Tag Archives: Franchises

Focus on a Franchise – Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy

Be careful what you wish for.  There’s no doubt that cinema was forever changed by the release of Star Wars (1977) and it’s two follow up sequels.  But fans everywhere were left with one striking question after creator George Lucas made the peculiar decision to rename the original film that launched the trilogy Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.  And that question was, what ever happened to Episodes 1-3.  Initially, Lucas probably made the choice to rename his film that way as a nod to the old sci-fi serials that Star Wars clearly drew inspiration from, and that his trilogy was just a small part of a bigger narrative, some of which he hints at throughout the movies with the many characters’ backstories.  But, as time went on, Lucas indeed began to ponder more about what those first three episodes might be, as did many of the fans of the movies.  Over time, Episodes 1-3 took on this mythic status for Star Wars fans, with fan fictions and published novelizations doing much to fill in the gaps of the history of this universe that Lucas had created.  But, after a successful re-release of the original trilogy in theaters, albeit with controversial “Special Edition” changes, Lucas determined that the time was right to finally make the first three episodes of his Star Wars saga a reality.  Now we were finally going to see the story about the rise of the Empire, the fall of the Jedi Order, and most importantly, the events that turned Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader.  It was destined to be the cinematic event of the century, rivaling even the likes of the original trilogy, and fans eagerly anticipated it; some even camping outside movie theaters for weeks on end just to be the first in line to see it.

The day finally came on Memorial Day weekend 1999, with the release of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.  But, as with everything in life, what goes up must inevitably fall down.  Reactions to Episode I were decidedly mixed, verging towards the negative.  Longtime fans in particular were upset by a number of things that felt off about this version of Star Wars; the lack of focus on the story, the stilted performances by the actors, the overabundance of CGI, Jar-Jar Binks, etc.  This was not the Star Wars they grew up with, and that reaction would end up clouding the perception of the new prequel trilogy all the way up to it’s completion with Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005).  Though the movies were still financially successful, they were nowhere near as loved as their predecessors, and even today, you still see a divide among fans that at times can turn pretty toxic.  But, are the prequels to Star Wars really that bad?  I think there is agreement that they certainly don’t work as well as the original trilogy, but individually do they still work as a satisfying cinematic experience.  That’s the hard thing to determine when the movies are serial parts of a much larger narrative, and that aspect may have had to do with why people rejected these movies initially.  It’s hard to write a compelling narrative when you already know the fates of all these individual characters.  It’s interesting that younger viewers who were first introduced to the movies through these prequels have a much rosier view of the trilogy than older fans do.  Is it a generational bias thing that has split the fanbase in two?  To see how the prequel trilogy stands on it’s own, let’s take a look now at the individual films of the first three episodes of the Skywalker Saga with the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy.

STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

After a 22 year absence, George Lucas stepped behind the camera once again to relaunch the franchise that made him a household name.  Drawing from the intricate backstories that Lucas had hinted at in his original trilogy, he was finally going to make the kinds of Star Wars movies that he always wanted to create, but was never allowed to because of the limitations of budgets.  He could now show us the full expanse of space, explore many new worlds, and even show the extravagant regalia of the Old Republic in it’s heyday.  Indeed, where George Lucas shows his brilliance in is with his world building.  There are so many imaginative new worlds explored in these new adventures, including the lush green serenity of the planet Naboo, as well as the intricacy of the city planet Coruscant, the seat of power of the Republic.  But, while the new movies show off his imagination in creating new worlds, they also reveal his shortcomings as a storyteller.  Let’s just say The Phantom Menace is far more style than substance.  This immediately becomes clear when the movie gets bogged down by talks of trade alliances, treaties and embargoes.  It’s not like the original trilogy was not without political intrigue, but it was balanced with action set pieces and character development.  Phantom Menace leaves very little time for us the audience to find our footing and immerse ourselves in this world and the characters.  Lucas just seemed too preoccupied with setting up the rules of his world that he forgot to give any detail to everything else that normally made a Star Wars film engaging.  That’s what made collaborators like Irvin Kershner and Lawrence Kasdan so valuable to the process, because they could explore those depths of character more closely while Lucas occupied himself more with creating this universe.

But, is The Phantom Menace a complete failure of story.  It’s hard to say.  The ingredients are all there, but the way it’s structured just feels off.  We are introduced to both new and familiar faces.  Liam Neeson does carry a strong presence as jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn, delivering adequate enough chemistry with Ewan McGregor, doing a credible imitation of Alec Guiness as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Had these characters been the focus of the movie, things might have worked better, but that’s not the case.  The movie keeps jumping from world to world without giving much time to settle the characters into their place in the narrative.  It’s like everyone is just there to play their part and nothing else.  We barely get to know key characters like Natalie Portman’s Padme Amidala, and iconic characters like R2-D2 and C-3PO are almost shoehorned in without much purpose to the story.  Also, the boy who would be Darth Vader is presented here as a precocious little child, not once indicating the monster that he will one day become.  At the same time, Lucas also devotes a needless amount of time to the comic relief character of Jar-Jar Binks, who to many a fan, is the most reviled character in the entirety of the Star Wars series.  I agree that Binks is not a great addition to the Star Wars mythos, but it has less to do with the actor’s performance (Ahmed Best, who does try hard) and more to George Lucas’ shortcomings as a writer.  What bothers me more about the movie, however, is that it demystifies aspects of the Star Wars lore that had always made the series so intriguing.  Specifically, it’s the introduction of the midi-chlorians that I think is the worst thing ever added to the Star Wars series.  Here, Lucas tries to give a biological explanation to the Force; that it’s something in a person’s bloodstream that can be quantified, as opposed to a mystical force that binds all life together.  That spiritual aspect was so key to the original movies, and in one misguided swoop, he undercuts it completely, just so he can show us how powerful little Anakin really is before he becomes a Jedi.  The movie has bright points, including an exciting pod race scene halfway thru, and an interesting if underutilized antagonistic threat from Darth Maul (played by Ray Park).  Disappointing yes, but the low point for Star Wars?  Well, we’ll have to see where it goes from here.

 STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002)

The backlash against The Phantom Menace was strong, but not enough to keep the movie from reaching box office records.  As a result, Lucas was given the go ahead to continue on with the trilogy, with the second chapter taking us ten years beyond the events of the previous film.  And you would think that with that amount of time George Lucas would learn from his mistakes and craft a more cohesive film the second time around.  That notion unfortunately goes right out the window once the movie immediately as Lucas again puts too much focus on the plot elements and not on the characters.  Only this time, he mistakenly tries his hand at making a love story too.  Anakin (played by Hayden Christensen, who takes over from Jake Lloyd) is now a fully trained Jedi under the mentorship of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and his relationship with Padme deepens into a budding romance.  These so-called “romantic” moments are so contrived and labored that they hamper the entire movie, and in my opinion, make this the least engaging movie in the entire Star Wars franchise.  Phantom Menace at the very least had that exciting pod race and some cool battle scenes.  Clones sadly is bogged down by too much moody whining from Anakin Skywalker.  It seems impossible that this obnoxious brat would become the most feared menace in the galaxy one day, and with Lucas’ terrible writing, he undermines the development of what is supposed to be one of the most important characters in the entire saga.  Christensen unfortunately is still too green of an actor to make any of this material work, and his performance is sadly the most wooden within the entire film.  There’s also a severe lack of urgency to the entire movie, with most of it devoted to Anakin returning home only to find his mother brutally murdered by Tuskan raiders, which triggers his own murderous instincts.  At the same time, Obi-Wan Kenobi is tracking down a rogue assassin named Jango Fett (Temura Morrison) who has something to do with the Separatist movement at war with the Republic.

Interestingly enough, the stuff with Obi-Wan Kenobi is the only mildly interesting part of the movie.  Acting as a bit of detective story within the overall narrative, the film at least gives us a bit more development into his character.  Unfortunately, it is overshadowed by the duller Anakin/Padme story-line.  Eventually, the movie does lead to an admittedly exciting conclusion, as the Republic built clone army does battle with the Separatist droid forces.  At it’s center, there is a great battle between the separatist leader, Count Dooku (the legendary Christopher Lee) and the Jedi.  Another thing that is so unfortunate about the lack of development in this movie is the fact that Lee’s Dooku takes up so little screen-time, much like Darth Maul in Phantom Menace.  Creating interesting new villains and then not taking full advantage of them is a common theme found in this trilogy.  All that said, the light-saber battle between Dooku, Anakin and Obi-Wan is satisfying enough, and Yoda (voiced again by Frank Oz) even gets in on the battle; even though I’m not a big fan of the new computer animated version of the character, despite it being necessary for his fight scene.  It’s unfortunate that so much time is wasted in order to get to that conclusion, and you have to wonder if all of this is just padding in order to get the movie to trilogy length.  It seems possible, as nothing really is changed by the end, other than Anakin being short one limb after his encounter with Dooku.  Everything else has this inevitability aspect to it, because we all already know where it’s going to lead; Anakin and Padme’s courtship, the rise of the clone army, the schism between Obi-Wan and Anakin, it’s all just set up.  And none of it is remotely interesting.  To me, Attack of the Clones is rock bottom when it comes to Star Wars because it commits the greatest sin of all within the series; it’s boring.  The Phantom Menace is flawed, but has points where it comes alive.  Clones is just a bridge between movies and nothing more, watched only for the sake of completion of the story.  Hopefully it all leads somewhere.

 STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)

Now we get to the movie that plays the most important role of all; connecting all the threads into the original trilogy.  A lot of things have to happen here; the fall of the Jedi, the rise of the Empire, the corruption of Anakin into Darth Vader, and finally, the birth of Luke and Leia.  And for the most part, the movie actually succeeds.  There are flaws to be sure; Hayden Christensen’s performance is sadly still lacking, as are most of the still stilted performances throughout.  The movie also devotes far too much time towards developing the internal politics of the world, and not enough on the characters.  And again, Lucas sets up yet another interesting new villain, this time General Grievous, and does too little with him in the overall film.  But, these problems are not as egregious as they were in the previous two films.  When the movie needs to get serious, it gets serious, and it thankfully devotes the right amount of time to establishing the needed gravitas to the moments that matter.  The things that really makes this movie work so well though is that we finally see the villainous presence of Emperor Palpatine unleashed.  Ian McDiarmid, reprising his role throughout the trilogy that he first played in Return of the Jedi way back in 1983, finally takes center stage here and he steals every single moment.  Perhaps that’s why so many of the other villains in this trilogy were so underutilized, because Palpatine is the only one that matters.  After working within the shadows for most of the trilogy, we finally see him in his full evil presence, and his rise into power is frighteningly potent.  He even has a surprising confrontation with Yoda late in the movie, which is one of the film’s best parts.  More importantly, his presence finally gives us the true menacing presence of the Sith that we had been severely lacking in the previous films.

The movie is also not afraid to take the story into dark, depressing territory.  The fall of the Jedi is dealt with in a rather shocking way, with the Jedi being betrayed by the very same Clone troopers that they had fought alongside.  The fact that Anakin Skywalker, corrupted by the influence of Palpatine, is the one leading the slaughter is also effectively shocking.  But the movie likewise makes his reckoning feel appropriately tragic.  Finally, the turn into Darth Vader makes more sense, as we see the tragic flaw of Anakin’s character, his arrogance and fear of losing what’s important to him, lead him to the dark side.  Lucas thankfully fulfills all those aspects within this story, including the long desired for confrontation between Anakin and Obi-Wan on the volcanic planet Mustafar.  I should point out that one of the things that has remained constantly strong throughout the trilogy had been John Williams incredible music scores.  Continuing on from his work in the original trilogy, Williams never let audiences down with giving adequate epic grandeur to the music in these films.  His work in Revenge of the Sith is especially effective, including the battle theme called “Battle of the Heroes,” which underscores the epic fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan.  It might even be one of his best pieces he’s ever written, which is saying something.  Revenge also does an excellent job of tying the trilogies together.  Anakin’s final transformation into the Darth Vader we all know is dealt with in a very chilling scene, albeit undercut by the now infamously lame moment where Vader cries out, “NOOOOOO.”  But the final shot of the movie, where Obi-Wan hands off baby Luke to his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru is a wonderfully done echo of the famous double sunset scene from A New Hope, leaving this trilogy on a near perfect note.  So, despite a lot of problematic hurdles along the way that have tarnished a bit of the old Star Wars magic, Lucas did manage to stick the landing when it came to bridging the two trilogies together.  Revenge of the Sith is not perfect, but it gets the job done and easily is the best of the prequels by a long shot.

For a while, this looked to be where the saga of Star Wars would end.  Lucas had completed his full vision of this universe, showing us the rise and fall of the evil Empire, and the redemption of the Jedi Order after being brought to the brink of collapse.  But, his return to the series unfortunately showed his weaknesses as a filmmaker as well.  His long gap away from the directors chair may have unfortunately robbed him of some of the insight he needed to make the movies work more cohesively.  His instincts for one were undermined, as he relied too heavily on cinematic shortcuts like green-screen and CGI to bring his vision to life.  What made Star Wars so appealing in the first place was the fact that it had this tactile, lived in feel to it, which was dictated by the limited budgets and film-making capabilities it had to work with.  Here, the prequel movies look too clean and ultimately fake.  Sometimes it’s better to work within constraints because it allows for more creative thinking. Still, with the prequel trilogy, there were enough bright spots that made the movies financially successful, and it enabled Star Wars to stay relevant into the new century. But, it would not be the end for long, as Disney picked up where Lucas left off and continued the story even beyond those first six episodes. Now, the Skywalker Saga has been rounded out to a total of nine films, with the concluding chapter, The Rise of Skywalker only a week away from its premiere as of this writing. Any movie franchise that makes it that far on this kind of level is really something special. Though as disjointed and meandering as they are, the prequels do serve the purpose of giving us the full story of the Skywalker family, and their pivotal place in the Star Wars mythos. The only regret is that George Lucas’ imagination was too expansive to contain within even just three or six movies. We unfortunately had to go outside the saga to see the full story of the Clone Wars and the Age of the Galactic Empire, which spinoff series explored more extensively. But, even with that, there’s no denying that the prequels give more to Star Wars than it takes away, and it still remains an integral part of the full story. Let’s just hope that Rise of Skywalker leaves the saga on a fitting final note, and doesn’t result in the same polarizing pitfall. Help us Skywalker, you’re our only hope.

 

Focus on a Franchise – Star Wars: The Original Trilogy

If there ever was a franchise that stood out in Hollywood above everyone else, it would be Star Wars.  Even the modern concept of what is considered a franchise uses Star Wars as it’s prime example.  It was the movie that launched the blockbuster era and began a revolution within the industry with everything from visual effects to merchandising.  Even more astounding is the long legacy that it has endured over the last 40 years since it’s premiere.  The franchise that Hollywood at one time dismissed as a science fiction folly now touches the lives of fans from across the globe, and has become one of the most profitable properties of all time, if not the most.  And to think, it all started with a fresh, young filmmaker who was nostalgic for the old sci-fi classics of his youth.  George Lucas, was raised on old serial sci-fi adventures like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, and he held onto those memories as he began to devise what would become the movie that defined him as a filmmaker.  Hot off the success of the 50’s throwback American Graffiti (1973), Lucas began outlining what would eventually become Star Wars, and while he did have to scale back a lot of his original vision, he nevertheless stumbled upon a story that fit his desire to create a return to those serials of old.  Borrowing inspiration from things as varied as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958), and Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, he crafted a basic story of good versus evil, where a young boy named Luke Skywalker rises up to challenge an evil empire that has conquered much of the galaxy.  Along the way, he is joined by mentors like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda who teach him to harness the powers of the Force, a mystical source that grants him incredible power.  But he doesn’t go into danger alone, with colorful characters like Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2.  While still derivative of many different things, George Lucas still manage to frame all of it in a beautifully constructed narrative that not only grabbed a hold of audiences, but has spawned a whole mythology unto itself, much of which even exceeds what Lucas himself had originally envisioned.

With this being a particularly banner year for the Star Wars franchise, with the conclusion of the Skywalker Saga coming this winter with the release of Episode 9 – The Rise of Skywalker, as well as the much anticipated opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in both Disneyland and Disney World, I felt that it was a good time to look over the films that have made up this granddaddy of franchises in this series.  In particular, I will be focusing on the films that have made up what is now considered the Skywalker Saga, which has been the mainline narrative of the franchise.  This is the one that started with George Lucas’ original film and has continued through three separate trilogies from three different eras.  For a start, I will take a look at the original trilogy where it all began, and then hopefully by the time Rise of Skywalker comes out, I will be able to cover a second part, discussing the prequel trilogy, with a concluding one months after the release of the final film. Following the order of release allows me to look at how each film continued to build upon one another and look at how the series managed to build and refine it’s world with every subsequent release, as well as how it managed to both meet and subvert the expectations of it’s audiences over time.  So, without further ado, let’s take a look at that mythic story from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE (1977)

Directed by George Lucas

It’s hard to say anything about this movie that hasn’t been said already.  Every once and a while, you have these movies that just come out of nowhere and change cinema as we know it, and Star Wars was one of those movies.  Nobody knew really what to expect about this movie at first; space ace adventures where all too common in Hollywood in the past few decades, most of them often falling into the B-movie bin.  But, Lucas had more ambition than just making another run of the mill sci-fi epic.  One thing that helped him achieve his more ambitious vision was the groudbreaking effects that were constructed for him by the upstart team at the newly formed Industrial Light and Magic.  Taking their cue from the groundbreaking work by Douglas Trumball in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), ILM crafted and even invented new ingenious ways to film little model ships to make them move more dynamically across the screen.  Also, in partnership with the people at the Jim Henson Workshop, they created creatures with puppetry and prosthetic make-up that looked unlike anything people had ever seen before on screen.  But, if there was anything that helped to set the movie apart more than anything else, it was the now iconic score that was composed by John Williams, who gave the movie the operatic feel that it very much needed.  And all these things working together is what helped to make this movie not just successful, but legendary.  People who saw it on the screen for the first time will always remember the rush they got from that first flyover of a Star Destroyer in the opening scene.  In that moment, you see everything, the score, the visual effects, and the scale of vision all working together to create a true cinematic moment.  The world of cinema would never be the same after those opening minutes.

