Inspired by a True Story – The Process of Showcasing History in Hollywood


This week, two very different biopics open in theaters, both ambitious but at the same time controversial.  What we have are Ashton Kutcher’s Jobs and Lee Daniel’s:The Butler (you can thank uptight Warner Bros. for the title of the latter film.)  Both are attempting to tell the stories of extraordinary men in extraordinary eras, while at the same time delving into what made these people who they are.  But what I find interesting is the different kinds of receptions that these two movies are receiving.  Lee Daniel’s The Butler is being praised by both audiences and critics (it’s receiving a 73% rating on at the time of writing this article) while Kutcher’s Jobs is almost universally panned.  One would argue that it has to do with who’s making the movies and who is been cast in the roles, but it also stems from larger lessons that we’ve learned about the difficult task of adapting true-life histories onto film.  The historical drama has been a staple of film-making from the very beginning of cinema.  Today, a historical film is almost always held to a higher standard by the movie-going public, and so it must play by different rules than other kinds of movies.  Often it comes down to how accurately a film adheres to historical events, but that’s not always an indicator of a drama’s success.  Sometimes, it may work to a film’s advantage to take some liberties with history.
The Butler and Jobs make up what is the most common form of historical drama; the biopic.  In this case the subjects are White House butler Cecil Gaines, portrayed by Oscar-winner Forrest Whittaker, and visionary Apple Computers co-founder Steve Jobs.  Both are men who hold extraordinary places in history, but in very different ways.  Despite the differences in the subjects, it is the history that surrounds them that plays the biggest part of the story-telling.  Filmmakers love biopics because it allows them to teach a history lesson while at the same time creating a character study of their subject.  Usually the best biopics center around great historical figures, but not always.  One of the most beloved biopics of all time is Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), which tells the story of a washed-up heavyweight boxer who was all but forgotten by the public. Scorsese was attracted to this little known story of boxer Jake LaMotta, and in it he saw a worthwhile cautionary tale that he could bring to the big screen.  The common man can be the subject of an epic adventure if his life’s story is compelling enough.  But there are challenges in making a biopic work within a film narrative.
Case in point, how much of the person’s life story do you tell.  This can be the most problematic aspect of adapting a true story to the big screen.  Some filmmakers, when given the task of creating a biopic of a historical figure, will try to present someone’s entire life in a film; from cradle to grave. This sometimes works, like Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emporer (1987), which flashbacks to it’s protagonist’s childhood years frequently throughout the narrative.  Other times, it works best just to focus on one moment in a person’s life and use that as the focus of understanding who they were.  My all-time favorite film, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) accomplishes that feat perfectly by depicting the years of Major T.E. Lawrence’s life when he helped lead the Arab revolts against the Turks in World War I.  The entire 3 1/2 hours of the film never deviates from this period in time, except for a funeral prologue at the beginning, and that is because the film is not about how Lawrence became who he was, but rather about what he accomplished during these formidable years in his life.  How a film focuses on it’s subject is based around what the filmmakers wants the audience to learn.  Sometimes this can be a problem if the filmmaker doesn’t know what to focus on.  One example of this is Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin (1992), which makes the mistake of trying to cram too much of it’s subject’s life into one film.  The movie feels too rushed and unfocused and that hurts any chance the movie has with understanding the personality of Charlie Chaplin, despite actor Robert Downey Jr.’s best efforts.  It’s something that must be considered all the time before any biopic is put into production.
Sometimes there are great historical dramas that depict an event without ever centering on any specific person.  These are often called historical mosaics.  Often times, this is where fiction and non-fiction can mingle together effectively without drawing the ire of historical nitpicking.  It’s where you’ll find history used as a backdrop to an original story-line, with fictional characters participating in a real life event; sometimes even encountering a historical figure in the process.  Mostly, these films will depict a singular event using a fictional person as a sort of eyewitness that the audience can identify with.  You see this in films like Ben-Hur (1959), where the fictional Jewish prince lives and bears witness to the life and times of Jesus Christ.  More recently, a film like Titanic (1997) brought the disaster to believable life by having a tragic love story centered around it.  Having the characters in these movies be right in the thick of historical events is the best way to convey the event’s significance to an audience, because it adds the human connection into the moment.  Titanic and Ben-Hur focus on singular events, but this principle can also be true about a film like Forrest Gump (1994) as well, which moves from one historical touchstone to another.  Forrest Gump’s premise may be far-fetched and the history a little romanticized, but it does succeed in teaching us about the era, because it does come from that first-hand experience.  It’s that perspective that separates a historical drama from a documentary, because it helps to ground the imagination behind the fictional elements into our own lives and experiences.
Though most filmmakers strive to be as historically accurate as they can be, almost all of them have to make compromises to make a film work for the big screen.  Often, a story needs to trim much of the historical elements and even, in some cases, take the extraordinary step of rewriting history. You see this a lot when characters are created specifically for a film as a means of tying the narrative together; either by creating an amalgam of many different people into one person, or by just inventing a fictional person out of nowhere.  This was the case in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can (2002), which followed the extraordinary life of Frank Abagnale Jr. (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a notorious con-artist.  In the film, Abagnale takes on many different identities, but is always on the run from a persistent FBI agent named Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). Once finally caught, Abagnale is reformed with the help of Hanratty and the film’s epilogue includes the statement that, “Frank and Carl remain friends to this day.”  This epilogue had to be meant as a joke by the filmmakers, because even though Frank Abagnale is a real person, Carl Hanratty is not. He’s an entirely fictional character created as a foil for the main protagonist.  It’s not uncommon to see this in most films, since filmmakers need to take some liberties to move a story forward and fill in some gaps.  Other films do the risky job of depicting real history and completely changing much of it in service of the story.   Mel Gibson’s Braveheart takes so many historical liberties that it almost turns the story of Scottish icon William Wallace into a fairy-tale; but the end result is so entertaining, you can sometimes forgive the filmmakers for making the changes they did.
But while making a few changes is a good thing, there is a fine line where it can be a disservice to a film.  It all comes down to tone.  Braveheart gets away with more because it’s subject is so larger than life, that it makes sense to embellish the history a bit to make it more legend than fact.  Other films run the risk of either being too irreverent to be taken seriously or too bogged down in the details to be entertaining.  Ridley Scott crosses that line quite often with his historical epics, and while he comes out on the right side occasionally (Gladiator and Black Hawk Down) he also comes up with the opposite just as many times (Robin Hood, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Kingdom of Heaven theatrical cut).  Part of Scott’s uneven record is due to his trademark style, which services some films fine, but feel out of place with others.  Tone also is set with the casting of actors, and while some feel remarkably appropriate for their time periods (Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln for example) others will feel too modern or awkwardly out-of-place (Colin Farrell in Alexander).  Because historical films are expensive to make, compromises on style and casting are understandable for making a film work, but it can also do a disservice to the story and shed away any accountability in the history behind it.  While stylizing history can sometimes work (Zack Snyder’s 300), there are also cinematic styles that will feel totally wrong for a film.  Does the shaky camera work, over-saturated color timing and CGI enhancements of Pearl Harbor (2001) make you learn any more about the history of the event?  Doubtful.
So, with Lee Daniel’s The Butler and Jobs, we find two historical biopics that are being received in very different ways.  I believe The Butler has the advantage because we don’t know that much about the life that Mr. Cecil Gaines lived.  What the film offers is a look at history from a perspective that most audiences haven’t seen before, which helps to shed some new light on an already well covered time period.  With Jobs, it has the disadvantage of showing the life of a person that we already know everything about, and as a result adds nothing new to the table.  Both films are certainly Oscar-bait, as most historical films are, but The Butler at least took on more risks in its subject matter, which appears to have paid off in the end.  Jobs just comes off as another failed passion project.  What it shows is that successful historical dramas find ways to be both educational and entertaining; and on occasion, inspiring.  That’s what helps to make history feel alive for us, the audience.  It’s the closest thing we have to time machines that help be an eyewitness to our own history.  And when it’s a good story, it stays with us for the rest of our lives.

