Ecstasy for Gold – The Cutthroat Campaigns of Awards Season


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

Focus on a Franchise – Back to the Future


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

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


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

Top Ten Movies of 2013


We have reached the beginning of a new year, and that inevitably gives us all a chance to look back at the year that was 2013.  This was for the most part a tumultuous year for Hollywood.  While a few films performed very well, there were many others that crashed and burned, and in larger numbers.  This year we saw a great deal of $200 million budgeted films bomb, which has led many people in the industry to reconsider what films they should be making.  For me as a viewer, I do agree that 2013 was a mixed bag.  This summer in particular featured a lot of underwhelming films, apart from a few bright spots.  Thankfully the end of the year proved to be strong, with all of the Oscar contenders coming out in the Fall; many of which are very deserving of their accolades.  Thanks to the fall season’s strong showing, I was able to have enough good choices to fill out my list of the ten best films of the year, and given the overall quantity of movies that I watched in 2013, I was also able to choose five picks for my worst movies list.
Before I begin, I want to list the films that didn’t make my top 10, but were still ones that I liked and are worthy of an honorary mention: 42, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Blue Jasmine, Captain Phillips, The Croods, Inside Llewyn Davis, Monsters University, Prisoners, Rush, Star Trek Into Darkness, Thor: The Dark World, This is the End, The Wolverine and World War Z (probably the biggest surprise of the year).  Now keep in mind, I haven’t seen movies like Her or August: Osage County yet, so you won’t find them here, and they wouldn’t count anyway because I’m only counting films I saw in the calendar year.  With all that said, let me start the countdown of the BEST FILMS OF 2013.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee
This was a stellar year for Matthew McConaughey, moving away from the “surfer dude” persona he held onto for many years to where he is now taking chances as an actor with some very challenging and gritty roles.  McConaughey left a mark with his critically lauded indie film Mud early this year, and he also turned in a memorable cameo in Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, but this is the film that really left a mark on me and made me respect McConaughey even more as an actor.  In the movie, he plays a real-life character named Ron Woodroof, a bigoted rodeo cowboy who gets infected with AIDS and the film chronicles his transformation into a crusader for reform in the American health system.  The reason why I liked the movie so much is because it challenges us, mainly through McConaughey’s stellar performance, to follow the character arc of a very flawed human being and rewards us with a narrative that touches the heart without pandering to it.  McConaughey lost a staggering amount of weight for the role and looks unrecognizable as the AIDS stricken Woodroof.  It’s a performance that proved to be a breakthrough and helped to make this one of the best movie experiences of the year for me.
Directed by Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s classic novel has left a lot of people mixed, debating whether or not the book should have been split over three films.  And while these Hobbit movies still don’t quite meet that high standard left by The Lord of the Rings films, they nevertheless are still a lot of fun to watch.  Like the first Hobbit movie, The Desolation of Smaug managed to just squeeze into my top 10.  In some ways, I think it may actually be better than the first movie.  It’s better paced, larger in scale, and it features one of the most spectacular giant monsters ever put on the big screen.  The titular dragon is definitely the film’s greatest triumph, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was everyone else’s favorite part of the movie as well, even among the films many critics.  But, the reason why I loved this film, and all the other Tolkein movies that came before it, is in the way that it reveals the world of Middle Earth to us.  Peter Jackson utilizes his native New Zealand beautifully as the locations in this movie, and every new location revealed helps to fill out the map of this spectacular world that the books and movies have shared with us.  My hope is that the Hobbit series ends in a spectacular way with There and Back Again this next December and lives up to the foundation left by these first two films.
Directed by Alexander Payne
Alexander Payne is one of the most unassuming filmmakers working in the business, and he continually surprises me with his simple and yet thoroughly enjoyable films.  In 2002, I picked his About Schmidt as my favorite film from that year and Nebraska thankfully falls into the same kind of vein that that film did.  Nebraska, at it’s heart, is a tale about family bonds, and about how all the struggles and quirkiness in our daily family life defines our relationships to one another.  Alexander Payne does this kind of film better than anyone and he’s mastered this kind of Capra-esque portrayal of small town American life in his movies; highlighting all the foibles of society while at the same time showing the humanity as well.  Having come from a large, strongly bonded family in a rural state myself, I connected a lot with this movie.  Given that Payne himself is from the titular state, I’m sure that this film has a special connection to him too.  The performances, from Bruce Dern and SNL-alum Will Forte, are perfectly subdued, and actress June Squibb is a knockout delight as the no holds barred mother.  Also, the movie is one of the most beautifully shot black and white films that I’ve seen in a long while.  It is definitely worth seeing Alexander Payne’s love letter to Mid-Western Americana, and I’m sure no one will come away from this film in a bad mood.
Directed by John Lee Hancock
There has been a recent trend by the Academy Awards to reward films that make Hollywood look good or heroic; for good and for bad.  But no matter how the Academy votes, people should understand this; Saving Mr. Banks, while following that same pattern, is an excellent film regardless.  I had my doubts about this film, but thankfully the film surprised in many rewarding ways.  The movie shows author P.L. Travers early and tragic childhood in some unforgettably emotional flashbacks, and this is juxtaposed with her fights with filmmaker Walt Disney over the film rights to the Mary Poppins stories, which Travers refused to have altered.  What I loved about this movie is that, more than any other film I’ve seen, it is about the pre-production process of film-making.  We never see any actually filming of Mary Poppins (1964); instead we see what went into the planning of the movie, particularly from a writing standpoint, which makes this film especially intriguing for writers like me.  It’s shows film-making as a process of compromise and learning to let go of something dear for the good of the production.  In addition, the film has a well-rounded cast, led by Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks as Travers and Disney respectively.  I’m happy that the Disney company shared this little page of their own history for us, and better yet, didn’t try to water it down too much.
Directed by Edgar Wright
One of the big movie trends of 2013 that I’m sure most people recognized was a string of films focused on the apocalyptic end of the world.  The best of these films, however, was this hilarious British import from the team behind Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007).  The World’s End caps what director Edgar Wright has dubbed the Cornetto trilogy, named after an ice cream treat that appears in each of the three films, and The World’s End is a worthy addition to this series.  Without a doubt the most consistently funny film of the year, World’s End follows a group of middle-aged friends, with Simon Pegg as the dysfunctional leader, as they try to complete a bar crawl that they failed to finish when they were young, only to find out that everyone else in town have been replaced by androids intent on world domination.  Along with Pegg’s frequent co-star Nick Frost and a great ensemble cast, including The Hobbit‘s Martin Freeman and former 007 Pierce Brosnan, World’s End is one inspired comedic bit after another.  Connected in the Cornetto trilogy or not, I would have still loved every moment of this movie.  At a time where you find few original comedies that are actually fearless and take chances, The World’s End is like a breath of fresh air.
American Hustle poster
Directed by David O. Russell
Director David O. Russell has been on a roll lately with The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012) performing very well at the box office and at the Oscars.  American Hustle continues that trend and may be in fact Russell’s strongest film to date.  This movie has a lot going for it; strong performances from pretty much everyone in the cast, an intriguing plot at it’s center, and a visual aesthetic that perfectly fits within the time period it is depicting.  Not only that, but it’s also a lot of fun to watch.  The film is also kind of subversive in an entertaining way; where the main characters are taking down crooked politicians through the Abscam sting operation run by the FBI, and yet the politicians come off as more sympathetic.  In many ways, Russell is trying to do his own take on a Scorsese movie, and he pretty much accomplishes this task perfectly.  The period detail is astounding, completely drenching the audience in 1970’s sleaze.  The performances are uniformly excellent.  Russell seemed to have put together a super cast made up of the headliners of his last two films, with Fighter star Christian Bale at it’s center.  Amy Adams delivers probably her sexiest role to date and nearly steals the movie.  Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence also do great work here, as does an actor in a surprising cameo that I won’t spoil for you.  All in all, this movie deserves all the praise it’s gotten and features probably the best overall cast of the year.
