Top Ten Worst Adam Sandler Movies…So Far


How do you sum up the movie career of one Mr. Adam Sandler?  The former Saturday Night Live alum has had a film career that is surprisingly resilient, despite also being responsible for some of the worst movies in recent memory.  But as a result of relying so heavily on formula, Adam Sandler has inadvertently closed off his range as a performer, becoming something as a one trick pony rather than a quality actor.  Believe me when I say that I believe that Sandler is indeed a talented performer, and sometimes even a great actor.  When given a meaty role to work with (which rarely happens), like he had in the woefully under-appreciated P. T. Anderson film, Punch Drunk Love (2002), he can actually be quite good; Oscar-worthy even.  But, unfortunately no one pays to see a serious Adam Sandler performance.  It’s the goofy Sandler that brings in the money.  And you know, there was a time when that was welcome too.  Sandler’s first two headlined films, Billy Madison (1995) and Happy Gilmore (1996) are both very funny, and surprisingly still hold up nearly 20 years later.  But recent years have brought a steep decline in the quality of Sandler’s cinematic output, and it only seems to be getting worse.
One thing I noticed from his movies is that most of them more or less interchangeable  and follow the same kind of formula.  They usually involve Sandler acting with a man-childish personality; they contain numerous jokes involving bodily fluids; they usually feature actor Rob Schneider as an offensive racial stereotype; and they often try to shoehorn an uplifting message at the end as some sort of concession to make audiences less repulsed by what they just saw.  At the same time, I noticed that Sandler is looking less interested in these films with each new release; like he’s phoning it in just until the check clears.  Given that he’s also the producer of his movies, through his production company Happy Madison, it’s clear that he’s continually putting less effort into his onscreen presence, instead using his movies as a means to keep his affluent lifestyle going.  This is most evident in his recent films, which includes taking trips to exotic locations.  Is this his way of saving money by getting a paid vacation?  Whatever motivates Adam Sandler’s movies, it’s very clear that most of them feel lazy, or even worse, offensively insulting to it’s audience.  What follows is my list of the 10 worst films he has made to date, and what ended up surprising me was not what made it in, but rather what made it off the list; because there are just so many bad ones.
One of the other notable trends in Adam Sandler’s film career is his proclivity for remakes.  This particular one is based off of the 1969 Walter Matthau/ Ingrid Bergman film Cactus Flower.  That movie was a charming story about middle aged professionals pretending to be a couple so that the Matthau character can impress a much younger girl that he’s got his eyes on, played by a very young Goldie Hawn in a performance that won her a Supporting Actress Oscar.  Ingrid Bergman played the other professional in question, and the film was about her coming out of her awkward shell and becoming more of the ideal woman for Matthau’s character, making the entire film a nice complex character driven comedy.  Adam Sandler took that same set-up, removed everything that made the original charming and replaced it with pointless slap-stick and formulaic plotting.  By no means the most offensively horrible Sandler film, but probably by far his laziest.  There is absolutely no effort put into this movie.   The 45 year old original will probably make you laugh more frequently.  The only person who comes away from this film with any kind of dignity is co-star Jennifer Aniston, and even she looks like she would rather be doing something else.
The first cinematic flop of Sandler’s career, this movie was released right on the heels of the enormously popular Happy Gilmore.  I for one remember being excited to see this movie because of how much I enjoyed Sandler’s first couple films, and the fact that this was his first R-rated flick.  That fact alone should have signaled this as a must-see, because it meant that we were going to see Sandler completely unrestricted.  Instead, what we got was a weak comedy/action thriller, with a completely charmless performance by Mr. Sandler himself.  Bulletproof is trying to be like a reverse of the 48 Hours movies, with Sandler filling in the Eddie Murphy role and fellow comedian Damon Wayans in place of Nick Nolte, only it fails on every level.  The action scenes are lame, the comedy is weak, and the characters never amount to more than simplistic caricatures.  While Adam Sandler wasn’t really known for his range just yet (or ever), this film should have been a great opportunity for him.   Instead it just made us long for more movies like Billy Madison, which is what we got for better or worse.  Perhaps Adam Sandler’s lack of originality in his later films can be linked all the way back to the failure of this one, because it forced him to not play outside of his comfort zone.  That, or because he just didn’t have a fun time making this, which isn’t surprising.
Yet another Adam Sandler remake, only this time he takes on a sports movie classic.  The Longest Yard was a 1974 film about a former football pro (played by Burt Reynolds) serving time in prison and who is forced by the warden to form a team of inmates who will take the field against an opposing squad made up of the prison’s sadistic guards.  It was a smart, character driven movie about teamwork and overcoming oppression through peaceful means.  Adam Sandler’s remake on the other hand took out all the subtlety of the original and again replaced it with more slap-stick humor and stereotyped characterizations.  What’s more upsetting is that Burt Reynolds came on board this film to play the coach of the team, in a lame attempt to give this movie some credibility and pay homage to the original.  Sandler’s version again lacks effort and feels more like a Cliff Notes of the original and better movie.  Add to this some of the more annoying aspects of Sandler films, like ethnic and gay stereotypes, a self-centered main character, plot conveniences, and yet another Rob Schneider cameo, and you’ve got a movie that doesn’t pay homage to a better movie, but instead disgraces it.
GROWN UPS 2 (2013)
The first Grown Ups (2010) was no masterpiece either, but the fact that Sandler and Co. managed to eek out another flick from the already weak premise of the original film just makes this movie all the more unnecessary.  The first film was about four high school friends reconnecting in their adult years during a Fourth of July weekend trip.  The second movie is exactly the same plot, only it’s Spring Break and the four friends (Sandler and co-stars Chris Rock, David Spade, and Kevin James) must contend with aggressive college kids who have invaded their favorite vacation spot.  Not surprisingly, this is not a plot driven film.  The movie is more or less a collection of unfunny vignettes involving crude body humor and pointless slapstick.  Sadly, everyone in this movie looks again like they are phoning it in, and of course with a movie centered around vacationing, you can probably guess the true purpose behind the making of this movie.  And it’s too bad because I know some of the other actors here can be really funny, Chris Rock and David Spade in particular; Kevin James less so.  But, given that this is a Sandler-produced picture, it is indicative of the larger problem of Adam Sandler movies in that it’s just playing to the lowest common denominator with no real purpose other than to make the star more money.
MR. DEEDS (2002)
Yet another remake of a classic film, and this one is by far the worst.  The original movie, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) is a beloved masterpiece that starred Gary Cooper as a simple, working man who inherits a fortune and is raised into the upper-class overnight, leading to a lot of misunderstandings and heartwarming life lessons.  Directed by Frank Capra, who won an Oscar for his work on the film, the movie was an intelligent and humorous look at class differences in Depression-era America and a brilliant expose on the true nature of the American dream.  Adam Sandler of course had no use for smart socially commentary in his version and he instead used the premise to just show off his trademark brand of sophomoric humor, once again.  Why Sandler thinks he can improve upon these beloved classics is beyond me.  The gap between the original and Sandler’s version is most pronounced here.  Gone is the touching portrayal of Cooper’s original protagonist, replaced by an obnoxious man-child who enjoys showing off his frostbitten foot.  Just what the original needed more of: frostbite.  Do yourself a favor and watch the original masterpiece instead.  The fact that Adam Sandler thought we wouldn’t know about the original at all is enough to earn this terrible movie a spot on this list.  And it just get’s worse from here.
CLICK (2006)
What’s worse than doing a lazy and crude remake of a classic story?  It’s taking a wholly original idea and spoiling any potential it had.  That’s what happened with Adam Sandler’s high-concept comedy Click.  The movie follows the story of a man who gains control over his complicated life when he gains possession of a magical remote control, given to him by a strange salesman played by Christopher Walken.  Naturally, this leads to some hi-jinks where Sandler has near God-like control over time and space, and it typically is crude in nature.  But that’s not where the movie falters.  What happens is that the movie has a huge 180º turn in tone, where the story goes from silly to deeply serious.  Sandler’s character begins to lose control of the power given to him and his life flashes ahead faster than he can appreciate it, creating a very dour and dark final act.  This whiplash in tone is what ultimately sinks the movie.  Had the film stayed true to this dramatic tone, it could have worked, but given that it’s following about 90 minutes of crude, sophomoric slapstick, it feels like a cheat meant to shoehorn sincerity into a movie where it doesn’t fit.  Not only that, but the shift is handled so poorly, that the movie becomes this weird mishmash of two very different types of movies.  Probably more than any film on this list, this is the one that disappointed audiences, and myself, the most.
This film on the other hand did not disappoint.  Pretty much from the moment everyone saw the trailer to this movie, we all knew that this was going to be terrible; and it certainly was.  The movie mainly exists to let Adam Sandler act in drag and the result is one of the most obnoxious characters that he has ever created; and that’s saying something.  The Jill character will grate on you from the moment that she appears to the very end.  Even worse is the fact that Sandler’s Jack, the twin brother, is also a self-centered jerk, so we get two awful characters from Sandler for the price of one.  The plot again serves no purpose other than to string together many different comic situations, most of which are not funny.  One really odd subplot has Jill being pursued by a lustful Al Pacino.  Yep, the Al Pacino.  The film also shows the characters taking a cruise, so once again, we are pretty much watching another one of Adam Sandler’s vacation videos.  Unlike most of Sandler’s other comedies, however, this movie actually under-performed at the box office, showing that even his fan-base were growing tired of the shtick.  It lived up to it’s already notorious reputation, but there’s wasn’t anything particularly reprehensible about it, unlike the following movies.
THAT’S MY BOY (2012)
You’ve got to really question a comedic performer’s sensibilities when he bases the premise of his film around the issue of pedophilia.  That’s exactly what happened with That’s My Boy, and it’s an uncomfortable subtext that just sabotages everything else in this film before anything else takes hold.  At the start of the film, a pre-teen boy is seduced by his attractive and much older teacher and the two end up having sex and producing a child from this.  The teacher goes to jail and the irresponsible boy ends up raising the baby, and this is all played for laughs.  Would it be funny if the genders were reversed?  It’s not funny either way, and the movie seems to think that this is no big deal.  Sandler plays the boy as a grown man, and he’s again resorting to his obnoxious man-child persona, only with none of the charm of Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore.  The child he raised is grown-up as well, and is played here by Sandler-in-training Andy Samberg, who at least attempts to play a likable character.  Unfortunately nothing in the movie escapes the reprehensible nature of it’s premise and everything that follows is not funny enough to make us forget it.  I don’t usually dismiss movies when they poke fun at something taboo, but this is one example where the film clearly crossed the line and fails to make up for it with anything worth watching.
You would think that someone as cartoonish as Adam Sandler would fit perfectly in an animated film.  Unfortunately, Eight Crazy Nights is just as irritating as the other movies on this list.  What makes this movie worse is the fact that it is posing as a movie made for all ages, and in addition, tries to emulate classic Holiday specials from the past.  How the Grinch Stole Christmas this is not.  In fact, I would take the Grinch over the jerk that Sandler voices here any time.  Named after a verse from Sandler’s popular “Hannakuh Song,” Eight Crazy Nights follows the story of a dead-beat who slowly relearns the meaning of the holiday season after interacting with a couple of ostracized care-givers.  What could have been a heartwarming story is undermined by Sandler’s typical crude and gross-out humor, which I’m sure upset a lot of family audiences who probably were tricked into seeing a PG-13 movie because it was animated.  Surprisingly, the animation in this movie is really good (done by the same team that worked on 1999’s The Iron Giant, believe it or not) which makes the fact that it’s wasted on poop jokes and racial stereotypes all the more infuriating.  In addition, Sandler provides the voices of all the main characters, including the elderly care-givers who come off as horrible Semitic caricatures.  Even Mel Gibson wasn’t this insulting to the Jewish people, and Sandler himself is a Jew.  The whole thing is a baffling assortment of awful ideas and easily the worst holiday themed film ever, if not worst animated one too.
And now we come to the absolute worst movie of Sandler’s career.  Why is this movie the worst?  Where to start?  The story is about two heterosexual firefighters played by Sandler and Kevin James who pretend to be gay so that they can take advantage of the State of Massachusetts then newly legalized same-sex marriage and marry each other in order to receive family medical benefits as a couple.  The movie centers around this deception and is merely just an excuse to throw in every gay joke in the book.  Now, the fact that they are poking fun at homosexuality is not what makes this film so offensive, though it certainly contributes.  There are plenty of comedies that exploit gay humor well (Mel Brook’s The Producers (1968) for example).  What makes Chuck & Larry so reprehensible is the fact that it tries to pass itself off as a pro-gay film, with some shoehorned message at the very end.  The idea that Adam Sandler thought he was making a movie favorable towards gay rights after exploiting every tired stereotype beforehand is what truly makes this film so hate-able.  If you wanted to make a positive movie about gay marriage, you should show a gay character having his or her rights restricted and then reclaiming it by the end.  That’s not what Sandler did.  Instead most of the plot centers around how uncomfortable the two leads feel doing things that gay men and women are completely comfortable with.  Sure, Sandler probably sympathizes with the causes of gay people, but this movie clearly shows that he made no effort trying to understand them, and that’s why this film is not only bad, but insulting as well.
So, these are my choices for the worst movies of Adam Sandler’s career.  Of course, given that he’s still relevant in Hollywood, there will probably be many more to come.  This weekend brings the latest entry in his filmography called Blended, costarring Drew Barrymore and it looks as formulaic as all the others.  But, like I said before, when Adam Sandler leaves his comfort zone, his films can actually sometimes be good.  The reason why his movies tend to suffer is because they try to please too many people, being both crude but also heartwarming, which creates an uneven mixture.  When Sandler films work, it’s because they are either genuinely heartwarming (2002’s Punch Drunk Love and 1998’s The Wedding Singer) or they completely embrace their insanity (2000’s Little Nicky and 2008’s You Don’t Mess With the Zohan).  And again, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore are still funny today, so that does say something.  If Sandler want’s to be taken seriously as a performer, he probably should look at his collective work and recognize what has been missing all these years.  Well, now that I’ve ripped apart Adam Sandler for an entire article, I thought that I should conclude with some moments that I genuinely enjoyed from the man.