D23 Expo 2013 – Film Exhibition Report


d23 1
With a media giant like the Walt Disney Company continuing to expand their reach into many different areas of the entertainment industry, it’s no wonder that they would put on a grand exhibition to show it all off.  Started back in 2009, the D23 Expo is the ultimate showcase for Disney fans of all kinds.  Within its home at the Anaheim Convention Center, which is conveniently across the street from Disneyland, you will find a show floor full of pavilions devoted to every conceivable department of the Walt Disney company.  From the Animation departments, to the Theme Parks, to television stations like ABC and Disney Channel; all of it can be found at D23. The Expo is held bi-annually, and I myself have missed the previous two opportunities to attend. This year I was determined to make it.  Unfortunately, my work schedule relegated me to just one day, and lack of pre-planning kept me from experiencing the biggest presentations at the convention.  I did manage to get a pretty good overview of the pavilions on the show floor, many of which were impressive and well worth visiting.  Along with some pictures I took inside the convention, this is my report of the sights and sounds of the 2013 D23 Expo.
d23 2
D23, for those who are unfamiliar, is a fan club run by the Disney company.  Anyone who becomes a D23 member gets special insider perks and access to events related to Disney and all its subsidiary parts.  This Expo is the biggest such event, and while D23 members are given priority at the convention, the show is still open to anyone.  Once there, you are brought into the main show floor, which is quite expansive.  Even though the Expo covers an impressive amount of real estate on the main floor, it still only filled up a fraction of the Convention Center’s total space.  Front and center is the Coca-Cola sponsored stage, where various small music acts performed throughout the day.  Nearby was the Expo’s own Disney Store, which had a line that could rival anything at the park across the street.  Around the corner were special art pavilions highlighting the different media properties of the Disney company; such as Marvel and Star Wars.  Disney Animation’s pavilion highlighted the upcoming animated feature Frozen, which is coming to theaters around Thanksgiving weekend.  ABC’s pavilion highlighted its own fairy tale series, Once Upon a Time, with a mock up of Captain Hook’s ship.
d23 3
The largest pavilion, however, was devoted to the Imagineering department of the Walt Disney Company.  This impressive section was constructed to appear on the outside like the Imagineering building in Glendale, California, complete with a front door entrance that all guests had to enter through.  Past the front doors was a small foyer with a large projection screen.  What follows in this room was a small pre-show that was so well executed, it could’ve been at home in one of the parks on its own.  The show concluded with the opening of some automatic doors that lead into a show floor, highlighting all departments within Imagineering.  Each section of the pavilion covered areas such as Research, Development, Modeling, Engineering, Construction, and even Landscaping, all with actual samples of the Imagineers own work.  Many of the displays featured things I had known about, but have never seen in person, like the original concept drawing of Disneyland. There were also things on display like an early concept model of Spaceship Earth in Epcot, which featured a much different layout than the one that exists today; something I hadn’t seen before.  The pavilion also had a fun Animatronics section, where you could actually take the controls of an Audio-Animatronic parrot and animate it live.  There were only hints of things to come in the future at the parks.  One new thing that was revealed was the announcement that Marvel characters would soon be seen around the parks in meet and greets, which is a welcome addition.  Overall, this particular pavilion represented the absolute best presentation at the Expo.
d23 4
Though there was much shown on the show floor regarding the future of the Disney company, there was also welcome attention given to the company’s legacy in a showcase on the upper floors.  On the second level of the Convention Center, you would find the Treasures of the Disney Archives exhibit.  This section featureed actual pieces of movie memorabilia and artwork from the Disney Archives.  The years edition of the gallery was devoted to Disney’s many different takes on the tales from the land of Oz, as well as a special exhibit celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the classic Mary Poppins (1964).  The Oz section highlighted two Disney films that explored the Oz storylines beyond the MGM classic, those being 1985’s Return to Oz and 2013’s Oz: The Great and Powerful.  Most of the displays here featured actual costumes used in the films, along with some artwork and a handful of props.  Any fans of the films will certainly like what Disney put on display.
d23 5
The next room, which of course was the more popular of the two, highlighted Mary Poppins.  The collection of the material in this room was very impressive; covering all aspects of the film from visual development to the film’s premiere.  Of course there were costumes on display, including Mary’s trademark nanny dress and flower hat, but there were also original matte paintings that played a big role in the film’s visual effects.  If you remember the shot in the film where Mary is sitting on a cloud above London and then it pans down to a city park where we’re introduced to Dick Van Dyke’s Bert; that particular matte painting was found here.  The highlight of this section however was the actual carousel horses used in the film.  This was a popular photo spot for many people, and of course I got my picture in front of them as well.  In addition to the classic film’s displays, there were also costumes on display from the upcoming film Saving Mr. Banks, including the suit Tom Hanks wore for the role of Walt Disney.  The exhibit concludes with a gallery devoted to fan art, some of which was quite good and it shows the beloved legacy that this film continues to have.  Overall, anyone who is a fan of Disney film history would love the Disney Archive exhibit.
d23 6
d23 7
Speaking of the Disney Archive, chief Archivist Dave Smith held a special seminar at the D23 Expo highlighting the production of Mary Poppins.  It was basically a Power Point presentation led by Mr. Smith, but an excellently executed one which featured many never before seen material straight from the archive.  In particular, I really liked the showcase of outtakes from the film.  It’s interesting to see what the actors do onstage after the director yells cut;  in particular, Dick Van Dyke’s fooling around between takes gets a good laugh.  Later in the day, I attended another seminar called Pixar: Doing our Homework, which featured onstage a handful of Pixar’s top filmmakers.  The panel detailed the filmmaker’s experiences in researching for their films, and how much work goes into it, giving the audience a good insight into how their films are built from the ground up.  The panelists included directors Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) and Pete Doctor (Monsters Inc., Up), who recounted his experience visiting the tepuis of Venezuala on a research trip for Up. There were many other seminars going on throughout the three days of the Convention. Unfortunately, like most other conventions, you have to pick and choose which ones you’ll see, which is hard when so many of them are worth seeing.
d23 8
The big draw of the convention, of course, were the big presentations put on in the D23 Arena.  The Arena was the place where the Disney company presents all of their upcoming projects in spectacular fashion; with celebrity guests on hand and exclusive clips showing footage for the first time to the public.  I was unable to attend the showings regrettably, but I did learn that the films highlighted included Pixar’s next slate of films over the next few years (including Finding Dory, the sequel to 2003’s Finding Nemo), as well as the slate of live action films coming in the next two years, including Saving Mr. Banks, the Angelina Jolie-starring Maleficent (2014), the Kenneth Branaugh-directed remake of Cinderella (2015), and the very top-secret  Brad Bird film, Tomorrowland (2015).  Also, Marvel Films presented their upcoming movies, including the new Thor and Captain America films, and there was even a little tease for the upcoming Star Wars Episode VII.  These presentations more than anything else showcases Disney’s expanding influence, and it’s interesting to see a more varied platter of projects on display at the Expo.
d23 9
d23 10
Of course, like most conventions, D23 also caters to the avid memorabilia collectors, and a large area called the Collector’s Forum is made just for them.  Here you’ll find small vendors selling everything from original art to special collectibles.  I found everything from original animation cels, to antique figurines, to even a collection of park maps there.  A silent auction was also being held for extra special items, including actual bobsleds from the Matterhorn attraction in Disneyland. Also on hand are special Disney celebrities to sign autographs.  On the day I attended, I found the voices of Belle and Ursula (Paige O’Hara and Pat Carroll) signing autographs in this room, both drawing a long line of fans to the floor.  The whole convention caters to all fans, but this is the section of the show floor where you see Disney fandom in it’s full form, and it’s a fascinating place all on it’s own.
d23 11
d23 12
The D23 Expo was a fantastic experience overall, and I’m glad I made the time to visit it.  Maybe next time I’ll put more thought into the planning into my visit, so that I can take in the full experience.  At least this time, I got a sampling of what the convention has to share.  I enjoyed taking in all that the show had to share.  You can spend hours just on the main show floor alone.  The Archive exhibit was a particular highlight, as was the Imagineering pavilion.  For a movie history buff like me, I was happy to see such an impressive display presented for a classic film like Mary Poppins, and I hope future conventions have exhibits like it.  But, what impressed me the most about the convention is that each pavilion’s showcases were hosted not just by volunteers, but by the actual people who work for the Disney company.  I learned this while visiting the Disney Interactive pavilion where I got to play a demo of the upcoming Duck Tales Remastered video game.  When I spoke with the guy hosting the demo, I learned that he had actually worked on the game himself as a programmer.  He told me about how he grew up with the game as a kid, and how he came to work on the remake as an adult.  This experience showed me the special treat that the convention has to offer, where you not only get to experience all of the new products from the Disney company, but you also get to speak directly to the actual people who make it happen.  It’s a special experience that I recommend to everyone.  The next convention is in 2015, and I hope that it continues to grow and become even more of a special event in the years to come.
d23 13

Thrown into the Briar Patch – The Uneasy and Confusing Controversy of Disney’s “Song of the South”