But the true key to Star Wars success comes not in how it opens, but in how it plays through and that more than anything relies upon the real thing that makes Star Wars special; the characters.  Luke, Leia, Han, Chewy; these characters have become icons that have warmed their way into the hearts of multiple generations.  And no doubt, the perfect casting across the board played a big part in making these characters work.  Mark Hamil, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford were relatively unkonwn at the time of the movie’s release, and their fresh faces were exactly what the movie called for.  This was a movie that needed characters and not stars to drive it, and that has helped to make the actors who played these roles favorites to so many.  To this day, the actors who play a role in a Star Wars movie take that honor with special distinction, knowing that they are the stewards of a part of this growing and increasingly influential mythology.  The only part of the cast that was filled at the time with a noteworthy name was Alec Guiness in the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi, which helped to give the movie some gravitas during it’s making as the Oscar-winning performer was well known to the Fox execs who were fronting the bill for the movie.  A mixing of performances also helped in a great way to bring to life the iconic villain of Darth Vader, with body-builder David Prowse giving the masked foe a massive physical presence, while James Earl Jones provided him an intimidating, powerful voice.  Really, everything about the movie has achieved iconic status on it’s own.  Every line of dialogue is quoted pretty much everywhere, and iconic elements like the Death Star, the dual suns of Tattoine, the Millennium Falcon, and the lightsabers are referenced everywhere in pop culture.  It’s a movie that has it’s roots deep in the collective culture and has a rightful place to be there.  Lucas, originally had planned for more of an epic story, but for the first Star Wars, he rolled everything back into just what ended up being the first act of his original story.  When the first movie broke all box office records, he was finally able to complete the rest of his story, now that he had seen it work the first time.  He rechristened the original movie Episode IV: A New Hope, cheekily referencing the old serials that had inspired him as a child, and began embarking on what was about to come next: Episode V.

STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)

Directed by Irvin Kershner

The massive success of the original Star Wars put a lot of pressure on George Lucas and his team to make something that could reach those same heights.  Sequels were not uncommon, but rarely did they ever match the original, let alone exceed it.  Thankfully, George Lucas had enough story material still up his sleeve to continue the story even further, but interestingly enough, he decided to not continue on as the director.  Instead he brought on Irvin Kershner to direct, an up and comer from the Roger Corman class, known for comedies like A Fine Madness (1966) and S*P*Y*S (1974).  In addition, he hired other screenwriters to adapt his story ideas to the screen.  One was legendary writer Leigh Brackett, who had been one of the leading screenwriters of the Golden Era of Hollywood, writing classics like The Big Sleep (1946) and Rio Bravo (1959).  She wrote a draft for what would be The Empire Strikes Back before she succumbed to cancer in 1978.  After that, Lucas hired Lawrence Kasdan to flesh out Brackett’s original draft and his input would even further leave an impact on this franchise going further.  Kasdan is much more of an introspective writer compared to George Lucas, who is more concerned with world-building, and what he brought to the table was very fleshed out character development.  The essential Star Wars elements are all still there, but we get more of a sense of the personal drama at play here, with Kershner and Kasdan offering a more intimate portrait of these characters than we’ve ever seen before.  And because of that, the movie not only matched it’s predecessor in the eyes of most fans, but it even exceeded it.  The Empire Strikes Back is largely considered to be the best film in the Star Wars series, and in many regards is considered to be the greatest sequel of all time; even eclipsing the Oscar-winning Godfather Part II (1974).  A New Hope may have been the movie that catapulted the Star Wars name to iconic status, but Empire Strikes Back is what cemented it forever there.

There are so many things that began with Empire that have now become legendary in the annals of Star Wars history.  It introduced characters like Lando Calrissian (played with suave gravitas by Billy Dee Williams), Yoda (puppeteered and voiced by Frank Oz) and Boba Fett to the narrative, all of whom have become icons in their own right.  It also paid off many story threads that audiences were waiting to see realized, like the budding courtship of Han and Leia which gave us the now immortal romantic exchange of “I love you,” “I know.”  We also are given Luke finally exercising his abilities as he trains in the art of the Jedi; the galaxy’s legendary warrior class who had mastered the Force.   Luke’s Jedi training scenes are particularly noteworthy as Mark Hamill often had to perform his scenes acting opposite what is essentially a Muppet.  Frank Oz broke new ground with his performance as Yoda, giving the sculpted foam puppet emotional resonance never seen before, showing that you could indeed give an Oscar worthy dramatic performance even through puppetry.  But, Empire’s emotional resonance became all the more important as the movie ended up resolving in the thing that it is most well known for; it’s shocking twist ending.  Luke faces his arch-nemesis Darth Vader in a long expected showdown at the film’s climax, and every known trope in science fiction tells you that this is where good will triumph over evil.  But, Luke fails in his fight against Vader, losing a hand in the process.  And then, the bombshell is dropped on him.  Luke had long believed that Vader had been the one who killed his father, but Vader shockingly reveals that (spoiler!), he is actually Luke’s father.  This revelation shook the world when it was first revealed.  Up until then, we had never seen our heroes be so thoroughly defeated, and to have our notions of good and evil challenged so much.  How can Luke be the chosen hero, when his father is the bad guy?  By the time the credits rolled, audiences were shocked, confused, and eager to see what was next.  Many films have tried to replicate this mother of all twist endings, but few have ever succeeded.  And with the status quo so thoroughly upended, anything could happen in what adventure came next.

STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)

Directed by Richard Marquand

No doubt The Empire Strikes Back left Star Wars in a rarefied place, but the only question remained was whether they could stick the landing with what was then seen as the final chapter of this story.  Lawrence Kasdan was again tasked with writing the script, but finding the right director proved more difficult.  Lucas originally wanted his colleague and friend Steven Spielberg to direct, having just come off their collaboration on Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).  Spielberg, however, wanted to continue pursuing his own projects and opted to make E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) instead.  So, after an extensive search, Lucas eventually gave the reigns to Richard Marquand, another director like Irvin Kershner known for his more intimate and small scale films.  Return of the Jedi is decidedly less character driven than the previous two films, instead focusing on resolving all the plot threads set up in the past films.  For some, many of the resolutions are not as satisfying as one would’ve hoped.  Though not a failure by any means, Return is widely seen as the weakest of the original trilogy.  And where many of the complaints against the film lie is in the introduction of the Ewoks, cuddly bear like creatures that look like they were designed purely to appeal to younger viewers, and help sell merchandise.  The Ewoks themselves are not bad characters, but the abundance of their presence in the movie and the fact that they are instrumental in bringing down the empire does feel like a cop out as part of this epic story that had been building up to this point.  Also, the fact that character development basically just stops for Han and Leia is pretty disappointing as well.  Whether these shortcomings resulted from Star Wars perhaps becoming too big and unable to sustain it’s massive narrative ambitions is unsure, but at the same time, none of it ever breaks the series completely.

If the movie has one thing that it triumphs at, it’s in resolving the Luke/Vader dynamic, which had been so memorably elevated in the previous film.  Much of the movie’s most memorable scenes revolve around the question of whether the light side or the dark side will win out in the end; with both Luke and Darth Vader trying to persuade each other to move from one to the other.  These scenes also introduce the incredible addition of Emperor Palpatine as the primary antagonist for this closing chapter.  Remarkably portrayed by actor Ian McDiarmid, the Emperor is an all time great villain; coolly manipulating these two Jedi warriors to his own ends, pitting them against one another in the hopes that he can wield his control over the victor, who will inevitably be the most powerful Jedi of them all.  Every scene with the Emperor, Luke, and Darth Vader is among the greatest in the series as a whole.  It’s not surprising that Lucas himself has wanted to revisit the Emperor several more times in films since, given the strength of McDiarmid’s performance.  The movie also offers up even more epic scale than what had previously been seen, with ILM having refined their techniques over the course of the series.  We not only get shootouts in the far reaches of space, but full on battles on a biblical scale.  Narrative shortcomings aside, Return of the Jedi is a culmination of everything that Lucas and company had learned to date.  Starting out as young upstarts, these film-making pioneers had grown by leaps and bounds and were now at the top of the ladder in Hollywood.  To see the level of growth over these three movies is really amazing to watch and that in many ways helps to make Return feel like a satisfying conclusion.  Same proved true for the characters; Luke has become a Master Jedi, the evil Empire is toppled, Han and Leia finally confirm their love, and Darth Vader even finds redemption in his dying moments.  All good stories come to an end, and Star Wars ended in a spectacular way, at least for a time.

The original trilogy has become the gold standard for franchise building for both Star Wars as a brand and also Hollywood in general.  It’s easy to see the influence that this trilogy has had on the world building, narrative progression and visual ambitions of epic franchises like The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, and so many more.  Even Empire Strikes Back downer ending has been influential for making middle chapters of these epic franchises darker than the rest.  Would Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War had ended on it’s shocking final note had Empire not tried to leave it’s audience stunned first.  There’s no end to the legendary impacts that the original trilogy left on the industry as a whole, and it certainly left a big impact on it’s creator as well.  George Lucas took the goodwill and earnings that his creation brought to him and used all that to create an empire all on his own, separated from the hustle and bustle of Hollywood.  He established Skywalker Ranch up in Marin County, California, which is an all in one facility where his team of artists can create and work close to home, and where Lucas himself was able to fully craft the kinds of movies that he wanted to make.  Though Star Wars will always give George Lucas a hallowed place in the eyes of fans all over the world, repeating his past success has still proven elusive, and that’s probably why he allowed his creation to pass hands to someone else, knowing that he may never get a chance to let it grow the way it should.  With a landmark deal made in 2012, Star Wars became another shiny jewel in the Disney crown, as George Lucas sold Lucasfilm, the studio he built, to the media giant.  Though Disney is in charge of this franchise now, Star Wars will forever be seen as a Lucas creation.  It’s proof positive that the great stories of our time can come from the simplest beginnings; where a young man wanted to scratch a nostalgic itch and share a once forgotten inspiration with the world, and in turn make it feel new again.  He wanted to tell us a story, and in turn opened up a galaxy onto our world, with characters, creatures and worlds that will stand the test of time in all our imaginations.  The Force is forever strong with the legacy of Star Wars.

Focus on a Franchise – Pirates of the Caribbean

The old phrase “dead men tell no tales” could also easily apply to forgotten genres within cinema.  And then, somehow miraculously, some genres rise from the dead.  That was the case with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise; the unlikeliest of blockbuster phenomenons in movie history.  You have to look back at the time in which the Pirates franchise first premiered to really understand just how unusual it was.  Pirates movies, as a genre, was all but dead around the turn of the millennium.  Once a wildly successful part of early Hollywood, with renowned classics like Captain Blood (1935) and The Sea Hawk (1940), the genre fell off deeply in the decades after, with only a handful of noteworthy films in all that time.  The final nail in the coffin came with Cannon Films notorious box office flop Cutthroat Island (1995), which all but spelled out for Hollywood that Pirate movies were poison in the cinema.  So, the fact that Disney not only took another shot this troubled genre but also poured a substantial budget behind it makes the creation of these movies all the more puzzling.  Couple this with the fact that the source of inspiration for these movies wasn’t a novel or a notable historical figure, but a theme park attraction.  So what exactly happened to make everything go right.  Turns out the “X” factor for the franchise’s success was an oddball, unconventional actor by the name of Johnny Depp.  Depp was not a box office draw at the time, but somehow he struck a cord with this role, and created one of the most original characters to have appeared on the big screen in quite a long time; the notorious Captain Jack Sparrow.  And not only did Jack Sparrow strike gold once for the Disney company, but he would continue to do so for a whole decade after.  But, like most other things, even this couldn’t last, and now the franchise is at a crossroads.  Because of waning box office, and Depp’s own off the set issues becoming a liability, it seems like Jack Sparrow’s days on the big screen are over.  So, let’s take a look back at the franchise that briefly resurrected the Pirates genre and turned Jack Sparrow into a household name.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (2003)

Directed by Gore Verbinski

When action film producer Jerry Bruckheimer walked into then Disney CEO Michael Eisner’s office and pitched this idea of a movie based on the Disneyland attraction of the same name starring the actor best known for playing Edward Scissorhands, it seemed only logical to give the idea a heavy no.  And yet, Eisner bit and gave the go ahead to make this movie.  But, even with the project funded and well into production, the prospects still were negative given the recent box office flop of The Country Bears (2002), another movie based on a Disneyland attraction.  Eisner even intervened numerous times, raising serious questions about the direction that Johnny Depp was taking his eccentric performance.  But, probably to the surprise of everyone, including I’m sure even the people that made the movie, the film was a smash hit with audiences.  And Disney had no one better to thank for that than Johnny Depp.  Depp’s Jack Sparrow gave this movie, and the subsequent franchise, it’s identity and made it instantly stand apart from both the Pirate movie genre and all movies in general.  Like a mix of Errol Flynn and Inspector Clouseau, with a little extra inspiration from rocker Keith Richards, Jack Sparrow is equal parts the greatest and worst pirate you’ve ever seen.  Bumbling his way through harrowing situations, teetering between drunkenness and sobriety, Sparrow somehow seems to luck his way through any situation, making him the unlikeliest of heroes.  Depp’s performance embodies every bit of this and it’s easy to see why he was so endearing to audiences.  He’s also given one of the greatest character entrances in movie history, sailing triumphantly into port on a sinking boat; a perfect encapsulation of the character, and really of the impact he would have for the Pirates genre in general.  And the best thing is that, even with all the questions raised beforehand, Depp was still able to form the character his way and was free to experiment and improvise throughout filming.  It was risky, but rewarding as Jack Sparrow commands every scene he is in.  His performance even garnered a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars (his first) which once again just shows the unprecedented success this movie had surprisingly found.

But, it’s not just Depp alone that made the movie so memorable for audiences.  Director Gore Verbinski drew heavily from his background in visual effects to craft a movie that was not only felt epic, but was also effective as a showcase for cutting edge technology.  The movie’s central gimmick, the curse that haunts the crew of the Black Pearl, is effectively realized through some beautifully rendered CGI which transforms the villainous pirates into skeletal figures in the moonlight.  Though the effects are cool to look at, they are not distracting either, and actually mix in well with the period detail in the production design.  Verbinski also draws heavy inspiration from pirate movies of the past, delivering epic sea battles that would feel at home in an Errol Flynn swashbuckler.  The whole movie beautifully delivers on that mix of the old and the new, helping to remind audiences of what Pirate movies used to be like and what they could be in the years to come.  Johnny Depp also gets worthwhile support from the other cast members as well.  Keira Knightly saw a major career boost thanks to this movie, which propelled her into leading lady status in Hollywood.  Orlando Bloom luckily stumbled onto this new franchise just as his work on The Lord of the Rings was coming to an end, and he makes a perfect straight-man for Johnny Depp to work off of.  Other supporting players like Kevin McNally, Zoe Saldana, and Jonathan Pryce also stand out in the film.  But, it’s Geoffrey Rush who almost matches Depp in his equally eccentric role as the villainous Captain Barbosa.   The scenes with Depp and Rush alone are worth the price of admission, seeing two veteran character actors clearly having fun playing these characters.  Naturally, the success of Black Pearl opened the door for this phenomenon to become a franchise, and that would indeed happen, with Disney again taking another big risk with the sequels.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST (2006)

Directed by Gore Verbinski

Shortly after the release of Curse of the Black Pearl, Disney made the logical choice to produce a sequel.  But, what many people didn’t expect was that not one but two sequels were planned, shooting back to back with a half a billion dollar price tag for both.  This was another costly gamble, but this time Disney had more belief in this property, especially now that they had a household name character like Jack Sparrow to carry it.  And indeed, the gamble not only paid off, but even better than they expected.  The first sequel, Dead Man’s Chest, remarkably grabbed the opening weekend crown with a then staggering $134 million three day haul.  And it’s easy to see why this became the high water mark for the franchise, because it’s, in my opinion, the best in the series.  Everything that made the original film a classic is ratcheted up in this sequel, with bigger set pieces, amazing visual effects, and a deeper mythology.  There are many things that makes this movie work so well, but none more so than the addition of a great and memorable villain; Davy Jones.  Actor Bill Nighy steals the movie with his wonderfully over-the-top performance, which remarkably still comes through even underneath the motion captured digital masking that creates the final look of the character.  Motion capture was still in it’s infancy at the time, but it saw a huge step forward with Davy Jones, who looks about as authentic as he possibly could be.  An equally memorable edition is the Kraken, a remarkable CGI creation that earns it’s rightful place alongside the most memorable of giant monsters on the big screen.  Hans Zimmer’s musical score also hit it’s peak with this film, with his already popular Main Theme from the original joined by memorable themes for the two villainous elements; Jones and the Kraken.  The film won a well-deserved Oscar for it’s visual effects, and became the highest grossing film ever for Disney at the time, cementing it’s place as key part of the company’s legacy.  At this same time, Disney even took the step of putting the characters of Jack, Barbosa, and Davy Jones into the park attraction that inspired them all in the first place.  With all this, and another sequel around the corner, nothing was going to slow these Pirates down in Hollywood.  Right?