Godzilla (2014) – Review


It’s hard to believe that a giant, spiked lizard could have such a long lasting legacy on the big screen.  This year marks the 60th anniversary of the King of the Monsters, Godzilla, and there could be no better way to celebrate that milestone than with a big new blockbuster film.  First seen in the original Japanese movie Gojira (1954), Godzilla was clearly a product of his time.  For a nation still reeling from destruction by a nuclear bomb, Godzilla was a symbol of Japan’s fears about it’s own insecurity in the post-war years.  Godzilla’s reign of terror in those early films was clearly meant to represent the dangers of nuclear warfare, but his presence could have also represented any other kind of force of nature that is well out of mankind’s control.  That’s probably why Godzilla has enjoyed such longevity on the big screen.  He represents a timeless menace that everyone can fear, no matter what time or place he exists.  That, and the fact that Godzilla movies are almost always fun to watch.  To date, there have been 28 Godzilla movies in total, most of them made in his native Japan by the Toho film company.  The original film still holds up as a classic thriller, even with the crude special effects.  It proved to be so popular in fact that it was one of the first Japanese post-war films to have a wide international release; even premiering in most American first-run cinemas, thanks to an Americanized cut that presented the original movie with actor Raymond Burr spliced in for narration.
Of course, most Godzilla movies look dated now because special effects have become much more sophisticated over time.  Today, it would look silly to have a man in the Godzilla costume walking around and destroying a model set, but that’s what worked well enough 60 years ago.  Now with CGI becoming the norm in visual effects, it makes much more sense to have the creature be animated; it makes him look far less artificial (to a point).  American filmmakers have certainly looked at the creature for inspiration in their own larger than life monster movies, and to date there have been two major attempts by Hollywood at making their own films centered around the big green brute.  The first attempt was Roland Emmerich’s 1998 adaptation, which is a classic example of how not to make a Godzilla movie.  Godzilla (1998) is a notoriously bad film.  It puts much more emphasis on it’s uninteresting human characters, relies too heavily on goofy humor, and it redesigned the monster to the point where it was no longer recognizable.  In fact, Godzilla looked more like a rejected design for one of the T-Rex’s in Jurassic Park (1993), a movie that this Godzilla was clearly trying to emulate and failed.  Sixteen years after this notorious misfire, Warner Brothers has now released a new Godzilla (2014), and it sticks much more closely to the formula that has been used for 60 years in Japan.  Did it work this time around?  Kinda.
The story is nothing that we haven’t seen before.  It’s basically the same plot of every Godzilla movie before it, only done on a much more global scale.  The story begins with nuclear engineer Joe Brody (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) witnessing the destruction of his power plant by some unseen force.  After losing his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) in the accident, Joe becomes obsessed with finding out the truth about what happened.  Fifteen years pass and Joe is confronted by his Army-trained, bomb expert son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who begrudgingly follows him back into the quarantined area of the accident.  There they find what caused the mayhem in the first place, and it’s now just waking up from it’s slumber.  A giant, spider-like creature called a MUTO (mysterious unidentified terrestrial organism) starts wrecking havoc and begins making it’s way across the Pacific Ocean.  Ford quickly makes his way back to America in order to help stop the advancing threat, but not before being informed by scientists, Doctors Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Graham (Sally Hawkins), that another monster is also following the Muto across the Pacific; it’s natural predator and ancient adversary: Godzilla.  What follows is a race against time between the monsters and the humans before an inevitable showdown in the city of San Francisco.
Naturally, with a film based off of a legacy like this one is, it’s going to have to face some scrutiny with comparisons to other films.  The movie, for me, is a mixed bag.  Is it bad?  Not really.  I can see a lot of people enjoying this one, especially when it gets to the climatic battle scenes.  Also, as far as Americanized Godzilla movies go, this one is light-years better than the Roland Emmerich version.  This movie, for one thing, doesn’t resort to using goofball hi-jinks with it’s human characters in order to entertain it’s audience.  This movie treats everything and everyone involved with the utmost seriousness; something that it probably does a little too well.  Let, me state right away what my biggest issue was with this movie, and that is it’s pacing.  It takes this movie a long time to build up steam towards what it intends to deliver.  For most of the film, you witness more of the aftermath of what these creatures are doing rather than the actual destruction.  There are a lot of instances where the movie cuts to news footage of the mayhem, which isn’t as effective as it would’ve been if the movie had actually let us see it up close.  Now, I do understand that most of the early Japanese Godzilla movies were structured like this as well; saving all the best action moments for the end.  Unfortunately, the movie isn’t effective enough during it’s monster-less moments to make this kind of structure work.
I do blame this more on the shoddy editing rather than on the strengths of the performances.  The human actors here unfortunately have little to do, other than to react to what’s going on.  The movie moves around so much that character development suffers, and many of the main cast usually just fall into stock characterizations.  Aaron-Taylor Johnson suffers the most because of this in his performance.  He’s a fine actor, but the movie never gives him the chance to show off anything interesting in his persona, so he just resorts to becoming your standard every-man protagonist.  Ford really doesn’t have anything to contribute to the movie until one course of action towards the very end, and even still, it’s nothing compared to what’s going on with the monsters.  It’s surprising that a cast this prestigious, filled with many award winners, comes across as so bland in this movie.  Only Cranston and Watanabe stand out in their roles, and just barely.  It may be a little unfair to make the comparison, but this is why a movie like Pacific Rim (2013) works so much better.  That movie managed to balance out the human story-lines with the fighting monsters plot perfectly, giving both the time and focus they needed to work and it kept everything simple.  In this movie, you’ll start getting impatient because the plot chooses to hold off on it’s monsters, which just makes 2/3’s of this movie feel like one, prolonged tease.
But, when it does get to that final 1/3 of the movie, it is indeed spectacular.  At that point, the film knows who the star is, and he doesn’t disappoint.  If people come away from this movie satisfied, it will be because of the final showdown at the end.  One of the many reasons why this Godzilla is so much better than the Emmerich version is because he looks the way that Godzilla should look.  While slightly modified, this Godzilla looks more like the classic version.  One thing that this movie does improve upon from all other Godzilla movies before it is the sense of scale given to the monsters.  His presence in this movie will show you exactly why he is called the “King of the Monsters.”  When Godzilla makes his first appearance in the movie, it is a chilling moment, and it perfectly illustrates why we love the monster in the first place.  You know you’ve done a good job with bringing the creature to life when Godzilla makes the audience break out in applause at certain points.  Also, I give the filmmakers a lot of credit for keeping Godzilla’s one-of-a-kind roar in this movie, because he wouldn’t be the same without it.  Even though the movie makes you wait long stretches for him, it does do right by the character.  That’s mainly why the film can be infuriating at times, because all you want is more of the big guy.  Maybe the filmmakers wanted to be careful and not spoil the character with too many scenes, but I think this is where caution should have been discouraged.
The film is especially well crafted, and does work well at portraying the mayhem caused by the monsters in the movie.  The film was made by Gareth Edwards, a former visual effects producer who’s only directed one feature prior to this one; the far more modestly budgeted Monsters (2010).  While I think Mr. Edwards still needs to refine his skills as a story-teller, I do believe that he has a remarkable vision when it comes to the scope of this movie.  He especially avoids the tiresome Michael Bay convention of shaky camera work, and lets the action play out in tightly controlled compositions.  We thankfully get very long and detailed looks at the monsters, which helps the audience comprehend what’s going on in every scene.  And again, the director’s sense of scale is very well displayed here.  The design team also deserves a lot of credit, helping to make this film feel right at home with the look of the original movies, while at the same time retaining that Hollywood gloss that we’ve come to expect from a big tent-pole film.  The Muto creatures are a nice hybrid of that modern design and traditional Japanese aesthetic that the movie is trying to accomplish.  I often thought that they looked like armor-plated versions of the Cloverfield (2008) monster, and they compliment Godzilla very well and make great foes for him in the end.  Where the movie falters in it’s story, it does indeed make it up in it’s visuals, and it can definitely be said that Godzilla has never looked better on the big screen.
If this movie becomes a big success, which indeed seems very likely, I’m sure we’ll see more Hollywood films centered around the big, green guy again.  My hope is that the filmmakers actually puts more of the focus on the creatures themselves, and less on the plots concerning the humans.  Maybe the filmmakers were living by the motto that less is more with regards to monster movies, but I think they went a little too far.  Yes, the showdown at the end is worth the wait (especially when Godzilla shows off his special trick), but it’s a long way to get there.  When your movie is named after a certain monster, you’d expect to see plenty of him throughout the run-time.  Oddly enough, more screen-time is devoted to the Mutos in this movie than Godzilla himself.  This is indeed how the original Godzilla movies structured, but I think it may have worked better in the movie’s favor if it broke from tradition in this sense.  More interesting human characters would’ve helped too.  It’s probably me being nit-picky, but I feel like the movie could’ve been better if it did something a little different.  That being said, it does a fine job living up to the legacy of the franchise and it will continue to make Godzilla a relevant presence on the big screen for many years to come.  It certainly does that better than the awful 1998 version.  Godzilla has been an influential force on western-based monster movies for years, such as Cloverfield (2008) and last year’s Pacific Rim.  Now the King of Monsters is here to be a force in American cinemas on his own, and let’s hope that Hollywood will serve right by him right in the future.
Rating: 7/10

