissecting what makes a hero who they are is a far more modern concept.  Today, it is no longer the larger than life aspects that we find interesting in our heroes, but rather the things that ultimately make them human.  Comic books have done a great job of defining the ideals of a super hero, but to see where these concepts of modern day heroics have came from, you only need to look back at what is probably the first modern super hero: Sherlock Holmes.
Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the late 19th century, Sherlock Holmes was a character unlike any seen before in literature.  He was an eccentric yet extremely intelligent private detective who could solve crimes in ways that most other people couldn’t. The brilliance of Doyle’s creation was that Sherlock’s unconventionality enabled him to observe the world in ways that conventional Victorian society wouldn’t have understood and find the answer in places no one would’ve expected.  Not surprisingly, Sherlock Holmes was an enormously popular character in his time and has continued to stay strong in our culture over a hundred years later.  Not only that, he has inspired other super detectives throughout the years like James Bond and Batman, who in various degrees are the Sherlock Holmes of their times.  Hollywood has likewise seen the value in this character and have adapted Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories again and again for the big screen.  Thankfully, Sir Arthur wrote numerous novels as well as countless short stories with the character, which has given filmmakers plenty of material to draw from.  I’ve looked at a few of these different adaptations and it’s interesting to see how the character has evolved with the times and yet has still retained his popularity.  So, let’s take a look at the evolution of Sherlock Holmes on film.
Though there were many films based off of Arthur Conan Doyle’s books during the silent era of film-making (some even written for the screen by Doyle himself), it wouldn’t be until Hollywood jumped in when Sherlock Holmes became a box office success.  Produced by 20th Century Fox, the Sherlock Holmes series turned into a profitable franchise that also turned it’s lead, Basil Rathbone, into an A-list movie star.  Though he had been around as a contract player at Fox for many years before, Rathbone’s career would be redefined by Holmes.  Rathbone could not have been more perfect for the character; perfectly capturing the English-ness of Sherlock Holmes, while still making him appealing for American audiences.  Likewise, for Sherlock to work as a character, he needed to have the support of a strong supporting cast, particularly when it comes to Sherlock’s trusty companion, Dr. Watson.  Here, Watson is played by British actor Nigel Bruce, and while Bruce’s performance is perfectly fine, there is something lacking in the translation of the character.  In these film, Watson is just there to stand by, amazed at Holmes genius, which isn’t entirely true to the original character, who was more helpful in the books.  But when it came to Sherlock himself, Hollywood couldn’t have done any better.  Rathbone would go on to make 15 movie in the series, and would be the standard on which all other adaptations would be judged by in the years to come.
Despite the enormous popularity of the Fox/ Rathbone Sherlock films, there weren’t many other film adaptations of the famed detective, until this British production.  The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is fascinating more for it’s production than as an actual film, considering all the problems that happened behind the scenes.  The film was made by the legendary Billy Wilder, who was a big fan of the Holmes novels and he wanted to give his best shot at the material in a lavishly detailed production.  The film unfortunately went over-budget and over-schedule quickly, and the reported original director’s cut of 3 1/2 hours was sliced down to a little over 2 hours by the studio, making the final film feel disjointed and incomplete.  The cast is serviceable enough, but not particularly memorable.  British actor Robert Stephens definitely looks the part, but he lacks the charm that Basil Rathbone brought to the role.  Watson comes off a bit better, though.  Played by actor Colin Blakely Watson is more like the diligent partner from the books here than the befuddled companion that Nigel Bruce had played.  Also noteworthy in this adaptation is the presence of Sherlock’s meddlesome brother, here played by legendary actor Christopher Lee.  Though not a terrible film by any means, it unfortunately doesn’t work as an adaptation of the classic novels, and seems to be an odd fit for director Wilder, the man who gave us the likes of Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Some Like it Hot (1959).