Directed by Steve McQueen
Probably this years most challenging film, 12 Years a Slave depicts the horrors of slavery in the most visceral way yet that I’ve seen.  Adapted from the memoirs of Solomon Northup, which surprisingly hasn’t been adapted into a movie until now, this film chronicles the story of an African-American musician who was born and raised a free man, but was kidnapped, taken away from his family and sold into slavery, which he suffered through for the titular 12 years before he finally was set free.  Director Steve McQueen is known for his very artsy style in films like Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), and he utilizes it again to good effect here as well.  In many ways, the stylistic flourishes of the movie actually makes the shocking moments feel even harsher, because they contrast so much with the beauty put into the production design.  It’s a brutal movie, but one that I believe to very rewarding, much like how Schindler’s List (1993) would push it’s audience to the brink but in the end would leave them with a better understanding of the subject matter.  Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is unforgettable as Solomon Northup, and he commands every moment he’s on screen.  He’s also given solid support from the remaining cast including Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, and Michael Fassbinder as probably the most frighteningly sadistic plantation owner ever depicted.  It’s an enriching historical epic that I’m sure will stick with everyone.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
In a summer full of depressing, bland wannabe blockbusters, Pacific Rim was like a godsend and still ranks as one of the best experiences that I had at the movies this year.  Brought to us from the fertile mind of Guillermo del Toro, Pacific Rim does what any big-budget blockbuster should always do and that is to entertain, which it does right from it’s opening shot to the end credits; and even further if some of you caught the mid-credit extra scene.  What I love most about this movie is how assured it is.  It doesn’t try to make the plot too complicated or needlessly heavy in tone.  It’s also not winking at it’s audience, showing you how self-aware it is.  It revels in it’s silliness, and that in turn lets us the audience feel comfortable in enjoying the ride it takes us on.  The look of the film helps with the appeal.  It’s colorful and imaginative, especially when it comes to the designs of the monsters and the giant robots.  The actors in the movie likewise fit the tone of the film.  Their characters are generic archetypes, but done in the right way, helping to guide us along with the plot without showing off.  It’s pleasing when a prestigious director like Del Toro decides to just make something that’s fun and not pretentious.  He clearly knows the kinds of movies that he has fun watching, and thankfully he has shared that with us all as well with this film.  This movie should stand as a textbook example of how to do a tent-pole blockbuster right.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
I mentioned before that American Hustle represents another director’s successful attempt at making a Scorsese style film.  But one thing’s for sure, you can never top the master himself.  The Wolf of Wall Street is Scorsese’s most ambitious and stylistically alive film in many years.  A spiritual successor to movies like Goodfellas and Casino, this film has also proven to be one of his most controversial as well.  With it’s three hour run-time and unwavering depiction of sex, drugs and excesses in wealthy American society, it stands to reason why this film has been met with a lot of criticism.  I for one still loved the movie, and my appreciation for it continues to grow every time I think about it more.  Scorsese has never shied away from tough subject matters, and it impresses me a lot that he’s still capable of making a film this outrageous and fearless at his age.  I think over time people will understand more what Scorsese’s original intent was with this movie, and hopefully it will be considered one of his best works when all is said and done.  The film was certainly one of the best experiences I had watching a movie this year, even at three hours long.  I also think this may be the best performance I have seen yet from Leonardo DiCaprio, which is saying a lot.  He has managed to be in 3 of my number one picks for film of the year over the last decade: 2006’s The Departed, 2010’s Inception, and 2012’s Django Unchained.  And while he and Mr. Scorsese came close to the top again this year, they’ll have to settle for second, because….
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
This was the best overall movie that I saw in 2013.  While many of the other best films were unforgettable and entertaining in their own rights, this was the movie that I believed pushed the medium of film-making further, and created a truly unique experience.  It probably helped that I saw it on an IMAX screen, but even if I hadn’t, I would have still been impressed with this movie.  Director Cuaron has proven himself as a great visual artist through every movie he has made so far, but here he takes all of his tricks and utilizes them in ways we didn’t know were possible on film before.  The movie is like a checklist of every film-making technique done to perfection; with the use of first-person POV, unbroken single shots, and hand-held photography taken to the very extremes and executed flawlessly.  The story at it’s center is simple, and it doesn’t need to be anymore complicated than it is.  I like the fact that Cuaron just focused on the situation at hand and didn’t try to fill the movie with needless exposition.  At the same time, I don’t believe there has ever been a movie that was set entirely in outer space like this before.  Even Kubrick’s 2001 gave us more Earth-bound moments.  This movie was a conceptual and visual triumph, delivering on all of it’s potential.  For a movie to make the top of my list, it has to raise the bar for quality film-making better than any other film in the year and no movie did that better than Gravity.
So, these are my choices for the best films of 2013, but given that I saw quite a few movies this year, I’d also like to share with you 5 movies that I considered to be the worst of 2013.  Keep in mind, I tend to ignore movies that I know are going to be bad, instead choosing to see films that I am more interested in and hoping are good.  That’s why you won’t see Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups 2 or M. Night Shaymalan’s After Earth on this list.  Instead, these are films that were not only bad, but disappointing to me in the end.
IRON MAN 3 – What could have been an entertaining sequel to some really fun movies is undermined by a horrible twist in the second act that derails the entire film.  Not to mention that it also ruins a famous character from the comics and spits in the eye of anyone who wanted to see this character fully realized in this movie.  Not even Robert Downey Jr. could save this enormous disappointment
A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD – The sad mediocre end of a once proud franchise.  This one especially hurt me as a fan of the original Die Hard and it’s lesser but still enjoyable follow-ups.  It’s probably time to retire John McClane as a character, but this is hardly the sendoff he deserves.
WHITE HOUSE DOWN – The lesser of the “Attacking the White House” movies this year.  Olympus Has Fallen had some cheesy fun to it, but White House Down was just maddeningly dull and stupid.  It also represents a new low for director Roland Emmerich, who’s track record is already not too good.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER – Of all the big box office bombs that came out this year, this was the most insufferable to sit through.  Clumsily acted by a cast that should have been better, and lazily directed by Bryan Singer, who I know can do better, this was a baffling mess of a movie.
And the worst film of 2013 is…
ELYSIUM – I already ripped this film apart plenty in my review, but this makes the top of my worst list simply because it angered me more than any other movie.  Pretentious, horribly acted, ugly to look at, childishly simplistic in it’s morals, and just overall infuriating to sit through.  This doesn’t encourage me at all about the trajectory that director Neill Blomkamp’s career is taking, especially considering how much I liked District 9.  This film is the very definition of a sophomore slump.  Where Pacific Rim was an example of a “summer” film done right, Elysium is a perfect example of the opposite.  A colossal failure on every level and one that I hope Blomkamp never repeats again.
So, these were the films that defined the year of 2013 in my opinion.  This was a significant year for me considering that I began writing this blog during this time.  Hopefully 2014 will be a better year for movies.  Some of the films that I’m looking forward to are the third and final Hobbit movie, There and Back Again, as well as a couple biblical epics from Ridley Scott (Exodus) and Darren Aronofsky (Noah), as well as a hopefully strong return to form for Bryan Singer with X-Men: Days of Future Past.  And let’s hope that 2014’s summer season will be a better one than last years.  I promise to continue writing this blog and covering my thoughts of the year in cinema just like I have over the course of 2013, and hopefully it will be a thought provoking discussion for both myself and all of my readers as well.