Evolution of Character – King Arthur


A good old fashioned medieval tale is something that has always been a favorite sub-genre in Hollywood.  Whether it is based in history or in the realm of fantasy, epics surrounding the adventures of kings and knights go back to the very beginning of cinema.  You can track an interesting progression through the years as the Middle Ages would inspire swashbuckling adventures throughout early cinema; starring the likes of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn.  These movies soon led to the grandiose period epics of the 50’s and 60’s, where history and pageantry reigned on the big and wide screens.  In the 80’s, we got the boom of Fantasy epics, with movies like Dragonslayer (1981), Ladyhawke (1985), and Legend (1986) borrowing heavily from the Middle Age aesthetic.  This then led to a period of gritty historical films set in the same time period, like Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1992) and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995).  The fantasy genre made yet another return with the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the 2000’s and today we are seeing the same genre hit it big on television with Game of Thrones.  Suffice to say, whether it’s fantasy or history, we just love watching medieval stories.  And no character better defines that bridge between the historical and the fanciful on film than the King of Camelot himself: Arthur Pendragon.
King Arthur’s legendary status is interesting because no one quite knows where it exactly started.  Some believe that Arthur is based off of a real 6th century ruler in early British history, while others believe that he’s merely a fictional character transplanted by the invading Normans in their literature.  Whatever his origin, Arthur has nevertheless become one of the most iconic characters to ever come out of medieval culture.  To this day, the character still symbolizes the ideal of true kingship, and he has usually served as the model for most monarchs in literature.  While there is no set original text from which to adapt Arthur’s story from, there have been some plot elements that have been turned into canon over time; such as his pulling Excalibur from a stone to prove his true claim to the throne, his rivalry with the witch Morgana, his friendship with the wizard Merlin, and his fall after the betrayal of his queen Guinevere.  These elements have become expected in most Arthurian stories, though not every adaptation is necessarily bound to it.  In fact, film adaptations of the King Arthur legend are about as varied as any other genre of film.  It’s actually very fascinating to see how many unique ways you can make a movie about the same character.  Below, you will find my examination of some of the most notable film adaptations over the years, and how they’ve managed to define our own modern view of King Arthur.
Although King Arthur and his knights had made appearances in many silent adventures and serial swashbucklers of Hollywood’s early years, it wouldn’t be until this particular feature that the kingdom of Camelot would be fully realized.  The film is notable because it was the first widescreen production made by MGM, and it’s clear why this production holds that distinction.  It’s a grand, epic scale retelling of the Arthurian legend shot on location in England with a cast of then A-list movie stars.  However, like most of these early productions, the film is less about Arthur himself and more about the knights who serve him.  In particular, the love story between Lancelot (Robert Taylor) and Guinevere (Ava Gardner) takes center stage.  The film does give Arthur a prominent place in the story, however, and it does show his strength as a leader.  Mel Ferrar looks the part well enough, with his chiseled face and commanding stature, but unfortunately he never is quite able to shake off his New Jersey accent.  This makes his performance a little distracting at times, and unfortunately causes the film to suffer.  Though the movie is beautiful to look at, it is firmly a product of it’s time.  King Arthur would have to wait a bit longer to receive his due on the big screen.
Finally, a film devoted entirely to the character of King Arthur.  Based off the novels The Sword and the Stone and The Once and Future King by English author T.H. White, the story follows the adventures of Arthur during boyhood, before he knew of his noble lineage and was working as a squire to lesser knights.  In the books, he is tutored by the wizard Merlin and soon is led to the mythical Sword in the Stone, from which he pulls Excalibur and proves he is the true heir to the throne.  Given that Walt Disney Pictures is known for their fairy tale adaptations, this one seemed a natural choice for them.  Interestingly though, the film is unlike most other medieval tales and it’s even unique among Disney movies as well.  This is a film about the relationship between a teacher and his student, which is something that you rarely find central to any movie’s plot.  Of course, there is magic involved, but most of the film is devoted to Wart (as Arthur is called in this movie) learning that there is more to life than just being a knight; lessons of wisdom that will someday influence him when he becomes king.  It may not be one of Disney’s most heralded films, but there is still plenty to like about it.  It’s colorful and the characters’ relationships are wonderfully constructed, especially between Wart and Merlin.  Also, the film is unique for it’s sense of humor.  It was the first animated film to use anachronistic humor and pop culture references, something that has become common in animated films since, like Aladdin (1992) and Shrek (2001).
With a legendary, grandiose story like the tale of King Arthur, it seems natural that it would inspire a musical retelling.  Adapted from the same T.H. White novels and the Lerner & Loewe Broadway musical, this grand scale production was made at the tail-end of the epic musical craze of the 50’s and 60’s.  Stylistically, it is very different from what you would expect of the era, given it’s grittier production design and darker cinematography.  The film feels a little disjointed because of this, given Lerner & Loewe’s bouncy musical score.  The odd juxtaposition was probably made because of the changing styles of the times, as late-sixties film-making became less light-hearted.  Unfortunately, none of the Broadway cast made it into this film, including it’s original stars Richard Burton and Julie Andrews.  This film did however do right by the casting of Arthur himself.  Richard Harris gives a commanding performance as the character, balancing both the charming aspects of Arthur as well as the menacing aspects.  And he can sing very well too.  The film focuses again on the betrayal of Guinevere and his trusted knight Lancelot, both played by real-life couple Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero; but here the focus is on the turmoil Arthur feels over losing trust in those he loves, which Harris captures beautifully.  Though not as good of a musical movie as it could have been, there’s no doubt that King Arthur was served well by Mr. Harris’ performance.
As odd as it may seem, the men of Monty Python may have come closer to authentically portraying the Arthurian legend than anything before it.  At least they certainly got the dinginess of medieval times down exactly.  It would make sense in this time period that Arthur would be identified as King because “he hasn’t got shit all over him.”  The film is a comic masterpiece and one of the most oft-quoted movies of all time.  I also love the way that it both celebrates Arthurian legends, and mocks them relentlessly, often at the same time.  Graham Chapman perfectly encapsulates this kind of idea in his portrayal of Arthur, making the king both noble and incompetent simultaneously.  And in this kind of medieval world, every iconic element of Arthur’s story gets sent-up.  Whether it’s hacking a stubborn Black Knight to pieces, or searching for an elusive shrubbery, or tossing Holy Hand Grenades, nothing is seen as too ridiculous in this story, and it’s all hilarious.  At the same time, the movie points out that the very nature of these legends are ludicrous, especially as role models for modern government and traditions in British society.  They make as much sense today as a man playing dress up and pretending to gallop around while clapping coconuts together. Truly, how can one be called a king just because some “watery tart threw a sword at you” in some “farcical aquatic ceremony?”
Director John Boorman proudly took the biggest step forward in making a genuine epic film centered entirely around King Arthur.  His Excalibur is seen as one of the movies that started the fantasy film Renaissance of the 1980’s, and the film holds up very well today.  It embraces every single aspect of the Arthur legend, from both the mystical elements, personified in the characters of Merlin (Nicol Williamson) and the evil Morgana (Helen Mirren), to the historical authenticity of it’s time period.  Nigel Terry also portrays an Arthur that we’ve never seen before; that being the reluctant warrior who grows into his role of king and ultimately earns the trust of all his knights through strength of wisdom.  Terry’s performance may be the best version of the character we’ve seen overall because of the many nuances that he brings to it.  This film is one of the best examples of the genre because of the way that it embraces everything that we come to expect from a fantasy and pushes it into directions that we never expected it to go.  Boorman is known for his very gritty and sometimes odd-ball style, best shown in his early thrillers like Deliverance (1972) and Zardoz (1974).  Excalibur feels right at home with those movies, and has an almost dream-like quality to it’s narrative and production design.  If you want to see the most earnest attempt to make an authentic film about King Arthur, than this will be the movie that’ll satisfy all your needs.
First Knight is a noble attempt to craft a very ambitious Arthurian tale, but it falls short in many ways.  Again King Arthur is relegated to the background as Guinevere (Julia Ormond) and Lancelot (an oddly miscast Richard Gere) takes center stage with their secret romance driving most of the plot.  The film also dismisses most of the mystical elements of the legend as well.  Merlin is no where to be seen, and traditional villains Morgana and Mordred are replaced by disgraced Prince Malagant (Ben Cross), who proves to be a very ineffective antagonist.  Not only that, the film’s tone is all over the place, probably because it was made by former comedy director Jerry Zucker (of Airplane and Naked Gun fame) who probably didn’t have the confidence to make a period drama.  So why is this film still a noteworthy adaptation of the Arthurian legend?  Because it has Sean freaking Connery as King Arthur.  The man carries the weight of this film on his shoulders, and is easily the best thing about this movie.  Connery just looks absolutely right playing the aging Arthur.  If you made a shortlist of all the actors who were tailor-made to portray the King, Connery would certainly be near the top.  If only this film had been made while Sean was still in his 007 prime, but still, he makes the most of his time in this movie and the film is better off for it.  First Knight is a flawed retelling of the legend, but it does deserve credit for giving us the ideal version of King Arthur that we’ve always wanted.
The most recent adaptation of the legend gives us what is probably the most historical version of the character to date.  This movie takes us to the very beginning of Arthur’s origins, showing him as a Roman legion general who defends the people of Britain from invading Vikings once the Roman Empire’s influence has left them.  Accompanied by his centurion knights including, Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), and allied with the Saxon queen, Guinevere (Keira Knightly), they repel the Viking king Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard) as his vast army.  Once again, we get the right kind of actor in the role of Arthur.  Clive Owen is definitely likable here and he has a commanding presence on screen.  Unfortunately, the film seems more preoccupied with the action sequences in the narrative rather than the character development.  The film was made in the post-Gladiator (2000) era, and it certainly feels like a movie crafted a little too quickly to cash in on the success of that previous film.  While I do credit the movie for at least trying to do something different with the legend of King Arthur, I just wish they had made something that was a little more interesting.  Instead, we get a flimsy plot holding together a collection of action scenes.  Clive Owen does what he can as Arthur, but the movie never gives him any room to delve deeper into the character’s motivations.  In the end, we end up with an ambitious take on the legend that never really lives up to it’s potential.
Looking at the whole of King Arthur’s trips to the big screen, it’s very interesting to see how varied the different versions are.  I, in particular, found the ones that centered on the King himself to be the ones that stood out the best.  Boorman’s Excalibur best personifies how to adapt the legend to the big screen, though other individual films do give us worthy versions of the king as well, like in Sean Connery and Richard Harris’ versions.  I think the best way to portray the legend of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is to fully embrace all the aspects of the story; even the most fanciful versions.  After all, Arthur is a larger than life character and his story should reflect that.  I particularly love all the inclusions of Merlin in the story-lines, especially when the movies focus on their long standing friendship.  You take that away and you make Arthur just another ordinary king.  I’m sure we’ll see many more adaptations of the legend in the years to come, and hopefully more of them will follow along with that same principle.  Long live King Arthur.

Focus on a Franchise – Spider-Man


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

The Movies of Summer 2014


Start saving those movie passes now because Summer is almost upon us.  Generally seen as the biggest movie season of the year, this is the time when all the major studios gear up their big tent-pole pictures for release.  While many movies do become smash hits, recent years have shown us that the Summer is becoming increasingly competitive and now we are more likely to see big movies fail at the box office.  2013 in particular proved to be an incredibly ruthless year for big releases, leading to some of the hardest box office crashes the industry has ever seen.  Movies like Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) and Pacific Rim (2013), and Hangover Part 3 (2013) all under-performed last year, while other movies like The Long Ranger (2013), After Earth (2013), and Elysium (2013) proved to be costly failures.  Add to this the inexplicable successes of movies that people were almost certain would fail (World War Z and The Great Gatsby), and it becomes clear that the Summer movie season is becoming increasingly harder to handicap.  2014’s Summer season arrives a bit more quietly than last years slate of films, with fewer tent-pole movies of note, which may actually be a blessing for the industry.  This year, because of this cleared up schedule, there’s a better chance for movies to actually take hold at the box office and find an audience.
Of course this all depends on how well these movies are received.  I for one can see many films coming this Summer that will likely be terrible, and yet successful despite those shortcomings (I’m looking at you Transformers).  Just like last year, I will be taking a look at a few of the noteworthy movies that will be premiering in the months ahead and pick which ones that I believe are the must-sees of the season, a few which I’m interested in with a few reservations, and which ones I absolutely believe are worth skipping.  To help give some of you a frame of reference to what I’m talking about, I will include movie trailers for each of the highlighted movies.   So, without any further delay, let’s take a look at this Summer’s coming attractions.

The X-Men franchise has had a bumpy road over it’s now 7 movie run at the box office.  That said, the last two efforts in the series, 2011’s X-Men: First Class and 2013’s The Wolverine have both been solid efforts that both work as stand alone movies as well as continuations of the franchise, showing very clearly that the X-Men movies are now hitting their stride.  This year, what looks to be the most ambitious X-Men film to date, Days of Future Past, is making it to theaters and it is the movie I am most excited about seeing this Summer.  This is mainly due to the remarkable cast assembled for the film, including just about everyone that has appeared in an X-Men film to date. This includes series stalwart Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan returning as Charles Xavier and Magneto, as well as James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as their younger counterparts.  Add in Game of Thrones‘ Peter Dinklage as the villain and an army of the iconic Sentinel robots from the popular Marvel comics, and you’ve got a movie that looks to build upon everything that has come before it and take the series into even greater territory.  Also, recent controversies aside, it is great to see director Bryan Singer return to a series that he helped to start in the first place; a role he should have never left.