Speaking of people named Wilder, actor and writer Gene Wilder took his own stab at making a Sherlock Holmes film.  Though, unlike previous efforts, this was not meant to be a serious adaptation.  As you can see from the title, this movie is not about Sherlock Holmes, nor is it about the character’s actual brother from the books, Mycroft.  No, in this movie Gene Wilder is playing an entirely made up character named Sigerson Holmes, who basically is looked at as the “black sheep” of the Holmes household.  In this movie, Sigerson means to show how much smarter he is than his brother by solving a case on his own, with some very disastrous results.  Sherlock does appear in the movie, played by actor Douglas Wilmer, but he’s primarily a secondary character at best.  This film is not meant to be a true adaptation of Doyle’s novels as it is obviously a parody, but still one that draws inspiration from the subject that it’s mocking.  Wilder is typically zany here, and is well supported by other comedic actors like Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman, but the movie doesn’t have the same comedic balance that say Young Frankenstein (1975), another parody film that Wilder headlined, had.  Apparently this film was passion project for Wilder (he wrote and directed it as well), which kind of explains why the final product lacks focus.  It’s interesting more as a parody of the archetypes of a Sherlock Holmes mystery than as story on it’s own.
This film was the first serious production by a major studio for the classic character in many years, and even included the involvement of Steven Spielberg as a producer. Directed by Barry Levinson and written by future Harry Potter-helmer Chris Columbus, Young Sherlock Holmes takes us back to the detective’s youth, showing how he would become the man he was destined to be.  With a young John Watson by his side (played by Alan Cox), teenage Sherlock uncovers a mystery surrounding a mysterious cult, which soon leads to some supernatural encounters.  While the film is lavish and impressive, I couldn’t help but feel like there were some missed opportunities in the plotting of the story.  One, the film doesn’t develop the characters of Sherlock and Watson much, and instead just paints them in broad strokes, showing that they’ve always been the way they are from the very beginning.  Two, the film gets bogged down in it’s production values, choosing to indulge in spectacle, particularly towards the end.  The thing that does work best in the film however is Nicholas Rowe’s performance as Sherlock.  For the first time since Rathbone’s portrayal, we see the awkward social misfit whose genius comes out in unexpected ways in this version.  Tonally, the film gets the character right and in that regard it succeeds as an interesting version of the character.
It seems like an odd choice for Disney to translate the world of Sherlock Holmes into animation, given the original’s sometimes violent nature.  Thankfully, they had the childrens’ books by author Eve Titus to draw from, which themselves were loving homages to Doyle’s original work.  But, make no mistake.  Even though they are portrayed as mice and the story is based around an entirely different character, this is still a Sherlock Holmes film at heart.  Following the adventures of Basil of Baker Street, The Great Mouse Detective is a sadly under-appreciated animated film, overshadowed by some of Disney’s more famous productions.  It follows all the basics of a Holmes mystery perfectly and Basil is just as appealing as the famed detective itself.  Despite the G-rating this film received, it is also surprisingly dark and frightening at times.  Basil is voiced by Barrie Ingham, who does a great job of capturing that Rathone-inspired cadence in the character, bringing all the charm as well as all the narcissism and eccentricity that Holmes was famous for.  The film also features the great Vincent Price in the role of the villainous Ratigan, in what is probably one of the best vocal performances in any Disney film.  For many people in my generation, this movie was probably our introduction to the world of Sherlock Holmes, and it’s not an unworthy way to start out either.  Also of note, Sherlock Holmes himself does appear in silhouette in some scenes, and his voice is supplied by non other than Basil Rathbone, through archive vocal tracks taken from the original movies.
Sherlock Holmes has stayed in the public consciousness continuously over the years, but the films that brought him back to popularity in a big way recently were these two productions, both directed by Guy Ritchie.  Riding high off the success of the Iron Man franchise, Robert Downey Jr. took on the famed character, this time bringing out more of the oddball aspects of the character.  The Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films are by no means faithful adaptations of the classic novels, nor are they trying to be.  These movies give us Sherlock Holmes, the action hero, and less of Sherlock Holmes, the super sleuth.  But, with an actor as skilled and as charming as Downey, it’s a version of the character that is still worth watching.  Despite the bombastic nature of Ritchie’s direction, the film does do a good job of portraying the character himself.  Holmes is once again the social misfit who can see the world differently from others, which Downey especially indulges in with hilarious flourish.  Better yet is the portrayal of Dr. Watson in the movie, this time played by Jude Law.  Watson, like Sherlock, has been beefed up into an action hero, which I think works better in Watson’s favor, showing him as more of an equal to Holmes than as his faithful helper.  They may not be true to Doyle’s original vision, but these films are still enormously fun, and they especially do right by the characters, helping to modernize them for contemporary audiences.