What does it take to blacklist a whole film?  Walt Disney’s 1946 film Song of the South has the dubious distinction of being the only film in the company’s history to be declared un-releasable. Many people state that it’s because of the perception that the film has a racist message and that it sugarcoats and simplifies the issue of slavery in an offensive way.  I would argue that it’s not right to label a film one way without ever having seen it, but unfortunately Disney is reluctant to even let that happen.  What is interesting is the fact that by putting a self-imposed ban on the distribution of the film, Disney is actually perpetuating the notion that Song of the South is a dangerous movie, due to the stigma it holds as being the one film that they refuse to make public.  Disney, more than any other media company in the world, is built upon their wholesome image, and for some reason they are afraid to let their guard down and air out their dirty laundry.  But, is Song of the South really the embarrassment that everyone says it is, or is it merely a misunderstood masterpiece. Thankfully, I have seen the film myself (thank you Japanese bootlegs and YouTube), so I can actually pass judgment on it, and like most other controversial things, you gain a much different perspective once you remove all the noise surrounding it.
For a film that has gained such a notorious reputation over the years, the actual history of the production is relatively free of controversy.  Walt Disney wanted to adapt the Uncle Remus Stories, which were popular African-American folktales published by Joel Chandler Harris in post-Reconstruction Georgia.  Disney said that these stories were among his favorites as a child and he was eager to bring to life the moralistic tales through animated shorts starring the characters Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear.  The film was a breakthrough production for the Disney company as it was a mix of live action and animation.  Sequences where the live action character of Uncle Remus interacts with the cast of animated critters were astonishing to audiences at the visual effects were highly praised at the time; remember this was almost 20 years before Mary Poppins (1964), which was also a hybrid film in itself.  Walt Disney treated the subject material with great reverence and he brought in the best talent possible to work on the film, including Oscar-winning Cinematographer Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane, The Grapes of Wrath).  Disney was especially proud of the casting of James Baskett as Uncle Remus, and he even campaigned heavily to earn Mr. Baskett an Oscar nomination for his performance;  Baskett wasn’t nominated, but he did win a special honorary Oscar in recognition of his work on the film.  The movie was a financial success and it did earn another Oscar for the song “Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah,” which has become a sort of an unofficial anthem for the Disney company.
Surprisingly, the film would be re-released constantly for decades afterwards.  It even provided the inspiration for what is still one of Disneyland’s most popular attractions: Splash Mountain.  It wouldn’t be until after a short theatrical run in 1985 that Disney began their policy of keeping the film out of the public eye.  Not surprisingly, this was also around the same time that a new corporate team, led by Michael Eisner, had taken over operation of the company, and with them a whole new mindset centered around brand appeal.  While Song of the South would sometimes be called out in the past by organizations like the NAACP for it’s quaint portrayal of post-slavery life, the film was not considered an outright embarrassment.  It was merely seen as a product of its time and was much more notable for its animated sequences than for its actual story line.  But once Disney made it their policy to shelve the film for good based on the perception that the film made light of slavery, that’s when all controversy started heating up.  To this day, Song of the South has yet to receive a home video release here in the United States, and Disney is still continuing to stand by their decision to not make the film public.
So, having seen the actual film, it has given me the impression that Disney didn’t ban the film just because of its content, but rather it was an attempt to keep their image as clean as possible.  My own impression of the film is this; it’s harmless.  Don’t get me wrong, it is not the most progressive depiction of African-American life in America and some of the portrayals of the ex-slave characters are certainly out of date to the point of being cringe-inducing.  But it’s no worse than a film like Gone with the Wind (1939), and that film is considered one of the greatest movies of all times.  If Song of the South has a flaw it would be that it’s boring.  The movie clearly shows Walt Disney’s lack of experience in live action film-making, as the main story of the film is very dull and flimsy. Basically it follows the life of a young southern boy, played by Disney child star Bobby Driscoll (Peter Pan) as he deals with the break-up of his family and the finding of solace in the stories told to him by a former slave, Uncle Remus.  There’s not much more to it than that.  Where the film really shines is in its animated sequences, which are just as strong as anything else Disney was making in the post-War era.  The art style in particular really does stand out, and conveys the beauty of the Southern countryside perfectly.
Somehow, I believe that there’s a different reason why the film has garnered the reputation that it has.  Disney is a big company that has built itself around an image.  Unfortunately, when you go to certain extremes to keep your image as flawless as it can be, it’s going to make other people want to tear that down even more.  There are a lot of people out there who hate Disney purely on their wholesome image alone, and when they find cracks in that facade, they are going to keep on exploiting that whenever possible.  Walt Disney himself has been called everything from racist to anti-Semitic, which if you actually dig deeper into any of those claims, you’ll find that there’s little truth to them and that they’re usually attributed to people who came from rival companies or had a contract dispute with Mr. Disney.
Unfortunately, by trying so hard to sweep so much under the rug, the Disney company opens itself to these kinds of accusations; and they have no one else to blame for them but themselves. Walt Disney was not a flawless man by any means and the company has made embarrassingly short sighted decisions in the past; hell they’re still making them now (John Carter, The Lone Ranger). But, their flaws are no worse than the ones that plague other companies in Hollywood.  Just look at the racial stereotypes in old Warner Brothers cartoons; there was an actual war propaganda Looney Tunes short called Bugs Nips the Nips, which is about as racist as you can get.  The only difference is that Warner Brothers has not shied away from it’s past embarrassments, and have made them public while stating the historical context of their productions.  As a result, Warner Brothers has avoided the “racist” labels entirely and their image has been kept intact.  For some reason, Disney doesn’t want to do that with Song of the South, despite the fact that Disney has made public some of their older shorts that are far more overtly racially insensitive than the movie. There are shorts from the 1930’s that showed Mickey Mouse in black face, and yet they still got a video release as part of the Walt Disney Treasures DVD Collection.  I think the reason why Song of the South didn’t get the same treatment is because it’s such a polished and earnest production, and it’s probably easier to dismiss the silly cartoon for it’s flaws because they’re less significant.
Regardless of how it accurately it addresses the issues of slavery and the African-American experience, the Song of the South should at least be given the opportunity to be seen.  It’s a part of the Disney company’s history whether they like it or not, and to sweep it aside is doing a disservice to the Disney legacy as a whole.  Being a white man, I certainly can’t predict what the reaction from the African-American community will be, but is that any excuse to hide the film from them.  Maybe black audiences will come to the film with an open mind; quite a few at least.  It just doesn’t make any sense why this is the film that has been deemed un-watchable when other films like Gone with the Wind, which is very similar content wise, is heralded as a classic.  Even D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) is available on home video, and that film openly endorses the Ku Klux Klan.  Song of the South is so harmless by comparison and the worst that you can say about it is that it’s out of date.
As a film, I would recommend everyone to give it at least a watch, if you can.  The animated sequences are definitely worth seeing on their own, and I think some people will appreciate the film as a sort of cinematic time capsule.  While the African-American characters are portrayed in a less than progressive way, I don’t think that it’s the fault of the actors.  James Baskett in particular does the most that he can with the role, and it’s hard not to like him in the film.  He also does double duty playing both Uncle Remus and the voice of Brer Fox, which shows the range that he had as a performer.  The music is also exceptional with songs like “The Laughing Place,” “Sooner or Later,” “How Do You Do?” and the Oscar-winning “Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah;” crowd-pleasers in every way. It’s definitely not deserving of the reputation it’s gotten.  Disney’s reluctance to make the film available just goes to show the folly of trying to keep a flawless image, when it would actually serve them better to have it out in the open.  Sometimes you just need to take your medicine and let things happen.  After all, aren’t the people who ride Splash Mountain everyday at Disneyland going to wonder some day what film it’s all based on?

Nerd Heaven – The Highs and Lows of Marketing at San Diego Comic Con


This is no ordinary corporate showcase.  In the last decade or so, San Diego Comics Convention (SDCC), or its more commonly known name COMIC CON, has become a full-fledged festival for the whole of Nerd-Dom.  Not only is it a great place for fans to encounter their favorite artists and filmmakers in person, but it’s also a great place for Hollywood to showcase their tent-pole productions to an eager audience.   In all, its a celebration of all forms of media, where the experience of the presentations and panels can often overshadow the actual products themselves. But, while everything is all in fun at Comic Con, the business end is what matters the most on the actual show floor itself.  As with all conventions, Comic Con is geared toward marketing.  Big studios and publishers get the most attention in the media coverage of the Con, but SDCC started with the small vendors and they continue to be part of the backbone of the whole show.  For everyone involved, there is a lot at stake in these four packed days in mid-July.
Up and coming artists, journalists, and filmmakers are just as common amongst the visitors as they are among the headliners, and the mingling of different talents defines much of the experience at the Con.  While many people get excited by the surprises on hand, that excitement can sometimes have difficulty extending outside the walls of San Diego’s Convention Center.  Marketing to a crowd of fans is much different than marketing to a general audience.  I believe Comic Con works best as a testing ground for marketing strategies in the bigger push of selling a project to the world. Sometimes, a lot of buzz can be generated with a surprise announcement or a with a well placed tease.  One clear example of this at Comic Con this year was the surprise announcement of a Superman and Batman movie coming in 2015.  The announcement was a bombshell for the fans who witnessed it live at the convention, and that extended to a media blitz that spread quickly through all news sources that same day.  This surprise effectively gained needed attention for a project that has only been in the planning stages so far.  Where the risk lies is in the effectiveness of this kind of moment, and there can be no more unforgiving audience than one made up of nerds.
Many of the big studios have figured this out over time, and the planning of their showcases at Comic Con are almost as intricate as the projects they’re trying to sell.  One thing they have certainly learned is that Comic Con patrons are extremely discerning, and are often even more informed about the different projects than the talents involved.  There is a fine line between excitement and scorn within the fan community, and if you fall on the wrong end of that line, it can be brutal.  Comic Con is all about fan service, which is no surprise to everyone.  This year in particular, there were more instances of stars making appearances in costume than ever before.  As you can see in the photo above, Spiderman was there to address the audience in person, which was a special treat considering that the film’s star, Andrew Garfield, was the one behind the mask.  Avengers villain Loki also showed up to introduce footage from the upcoming Thor sequel, with actor Tom Hiddleston completely in character the whole time.  All of these moments make the live presentations far more entertaining, and that in turn helps to make the audience even more enthusiastic about the upcoming films.  Comic Con is a place where theatrics meets commerce, and where a a well made sales pitch can turn into a fanboy’s dream come true.
Given that SDCC started as a showcase for comics, its no surprise that Marvel and DC are the ones who put on the biggest shows; and are the ones who connect to their audiences better than anyone else, through all their experience.  But more recently, the showcases have steered away from the printed page and have been more focused on the silver screen.  Its not that Comic Con has abandoned the medium that started it all; print comics still have a place on the convention floor. It’s just that the movie industry is bigger and more involved, and have seen the benefits of marketing at the Convention.
With production budgets rising, Comic Con has become more important than ever as a way to generate enthusiasm for film projects; even ones that have trouble getting attention.  Several years ago, Disney made a surprise announcement at Comic Con that there was a sequel to their cult-hit Tron (1982) in the works, which was highlighted by a teaser trailer.  Little was known or talked about with the project, and Disney wasn’t quite sure if the project would go anywhere past Development, so the trailer was made as a way to test the waters.  The reception they got was overwhelming, especially when it was revealed that the original film’s star, Jeff Bridges, was involved and production went full steam ahead afterwards.  Few expected a Tron sequel to be newsworthy, let alone the hot topic of the conversation at the convention, but Disney showed that year what a simple surprise could do to generate excitement.  Since then, surprises have not only become more frequent, but now they are expected.
That leads to some unforeseen consequences sometimes in a high stakes venue like this.  When the audiences are expecting a surprise to happen at any moment, it puts even more pressure on the marketing teams to deliver the goods.  There have been many cases when a production company ends up promising too much and then fails to deliver.  A couple years ago, Guillermo del Toro teased the crowd at a Disney presentation by revealing his involvement in a new Haunted Mansion film, which he promised was going to be more spiritually faithful (no pun intended) to the original Disneyland ride than the Eddie Murphy flop had been.  It was an exciting announcement at the time, but several years later, almost nothing new has been heard about the project, and with Del Toro taking on more and more new projects, it’s becoming more obvious that this particular project is probably not going to happen.  Other broken promises have included several announcements of a Justice League movie, including one that is currently out there now and remains to be seen; or news that TV-scribe David E. Kelley was going to give Wonder Woman a new TV series, which led to a disastrous pilot episode that never got picked up.  This is why production companies need to show good judgment when they present their projects at Comic Con.  Once you make a promise, you have to commit.  If you don’t, no one will take those promises seriously, and the whole aura that a Comic Con surprise makes will stop working.
In many ways, Comic Con has become a more favorable place for television than film.  TV shows like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Dexter, and Doctor Who can benefit from all the same kinds of media buzz that a theatrical film can get at the Con, without having the pressure of marketing a massive project with a $250 million budget; although TV budgets are rising too. Comic Con isn’t the only platform for marketing a film, but it’s certainly one of the biggest and the stakes are getting higher.  In a year like 2013, which has seen numerous under-performing films hitting theaters this summer, the pressure is on when it comes to getting the message to resonate beyond the cheering fans in Hall H.  I don’t envy the people behind the Comic Con presentations one bit, because they have so much resting on their shoulders.  And when you’re dealing with a fan-base as well informed as those in the fan community, it’s a wonder how they can keep the surprises coming.
I should note that I have yet to attend Comic Con myself.  My observations are from an outsider’s perspective, though I do follow the live news coverage of the conventions every year with great anticipation.  I hope to someday see it for myself; just to take in the experience of seeing the whole carnival-esque atmosphere of the place.  I’m not sure if I’ll attend it in costume like all the cosplaying regulars there, but then again, “when in Rome…”.  Overall, there’s no doubt that Comic Con is one of the most important institutions we have in our media culture today, and it will continue for many years to come.  There are Comic conventions to be found across the world over, but this is the grand-daddy of them all, and no other convention has this kind of influence on the film industry in general.  Plus, where else are you going to see cool stuff like this:

