The Movies of Fall 2013


With the closing of the tumultuous Summer movie season upon us this Labor Day weekend, we look ahead now to an entirely different beast that carries its own kind of significance.  Summer is when Hollywood releases their big tentpole crowd-pleasers, which usually becomes the domain of action movies and broad slapstick comedies, and while you’ll find some of those in the final quarter of the year, the fall season usually puts more of an emphasis on dramas.  This is commonly know as Oscar season, and this year is no exception with regards to the ambitious slate of Oscar-baiting films coming up.  While some certainly look intriguing and will be certain award-winners, other films come off looking like they’re trying too hard.  Like I did at the beginning of the summer season, I am going to highlight the films that I am most psyched about, which ones have me a little worried, and which ones I am sure will be a failure.
Keep in mind, these are just my opinions and I’m fully aware that I am not the best handicapper. This summer I predicted that World War Z was going to be a colossal critical and box office bomb and that The Lone Ranger was going to be a must-see success.  It’s safe to say that I missed the mark. (World War Z was actually pretty good by the way.)  And I’m sure with a serving of films as varied as in this season, it will still be hard to predict the winners from the losers.  Sometimes a complete surprise may come out of nowhere and capture everyone’s attention with little advanced hype.  The Toronto Film Festival has yet to happen, and the Venice festival begins within a couple of days, so there’s the potential of some unseen underdog coming through to become awards favorite in the weeks ahead.  My choices mainly focus on the films that already have set release dates and how I think they will both perform critically and at the box office.
Must Sees:

Most films at this time of the year usually play it safe when it comes to the stories they tell.  You usually see a lot historical pics, biopics, and/or book adaptations because studios know that they have a better chance of reaching their audience based on the familiarity with the subject matter in the films already being present.  Director Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity stands apart from this pattern by being wholly original.  After seeing the nail-biting trailers for this movie, I can honestly say that I have never seen anything like this before, which makes it the must see movie of the season in my opinion.  Cuaron already has a reputation for having extraordinary camerawork in his films, as evidenced by the stunning tracking shots in 2006’s Children of Men, and it looks like he’s bringing the same kind of ingenuity to Gravity, only on a much grander scale.  There are several trailers already online for this film, and each one is like a stunning short movie on their own.  The film has only two credited stars, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, and both of them look to be capable enough to stand out amid all of the flashy effects on display.  What excites me about this movie is that it has the potential to be a one-of-a-kind experience, which is something that I want every movie to be.

Martin Scorsese has had a strong track record as of late, even when he’s dabbling in unfamiliar territory, like the family-friendly Hugo (2011).  Here he once again is teaming up with Leonardo DiCaprio for the fifth time, but in what seems to be a more comical feature.  The last time Scorsese tried a more comical tone in one of his movies, it was the criminally underrated The King of Comedy (1983), so I have high hopes that this film will be similar in execution.  Hopefully DiCaprio is able to perform the role in this film well enough to distinguish it from the other work he has done for Mr. Scorsese, and it appears that Leo is up to that challenge.  The remainder of the cast also looks impressive, especially Matthew McConaughey in what looks like a very eccentric performance.  Most of all, I’m interested in seeing how Scorsese treats the material here.  I’m certain that it will be a largely black comedy, and of course Scorsese knows how to tackle the seedy underbelly of American culture with ease.  What I’m wondering is who the bigger scene-stealer is in the trailer; McConaughey or McConaughey’s teeth?

The unplanned second film in Peter Jackson’s fantasy trilogy will be a must see film for most people, but what has me curious is how the movie will work on it’s own.  When Peter Jackson made the controversial decision to spread his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit over three films instead of two, it made a lot of people worried that the new film series would feel too bloated for its own good.  When the first film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was released last Christmas season, it had a mostly positive response from both fans and critics; though there were still quite a few that believed that it was still too much movie.  I was extremely happy with the first film and I even put it in my top ten movies of 2012.  The Desolation of Smaug has the unfortunate position now of being the middle child in Jackson’s trilogy, which can be problematic given that it has no beginning or end.  I have confidence that Peter Jackson can make it work and I’m more than willing to dive right back into the world of Middle Earth once again.  On top of that, this film features the titular dragon prominently (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), and it’s a character that I have long wanted to see come to life on screen ever since I first read the book.

Remakes are always a difficult sell to audiences, especially when they come from a foreign source like Oldboy.  This remake is of a now classic Korean thriller from director Park Chan-wook, which gained notoriety for its brutal onscreen violence and controversial subject matter.  The film is beloved by many cine-philes, but there is the danger of some things getting lost in the translation now that the film is being Americanized.  That is why the choice of Spike Lee as the director couldn’t be more perfect.  He’s a director known for taking on challenging material, and I believe that he will treat the source film with a lot of reverence.  The trailer certainly gives a good taste of what we have in store for us, and star Josh Brolin looks like he’ll be giving an appropriately intense performance.  Whether or not it all works in the end remains to be seen, but it is a rare example of a remake worth getting excited for.