I may be cheating a bit by including this version of the character in this profile, considering that it comes from a TV series and not a movie.  But given that each episode of this current BBC series is feature length, I feel that it deserves a place among it’s big screen peers.  The Sherlock TV series took the risky direction of taking Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories and adapting them into a modern day setting.  Remarkably, show creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have managed to make the setting work and it shows that Doyle was clearly ahead of his time as a writer.  Probably the biggest reason for the shows success is the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock.  The actor just feels custom made for the role, and he has come to own the part just as strongly as Basil Rathbone did many years ago.  I particularly like the way that Sherlock tries hard to connect with people on a human level in the show, even though it annoys him when interferes with his methods; something that has never been explored effectively from the novels until now.  Another great part of the show is the casting of Martin Freeman as Watson.  Like Jude Law’s version of the character, Freeman’s Watson is less of an observer and more of Sherlock’s other half; someone there to ground the detective into the real world.  Cumberbatch and Freeman have unmatched onscreen chemistry, which I think has really been the reason for the show’s success.  Thankfully, the series has become a huge success both in it’s native England and abroad, and it did it by staying true to it’s roots, while at the same time making it work for modern tastes.
Few other characters have had the lasting legacy that Sherlock Holmes has had over the years, and the best thing about it is that it’s just getting stronger.  Amazingly, Arthur Conan Doyle was never as proud of his Holmes novels as he was over his work in historical fiction.  I’m sure what the author couldn’t see was the way that his hero would inspire many other characters over time.  Though Sherlock’s talents were plausibly built over a lifetime of work, it nevertheless made him stand out as extraordinary to readers.  I’m sure that comic book writers were inspired Sherlock’s extraordinary gifts when they created heroes of their own.  While some had supernatural talents that far exceed anything that Holmes was capable of, they nevertheless follow the same example of making those talents work for the greater good and the ultimate truth.  Likewise, the idea that any hero is susceptible to going the wrong way in life based on their decisions was also one that was explored in Doyle’s novels.  You can see examples of equal but opposite villains in many comic book narratives throughout history, which harkens all the way back to the dynamics between Sherlock and his arch-nemesis James Moriarty.  It’s a strong legacy that continues to get stronger and is reaching another high point today with the Guy Ritchie films and the BBC series (which ends it’s 3rd season here in America this weekend).  Like the best characters in our cultural history, Sherlock Holmes will always be timeless and will continue to stand out as one of cinemas defining heroes.

Ecstasy for Gold – The Cutthroat Campaigns of Awards Season


Awards season is once again upon us and as always, there is a lot of debate over which film is deserving of the industry’s highest honors.  What is interesting about this year, however, is how up in the air it is.  For the first time in a long while, there are no clear favorites in this year’s Oscar race.  In years past, a clear picture would form by now of who was leading the pack after the Golden Globes and all the industry guilds have made there choices.  But so far, every one of the top honors this year has been varied, leaving no clear front runner for Best Picture at the Oscars; made all the more confusing after the Producers Guild Awards ended in a tie for the first time in it’s history, awarding both 12 Years a Slave and Gravity for Best Film.  Sure, any accolades for these movies are well deserved and appreciated by their recipients, but it’s the Academy Awards that solidifies the award season, and it’s what everyone in the industry strives for in the end.  That strong desire to win the top award has become such a dominant force in the industry, that it has started this troubling trend of negative campaigning in Hollywood. In recent years, we’ve seen Oscar campaigns become so overblown and vicious that it would make even Washington insiders queasy.  And the sad result is that in the pursuit of the industry’s top honors, the movies themselves will get lost in the shuffle.
This isn’t something new either, but it has developed over time into something bigger.  Oddly enough, when the Academy Awards first started in 1927, the awards themselves were considered an afterthought.  Instead, it marked the conclusion of a banquet dinner held by the Hollywood elite to celebrate the end of the year.  Many of the winners in this first ceremony either discarded their Oscars or pawned them off in later years, not foreseeing the significance that those statues would have in the years to come.  It wasn’t until about 4-5 years later when the ceremony gained significance, around the time when they started announcing the winners on the radio, allowing audiences to be informed about Hollywood’s awards recipients.  Once the ceremonies began to be televised in the 50’s, the awards season had now become a full blown cultural event and a focal point for the industry ever since.  Of course, with the whole world now interested in who was winning, it soon led to some of the studios making behind the scenes deals in order to get their movies to the top.  One of the earliest examples of questionable campaigning for an award came in the 1940 Oscar race, when producer David O. Selznick, hot off his Awards success for Gone With the Wind (1939), pressured a lot of entertainment press agents to campaign for his next film, the Hitchcock-directed Rebecca (1940).  The aggressive campaigning helped the film win Best Picture, but it failed to win any other major award, which led many people to question whether or not it deserved it in the first place; especially considering that it beat out the more beloved The Grapes of Wrath (1940) that same year.