Pacific Rim – Review


Michael Bay, take note.  This is how you make a movie about giant fighting robots.  From the gloriously fertile mind of director Guillermo del Toro, Pacific Rim is a breath of fresh air in a summer full of depressing films.  One of the trends that I have noticed in the recent slate of Summer blockbusters has been the tendency of filmmakers making their films dark and gritty, to the point where it feels out of place.  This is probably due to the success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, all of which benefited from a darker tone.  But when filmmakers try to work any kind of intellectual property through that same mold, the results come out awkward and un-inspiring. Movies like The Amazing Spiderman, Green Lantern, Man of Steel, and The Lone Ranger would have benefited from having a less confused tone and more of an idea of what kind of movie they wanted to be.  Pacific Rim manages to avoid that trap effectively and becomes a film with an actual identity.
Remember when summer movies used to be fun?  Del Toro clearly remembers, and he makes every moment in Pacific Rim a treat for audiences.  It’s funny without being corny; playful without being condescending; and artistic without being pretentious.   It’s all something that’s very surprising for a movie that’s basically about giant robots fighting giant alien monsters.  I had my reservations about the movie to be sure when I first saw the film’s trailer.  I couldn’t be happier to see my doubts proven wrong.  It’s a refreshing summer movie that actually takes it’s premise to its full potential; as simple a premise as it may be.  Guillermo del Toro doesn’t try to force feed his audience anything that this movie doesn’t need.  We come to see giant fighting robots; we get giant fighting robots. There’s no unnecessary interplay and buffonery among the characters like you would see in a Transformers movie.  Also, the movie isn’t padded with pointless comedic incidents like with The Lone Ranger.  It’s a simple story done on spectacular scale and in the end, that’s all it needs to be.
Taking place in the near future, Pacific Rim has a story-line familiar to any monster movie buff. Deep in the Pacific Ocean, an inter-dimensional rift opens up and unleashes giant alien monsters that wrecks havoc on the major population centers along the coastlines of the titular Pacific Rim.  In response to the threat, human beings have invented giant robots named Jaegers to battle and destroy these monsters that they’ve called Kaiju.  To pilot the Jaegers, there needs to be two people sharing the controls and they both have to be linked neurologically together.  To make the mechanisms work perfectly inside the robots, the two pilots have to be compatible physically and psychologically; so the pilots are often related by blood to one another.  One pilot named Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) has lost his brother in a fight with a Kaiju, which leads him to abandon the Jaeger program altogether.  But, soon he’s brought out of retirement by the program’s director, Marshall Stacker Pentacost (Idris Elba).  Paired up with a fresh new co-pilot named Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who also has a tortured past of her own, Raleigh reenters the fight with a renewed purpose.
There isn’t much of a story beyond that premise.  The Jaeger team must seal the rift with a nuclear device, but are met with interference from even bigger Kaijus.  There is a subplot involving a set of eccentric scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) attempting to study the true intentions of the Kaiju, and there’s a run-in with a black market dealer played by Del Toro-regular Ron Pearlman, but together it all doesn’t matter.  They are just the connecting thread for the spectacular fight sequences that make up most of the film.  I’ve never been more content with a film that had thinly drawn characters like these in it.  The characterizations in this movie would make the ones in Top Gun look Shakespearean, but I believe that was the intention of the director and the stars.  We are only given enough development to have the characters earn our sympathy, and then the movie moves on quickly to the action.  Overall, the writing in this movie, from a script by Del Toro and writer Travis Beacham, is deceptively balanced.  By having characters that are simple and strong, the story is able to breathe and stay focused, because it’s not overly complicated with personal dilemmas.  Like Bogart said in Casablanca, “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” and Pacific Rim‘s characters seem to understand that.  What do our petty issues matter when there is a giant monster coming at us?
Because of this, Pacific Rim is a refreshingly breezy film.  It runs 2 hours and 11 minutes, but it feels a lot shorter.  The pacing is invigorating and doesn’t waste a moment, with only a couple of brief lulls throughout.  The tone is also consistent, demonstrating Guillermo del Toro’s skill as a storyteller.  We’ve seen director Del Toro tackle stories that have ranged for the tragic (Pan’s Labyrinth) to the disturbing (The Devil’s Backbone) to the playful (Hellboy).  Pacific Rim is his most ambitious film to date, and it shows all the work that he’s done to build himself up to this point.  Del Toro is clearly a fan of the kind of monster movies that inspired this story, and that love is felt in every frame on screen.  From the production design of the creatures (many done by Del Toro himself) to the staging of the fights, everything is perfectly crafted to excite and satisfy audiences. Sometimes a crowd-pleasing film will sink to some baser elements just to get a rise out of people, but this film deftly avoids being just a stupid actioner.  There’s creativity on display here and action that actually serves a purpose in the story rather than creating a lot of noise.
The performances also work to the advantage of the film.  Everyone involved knows what kind of movie they’re in and they play their parts accordingly.  I liked how the characters we’re playing off of the archetypes in the genre, very much like how a comic book would portray its characters. There’s no brooding, introspective personalities here; everyone is a walking stereotype, and that’s part of the fun.  I particularly liked the scientist characters, because they were about as cartoonish as you could possibly make them; which is in sync with the tone of the movie, and the actors were perfectly cast.  Charlie Hunnam of Sons of Anarchy fame makes a fine protagonist and he thankfully keeps his character consistently simple throughout.  He just needs to look good fighting, which he does very well.  Rinko Kikuchi is given a little more darkness to her character, but she doesn’t feel out of place here and also plays the part well.  Idris Elba gives a strong commanding performance that helps to anchor the film perfectly and hopefully this movie boosts his star power, because he deserves it.  And I’m probably not alone in saying this, but Ron Pearlman is so Badass.
The film only has a couple, very minor low points; and while they don’t spoil the film overall, they do stand out.  It’s clear that the film is conscious of the cliches of the genre, but every now and then they do affect the movie negatively.  The dialogue is definitely tongue-in-cheek ridiculous throughout, but I could sometimes find it irritating too.  Idris Elba’s Stalker delivers your typical rousing speech to the troops near the end, and while I liked his delivery, I wish that the speech had been stronger.  A moment like that make me think that Del Toro took a “good enough” approach to the scene, which clashes sharply with the more creative parts of the movie.  Other moments like this happen sporadically, though they are thankfully few.  Also, there are a lot suspension of disbelief moments in the film, which audiences are not likely going to think about, but if you start to, they can be hard to swallow; particularly one near the end (At what point did we invent inter-dimensional radio technology?).  But still, they are minor complaints in an otherwise overwhelmingly solid movie.
This was the first movie this summer that made me want to watch it again right away.  That’s a good sign of the movie’s staying power.  This is a textbook example of how to make a Summer blockbuster.  It delivers on its potential and doesn’t try to complicate things with needless plotting. Giant Robots fighting Giant Monsters for a whole movie may not be for everyone, but I can see little else this summer will satisfy anything else that an audience wants.  I personally couldn’t be more grateful to Guillermo del Toro for this movie.  This made my inner 10 year old boy squeal with delight.  It’s the kind of movie that we all created in our minds when we played with our action figures as kids, and now Del Toro has brought it to the big screen.  This is a dream come true for the teenage boy crowd, though I think most girls will also come away entertained as well; and most people too, regardless of age.  It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a movie just forget about trying to be all things for all people and just be what it wants to be, which in the end does make it appeal to all people.  Hollywood should take note.  This is what happens when you let a quality filmmaker make something fun and entertaining without making it follow a trend.  Sometimes it’s better to be different.
Rating:   9/10

Top Ten “Passion Project” Films That Worked

This summer, The Lone Ranger and After Earth came into theaters amid a lot of bad buzz and with bloated budgets.  The failures of these films are noteworthy, but not surprising.  They follow a long line of “Passion Projects” that have come out of Hollywood every now and then.  What makes a movie a “Passion Project” is when a filmmaker puts too much personal investment into a film project that other people, or a studio, doesn’t believe will be a commercial success; but because of the clout that that filmmaker has, the project still moves forward regardless of the risk and the expense. This has often led to disastrous results.  Last week, I highlighted one such example of a film driven by unchecked egos: Heaven’s Gate.  The Lone Ranger  and After Earth do fit the mold of “Passion Projects” that have failed, albeit for different reasons; one was the misguided attempt by producers who felt they could transform any old property into a money-making juggernaut and the other was a movie star trying to elevate his not-ready-for-the-spotlight son into becoming a blockbuster star in the wrong kind of movie.