The Wolf of Wall Street – Review


Martin Scorsese has rightfully positioned himself as one of the definitive film directors of this or any era, and it’s not hard to see why.  Movies like Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and Goodfellas (1990) are considered masterpieces to audiences and critics alike.  But what I like about Scorsese the most is his enthusiasm for the art of film-making as a whole.  Over the years, he has strongly supported the efforts of film preservation and has shepherded the careers of rising stars in the cinematic community, as well as being a strong defender of creative freedom for all filmmakers.  And while he has done a lot for the film community at large, I still am happy to see him take chances with his own projects.  Scorsese may have branded himself early by making gritty crime thrillers like Goodfellas, but his filmography shows that he’s capable of making a mark in other genres as well; such as biblical epics like The Last Temptation of Christ (1986), or historical biopics like The Aviator (2004), or even a family friendly film like 2011’s Hugo.  That’s why I respect Scorsese so much as a director, because he refuses to rest on his laurels and churn out the same kind of movie over and over again.  At the same time, while his films may be diverse, you can still see a distinctive style that’s trademark Scorsese in each one of them, and that’s something that you will find in abundance in his newest film, The Wolf of Wall Street.
Wolf of Wall Street arrives in theaters this week with a whopping 179 minute run-time, the longest film in Scorsese’s career.  That may be off-putting for some people who dislike watching anything over 2 hours long in a movie theater, but believe me, this is not some overblown, contemplative epic yarn.  This may very well be the nuttiest and most demented three hour experience I have ever had watching a movie in a theater, and I got to say, I kind of loved it because of that.  The film is adapted from the memoir of Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street hot shot who ultimately went to jail for illegal trading, and the movie doesn’t shy away from every deprave moment of this man’s life.  To give you a good idea of what I’m talking about, no more than five minutes into the movie, you will see star Leonardo DiCaprio snorting cocaine out of the butt hole of a stripper.  That’s the kind of movie that you are in for and it just gets crazier from there.  I for one loved just how ridiculous this movie gets and I’m sure that’s what Scorsese intended for this movie as well.  We’re supposed to infer a lesson from this film, which is seeing the culture of Wall Street and what kind of sick and twisted people we’ve had in charge of our economy over the last 20-30 years. The best thing that Scorsese does is to not turn this film into a moralistic cautionary tale.  Here he’s mocking those who should be mocked and he treats this whole series of events like the circus that it is.
The story begins in the mid-80’s where a fresh out of college Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) starts a career as a stock broker in a bustling Wall Street brokerage firm.  While there, he learns the true shady nature of the business from the head broker, played by Matthew McConaughey in a hilarious cameo.  When Jordan loses his job after the crash of Black Monday, he starts anew, trading penny stocks in an accounting office which he soon turns into his own brokerage firm in no time.  Soon he adds another shady salesman to his team named Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), who also introduces Jordan to the world of heavy drugs.  With the combined tenacity of Jordan and his team, they soon create the firm of Stratton Oakmont Inc., which has no meaning other than they needed a name that sounded professional.  For the remainder of the film, we see what lies behind the professional exterior of Wall Street and, as portrayed by Scorsese here, it is a place where a fight or an orgy could break out at any minute.  We also see the depths that people go to when they have unlimited wealth, which seems to be only limited to the imagination of the people perpetrating them.  There’s soon shown a constant stream of hookers, booze, drugs, and even dwarf tossing.  And the most outrageous thing is that not a single character in the movie is ashamed of any of this.  The only character that has any moral center in the movie is a federal agent played by Kyle Chandler, whose dogged investigation leads to the eventual denouement that these characters are ultimately headed towards.
Scorsese doesn’t shy away from any of the more twisted moments in these people’s lives and I do give him credit for not taking the easy narrative angles that could have been taken in the film’s adaptation.  With the help of screenwriter Terrence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), The Wolf of Wall Street gets it’s point across without implanting any obvious moral subtext underneath.  The movie is less about who these people are and more about what they are doing, which is what the filmmakers wants us to focus on.  Given the rough state of our economy, many of us wonder where it all went wrong and this movie gives us one possible answer.  It’s not any one person that brought ruin to the economy, but rather a culture built around doing whatever it takes to become rich, even if it’s illegal.  What Scorsese wanted to do with this movie was to strip back the facade of professionalism and class that Wall Street tries to present itself as, and show us that in reality it’s all just one big frat party.  And to Scorsese’s credit, he manages to make this showcase entertaining without ever making it feel like it’s exploitation.  I’m surprised that of all things that this film would end up being, it ended up a comedy, but upon reflection, how could it be anything else.  The only other time Scorsese made a black comedy, it was the very underrated The King of Comedy (1983), and Wolf of Wall Street is very much in that same vein.
One thing that really helps to shape the tone of this film is the performances of the actors, and in particular, Leonardo DiCaprio.  This is probably the loosest performance that I have seen from Leo in his entire career, and that helps to make him so memorable in this film.  He’s cocky, in-your-face (literally, since the film often has him break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience) and is constantly reveling in his bad behavior, all of which DiCaprio delivers perfectly.  Honestly, it’s hard to believe that this is the same guy who headlined Titanic (1997), because the performances couldn’t be more different.  This is one of the most unashamedly, morally depraved characters I have seen at the center of a movie, and it just looks like Leo is having a blast playing him.  This is DiCaprio’s fifth collaboration with Scorsese, and I think that it’s been a partnership that has really enriched the careers of both men.  Apart from a sleep-inducing performance by DiCaprio in Gangs of New York (2002), he has gotten better through each role in Scorsese’s movies and this is the best one he’s done to date.  I love the fact that Leo is willing to take on an un-glamourous role like this which really challenges him as an actor.  This is especially helpful when you have to play a character that’s both charming and hate-able at the same time.
The rest of the cast also helps to make the film worthwhile.  Jonah Hill manages to create a character that just feels like he was always meant to be in this kind of shady business.  His performance could have easily turned into ugly caricature if done wrong, but Jonah finds just that right balance between funny and sleazy, which helps to put him in the same league as DiCaprio.  In fact, many of the best scenes in the film are the ones where the two actors are working off of each other.  One in particular is an extended fight scene between the two characters after they are both incapacitated from excessive consumption of quaaludes, which leads to some hilarious back and forth exchanges.  The remainder of the cast is full of many recognizable faces, all of whom add flavor to the film as a whole.  Rob Reiner delivers a nice fiery performance as Jordan’s accountant father, as does Jon Favreau as his legal consultant.  The aforementioned McConaughey delivers some great moments in his early scenes.  Australian newcomer Margot Robbie is also a standout as Jordan’s disgruntled second wife Naomi, and she manages to leave an impression among all these other heavy hitters.  It’s an all around solid supporting cast which Scorsese is famous for assembling in many of his movies.
One thing that you’ll also find apparent in the film is the distinctive Scorsese style.  This, probably more than any movie that he’s made since 1995’s Casino, feels like a Scorsese film.  Whether it’s the first person narration, the use of period details and music, or the unflinching excess of violence and debauchery on screen, these are things that have come to define the look and feel of a Scorsese movie.  The Wolf of Wall Street has all of that and feels very close in tone and style to something like Casino or Goodfellas.  Only this time, instead of the mafia, he’s depicting a whole different set of criminals.  I’m really impressed with how Scorsese is still able to make movies with this kind of energy and style after so many years.  You would swear that a movie like this was made by some fresh maverick director and not a seasoned veteran, but that’s a testament to how daring a filmmaker he is.  And the fact that he has made this a three hour long comedy is another sign of how confident he is in his abilities to make a film.  For any one who likes the Scorsese style, this movie will surely be a welcome treat.
One thing that I especially like in Scorsese’s movies is the different ways that he plays around with the formats of his film.  Apart for the aforementioned breaking of the fourth wall narration in the movie, Scorsese also plays around with cinematic styles.  The film actually breaks away from the narrative at points and showcases things like a commercial break for the Stratton Oakmont company that’s depicted in the movie, or showing us a full-length infomercial for Jordan Belfort’s seminar, which ends hilariously with his arrest by the feds while the video camera is still rolling.  It’s clever little injections like these that help to make Scorsese’s movies feel alive and visually interesting.  I especially like how the commercials themselves just reek of eighties nostalgia.  It reminded me of when the movie Casino suddenly introduces the “Aces High” TV show, mainly as a part of the narrative but also to parody shows of that time period in a tongue in cheek way.  Also, Scorsese also has a lot of fun with slow motion photography and extended hand-held shots in the movie.  It’s a clear sign of someone using all the tricks in the filmmakers handbooks to make their film feel alive through every single moment.  This has been a trademark of all of Scorsese’s movies and here he makes the most out of everything he’s learned as a filmmaker.
One thing I will say is that while I enjoyed the film immensely, it certainly is not for everyone.  I know many people will be turned off by the 3 hour run-time, but a good many more people will believe that the film is too indulgent as well.  Scorsese does run the risk of having this film look like an endorsement for this kind of lifestyle, but that’s only because it’s being told from the first person account of someone who is unashamed of what he has done.  I don’t believe that Scorsese’s intent was to ever exploit the excesses of these people’s lives for our entertainment.  In the end, he’s asking us to actually look deeper, behind the facade, and see these people for who they really are and not what they say they are.  In that regard, I believe that The Wolf of Wall Street is a brilliantly crafted film.  It’s visually exciting, brilliantly acted, and it feels right at home with all of Scorsese’s other movies.  This film may generally gets a mixed reaction from audiences, and truthfully I don’t blame some of them if they say that they found the whole thing disgusting.  It’s a challenging movie to sit through, but in the end, I found it incredibly rewarding.  Mostly, I just admire the fact that the film goes to places that you would never expect a 3 hour film to go, and it does it fearlessly and with a great amount of confidence.  Of course, what else would you expect from a master filmmaker like Martin Scorsese.
Rating: 9/10