This illustrates the major problem with an overly aggressive awards campaign that I’ve observed; the doubt that it raises over whether or not the movie deserves what it got.  We’ve seen the Academy Awards honor films that have certainly withstood the test of time (Casablanca (1943), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and The Godfather (1972), just to name a few), but there are also choices made in other years that have left us wondering what the Academy was thinking.  But it’s not the final choices that make the Oscar campaigning problematic.  We all differ when it comes to choosing our picks for the awards, because everyone’s tastes are different.  What I find to be the problem is the increasingly nasty ways that movie companies try to get their movies an award by attacking their competition.  In recent years, I’ve noticed that this has gone beyond the usual “For Your Consideration” campaigning that we commonly get from the studios, and it has now devolved into fully-fledged mudslinging.  Truth be told, I don’t even think political campaigns get this cutthroat, but then again, I’m not much of a political observer.  This year in particular, we’ve seen complaints leveled at films for inaccuracies in their historical reenactments and for mis-characterizations of their subjects.  While some accusations have merit, there becomes the question of whether or not it matters. There are some voters out there who are persuaded by the chatter and would rather let the outside forces persuade them towards making a choice than judging a film on its own strengths, which becomes problematic when that chatter is ill-informed.
The most troubling thing about the recent trend of negative campaigning in the awards season is the inclusion of outside forces brought in to give weight to the criticisms behind a film.  This goes beyond just the negative reviews from critics.  What we’ve seen happen recently is the involvement of the media and press more and more in Oscar campaigns.  This has included articles written by scholars and experts that call into question the authenticity of the facts in the film as a way of slamming a movie’s credibility.  Famed astrophysicist Neill DeGrasse Tyson made the news weeks back when he published an article that pointed out the scientific information that the movie Gravity got wrong, which many people in the industry jumped upon to undermine Gravity’s chances for some of the top awards.  Mr. Tyson later on said that he did the article just for fun and continued to say that he still enjoyed the film immensely, but this seemed to get lost in the controversy that his first article stirred up.  It could be argued that film companies utilize negative campaigning just because it’s easier and more effective, which is probably true, but what it ends up doing is to distract people away from what the awards season should really be about which honoring the best work done by people in the industry that year.
The most dangerous kinds of negative campaigning that I’ve seen have been the ones that have no bearing in actual fact.  One of my first articles on this blog was an editorial addressing the smear campaign leveled against Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.  At the time of the film’s release, African-American director Spike Lee openly criticized the movie because of it’s pervasive use of the “N-word,” and he denounced the film as “racist” and an insult to the history of slavery; despite the fact that he hadn’t seen the film yet.  Spike Lee’s comments however were used as ammo against the movie during last years Oscar race, which fortunately had little effect as the film walked away with two awards; for Screenplay and for Supporting Actor Christoph Waltz.  The same cannot be said for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, however.
Released around the same time as Django, Zero Dark Thirty had a lot of hype built up around it, seeing as how it was documenting the search and capture of Osama Bin Laden.  The film’s hype was a case where Hollywood’s connections with political insiders became both a blessing and a curse.  Some left-wing studio heads even wanted to fast track the film’s release, so it would premiere before the 2012 election in the hopes that it would boost President Obama’s chances for reelection.  When the film premiered, however, the film’s reception was not what people expected.  Bigelow’s very frank depiction of torture used by the CIA to help find Bin Laden angered many people, and criticism of the film shifted from it being called left-wing propaganda to right-wing propaganda.  The film’s producers rightly argued that politics had nothing to do with the movie’s overall depiction, but the damage had already been done.  The one time Oscar front-runner was dealt a significant blow.  Kathryn Bigelow was shut out of the Best Director category and the film only ended up winning one award for Best Sound Editing, which it had to share in a tie with Skyfall (2012).  You could say that Zero Dark Thirty became a victim of it’s own pre-release hype, but I think the negative campaigning against the film rose to an almost unethical level when political leaders got involved.  Just weeks before the Oscar’s ceremony, Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein, along with fellow Democrat Carl Levin and Republican John McCain, called for an investigation into the film’s development, examining how Bigelow and writer Mark Boal got their information.  When the Oscars were over, almost on cue, the investigation was dropped.  We may never know if there was some backroom deal involved, but I saw this as an example of Awards campaign interference gone too far.