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END (2007)

Directed by Gore Verbinski

Released less than a year after Dead Man’s ChestAt World’s End looked primed to cap this trilogy off strong.  In a post-Lord of the Rings world, much became expected of trilogy enders, as The Return of the King (2003) was easily the biggest film of that epic series.  As a result, it appeared that Gore Verbinski and Jerry Bruckheimer wanted to go out on a similar note, taking the franchise to even further epic heights.  Unfortunately, the end result did not have the same effect as Return of the King.  At World’s End is by no means a bad movie, but it doesn’t have the same focus that it’s predecessors had.  The movie is bloated, running nearly 3 hours long, with a lot of unnecessary sidetracks that lead nowhere.  The movie starts off promising with a beautifully constructed set piece recreating Singapore in the era of Pirates, which also brings in legendary Hong Kong cinema icon Chow Yun Fat as a nice addition to the cast.  There is also a wonderfully weird sequence of Jack Sparrow stranded in Davy Jones’ Locker, which seemed to be heavily inspired by the work of another favorite collaborator of Depp’s, Terry Gilliam.  But, after a strong opening, the movie sags as the uneven plot looses balance.  Alliances break down, characters plot behind others’ backs for no reason, and there are just too many scenes where there’s a lot of talking and not enough action.  Also, some of the pirate lore and magical elements are never fully realized, making the whole thing hard to follow.  Still, Depp shines as Jack Sparrow, and his final showdown with Davy Jones in the middle of a storming Maelstrom is breathtaking to watch.  While the whole is a convoluted mess, there is still a lot to like in the movie, and it does tie up the trilogy effectively enough.  But, it is still the weakest of the trilogy under Verbinski’s direction.  The movie made less than it’s predecessor, but still well enough to keep Disney in the black.  For the time, this should have been the time to hang up the swords and leave the franchise complete as is, because it was clear that by the end of At World’s End, the series was loosing it’s momentum.   But of course, with a property as profitable as this one, Hollywood just can’t leave well enough alone.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES (2011)

Directed by Rob Marshall

After taking a much needed break, Disney went right back to the well to get more out of this franchise.  Verbinski had moved on, and was already deep into development on another collaboration with Disney and Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger), so the studio turned to a different director in their stable to tackle this next chapter.  Rob Marshall had already made a splash in Hollywood with his Oscar-winning musical Chicago (2002), but had yet to apply his cinematic skills into an action film.  And that inexperience is the biggest problem with On Stranger Tides.  The whole movie is a pale imitation of it’s predecessors precisely because Marshall can’t stage the film’s action set pieces with the same flair that Verbinski had.  There is just a severe lack of fun to the whole movie, and Johnny Depp especially is shackled by this movie’s lack of creative drive.  More than anything, this movie feels like it suffered from the most studio interference, as the whole thing comes across as a paint by numbers rendition of all the thing that had come in the series before.  Perhaps the biggest disappointment, however, is the movie’s villain; Blackbeard.  Casting a great, larger than life actor such as Ian McShane in the role should have made this character legendary, and yet Blackbeard is just a shallow, uninspired baddie that utilizes none of McShane’s charisma or menace.  Davy Jones he is not.  The addition of Penelope Cruz as a love interest for Jack Sparrow fairs a bit better, and the movie briefly comes to life whenever her and Depp share the screen.  Also, Geoffrey Rush returns as a more grizzled Barbosa, and is by far the best part of this movie.  Watching his work here really convinced me that Barbosa is my favorite character in the entire franchise, mainly because he can still shine in even the most mediocre of films.  Stranger Tides is rock bottom for the Pirates franchise, mainly because it makes the cardinal sin of being boring and safe, which is contrary to what made these movies work in the first place.  With bland action set pieces (apart from a sequence that miraculously makes mermaids scary), a wooden cast of new characters, and no real reason to exist, this was the worst possible direction that the studio could have taken their cash cow of a franchise.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES (2017)

Directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg

A full fourteen years after the launch of the franchise, Disney believed they could wring just a little more out of these Pirates.  But given Stranger Tides lackluster results, was it really worth the risk.  Johnny Depp did not have the same box office appeal anymore after a string of costly flops (The Lone Ranger among them) and his recent bad behavior making headlines was also not beneficial to the prospects for a continuation of the franchise.  But, Disney still saw the potential.  They made the right choice and hired Norwegian directors Ronning and Sandberg, who gained notoriety for their critically acclaimed sea-faring Kon-Tiki (2012).  And while their grasp on Pirates convoluted mythology still wasn’t good enough to right the ship completely, they at least staged their action set pieces better than Rob Marshall did, especially a really clever one involving a gag with a guillotine.  The movie also benefits from a charismatic villainous turn by Javier Bardem as the half dead Captain Salazar, who at least comes off as more menacing than McShane’s dull Blackbeard.  Sadly, these are the only positive things to say about the movie, because the rest of the film is just the same old tired tricks again.  Johnny Depp especially looks bored in this movie, and while he still has moments that shine, it’s clear that the Jack Sparrow shtick had run it’s course.  Apparently he even needed an earpiece to feed him lines during filming, showing just how little he cared at this point.  The movie’s convoluted plot also drags the movie down, and even tries to drag up past plot points that we thought were done and over with (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly both appear in pointless cameos that add little to their character arcs).  And again, the mythology just feels lazy at this point; once centered around incredible icons like the Kraken and Davy Jones’ Locker, the series now wanted us to care about Neptune’s Trident, which I still don’t understand how the mechanics of it works.  And you bring Barbosa back to life, just to kill him off again? Seriously?  It was clear that this ship was wildly off course and should have been left in the harbor.  And given it’s lackluster box office performance, that seems to be the message that it left on Disney afterwards.

It is still remarkable that a movie that should have never worked managed to do just that, and spawn a five film franchise that spanned over a decade.  But, the Pirate revival was short lived, even while Pirates was still riding high.  Pirates of the Caribbean didn’t have the same carry over effect on the industry that other genre revivals like Gladiator (2000) and The Lord of the Rings had around the same time.  Other studios didn’t set out to make Pirate movies of their own.  Pirates of the Caribbean ended up just sitting on it’s own as an anomaly within the industry.  But, it was one that did help the Walt Disney out in a transitional time in their history.  As the Michael Eisner era gave way to the Bob Iger era, Pirates was the single biggest source of income for the studio, and it helped them gain the capital they would need to further expand in the years ahead with Marvel and Star Wars, and weather the disappointments along the way.  Though the decline of the series was disappointing in the long run, the fact that these movies exist at all and were worth seeing is a  miracle.  Pirate movies were a dead franchise, and yet somehow this franchise bucked the trend and became a success.  Finding the buried treasure in the character of Jack Sparrow was a key part of that, and I love the fact that he now is as noteworthy a part of the Disney legacy as the likes of Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck.  Also, the franchise was at it’s best when it had confidence in it’s own identity, even separated from the Disneyland ride.  The references in the early films were easy to spot, like the dog with the keys and skeleton Barbosa drinking a bottle of rum, but they didn’t distract from the story at large.  Pirates was it’s own unique thing, and the only thing that anchored it down in the end was it’s inability to be anything else.  I think that’s why Disney is deciding to retire Jack Sparrow as a character and relaunch the series anew.  But, the era that Jack Sparrow reigned was a weird and adventurous one, and even though the rum’s run dry on this series, it’s will still hold an infamous place as a true Hollywood original.  Drink up me hearties, Yo Ho.

 

Focus on a Franchise – The Dark Knight Trilogy

Before Marvel Studios set a new high standard for the super hero genre, and before DC Comics would constantly fall short of that standard as they’ve tried to keep up with their rival, there was only one true leader of the pack, and his name was Batman.  This was evident with the creation of what we know now as the Dark Knight trilogy, which was spearheaded by one of cinema’s most daring filmmakers in recent memory, Christopher Nolan.  He arrived on the scene at just the right moment for both the character and the super hero genre in general.  Both had reached somewhat of a low point in 1997 with the release of the disastrous Batman & Robin; a movie that many had considered a franchise killer.  Indeed, it took 8 years for Batman to recover from this low point, and the reigns to the series passed through many hands, including auteur Darren Aronofsky, before ultimately landing in Nolan’s lap.  And Nolan gave the character the revival he desperately need.  Perhaps the first thing one will praise about Nolan’s approach is that he grounded the character back into a real world setting.  Gone were the campy flourishes of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, and instead we were presented with a gritty reality that made the whole thing feel as plausible as a super hero movie could be.  But, one thing that I find so fascinating about Christopher Nolan’s trilogy is how well it tells the story of it’s main hero.  We delve deeper into the man that Batman is more than in any other previous version, guided by an “almost” always compelling performance by Christian Bale in the role (the voice could have been a little better).  In these movies, we finally get an understanding of why a man would fight crime dressed up as a bat, and that in turn helps us to examine our own societal responses to tragedy and hardship.  One of the larger themes that Nolan addressed in his movies is the effect of terrorism on societies, manifested through some of the iconic villains in Batman’s rogues gallery, and how the lines between good and evil get blurred under the guise of achieving justice.  Quite a hefty shift for this series to take, and one that has in turn made these three movies modern day classics and benchmarks for the genre as a whole.

BATMAN BEGINS (2005)

It’s surprising that up until this point, Batman’s origins had never been fully explored on the big screen.  Sure, his origins were alluded too in previous films, particularly with the essential element of his parent’s murder (which is also recreated again here too), but the actual details of Bruce Wayne’s road towards becoming the Bat had never been presented before.  Taking inspiration from Frank Miller’s graphic novel, Batman: Year One (1987), Batman Begins fills in those gaps between young Bruce’s loss of innocence to his ultimate donning of the cape and cowl.  And it proves to be a compelling story on it’s own; to the point where you don’t even care that Batman doesn’t make his first appearance until 80 minutes into a 2 1/2 hour movie.  We see Bruce Wayne receive his training in the ninja arts taught to him by the mysterious League of Shadows.  There he is mentored by Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul , who instills in him the idea that he must become more than a man to help stop crime in his home of Gotham City; he must become a symbol, and as a symbol, he can inspire the downtrodden and bring fear to the merciless.  This conflict between acting as a symbol and what cost that leaves on the man is a primary theme that Christopher Nolan would explore through all three Dark Knight films, but it’s foundation is laid out perfectly here in the first film.  We see how Batman’s moral code is set, choosing to fight crime just short of taking a life, and how that sets him apart from the other extreme characters who will populate his city as the story unfolds.  Nolan also gives us the added pleasure of watching Bruce Wayne build up the arsenal, with the help of his ever loyal butler Alfred (a delightful Michael Caine) and the resourceful Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman).  He even manages to answer the age old question, “why bats?”  And the simple answer is, bats frighten him, and he wants to turn that fear around and make it the thing his enemies will fear.

The theme of fear would also prove an important element that would play out through the entire trilogy, and there was no better way to lay the groundwork for that piece than to embody it through an adversary whose whole identity revolves around it; the Scarecrow, played in a scene-stealing performance by Cillian Murphy.  His Dr. Jonathan Crane is a simplified version of the often caricatured villain from the comic books, but he’s nevertheless effective in this story, and is often creepy enough without the mask he dons for the persona.  What I appreciate is the fact that Christopher Nolan didn’t try to jump right in and revisit already established Batman villains for his movie (at least not right away).  Here he managed to elevate a lesser known villain from the comics and show that you didn’t need to make your baddies a freak show in order to make them memorable in your movie.  The same likewise goes for Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul.  A dramatic departure from the immortal antagonist from the comics, Ra’s purpose in this film is still no less effective in presenting a compelling threat to Batman and Gotham.  Ra’s Al Ghul begins for the series the continuing threat of terrorism that Batman will always be up against.  His terrorist ideals are based primarily around eco-centric philosophy, see himself and the League of Shadows as the ones who bring balance to the world once a major population center grows out of control, in this case Gotham.  And to destroy the city, their weapon as it turns out is fear itself, weaponized through Scarecrow’s toxic gas.  Through all this, Nolan perfectly touches upon heady themes, while at the same time making it a rousing adventure true to it’s comic book origins.  Up until the MCU began, this was widely seen as the greatest comic book origin movie ever made, and it still is one of the best.  I myself named it as my favorite film of the year 2005.  But, little did we know that Nolan had much more tricks up his sleeve in the years ahead.

THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

If Batman Begins made for a fantastic overture, this would end up being the magnum opus.  Here we have the reason why this series is dubbed the Dark Knight trilogy.  Interesting enough, Christopher Nolan never initially planned to make a sequel to Batman Begins, let alone a trilogy.  He was already completing his next film The Prestige (2006) and had Inception (2010) waiting in the wings.  But, the success of Begins was enough to convince him to return, and this time with the full support of the Warner Brothers studio behind him.  A little sight gag in the closing minutes of Begins, where Detective Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) presents him a calling card of a criminal he should look into, which turns out to be a Joker card, easily gave Nolan the stepping stone for where to go next.  But, what ended up happening in the process proved to be very interesting.  For one thing, Nolan made one of the boldest casting choices in movie history by tapping heartthrob actor Heath Ledger in the iconic role of the Joker.  Many comic book fans were initially outraged by the choice, believing that Ledger was completely wrong for the character, but by the time the movie came out, all those naysayers would be silenced forever.  Heath’s performance as the Joker was not only perfect, it was transcendent.  His Joker is not only the most compelling villain we’ve ever seen in this genre, he may very well be one of the greatest screen villains of all time; in the same league as Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates.  Watching him work of Christian Bale’s Batman especially provides some of the best moments in the movie, including the now iconic interrogation scene.  Mainly due to Ledger’s Joker, this movie has enjoyed the lofty reputation it has had over the years; topping many critics’ favorite films lists and often being considered the best film of it’s genre.  It even sparked the Academy Awards to change it’s rules, after it was snubbed for Best Picture, expanding it’s number of nominees beyond the limit of 5 per year.  Ledger’s performance did earn him a much deserved Oscar, but sadly it was a posthumous win as the actor died tragically before the film’s release.

But The Dark Knight is more than just a showcase for Heath Ledger’s Joker.  Nolan treated us to not only one iconic Batman villain in his film, but two.  Harvey Dent, aka “Two-Face”, is also featured here, and is in many ways it’s a cinematic redemption for the character.  After his terribly botched appearance in Batman Forever (1995), where he was played in a campy performance by an embarrassing Tommy Lee Jones, Two-Face finally gets an origin in this film that’s truer to his persona from the comics.  Played with excellent restraint by Aaron Eckhart, Harvey Dent represents the fine line that separates characters like Batman and the Joker.  He is at heart a good man with a conscience, but also flawed because of his temper.  And in the movie, we see how even good men can turn bad so easily as a horrific accident scars him physically, making him more susceptible to the Joker’s mental manipulation.  It’s a fine line that we also see Batman having to cross at one point too.  In order to track down the Joker, Batman uses cellular technology created by Lucius Fox to basically spy on every citizen in Gotham City, an ethical line that Fox is deeply troubled by.  At this point, we see how easily Batman can also be turned evil, as desperation has forced him into a situation where he has to abuse his power in order to win the day.  This brings us back to the overarching theme of the effect that terrorism has on society, and in Dark Knight, we see the most profound examination of this.  In the years after 9/11, the United States made many morally questionable decisions in the name of combating terrorism, and those same dilemmas strongly influenced the themes in Nolan’s Dark Knight films.  The Joker is a threat unlike anything else that Batman will ever face, one whose villainy has no rhyme or reason; someone who as Alfred puts it, “just wants to watch the world burn.”  So, to combat an agent of chaos like that, is it possible to fight back without becoming a villain yourself?  That’s the brilliantly delivered question behind Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and it’s matched with a truly epic sized presentation.  This was Nolan’s first foray into IMAX film-making, which is masterfully put to use in some amazing scenes like the opening bank robbery and the semi-truck chase halfway through the film.  It’s a movie that really earns that masterpiece mantle.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

So, where do you go next after that?  That’s the dilemma that Christopher Nolan was tasked with after The Dark Knight.  The movie was an international phenomenon, and at the time, a record setting film in the super hero genre.  Not only that, but Christopher Nolan had built his reputation further as an unmatched cinematic artist of high ambition, with his popularity soaring after making The Dark Knight and Inception back to back.  Naturally, the need for another film to round out the trilogy was going to happen, especially with the cliffhanger ending of Dark Knight.  But the question remained, what was it going to be about?  You couldn’t revisit the Joker nor Two-Face again, so who was a big enough villainous presence to follow in the footsteps of those two?  Nolan eventually got the inspiration from his co-story writer David S. Goyer to take a look at an often under-utilized villain from the comic books; Bane.  This was somewhat of an odd choice, given how the steroid enhanced muscular adversary didn’t lend himself well to Nolan’s more grounded style, but the way they re-imagined the character actually proved to work to their advantage.  Gone were the luchadore style mask and plastic tubes that feed venom into his muscles making them grow huge, and instead we got natural muscles and a grotesque, face-hugging mask covering his mouth to define the character.  The right kind of actor was needed, and Nolan once again made a brilliant choice in giving the role to his Inception scene-stealer, Tom Hardy.  Hardy had the physical build perfect for the role, but it’s in the vocal performance where he truly makes the character shine.  Hardy’s Bane has a commanding presence, delivering several long soliloquies with absolute confidence, made all the more remarkable as he is left to perform with his mouth completely covered, relying more on his eyes and body language to do the heavy lifting.  Through all this, he becomes a threat to Gotham of a different type; a zealot bent on destruction.  Before, Batman had to deal with threats to his ethics and his soul; now it’s his threshold of pain that is challenged, and it may be one that will determine whether or not a Batman will survive.