Evolution of Character – Ebenezer Scrooge


Hollywood has run into the habit of reusing ideas and stories over and over again, which has led many people to believe that the industry is devoid of original ideas.  While some films can feel flat and unoriginal, it is still understandable why Hollywood continues to recycle old properties.  And whenever something original does appear in the film market, it will likely spawn it’s own franchise and continue the cycle once again.  Many filmmakers often look to works of literature or historical documents for inspiration and they usually make an adaptation of something that has already been attempted by someone else.  The most interesting thing about multiple adaptations are the different variants that we do see portrayed in the characters of the story, and how they both define and redefine the stories through the multiple versions.  That is why I am starting this new series of articles where I look at characters that have made it to the silver screen multiple times through different interpretations, and examine how well they have stayed true to their roots and/or how they’ve been redefined over time.
Because we are now days away from Christmas, I thought that a worthy candidate to examine in this article would be Mr. Humbug himself, Ebenezer Scrooge.  Scrooge, the main protagonist from Charles Dickens’ perrenial classic, A Christmas Carol, has been one of the most widely reused characters in cinema history.  It seems like there are hundreds of cinematic versions of A Christmas Carol, all with Scrooge at the forefront, as well as many Christmas themed films that feature some Scrooge-esque character in some fashion.  No matter where he turns up, Ebenezer Scrooge has almost become as recognizable a Christmas icon as Santa himself.  And it’s not hard to see why.  The story of a cynical, uncaring old man who hates Christmas until he is visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve and is shown the true purpose of the holiday is a heartwarming story for anyone to enjoy at this time of year.  The narrative is less about the Christmas season, and more about how we treat our fellow man; a lesson that Scrooge is in desperate need of learning.  Dickens wrote the story to highlight class inequality in his time, but unlike many of his other stories, Christmas Carol has a more optimistic outlook.  It’s Scrooge’s redemption that we find so inspirational and it’s no wonder why so many filmmakers have wanted to tackle this story over the years.  I have chosen a few of the more notable adaptations of the character to look at and see how they have come to define the person that is Ebenezer Scrooge.
While A Christmas Carol has been adapted many times in cinema before this 1951 British production, this was the one that really left a mark and has gone on to become a universally beloved classic.  The film itself is well done and treats the source material with the respect that it deserves, but what makes it particularly memorable is the performance of actor Alastair Sim as Scrooge.  Talk about someone making the role all his own.  Sim’s performance is exactly what you want to bring old Ebenezer to life.  He’s intimidating and cruel during his harsher earlier moments in his office, but vulnerable and sympathetic when he takes his overnight journey with the ghosts.  Sim balances out both of these aspects perfectly, and always takes the role seriously.  While the acting style may seem old-fashioned to today’s audiences, it still comes across as charming, and is very much a representation of the old, classic Hollywood style.  No one can be sure if this is the way Charles Dickens wanted the character to be portrayed (he may have taken issue with some of the softening of the story’s darker themes), but Sim’s performance just feels right.  His work in this film has been the measuring stick for every version of Scrooge that has come after, and it’s easy to see why.  His version of Scrooge may not be the most interesting, or the most intense, but it is a version that probably defines the essentials of the character most clearly.
In between the Alastair Sim version of the character and this one, there were very few cinematic adaptations of the story.  The only noteworthy adaptation in between was an animated version where Scrooge was played by Mr. Magoo.  But in 1970, British filmmaker Ronald Neame took upon a lavish, musical version of Dickens classic story and cast Albert Finney in the iconic role.  Now, while the film features some beautiful set pieces and portrays it’s time period very well, the movie still does have a lot of flaws that keeps it from becoming a true classic.  One of the problems that I think hurts the film the most is the portrayal of Scrooge himself.  Albert Finney is a fine actor, and I don’t fault him for trying here, but his performance just doesn’t feel right for the character.  He portrays Scrooge more like a caricature of an old man rather than as fully-fledged human being.  In Dickens novel, we come to understand that much of Scrooge’s miserliness has come from a lifetime of hardship and disappointment, which has made him cold and uncaring.  Finney just boils that down to a permanent scowl and an aching back in his portrayal.  While the film looks nice, it feels hollow and I think that’s the fault of the filmmakers missing the point of the story.  You can make the film work with a more light-hearted tone, but it helps more when your main character feels authentic and less cartoony.
Speaking of cartoons, Disney Animation tackled Dickens story as well with their stable of classic characters filling all the roles.  Eternally optimistic Mickey Mouse was naturally cast as eternally optimistic Bob Cratchit; Goofy portrayed Scrooge’s deceased partner Jacob Marley; Jiminy Cricket stepped in as one of the Ghosts, as did Willie the Giant.  But, of course the role of Scrooge had to belong to Donald Duck’s wealthy uncle, who naturally was inspired originally by the classic character.  Scrooge McDuck was created by artist Carl Barks for the Donald Duck series of comic books in 1947, and surprising it took him this long to make it to the big screen.  The long wait proved to be worth it, as Scrooge McDuck fills the role perfectly.  Voiced by actor Alan Young, Scrooge is definitely the star of this adaptation and is even able to steal the spotlight away from the likes of Mickey Mouse himself.  It’s very likely that for anyone who grew up in the last 30 years (myself included), this was the version of the classic that we first became familiar with.  And that’s not a bad thing either.  It is a remarkable feat by the Disney company to tell the entire story in only a 25 minute run-time, and still get the essence of the story right.  I think that mainly has to do with having a Scrooge at the center that we can care about, which Scrooge McDuck indeed is.  His presence here was so effective in fact that McDuck was given his own TV series, Duck Tales, which has made him one of Disney’s more popular characters in recent years.