It’s troubling to think that some people are so easily persuaded by hype and negative press in the film industry, but it’s a result of how valuable these awards have become.  It is true that winning an Oscar will increase a film’s overall box-office numbers, which may be good for business, but it’s bad for the film’s legacy.  What is there to gain from a short-term boost in grosses when you’re hurting the film’s chances of having a long shelf life?  There are many examples of movies gaining a negative stigma if they win the top award over more deserving films.  The most controversial example would be 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, which many people say stole the Best Picture award away from Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan; so much so, that new campaign rules were drafted up by the Academy when it was revealed how much money Miramax execs Bob and Harvey Weinstein put into the film’s Oscar campaign.  Shakespeare did see a boost at the box office in the weeks before and after the awards, but the controversy behind it has unfortunately overshadowed the film itself over the years, which has in turn destroyed its staying power.  Time is the best judge of great movies, but the Oscars have only the year long window for perspective, so usually their picks have little foresight in the end.  1999’s winner, American Beauty, has almost faded into obscurity over time, as other films from that same year, like The Iron Giant, Fight Club, and The Matrix have become beloved classics up to today.
Is it right in the end to criticize a film over it’s content, or it’s adherence to the facts?  My argument is that a movie should be judged solely on it’s own strength as a movie.  The truth is that there is no absolute truth in film; it’s all make-believe after all.  If a film needs to take some historical liberties in order to tell a more fulfilling story-line, then so be it.  What I hate is when controversies come up around a film when it really doesn’t matter in the end.  Some controversies this year have erupted over films like Saving Mr. Banks and Captain Phillips, because of their white-washed approach to the depictions of their main characters, and the negative campaigns against them robbed actors like Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson out of recognition for awards that their outstanding performances would’ve otherwise deserved.  So what if aspects of these people’s lives are left out of the film; in the end they have nothing to do with the story’s that the filmmakers wanted to focus on in the first place.  The Wolf of Wall Street has had it’s own set of controversies, some of which the movie purposely provoked, and yet it didn’t effect it’s chances at the Oscars, so it shows that there is a selective bias in the negative campaigning behind against these films; all depending on who has something to gain from knocking out the competition.
When the winners of the Oscars are announced this year, my hope is that the voters use their best judgement when they cast their ballots.  For the most part, the Academy Awards will never please everybody.  Most often, whenever people say they were upset by the Awards, it’s more because there are few surprises and the whole thing ends up being boring in the end.  That’s why I am excited about this year’s open race, because anybody could win.  Unfortunately, the closer the race, the more negative the attacks against each film will be.  I think that hype can be a dangerous tool for a film if it is misused, and will ultimately end up clouding the merits of the movie itself.  In the end, Oscar gold does not always mean certification of excellence.  Great films stand the test of time, while the Oscars are more or less a time capsule of public tastes from that specific year.  Sometimes they pick the right Best Picture or performance, sometimes they don’t.  But what is certain is that negative campaigning is getting uglier and more prevalent in the award season.  What I hate is the fact that it’s become less about honoring great works in cinema and more about competition, seeing who’ll take home the most awards at the end of the night.  What seems to be lost in the shuffle is whether or not people like the actual films; that the movies are becoming increasingly seen as an afterthought in the awards season, with hype and name recognition mattering more in the media’s eye.  But, in the end, what matters is the entertainment value of it all, and no doubt we’ll still continue to be on the edge of our seats each time those envelopes open.