Speaking of Marvel Comics adaptations, 2014 also gives us the premiere of one of the publisher’s more obscure titles to the big screen.  Fans of the comics already are familiar with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and how they tie in with the larger Marvel universe that’s becoming the central focal point of the popular Avengers series, but the casual viewer does need to be sold on the concept of the story in order to make this film a success.  So the marketing behind this film deserves a lot of praise because the above trailer does an absolutely perfect job of setting up the characters and the world of this film.  I for one am sold just on the sense of humor alone.  What other trailer are you going to see the main character “flipping the bird” at the audience?  Space adventures are sometimes a hard sell these days, and while this movie may not look groundbreaking, it does look entertaining, which is exactly what audiences want from a Summer movie.  Here’s hoping that Marvel’s track record keeps going strong and helps to give a deserving series the boost that it needs.

It’s hard to believe that a Godzilla movie qualifies as a must see movie.  The Godzilla franchise is not exactly considered high cinematic art, and the last time Hollywood attempted to make a big budget film centered around the infamous monster, we got the ludicrous 1998 Roland Emmerich film.  This year, however, we not only have a Godzilla movie that looks ambitious, but actually looks to be treating the franchise more reverently.  Given that Guillermo del Toro proved last year that a movie centered around giant monsters could turn into a great film, it seems reasonable that a new movie centered around the King of Monsters could also be worthwhile.  The trailers so far have done an excellent job establishing this new take on the the monster, and the movie does look impressive; particularly when it comes to the scale of the destruction.  Also, Godzilla actually appears the way he should, and less like that lame T-Rex hybrid that Roland Emmerich tried to pass off.  This film also sports an impressive cast, led by heavyweights like Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe.  My hope is that the movie is able to live up to it’s marketing, and let the mighty Godzilla roar onto the screens once again.

For the first time in many years, we are not getting a movie from Pixar Studios in 2014.  Almost a staple in the Summer movie season, Pixar films are among the most consistently successful movies released every year.  So, with such a vacancy left open, it seems like a prime opportunity for other animation studios to release one of their movies without having to compete with the big boys, and the studio best set up to make a move this Summer is Pixar’s most direct competitor: Dreamworks Animation.  This is because Dreamworks is premiering a sequel to what is unquestionably their best film to date, 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon.  The sequel looks to expand the universe seen in the first film, which is what a good sequel should do, and the trailer does a good job of showing off the impressive scale and action adventure that we expect to see in a movie like this.  The first film’s entire cast looks to be returning to the series, and some of the notable new additions include Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett as the main hero’s long lost mother, as well as actors Djimon Hounsou and Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington as new adversaries.  The hope is that the sequel doesn’t waste the potential set up by it’s excellent predecessor.  It certainly benefits from ideal conditions for it’s world premiere with little competition in it’s way.

Yes, I know these movies are loud and dumb.  But, that’s why I like them so much.  Sylvester Stallone has crafted the Expendables series as a love letter to 80’s action films and has filled each movie with many of his old co-stars from that era, along with every action star that has headlined a film since then.  What I like about these movies the most is that they make no qualms about what they really are; they are a showcase for action movie icons doing what they do best and that’s kicking ass and blowing stuff up.  Now that the series is on it’s third film, it’s clear that many other people like me have gone along on this ride and have loved it so far.  The first two movies are mindless fun, and it looks like the new movie is more of the same, which is very much welcomed.  In addition to the returning cast, which includes Stallone, Jason Statham, and the “Governator” Arnold Schwartzenegger, this new film adds many more action icons like Antonio Banderas, Wesley Snipes, Mel Gibson, and Dr. Jones himself, Harrison Ford, taking the place of the absent Bruce Willis.  The new cast members alone are enough to get me excited for this movie.  It’s guilty pleasure fun and I’m not ashamed to be excited about this one.


The first movie released this summer is almost certainly going to be a huge hit and it looks like it’s going to be a huge crowd-pleaser.  So why am I not as excited about it as most people.  It’s mainly because it ‘s a sequel to a film that I didn’t like.  The first Amazing Spiderman was released in 2012, and rebooted the Spiderman franchise only five short years after the previous series ended; the one that starred Tobey Maguire as the web-slinger.  While I do believe that the reboot did some things right, like casting Andrew Garfield as Spiderman and focusing more on his development as a character, the end result was too lackluster and inconsistent in tone to make the reboot worth it.  Also, the film needlessly retreaded the origin story, which everyone had already seen in the previous films.  While this movie is freed up from the shackles of establishing the origin of Spiderman, it runs the unfortunate risk of trying to cram in too much too soon.  This movie has no less than 3 different villains taken from the comics; Electro (Jamie Foxx), The Rhino (Paul Giamatti) and the Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan).  Hopefully the movie gives everyone their due, otherwise it could all be a mess.  That being said, the film’s action set pieces do look exciting, and the transformation of Jamie Foxx into Electro does look impressive.  Let’s hope that this movie can outshine it’s disappointing predecessor.

Disney seems to recently be in the habit of adapting some of their most beloved animated films into live action movies.  It started with 101 Dalmatians  in 1996, starring Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil.  A decade later we saw Tim Burton’s take on Alice in Wonderland (2010).  And within the next couple years, we will see adaptations of Cinderella by Kenneth Branaugh and The Jungle Book  by Jon Favreau, both from the Disney company.  This year, we get the live action treatment of Sleeping Beauty (1959), but with a twist.  This version of the tale gives the villainess, the iconic Malificent, center stage, and she is played by non other than Angelina Jolie.  The reason why I’m uncertain about this film is because the recent track record for fairy tale adaptations hasn’t been so good, at least when it comes to the quality of the movies.  Tim Burton’s Alice was critically panned, as was two recent adaptations of Snow White, made by other studios.  Audiences and critics may generally reject this movie as more of the same, and certainly the CG heavy look of the film seems rather tiresome.  The bright spot, however, is the casting of Ms. Jolie herself in the title role.  She looks perfect for the role and seems to be relishing the part in her performance.  And if there’s a Disney villain who deserves her own film, it’s the mistress of all evil.

The Wachowskis have had a rough decade.  They exploded onto the scene with the monumental The Matrix (1999), which is a certifiable classic in every way.  Since then, they followed that up with two disappointing Matrix sequels, a horrid remake of Speed Racer (2008), and the ambitious Cloud Atlas (2012), which worked better in parts than as a whole.  Having not made a profitable film since 2003’s The Matrix Reloaded, there is a lot resting on the Wachowskis’ shoulders with their new movie Jupiter Ascending.  The movie looks ambitious, and it’s nice to see the Wachowskis’ take on a sci-fi thriller that doesn’t echo The Matrix in any way.  The only question is whether their movie is original enough to convince audiences to see it.  I like the look of the movie, but the “saving the princess” plot seems a little cliched, even within science fiction.  On the plus side, the movie has Sean Bean in the cast, which is a good thing in my book.  Let’s see if he stays alive through the whole film this time.  Hopefully this one will be a turn around for the once mighty Wachowskis, because they certainly need it.

Robert Rodriguez’s first adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City graffic novels was one of the most unique cinematic experiences I’ve ever had when it first premiered back in 2005, and it seems like an ideal film to follow up with a sequel.  I also thought the same thing of Rodriguez’s Machete (2010), but that was until I saw Machete Kills, one of the more disappointing sequels in recent memory.  Now, nearly a decade after the first film was released, Robert Rodriguez is making the long promised follow-up to Sin City.  The reason why I’m worried is because Rodriguez’s track record with sequels is very spotty.  For every Desperado (1995) there’s a dozen lackluster Spy Kids movies.  Hopefully the director brings his A-game to this film, because I absolutely love the first movie.  The good news is that much of the original cast returns, including heavyweights like Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis, and newer cast members include good actors like Josh Brolin and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Let’s hope that time hasn’t worn out Sin City’s appeal to audiences.


The vultures are already circling around this one.  Pretty much from the get go, people knew this was a bad idea, letting Michael Bay tackle a popular property like this one.  And now that we’ve seen the trailer, our worst fears seem to have been realized.  While I’m mixed on some things about this movie (I like the casting of William Fichtner as Shredder, for example), I do agree that the titular turtles just don’t look right at all.  I greatly prefer the Jim Henson crafted turtles from the cheesy but endearing original film.  Additionally, nothing good can come from the casting of Megan Fox as female lead, April O’Neil.  Right now, this movie stands as a clear example of the recent trend by Hollywood to take popular franchises from a generation ago, and water them down into shallow popcorn flicks for today’s newer audiences (i.e. Robocop).  Is this going to be the worst movie of the summer?  Who knows.  I can only say that it’s the one right now with the lowest expectations.

While we’re on the subject of Michael Bay, he also is bringing us the fourth entry in the Transformers franchise this Summer.  I will say that I did find the first film okay in it’s own right, but the series has devolved into one of the most self-indulgent and obnoxious franchises of recent memory.  These movies seem more geared towards satisfying Bay’s own tastes as a filmmaker than actually entertaining the audiences they were intended for, with it’s over-reliance on CGI mayhem and on-screen pyrotechnics in the place of actual character development.  This movie does the smart move of replacing Shia LaBeouf for the less obnoxious Mark Wahlberg, but after watching the trailer, it appears that we’re still going to be getting more of the same nonsense.  And once again, it looks like the Transformers themselves are just supporting characters in their own movie.

This film’s biggest disadvantage is that it’s been produced at a time when many stylistically similar movies are being made; and failing.  It looks too similar to forgettable sci-fi action thrillers like Battle Los Angeles (2011), and those battle suits look a lot like the mech-armors used in Elysium (2013); and you guys know how I felt about that film.  Hell, it was only last year that we saw another post-apocalyptic movie starring Tom Cruise; the equally forgettable Oblivion (2013).  Unfortunately for this movie, it and will probably follow in the footsteps of these other failed sci-fi epics.  Tom Cruise is a good actor, and he should be broadening his choices of roles now that he’s entering middle age, but it appears he’s still attracted to action film roles at the moment, for better or worse.  The plot also seems too gimmicky to stand out either; like a mix of Halo and Groundhogs Day (1992), and not in a good way.  It could end up surprising us and be a solid action movie (like last years World War Z), but given how poorly the sci-fi action genre has been of late, it’s a tall order to accomplish.
So, there you go; my outlook on the Summer of 2014 in movies.  There will probably be a few other films that will grab my attention over these next few months, and probably even a few surprises.  That was certainly the case with last Summer’s movies, and hopefully this year will be even better.  I hope that the fact that fewer movies are coming out this year with a lot of hype is a positive thing.  Lately, too much hype has negatively affected many people’s reactions to Summer movies, so hopefully Hollywood has been taking a hint and are acting more cautiously this year.  I doubt we’ll see anything like The Lone Ranger’s big meltdown this Summer.  My hope is that the movies I’m most excited about live up to my expectations, and the ones I’m cautious about will prove my worries wrong.  At the very least, I hope that I and everyone else just has a fun time at the movies during this busy season and not end up feeling like we wasted our time and money at the cinema.