George C. Scott is an actor known for his intensity, which he brings to every role of his whether it requires it or not.  So, when this made for TV movie cast him in the role, you would think that Scott would have portrayed a very rough around the edges Scrooge.  But what is surprising about his performance here is actually his restraint, which as a result is a great benefit for the adaptation as a whole.  Like I mentioned before, Scrooge is a man who has gone through a lot of heartbreak and disappointment in order to get where he is, and that’s what has turned him into a miserable person.  George C. Scott captures that aspect of the character much better than Albert Finney did, and for that matter, even Alastair Sim.  This Scrooge proves to be the deepest and most interesting to date, because the production and the actor portraying him pull back the layers to show the man behind the rough facade.  This version of the story focus a lot more on who Scrooge really is and how every moment of his life has shaped he is today, and how that knowledge can help him to change.  Again, Scott treats the character with respect and dignity, which makes him all the more fascinating.  It’s unusual to find a film made for television that actually has this kind of depth to it, but that’s the result of having a quality performer at it’s center.  Scott could have gone over the top, but by showing restraint, he helped to redefine the way we see the character.
The great thing about adaptations is that if the story is strong enough in it’s overall themes, you can re-imagine it in any time period or setting that you want, as long as it stays true to the heart of the original intent.  With the 1988 comedy Scrooged, we find the classic tale depicted in a contemporary setting, with Ebenezer Scrooge re-imagined as a callous and self-absorbed TV executive named Frank Cross, played by the always brilliant Bill Murray.  Murray may not be the crotchety old man that we always associate with Scrooge, but he does perfectly capture the sharp cynicism of the character, in some very hilarious ways.  The film, directed by Richard Donner, is surprisingly dark for a comedy, and is definitely not geared towards a family audience like the other films I highlighted.  But thanks to Bill Murray’s excellent performance, we still get the essentials of A Christmas Carol here, particularly in the portrayal of Frank Cross’ redemption.  The particular highlight of the film is Bill Murray’s long winded monologue at the end, where he interrupts his own adaptation of the classic story, which is being broadcast live on TV, to show the lesson he has learned about the holiday spirit.  It’s silly and over-the-top, but man does Murray deliver it well, and the holiday spirit it inspires is infectious.  This scene in particular is why the film has become a beloved holiday classic on its own, and it shows that even Scrooges in our present day can still capture the imaginations of their audience.
Charles Dickens meets the Muppets.  Not a match that you would ever think would work, and I would be lying if I didn’t say that it doesn’t entirely come together perfectly here.  But, The Muppets Christmas Carol does have a lot of charm and actually manages to do a little-hearted take on the source novel that still retains much of the story’s core darkness.  And where I think the movie succeeds the most is in the casting of actor Michael Caine in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge.  Caine’s performance manages to be as light-hearted as Albert Finney’s, but retains the restraint of George C. Scott performance.  And it’s a balance that makes him a perfect fit for this sort of film.  I mean c’mon; his co-stars are all Muppets.  The fact that he’s able to look at these characters like they were real human beings and make it believable is just a testament to just how good of an actor he is.  At the same time, Michael Caine’s performance helps to ground the production as a whole, making the film work as a worthy adaptation of Dickens’ story, for the most part.  The film only suffers when it tries to inject some unnecessary modern jokes and gags into the narrative, but these are thankfully very minor.  Like with Mickey’s Christmas Carol, this is a version of the story that I’m sure many people were introduced to as kids, and thanks to Caine’s stirring performance, it a version that helps to helps to stay true to the character of Ebenezer Scrooge.
The most recent incarnation of the story-line brought Dickens’ classic into the digital age through motion capture technology.  Directed by Robert Zemekis, this film looks nice and portrays the classic Dickensian setting on a grand scale, but the motion capture technology used on the characters proves to be problematic.  While it is neat to see an actors physical performance translated into a digital character like it does here, it has the unfortunate effect of making the characters look plastic and hollow.  There comes a point where the characters reach what is known as the “Uncanny Valley,” where audiences sees something that looks real but they know it’s not, and as a result are repulsed by it.  That’s the unfortunate problem with films like this one, but the character that works surprisingly well in this movie is Scrooge himself.  It’s probably because he is being played by Jim Carrey, an actor known for his physical comedic styles, and he helps to make the character feel much more alive as a result.  Jim Carrey’s performance is a welcome standout in this problematic film and hopefully it will not be forgotten even after people loose interest in the motion capture mode of film-making over time.
As you can see, there are many different ways in which you can bring a character to the big screen through multiple adaptations, and what helps them stand out from one another shows us all the many layers you can add to the same individual.  Ebenezer Scrooge is fascinating not just as a Christmas icon, but also as an individual person.  We all like stories about redemption, even when it’s aided by something as unlikely as visits from the supernatural, and this has been the appeal behind the story all these years.  Even when you do the flipside of the story, like in It’s a Wonderful Life where a good man has to learn about his own value in order to be redeemed on Christmas Eve, we can still see the impact that this classic story has had, even when it’s not readily apparent.  Thankfully there have been some great Scrooges brought to the big screen over the years.  While I have a special attachment to the Scrooge McDuck version from my childhood, I nevertheless value George C. Scott’s multi-layered portrayal and Alastair Sim’s classic version of the character.  And who doesn’t love it when Bill Murray lets loose in his version.  Most likely we’ll be seeing old Ebenezer again on the big screen; probably sooner than later.  But, for this Christmas season, I’m sure that some of these versions will definitely be on many of your holiday playlists.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Review