The Dark Knight Rises is the most polarizing of the movies in this trilogy.  Some people felt that it was a let down after The Dark Knight, with many complaints stating that it had too convoluted of a plot, and that many of the changes that Christopher Nolan made were unfaithful to the essence of the characters and the legacy of what came before it.  But I found myself to be in the camp of people who outright loved this movie, and believed that it was a perfect conclusion to this particular story.  I believe that to really appreciate this film, you have to look at it’s context within the full arc of the trilogy as a whole.  The Dark Knight Rises closes out many of the grander themes that were laid out in Batman Begins and followed through with The Dark Knight, and that the toll that fighting back against evil takes on a person both spiritually and physically.  One thing that culminates in this film is the sense that by becoming Batman, Bruce Wayne has essentially been fighting back an internal struggle that has been damaging his mind slowly over the years, and that’s the fact that he never was able to cope with that loss of innocence as a child.  He has essentially killed off who Bruce Wayne was, and by becoming Batman, he is in turn welcoming death, a weakness that Bane is all too happy to exploit.  In a triumphant scene at the end of the second act, Bruce Wayne must climb out of an underground prison, and to do so, he must fear death once again, which means that he must have something to live for.  When he does, he doesn’t rise up as Batman, but as Bruce Wayne reborn.  And thus, we get a satisfying arc to the character of Bruce Wayne.  The entire trilogy is about him, not Batman.  With Dark Knight Rises, Nolan poignantly illustrates how a man can find purpose again by letting go of the pain that he once thought empowered him.  Perhaps many people didn’t like the fact that the movie concludes with Bruce giving up the Bat in order to live a normal life, and passing it on to a worthy successor, Robin (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt).  But the arc of the story was meant to show the power of moving beyond pain by embracing life, something which culminates perfectly the themes of all three films.  Sure it’s not a perfect movie; Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is kinda shoehorned in, despite a fine performance.  For me, it was a grand epic finale to one of the finest tales ever told in the mythic super hero genre.

One thing that I do love about the Dark Knight trilogy as a whole is the fact that it is a complete story.  There’s no grander cinematic universe beyond it’s narrative; no setting up of multiple franchises with Easter eggs or winking nods.  It’s just Batman, Gotham City, and the rogues gallery that means to terrorize them.  The whole thing is a story told in three acts, with Bruce Wayne working through a soul-searching journey to define himself.  Along the way, he faces foes that are not only great threats to him and his city, but also existential threats that force him to reconsider the kind of person he wants to be.  In Ra’s Al Ghul, Joker, Two-Face, and Bane, Bruce Wayne sees variations of the kind of person that he could easily have become had he made different choices throughout his life.  I believe that’s it was essential that these had to be the villains of this trilogy, as opposed to more conventional choices like The Penguin or The Riddler.  In each of them, we see the dark side of Batman manifested whole.  Ra’s Al Ghul is a Batman who believes killing is justifiable; Joker is a Batman with no moral code, working in the exact opposite direction as an symbol of chaos rather than order; and Bane is a Batman made a slave to a twisted ideology, believing right and wrong are irrelevant.  In a perfectly stated opinion from Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, he says, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”  It’s a foreshadowing statement about himself, of course, but it could also apply to Batman as well.  He is ever so close to becoming a villain himself in these movies and the same can be true about all of us in our own lives as well.  That’s the greatest aspect about the Dark Knight trilogy; the ethical questions it leaves us about the true nature of justice, and whether or not symbols like Batman are as pure as we like to think they are.  Batman ultimately remains a hero by the end, but Christopher Nolan makes it clear in his trilogy that not every path taken is as morally clear cut one.  It’s a trilogy that will go on to remain one of the genre’s most triumphant, and also one of the most daring in all of cinema.  Whether you go in entranced by Heath Ledger’s mesmerizing performance as the Joker, Nolan’s unparalleled sense of epic scale, or just the sheer  delight of watching the gritty bare-knuckle fight between Batman and Bane, this is a trilogy of classics that gives the Dark Knight true cinematic honor.

 

Focus on a Franchise – The Exorcist

What scares us the most as an audience usually differs from person to person.  Any one of us could be scared of anything, from spiders to ghosts to even clowns.  But, what ends up making us scared comes from a personal place and what baggage we bring with ourselves in everyday life.  Fear is a personal manifestation of the feelings of rejection, revulsion, and anticipation that coagulate beneath the surface, and are triggered by an external force that brings all those feelings out at once.  And the strange thing is that many of us like the feeling of being scared, as long as we know that we’ll be alright in the end.  That is the feeling that Hollywood seeks to exploit when they try their hand at horror, but again, everyone’s fears are different.  There are some instances when everyone’s fears do line up and it ends up driving the best of horror movies to great success.  But, which example in the genre has managed to do that best.  Well, given my own personal reactions, I can tell you that one of the most effective and interesting franchises to ever come out of the horror genre is the Exorcist series.  The original film that started the franchise is of course an all time great, but what sets it apart, along with it’s follow-ups, is the effectiveness of it’s atmosphere and iconography.  With it’s Gothic imagery, it’s almost oppressive use of darkness, it’s unrelenting look into the mind of pure evil, and it’s occasional use of shocking horrific moments, The Exorcist movies stand as probably the bleakest of all horror to ever come out of the Hollywood machine.  It’s also a franchise that has not been immune to highs and lows in quality, but even that disparity between each installment is fascinating in it’s own right.  In this article, I will be looking at the franchise as a whole (the good and the bad) and see how it has made it’s mark within the horror genre, as well as look at how the peculiar sidetracks it has taken over the years have made it one of the most unique horror franchises in the industry as well.

THE EXORCIST (1973)

Directed by William Friedkin

There are few if any horror films that can claim the kind of prestige that The Exorcist has.  It is, without a doubt, a masterpiece of a film-making and an icon of the genre.  But, why did this film perform as well as it did?  To put it simply, it was a perfect example of everything falling into place at the right time, with a near flawless execution.  The story is simple enough.  A young child named Regan (Linda Blair), the daughter of a famed actress (Ellen Burstyn), suddenly begins behaving strangely at home, which then evolves into violent behavior.  Soon after, supernatural events occur and it dawns on the mother that her child might indeed be possessed by something evil.  She resorts to calling upon the help of a tormented priest named Father Karras (Jason Miller) who finds that the demon possessing Regan is no ordinary spirit but something far sinister and powerful, which then leads him to calling upon a renowned exorcist who has had a personal history with this particular demon; Father Merrin (Max von Sydow).  What most people remember most from the movie is the now iconic Exorcism itself, as Fathers Merrin and Karras perform one of the most harrowing rituals every put on screen.  This scene is chilling on it’s own, but it’s elevated even more by the exceptional building of tension that we’ve seen up to that point, watching poor Regan become tortured by the demon inside her, transforming her into a literal unholy monster.  It stands out so much from horror movies before or since it’s creation, and that’s because of the “matter of fact” way it was staged.  Director Friedkin, coming straight off his Oscar-winning success with The French Connection (1971), made the brilliant decision to shot the movie like a drama rather than a horror picture, and that perfectly heightens the terror on screen, because it feels so unnatural.

One thing you’ll notice about the movie is the brilliance of it’s stripped back aesthetic.  The movie doesn’t rely heavily on jump scares, dramatic lighting, nor music cues to heighten the tension of the movie.  It all builds naturally through the atmosphere in the movie, and seeing the slow degradation of Regan over time.  In fact, despite having one of the horror genre’s most famous musical themes (courtesy of Mike Oldfield), the film is devoid of any background music, giving it a stark realism it might not otherwise have had.  The cinematography also brilliantly conveys a natural, unfiltered dread as well.  Shot with mostly natural, diffused light, the film has this coldness that permeates the entire movie.  By the time you get to the exorcism finale, you have already been immersed in this moody, oppressive atmosphere long enough that you forget you’re watching a movie and instead feel like your seeing real life unfold; and it’s terrifying.  The cast likewise brilliantly adds to the level of authenticity to the production.  While veterans like Max von Sydow, Ellen Burstyn, and Lee J. Cobb all give exceptional performances, it’s Linda Blair in her breakout role that really makes the movie memorable.  The fact that an actress of her young age had to endure such painstaking feats in order to make you buy into her possession, including the groundbreaking make-up by Dick Smith, is really something amazing.  You see this little girl completely disappear into this demonic monster, and it is the stuff of nightmares.  Whether she’s mutilating herself with a crucifix, twisting her head all the way around, or floating feet off of her bed, Regan’s presence on screen has come to define the genre since.  Special mention should also go to actress Mercedes McCambridge, who went un-credited as the voice of the demon.  Her gravely delivery further drives home the chilling transformation.  The movie is considered a classic for all the right reasons, and it’s iconic status is rightfully deserved.  Few other movies in the horror genre can claim to be half as effective or scary as this restrained masterpiece.

EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC (1977)

Directed by John Boorman

Everything about the first Exorcist was justifiably celebrated; the atmosphere, the performances, the direction, everything.  But, what was most celebrated was the subtlety, and matter of fact-ness that it approached it’s subject matter with.  Now, imagine a sequel that was devoid of all that subtlety, as well as lacking any restraint whatsoever.  That is what we got with Exorcist II; not just one of the worst sequels to a horror movie ever made, but also one of the most baffling.  Director John Boorman brought his own cinematic style, which tended to favor the surreal over the terrifying, which he honed on quirky cult classics like Zardoz (1974).  While his style works just fine for films like Zardoz and later Excalibur (1981), it proved to be a terrible match for the Exorcist.  Linda Blair returns as Regan, who is now seeking therapy worrying that the demon who possessed her is still there.  She is also investigated by newcomer, Father Lamont (Richard Burton), who is seeking answers in the “spoilers” death of Father Merrin from the previous movie (Max von Sydow also returns in a few brief flashbacks).  The movie sets much of the action with the mental clinic that’s treating Regan, and the overly stylized setting as well as the flashy way in which it is used points to exactly why this movie failed.  It forgets exactly what made the original so terrifying, which was the show of restraint on the part of the filmmakers which heightened the realism.  Here, Boorman wants you to notice his direction, and while the movie is at times beautifully shot, it is never in any way scary.  The only redeeming value of the film is that it misses the mark so badly, that it can sometimes be hilarious to watch; but again that reflects terribly on it’s connection to the original.  It’s flashy and garish, and in no ways feels like a natural continuation of the original.  Richard Burton’s barely caring performance doesn’t help much either.  It should’ve been obvious to John Boorman that a swarm of locusts doesn’t come anywhere near as being scary as a possessed child vomiting green projectile while strapped to a bed.  And it’s a lesson in cinema showing that style cannot support moments of horror alone.  the more natural approach it turns out makes a movie much more terrifying.

THE EXORCIST III: LEGION (1990)

Directed by William Peter Blatty

After the baffling embarrassment that was Exorcist II, the franchise went into dormancy for over a decade.  Then, it found new life thanks to the efforts of the unlikeliest of saviors; it’s original creator.  Screenwriter turned novelist turned filmmaker Blatty was the man who crafted the original novel on which the first movie was based on.  When it came time to adapt The Exorcist’s literary sequel, conveniently titled legion, Blatty took it upon himself to not only adapt the book himself, but also assume duties as director as well.  And remarkably, he proved to be quite adept at it.  While, Exorcist III  is not as perfectly executed as the first movie, it nevertheless feels much closer in spirit to it’s predecessor.  It retains the right amount of atmosphere, it takes it’s story much more seriously, and it is genuinely terrifying at times.  The film centers this time around the character of Lt. William Kinderman, the detective from the first movie who was played by Lee J. Cobb.  Here, the character is played by George C. Scott, who does a commendable job of filling the late actor Cobb’s shoes.  In the movie, he’s investigating a series of murders that bear the trademarks of a notorious serial killer called the Gemini Killer.  Only one problem, the Gemini Killer has been dead for 15 years.  The investigation leads him to a mental hospital where he finds a horrifying discovery; one of the patients is the once thought deceased Father Karras (Jason Miller returning to the role).  Blatty’s film, whole not perfect, nevertheless does an excellent job of returning the franchise back to it’s roots.  In particular, the atmosphere is spot on, and subtle in all the best ways.  The movie also has what is widely considered to be the best jump scare in film history, which is a real testament to Blatty’s direction.  But, the movie’s true best element is the unforgettable performance of Brad Dourif as the Gemini Killer, who we learn is possessing Father Karras alongside the demon from the first movie.  Dourif is absolutely terrifying in the film, to the point of being hypnotic, and more than anything he is the reason this movie is worth watching.  It took a long time, but this was the movie brought this franchise right back to it’s place as one of the most terrifying in cinematic history.  Not bad for someone who literally wrote the book on this stuff.

EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING (2004)

Directed by Renny Harlin

The franchise would once again take a long sabbatical again until Hollywood would once again come calling.  This time, however, the results wouldn’t turn out quite so well.  But, strangely enough, this would also prove to be the most fascinating years out of the franchise because what we got was an unexpected experiment in film-making out of the Exorcist franchise that I don’t think anyone ever expected.  Started by rights holders, Morgan Creek Productions, the series was about to look back in time and present the untold story about how Father Merrin became an exorcist in the first place.  After the first director dropped out, the project was given over to writer turned director Paul Schrader; best known for his darker themed films like Affliction (1998) and Auto Focus (2002), as well as the screenplay for Taxi Driver (1976).  Schrader faithfully executed the script he was given, but the producers had second thoughts when they saw his more cerebral approach.  So, they chose to re-shoot the entire film under the direction of Renny Harlin, whose better known for his work in action films.  This move didn’t exactly work out either, and the film unsurprisingly flopped.  This movie, again, showed us exactly what doesn’t work in this franchise and that’s the lack of subtlety.  Renny Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning is a loud, in your face  gore fest that felt more akin to the style of it’s era rather than a natural continuation of the franchise.  The scares are predictable, and it makes heavy use of some truly awful CGI effects.  The only thing it shares with the other Exorcist movies is it’s name as well as the character of Father Merrin, this time played by a rather lost Stellan Skarsgard.  Nothing is added by this film overall to the franchise, making it just feel like a shameless cash grab as a result.  And for that, it marks a low point in the franchise, one which could have resulted differently, which we would soon could have happened.

DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST (2005)

Directed by Paul Schrader

When we hear about re-shoots, we often speculate about an alternate version of a movie that we’ll never be able to see.  Most of the time, a re-shoot happens to alter one or two scenes to help a struggling film feel more cohesive.  Rarely do you see that happen to an entire movie, and even rarer do you see that alternative version make it to theaters as it’s own film.  But, that’s exactly how we got this fifth installment in the Exorcist franchise; one that should’ve never happened in the first place.  After Beginning’s failure at the box office, Morgan Creek realized too late that they may have made a mistake shelving Paul Schrader’s version and decided to give it a theatrical release of it’s own.  Schrader was given the most minuscule of post-production budgets in order to finish his film, and while it does present something closer to his original vision, it still feels like one that is compromised.  Still, Dominion does have one benefit, which is that it feels more in character with the spirit of the franchise.  The film is interesting to watch alongside Renny Harlin’s version, because it shows how two different directors can take basically the same plot, which has Father Merrin investigating a submerged church in the Egyptian desert that’s built upon a pagan temple, and come up with a completely different feeling movie.  While it still pales in comparison to the terrifying moments of The Exorcist and Exorcist III, it does much better at maintaining a sense of Gothic atmosphere that Renny Harlin completely ignored.  Skarsgard also is much better in this version, bringing a lot more depth to the character of Father Merrin, as we see what evil drove him back into God’s service.  Neither this or Beginning stand very strong as horror movies, but together they make for one interesting lesson in storytelling on film; contrasting Schrader’s more subtle approach with Harlin’s flashier one.  Dominion did only slightly better among critics than Beginning, but it did receive some welcome praise from a high place, and that was from William Peter Blatty, who commended it as a film in the true spirit of the original.  Regardless, it’s still something of a miracle that Dominion saw the light of day at all, even with a rather lackluster roll out by the studios.   It’s not anywhere near the height of the franchise, due to it’s still lackluster story, but it at least made an attempt to feel like it belonged in the same family as it’s predecessors and not feel like a lame attempt to follow a trend.

So, while the results have been wildly incoherent, the Exorcist miraculously has become a franchise that still has legs many years later.  The original of course is a timeless masterpiece that still manages to remain chilling even today.  And Exorcist III has managed to climb out of the shadow of it’s predecessor and become a beloved cult hit in it’s own right.  The best thing though is that you don’t have to watch the whole of the series in order to appreciate it’s finer parts.  The first and third installments stand perfectly well on their own apart from their lackluster follow-ups.  Exorcist II basically serves as a bizarre cautionary tale about how not to make a sequel, and the two back to back prequels offer an interesting look at how a movie can differ so greatly depending on who’s directing it.  But, personally for me, I admire The Exorcist franchise (at it’s best) for taking it’s scares seriously and not exploit them for shock value.  I grew up in the Catholic church, so some of the themes and iconography were all very familiar in the films.  As I’ve grown older, my views on religion have changed significantly, but at the same time, it’s still be a part of me, and it’s what follows me into my experiences viewing these movies.  It’s my own kind of baggage that these movies prey upon to bring out my fears, and that’s probably why I find The Exorcist one of the most frightening films ever made.  For me, it brought out my worst fears, of losing my soul as well as control over my own self, and that’s what keeps it resonating for me so many years after viewing it for the first time.  I still marvel at the incredible seriousness that the movie takes with it’s subject, which as we’ve seen can be mishandled to the point of silliness in other films.  The Exorcist franchise is horror film-making taken beyond the point of simple scares, and into the realm of creating genuine dread.  Exorcisms may not in fact be a real thing, but these movies have sure convinced us all that they could be.  Nothing is scarier than feeling the sense that our worst fears can manifest into real terror, and The Exorcist managed to turn that kind of fear into high art and an unforgettable experience.