Collecting Criterion – The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)


The Criterion Collection has honored all kinds of beloved cinema by making them a part of it’s library, but they’ve also spread their wings out to include movies that carry a dark cloud of controversy around them.  Many of these types of movies within the Criterion Collection include a box set devoted to the I am Curious series, which were Swedish films that were deemed pornographic and were banned for years in the United States.  Also included in the Collection are the silent documentary on Satanism, Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), the movies of controversial Danish director Lars von Trier, and perhaps the most controversial film of all, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom (1975); a movie that I will one day brave my way through and review for this series.  Criterion does an honorable job of collecting these button-pushing movies, because regardless of the controversy that surrounds them, they still stand as cinematic touchstones and are worthy of preservation and posterity.  Given that Easter is almost upon us, I thought that I should review for you one of the most scandalous movies of all times that has also gone on to become one of Criterion’s most interesting titles; and which also fits within the religious theme of the holiday.  That film is Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).
The interesting thing about this Criterion title is that it’s the only Scorsese film that has been selected as part of the Collection.  This is probably because Scorsese’s other movies probably don’t carry the same stigma that this one does, and have found an easier time getting distribution.  The Last Temptation of Christ more than likely could only ever get released through the Criterion label because no other studio would dare claim it.  Nevertheless, I’m sure that Scorsese is quite pleased with this film’s place within the Criterion Collection, as well as he should be.  Criterion has done a masterful job of restoring the movie and giving it a proper home video release.  In the 25 years since the movie has first premiered, the controversy surrounding it has subsided, especially in the wake of the firestorm surrounding Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), so Criterion’s distribution of the film itself is far from controversial.  Of course, when watching the movie itself, it becomes very apparent why the movie sparked heated emotions in the first place.  Scorsese has always been a risk-taker, and it’s to his credit as a film director that his movies have done as well as they have.  With The Last Temptation, he was fulfilling a life-long ambition to make a film about the life of Jesus Christ, no doubt having grown up watching the great biblical epics of Hollywood’s golden era and being raised in a Catholic household.  But, making a movie like this in a different era with a reputation like what Mr. Scorsese had was going to lead to some tension no matter what, and Scorsese certainly found out how hard it was to fulfill his own dreams.
First and foremost it must be understood that the movie is not based on a scriptural source, but rather is adapted from the similarly controversial novel of the same name by Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, the same man who wrote Zorba the Greek.  Though Nikos was always a devoted Christian author, he was nevertheless condemned by both the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, and his book was banned in several countries.  Despite what the Church thought of his writing, Nikos believed that he was honoring Christ by showing his humanity.  In the novel, Jesus is not depicted as an infallible deity, but rather as a passionate and troubled human being who strives to do God’s work on Earth even when doubts his own strength to accomplish it.  The Jesus in the novel remains pure and accomplishes everything he’s been entrusted to do by God, but the novel also examines the temptations that are laid out in front of him that try to pull him away from becoming the Messiah.  The final temptation shows him giving up his crucifixion and leading a normal human life; marrying Mary Magdelene, raising children, and dying at an old age.  Of course, Jesus resists the temptation and goes through with the sacrifice in the end, but the novel details the life that may have been, and this is probably what drove many religious figures to be upset.  Despite Mr. Kazantzakis’ best intentions, the idea of a fallible Christ was unacceptable to many people and sadly it lead to the author’s downfall.
Martin Scorsese was drawn to the ideas of Nikos Kazatzakis’ novel, particularly the way it looked at Christ the man, and he held onto the rights to the novel for many years, hoping to bring it to the screen himself when he had the opportunity.  Scorsese made the movie at a transitional time for him personally.  He had beaten a drug addiction that plagued most of his early career and was now going through something of a spiritual reawakening.  Most of his films during the 1980’s were markedly different in tone to his gritty crime dramas of the 70’s.  In 1983, he made the dark comedy The King of Comedy, which he then followed up with the very low budgeted dramas of After Hours (1985) and The Color of Money (1986).  The Last Temptation pushed Scorsese into even more foreign territory, since the director had never done a period film before, let alone a religious one.
While he knew that the source material was controversial, Scorsese wanted to make this movie as an affirmation of his own Catholic faith.  Indeed, watching this movie you can see Scorsese’s own view of spirituality come through, and it stays true to the scriptural teachings of Jesus Christ.  Unlike Mel Gibson’s The Passion, Scorsese did manage to secure financial backing from a major studio (Universal), albeit with a very small budget.  It was warmly received by critics, but naturally was condemned by Church organizations who didn’t understand it.  The backlash from religious viewers was so intense in fact that the movie is still banned in some countries, and one screening in Paris during it’s premiere was the scene of a terrorist attack by Christian zealots, leading to the death of one person. Suffice to say that The Last Temptation of Christ still stands as Martin Scorsese’ most polarizing film to date.  Upon viewing the movie today, the film isn’t as scandalous on the surface as it once was perceived to be, although I’m sure you still won’t hear any mention of it in religious circles.
My own impression of the movie is that it’s an intriguing, if somewhat flawed, depiction of the life of Jesus.  The most controversial elements of the movie, that being the moments of temptation laid before Jesus, are actually the strongest parts, and shows Scorsese’s knack for making challenging cinema accessible for the average viewer especially well.  The extended sequence at the end of the movie, depicting the life Jesus could’ve had if he gave up his sacrifice for humanity is especially captivating, and spells out perfectly exactly why Christ was meant to be the Savior of humanity according to scripture; a subtlety that I think a lot of religious zealots tend to overlook.  Unfortunately, Scorsese’s film is a bit on the overlong side.  Running 2 hours and 45 minutes long, the movie doesn’t have the same kind of driven pacing that Scorsese’s other movies have, and tends to drag through many of the more introspective moments of the narrative.  In addition, the movie is unfortunately dated by a terrible soundtrack, made by recording artist Peter Gabriel.  While unique, the music does feel out of place in this biblical tale, and makes many of the scenes feel like a bad 1980’s music video instead of an uplifting spiritual movie.
Where the movie does shine, however, is in it’s performances, particularly with Willem Dafoe as Jesus.  Dafoe carries this movie on his shoulders and creates a Jesus Christ that we’ve never seen before on the big screen.  I liked the way that he showed Jesus’ confusion and fear throughout his entire journey, which helps to make the character much more personable than relatable.  Now, many religious people argue that Jesus must be unknowable because he was more than just a man, but Dafoe’s performance shows that Jesus’ teachings can have more power when we understand better the person who is giving it to us.  And better yet, Dafoe’s performance has a lot of passion behind it, making Jesus captivating as a character.  When we see Jesus in this movie, we begin to understand why he was able to inspire people to follow his teachings.
The supporting cast also adds a lot to the movie, especially Harvey Keitel as a very sympathetic Judas Iscariot.  Some of the other casting can be a little random at times; like The Empire Strikes Back (1980) director Irvin Kershner showing up briefly as a stone-throwing zealot; and hold on, was that David Bowie as Pontius Pilate?  One cameo that I did find interesting was Harry Dean Stanton as religious convert Saint Paul, who manages to help even Jesus himself learn more about God’s plan.  The movie’s visual design is also spectacular in this movie.  Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus gives the film an epic scope, and helps to make the film feel big even with the limited budget.  Also, many of the trademark Scorsese touches are there, particularly in the dramatic lighting of certain scenes.  Scorsese’s unique cinematic touches throughout help to stand this movie apart from other biblical movies, particularly with one interesting technique during the crucifixion scene where the camera tilts down 90 degrees in front of Jesus on the cross, showing a sideways view of the image.  It’s a simply done trick, but it does leave a definite impression.
Criterion’s edition of the movie brings out the best of this film by giving it a spectacular restoration.  Produced through a high-definition scan from the original negative elements, the movie looks almost brand new in it’s blu-ray edition.  Thankfully Universal has kept the original negative safe in it’s vault; a religious organization called Campus Crusade for Christ once offered the studio $10 million for the negative just so they could destroy it.  Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker supervised the restoration, alongside cinematographer Ballhaus, and the film definitely looks like it reflects the artistic visions off all involved.  The score, for better or worse, does sound great in the restoration.  You’ll especially appreciate how clear the sound mix is.
The extras, while not particularly as lavish as some other Criterion titles, is nevertheless worth checking out.  First there’s a group audio commentary pieced together from interviews with Scorsese himself, along with Willem Dafoe and screenwriters Paul Schrader and Jay Cocks.  Production footage of the crew on location is also available to view in this package, which gives you the interesting insight into the making of the movie, and seeing Scorsese at work behind the camera is always interesting to watch.  It also gives you a nice idea of what it takes to make a period drama look authentic.  A brand new interview is also included with composer Peter Gabriel, as he details the influences that went into his work on the film’s score.  While I already made my feelings known about the music, it’s still interesting to hear Peter Gabriel’s methods behind his work, and what he thought of collaborating with Scorsese at the time.  Rounding out the extras is an interesting gallery of production and publicity stills.
While the controversy surrounding the movie has dissipated over time, Criterion was still taking risk keeping this movie in the public’s eye, and I give them a lot of credit for continuing to stand up for challenging works of cinema like this overall.  The Last Temptation of Christ is still a monumental work of cinematic art, and while it may not be the most enriching biblical film I’ve ever seen, or even the best example of Scorsese’s work as a director, it’s still a movie that is absolutely worth seeing.  I particularly would like to see religious organizations take another look at this film, because I think it’s more true to the spirit of Jesus’ teachings than they would like to believe.  Contrary to what they may believe, Scorsese did not make this movie because he wanted to attack Jesus’ image.  In the end, Christ does fulfill his purpose in God’s plan and goes through with his sacrifice.  What Scorsese showed us in the movie was that Jesus was also a man, and still vulnerable to the same faults as humankind.  The fact that he overcame them is what made Jesus special, and that’s what Martin Scorsese took away from his own perspective on religion.  Scorsese assures us that his movie is not scriptural but rather a dramatic interpretation of one extraordinary man’s journey through life, something which is stated before the movie’s opening credits.  Regardless of how the final movie turned out, I still thank Scorsese for taking an honest and unique approach to such a touchy subject.  The Last Temptation of Christ is still one of the most unique religious themed films ever made and it makes a worthy addition to anyone’s Criterion collection.