Though these ego driven  movies often do fail, there are exceptions when they do succeed. Sometimes it happens unexpectedly, while other times it’s when a filmmaker deviates from their proven formula and takes a risk that proves rewarding.  A good “Passion Project” is a film that resonates beyond a good story.  It’s one where you can feel the personal touch of the filmmaker, and see their love for the material on display.  For this column, I have selected 10 films that I believe showcase the most successful “Passion Projects”; some with very unexpected results.
THAT THING YOU DO (1996)    Directed by Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks was riding high in the mid-90’s, having just won two back-to-back Oscars and starring in another highly acclaimed blockbuster (Apollo 13); so he had the power to do whatever he wanted at this point in his career.  What he chose next was to direct and write his own film, which chronicled the rise and fall of a 60’s rock band.  Though there wasn’t much risk in the actual production of the film, considering it’s modest budget, there was talk about whether or not Tom Hanks was risking his star power in the making of a movie that had limited genre appeal.  This was long before shows like Mad Men made 60’s nostalgia cool, and the story line was very insider driven, detailing the making and marketing within the music industry.  Luckily for Tom Hanks, audiences did soak up the period nostalgia and the film became a modest success.  It didn’t win any awards, but it did cement Tom Hanks’ place as a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood beyond his talents as a actor.
MALCOLM X (1992)    Directed by Spike Lee
Racial politics have always been a touchy issue in movie-making.  Most of time, Hollywood tries to avoid an intelligent argument over race and usually just dumbs down the issues in an attempt to not offend anyone.  Spike Lee has made a reputation of tackling racial issues head on in his films, which he did with the universally praised Do the Right Thing (1989).  Thanks to that film, Lee was able to grab the attention of other filmmakers, who were eager to see what he was going to make next.   What Mr. Lee had in mind was a 3 1/2 hour biopic centered around one of the most divisive leaders of the civil rights movement; Malcolm X.  Suffice to say, producers were worried about how audiences would react to such a film; plus Spike Lee was still a young filmmaker who had never tackled a film on this kind of scale before, or with this kind of seriousness.  The end result ended up being a surprising nuanced and fulfilling epic.  Bolstered by a solid performance by it’s star, Denzel Washington, the movie was praised by critics and generally accepted by audiences. While not a blockbuster, the film did garner a favorable reputation over the years and it showcased the maturity of Spike Lee as a filmmaker.
nightmare christmas
Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Tim Burton was a struggling animator at the Disney Studios. After working on films like The Fox and the Hound (1981), Burton wanted to pitch a project of his own to the studio based around his own artistic style.  The studio heads scoffed at the idea, saying that Burton’s art and story-line was too dark for the family audiences that they were aiming for.  Soon after, Burton left Disney to start a new career as a film director.  He found success with films like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988) before hitting it big with Batman (1989).  After Batman crushed box office records, Disney was ready to listen again.  Tim Burton had the clout now to make his story about the collision of two holidays finally become a reality.  But instead of doing it in Disney’s traditional animation style, he decided to have it animated with stop-motion.  The project was a risky sell for Disney, considering the Gothic style, but the end result proved to be a success.  Twenty years later, the film’s hero Jack Skellington has become one of Disney’s most popular characters.  Which goes to show that it’s sometimes worth it to hold on to a good idea until its ready.
INCEPTION (2010)          Directed By Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan supposedly worked on the script to this film over 10 years.  Initially, he had planned to pitch it as his next film after Memento (2001), but at the time, he didn’t have the reputation as a director to pull off something on the scale that he wanted.  Inception was an enormously complex story that required a lot of time to get right, and Nolan chose to sit on the script for a long time as he continued to build his talents as a filmmaker on subsequent projects. Before long, he was trusted with the struggling Batman franchise, which he brought back in a big way.  After The Dark Knight (2008) became a box office phenomenon, Nolan felt the time was right to finally make Inception.  By this time, he had a script that had been finely polished and was ready to be green-lit.   Warner Bros. approved a substantial budget for the film, based on the goodwill Nolan had earned with them, which helped the director achieve the scale that he always wanted for the film.  The end result paid off as Inception became a box office hit; unusual for a high-concept film like this that’s based off an original idea and not a sequel.
CITIZEN KANE (1941)      Directed by Orson Welles
Though Mr. Welles did have an enormous amount of personal clout in the entertainment industry as he took on his first film project, the movie did prove to be a risky adventure.  For one thing, his film targeted the most powerful man in media at the time, William Randolph Hearst, as it’s subject. Orson Welles had already had the reputation of stepping on powerful toes for the sake of art in his years working on the stage, but going after someone like Hearst was an enormous risk, because it could have led to the end of Welles’ career in Hollywood completely.  Not only that, Welles was putting incredible personal effort into doing things his way on the film.  He was given something that few first time directors ever get in Hollywood; complete artistic freedom, which can be misused if given to the wrong person.  Welles did persevere through the controversy, and the movie was a success when it first premiered.  Over the years, it has been considered one of the best films of all times, if not the best.
TITANIC (1997)        Directed by James Cameron
James Cameron had earned the reputation of being a larger than life figure in Hollywood.  Someone who would always take enormous risks, and in some cases indulging his ego a bit with what he was capable of getting on film, but would always be counted upon to deliver at the box office.  After a string of successful action films, Cameron decided his next project would be an epic love story set around a notorious catastrophe.  The project went forward based upon Cameron’s reputation as a filmmaker, but soon the project looked to be in big trouble.  The budget ballooned to a then unprecedented $200 million, which no one believed could ever be recouped.  Critics believed that the movie would be dead on arrival the moment it reached theaters, earning the project the nickname “Cameron’s Gate.”  And for a film that was over three hours and featured two unproven stars as it’s leads, it looked like Cameron’s luck would run out.  When the film finally was released, it became not just a hit, but the biggest moneymaker of all time, disproving every preconception in the book.  $600 million dollars and 11 Oscars later, Cameron’s reputation in Hollywood was sufficiently secured.
SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937)    Produced by Walt Disney
While America suffer through the depression in the 1930’s, the Disney Studio was thriving.  Walt Disney had built enormous success with his animated shorts, especially the ones starring the company’s star character, Mickey Mouse.  Seeing the potential of the medium, Disney decided to take the next step forward and make a feature length animated film.  Most of Hollywood thought the idea was ridiculous, believing that audiences would be bored by an animated film longer than 7 minutes.  Walt Disney set out to make it work by putting enormous personal investment into the crafting of the story and the refining of the artwork.  He chose the story of Snow White for the project, which was familiar enough for audiences to understand, but presented its own challenges, particularly with the portrayals of the Dwarfs in the story.  After a while, Walt Disney spent so much money on the project that he actually had to put up his studio and his home as collateral in order to get bank loans to complete the project.  When it finally premiered, the film not only was a success, but it became the biggest hit of the year, out-grossing all other films.  With that success, Walt Disney became a household name and a player in Hollywood to be reckoned with.
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004)    Directed by Mel Gibson
Before he had his public meltdowns, Mel Gibson had a strong reputation as both an actor and as a filmmaker.  He won an Oscar for directing Braveheart (1995), but it would be years before he would take another stab in the director’s chair.  When he chose his next project, it was one that turned quite a few heads in the industry.  The very devout Catholic Gibson wanted to make a film about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, depicted in very graphic detail and with characters speaking entirely in ancient languages like Latin and Aramaic.  Setting aside the overtly religious nature of the film, and the controversial accusations of antisemitism, this was a project that the film industry was understandably weary of.  Mel Gibson, in an attempt to preserve his artistic vision, decided to fund the film himself, investing $30 million of his own money.  To help promote the film, he went the unconventional route and previewed the movie for church organizations, in an attempt to earn their seal of approval.  When the film opened on Ash Wednesday in 2004, it shocked the industry by earning $120 million dollars over a five day period.  Hollywood didn’t know what to make of this, and the film ended up changing the way movies with controversial subjects are marketed today.  After grossing $375 million, Mel Gibson had sufficiently earned back his investment and left a significant mark on the film industry.
SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993)            Directed by Steven Spielberg
Spielberg’s reputation as a filmmaker in the 1980’s was one of someone who made films that had childlike wonder to them, but unable to make anything deeply serious.  That all changed when Spielberg chose to tackle the horrors of the Holocaust in this film.  Documentaries had begun to bring attention the events of the Holocaust, but no one knew how to dramatize it.  Initially, Spielberg approached the project as a producer, taking a personal interest in the subject matter due to his own Jewish heritage.  He handed it off to a variety of directors, including Martin Scorsese and Holocaust survivor Roman Polanski, but in the end, he decided to take on the project himself.  Thanks to Spielberg’s goodwill in Hollywood, he was able to find financial backing, but few believed that he had it in him to give the subject matter the seriousness that it needed.  Not only that, but Spielberg chose to shoot the film in black and white, and the final cut ran a staggering 3 hours and 16 minutes.  No one believed that audiences would be able to sit through such a harsh reconstruction of the horrors of the Holocaust for that length of time, but Spielberg stuck to his vision.  The end result became a touchstone film, earning the Best Picture Oscar as well as a Best Director award for Mr. Spielberg.  The film also earned over $90 million at the box office, proving that audiences would in fact sit through a film like this.  In the end, Spielberg did finally grow up as a filmmaker.
ROCKY (1976)                                      Directed by John G. Avildsen
What makes Rocky the number one overall “Passion Project” is because of it’s seemingly inexplicable success and underdog status.  Sylvester Stallone wrote the screenplay at a time when he was struggling as an actor.  He didn’t have any clout or any reputation to uphold.  He merely had a deeply personal story to tell about beating the odds and succeeding.  Getting the movie made at all came as a blessing to Stallone.  Much like the hero in the story, the production of Rocky was about underdogs rising to the challenge and not bowing to pressure.  With a modest budget, an unknown cast, and an unproven director, no one expected much out of Rocky.  The movie was also an optimistic story made in a very cynical, post-Watergate time.  As it turns out, that proved to be Rocky’s greatest strength.  It hit a bulls-eye with audiences and became a phenomenal hit that transcended it’s genre.  Stallone became an A-list star over night and the film would go on to win the Oscar for Best Picture.  Overall, Rocky represents the best example of putting personal investment into film-making.  Stallone put what little he had into a story he believed in and it paid off it bigger ways than anybody ever expected it to.
Whether an underdog surprise like Rocky or an expensive gamble like Snow White or Titanic, a successful “Passion Project” can end up pleasing more than just the ideals of the filmmaker, it can mark a significant achievement in film-making and become an unforgettable experience for audiences.   The ten films I chose fit that ideal, and each has a story behind their creations that is just as interesting as the movies themselves.  Good art takes passion, and though it may fail sometimes when the vision is unclear, a successful attempt is all the more worthwhile.