Focus on a Franchise – Back to the Future


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

Hollywood Royalty – The Ups and Downs of a Film Acting Career


A lot of work goes into making movies from many different departments, but what usually ends up defining the finished product more than anything is the quality of the actors performing in it.  Whether we like it or not, the actors and actresses are what the audiences respond to the most; more than the script and the direction itself.  Sure, writers and filmmakers can leave an impression and can build a reputation of their own, but their work is meant to be unseen and part of the illusion of reality.  It is the actors who must be in front of the camera the whole time and be able to make you forget that you are watching something that was constructed for your entertainment.  And this is mainly why we hold the acting profession in such high regard.  Sure, anybody can get in front of the camera and act, but it does take real skill to make it feel authentic and true to life.  Hollywood actors are an interesting lot because of the whole aura of celebrity that surrounds them.  They are simultaneously the most beloved and most reviled people in the world, and this usually is a result of the work that they do.  What I find fascinating is the way that a film actor’s career evolves over time, and how this affects the way we view them in the different roles they take.  Some people come into fame unexpectedly and then there are others who work their way up.  There are many ways to look at an actors career and it offers up many lessons on how someone can actually make an impact in the business depending on what they do as an actor.
The way we cast movies has certainly changed over the years.  When the studio system was at it’s height in the 30’s and 40’s, actors were mandated to be under contract, meaning that they had to work for that studio exclusively.  This became problematic whenever an actor or actress coveted a role that was being produced at a competing studio, excluding them from consideration.  Actors also had little choice in what kinds of movies they made, mainly due to the studio bosses who would make those decisions for them.  Many of these actors would end up being typecast in roles that the studios believed were the most profitable for them.  It wasn’t until the establishment of the Screen Actors Guild that actors finally had the ability to dictate the parameters of their contract, and also to have more say in the direction of their careers.  Even still, the pressure to be a successful matinee idol was a difficult thing to manage in Hollywood.  In many ways, it was often better to be a character actor in these early years than a headliner.  A character actor at this time may not have gotten the name recognition or the bigger paydays, but they would’ve gotten more diverse roles and a steadier flow of work of screen credits.  Actors from this time like Peter Lorre, Walter Brennan, and Thelma Ritter enjoyed long lasting careers mainly because they made the most of their supporting roles and had more leeway in the directions of their careers.
It’s the status of a matinee idol that really makes or breaks an actor.  Over the many years since the inception of cinema, we’ve seen actors rise and fall, and in some cases rise again.  Making a career out of film acting is a difficult nut to crack, and seeing how the industry is sometimes very cruel to outdated actors, it’s any wonder why there are so many people who want to do it.  I believe that it’s the allure of fame that drives many young up and comers to want to be actors, but following a dream does not an actor make.  It takes hard work, just like any other field in entertainment.  If I can give any advice to someone pursuing an acting career, it’s that you should never get into it just because you have the looks of a movie star.  Do it because you like performing and being a part of the film-making process.  Of course, it’s probably not my place to give advice to an actor, seeing as how I have not been on a stage since the eighth grade, and that I am looking at this from a writer’s point of view.  But, from what I’ve observed in the film community, it is that the best actors out there are the ones who are really engaged in the process, and not the ones who are in it just to build up their image.  The tricky part, however, is figuring out how to maintain this over time.
Becoming a successful actor in Hollywood has a downside that can be either a minor thing or a major negative thing depending on the person it happens to, and that’s the stigma of celebrity.  Whether an actor seeks it out or not, by being out in front of the camera, they have exposed themselves to a public life.  This isn’t a problem if the actor or actress manages their public and private lives well, but if they don’t, it’ll end up defining their careers more than the actual work that they do.  Case in point, actor/director Mel Gibson. Mel’s career has been negatively impacted by his off-screen troubles, including a nasty break-up with his Russian girlfriend and an Anti-Semitic fueled rant during a drunk driving arrest.  What’s most problematic for Mr. Gibson out of all this is the fact that no matter what he does now, no matter how good, it will always be overshadowed by his own bad behavior.  And it is a shame because, in my opinion, he’s still a very solid actor.  I still love Braveheart (1995) to death, and I think a lot of people are missing out if they haven’t seen his work in The Beaver (2011) yet.  Or for that matter, his excellent direction in Apocalypto (2006). Unfortunately, all his hard work is for not as he continues to alienate more of his audience because of his off-screen behavior.  This is the downside of celebrity that we see, and whether an actor is deserving of the scorn or not, it will always be a part of the business.