TCM Classic Film Festival 2014 – Film Exhibition Report


Film Festivals are usually set up to show off the talents of contemporary artists and the rising stars of tomorrow.  But, rarely do you see one that focuses entirely on the past.  Located right in the center of Hollywood itself, the Turner Classic Movies channel (TCM) is currently showcasing it’s 5th annual Classic Film Festival.  The festival is held every year in April and it features presentations of some of cinema’s greatest classics on the big screen, along with special appearances from a few Hollywood legends.  It’s a special treat for anyone living in the Los Angeles area, including myself, and I made an effort this year to have the full experience in order to share my thoughts with you, my readers.  First of all, I should say that one of the best things about this film festival is that it’s very easy for anyone to experience.  Unlike other prestigious industry film festivals, this one is more friendly to the casual viewer and for only $20 a ticket ($10 with a student ID), you have a good chance of getting into one of the many screenings.  Priority seating does go to people who have purchased the full festival passes, which run between $250 to $1500, but there is always a standby line outside the theater for everyone else, and usually those waiting in line do get in.  Suffice to say, this is what I did, and it was still worth the $20 a ticket price every time.  I managed to fit in three screenings throughout the day and the best part is that every experience was unique.
Since the festival is sponsored by the TCM, it’s not surprising that the faces of the channel were there in attendance as well.  Hosts Robert Osbourne and Ben Mankiewicz were on hand to introduce the movies throughout the day, as well as to conduct pre-screening interviews with the many special guests in attendance.  Also making appearances at the festival were film critics like Time Magazine’s Richard Corliss and Leonard Maltin, among others, who were also there to conduct interviews with the special guests.  All together, the presences of the hosts and guests is what sets this festival apart from others.  Not only are you getting to see classic movies on the big screen once again, but you also get the opportunity to see some of the people involved in their making up close and in person, sharing their own experiences.  Some of the most noteworthy people in attendance at this year’s festival have been Quincy Jones, Mel Brooks, Richard Dreyfuss, Jerry Lewis, and Maureen O’Hara.  A couple years ago, I managed to get into a screening of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) with Kirk Douglas himself at the theater, which was remarkable and shows just how special an event like this can be, because it lets us the audience see many of these great legends of cinema before they are all gone.  This year was no different, and what follows is a breakdown of my day at the festival.
The day started for me right at the heart of the festival at what is pretty much the world’s most famous movie theater, the iconic Chinese Theater.  Built in 1927, and home to some of the most famous world premieres in Hollywood’s history, the theater is like a living museum and it still has the ability to wow newcomers all these years later.  With a film festival happening this week, along with the sunny California weather, foot traffic was pretty heavy this weekend on Hollywood Boulevard, so getting to the theater was a hassle at times.  My first screening took place in the Chinese at it was the classic Vincente Minnelli musical Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).  It was a movie that I hadn’t seen before (odd, right?) and I was determined this year to watch films that were new to me, so this one seemed like a logical choice.  Plus, it allowed me to experience the Chinese Theater once again, which has gone through a full remodel in the last year, changing the old theater into a modern, stadium seating IMAX venue.  The remodel was beautifully done, and still manages to keep the original integrity of the theater’s ornate artistry; including the stunning ceiling centerpiece.
Below the impressively giant screen was a small stage platform set up for the pre-screening interview.  Richard Corliss of Time Magazine walked out to greet us before the movie began and gave us a brief overview of the film’s production and legacy.  After his short introduction, he welcomed to the stage actress Margaret O’Brien, who played one of the key roles in the movie.  Margaret was a perfect choice of guest for this screening, because of her own on set experience, and she had a wealth of stories to tell, which is remarkable given that the movie is celebrating it’s 70th anniversary this year, and she was only a little girl when she was making it.  She talked about performing alongside the legendary Judy Garland, working with Vincente Minnelli, and how they managed to make her cry believably on film.  The interview was short, but nonetheless very worthwhile, and it certainly opened up our eyes in the audience to things we probably wouldn’t have noticed before, had we not heard it from Margaret O’Brien beforehand.  I particularly liked this interview portion, because she explained very well the experience of being a child actor in that era, and she shared her memories very well, including the knowledge that she acted alongside the late Mickey Rooney recently on what will be his last film.  The movie itself was fine enough for a first viewing (not much of a musical fan here), but it was a good start to the day.
In the lobby of the Chinese Theater was a special treat for film buffs.  Enclosed in glass displays were some original costumes loaned out from various studio archives.  One of the most popular was Dorothy’s blue dress from The Wizard of Oz (1939), which readily had a line in front of it for pictures after the screening was over.  I, of course, didn’t waste the opportunity either.  It was a great added treat for film buffs like me.  Elsewhere in the lobby, I also found a dress worn by Julie Andrews in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), the famous curtains dress Vivian Leigh wore in Gone With the Wind (1939) (which made me instantly think of the gag version Carol Burnett wore on her show), as well as some new costumes from the movie Noah (2014), which is still in theaters.  Displays like these were very welcome, but sadly not very extensive.  I would’ve loved to have seen a full gallery display somewhere at the festival for film memorabilia of all kinds, but I guess with an event being as busy as this was, it was about as good as they could do.  Still, a worthwhile thing to add to the overall experience.
Of course, I still had a lot to fit in on this day, so I quickly made my way to the next screening.  This one took me to the TCL Chinese 6 Theater, which is a brand new multiplex built adjacent to the legendary Chinese Theater and continues it’s same theme, but with some modern flourish.  The Chinese 6 was built as part of the whole Hollywood & Highland development that included the new home of the Academy Awards, the Dolby Theater, which is literally right next door to this venue.  Of the six screens in the multiplex, three were given over to the film festival for some of the screenings of the smaller and more obscure films of the festival.  But, even with the smaller venue, the screenings were still treated with the same respect as the ones in the bigger theaters.  The screening I caught here was for another film I had yet to see; Peter Bogdanovich’s Oscar-winning film Paper Moon (1973).  Like some of the other screening’s, we were promised a pre-show interview, but unfortunately this time, our special guest was a no-show; that being the film’s star Ryan O’Neal.  The volunteer staff did a good job letting us know ahead of time that Mr. O’Neal had canceled at the last minute, which does happen.  Ben Mankiewicz also filled us in on the situation during his introduction, and he mentioned that he was crossing his fingers that the same thing wouldn’t happen before his big interview with Jerry Lewis before the The Nutty Professor (1963) screening the next day.  Even without the special guest, it was still a nice experience seeing a classic film on the big screen for the first time, which is how it should always happen.
Once night fell, I got in line for my final screening which was going to be for Blazing Saddles (1974), with the legendary Mel Brooks in attendance.  As a Mel Brooks fan, suffice to say, this was a screening that I was definitely looking forward to.  Unfortunately, I experienced my first sell-out of the festival here.  There weren’t enough seats left to fill with people waiting in the standby line, even with the huge venue that is the Chinese Theater.  The volunteer staff recommended that we check out some of the other screenings still going on at other venues, which would start over the next hour.  After checking my schedule, I noticed that the Egyptian Theater down the road was screening the classic Michael Caine film The Italian Job (1969), with composer Quincy Jones in attendance.  Luckily, since it was after 9 pm, there was less sidewalk traffic, so I was able to cover the half-mile between the Chinese and the Egyptian in no time, and this screening proved to be a great alternative for the night.  First of all, I had never been in the Egyptian up until now, so this was going to be something new for me, even if it was to see a movie that I had watched before.  The Egyptian Theater also has it’s own storied history; it’s older than the Chinese Theater, having opened in 1922, for one thing.  The theater also experienced a dramatic renovation as well, albeit removing much of the original ornate decorations in favor of a more sterile, modern look.
The highlight of the screening, however, was the pre-show interview with Mr. Quincy Jones.  Ben Mankiewicz had the honors of conducting the Q & A, and it was very apparent that he was speaking to someone that he very much admired.  Before the interview began, Ben introduced a special career retrospective video that played on the big screen, which beautifully laid out all the contributions that Quincy has made to both the film and music industry.  Quincy Jones was brought up on stage next and the interview went into the man’s own experiences working in all facets of the entertainment industry, as well as working on a film score like the one he did for The Italian Job.  Let me tell you, this man has some great stories; the interview could have gone on for hours and the whole audience would’ve still been captivated.  The interview was so good, that the movie itself would’ve been a letdown if it wasn’t also a good movie.  Ben Mankiewicz was also very drawn in, and he even said he wanted to go overtime a bit because he was loving Quincy’s stories so much, especially the one’s about his friendship with Frank Sinatra.  Once the interview portion was over, Quincy Jones walked off stage and actually stayed to watch the movie, which some of the special guests rarely do, especially this late at night.  I was excited because he took his seat only two rows ahead of where I sat, and let me tell you, he was enjoying the movie experience just as well as the rest of us.  It’s special perks like that which makes this kind of film festival special and it helped to make up for missing out on seeing Mel Brooks at that Blazing Saddles showing.
Overall, these were my experiences at the TCM Classic Film Festival this year, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  For one thing, you’re watching all these classic movies in the very heart of Hollywood culture itself; at places where many of these movies had their world premieres many years ago.  Secondly, you get the chance to take in a lot of film history, either by seeing a movie in one of the legendary theaters, or by attending a screening with one of the special guests in attendance.  Even with all that I was able to see at the festival this year, there were still many other events that I wasn’t able to get into; and ones I couldn’t get in at all because they were exclusive to premium pass holders.  Some of the other events taking place at this year’s festival were a special presentation at the Chinese Theater commemorating a new postage stamp in honor of actor Charlton Heston, with his son Fraser in attendance.  There was also a special tribute held for recently deceased actor Mickey Rooney, as well as special one on one interviews held at a special area called Club TCM, located in the legendary Roosevelt Hotel, across the street from the Chinese Theater.  Other venues like the Montalban Theater and the El Capitan also have featured screenings as part of the festival, which helps to give this event a very wide spread variety of things to do.
This was my third year of attending the festival and the first time I’ve ever fit in more than one screening.  Like I mentioned before, the first time I came to this was for the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea showing with Kirk Douglas in attendance (he was 95 years old at the time).  The second year I caught a screening of Mel Brook’s The Twelve Chairs (1970), which Mr. Brooks was also present; which made my sell-out the other night not as painful as it could have been.  This year was another excellent year for the festival and I hope that it continues to stay popular for years to come.  It’s especially worthwhile for anyone who’s a fan of classic movies and would wish to see many of the people involved in the making of these films before they are long gone.  Hopefully in the future I will be able to afford one of the premium passes available, so that I can get better access to all the different events and see more of the movies.  The festival is still going on now through Saturday and Sunday, and it will return the following April with a whole new line-up of films and honored guests.  If you live in the LA area, and like classic movies, I strongly suggest you make your way to Hollywood now and enjoy this special gift to classic movie fan-dom.

The Gospel According to Mel – “The Passion” Ten Years Later and Bringing Scripture to the Big Screen


Often we see a renowned filmmaker and/or a movie star step off the pedestal that the entertainment business has set them upon in order to make something that not only is risky, but could also jeopardize all the goodwill that they have earned in their career.  I put together a top ten list of these kinds of “passion projects” before, but one that certainly has left an impact over the last decade, on both the industry and on it’s creator, is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004).  This year marks the 10th anniversary of this controversial film, which may be a milestone of celebration to some and a dark chapter for others who wish to forget.  No matter what your opinion is on the movie, you cannot deny that it is one of the most monumental films of the new century, and it’s legacy will probably be felt for a long time to come.  But, for the most part, that legacy centers more around the controversy surrounding it and less about how it stands as cinematic art.  No doubt Mel Gibson himself has been unable to shake away from the legacy of this film, and all the divisiveness surrounding it; and for better or worse, it will be the movie that defines his career in Hollywood.  Looking at the ten years since The Passion’s debut, we have learned a lot about how difficult it is to take holy texts and bring them to the big screen.  Did Mel Gibson’s film prove that biblical stories can indeed work in movie form, or did it show that it’s better to keep religion out of entertainment?
In order to understand why Mel Gibson would risk his reputation over a single movie, you have to understand the conditions that led up to it’s production.  Long before The Passion, Mel tried to segway his acting career into directing, starting off with 1993’s The Man Without a Face.  This was a modest production that earned Mr. Gibson some good praise, but considering that Mel was mentored in his early career by visionary and ambitious Australian directors like George Miller (The Road Warrior) and Peter Weir (Gallipoli), he had something much more epic in mind.  Naturally, his follow-up was the groundbreaking Braveheart (1995), which earned Gibson Oscars for both Best Picture and Best Director.  After Braveheart, Mel returned to acting regularly, until the early 2000’s, when he decided to bring a story near and dear to his heart to the big screen; the story of Christ’s crucifixion.  Raised in a ultra-traditionalist Catholic household, it was no surprise that Mel would look to scripture for inspiration, and while nobody doubted that he could pull it off cinematically, concerns about whether or not he should soon arose.  It wasn’t until the script was made public that the controversy around the film started, given that people interpreted it as anti-Semitic.  Mel’s project was dropped from all interested parties as a result and he ended up funding the project with his own money.  The movie eventually made it to theaters, and despite all the controversy, or perhaps because of it, The Passion of the Christ became a box office phenomenon, earning $83 million on opening weekend and $370 million overall.
Despite what Mel intended for the film, it’s aftermath took on a life of it’s own.  It became a focal point in what many people call the “culture war” in America, which in turn took the whole controversy surrounding the film and politicized it.  The “culture war” is basically a term created by news media to frame political arguments related to pop culture, and show a cultural divide between the left and the right in America whether there is one or not.  Given that The Passion was released in 2004, which was also an election year, the movie became sort of a rallying point for both political camps, with Christian conservatives seeing the movie as a powerful affirmation of their beliefs, while liberals were almost universally opposed to the movie, calling it religious propaganda.  There were people who did break ranks from ideology and judged the film on it’s own merits; Christianity Today, a faith-based publication, was sharply critical of the movie when it premiered, while left-wing film critics Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper both gave the movie two thumbs up, and stood by their reviews many years later.  Nevertheless, reactions to The Passion divided America, probably more so than it should have.  It became a political tool, which I believe is something that Mel never wanted it to be.  Though Mr. Gibson leans to the right politically, he’s never been exactly been a dyed-in-the-wool Republican icon; and for the most part, he’s been sharply critical of all political parties his whole career.  The movie becoming a lightning rod for this so-called “culture war” is probably the legacy that Mr. Gibson wishes the film had avoided.
But, regardless of intent, Mel Gibson had to have known that the movie was going to upset people no matter what.  This is the risk that comes with adapting scripture to film.  There always are skeptics out there who will dismiss biblical stories as nonsense, as well as others who take every word as, well gospel.  Naturally, if you make an earnest attempt at bringing the film to the big screen, it will be scrutinized, especially if it strays from expectations.  You see this in other modern attempts at adapting stories from the Bible.  Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was sharply criticized by people of faith for it’s depiction of a “what if” scenario where Jesus chose life instead of sacrifice.  In the movie, Christ still dies for man-kind’s sins like he does in the Bible, but Scorsese let’s the film explore the idea of how Jesus might of struggled with that choice.  Opening up that dialog proved to be to much for traditionalist Christians, who condemned the movie as blasphemous.  A similar controversy is brewing right now over Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014), with Christians once again attacking a film over it’s revisions.  But despite all of the controversies, I believe that each of these films have more in common than people think.  Again, I believe that it’s all the nonsense about a “culture war” that has shaped the divided responses to these movies.  Overall, they each represent an expression of faith on the part of their respective filmmakers, and each shows how the cinematic medium can find stories that are interesting and complex in a source as widely familiar as the Bible.
You may be wondering what I actually think of Mel Gibson’s The Passion, especially looking back on it now over ten years.  To put it simply, it’s an easy film for me to respect than to admire.  I do think that it is a triumph of film-making; showing Mel Gibson’s unparalleled talent as a director.  I am amazed that the movie was self funded and completed on just a $30 million dollar budget.  It was released around the same time as big-budget epics like 2004’s Troy and Alexander, and yet feels more authentic to it’s time period than those two ever did, even with their $200 million plus budgets.  The film is also gorgeously crafted, and shot by one of the world’s greatest cinematographers, Caleb Deschanel.  Actor Jim Cavizel shines in the role of Jesus, bringing new meaning to the phrase “suffering for his art.”  Where the film is at fault though is in it’s story.  I know it’s odd for me to critique the “greaest story ever told,” but my problem has more to do with Mel’s interpretation.  Like Mr. Gibson, I was raised Catholic (albeit in a less traditionalist church), so I know all the important points of the story by heart.  Where the movie loses me is in how it’s all focused.  Mel just lets the events of Christ’s crucifixion play out without grounding it in a narrative.  Pretty much the story just goes through the paces, indulging more in the grim details than explaining exactly why they are happening.  This leads to a lack of character development that sadly makes most of the supporting players feel less interesting.  The only standouts in terms of character are Cavizel’s Jesus, actress Maia Morgenstern’s outstanding portrayal of the virgin mother Mary, and a chilling interpretation of Satan by Italian actress Rosalinda Celentano, who taunts Christ by taking the form of a mother figure.
I do remember seeing the movie with family back when it first premiered, as well as the hours long conversation we had about it afterwards.  While we were moved by the movie, I don’t think it had any kind of effect on our religious beliefs.  To be honest, I’ve moved further away from the Catholic church in the years since, but not as a result of this movie.  I still respect the risk Mel took to make it, and I’m glad the movie exists.  As far as the anti-Semitic undertones that people claim the movie promotes, I have a hard time seeing them.  Sure, there are people who see the depictions of the Hebrew high priests in the movie as problematic, but to me the priests depicted in the film are so far removed from modern day Jews that I don’t even see the two as even remotely comparable.  Not only that, but the movie does go out of it’s way to portray the Roman guards as the true villains in Christ’s story.  If there is any criticism that’s leveled against the film that has any merit, it’s in the way the Gibson indulges in the suffering of Jesus in his final hours.  The movie shows you every cut, gouge, and impaling that is inflicted onto Jesus during his execution, and it literally is the focus of the entire movie.  It could be argued that Mel is obsessed with portraying suffering and torture on film in gruesome detail, much like he did with the ending of Braveheart, and that this misses the point of Christ’s teachings in the first place.  While I don’t think Mel intentionally misinterpreted Biblical passages in order to indulge his own cinematic passions, the film nevertheless is defined more by it’s gruesome elements than by it’s uplifting message.
In the ten years since, people have been trying to interpret exactly what was meant by Mel Gibson’s film, and what it means for the future of scriptural film-making.  Unfortunately, Mel’s personal life problems have clouded the reputation of the film, and Mel’s drunken rants have given weight to the claims of antisemitism.  Because of the sharply divided responses from people due to the ongoing “culture war,” faith-based films have once again been marginalized into a niche market; choosing to preach to the faithful rather than have their movies appeal to all audiences.  The recent success of the Christian film God is Not Dead (2014) is something that I see as being a negative result of the “culture war” division, because it portrays a “straw-man” argument that all Christians are morally right and that atheists are using education to corrupt people.  The same argument can be made on the other side, when Hollywood adapted The Golden Compass (2007) to the big screen, which itself was a atheistic fantasy story that portrayed religion as an evil force.  Religious films are best when they don’t insult the intelligence of the viewer and actually challenges their beliefs, no matter what their faith is.  Back in the Golden Age of cinema, Hollywood found a way to make movies that faithfully adapted scripture, while still maintaining a sense of entertainment.  Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) has stood the test of time because people of all faiths enjoy the spectacle that DeMille put into his production, while William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959) is still beloved because of it’s universal story of adversity against hatred.  Like these films have shown, Biblical stories can work in cinema if one knows how to reach their audience correctly.
So, while Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ may have taken on a life of it’s own beyond what the filmmaker intended, it nevertheless is still one of the most monumental films in recent memory.  You bring this movie up in conversation and even 10 years later this movie will still stir up passionate feelings in people.  While Mel has his own moral issues to deal with, I don’t believe that he created this movie out of a need to condemn, but rather to explore his own feelings about his faith.  I think he felt like there was a lack of worthwhile religious themed films out there and he sought to fill that gap in some way.  I think the movie stands up over time, especially compared to the lackluster, church-funded movies that have come in it’s wake.  It’s not the best faith-based movie I’ve seen, and certainly not one of Mel Gibson’s best either; I still look at Braveheart as his masterpiece, and his Passion follow-up Apocalypto (2006) is an underrated gem.  Even still, the best legacy this film could have made is that it sparked a renewed interest in making unique and personal Biblical films once again, which cinema has been severely lacking in.  It took a while, but Aronofsky’s Noah seems to be that film the first film since The Passion to actually make good on that promise, though of course time will tell if it lasts.  As for The Passion of the Christ, as flawed as it may be, it nevertheless changed the way Biblical movies are seen in our modern culture and showed that taking a big risk has it’s rewards in Hollywood; a legacy that I think serves the movie well over time.