Who would have ever believed that adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit to the big screen would be a more daunting task than adapting The Lord of the Rings.  After all, Rings is grander in scope and breadth, tackling heavier themes and showcasing intricately detailed cultures that exist solely within the world of Middle Earth.  The Hobbit by comparison was a simple standalone story geared more towards younger readers.  And yet, when director Peter Jackson was tasked with bringing Tolkien’s original classic to life on film, he somehow managed to make this short story into a three part behemoth that amazingly was a more complex production than his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.  Now, trying to expand a simple 300 page book into a trilogy of nearly three hour long movies was going to be problematic to some, and I acknowledge that there are some hiccups in this translation too, but I still admire Jackson’s attempt to actually make it work.  The pressure that Peter Jackson must be under as a filmmaker has to be overwhelming.  His adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a rare phenomenon in film history.  Fantasy films generally never escape their genre confines, and yet Rings somehow found a huge diverse fanbase, and the third film in the series, The Return of the King (2003), became the first fantasy film to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture.
Given the enormous popularity of Rings, it was inevitable that The Hobbit would also be given the big screen treatment.  But The Hobbit is not the ideal way to follow-up something like The Lord of the Rings.  Rings was intended as the sequel to the original novel, and Tolkien used his three volume tome to not only build upon The Hobbit, but to create an entire historical and cultural tapestry that enveloped both stories.  Because the Rings films came first, Peter Jackson had put himself in the difficult position of having to meet those higher expectations.  If Jackson had filmed the book as it was written, he may have alienated the Rings fanbase who wanted something bigger; and if he made it too big, and too much like Lord of the Rings, he might have upset some Tolkien purists.  Hence, this is why I admire Jackson’s determination to tackle the challenge.  He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.  He started production expecting it to be a two-parter spread across a two year release schedule, but after having shot so much footage during filming, Jackson made the controversial decision to split The Hobbit into a trilogy.  The first film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) premiered a year ago to a lot of fanfare and some generally mixed reactions.  Still, it did well enough to make people excited for this year’s follow-up; a movie that no body expected would ever exist, The Desolation of Smaug.
While some people were disappointed in the first film in the series, An Unexpected Journey, and I can completely understand why they would be upset, I was however generally pleased with the movie.  I admired the fact that Peter Jackson managed to recapture some of that Lord of the Rings magic, nearly a whole decade after the fact.  It wasn’t as successful as the Rings films story-wise, mainly because of the stretched out length and the slower pacing, but I still loved the fact that we were revisiting Middle Earth once again and exploring the corners yet unseen, while at the same time revisiting some of the highlights from The Lord of the Rings.  I placed An Unexpected Journey on my Top Ten from last year, so I was eagerly anticipating this follow-up film, and as it turns out, I loved it just as much as the first; but for very different reasons.  Much like the Lord of the Rings films were to each other, the two Hobbit movies are very different in tone.  An Unexpected Journey was more leisurely and light-hearted, while Desolation of Smaug is darker and more action-oriented.  While many moments are still played for laughs, this film does raise the stakes significantly, and hints at even heavier elements left to be seen in the third installment.  Also, like Journey, Smaug encounters some adaptation problems that can’t be ignored, particularly in the ways that Peter Jackson has stretched the story out.  But, even so, I found myself thoroughly entertained by this installment.
The story picks up right where An Unexpected Journey left off, with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and the company of dwarves still on the road to Erabor, the Lonely Mountain, the ancient seat of power of the Dwarf kingdom.  After finding themselves lost and delirious in the diseased forest of Mirkwood, the Dwarves are captured by the woodland Elves and taken to their forest sanctuary as prisoners.  There they meet the Elven king Thranduil (Lee Pace), his son Legolas (Orlando Bloom, returning to the character he played in the Rings trilogy) and a female elf named Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) who is more sympathetic to the dwarves plight.  Bilbo manages to help his companions escape by hiding them in barrels and sending them down a river.  Soon they find themselves in Lake Town, a settlement founded by the survivors of the destruction of the City of Dale, a place destroyed by the dragon Smaug.  They are helped out by a noble smuggler named Bard (Luke Evans) and soon leave for their fateful confrontation with the titular dragon, hoping to reclaim their ancestral home, and the treasure it contains, once again.
Anyone who’s read the book knows the story very well, and where it’s all ultimately leading.  The dilemma that Desolation of Smaug faces is the fact that it’s the middle chapter of a trilogy.  It has no beginning and no end (quite literally in this case).  But like with The Two Towers in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson took upon the task of making the middle chapter work on it’s own, and surprisingly came up with something very unique.  The Two Towers and Desolation of Smaug are films that feel freer in form than movies that surround them.  For one thing, they don’t need to spend a whole lot of time setting up characters and plot, because the first film has already done that work for them.  And it doesn’t have to wrap everything neatly in the end like a final chapter does, so that way it can leave more room for ambiguity.  That’s why I really admire these kinds of movies, particularly in Peter Jackson’s adaptations.  Desolation of Smaug succeeds because it has less of a burden put on it’s shoulders and feels more at ease in it’s storytelling.  An Unexpected Journey’s laborious exposition is probably what turned off a lot of people last year, but that’s something that you will not be able to find in this film.