Actors and actresses can also find themselves in a rut simply because they are unable to adapt to the changing course of the industry.  This is certainly the case with people who have created their own signature style of acting.  Comedic actors in particular fall into this trap.  I’ve noticed that some actors who breakthrough in comedies in certain decades will almost always loose their audience by the next.  Shtick is a deceptive tool in the actor’s arsenal, because it helps people achieve stardom right away, but also anchors them down and keeps them stuck in place.  We’ve seen this happen to many comedic stars, like Eddie Murphy and Mike Meyers and Jim Carrey; and it’s starting to become apparent in Sacha Baron Cohen’s post-Borat career.  The only comedic actors who seem to make long lasting careers are the one’s who choose a dramatic role once in a while, like Bill Murray or Robin Williams.  Age also plays a factor in the downfall of people’s careers.  It usually happens with child actors who can’t shake off their youthful image, and unfortunately diminish and disappear once they become adults.  Making that transition from child actor to adult actor is tough, and it’s what usually separates the Elijah Woods from the Macaulay Culkins.  It’s less difficult nowadays for elderly actors to loose their careers than it was many years ago, mainly because movies like Nebraska (2013) give older actors much better roles.  But, in the past, the industry was incredibly cruel to older actors; something highlighted brilliantly in Billy Wilder’s classic Sunset Boulevard (1950).
What usually ends up making an actor or actresses’ career survive is their ability to grow as a performer.  There’s something to the old adage of there being “no role too small.”  Actors should relish the opportunity to diversify their choices of roles.  And usually the ones who have the longest lasting careers are the people who can play just about anything.  Meryl Streep is considered the greatest actress of her generation, and she didn’t do it by playing the same kind of character over and over again.  She has done comedies, dramas, cartoons; she has played Austrians, Australians, teachers, mothers, daughters, grandmothers, you name it.  No one would ever consider her lazy.  She has made a living challenging herself as an actor, and while not every role of her’s works (Mama Mia, for example) she nevertheless commands respect for her efforts.  What I respect the most is the ability of an actor or actress to move effortlessly from genre to genre and still act like it’s a role worthy of their talents.  That’s why I admire actors like Christian Bale, who can go from dark and twisted roles like The Machinist (2004) to playing Batman, or Amy Adams who can appear in movies as diverse as Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) and The Muppets (2011) and give each film her best effort.  It’s always refreshing to see actors who commit themselves to any role they get, which in turn helps to endear them to us as an audience.  An invested actor will almost always make a film better.
Usually nowadays a bad performance is not measured by how misplaced an actor is or by how out of their league they may be.  The worst kinds of performances come from actors who are just lazy.  At the point where an actor just works for the paycheck and nothing more is usually where their careers begin to decline.  We’ve seen this with many actors who just get too comfortable doing the same role over and over again, or with people who take a job just for the pay and act like the part is beneath them.  When this happens, it’s usually driven by ego, which is another negative by-product of celebrity.  When an actor begins to dictate the terms of their comfort level in the production, rather than try to challenge themselves as a performer, it will usually mean that they’ll put in a lackluster performance, which leads them towards becoming a one-note performer.  This sometimes happens to people who hit it big and then become afraid of alienating this new audience they’ve built.  Johnny Depp is an actor that I think has reached this point, having built a wide fan-base from his Pirates of the Caribbean films.  The once ground-breaking actor has now fallen victim to his own shtick and that has negatively impacted his recent slate of films like The Lone Ranger (2013), which shows what happens when you try to play things too safe.
It is remarkable when you see these changes in a film actor’s career, because they usually happen unexpectedly.  Overall, the actor is the one responsible for their own career path, but the market itself can be a wild card factor in the lives of these people.  I for one value the efforts of a strong actor who’ll continue to try hard, even when the roles stop being what they are used to.  It’s something of a miracle to see actors who continue to stay relevant year after year, like Tom Hanks or Sandra Bullock.  They’ve locked into a career path that seems to have worked for them and have managed to maintain they’re faithful audiences even when they take on more challenging roles. What is also interesting is how Hollywood values a redemption story when it comes to an actor’s career.  A Hollywood comeback always manages to be a positive thing in the industry, especially when it happens to the least expected people; like with Robert Downey Jr. bouncing back from his drug addiction to play Iron Man, or Mickey Rourke pulling himself out of B-movie hell when he made The Wrestler (2008).  Film acting careers are probably the least predictable in the industry and it takes someone with a lot of personal resilience to make it work.  If there is anything an up and coming film actor should learn is that hard work pays off.  Don’t fall victim to concerning yourself over the changing trends or acting out of your comfort zone.  In the end, the best thing you can do is to commit to the role, no matter what it is.  Like the great George Burns once said, “Acting is all about sincerity.  And if you can fake that, then you’ve got it made.”

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