Noah – Review


Biblical epics have been a difficult thing to make lately in Hollywood for a variety of reasons.  One, they are incredibly expensive productions and two, anything related to scripture on the big screen is going to rile people up no matter what.  Once the go to source for big Hollywood spectacles, the Bible has since been ignored by the industry, presumably because they want to reach a wider and more diverse audience that includes people of all faiths.  But, at the same time, those classic biblical epics of the Hollywood’s Golden Age are looked at favorably as an example of grand scale film-making, which seems to be absent nowadays.  Epics still exist, but they’ve been secularized and stripped down of their glossy Hollywood sheen.  Movies like Gladiator (2000) and Braveheart (1995) defined the modern epic with grit and realism, while The Lord of the Rings trilogy brought back some of that old-school wonderment, but took it into the world of fantasy.  It wasn’t until Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) that we saw a return to an earnest, deeply religious adaptation of biblical passages, in particular, the crucifixion of Jesus.  But, even with The Passion‘s unprecedented success, Hollywood still was reluctant to step on any toes, which Mr. Gibson’s film almost certainly did.  Christian groups have attempted to make faith-based films outside of the system, but it isn’t until now that we’ve seen an actual earnest attempt at a grand-scale biblical epic, albeit with a modern twist to it, like we do with Noah (2014).
Created by director Darren Aronofsky, Noah takes on the old testament story of the man who saved all the creatures of the world as God’s wrath wipes the slate clean on Earth after mankind had spoiled his creation.  I won’t go into too much detail of the plot, since I’m sure most of you have read the book already.  We’ve seen the story of Noah adapted many times, but never with this kind of emphasis and scale.  The last cinematic attempt that I can recall of the story of Noah’s Ark is from a segment of director John Huston’s failed epic production of The Bible (1966), where Mr. Huston himself took on the role of Noah.  And that was only a 30-minute segment in a larger film.  Here, the tale is embellished in order to bring it to epic length, in ways that may test the audience’s acceptability rate in different ways.  Truth be told, it is unusual for a director of Aronofsky’s caliber to take on a story that so deeply rooted in religious faith.  Even more amazing, is that Aronofsky actually pulls off the tricky balancing act of showing respect to the source material, while at the same time making a movie that feels right in line with the rest of his filmography.  There’s no mistaking this as a movie from the same guy who crafted a psychological thriller centered around ballet.  Noah does exactly what it needs to do, which is be a solid expression of a filmmaker’s trademark style as well as be an earnest adaptation of a biblical parable that stays true to the spirit of it’s message.  And while it is flawed in many ways, it is certainly something that shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed either.
So, is this a movie that is going to please people of all faiths or is it going to drive an even bigger wedge between believers and non-believers?  Well, it’s primarily going to come down to how well you respond to Aronofsky’s style in this movie.  In particular, there is going to be some controversy surrounding some of the additions that the director has worked into the story-line.  But, at the same time, you can’t blame Aronofsky for adding new things into the plot, because the original biblical passage is very brief and can’t support a two hour run-time on it’s own.  However, the additions here exist more in the realm of Aronofsky’s imagination and less in the realm of reality or biblical interpretation.  We get the basic central figures of Noah (Russell Crowe), his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and their sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), along with an adopted daughter named Ila (Emma Watson), as well as the iconic ark and the many creatures within.  What the film adds to the story is an encounter with Noah’s mystical grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), a showdown with a vengeful tribal king named Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), as well as the inclusion of fallen angels known as the Watchers.  And it’s the point where the Watchers enter the movie that will really break down how well people respond to the movie.  The Watcher’s are CGI-animated rock monsters that feel like they’ve stumbled into this world out of some other fantasy realm like Middle Earth.  They are a really bizarre addition to this movie, and one that I’m sure will turn off a lot of people; but for me, I found it kind of awesome.
And that’s generally how I responded to the movie as a whole.  When the Aronofsky style was on full display in this movie, I was actually genuinely entertained.  And when the movie started to play it safe and stick more closely to a traditional narrative, it started to drag.  The Watchers, while still a very out-there idea on the director’s part, actually does make the movie more interesting, and gives it a more unique feel.  Oddly enough, after doing some reading online, the Watchers actually are present in biblical text (primarily the Dead Sea Scrolls translation), so I credit Aronofsky for actually taking a minor concept from elsewhere and running with it.  What I like best about this movie is the fact that it feels unlike any other Biblical film to date; it is entirely it’s own thing.  The movie is definitely a showcase for the cinematic styling of it’s maker, but at the same time, Aronofsky does remain respectful to the source.  He doesn’t try to secularize the story by any means, and there is definitely a religiosity to it’s whole message.  Although it may be based in Judeo-Christian theology, the film does manage to have something of a universal relevance to people of all cultures, primarily when it comes to respecting the environment and recognizing the corruption in mankind.  And I do credit Aronofsky for not shying away from some of the religious themes present, and for not trying to force them upon the audience either.
Hollywood’s reluctance to address issues of faith in a meaningful way in movies is a problem that I wish they would confront more often.  For the most part, I believe that the studios and not the filmmakers are the ones that have put a stop to religious discussions, mainly because they don’t want to court the controversy.  But, I think it actually helps to diffuse religious tensions in the world by having movies that aren’t afraid to address issues centered around God and faith, as well as having sympathetic characters who are religious.  And I don’t mean movies that are completely funded by Church organizations, which usually tend to forget the necessities of storytelling and just turn into propaganda in the end.  I think one of the best examples of a modern religious themed movie done right is the Ang Lee movie Life of Pi (2012), where the main character’s personality was driven by a curiosity about religion.  Movies like Life of Pi and Noah both show that you can center religion around a movie’s story-line in a positive way and still be regarded as a universally respectable film.  It does make sense in the end that Aronofsky would find a biblical story appealing to his tastes as a filmmaker.  One of his first movies, called simply Pi (1998), was all about Jewish mysticism and Rabbinical philosophy, which shows that the director has always had a fascination  with deeper religious themes.  That was also expressed in his deeply flawed take on New Age philosophy with The Fountain (2006).  Noah is a bit more traditionally Hollywood than Aronofsky’s earlier work, but it does show a good progression of the filmmaker’s line of thinking.
Unfortunately, the movie does have it’s pitfalls as well, and it primarily has to do with the moments when the movie plays it safe.  The inclusion of a tradition antagonist into the story with Tubal-cain makes the film feel less original at times.  A final show down with him and Noah towards the end of the movie has no purpose being there other than to give the movie a climax; as if the flood itself wasn’t enough.  Ray Winstone does what he can with the character, but Tubal-cain is still a stock villain that leaves little impression and is quickly forgotten once he’s been subdued.  And his presence runs contradictory to what could have been the better idea of having Noah himself be the antagonist.  Late in the movie, Noah is confident that he has fulfilled God’s plan to have all the creatures of the earth saved while humanity is wiped out, given that his family will never produce any offspring.  This notion is challenged once his adopted daughter Ila becomes pregnant.  Noah, wishing to fulfill his dedication to God resolves to kill the child once it’s born in order to secure the destruction of humanity, which makes him a threat to his own family.  This could have been a very interesting angle to take in the film, and it also has the added subtext of exploring religious zealotry in the movie.  But, again, Aronofsky looses some of that tension by playing it safe and giving the movie a traditional baddie, so that we can keep Noah from looking too much like a bad guy.  That’s why the film looses steam in it’s third act and ultimately leads to a rather unsatisfactory resolution.
The third act issues are problematic, especially considering how well everything else works up to that point.  The movie is beautifully constructed from beginning to end, and presents a biblical story in a way that you’ve never seen done before.  The movie definitely is a far cry from the glossy Biblical epics of Hollywood’s Golden Age.  The style here is more Old Testament meets The Road (2009).  The aforementioned Watchers also lend to the very off-kilter style of the film, but they are still a welcome addition, at least in my eyes.  Their final stand to protect the Ark from Tubal-cain’s army is a particularly exciting, and really insane action sequence; as is the flood, which is grand-scale spectacle at it’s best.  And while some of Aronofsky’s additions have little to no basis in scripture, no one can doubt that the Ark itself is probably the most accurate put on screen to date.  Very different from the traditional boat shape that we’ve all been familiar with, this Ark feels much truer to the description that is found in the Bible, accurate dimensions and all.  Also, the way they house the animals inside and keep them civil is also cleverly explained in the movie.  The Ark also looks iconic, and will certainly be one of the best images take away from the movie.  The scene where the animals migrate to the Ark will particularly leave audiences with a sense of wonder when they watch the movie.  Overall, the movie achieves the epic grandeur that it hopes to accomplish.
The performances are also strong as well, which is typical of Darren Aronofsky’s movies.  If there is one thing that Aronofsky’s films have in common it’s that he always gets awards quality performances out of his actors, like Natalie Portman in Black Swan (2010) and Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (2008), and the cast of Noah is just the same.  Russell Crowe gives probably his most dynamic performance since his Oscar-winning turn in Gladiator.  His Noah could have gone wrong in many ways if not handled carefully, and Crowe manages to balance the tender moments of the character well alongside the more intense moments.  Jennifer Connelly, once again cast alongside Russell Crowe as his wife like she was in A Beautiful Mind (2001), gives a nice subdued performance that compliments Crowe’s Noah perfectly.  Emma Watson continues to show much more maturity as an actor in her post-Harry Potter career, and she probably gives the movie it’s most nuanced performance in the character of Ila.  Also of note is Anthony Hopkin’s presence as Methusaleh, who has a nice little character quirk about wanting to eat berries that helps to give the movie some much needed levity.  Overall, the cast is used to great effect, and they ground the movie in a way that helps to make the messages resonate well beyond their scriptural source.
In the end, I would recommend the movie for anyone that wants to see a spiritual story told with a lot of substance.  It’s heart is in the right place, and it smartly avoid being preachy in every way.  Overall, I commend Darren Aronofsky for taking up a Biblical retelling at a time when people are more reluctant to do so.  Whether you are religious or not, you can’t doubt that there are interesting stories worth telling from the Bible, and Aronofsky has shown us that it can still be done.  He’s faithful, while at the same time taking interesting risks.  In fact, the movie only falls apart when it starts to play it safe; not necessarily when it comes to the scriptural source, but when it comes to old Hollywood cliches.  Noah can be very oddball at times, but I think that audiences will find the messages lying underneath worthwhile.  The movie works on many levels; it’s grand when it needs to be epic, it’s bizarre when it needs to feel unique, and when it does present it’s biblical lessons, it is thought provoking.  I doubt this movie will make anyone want to convert to any religion, but hopefully it will make some people want to take it’s lessons to heart.  I certainly am pleased that I saw it in the end.  In the great tradition of artists who have used the Bible for inspiration, like Michaelangelo and his Sistene Chapel frescos, Darren Aronofsky has created something unique and worthwhile that stands well against his own body of work as well as in the company of great biblical epics from the past.
Rating: 8/10