If the movie has a fault, it’s in the extra bits that have been added that weren’t present in the original book.  Most of these additions I didn’t have a problem with in the movie, and for the most part, I think they enriched the movie’s narrative as a whole.  What I didn’t like though were some story elements that didn’t add anything to the film other than to pad the run-time.  This occurs mostly in the Lake Town sequences.  In these scenes, Peter Jackson injects a little political subtext and commentary into the story-line; particularly with a character called the Master of Lake Town (played by Stephen Fry).  Now, I greatly admire Mr. Fry both as an actor and as a human being, but his portrayal of the Master is really disappointing, and a waste of his actual talent.  I chalk this up more to the way that the character is written, which is very one-dimensionally, than to Fry’s performance, which could have been great if given better material.  Not only that, but the inhabitants of Lake Town are also very thinly drawn out, apart from Luke Evan’s Bard.  There’s even a servant character to the Master named Alfrid (Ryan Gage) who just comes off like a poor man’s Grima Wormtougne.  Also problematic is a love triangle that forms between Legolas, Tauriel, and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner); you heard that right.  Neither story element ruins the movie at all, and I kind of found the love story angle intriguing at times, but the movie works best when it moves away from these plot diversions and back to the story proper; which is Bilbo’s journey.
For me, there was a lot more to like in this story than to dislike, and of course the thing that most people will take away from this movie will no doubt be the titular dragon himself; Smaug.  Smaug has to be one of the most amazing creations in these films to date.  If you thought the creatures in The Lord of the Rings trilogy were massive, you’ll be blown away by the scale of this character.  Smaug really is the culmination of all the things that the effects wizards at Weta Digital have learned over the years they’ve worked with Peter Jackson.  The sense of scale is astounding; you really get a sense of how massive the character is through both his movement and how he interacts with his environment.  Of all the great cinematic dragons, including Malificent’s dragon form from Sleeping Beauty (1959) to the fearsome beasts in Dragonslayer (1981), to the charming Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon (2010), Smaug definitely ranks high among them, if not being the grandest of them all.  A lot of credit for the character should go to actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who not only gives the character a chillingly sinister voice, but also provided the motion-capture movements on which to base the character’s on-screen presence.  All of this helps to make Smaug the film’s greatest achievement.  To be honest, Smaug is a character that I have long wanted to see brought to life, ever since the first Lord of the Rings film was in theaters, and man did he not disappoint.  I’m very grateful that when it came to making this character a reality, Peter Jackson went above and beyond my expectations.
I should also say that the film does a very good job of building up the story-line without loosing its focus.  Apart from the troublesome parts that I already mentioned, the movie does hold together very well.  I actually think this is most briskly paced film in the series overall, Lord of the Rings included.  The movie keeps the tempo up from the very beginning and doesn’t let up even to the final shot.  It still clocks in at a lengthy 161 minutes, but that time will fly by quickly.  Even when the film reaches it’s finale (with the most cliff-hangery moment ever in one of these movies), you’ll  be left hungry for more.  I found this pace amazing, despite the fact that the movie does have its indulgent moments.  One scene in particular, the dwarves escape in wine barrels, goes on for so long and is so needlessly indulgent, that you would think it would hurt the film, but instead it actually is the best action scene in the movie.  With cases like this, we see where it worked better for Peter Jackson to add tension to a scene where there was none in the book.  In the original story, the dwarves escape down the river unopposed, but here they are chased by elves and the evil Orcs for a solid ten minute action scene.  It’s indulgent, but also a hell of a lot of fun and full of creative moments.  The audience I saw the movie with broke out in a cheer once the scene ended, and I certainly agree that it was a definite highlight.  But it also demonstrates how pacing has changed between the first and second movies.  Whenever Unexpected Journey was indulgent, it slowed the pacing down, whereas here it actually amps it up.
I also like the fact that the characters are also finding their footing as the story progresses.  The Dwarves are more fleshed out now, especially Thorin (Richard Armitage) who’s showing a lot more internal conflict in this film than he had in the first movie.  Here he’s a more fully dimensional character, showing moments of genuine nobility followed by soul-crushing greed in the next.  Martin Freeman continues to shine as Biblo, although in this film, he’s somewhat sidelined; more the fault of the lengthened story than how the character is used.  Freeman does have one excellent acting moment in the movie after Bilbo savagely slays a Mirkwood spider in order to reclaim his “magical ring.”  Without saying a word, Freeman perfectly conveys the negative toll that this ring is already having on Bilbo’s character in that moment.  Orlando Bloom returns to good form as Legolas, and the character gets some very bad-ass moments throughout the film.  Evangeline Lilly manages to make Tauriel an interesting new addition to the story (she’s an entirely original character) and carries the weight of being the only central female presence in the whole trilogy perfectly.  Also, the look of the film is still astounding.  More so than the first film, we are exploring parts of Middle Earth that we haven’t yet seen, and they are spectacularly realized.  While I thought some of the Lake Town scenes were dull, the look of the place is outstanding; like if you mixed Venice with some Dickensian slums.  The look of Smaug’s lair is also a remarkable sight; with jaw-dropping mountains of gold.  The set and costume design, as well as the Howard Shore score, also succeed at meeting the high standards that the series has set.
What I find interesting is how the film’s reception may actually play out.  When it came to An Unexpected Journey, general audiences were bored by the more leisurely tone and heavy exposition, while Tolkien purists were pleased by how closely it adhered to the original book’s tone.  This time around, I’m finding that more Tolkien purists are disliking Desolation of Smaug because of the liberties it has taken, while general audiences are enjoying the return to action-paced thrills in the series.  I actually sympathize with the complaints made by both sides, but the way I look at these movies is not by how action packed they are or by how well it accurately they adapt the book, but by how they work as movies in their own right.  That’s why I like both of these Hobbit movies about equally.  They still don’t quite measure up to The Lord of the Rings in overall quality, but damn it if I don’t admire them for trying.  Like I said, there was enormous pressure on Peter Jackson to get these movies right, and I admire the fact that he’s done as well as he has.  I am particularly happy that Smaug turned out as well as he has, and I also liked the fact that Desolation of Smaug has a story that stands well enough on it’s own, and as part of an over-arching story.  The film’s abrupt ending may irk a lot of people, but I commend Jackson for having the balls to leave his audience hanging.  It certainly makes me excited to see the final chapter of the trilogy, There and Back Again, which comes out December 2014.  But in the meantime, it’s well worth taking this continuing adventure into the world of Middle Earth.
Rating: 8.5/10