Focus on a Franchise – The Alien Quadrilogy

For as long as science fiction has existed as a genre in film-making, there has been a long tradition of movies centered around extra-terrestrial life.  The concept of life beyond our own planet is a compelling one, and there are certainly many avenues to explore with it as well.  There’s the peaceful visitor angle explored in films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and of course E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).  There is also the hostile threat angle explored in War of the Worlds (1953), The Thing (1982), and Predator (1987).  Oftentimes, the most popular alien based movies fall under the monster movie angle, making the creatures symbols of terror meant to frighten movie goers everywhere.  No where else have we seen this type of movie realized more vividly and more frighteningly than in the Alien franchise.  The brain child of writer Dan O’Bannon, the Alien series is among the most of sci-fi pictures ever made, taking the genre out of it’s goofy, B-movie past and turning it into the stuff of nightmares.  This was largely due to the completely earnest efforts of it’s filmmakers to never sugarcoat the terror and to fully immerse the audience in an atmospheric dread the likes of which we had never seen before on film.  The other interesting aspect of the Alien franchise is how it evolved over the years; sometimes in good ways like with the beloved sequel, Aliens (1986), and other times in bad ways, like with the two follow-ups there after.  In this article, I will be looking at what is called the Alien Quadrilogy, which is the set of 4 films that launched the franchise and were centered around the character of Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver).  So, I won’t be including the Alien vs. Predator spinoff series here, nor the recent prequel films, Prometheus (2012) or Alien: Covenant (2017), since they are unrelated to the Ripley story-line.  So, let’s head into the darkest reaches of space and learn why in space, no one will hear you scream.

ALIEN (1979)

Directed by Ridley Scott

It’s hard to believe now how daring a movie like Alien was when it was made back in the late 70’s.  For the longest time, science fiction was a pool of campiness and cheap special effects.  And only two years prior, Star Wars had revolutionized the genre with an emphasis on action adventure.  But, the makers of Alien had a different outlook on the genre that would end up making it really stand out in the grand scheme of things.  Dan O’Bannon’s original concept called for a vision of alien life that was far darker than anything we had seen before; a destroyer of civilizations and something far better left undiscovered.  While the concept was watered down over many subsequent drafts, the idea still struck a cord in Hollywood, and the film managed to make it’s way into 20th Century Fox, who were already hitting a high after the success of Star Wars.  Thankfully for O’Bannon’s script, Fox brought on board a director who could do justice to the bleaker vision of the story.  That director was newcomer Ridley Scott, a visual artist turned filmmaker with only one other film made before this (1977’s The Duellists).  Scott drew inspiration not from the sci-fi genre during his production, but from horror flicks that were beginning to become popular at the time, such as those from the likes of John Carpenter and Wes Craven.  As Scott saw it, this was a haunted house movie set in space, and it gave him the right frame of tone to craft his movie around.  And to make that vision feel even more effectively disturbing, he called upon the skills of artist H. R. Geiger to design much of the movie, including the alien himself.  Geiger’s neo-gothic designs in particular help to set the Alien movies apart, and their deeply unsettling nature is still iconic to this day.

But, all in all, Alien is an iconic film because it is so thoroughly is confident in it’s identity.  You never feel for once while watching the movie that your experiencing a compromised vision.  It is dark, disturbing, and relentless in it’s tension.  O’Bannon’s deeper mythology may have needed to be parred down, but it doesn’t ruin the experience one bit, and it even makes the film feel more mysterious as a result; making us ask who or what was the Space Jockey and how did this alien creature destroy so much life?  The cast of the film also help to fit within the tone of the film.  Since the story is centered around a group of space freighters, it makes sense that all of them have a grittier sense of character to them, and the movie does a great job of making them all feel authentic and personable, and more than just lambs to the slaughter.  And every death in this movie is more than impactful, especially the iconic chest-burster scene with the late John Hurt.   That moment in particular is probably the first thing that comes to mind when anybody mentions this movie, and really it’s the thing that cemented this film’s legendary status.  Ridley Scott’s direction also perfectly captures the atmosphere of the story.  It’s bleak, but oddly beautiful at the same time.  He not only set a high standard for the sci-fi genre hereafter for this movie, but with horror films too.  His use of oppressive darkness and misty steam filled corridors is amazingly effective.  Not only that, but he has the good sense to keep the “Xenomorph” alien creature hidden in the shadows until shown for maximum impact, like in the vent chase scene.  The first Alien alone is a compelling story of survival, and probably unbeknownst to Scott and his team, the lone survivor of this story, Ellen Ripley, would go down as one of cinema’s greatest heroines; but her time was still yet to come in this series.

ALIENS (1986)

Directed by James Cameron

The success of the first Alien left a strong impression on Hollywood, showing that audiences were willing to see darker films within the sci-fi genre.  It also set the bar pretty high thereafter, leading to a lot of pressure on Fox to make a follow-up sequel that could live up to the original.  After Ridley Scott passed, choosing instead to make films like Blade Runner (1982) and Legend (1986), Fox looked elsewhere for someone to guide the franchise.  James Cameron, who was hot of the success of The Terminator (1984), was tasked with the role of making a sequel to Alien.  To many people’s surprise, not only did he accomplish this, but some would even say that Cameron made an even better movie than the original.  Cameron’s sequel, Aliens, works as well as it does because he made the smart choice to not just copy what had been done before, but instead make a different kind of movie altogether.  Aliens is completely different in tone, style, and plotting than the original film.  Where Ridley Scott attempted to make a horror movie, Cameron instead made an action flick; just set in the same universe.  And it completely works.  The Xenomorph creatures are still just as terrifying, especially the monstrous Queen, but the film spends less time building the dread around them and instead finds it’s energy with the characters engaging these monsters in combat.  The plot is very different too, with less emphasis put on the different ways that the characters will die in the film, and more centered around how they can strategize their chances of survival and be able to destroy these creatures.  We are also introduced in this movie to the idea of the Weyland Yutani corporation as this antagonistic force (personified through a sleazy corporate representative played by Paul Reiser) who we learn are somewhat responsible for spreading the Xenomorph’s presence across the galaxy.  Here we find Cameron injecting some political subtext into the franchise, that more or less enriches a standard good vs. evil plot.

But what really makes Aliens an iconic film more than anything is then character of Ellen Ripley.  Though already established in the previous Alien movie, Ripley didn’t really come into her own as a character until this sequel.  We delve far deeper into her character, finding that she is far more than just a survivor, but a resourceful fighter as well.  Sigourney Weaver makes a triumphant return here, emboldening Ripley with far more grit and resolve than any heroine that we had seen in a movie up to that point.  Strong female protagonists have long been a common motif in James Cameron movies, like Sarah Conner in The Terminator or Rose in Titanic (1997), but Ripley is his true greatest achievement in writing character, and she has since become an influential character for all cinema.  Before, Hollywood didn’t believe that action films headlined by women could never work, and both Cameron and Sigourney Weaver proved them all wrong.  That alone is a great legacy for this film.  Weaver was praised so much for her standout work in the movie that it even earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, the first of her career.  At the same time, her performance is perfectly balanced with a strong cast around her.  Each actor in the ensemble manages to rise above the stereotype of tough guy space marines and actually become interesting individuals in their own right.  Particularly memorable are Michael Biehn as the noble Corporal Hicks and the late Bill Paxton as Private Hudon, who nails some of the film’s sillier lines (“Game Over Man!!”).  There’s also a tender, emotional performance from young Carrie Henn as the orphaned child Newt, who manages to turn into a surrogate daughter for Ripley.  Their relationship gives the movie surprising heart at it’s center, and makes us feel more connected with their plight.  It also gives more weight to the iconic confrontation between Ripley and the Queen, with Ripley uttering the now legendary line of “Get away from her, you Bitch.”  Captivating in it’s action, progressive in it’s themes, and unafraid of changing the course of it’s franchise, Aliens is a textbook example of how to do a sequel right.

ALIEN3 (1992)

Directed by David Fincher

Unfortunately, future installments of this series would fall way short of Aliens example.  A third film in this franchise wallowed in development hell for several years, with no one knowing quite what to do with it.  Several directors were brought on board at various times, including Ridley Scott mulling a possible return.  Eventually, Fox landed the project into the hands of commercial and music video director David Fincher, who was to make his feature film debut here.  Fincher unfortunately found that he had been saddled with a project that was doomed from the beginning.  The film started shooting without a finished script and the entire run of production found Fincher being inundated with a ton of studio interference.  Sigourney Weaver also made a lot more demands this time around as a condition of her returning to the franchise, and some of them (like the insistence of not having gun violence present in the story) ended up neutering the gorier vision that Fincher wanted to put on screen.  It all makes the film feel far more compromised a vision compared to it’s predecessors.  While some of the ideas present are interesting, like Ripley finding herself in an all male prison, which is a scary place on it’s own even without the Xenomorphs, the movie never gels into a compelling film overall, nor works as either horror or action adventure.   Sigourney Weaver is still okay in the film, but it gives her nothing worthwhile to do like Aliens did.   The film even alienated audiences further by killing off the beloved characters of Hicks and Newt right from the beginning, completely wiping all development for Ripley’s character, giving her nothing to fight on for. Fincher’s direction is unfocused, which is not surprising since it’s his first feature.  He has since disowned the movie and now looks back on it as a learning experience in how not to make a film.  Still, the movie does earn points with the extra polish given to it’s visual effects.  The Xenomorphs in this film are outstanding, and genuinely terrifying.  If only the film around them didn’t look so drab, and the story wasn’t so boring.

ALIEN RESURRECTION (1997)

Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Several more years would pass before Fox decided to revisit the Alien well again.  This time, they were eager to return to the more horror driven thrills of Ridley Scott’s original.  And when you think of someone who can pull off a sci-fi horrorshow, you instantly think of the director of Amelie (2001), right?  Okay, French director Jeunet is an odd choice to give the reigns of this franchise over to, but no one can deny that he is a strong artistic eye, something that he showed off well in his earlier films Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1997).  In truth, there are some interesting artistic choices in Alien Resurrection too, but that’s about it.  Resurrection is a very fascinating failure, mainly in the fact that so many talented people involved managed to make such a horrible movie.  The story itself is pointless, finding Ripley revived centuries after her death in Alien3 thanks to genetic cloning.  But Ripley here is not the same Ripley as we’ve grown to love before, mainly due to the fact that her genetic code is mixed with that of a Xenomorph alien.  It could have been an interesting character element, but the movie never explores it fully, instead focusing too much on tired action scenes that we’ve seen a million times before.  Weaver in particular seems very disinterested this time around, and it’s clear that she returned just for the paycheck only.  The movie really is just a whole lot of unnecessary retreading of stuff already done better in other alien movies.  It’s surprising that such a unoriginal script would come from the likes of Joss Whedon, who’s clearly better off working with vampire hunters and Marvel superheroes as his subjects.  But, even with a messy production as it stands, the film does come off as a beautiful trainwreck at times, taking the series into some demented places, which is somewhat better than the dreary dullness of Alien3.  Still, it’s a big drop-off from the stellar heights of where this series began.

Despite the ups and downs that the Alien franchise has experienced over the years, it is still as influential today as it was when it first began.  Countless sci-fi horror blends made in the years since have the original to thank for showing Hollywood that it could work.  The series is also responsible for propelling the careers of two of our greatest filmmakers, Ridley Scott and David Fincher, although Scott looks back more fondly on his experience than Fincher does.  Scott in fact has managed to find his way back into this world and explore it even further with his prequel set of films, finally being able to explain more about this world that he could only hint at before in the original Alien.  Now, some would argue that he was better off leaving some of those things a mystery and that these new films, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant are unnecessary retreads, but that’s up to debate (personally I thought Prometheus was alright; not Alien or Aliens good, but not bad either; I have yet to see Covenant as of this writing).  The best thing about this franchise, however, is that it’s a series that pushed boundaries and changed Hollywood largely for the better.  The original showed that you could make a movie that was horrifically gory without being schlocky.  The franchise also showed that you could switch genres midway through and still retain the same identity.  And most importantly, it made Sigourney Weaver the first ever female action movie star, and showed that in an era dominated by the likes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone that women could headline an action flick just as effectively.  That, in the end, could be Aliens’ most honorable legacy and female action stars today like Charlize Theron and Scarlett Johansson have Sigourney Weaver and Ellen Ripley to thank for that.  In addition, H. R. Geiger’s designs for the Xenomorph alien continue to be a work of pure nightmarish genius.  Honestly, if that design hadn’t captured our imagination as well as it did, there probably wouldn’t have been a franchise at all.  The Alien Quadrilogy stands as a truly iconic series, with daring visuals, one hell of a great heroine, and probably the most terrifying monsters we will ever see on the big screen.   

Focus on a Franchise – Harry Potter: Part Two

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The one thing that most readers of the J.K. Rowling novels observed as the series went along was how the latter books took a considerable dark turn in the narrative.  Whatever the reason, Rowling’s novels dealt with heavier and heavier themes as it headed towards the homestretch, finding the titular boy hero in ever more dire situations.  The notion that this was children’s literature seemed to not apply anymore, and I’m sure that if you asked Rowling herself, she would probably say that she never intended these stories to be just for kids, and these later novels are proof of that.  Death, and the inevitability of it, became the overarching theme of the last four novels of the series, as well as the effect it has on Harry as a whole.  In the story, Harry has to face the deaths of loved ones, put himself and his friends in harms way, and come to the realization that in order to defeat his mortal enemy, Voldemort, he will have to either kill, or be killed (or perhaps both).  Safe to say, things get pretty dark on this side of the Potter franchise.  Gone is the joyful wonderment of the earlier stories, but it’s a maturity that needed to happen for the series to reach it’s full potential.  What many fans and critics all agree with is that Rowling concluded her epic series in a very satisfying fashion.  Harry’s journey does come full circle and little is left unresolved.  And while many of the more shocking moments from these latter novels did leave fans upset, I’m sure that no one would want to see the story done any other way.  Knowing how effective Rowling completed her epic story must have been a relief to those trusted with bringing the books to the big screen, but doing them justice, with all the darker themes involved proved to be a challenge in it’s own right.

The Harry Potter franchise went through something of a makeover in the third and fourth entries, Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and Goblet of Fire (2005), and those two films would lay the groundwork for everything that followed after.  Just as I had in my first part of this retrospective (which you can read here), I will be examining the Potter franchise film by film, this time focusing on the final four.  Like before, I will avoid giving plot summaries and instead focus on the different highlights of each film, and how the series progressed with regards to it’s storytelling, the performances, and it’s realization of the wizarding world itself.  I will be discussing some spoilers as well, so be forewarned.  The interesting thing about the last half of the Potter franchise is that unlike the first four, which had a shifting number of directors at the helm, all of the remaining films were directed by one man; British filmmaker David Yates.  Yates was given the daunting task of steering this massive franchise home, and for someone with few credits outside of television at the time, he proved to be a surprisingly effective choice.  In fact, not only did he manage to close out the Potter franchise in a grand way, but he’s now the man in charge of shepherding J.K. Rowling’s new big screen franchise, the Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; having signed on to direct all five planned films in that series.  So, now that were ready, let us delve into the final four movies of this franchise and conclude this two part retrospective of the Harry Potter franchise.

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HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (2007)

After the shocking revelation of Voldemort’s rebirth, and the death of one of Hogwart’s students (Cedric Diggory) at the hands of the dark wizard in the previous film, the Wizarding World would never be the same afterwards.  Order of the Phoenix deals with the immediate aftermath of those events, putting Harry and his friends in a far more uncertain and paranoid time.  The titular Order, we learn, is an organization devoted to stopping the Dark Lord’s return, and it’s made up of the adult figures in Harry’s life, including his beloved godfather Sirius Black (with Gary Oldman returning for the role).  What is interesting about this particular film in the franchise is that it was an adaptation of the longest novel in Rowling’s series (a whopping 870 pages), and yet of the single book adaptations, it had the shortest run-time; about 139 minutes.  To do that, you can imagine that a lot of the book was cut down, but overall, I think it was something that had to be done.  Not to disparage Rowling as writer, but Order of the Phoenix was the book that suffered the most from unnecessary filler, and I commend the filmmakers for actually cutting the story down to it’s most essential elements.  And they did this mostly by finding the core of the story and focusing just on that, itself being Harry coming to terms with growing older and knowing that loss and suffering will be following him on his journey going forward.  In the books, Harry becomes a lot more moody and aggressive, which does come out a little bit in Daniel Radcliffe’s performance, but in a more subtle way.  The film does also deals with Harry’s maturity in an effective way, showing his talents as a teacher when he helps his fellow students learn essential spells for fighting the Dark Arts in secret, congregating in the Room of Requirement, which sees it’s first appearance in this movie.