Box Office Duels – Hollywood’s Reliance on Copycat Movies


If you watch a lot of movies like I do, you’ll know that original concepts and ideas in blockbuster movies are few and far between.  And it’s easy to see why; Hollywood prefers to play things safe and cater to the same crowds over and over again.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  After all, given how much money these studios pour into their big tent-pole productions, you’ll understand why they would prefer to not step out of line in order to get most of their investment back.  But, at the same time, when you try too many times to repeat the same kind of business over and over again, the end products will lack any definition of their own, and will look more transparently like a cash in.  Sticking close to formula can only last as long as the end product stays fresh.  Sometimes, filmmakers even run the risk of unfortunate timing, as their movie ideas are already being copied by another company before they are even able to get production up and running.  These are known as copycat films, and sometimes their reputations as a movie only becomes defined by how they perform against their like-minded counterpart.  While it is amusing to see how unoriginal some movies can sometimes be, it’s still apparent  that the trend of mimicking other people’s movies is and will always be a part of Hollywood’s legacy.
So how do we necessarily know when a movie should be labeled a “copycat.”  It basically comes down to when we recognize a movie exists only because of the presence of a near identical film.  The movie doesn’t need to be exactly the same, but it should have all the same basic elements there.  This could mean that it has the same plot structure with nearly identical characters; it could have the same visual style; or it could be depicting the same kinds of events, only from a different angle.  What is most interesting, however, is that sometimes these identical movies are released within months, or even days, of each other by competing studios.  This is what is commonly known in the industry as dueling; where the studios purposefully put their competing movies in theaters at the same time in order to see who will get the bigger numbers, purely for bragging rights.  This is also a contentious spot between filmmakers and the studio heads, because usually the people who make the movies don’t see their work as a competition.  The other area where you see a lot of copycat film-making is in the aftermath of a standout movie’s huge box office success, and all the wannabe movies that come out in it’s wake.  These are the “knock-off” movies, and like most knock-offs, they tend to be of lower quality.  But, sometimes it’s the juxtaposition that we see in each of these movies with their counterparts that actually make them interesting to us.
Dueling movies are interesting because of how we judge them based off their likeness to another film.  It pretty much comes down to the “who did it better argument,” given how they are usually around the same level of quality.  The more cliched the genre is, the more likely you’ll find a pair of dueling films in it.  Action movies usually is the resting ground for most of these kinds of flicks and  many times you’ll have action movies that are so alike, that they are usually confused for one another, and as a result, end up losing their individuality.  Case in point, last year’s dueling set of movies set around attacks on the White House; the Antoine Fuqua-directed Olympus Has Fallen and director Roland Emmerich’s White House Down.  Both movies follow the exact same premise, and were coincidentally released only months apart.  Was it’s the studio system’s way of testing out the “White House Attack” sub-genre on two fronts, or were the studios just trying to jump on a trend before their competitors could get there?  My guess is that, like most dueling movies, one film got the greenlight shortly after the other one did, only because one studio had the script already archived and saw the opportunity to put it into production after seeing the other studio take the bite.  Essentially both were “Die Hard at the White House” story-lines and were safe bets for both studios as genre pictures.  And it’s not the only time Hollywood has seen this happen.  Back in the 90’s, we saw the battle of the volcano movies with Dante’s Peak (1997) and Volcano (1997) released together, as well as the summer of  “destruction from above” movies like Deep Impact (1998) and Armageddon (1998).
While most of these “dueling” movies tend to come from loud and dumb action genres, it doesn’t mean that all copycat movies are necessarily sub-par.  There are actually instances where two dueling movies are both high quality films.  Case in point, the fall of 2006, when audiences were treated to two psychological period dramas centered around magicians; Neil Burger’s The Illusionist and Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige.  It’s unusual to see this kind of subject matter spawn two very similar yet very distinct films at the same time, but both movies have managed to stand out even after crossing paths at the box office.  I happen to like both films, and it’s unfortunate that their histories are always going to be tied together because of their close release window, but it does represent the fact that two movies can duel it out at the same time, and still both be considered  winners in the end.  Animation is another field of film-making where you’ll see studios purposefully trying to undermine the others’ fresh ideas, but still with genuinely good products.  In 1998, we saw the release of not one, but two computer animated movies centered around bug-based societies; Dreamworks’ Antz and Pixar’s A Bug’s Life.  Both films are admirable productions, and are pretty much equal in entertainment value, but Dreamworks wanted to be the first out of the gate.  So, they sped up production in order to beat Pixar to the finish line; a decision that may have undermined the film’s potential for success in the end.  Pixar’s early success may have been attributed to the fact that Dreamworks was trying too hard to compete in the early days, which also became a problem when the dismal Shark Tale (2004) followed up Pixar’s Oscar-winning Finding Nemo (2003).
Apart from the dueling movies that we see from time to time, the much more common type of copycat film is the one that follow trends in the market.  These are the “knock-off” movies that I mentioned earlier and their sole existence has been to capitalize off the enormous success of another big movie that has come before it.  Of course, after the monumental success of Titanic (1997), we got Michael Bay’s insultingly cliched Pearl Harbor (2001); and the Oscar glory heaped onto Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) led to the expensive busts that were Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy and Oliver Stone’s Alexander (both 2004).  More often than not, this is where you’ll find most of the copycat movies that have failed.  Perhaps the trend that has led to the most failed knock-offs in cinema is the fantasy genre.  A decade ago, we saw the enormous success of both The Lord of the Rings  and the Harry Potter franchises begin, which led many other studios to believe that they could pick up any random fantasy source material out there and have a surefire hit on their hands.  Unfortunately, not every one of these book series has the same kind of fan-base that Tolkein and Rowling has earned over the years.  Over the last decade we’ve seen many one and done franchises fizzle at the box office, like 2007’s The Golden Compass, 2007’s The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, and 2008’s The Spiderwick Chronicles.  The Narnia and Percy Jackson series managed to survive to make more than one film, but even they failed to live up to their lofting ambitions.
There is however a trend that does seem to be working well in Hollywood right now, and has continued to be profitable despite the fact that most of these movies are just copying each other’s formulas, and that’s the young adult novel adaptations.  More specifically,  the movies that have followed in the wake of author Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series and author Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series.  These two franchise have become huge cash cows for their respective studios, and are currently defining the trend that we see today.  While Twilight is far from perfect as a movie, there’s no doubt that it has left an impact on Hollywood in recent years, and you can blame the current trend off “sexy monster movies” directly on it.  Honestly, would a zombie love story (2013’s Warm Bodies) ever have existed had Twilight‘s vampire-werewolf love triangle not hit it’s mark with teenage audiences first?  Even bigger is the Hunger Games impact.  Now, post-apocalyptic stories centered around adolescents are in vogue in Hollywood, with adaptations of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (2013) and Veronica Roth’s Divergent (2014) getting the big screen treatment.  While these movies may not rise to the same levels as their predecessors, they are nevertheless finding their audiences, and it’s proving to Hollywood that this is still fertile ground to explore.  We are likely to see many more Twilight and Hunger Games knock-offs in the years to come, given that YA adaptations are the hot trend of the moment, but that’s only because the audiences are less concerned about the quality of the adaptations themselves as they are about how well these movies deliver on the entertainment side of things.
Over the last decade, there has actually been an entire industry of film-making devoted to not only copying movies, but also just blatantly ripping them off.  This has become known as the Mockbuster industry.  More often or not they are cheap, direct-to video copycats of current blockbusters that are sometimes released on the same premiere dates.  Usually, its the hope of these Mockbuster producers that uninformed consumers will be tricked when they see their “knock-off” on a shelf in the video store and think that it’s the same thing as the bigger movie that’s currently playing in a nearby theater.  Mockbusters of course are no where near the same level of quality of a big budget film, and are usually defined by shoddy production values, D-list acting, and laughably bad special effects.  One of the companies that has made it’s name providing these kinds of films to the market is called Asylum, and their library consists of many notable “knock-offs” like The DaVinci Treasure, Snakes on a Train, Atlantic Rim, Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies, American Warships, and of course Transmorphers.  Now while many can criticize Asylum for ripping off other movies for a quick cash grab, they’ve actually been pretty upfront about their intentions and make no qualms about what they do.  They are even finding an audience who do enjoy their laughable, low quality productions as a goof.  In fact, Asylum actually hit it big last year with the surprise hit Sharknado when it premiered to a lot of fanfare on the SyFy channel.  Which just goes to show that even Mockbuster film-making can find it’s place in the world.
But is the trend of copycat film-making just another sign that Hollywood is out of ideas.  It all depends on whether or not the movies still work as entertainment in the end.  It is kind of fun to contrast two like-minded movies, especially when they are almost indiscernible from each other.  I think you can create a very applicable drinking game out of spotting all the cliches that a pair of dueling movies have in common; especially with films like Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, which I swear are nearly identical in everything but tone.  And a Mockbuster can be entertaining for a laugh if you’re in the right state of mind.  The only time when copycat film-making becomes problematic is when there’s no passion behind it.  It merely exists to piggy-back off the success of a much better film.  That’s something that you see in a lot of the failed franchises of the last decade.  In the end, it’s okay to show off a little familiarity in your movie, just as long as you make the most of it.  Even Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings had their inspirations before them, and let’s not forget how many adventures have followed the “hero’s journey” template to the letter on the big screen over the years.  Audiences are smart enough to see when a movie’s story-line feels too familiar to them, and that’s usually what separates the copycat movies that stay with us from the ones that don’t.

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