Tis the Season – Why Some Films Become Holiday Perennials


We’ve reached the end of another calendar year and of course that can only mean that it’s Holiday season once again.  Whether we are celebrating Christmas, or Hanukkah, or whatever, it’s a time of the year where we all gather together and honor family, tradition, and the gift of giving.  What’s interesting about Christmastime, however, is just how much the holiday tradition is actually influenced and centered around Holiday themed movies.  A Holiday film can pretty much be considered a genre all it’s own, since so many of them exist out there, and are created specifically to invoke the holiday spirit.  Not only that, but they are movies that we continually return to every year around this same time, like it’s part of our holiday ritual.  This doesn’t happen with every Christmas themed movie, however, since many of them try to hard to hit their mark and fail spectacularly.  And yet, we see small films that no one thought much of at first grow into these perennial classics over time, and in some cases add to the overall Christmas mythos that defines the season.  But, how do we as an audience discern the classics from all the rest?  What really separates a Miracle on 34th Street from a Jingle all the Way?  Quite simply, like with most other movies, it’s all determined by what we bring from our own experiences in life when we watch a movie.
The emergence of  perennial holiday classics is nothing new in pop culture and actually predates the beginning of cinema by a good many years.  Literature has contributed holiday themed stories in both short form and novels for the last couple hundred years, helping to both shape and reinvent Christmas traditions in a very secular fashion.  Our modern day physical interpretation of Santa Claus can in fact be contributed to his appearance in “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” the 1823 poem by American author Clement Clarke Moore.  Moore’s nearly 200 year poem is still being recited today and it shows just how much tradition plays a role in keeping a perennial classic alive in the public’s eye.  Around the same time, acclaimed British novelist Charles Dickens wrote the story of A Christmas Carol, chronicling the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and his visits by three ghosts on Christmas Eve.  Since it’s original printing in 1843, A Christmas Carol has gone on to be one of the most re-adapted story-lines in history.  Perhaps nearly a quarter of all holiday classics can claim to have been influenced by Dickens’ classic tale, where a dreary old cynic has his heart warmed by the holiday spirit.  Dickens meant for his novel to be a meditation on greed and class inequality, but I have no doubt that he purposefully meant for Christmas traditions to be the healing influence in Scrooge’s reawakening.  These stories continue to stand strong so many years later and it shows just how far back our culture began to value Christmas stories and songs as a part of the holiday tradition.
Even from the very outset of cinematic history we saw films carry on holiday themes.  Both Twas the Night Before Christmas and A Christmas Carol provided inspiration for movie-makers many times, given their already beloved appeal, but some people in Hollywood also saw opportunities to add their own original holiday themed stories into the mix.  When the studio system emerged, they were very well aware of the marketability of a holiday themes.  After all, people usually visited movie theaters frequently during the cold winters, so why not play up the festive mood that everyone was already in.  For the most part, movies celebrated Christmas more frequently in short segments than in full length story-lines in these early years; whether it was capitalizing on a new popular Christmas song in a lavish musical segment, or by portraying a Christmas celebration as part of larger arching narrative.  Many people forget that one of the most popular Christmas tunes ever written, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” wasn’t even from a Christmas themed movie; rather it came from the 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis.  But eventually the Christmas season became such an influential part of our modern cultural tradition, that it would inspire films devoted entirely to the holiday spirit.
So, in the years since, we have seen Holiday films become standard practice in Hollywood.  Every year, it’s inevitable to see a Christmas movie released in time for the holidays.  Unfortunately, for most of them, Christmas movies very rarely achieve classic status.  For every one that audiences grow an attachment to, there will be about a dozen more that will likely be forgotten by next December.  Evidently, it seems like Hollywood’s approach to the holiday season is less carefully planned out than any other part of the year.  Their approach seems to be throwing whatever has Christmas in the title up against the wall and seeing what sticks.  Unfortunately, this has led to Christmas being more synonymous with bad movies than good.  Some are well meaning films that fall short of their goal like the Vince Vaughn film Fred Claus (2007) or the odd but charming Santa Clause: The Movie (1985).  And then there are ugly, shallow and distasteful films like Deck the Halls (2006), the Ben Affleck disaster Surviving Christmas (2004), or the deeply disturbing Michael Keaton film Jack Frost (1998), with the creepy as hell CG snowman.  And the less said about the horrible 2000 How the Grinch Stole Christmas remake the better.  Overall, it is very hard to make an honestly cherished holiday classic in Hollywood, and that’s mainly because the business just tries too hard.  If you look closely, you’ll actually find that a beloved holiday classic may come from the unlikeliest of places.
This was definitely the case with what has become not just one of the best loved Christmas movies, but one of the best movies period; that film being Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).  Capra’s movie tells the story of George Bailey (a flawless Jimmy Stewart), a man who has given so much back to his hometown and has gotten so little in return, reaching the verge of suicide due to his depression.  Through the intervention of a guardian angel on Christmas Eve, George is shown what his life would have been like if he never lived and he rediscovers his value and purpose and as it turns out is finally rewarded by those whom he’s helped all his life on the following Christmas Day.  The film is very uplifting and perfectly illustrates the true impact that the Christmas season has in our lives.  With a theme like that, you would think that the movie was a smash hit when it was first released, but instead the movie was a colossal bomb.  It bankrupted the company that made it and ruined Frank Capra’s directing career from then on.  The focus on George Bailey’s increasing depression was probably too hard for audiences to take at the time, given that many soldiers were returning home after the end of WWII.  Despite it’s initial failure, It’s a Wonderful Life managed to survive through TV airings which happened on, naturally, Christmas Eve and the film not only found it’s audience but it became a seasonal standard.  To this day, It’s a Wonderful Life is still aired on network TV (the only classic era movie that still is), and audiences from every generation still embraces it warmly, no matter how old fashioned it may be.  Pretty good legacy for a film that started off as a failure.
A holiday classic can come from an unlikely place like It’s a Wonderful Life, but for many, what is considered a classic is usually determined by their own tastes.  That’s why some people find romantic comedies set around Christmastime to be considered a holiday classic.  Case in point, the movie Love, Actually (2003) has grown into a beloved holiday classic, even though the themes in the movie are less about Christmas and more about the intertwining relationships between the characters.  By standing out as a strong romantic film with a Christmas setting, it stands to see this film as being an example of two types of genres working together.  Cult movie fans even have holiday classics that they cherish, like the weird campy film Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), which can hold the distinction of being one of the worst movies ever made, and incredibly entertaining at the same time. And some people can even claim that Die Hard (1989) counts as a Christmas movie, because of it’s holiday setting.  Pretty much it’s whatever we bring with us from our own experiences to the movies that determines what we consider to be entertaining.  Like with how most people gravitate towards a movie based on their own interests, so too do we see that with Holiday films as well.  Hollywood has in some cases picked up on this and has catered to select audiences at Christmastime with genre specific movies.  Usually, it will take a consensus of a large audience to determine which ones will stand out as the undisputed classics.
I think where Hollywood hits it mark most often is when it comes to making a successful holiday film that appeals to the memories of our own experiences of Christmas.  The film that I think hit a perfect bulls-eye in this regard, and stands as a true masterpiece of Christmas themed film-making, is the 1983 classic A Christmas Story.  Directed by Bob Clark, and inspired by the auto-biographical stories of novelist Jean Shepherd, A Christmas Story perfectly captures the highs and lows of a young boy’s experience during the holiday season.  Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) is a character who was relatable to any young boy growing up in small town America, myself included, and seeing how he tries so hard to manipulate his parents into getting him his dream present is something every child will identify with.  Couple that with the hilarious performance of Darren McGavin as the Old Man and the iconic Leg Lamp, and you’ve got the very definition of a holiday classic.  But, just like how A Christmas Story highlights good Christmas memories, we see classic films that also center around a disastrous Christmas experience as well.  The best example of this would be the very funny and endlessly quotable National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989).  We’ve had just as many Christmases like the Griswold family as we have like the Parker family from A Christmas Story, and Christmas Vacation just perfectly encapsulates all the bad things that happen at Christmas time, without ever losing the holiday spirit underneath.  Not to mention its the last time we ever saw a funny performance out of Chevy Chase.
So, despite the low success rate, we as an audience still seem to find a classic seasonal favorite every in every generation.  But how does Hollywood keep making bad Christmas movies every year despite the demanding tastes of the movie-going public rejecting all the junk they put out.  I think it’s because the season itself is such an overwhelming cultural force, that most filmmakers don’t really care about the product they’re making, as long as it’s holiday themed and ready to capitalize on the mood of the period.  When it comes down to it, a great holiday classic is not determined by how soaked up in the holiday spirit it is, but rather by how strong it story works.  We keep watching It’s a Wonderful Life every year because of how inspirational George Bailey’s life story is, and not because of the Christmastime finale that has come to define it.  In fact, the movie is not really about Christmas at all; it’s about the life of one man and his value to the world.  Other Christmas movies usually become classics just because of a wintry setting, where the holiday is not even mentioned.  And even films that subvert Christmas traditions, like 2003’s Bad Santa, have become genuine holiday classics to some people.
I, myself, love a good Christmas movie, and because I’m such an ardent appreciator of movies in general, these films have certainly become a part of my holiday tradition.  I return to It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story every year and never get tired of them.  And not a year will go by when I don’t at least drop one quotable line from Christmas Vacation during this season.  I hope every generation gets their own perennial classic that will last for years to come.  Just please; no more remakes or sequels.  We all saw the backlash that an announcement of a sequel to It’s a Wonderful Life got recently.  I only wish The Grinch and A Christmas Story had been spared the same fate.  Like too much Christmas dinner, there can always be too much of a good thing when it comes to Christmas movies.

Frozen – Review


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

Collecting Criterion – The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)


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

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

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