Some new important characters get introduced in Order as well.  My favorite would have to be Luna Lovegood (played to absolute perfection by newcomer Evanna Lynch).  Perhaps of all the students at Hogwarts, Luna is the one I most identify with, just because I was also an oddball kid whose head was in the clouds most of the time, so I guess that’s what makes her one of my absolute favorite characters in the series, and it made me very happy to see her so perfectly realized here.  Also introduced were two of the most loathsome characters in the series overall.  The first is the unhinged and sadistic Bellatrix Lestrange, a witch with strong ties to Voldemort.  She’s played by Helena Bonham Carter, which seemed like appropriate casting considering Carter’s affinity for the gothic and bizarre, which has found it’s way into many of her performances, including this one, and she is very good in the role.  The other addition however probably stands as the most hated character in the series overall, that being Professor Dolores Umbridge.  Umbridge is a thoroughly unpleasant character, pretending to be wholesome and gentile, while at the same time taking delight in suppressing other people’s rights and even subjecting them to torture, like having students write with an ink quill that drains the writer of their own blood.  She is played by actress Imelda Staunton in a phenomenal performance.  You’ve got to give her credit for bringing so much into a character that’s so despised.  The movie also delivers an amazing set piece in the Ministry of Magic, the wizarding world’s center of government.  It’s also the setting for one of the series greatest moments, the showdown between Voldemort and Dumbledore, which does not disappoint in the movie.  Overall, Order of the Phoenix is the Potter franchise at it’s most efficient, knowing what to cut out and what to leave in, creating a well rounded movie in the process.

harry-potter-half-blood-prince

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE (2009)

Released two years after Order of the Phoenix, the longest gap between any of the films in the franchise, we were treated with the sixth film in the franchise.  The Half-blood Prince picks up right after the events of Order, showing the aftermath of Voldemort’s attack on the Ministry, and Harry dealing with the loss of Sirius Black in the confrontation.  Like the previous film, this story is focused on one crucial thing, and that’s the relationship between Harry and Dumbledore, who spend far more time together here than in all the previous films.  This is a movie that focuses far more on filling out the gaps in the narrative, in particular regarding the backstory of Voldemort himself, as Harry and Dumbledore try to piece together exactly how the Dark Lord was able to cheat death.  We learn for the first time about Horcruxes, which we learn is what Voldemort has used to keep himself alive, having split his soul into seven different objects, all of which Harry will have to destroy in order to defeat him.  The film does an effective job of filling us in on how everything in the story now ties together and showing us what Harry must do to finally vanquish the enemy.  Unfortunately for the film, this is what also makes the story feel kind of weak here.  Of all the latter Harry Potter films, this one is sadly the weakest, and that’s mainly because it feels like the story has stalled a bit, in order to fill us in on all the details.  The presentation also feels a little more muted than usual, choosing a more languid pace than previous films, along with a sickly muted color palette (though beautifully shot by acclaimed cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel).  After the brisk pacing of Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, this movie really felt like the franchise slamming on the breaks, and it suffers as a result.

That’s not to say that everything in this movie is terrible.  There are some welcome highlights.  One is the addition of Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent to the cast as the delightful Professor Horace Slughorn.  The character is absent-minded and self-serving, but Broadbent brings a nice bit of congeniality to the character that helps to make him endearing.  There’s also a graciously hilarious sequence when Harry takes the “Liquid Luck” potion in order to effectively coax out information he needs from Professor Slughorn.  It’s a much need light moment in an otherwise dour film, and it also lets Daniel Radcliffe show off his comedic chops for once as Harry, something I’m sure that he’s wanted to do for a long time in the role.  Also, the relationship with Dumbledore is well developed here, and Radcliffe and Michael Gambon are superb in their scenes together, especially in the climatic and sometimes hard to watch scene where Harry has to force feed a poisonous potion to Dumbledore in order to find a Horcrux.  The backstory scenes are also incredibly moody too, especially one where Dumbledore meets Voldemort as a child (played by Ralph Finnes own nephew, Hero Finnes-Tiffin, who is excellent).  But, all the good elements can’t seem to help the movie as whole, which just feels off in it’s pacing.  Jokes that should have been hilarious fall flat and a lot of the joyfulness of previous films feels missing here.   Also, the film sadly misses the opportunity to go more in depth with the mystery of the title itself, the identity of the Half-Blood Prince.  Spoilers, it’s Professor Snape, who is absent for most of the movie, which seems like a waste.  I do however want to give some praise to actor Tom Felton here, who has played the sometimes one note Draco Malfoy throughout the series.  Here, he’s finally able to show some depth in the character and he at last gives a memorable performance, showing effectively the weight of his conflicting morals when he’s called upon to do the most evil of acts.  Half-Blood Prince is not the series worst, but it is an unfortunate bump in the road towards a satisfying conclusion.

harry-potter-deathly-hallows-1

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART I (2010)

Warner Brothers made the controversial decision with the last book in the series in choosing to split it up into two films.  The benefit is that they would gain another film for the series, extending it to eight instead of seven, but the downside was that the story might be stretched too thin in each film, making it less impactful than it should.  Still, for some, it’s a decision that makes sense, considering that The Deathly Hollows is a substantial book (at 759 pages) and that unlike Order of the Phoenix, you couldn’t cut a lot of it out without losing something valuable.  So, what we got was two movies devoted to depicting the final chapter of the Potter franchise, and for the most part, it’s a decision that works.  Sadly, this precident has become popular in Hollywood in general, and now it’s commonplace for major franchises to split their final chapters into two-parters, like the Twilight and Hunger Games series, and not all of them managed to do it as well as Potter did.  One thing that helps Harry’s final chapter is that it has a stronger break-off point to split the story up, giving each film a nice full narrative.  The first film, while maligned by some fans for having the same languid pacing as Half-Blood Prince, actually benefits the most from the split narrative.  Part 1 in fact may be my favorite of the latter Potter films, and third overall behind Goblet  and Azkaban.  I just found it a fascinating watch as an experiment.  Could you really make a Harry Potter film without Hogwarts in it.  This movie proves that you can, with Harry, Ron, and Hermione living on the run as fugitives, escaping Voldemort’s disciples The Death Eaters, who have taken over the Ministry and are hunting them down.  It’s that feeling of a world flipped upside down that really drives the narrative along and makes this movie a captivating watch.

What I particularly like about this movie is the way it delves deeper into the relationship between our three main heroes.  Ron and Hermione in particular are given much more depth here, and the growth of their characters is touching and heartbreaking as the story goes along.  Both Rupert Grint and Emma Watson deliver standout performances, and like with Daniel Radcliffe, it’s amazing to see how far they’ve matured as actors since they first showed up in The Sorcerers Stone nearly a decade earlier.  It’s clear in this film that they are no longer children, but full-fledged adults, who now have a sense of pain and loss weighing on their shoulders.  There is a fantastic scene halfway through the movie that really encompasses the growth these characters has gone through, and it’s after Ron has abandoned his friends after a fight.  Harry cheers up the grieving Hermione by leading her in a dance, which doesn’t seem all that important, but in the movie it is a brilliant character moment, and one that was not in the books.  There are other key elements introduced in the story, namely the titular Deathly Hallows.  In an amazing and beautiful animated sequence, we learn that the Hallows are three objects that are capable of cheating death, those being the all powerful Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone which brings life back to the dead, and as Harry soon realizes, the Cloak of Invisibility which he’s long had in his possession.  The film also brings back a long absent character, house elf Dobby, who is very much improved as a character here, both in terms of his construction as a CGI character as well as his personality.  His return is short-lived however, as he is slain while helping Harry and his friends escape the clutches of Bellatrix Lestrange at Malfoy Manor, giving this movie a poignant moment to close on.  All these elements make Part 1 of The Deathly Hallows one of the series best.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART II (2011)

It all comes down to this.  After a decade of build-up, with seven previous movies rounding out the story, we finally come to the final confrontation between good and evil in the Wizarding World.  Picking up right where Part 1 left off, Part 2 finds Harry and his friends at a bleak breaking point, and Voldemort in possession of the Elder Wand, which it turns out was being used by Dumbledore up until his death at the end of Half-Blood Prince.  After finding one more Horcrux in the vaults of Gringott’s Bank in London, Harry and his friends soon learn where they will find the remaining hidden Horcrux; in a room somewhere inside Hogwarts.  At that’s where the final battle commences.  Harry and his friends quickly dispose of Voldemort’s cronies at the school, which includes Snape, and those loyal to Harry including Professor McGonagall and the remaining Order of the Phoenix members help to prepare the castle for attack.  The movie on a whole is one big giant climatic battle, which is both the film’s strength and it’s weakness.  While it is a spectacular, epic showdown that is well-paced and captivating, it also has the disadvantage of making this singular film feel very one-note.  The movie feels less like a complete movie, and more like an extended final act; which to be fair, it does very well.  But even still, it makes it less watchable on it’s own than any previous Potter film, because it feels the most like part of a story rather than it’s own thing.  It’s the same problem that plagued the final Hobbit movie, where everything was more or less tied to wrapping things up rather than delivering a complete standalone narrative.  Even Part 1 felt more complete.  Still, despite it’s shortcomings, Part 2 is a satisfying conclusion to this series.

The final battle within Hogwarts is massive and full of eye-catching moments.  The film really shows how comfortable director David Yates had gotten with directing on a massive scale.  The performances are universally strong, especially Daniel Radcliffe and Ralph Finnes in their iconic roles.  To see these two facing off against each other finally is very satisfying, especially in seeing how much more confident Harry has become over the years, becoming fearless in the face of evil and certain death.  We also get to finally see the long awaited moment when Ron and Hermione kiss for the first time, bringing closure to this long developing romantic subplot.  But, the movie’s greatest triumph belongs to the absolutely brilliant segment in which we learn about Severus Snape’s full backstory.  Heavy spoilers ahead.  Harry is given Snape’s memories as the professor is dying from his wounds, and Harry is able to view them through the Pensieve dish in Dumbledore’s office, a plot device introduced in Goblet of Fire and featured heavily in Half-Blood Prince.  In those memories, both we and Harry learn that Snape and Harry’s mother Lily were childhood friends and that Snape was indeed protecting Harry out of his love for Lily, even beyond her death.  The scene is an emotional one, and proves once and for all that Snape was a true hero in the end.  Alan Rickman delivers some of his best work in this sequence, especially the moment when he’s clutching Lily’s body after her murder by Voldemort, utterly devastated.  And Rickman forever endeared himself to a whole generation of fans with one simple, perfectly delivered line; “always.”  The actor’s recent passing earlier this year only made this moment and line more poignant, and he deserves all of the praise he’s been given.  All of this makes Deathly Hallows Part 2 a very satisfactory end.

So, there you have it.  What seemed like a long shot at first ended up proving to be a masterstroke in the end.  In ten years and eight films, we managed to see J.K. Rowling’s grand vision come to life, and it became one of cinema’s greatest journeys as a result.  While not perfect all the way through, the series nevertheless feels very complete as a whole.  It’s especially fun watching it the whole way through and seeing the children grow up before your very eyes.  Considering the scale of the whole undertaking, it’s miraculous that they ever managed to make it through the entire series in one piece overall.  The franchise launched quite a few careers, as well as gave us some career defining work from some beloved veterans.  But, more than anything, it made Hogwarts and the wizarding world around it feel real.  All of us who watch the movies or read the books wishes that a place like that could exist in real life.  It’s probably why J.K. Rowling has expanded the lore of her novels and created things like the Pottermore website, which allows for the fan community to come together online, find out which house they belong to at Hogwarts, and feel like they are a part of this grand fantasy themselves.  Even today, five years after the conclusion of the series, do we still see the impact of the movies in pop culture and elsewhere.  Universal Studios theme parks have their own sections devoted to recreating landmarks from the films, including Hogwarts itself, which immerses the fan-base even further in the world.  But, what I think is the series greatest contribution is the near perfect way it captures the essence of what it’s like to grow up in school; as the innocence and optimism of youth shifts into a deeper understanding of the hardships that await us in adulthood.  Harry was the perfect surrogate for this kind of journey, and it’s great to see a movie franchise that brought his story so perfectly to life.  It cast it’s spell on us and we couldn’t have asked for anything better.

Focus on a Franchise – Harry Potter: Part One

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Many of the franchises that I have covered in this series usually evolved over many years, and sometimes decades, adapting to the times and taking interesting turns the further they went along.  That wasn’t so much the case with the Harry Potter franchise.  Based on author J.K. Rowling’s sprawling, seven volume epic series of novels, Harry Potter was a huge gamble for Warner Brothers to take on in the early 2000’s.  They had to build a franchise around a cast of young characters in a genre that had, until that time, not clicked at the box office.  And the big problem with planning such a long lasting franchise starring child actors is that they eventually grow up; fast.  And yet, Warner Bros. benefited from having a source material with a built in audience that not only could work on the big screen, but in deed lended itself perfectly to the medium.  Rowling’s grand magnum opus was a phenomenon that deserved all of it’s praise, and the pressure was on to make the films just as engaging as the books themselves, and do it quick (8 films in 10 years).  As we know now, the franchise was a smash hit, and managed to fulfill it’s promise of capturing the full breadth of Rowling’s narrative.  Following the titular hero on his adventures at the Hogwarts School of Wizarding and Witchcraft, the Potter franchise is both surprisingly faithful to the spirit of the novels, but distinctive in it’s own right as a cinematic achievement.  Despite all it’s success, it wasn’t without some hurdles over time, especially in the beginning, but by the release of the eighth film in 2011 (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2), everyone could agree that this was one of the most monumental film franchises ever.

Because there is a lot to talk about with each film, I decided to do something different with this series and spread my discussion over two parts.  For this first article, I will go over the first four films in the Harry Potter franchise, and then discuss the final four in the next entry of this series; hopefully before the release of the spin-off movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them this Thanksgiving.  I’ll avoid going over plot summaries, since I’m sure that most of you already know these stories intimately by now.  What I will write about is the way that the franchised progressed, movie by movie, and how this massive series built itself up to what it became in a relatively short amount of time.  I will examine the development of the cast, the different visionary approaches to the same story, and more or less discuss how well each brought the world of J.K. Rowling’s universe to life.  So now, let’s grab our brooms, don our robes, and hold out our wands as we look back at the franchise about the “boy who lived,” Harry Potter.

harry potter and the sorcerers stone

HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE (2001)

Directed by Chris Columbus

So, a lot of anticipation led up to the premiere of this first Harry Potter film.  Fans of the books couldn’t wait to see this story come to full life while, at the same time, were worried that it wasn’t going to live up to their imagination.  The film certainly had a sizable budget behind it, as well as the backing of everyone at Warner Brothers, hoping the boy wizard would be the next big thing.  And indeed, their gamble paid off, becoming a huge box office success and the highest grossing film of 2001, even in direct competition with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, which was released only weeks after.  But, here’s the thing; yes the movie was popular, but was it any good?  The answer is, kind of.  Unfortunately for Sorcerer’s Stone, in hindsight, it is universally viewed as the weakest film in the series, and it’s easy to see why.  My own big problem with the movie is the fact that it’s not well directed.  Chris Columbus has proven to be a fine producer over his many years in Hollywood, but his track record as a director is a bit shakier.  Some of his movies are beloved (Home Alone); some are not (Pixels).  While Harry Potter doesn’t represent Columbus’ worst work ever, it still shows a lot of his short-comings as a filmmaker.  Namely, the fact that his movies lack any style to them.  Sorcerer’s Stone is beautifully constructed, but the uninteresting cinematography and simplistic staging only reinforces the fact in the mind of the viewer that they are watching something shot on a soundstage, and not in a living, breathing world.  Couple this with the fact that the movie is afraid to remove anything from the book, so you have a movie that feels both flat and bloated.

But, that’s not to say that the movie is a failure either.  There is still plenty things to like and at times the film can be quite watchable and absorbing.  Despite Chris Columbus’ short-comings as a director, I do give him credit for at least establishing all the pieces that would come to define the series in the years ahead and making them all appropriately iconic.  Hogwarts is wonderfully realized, and effectively epic in scale.  The production design overall is solid, with costumes, sets, and visual effects feeling all appropriately magical, if perhaps a little too basic.  But, what’s most special about this movie, and for the franchise overall is the stellar, all-star cast.  Many of Britain’s best character actors can all be found here, including Richard Harris as Professor Dumbledore, as well as Maggie Smith, Richard Griffiths, Robbie Coltrane, David Bradley, and John Hurt all giving their best.  It should also be mentioned that they lucked out with the casting of Alan Rickman as Professor Snape, in what would be the greatest role of his stellar career, and a perfectly matched one too.  But, it’s the casting of the main roles of the children where the movie really shines.  Emma Watson and Rupert Grint click almost immediately in the crucial roles of Hermoine Granger and Ron Wesley respectively, and so do many of the other young stars.  The only one who seems a little out of his league in this first film, unfortunately, is Daniel Radcliffe as Harry himself.  I don’t see that as his fault, though, considering that he’s got to play the boring, every-man protagonist here, and I think that too much was expected of him so early on.  He at least looked perfect for the role.  As we would see in future movies ahead, his growth as an actor and his role as the character would take many unpredictable turns in the years ahead.

harry potter and the chamber of secrets

HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (2002)

Directed by Chris Columbus

Filmed simultaneously with Sorcerer’s StoneHarry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets made it to theaters exactly a year later.  And while the movie improved on the original in some ways, it also sadly had some of the same problems.  For one thing, the filmmakers seemed uncertain whether or not to cut moments from the book, so again they hedged their bets and included just about everything.  This results in a movie that runs a staggering 162 minutes (the longest in the whole series) and you feel every bit of it.  While it is neat to see so much time devoted to showcasing this amazing world, there are still plenty of things that could have been cut down.  The Quidditch Match scene for example, while beautifully executed and epic in scope, goes on for way too long and could have done with a couple edits.  Some of the plot detours could have used some better focus and time management too, like the whole Polyjuice Potion segment.  Still, the movie does excel better than it’s predecessor.  Chris Columbus manages to utilize his directorial tricks more effectively here, giving the movie a better cinematic look overall.  He also manages to deliver on tone much better.  The scenes within the Forbidden Woods and the titular Chamber are effectively creepy without feeling toned down.  In addition, the film actually takes some chances by being shockingly violent at times, including a moment where Harry’s arm is brutally stabbed by the fang of a ferocious giant serpent.  But, that’s not to say that the movie veers too quickly into darker territory.  It’s still a film aimed at audiences of all ages (perhaps a little too much so) and it still retains an aura of wonderment overall.