Collecting Criterion – Heaven’s Gate (1980)


For those who are unfamiliar with the Criterion Collection, it is like manna from heaven for film nerds.  Criterion is an independent home video publisher that includes in its library films that range from the classic to the obscure.  Many of them are foreign masterpieces not widely seen by American audiences (such as the classics of Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman), but Criterion also adds many lost classics to its library including the films of Charlie Chaplin, or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), or cult hits like 1958’s The Blob.  What’s so great about the Criterion Collection is that not only do they release these hard to find films onto the market, but they also give them much needed restorations along with a healthy collection of behind the scenes material as extra features. For film buffs, it’s essential to have at least one or more Criterion title in their home video collection. If you’re an avid collector like me, a Criterion set would be like having a masters course curriculum on your shelf.  That’s why I want to highlight select films from the collection with you in this series of reviews, in the hope that it will make some of you consider looking at the Collection as a way broadening your film knowledge as a whole.
Since this week marks the release of a notoriously over-budgeted and under-grossing Western into theaters (The Lone Ranger), I thought it would be appropriate to look at another such Western that had a troubled history.  Today I’m reviewing Criterion Collection #636, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980).  Heaven’s Gate has earned the reputation over the years as being one of the biggest box office disasters of all time; so much so that it actually led to the bankruptcy of the company that made it, United Artists.  UA had existed since the early years of cinema, when it was founded by D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks; the first film company not owned by Studio executives, but rather by the artists themselves.  It was one of Hollywood’s greatest success stories and the company made many classic films over the years, including being the home of the James Bond franchise.  But things turned sour when the company put their money behind director Cimino’s ambitious new epic.  What followed was a perfect storm of ego-clashing and unchecked ambitions that ultimately led to the destruction of many careers.
While it’s unfortunately not included on the Criterion release, there is an excellent documentary that the Trio Channel created called Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate, which goes into more detail as to what the hell happened with the making of this film.  Basically, the documentary states that Heaven’s Gate was made at the tail end of a period of time when film directors had enormous clout in Hollywood, and were given free reign to make whatever films they wanted.  While this paid off sometimes, such as with George Lucas’ Star Wars and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, what more usually happened was that studios ended up pouring money into self-indulgent productions that satisfied the filmmakers, but were a tough sell for audiences.  Michael Cimino had just come off his Oscar-winning success with The Deer Hunter (1978), and he was ready to tackle an epic retelling of the Wyoming Johnson County War of the 1890’s as his next film.  What looked like a sure win on paper turned into a nightmare scenario, as United Artists found the film going over-schedule and over-budget within the first week of production.
Cimino’s refusal to play by the rules was one of the main issues behind the film’s problems, according to the documentary, as was United Artists timidity in addressing those problems. The film ended up costing close to $44 million; nearly four times it’s initial budget.  Cimino finished the film after a long 11 month production period, and his first cut came in at an un-releasable 5 hours in length.  UA managed to get Cimino to cut it down to 3 1/2 hours for it’s premiere, which still proved to be a disaster for all.  Critics panned the film and it made only $3 million at the box office.  In today’s numbers, that equals a loss of over $100 million.  The fallout from this could be felt for years afterward.  Of course, United Artists lost it’s independence as a company and ended up selling off all of it’s assets to MGM.  Michael Cimino’s career has never recovered too; he’s only made a handful of modest films since.  Only the cast seemed to come out unharmed, though they don’t look back fondly on the experience.  For a film with this kind of stigma attached to it, it’s a surprise that Criterion has chosen to include it in their collection.
The story follows a Harvard educated lawman named James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) as he tries to defend the immigrant population of Johnson County, Wyoming, of whom many have been put on a death list by the greedy cattle barons of the region, led by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston). While maintaining the peace in his town, Averill is also caught up in a love triangle with a local brothel owner, Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) and her volatile hired gun boyfriend Nate Champion (Christopher Walken).  Averill soon learns that he’s powerless against the forces coming up against him, and all he can do is stay true to his position in life, which is to protect the helpless.  Keep in mind, this is a very simple story that takes 3 1/2 hours to tell; one of the main problems with the film.
As far as my reaction to the film, I didn’t think it was as bad as the reputation behind it would have you believe.  Is it flawed?  Absolutely, but I’ve seen more tedious films than this.  One of the key problems is the pacing.  It’s not so much slow, as inconsistent.  Some of the scenes are very full of life and engaging, such as the roller-skating dance or the final battle at the end, while other scenes drag on longer than they need to; particularly the ones surrounding the love story elements.  What helps carry the film along are the visuals.  You can see that Michael Cimino put special care into the compositions of his shots, and the cinematography by cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond is top quality. The vistas from the location shooting in Glacier National Park are absolutely breathtaking and really help to transport the viewer into the old West.  The cast likewise is also excellent; with Christopher Walken being a particular standout.  Kris Kristofferson does okay with a main character that is sadly very generic.  Good supporting performances also come from John Hurt and Jeff Bridges, and you also get to see actors like a very young Mickey Rourke and Lost‘s Terry O’Quinn in their first film roles.  All in all, it’s a fascinating watch, seeing this film separated from the toxic reputation behind it.
While the film is a mixed bag, the Criterion edition is nothing short of excellent.  Housed in a two disc set is the restored director’s cut of the film, with a restoration supervised by Michael Cimino himself.  The restoration is top notch, especially on Blu-ray.  When the film was first released, there were no tools available to do an accurate color correction on the picture, so for many years Heaven’s Gate looked washed out in very brownish hues.  Roger Ebert once called it “one of the ugliest films I have ever seen.”  Now, with the technology we have today, Cimino was able to restore the film to the way it was meant to look, especially when it comes to the coloring.  Gone is the brownish tint and all the blues and greens are now in full splendor in this restoration.  The film takes up the whole first disc, while the second is devoted to extras.  Among them is a new, 30 minute audio interview with Cimino, where he details his experiences and perspective on the film. Also included are short video interviews with star Kris Kristofferson, composer David Mansfield, and 2nd Assistant Director Michael Stevenson.  A booklet is also included in the set which includes scholarly essays, as well as a print interview with Cimino.
So, while I would give the film a pass, I do give the Criterion set a strong recommendation.  This set represents what Criterion does best, which is to give a film a proper release where it where it wouldn’t otherwise.  It’s been over 30 years since Heaven’s Gate crashed and burned in theaters, which has led the film to being rediscovered by a whole new generation today.  While I don’t think the film will ever shake off it’s toxic reputation in Hollywood, it can nonetheless stand on its own as a film thanks to the care that Criterion put into their edition.  In any case, watch the film and judge for yourself.  This is a prime example of a quality Criterion release.  I hope to share more with you as this series goes along.  Look through the collection yourself and see if you find a lost gem worth rediscovering.

The Lone Ranger – Review


One thing you’ll be asking yourself once you leave the theater after watching this film is, “was The Lone Ranger really a character worth investing $250 million dollars into?”  This new film, starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer and directed by Pirates of the Caribbean helmer Gore Verbinski, arrives this Fourth of July weekend amid a lot of bad buzz surrounding its bloated budget and lack of interest from advanced audiences.  To their credit, the production company, Disney, did show concern over the production problems early on and nearly canned the project when the first budget estimates were made.
But apparently producer Jerry Bruckheimer reassured them that the film would be worth the huge investment and that by having Disney’s “golden boy” Johnny Depp involved, the production would be a guaranteed international success.  Unfortunately for Disney, it seems that their worst fears are coming true.  There’s little excitement for this film, despite a valiant effort by the Disney marketing team that managed to get someone like me interested.  But the opening night showing I saw was only half full, which doesn’t bold well for the film’s chances this weekend.  All this would lead you to believe that Disney has a huge mess on their hands and yes, the film is a spectacular mess; but it’s also an entertaining one.
The problem that the movie faces is that it is trying to jump-start a franchise that hasn’t been relevant since the WWII era.  Even my parents didn’t grow up that much with the Lone Ranger, so we have a character whose several generations removed from the audiences who knew him best.  The filmmakers are probably aware of this to some extant, so what we have in The Lone Ranger is a story that borrows what we know best about the character (the mask, Tonto, his horse Silver, the William Tell Overture theme music, etc.) and places them within an prototypical Western plot.  The story involves a lawman named John Reid (Armie Hammer), who’s tracking down a notorious criminal named Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner).  Butch ambushes Reid and his posse of deputies and leaves them dead in the desert.  Reid, however, was not mortally wounded and finds himself being buried alive by a quirky Indian guide named Tonto (Johnny Depp).  Tonto believes that Reid has been brought back to life for a reason and the two agree to help one another out as they uncover Cavendish’s villainous plan, which involves silver mining and the Trans-continental railroad.  In order to protect his identity, Reid soon assumes the name of the “Lone Ranger.”
The film’s best aspect is that it does present the world of the “Lone Ranger” very well.  The film is gorgeously shot and feels quite epic at times.  You can defiantly see where all the money went on screen.  The movie presents a version of the West that’s both familiar to audiences, but also skewed a bit to feel unique and of it’s own world.  This was very clear in a scene where The Lone Ranger and Tonto visit a brothel owned by a madam named Red (Helena Bonham Carter).  First of all, I think this is the first time that I can recall seeing prostitution depicted openly in a Disney film, and second of all, it’s a spectacular set piece.  There’s a lot of macabre details thrown about here that really shows off the scale of the film, like an elevated boxcar used to create an arched entrance to the brothel, as well as a carnival atmosphere surrounding it.  Gore Verbinski seems to be channeling Sam Raimi a bit in these scenes, with a mix of both the weird and the epic working throughout, which is understandable given that he did much of the same in Pirates of the Caribbean films.  Though it may have the same vibe as Pirates, I do credit the film for not being a carbon copy of that franchise.  It does have a unique tone that helps it stand apart.
Where the film falls apart, however, is in it’s story.  The Lone Ranger is 2 1/2 hours long, and most of that is due to a lot of needless padding.  You’ll find a lot of scenes that could have been resolved with a simple 30 second conversation turned into lengthy ten minute long action set pieces that have no point to them.  This is clear at the beginning when Tonto and John Reid are trying to escape from a runaway train.  The scene is action packed and features some nice effects work, but it just goes on and on, and in the end has nothing to do with the rest of the plot other than to have the two heroes meet for the first time.  Many other scenes are like that and they do little to enhance what is ultimately a very paper thin plot.  The writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (the same men who wrote the Pirates movies) throw out a lot of twists and turns in the story that show some cleverness, but in the end don’t really add up to much.  The plot is cliche riddled and the big plot mysteries could be figured out within five minutes by a kindergartner.  While some of the Pirates movies could feel bloated at times, there was a sense of urgency that helped to propel the stories along.  Here, it’s missing because the writers seemed to put more effort into the story’s tone rather than the plot.
The characters are a mixed bag as well.  When it comes to the main characters, The Lone Ranger and Tonto work for the most part.  I’m actually glad that Johnny Depp doesn’t just copy his Jack Sparrow shtick in his portrayal of Tonto.  You can tell he put the work into crafting a whole new character, though like Captain Sparrow, the character is mostly played for laughs.  Depp certainly helps carry the film along, and you can see why the filmmakers wanted to play upon his charisma here.  The Lone Ranger is not as smoothly portrayed unfortunately.  Here, John Reid is more Jimmy Stewart than John Wayne.  But, to Armie Hammer’s credit, he plays that aspect of the character very well.  I found myself enjoying his performance and I believe that he can work well as a leading man.  The fault in the character is in how he’s written and not how he’s portrayed.  A lot more could have been done with the development of the Lone Ranger, who unfortunately has the spotlight taken away from him by his more colorful sidekick; as well as a scene-stealing horse.
The villains are also a mixed bag.  William Fichtner gives what is probably the film’s best performance as Butch Cavendish; one of the most loathsome and graphically violent villains to ever appear in a Disney film, if not the most.  Fichtner chews up the scenery throughout the whole movie and brings some much needed life into the film whenever he’s on screen. Most importantly, he brings real menace to the character, which is missing from the film’s other villains.  Part of Cavendish’s characterization involves his taste for human flesh, which he demonstrates by cutting out someone’s heart at one point and eating it.  Graphic onscreen cannibalism, another first for the House of Mouse.  It all makes for a gruesome, but ultimately memorable character.  The same can’t be said for the film’s other villains.  Tom Wilkinson plays a railroad tycoon named Latham Cole, your typical corporate A-hole character who ultimately is behind everything.  Cole’s a bland, forgettable character and a complete waste of an actor as talented as Wilkinson.  Barry Pepper also appears as a prototypical and bland military hotshot, though Pepper does try to add a bit more depth to his performance.
Most of the problems that you can attribute to these characters and the plot is that there is a lot of time wasted on nothing but indulgent visual stimuli.  It all looks good for a second, but after a while, you just wish the story would move on.  The movie suffers a lot from this, until you get to the final climax, which truth be told is one of the best things I’ve seen this whole summer.  The final climax is actually a great, almost perfect finale, which makes you wonder why the rest of the movie wasn’t like it.  It involves a chase with two steam locomotives that’s both playful and heart-pounding at the same time; like something out of Indiana Jones.  I won’t spoil any more, but it almost makes the movie worth it in the end.  You just have to sit through a long 2 hours to get there.
So, again, why was this story worth $250 million?  I’m sure that Disney is asking that question right now.  There are flashes of brilliance thrown about, particularly at the end, but there’s a whole lot of nothing as well.  I think that if they had trimmed this film down to under two hours, they could have had a better movie.  It’s not a bad film by any means, and to be fair I did enjoy my time watching it. But I’m sure not many people out there share my same level of patience.  I think the movie is going to have a bad run domestically, and it might be a hard sell overseas; Westerns are not that big outside the U.S., unless they can capitalize on Depp’s popularity.  As far as bloated, over-budgeted Westerns go, this is still way better than Wild, Wild West (1999), which was just garbage.  There’s some value to The Lone Ranger in the end and you can admire the work that went into it.  Fans of the “Ranger” should be pleased as well as fans of the Western genre in general.  It maybe be an expensive and fatty meal, but it will still fill you up if that’s what you’re looking for.
Rating: 7/10