Again, the cast is the shining element of this film.  All the key players return, along with some welcome additions.  Jason Issacs brings an appropriately menacing and sneering turn as the villainous Lucius Malfoy, father of hated Potter rival Draco (played by Tom Felton).  My favorite addition to the cast though is Kenneth Branaugh as the pompous Professor Gilderoy Lockheart.  The famed Shakespearean thespian and filmmaker delivers a delightfully hammy performance that enables him to steal every scene he’s in and it’s an overall inspired choice of casting.  The child actors are also improved as well, especially Radcliffe as Harry, although he still hasn’t shaken off the bland, wide-eyed wonder expression that plagues his performance in these first couple films (seriously kid, it’s your second year at school; you should be used to this stuff by now).  This was also sadly the final screen performance of actor Richard Harris, as this movie was released posthumously after his death in between films.  He thankfully finished all his scenes before passing, and manages to deliver a wonderful swan song of a performance here.  The movie is also notable for the introduction of Dobby, the series first fully CGI animated principle character.  While he was annoying to some (mostly because he was unfairly compared to Lord of the Rings Gollum, who also was introduced that same year) the animation on the character was no less groundbreaking for it’s time and his presence helped to give this movie a much more magical feeling overall.   It may not have been the fully realized Potter film we’ve been wanting to see just yet, but this entry nevertheless showed us that better things were to come for the franchise, and with Chris Columbus stepping aside as director, we would see that those better things were much closer than we expected.

harry potter and the prisoner of azkaban

HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004)

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Now this is more like it.  After Chris Columbus’ departure, Warner Brothers tapped Mexican filmmaker (and future Oscar-Winner) Alfonso Cuaron to direct the third feature in the series, and his input made a whole lot of difference.  Cuaron proved to be a perfect choice because he brought a very distinct sense of style to the movie; something that would go on to define the rest of the series thereafter.  The film no longer looked basic, but instead had visual flair to it.  With artistic tricks like ink-blot transition fades, impressionistic framing, and Cuaron’s trademark long takes, this became a film that not only stood out from it’s predecessors, but also made Harry Potter distinctive from other films too.  What Cuaron also did to change the face of the franchise was to take it out into the real world.  Instead of shooting entirely around the vicinity of the studio lot that most of the original films were made in, Cuaron shot several exterior scenes on location in the Scottish Highlands.  Because of this, the movie has an authenticity that the first two films didn’t.  The universe of Harry Potter finally felt like a lived-in, functioning world, and that’s the biggest and most rewarding contribution Prisoner of Azkaban made to the franchise.  At the same time, the film still feels like a natural continuation to what came before, and in addition to the great artistic leaps that this movie made, it also benefited from a renewed focus on the story.  Prisoner of Azkaban finally delivers some much needed insight into Harry’s backstory, including the truth behind the murder of his family, and why his importance in this world matters.

Because of the more introspective details of this plot, it puts Harry’s personal journey more into the spotlight, and this in turn leads to one of the film’s other great improvements.  For the first time in the series, Daniel Radcliffe finally shines as the character of Harry.  He gives his best performance to date here, and I think that it’s because the series finally allows him to emote rather than react to what’s happening.  It basically becomes a difference between performing and acting, and here, Radcliffe finally figured out how to embody the character.  And it makes sense; Harry finally learns more about how the tragedies that shaped his life and how nothing is what it seems, making his inner turmoil all the more defining to his character.  It also helps that Radcliffe had fantastic role models in the cast to help guide his acting abilities to new heights, such as the additions of Gary Oldman as Sirius Black and David Thewlis as Reamus Lupin, both giving standout performances.  Also worth noting is the recasting of Dumbledore, with veteran actor Michael Gambon assuming the role after Richard Harris’ passing.  While I admire Harris’ take on the character, I actually thing Gambon proved to be a better fit.  Harris was a bit too ethereal as Dumbledore, while Gambon’s version came across as much more accessible, and a lot more natural as a result.  The movie also makes the wise choice of cutting out any unnecessary scenes, making this movie feel much less bloated than previous films.  Quidditch is portrayed to the bare minimum, and more time is devoted to the things that matter, like character relationships.  While some things are curiously left out (the true authors of the Marauder’s Map) there’s nothing in this movie that shouldn’t be here, and that’s refreshing.  Prisoner of Azkaban changed up the franchise in the best way possible, and that’s why it’s considered by most to be the best in the series.

harry potter and the goblet of fire

HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE (2005)

Directed by Mike Newell

While I do admire Prisoner of Azkaban a great deal, and what it brought to the franchise as a whole, I actually would consider it’s successor to be my own favorite film in this series.  Azkaban revolutionized and set the tone for the rest of the series, but I believe Goblet of Fire is the one movie that perfected it.   My reaction may have to do with Goblet also being my favorite book from the series, but it’s not without a lot of remarkable film-making that helps to earn it that distinction as well.  Director Mike Newell takes what Alfonso Cuaron built in the last movie, and amps it up to 11.  The scale is bigger, with all the Triwizard Tournament sequences making a colossal impression; as does the impressive Quidditch World Cup that opens the feature.  Not only that, but the characters themselves go through many life-altering changes.  Romantic relationships come more into focus in this movie, with Harry finding his first crush in his fellow student Cho Chang (Katie Leung).  Ron and Hermoine’s budding romance is also explored further, with sometimes very hilarious results.  Conflicts between characters are also given more insight, as Harry begins to feel more of the pressure that his celebrity status in the Wizarding World and the negative effect it has.  His friendship with Ron hits a few hurdles, as Harry seems to achieve glory without any effort and Ron sees it as a betrayal.  I love all of this deeper stuff injected into the story, making the movie feel more than just a spectacle, but instead closer to the rich narrative that J.K. Rowling had imagined.

New members of the already stellar cast once again proves the ambitious casting choices of the series paying off so far.  Brendan Gleeson delivers a delightfully unhinged performance as the curmudgeonly Mad Eye Moody, a character that both commands attention in every scene and brings some very welcome comic relief.  Many other great British character actors bring plenty of flavor to the film as well, including Miranda Richardson as the nosy Rita Skeeter and Doctor Who‘s David Tennant delivering a very slimy performance as Barty Crouch Jr.  Also, future sparkling vampire Robert Pattinson shows up as Hogwart’s resident hunk, Cedric Diggory.  But, the film’s greatest addition to the series is the role that was probably the most crucial casting choice overall apart from Harry himself, and that’s the role of the primary villain; Lord Voldemort.   After teasing his return for three movies, Voldemort finally shows his ugly face in the climax of this feature, and the filmmakers should be commended for getting someone as noteworthy as Ralph Fiennes for the role.  Fiennes performance is iconic; both mesmerizing and terrifying at the same time.  The way he goes from cool confidence to seething rage in an instant is frighteningly realized and the whole resurrection scene near the film’s end is easily one of the series finest moments, if not the best overall.  Because of this dark turn, the franchise would likewise never be the same after this.  The wizarding world would become a much darker place, where even Hogwarts would no longer be a safe haven, and the films commendably adopted that newer, darker tone gracefully.

So, there you have the first four features in the Harry Potter franchise.  Unlike most series that tend to loose luster over time, Harry Potter is one of the few examples where it managed to get better the longer it went on.  Much like how the children at it’s center grew up and matured, the series itself started off unfocused and uncertain, only to gain confidence as it kept growing.  Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets are by no mean bad movies, but they do pale in comparison to where the series would ultimately go in the years after.  I can’t stress enough how important Prisoner of Azkaban was in finally setting the tone for the series and helping to give it the distinctive character that it was lacking up to that point.  But, when looked at entirely, you can’t deny that it does faithfully bring to life J.K. Rowling’s imaginative story; especially with regards to the characters.  Just as with the novels themselves, I believe the real appeal of the Potter series is the incredible way that it perfectly captures the experience of childhood within a school environment.  Sure, this a world of witches and wizards, but the interconnected relationships between characters are as real as anything we’ve all experienced when going through school.  Just like all of us, Harry and his friends have to deal with the pressures of homework, the dangers of school bullying, as well as the reliance of friends in times of crisis.  Rowling’s genius is in the fact that each of her novels is devoted to an entire school year, making the progression of the narrative feel familiar to any of us who recall our memories of school based on all the different levels of development we achieved.  For the start of this franchise, we would see the sweet innocence and promise of youth give way to the harsh realities of adulthood just across the horizon, and that’s what awaits us in the final four films of the Harry Potter franchise.  So, until then…

….to be continued.

Focus on a Franchise – The Godfather Trilogy

the godfather brando

As we enter the homestretch of Awards season, you hear a lot of complaints about how the committees in charge of selecting the winners of these selected awards tend to be a little snobbish.  We’re hearing those complaints again, only this year they are in response to the perception that the Academy is too exclusionary to non-white actors and filmmakers.  Not to delve too much into the current controversy, but there is truth into Hollywood’s sometimes narrow minded view of what’s deserving of awards and what’s not.  But, it’s not exclusive to just films that come from people of different backgrounds.  The Academy Awards have long had the reputation of excluding what you would call genre fare in favor of classier entertainment, favoring prestige over box office value.  That’s why many of the big winners over the years have tended to feel out of touch with the public perception, and many of the choices now seem perplexing in retrospect (How Green Was My Valley over Citizen KaneOrdinary People over Raging Bull, etc.).  But there are thankfully genre films that are so monumental that even the Academy can’t dismiss them and they’ve managed to cross the threshold and gain their genre the recognition it deserves.  We’ve finally seen over the years the Academy honor the Western (Unforgiven) the horror film (The Silence of the Lambs), and even fantasy (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King).  But, even more remarkable is when Hollywood can overlook the fact that some of these movies are also part of ongoing franchises, ignoring the whole name recognition and just honoring them as singular cinematic achievements.  And this is especially true for the only time that a movie and it’s sequel have ever triumphed at the Oscars; those being the first two films in The Godfather trilogy.

The Godfather trilogy is one of cinemas most beloved and unexpected franchises.  However, calling it a franchise is often disputed by some critics, who view the different movies as a singular narrative; which can be argued given that the first two movies are both sourced for the most part from the novel written by Mario Puzo.  But, despite that fact, each film in the series is unique and continues the story in it’s own distinct fashion.  And, especially with the first two, it would become of the most monumental pair of films in cinema history.  The movies were made during the renegade early years of the 1970’s, when studios were allowing for a lot more creative freedom to their filmmakers, many of whom were breaking new ground with the kinds of stories being told and the kinds of film-making styles being used.  One of the artists that emerged from that class of film-making was Francis Ford Coppola.  The Italian American director started off as a screenwriter in the industry and he ended up winning an Oscar for writing Patton (1970).  Soon after, he was given his first opportunity to direct and he chose a story that was close to his own roots as a descendant of Italian immigrants to America.  Puzo’s The Godfather was a huge best seller when it was first published, chronicling the highs and lows of the fictional Corleone crime family.  What Coppola found in the novel was this grand sweeping tale of the immigrant experience in America as well as it’s unfortunate ties to the Mafia, and as a result it becomes the quintessential story of America in itself.  In this article, I’ll be looking at all three films of the Godfather trilogy, and how each built upon this magnum opus from it’s larger than life director.

godfather part 1

THE GODFATHER (1972)

Well, what can you say about The Godfather that hasn’t already been said.  It’s a classic in every possible way and rightfully has earned it’s place as one of the greatest movies ever made; if not the best.  Everything about this movie is iconic to this day: the lush and often gritty cinematography by Gordon Willis: the endlessly charismatic Oscar winning performance by Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone; the unforgettable transformation of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone; the endlessly quotable dialogue.  Nearly everything in this movie has become ingrained into our culture and we are all the better for it.  The Godfather is a movie that illustrates the pinnacle of what film-making can do, and it came at a time when Hollywood really needed it.  During the tumultuous counterculture movement of the 60’s and 70’s, Hollywood was desperate to find an identity that was in tune with the changing times.  With The Godfather, they found a movie that spoke to the new generation while still maintaining a certain bit of old Hollywood prestige.  I think the thing that makes Coppola’s movie so brilliant is it’s earnestness.  Up until that time, Gangster pictures were often played over the top and were dismissed as purely sensational genre fluff.  The Godfather plays with the Gangster flick, and portrays that world in the most realistic sense possible.  It’s not sensationalized or glamorized.  It merely shows us what that world was really like, warts and all.  At the same time, there’s also a truthful current of the importance of family and how morality becomes relative when the law is corrupt and the criminals are more or less responsible for building up our society.  That’s the brilliance in storytelling that Coppola brought out in The Godfather.

But, what people remember most from this movie is the progression of the characters, and in particular, the evolution of young Michael Corleone.  Yeah, Brando’s Vito is the face of the franchise, but Michael is the focus and his story is the most remarkable thing about this franchise.  When we first see Michael at the wedding of his sister Connie (Talia Shire), we see an all-American boy who’s managed to escape the shady family history in order to become his own man.  But, as the film progresses, Michael is plunged back into the world of crime after a few tragedies befall his family; the first being an attempted assassination of his father, and the second being the brutal massacre of his older brother Sonny (James Caan), who was supposed to be the true heir of Vito’s empire.  Michael at first reluctantly returns to this world of organized crime, but with every step he takes, he delves deeper into what he’s capable of, becoming more ruthless and unforgiving, and by the end, he has risen to the top of this empire that he originally wanted no part of.  Coppola takes us on this character journey in a grand and passionate way.  Michael doesn’t just become a criminal, he is shaped by moments that form his character, and in him we see a reflection of what this kind of life could do to a person.  In particular, the brilliantly staged restaurant scene where Michael commits his first murder and the stunning and groundbreaking Baptism montage at the end, both showing us the pivotal shifts in Michael’s character, and both are brilliantly performed by Pacino.  All of these elements make The Godfather the monumental epic achievement that it still is today, and it greatly established Francis Ford Coppola as one of cinemas most unique voices.

godfather part 2

THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)

The Godfather would go on to be a box office success and would win multiple Oscars for Picture, Actor (Brando) and Screenplay; though strangely not for Director (Coppola lost to Cabaret‘s Bob Fosse).  Amazingly when studio Paramount asked if there was a chance to sequelize the film, Coppola actually agreed to it.  Usually a prestige film that wins multiple Oscars will be left to stand alone, but Coppola knew that there was plenty of story left in Puzo’s novel that he had to leave out in the first movie that he could still draw from.  Not only that, but thanks to the goodwill he generated from the first movie, Coppola could not only make a sequel, but he could make it bigger than ever before.  The Godfather Part II is epic in every way, and many regard it the best film in the franchise, and that’s a sentiment that I quite agree with.  It doesn’t have as many of the instantly recognizable iconic moments as the first Godfather, nor the novelty of being our introduction into this epic tale, but it makes up for it in the sheer scale and spectacle of it all.  It’s The Godfather brought to it’s full potential.  What I love best about the movie is not just the story, but the way that it’s presented.  We follow up the story of Michael Corleone where it left off, as he continues to deal with competing forces in the crime world, but that is paralleled with the story of his father Vito as a young man; played this time by then newcomer Robert DeNiro, who won a Supporting Actor Oscar for his work.  The parallel stories are both fascinating, especially when contrasted with one another; Vito’s rise clashed against Michael’s fall.

One other thing that I think is an improvement from the previous film is the way the supporting cast is integrated into the story more.  Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen in particular gets much more screen-time, as does Diane Keaton as Michael’s long suffering wife Kay, who also manages to get the ultimate revenge on Michael in the end.  But, the true revelation in the cast is John Cazale as Fredo.  Here we see one of the most interesting developments in the Godfather saga as Michael’s elder brother betrays him behind his back and it ultimately leads to probably Michael’s most brutal act of all in this entire series when he retaliates.  Cazale perfectly captures the spitefulness and insecurity of Fredo, and makes him one of the most interesting characters in the whole story.  Newcomers Lee Strasberg and Michael Gazzo also add great support in the roles of Hyman Roth and Frankie Pentangeli, two men who become obstacles to Michael’s rise in power in different ways.  But, of course, Pacino still owns every moment he inhabits in this movie, and watching him turn Michael into an unforgiving tyrant is chilling.  Coppola also takes advantage of the larger canvas that he’s given.  The Godfather Part II utilizes it’s locations much more effectively than the modest budgeted first film did.  In particular, the period detail put into the turn of the century New York City scenes with young Vito is amazing.  The iconic rooftop scene is still a masterpiece of staging, as is the stairway assassination moment that follows it.  The Godfather Part II proved that even prestige films could spark a franchise, and both parts of the Godfather feel like a complete realization of this amazing tale.  The film would become the first ever sequel to win Best Picture at the Oscars, and Coppola would also finally be recognized as Best Director as well.