Stanley Kubrick at the LACMA – Film and Art Museum Report


Stanley Kubrick was an enormously popular filmmaker not just among his peers and among film buffs, but also within the art community at large.  The body of work that he has developed over the years has transcended all forms of art and collected all together, it is quite a sight to see on display. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) has always spotlighted the art of film within its galleries in the past.  Given that it’s in the “entertainment capital of the world,” I would be shocked if they hadn’t.  But I’m sure that few have been as impressive and as eye-catching as this recent exhibition on the filmography of Stanley Kubrick.  Kubrick made only 13 films in his whole career, which doesn’t sound like much, but each one of those films is considered a classic and they are touchstones for both the film history and cultural history over the last 50 years.  LACMA has put together an impressive collection of artwork, props, costumes and personal documents from each of Kubrick’s movies and has given everyone who visits a great visual history of both the man and his work.
Upon entering the gallery, you are greeted appropriately enough by a movie screen displaying selected scenes from Kubrick’s films.  The next room opens up with a large display of film posters at it’s center.  Some of the posters are pretty unique and ones I’ve never seen before, while others I’m sure can be seen hanging on the wall in any film buff’s home.  Across the floor, there is an impressive collection of the camera lenses that Kubrick used on all of his films, including the Todd-AO lenses used on 2001: A Space Odessey (1968) and the extremely large, light sensitive lens used on Barry Lyndon (1975).  The first room also showcases the early works of Kubrick, including Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus (1960), and Lolita (1962).  There is also a display of Kubrick’s collection of photos, taken during his early years as a photographer for Look magazine.  It’s a lot to display in the first room, and I wish that there had been more emphasis on certain films, particularly with Spartacus and Dr. Strangelove (1963).  I did however find the photography section fascinating, mainly because it shows how Kubrick trained his eye early on in photography, which would have a huge influence in the years ahead.
The next room highlights Kubrick’s most renowned film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.  This section was the largest in the gallery, and definitely the most popular as well.  On display are original costumes, as well as set pieces like the bright red lounge chairs found on the orbiting space station.  You’ll also find elements used in the making of the special effects in the film, such as the miniature model of the spaceship and the “Star Child” itself.  There’s a collection of research materials found throughout, which gives you a good idea just how well thought out and researched the whole film was.  The displays are impressive, and this is where the exhibition really demonstrates why film art has it’s place within an art museum.  Everything on display demonstrates the work that goes into creating a striking visual image, and each can stand on its own as a work of world-class art.  This is the first room in the gallery that focuses on a singular film, but it’s not the last, as the gallery devotes the rest of it’s space to the later years of Kubrick’s career.
The next section showcases Barry Lyndon, which was a unique film in itself.  The most interesting thing about the movie is that Kubrick used space-age technology to tell a very old-fashioned period piece.  What he did was use very high tech cameras, with the same lenses used by NASA on the Hubble Telescope, to shoot interiors with no artificial light.  It was a technique never done before on film, and it made Barry Lyndon one of the most intentionally artistic films in Kubrick’s career.  It’s good to see that Barry Lyndon is given a lot of attention in this gallery, given how groundbreaking it was in terms of how it was shot.  On display here is the actual “A” camera itself, along with a collection of costumes used in the film.
The next two rooms cover two of Kubrick’s darker films, A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980).  These rooms are not quite as detailed as the 2001 room, but do feature some great pieces within.  Primarily, there are a lot of the props from the films displayed here.  You’ll find the mannequins from the Kerouva Milk Bar and the cane used by Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, as well as the typewriter and fire ax props from The Shining.  Also on display are some original costumes, including the dresses worn by the two girls in the hallway from The Shining.  Both rooms also do a nice job of matching the color schemes of the two films, with Orange obviously dominating the first room, and stark white walls and blood red carpet dominating the room after it.  Given that these are two of my favorite Kubrick movies, this was obviously one of my favorite sections of the gallery.  They may not have been given the same amount of space as 2001, but it’s still a great display nonetheless.
Kubrick’s last films, Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) are given less attention, with only a few props and documents available.  The remainder of the gallery covers the research that went into a project that Kubrick never got to make.  It was a film named The Aryan Papers, which would have been Kubrick’s attempt at a Holocaust film.  Kubrick poured a lot of time and effort into researching the story, but he ultimately abandoned it mainly because Schindler’s List (1993) was about to be released by Kubrick’s friend Steven Spielberg, and because he believed that it was too depressing a subject matter for him to get right.  This section as well as other sections devoted to abandoned projects by Kubrick, like Napoleon and A.I. Artificial Intelligence, give a fascinating look into what might have been.  The Napoleon project in particular looks like it could have been a very impressive epic, and some of the location research into authentic French palaces gives a nice sense of the kind of scale Kubrick was going for.  It also helps to underline the overall theme of the gallery, which is to show the evolution of an artist from one project to another.
Overall, this was a worthwhile exhibit to visit and I recommend it to anyone who is a fan of both art and film.  Residents in Los Angeles should hurry though, since the exhibition ends on June 30th, meaning this is the final week to see it.  Admission to the gallery is $20 for adults and it includes admission to all other galleries at LACMA, which has a very impressive collection of both classic and contemporary art.  The Kubrick exhibit was definitely the highlight of my trip, given how much a fan I am of film in general.  As a writer, I especially liked the fact that every section of the gallery included Kubrick’s personal copies of the scripts for each pertaining film.  You get to look over the notes he written on certain scenes, which gives a glimpse into seeing the artist cultivating new ideas on the fly.  There’s so much I could go on about, but it’s better to see it for yourself if you can.  Kubrick is a filmmaker worthy of a place within an art gallery and LACMA should be proud of the show they put on in honor of this visionary man.

Man of Steel – Review


Superman has always had a shaky history making it to the big screen.  The character has single-handedly been responsible for some of the most beloved superhero films of all time, as well as some of the absolute worst.  Undoubtedly, there have been more iterations of this character on both the big and small screens than any other superhero, but is it because no one can get the character right?  Hardly.  The Richard Donner-directed, Christopher Reeve-starring Superman:The Movie (1978) is rightfully considered a classic and is still considered a gold-standard by which most superhero movies are judged by today.
The problem with Superman is that he’s a somewhat out-of-date character who constantly needs to redefined to appeal to modern audiences.  Superman was created in a more innocent, pre-WWII period in comic publishing when readers were able to accept the idea of a super-strong man solving crime in tights and a cape.  In the years since, as the world had become a harsher place, more grounded characters like Batman and Spiderman eclipsed the Man of Steel in popularity, and have found an easier road to box-office success.  Superman has had to re-adapt more times than these characters who stay unchanged across history, and this has become the common thread in his cinematic adventures.  Ever since the Christopher Reeve era, we’ve seen no less than 6 new Superman reboots in film and television;  2 on the big screen, 2 on the small screen, and 2 in animation.  Following 2006’s lackluster Superman Returns, we have another, more grittier reboot of the Superman franchise in 2013’s Man of Steel.  Does the film mark a triumphant return of the character, or does it reinforce the character’s irrelevance in modern times?  The former is thankfully what I experienced after watching the movie; for the most part.
The story covers familiar ground for anyone who is a fan of Superman.  It’s pretty much the origin story retold again, but with some significant departures here and there.  In this version, we see Jor-El (Russell Crowe) sending his infant son Kal-El to Earth as the planet Krypton is in it’s final days.  At the same time, the vengeful General Zod (Michael Shannon) is sentenced to exile for attempting a military coup on Krypton.  Zod vows to escape his imprisonment with the intent of finding the son of the man who betrayed him, Jor-El.  Young Kal-El makes it safely to Earth and grows up on a farm raised by the Kents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), who name him Clark and help him learn how to focus his unusual powers as well as teach him the moral ways to use them.  As an adult, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) searches out the clues to his past and learns the purpose of why he was meant to be Krypton’s last survivor.  Once he finally dons the cape, he encounters a tireless journalist named Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who becomes both a confidant and a resourceful ally as he begins to build his new identity as Superman.  Unfortunately, this also draws the attention of General Zod, who has made it to Earth with the intention of building a new Krypton, committing mass genocide in the process.
The film takes a few liberties with the Superman mythos and I’m sure that it will split the audiences’ reaction to the film.  For the most part, I really liked the new direction taken with the story of Superman.  It’s more grounded and less reverential to what has come before it.  The good aspects of the Superman character are expanded upon in a big way and the film takes on a very epic feel.  When Superman flies in this movie, it’s with the speed and velocity of a fighter jet, and the film conveys that adrenaline rush perfectly.  At the same time, the movie downplays or outright removes some of the cornier aspects of the character and his mythology.  The relationship between him and Lois Lane is much more maturely portrayed here than in previous installments.  Sorry Donner’s Superman fans, but there’s no romantic nighttime flight with Lois in this version.  The role of Jor-El in this movie is also expanded upon in a way that actually benefits the film’s structure without getting in the way.
A lot of credit goes to director Zack Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan for resisting the urge to play it safe with the character.  This film is a reboot in the truest sense of the word.  The problem that I had with Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was that it was trying to hard to be a continuation of the original Richard Donner Superman, which caused it to lack an identity and in the end made it a complete bore of a film.  In Man of Steel, there is no confusing this with any other version of the character.  This is a Superman film we have truly never seen before.  I would compare this to how different the Christopher Nolan Batman films are to the Tim Burton ones.  Both have their merits and are interesting interpretations of the character, but can stand on their own apart from one another.  Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel does what Batman Begins did, which is make a clean slate for the character, unbound from everything that has defined him in the past.
The difficult thing with doing a franchise reboot is that you’ve got to deliver a whole lot of back-story that audiences already know and still make it feel fresh.  Man of Steel does manage to fit in a lot of story without feeling forced or bloated, but not everything works so well as a whole.  One thing that does drag the film down is the lack of character development, particularly with Superman himself.  Clark Kent is a fairly one-dimensional character here, who doesn’t go through a whole lot of change throughout the story.  The film is missing a lot of his inner-turmoil, which is briefly touched upon in childhood flashbacks, but never fully fleshed out.  Once Clark becomes Superman, it feels more like an inevitability rather than a payoff to the man’s journey in life.  To his credit, actor Henry Cavill does the best he can to give the character some weight, and he does come off charming as the character, which is a good thing.  But I believe that writer David Goyer should of done a better job of fleshing out the characters here, because they mostly feel like archetypes rather than individuals.
The most rounded character in the film oddly enough is Jor-El, who manages to become a surprisingly involved character in this story-line.  I won’t go into too much detail as to what role he plays in the movie, but his presence does add a little extra depth to the overall story.  Thanks to a balanced performance by Russell Crowe, Jor-El manages to come off as noble, heroic, resourceful, and even sometimes funny, which helps the character stand out amid the rest.  I also like the portrayal of Lois Lane in the film.  We see a lot more of her tenacity and resourcefulness as an investigative reporter here than in any other version of the character.  Amy Adams manages to make the role her own without straying too far from the essentials of the character.  She especially captures Lois’ determination, showing us just how good she is at her job.   Michael Shannon chews up a lot of scenery as the villainous Zod, but he manages to keep it from becoming a distraction and works it well into this film.  In addition, Diane Lane and Kevin Costner give nice grounded performances as Clark’s adoptive parents.  Most of the performances do manage to work in this movie, even if the material is lacking.
Comparisons to Nolan’s Batman reboot are going to be inevitable, and I’m not going to say that Man of Steel reaches that level of success.  What Batman Begins did so well was to build up the character of Bruce Wayne and explain to us why he became the Batman.  Man of Steel doesn’t have that same kind of depth and instead we are shown the “how” of Superman’s origin and not the “why”.  What the film does deliver well is the action.  We see Superman doing what he does best in newer and bigger ways.  This is far and away the most ambitious Superman film I’ve ever seen; at least on a technical level.  Zack Snyder is a visual filmmaker first and foremost, and he does not hold back on the imagery here.  Man of Steel is a very pretty film to look at, and thankfully it is a stylish departure for the franchise.  While it may anger some fans, I am glad to see DC Comics and Warner Bros. taking risks again with this iconic character.  Whether or not everything works in this reboot, it is a step in the right direction and I’ll eagerly anticipate whatever comes next for Superman.
Rating: 7.5/10

This is….