THE GODFATHER PART III, Al Pacino, 1990, © Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection, GD3 095, Photo by:

THE GODFATHER PART III (1990)

For many years thereafter, Godfather Parts I and II were seen as one of cinemas greatest achievements; a double feature narrative unlike any other.  And for many years, it was thought that the narrative that Coppola wanted to tell was open and shut; that there was nowhere else to go.  That was until Francis Ford Coppola announced that he was creating a third Godfather.  A lot of people doubted that it could be pulled off, especially considering that it had been over 15 years since Godfather Part II had been made and that those films had gained iconic status by this point.  Coppola was also going through a rough patch in his post-Apocalypse Now (1979) years, making diverse and uncharacteristically less successful choices in projects like One from the Heart (1981), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) and Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988).  Still, he managed to convince Paramount to green-light the project and he got back most of his key players, including Pacino returning as Michael.  The film had all the right elements in play and a lot of potential behind it once it made it’s way to theaters.  Unfortunately for Coppola, all the goodwill he earned for the original two Godfathers didn’t help him much.  The film received a very mixed reception from both fans and critics, and those who hated the film were especially livid by what they had seen.  They saw the movie as a betrayal and have since labeled Part III as one of the worst sequels ever made.  But, is it really that bad?

I think one of the reasons that the response to this movie was so extreme was because of how beloved the first two were.  The iconic nature of Parts I and II set the bar extremely high, and it is impossible for any film to match it.  So, is it the worst sequel ever made? I don’t think so, but it’s nowhere near as good as the first two either.  I merely see the movie as being just okay.  It’s well made and does feel like a Godfather movie for the most part, but it’s also sadly very forgettable too.  There’s no iconic moments that I can remember and overall I feel like this was just a superfluous story not really worth telling.  Coppola’s just rehashing things that made his Godfather films memorable before, but adding nothing new to it.  Most of the hatred aimed at this movie seems to stem from Coppola’s terrible casting of his own daughter Sofia in the key role of Michael’s daughter Mary, and yes she is pretty terrible.  We would learn in the years after that Sofia Coppola would better follow in her father’s footsteps as a director and not as an actor; the response to her acting here possibly influenced that career change too.  But, as bad as Sofia is, I feel that the movie still gets some worthwhile performances overall, especially from newcomer Andy Garcia as Vincent Mancini, bastard son of Sonny Corleone, who proves to be a valuable ally over time to Michael, and possibly an heir.  Talia Shire’s Connie also returns and has her character come full circle, becoming just as ruthless as her brother.  Pacino doesn’t have as great of a role this time as the older Michael (given how Part II perfectly rounded out his character) but his performance still feels genuine, and he does manage to lay to rest Michael’s story in a convincing way.  Does The Godfather Part III betray the series as a whole.  I honestly think that seen together with it’s counterparts that it does hold up as part of the complete experience; it’s just not as strong as the rest of it.  It can be ignored if you prefer the classics, but it’s also not even remotely a betrayal of the series.  It’s just an extended epilogue, and nothing more.

So, overall the Godfather trilogy is a collection of one amazing two part story, and one polarizing final chapter.  Regardless of how well the entire experience holds up, there’s no denying that Francis Ford Coppola’s epic trilogy is one of cinema’s most monumental achievements.  It would go on to influence so much of film-making in the years to come, pushing the boundaries of what kind of stories you could tell and how much the filmmakers can get away with in terms of language and violence.  Numerous filmmakers today look to The Godfather movies as an inspiration and you can see it’s fingerprints just about everywhere.  The films of Martin Scorsese owe a lot to the success of The Godfather, and I’m sure that there wouldn’t have been as much interest in the history and influence of the mob in America reflected in movies like Goodfellas (1990) and The Departed (2006) had Coppola not popularized it first.  Popular shows like The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire also owe a lot to The Godfather as well, and in some cases even share a cast member or two (Godfather Part II supporting actor Dominic Chianese “Johnny Ola” would play the pivotal role of Junior Soprano in the hit show).  And to this day, we still quote this movie endlessly whenever we tell someone to “make an offer he can’t refuse,” or say that someone “sleeps with the fishes.”  The Godfather has held up well over the years and will continue to stand as one of cinema’s crowning jewels.  And it also proved that the Academy can sometimes overlook it’s strict standards and embrace a franchise film every now and then.  It just has to be a movie so good that it can’t be ignored anymore.

Focus on a Franchise – Scream

scream ghostface

With Halloween looming just around the corner, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight another horror franchise in this series, and examine how it progressed over time, and whether or not it stayed true to it’s original concept.  What I decided to do this week was honor the the recently departed horror icon Wes Craven with a spotlight on one of his most popular titles, that being the Scream franchise.  Wes Craven’s movies may not be to everyone’s tastes, and I wouldn’t exactly consider myself a huge fan of his either, but there’s no denying that he is one of the kings of the horror genre; probably without equal.  No other horror film director was as prolific nor as resilient.  He’s as synonymous to the horror genre as John Ford is to Westerns, and though many of his movies aren’t what I would consider masterpieces, you can’t help but admire him for becoming a master of his craft.  Horror as we know it today owes a lot to the film-making style of Wes Craven.  Craven brought gore into the mainstream of the horror genre.  What Dario Argento pioneered in the art house independent market, Craven made it work in Hollywood.  He began with low budget schlock-fests like The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) before making his big bloody splash in the 80’s with A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the movie that turned Craven into a household name and introduced the world to one of Horror’s most iconic monsters; Freddy Kruger.  Over time, Wes Craven had trouble living up to the legacy of Elm Street, but that was until he reinvented himself again in the late 90’s with a new horror movie that turned the genre on it’s head, in more ways than one.

When Scream premiered in 1996, the horror genre had largely lost a lot of it’s luster, in no small part because few if any horror movies ever felt original.  Most horror franchises usually would start strong and then later peter out the longer they went on.  The sequelizing of these movies became monotonous to audiences who saw the same cliched things happening over and over again without ever getting better.  Wes Craven, to his credit, was not only a contributor to the horror genre, but also an appreciator as well, and over time he was compelled to address the declining state of the genre.  One thing that he did observe in the mid nineties was the rise of movie savvy audiences who were more keenly aware of all the different tropes that make up a horror movie, given that many of them had grown up with them in their youth.  He also observed the way that some horror movies over time would develop cult followings, and how that would in turn drive the success rates of some franchises.  Though it was well before the rise of the internet, which would compound this phenomenon to unprecedented levels, Wes Craven did see a new kind of horror movie culture that had emerged and he saw in it a new kind of subculture worth exploiting for a horror movie.  He found the voice he needed to tap into this newer, younger audience with screenwriter and Dawson’s Creek creator Kevin Williamson and the end result became a movie that not only dissected horror cliches, but also revitalized them for a new generation.  It was horror for the MTV generation, and for better or worse, Wes Craven had changed the genre once again.  For this article, I will be looking at the Scream series as a whole and see how it fared from the groundbreaking first film all the the way through it’s less effective follow-ups, and how they reflected the back on the career of it’s creator as well.  Fair warning; some spoilers ahead.

scream 1

SCREAM (1996)

This is the one that started it all, and is in-arguably one of the most influential horror movies of all time.  Wes Craven’s movie stands out for a number of reasons; it modernized the genre, it was self-aware in ways that most horror movies weren’t, and it introduced a new iconic monster to the genre that would become quite literally the face of a franchise; Ghostface.  The movie starts off with bang in it’s opening prologue, and talk about a movie wanting to make a statement right off the bat.  In it, a lonely girl named Casey (Drew Barrymore) is confronted over the phone by a mysterious stranger who asks her about her favorite scary movies.  Playful at first, the conversation quickly turns menacing as Casey learns she’s not alone and that whoever is on the other line is out to get her.  Soon, she is chased down by a person in a black robe wearing a ghost mask and wielding a knife.  Suffice to say, she doesn’t make it.  It’s an effectively gruesome and tense scene that sets the tone perfectly, both with the horror elements and also with the self-aware critiquing of the genre itself.  The rest of the movie introduces us to Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), who will inevitably be the focus of all the horror tropes going forward in this movie along with the remainder of the franchise.  She’s  accompanied along the way by Deputy Dewey (David Arquette), who’s trying to find a link between all the murders happening in town by the “Ghostface” killer, as well as by reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) who is after a story to help boost her career.  Over time, Sidney learns that she’s target number one on the killer’s hit list, and that even her friends like boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich), horror film nerd Randy (Jamie Kennedy), and class jock Stuart (Matthew Lillard) might be the killer behind the mask.

Overall, I would have to say that this movie is easier to respect than to admire.  For one thing, I do like the way that Wes Craven turns the horror genre on it’s head by making us aware of the horror movie cliches before they happen, helping to make this movie both frightening as well as refreshingly silly.  One of the best things about Craven’s style is the way that he doesn’t take himself too seriously.  He goes for the ridiculous and absurd constantly in his movies, which was a staple of Nightmare on Elm Street.  The same thing happens here too whenever necessary, particularly in some of the more gruesome killings, like Rose McGowan’s character getting crushed in a retractable garage door.  But, where the movie falters is in the plot itself.  However clever the death scenes may be, the movie sadly gets bogged down in a generic thriller plot involving Sidney and the mystery around her family’s dark history.  Of course, horror movies aren’t renowned for their intricate plots, and using a cliched story may be by design on Craven’s part, but it still acts as an inhibitor to the overall movie.  In addition, time hasn’t been kind to this movie either.  What seemed groundbreaking back then feels very dated today, probably because the movie is so steeped in it’s time period.  It’s a 90’s movie down to it’s core, which may give it some nostalgia value today, but probably not positive overall.  But, at the same time, whatever faults it has as a story doesn’t diminish it’s impact.  This was a highly influential movie that really shaped the language of horror for a decade thereafter.  There were so many copycat horror films that tried to do the same thing in the following years, but never quite made it.  For me, it’s a respectable benchmark in the genre, but one that never did rise up to the level set by it’s brilliant opening scene.  But, the question remained; could Wes Craven ever rise to that level again?

scream 2

SCREAM 2 (1997)

Released right on the heels of the first movie, with little over a year in between, Scream 2 picked up right where the last film left off.  And, remarkably that quick turnaround for Wes Craven yielded a superior product.  This, to me is the best film in the franchise, because it fixes most of the story problems of the first movie and it plays upon the self aware aspects of the genre in an even more pointed way.  Taking Sidney into college provides the film’s subtext with even more ammunition, as this movie gets to poke fun at the way that younger audiences respond to horror movies at the time.  Since the murders of the first movie, Sidney’s has turned into a mild celebrity, with her ordeal having been adapted into a movie itself.  As a result, she is hounded by the spotlight, having to re-confront the reality of her worst life experience constantly.  This becomes even worse when it seems that a copycat killer is on the loose, bringing “Ghostface” back from the dead.  Given the first movie’s phenomenal success, the meta narrative actually manages to self-examine itself, making the observations by the characters feel all the more resonant and the use of the cliches a lot smarter.  And it doesn’t address horror movie cliches only, like the seemingly indestructible killer or the predictably timed death of two lovers after they’ve had sex.  It also critiques sequel cliches as well, like how the stakes and scale are raised but the same results still happen.  And the way that the first Scream influenced so much of horror in it’s wake, including turning Ghostface into an instant icon, helps Wes Craven address the cult like following that horror movies can have in a much more effective way here, given that it actually happened it to this franchise in reality.

Like what most great sequels do, it ups the ante without having to rehash old ideas.  This is evident right from the opening scene, which manages to both surpass the first movie’s opening while at the same time poking fun at it.  It involves a couple (played by Omar Epps and Jada Pinkett Smith) going to a theater to see the film adaptation of the murders in the first movie.  The audience around them proves to be full of rabid fans, all coming to the theater in the “Ghostface” costume.  Though most of crowd is friendly, if a bit rowdy, the couple soon learns too late that a real killer is among them.  This leads to a chilling revelation as the couple are slaughtered there in the theater as the movie plays along with a tongue-in-cheek recreation of the first movie’s opening scene.  It’s a brilliant juxtaposition that represents the best of Wes Craven’s horror movie tropes; his mercilessly gruesome vision and his macabre sense of humor.  Thankfully, the remainder of the movie lives up to the opening and the two sides of Craven’s style help to elevate the story rather than get in the way.  Even with all the horror movie cliches being lampooned, it still manages to offer up a few surprises.  Like I said, spoilers coming, and one of the film’s more pleasant surprises is the revelation of the murderer, who turns out to be the mother of Billy, the original film’s killer, played here effectively by Laurie Metcalf.  It’s a nice nod to another horror franchise, as this movie uses the Mrs. Voorhies twist of Friday the 13th (1980) to great effect and makes the murders in this movie revenge killings, which is a logical next step to go with for a sequel.   Overall, Scream 2 surpasses it’s predecessor in every way and shows that Wes Craven had enough good ideas for more than one movie in this franchise.

scream 3

SCREAM 3 (2000)

Unfortunately, this is where all the good ideas ran out.  Naturally, the success of the first two movies led to a third film, but none of what made the other two movies effective translated over.  I think one big reason for this is the loss of Kevin Williamson as screenwriter.  Instead, Wes Craven had this sequel written by newcomer Ehren Kruger, who has since gone on to be the writer behind the Michael Bay Transformer movies.  That should give you an indication of the intelligence level of this movie.  While not one of the worst horror movies I’ve ever seen (being largely saved by Wes Craven’s stylistic direction), this movie is still remarkably stupid. The self-aware humor that defined so much of the first two movies is clumsily handled here.  There’s even an awful deus ex machina element where Jamie Kennedy’s Randy (who was killed off in the previous movie) somehow had left a tape for the main characters to find where he details exactly how a trilogy capper works, giving them insight into how they should respond to the new set of murders happening around them.  Also, this movie has one of the most preposterous twist endings that I’ve ever seen.  Even Scooby Doo and his gang would laugh at how stupid a choice the main killer ends up being.  The movie’s one saving grace is the addition of some genuinely funny comedic actors like Parker Posey and Patrick Warburton into the mix, both of whom are sadly underused before they are inevitably killed off.  Parker Posey, in particular, actually elevates the material here, making what could have been a horribly written obnoxious character into a welcome comic relief.  It seems like all those years working in Christopher Guest movies paid off for her improv skills.  Her character gives me the feeling that Wes Craven wanted to go into a more comical direction with this movie, but somewhere down the line he lost control of the tone and it ended up not working as well as he hoped.  Sadly, with a dumb downed plot and a lazy screenplay, this was a big step backwards for the franchise and one that put it on ice for over a decade.

scream 4

SCREAM 4 (2011)

The decade long gap in between Scream 3 and Scream 4 proved to be a transition period for the horror film genre.  The result of the first Scream‘s success proved to be an era of a lot of failed wannabes, all trying to match Scream’s more crass and self-aware style.  Instead of originality taking hold, we got a lot of ludicrous horror movies that tried to be too clever for their own good.  This was the era of the PG-13 horror flick, which were aimed more at the teenage set, which Scream so effectively connected with despite it’s R-rating.  And of course, PG-13 gore is not at all scary.  But, thankfully at this same time, fresh new ideas were made in response to the watered down Scream clones with R-rated fare like Saw (2004).  There were also new horror filmmakers emerging like Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects) and James Wan (The Conjuring) who helped to bring credibility back to the genre as well.  During this time, Wes Craven had developed his name into a brand, which had it’s good points as well as it’s bad.  The good side was that he was able to lend his name to projects that normally would’ve gone under the radar, like his 2005 thriller Red Eye, but the bad side was the standard to which he had to live up to.  Thus, after years away from the genre he helped to reshape, Wes Craven delivered another Scream sequel, and quickly proved that this was a franchise way beyond salvaging.  It’s not as stupid as Scream 3 (though some moments come close like a character telling the “Ghostface” killer that he can’t die because he’s gay and that it’s against the genre rules), but it commits an even worse crime of just being boring.  Mainstays Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox and David Arquette return, but they are sidelined by a new group of teenage victims, all of whom are bland genre archetypes.  In a sense, Scream 4 became just another wannabe, which is sad given that this came from the series’ original creator in what turned out to be his swan song as a director.  It’s too bad that a decade of waiting didn’t yield anything more for this franchise than just a cash in for the studio that made it.

Overall, the Scream franchise may be a clunky and inconsistent addition to the horror genre, but at the same time you can’t help but respect it.  It did modernize the genre at a time when it was desperately needed and it also allowed audiences in on the joke as it gave away some of it’s tricks.  One only wishes that it had been more effective at getting it’s point across with each movie.  The only time where I felt that the franchise got the formula down perfectly was in Scream 2, a movie that was much better than it had any right to be.  The first Scream is a mixed bag, but it’s high points far outweigh the bad, and it’s impact is still something to respect, even if it did spawn some rather lame results.  Sadly, Wes Craven had a hard time living up to that legacy, but even still, it’s admirable how he managed to rewrite the rules of the genre consistently throughout his career.  Scream may seem dated today, but you can honestly say that about any horror film made by Wes Craven.  He liked to have his movies reflect the era that they existed in and that’s a great sign of an evolving filmmaker.  He embraced the new attitudes and tastes of his audiences and rewarded them with the things that they wanted, even if he wasn’t always successful at it.  And what made him so effective in the horror genre was his ability to make effective monsters.  Ghostface is rightfully as iconic as other horror mainstays like Jason Voorhies and Freddy Kruger, and one of the scariest aspects of this killer is that it’s iconic nature is what fuels it’s resurgence throughout every movie, living on a mask for new killers.  Unlike it’s peers, Ghostface lives on because someone always picks up the mantle and dons the mask again, keeping the cycle going.  It’s a movie monster built out of legend rather than mysticism, making it all too realistic and as a result, even more terrifying.  That’s the great legacy of Wes Craven’s Scream franchise; connecting the horror genre with the modern world and showing how the subculture of horror can even bring out monsters of it’s own.  We live in a modern society today where horror is not so imaginative and copycat killings are sadly all too real in our society.  In the end, Wes Craven gave horror a new face, and it was one that was horrifyingly human.