Not really an awards contender, but I am still anxious to see this film nontheless.  The first Anchorman (2004) was an incredibly absurd send up of local news networks that served as a launching point for Will Farrell’s career as a comedic leading man.  While sequels to classic comedies are almost always hard to pull off, Anchorman 2 looks to be hitting the right tone already based off the trailers.  The inclusion of some high profile new faces to the cast (Jim Carrey and Harrison Ford) should also help this sequel live up to the high standards of its predecessor.  Again, not awards material, but sometimes we do need a good laugh around the holidays.
Movies that have me worried:

This film doesn’t have me worried because of the production itself or by my own reaction to the trailer.  I’m worried mainly because I grew up a big Disney fan, and this is the first time ever that Walt Disney Pictures is making a movie about it’s own storied history.  I believe that they can pull it off, but I worry a bit that it could all go horribly wrong as well, ruining what I think could be a wonderful story-line.  What worries me most is the tone.  The film could come off as too sugarcoated to be believable, mainly due to the fact that the Disney company is dramatizing their own history in this one. If the tone doesn’t feel right, it could spoil the drama and make it feel unauthentic.  That being said, the look of the movie is spectacular and the performances feel genuine enough.  I like the fact that Tom Hanks isn’t buried under a lot of makeup in order to play Walt Disney.  From what I’ve heard, the screenplay is supposed to be very good and I hope it does deliver in the end.  Don’t be afraid to go all in with this one Disney Pictures.  It’s a story well worth getting right.

This is another film that I am looking forward to, but with some reservations.  This is mainly due to my disappointment with this summer’s Iron Man 3, and my worry that Phase 2 of Marvel’s Avengers Initiative is loosing steam just as it’s getting started.  The film trailer looks appropriately epic in scale, but nothing has really stood out so far for me.  My worry is that the Thor sequel is going to just play it safe and give us more of the same, when it should be doing more to expand the world it has created.  I’ll hold my judgement until I see it, and I have confidence in new director Alan Taylor (Game of Thrones).  My only wish is that it avoids the pitfalls that brought down Iron Man and hopefully stands on it’s own as a worthy edition to Marvel’s collection of films.

With this film, I like the casting, I like the style, and I like the choice in director.  But like Saving Mr. Banks, what worries me is the tone of the film.  This is a true life story that’s still very fresh in people’s minds, and the film runs the risk of trying to dramatize the story too heavily to make it feel authentic.  Paul Greengrass, the director, has a strong record of creating gritty films that put you right in the middle of the action, though with sometimes with mixed results; his style worked very well in the Bourne films, but felt very intrusive in a movie like Green Zone (2010).  Here it seems like a good fit, but it also could run the risk of overusing the shaky cam technique that Mr. Greengrass loves so much.  Hopefully the distracting camera work will be kept at a minimum so that the story can establish itself better.  Also, the film has the star magnetism of Tom Hanks in it’s favor, so that’s one thing to look forward to.

This is an example where the trailer has become the source of my worries for a particular film.  I don’t like this trailer at all; it’s clearly aiming for the youngest demographics in the audience and no one else; and it tells us absolutely nothing about the film itself.  I’m holding my judgment on the movie until I see it, and the foreign trailers do a much better job of selling this film than the American one.  Truth be told, I still strongly prefer hand-drawn animation, but some of the pre-production artwork for this film is really beautiful and it give me hope.  It’s another fairy tale addition to the Disney canon, based off the story of “The Snow Queen,” so a lot is riding on this one.  I just wish they had highlighted the story in this trailer instead of the comical sidekick characters.  Is it an indication that Disney doesn’t have confidence in the film’s story-line as a selling point?  I’ll say this, they’re not going to get me to watch the film with a talking snowman alone.
Movies to Skip:

I’ll admit that I have not read the books, so I can’t judge this one on an adaptation standpoint.  And I’m also going to ignore the fact that the original novel’s author is a homophobic bigot with regards to judging this film as well.  What makes me so uninterested in this movie is the fact that it feels completely unoriginal.  Looking at this trailer, I feel like I have seen this movie before and disliked it.  The director, Gavin Hood, seems to be copying his visuals from many other Science Fiction films and hasn’t bothered to put his own unique spin on it.  The performances in the trailer also feel wooden, which is surprising given the impressive cast on board; especially Harrison Ford.  The look of the alien invaders feels a bit too close to similar types like Transformers, and I don’t think it’s a good sign when your film invokes a Michael Bay aesthetic.  But, I could be wrong, given that I predicted World War Z would follow a similar fate.  Still, this movie so far has left me cold based on the way it’s being sold, and I don’t have much hope that it will surprise me.

One of the most typical movies you will find around the end of the year is the Oscar-Bait film.  While some Oscar-baiting movies can work and achieve what they set out to do, there are others that try too hard and come up empty.  August: Osage County feels like that type of movie.  It’s got Oscar pedigree stars acting up a storm (Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts), it’s got a critically acclaimed source material (the Tony-winning play), and a tear-jerking scenario that’s meant to convince the viewer that what they’re watching is important.  But, based of this trailer, it looks to me like it’s another Hollywood film trying to hard to be emotional, and that could make everything ring very false in the final product.  Sometimes an Oscar-bait film can surprise with how well it delivers the goods, but August: Osage County feels like yet another movie that misses the mark.

Not by any means an awards contender.  I just wanted to included this one on the list because it just looks so bad.  It’s another Crouching Tiger wannabe that’s trying too hard and relying too heavily on CGI effects in its action scenes.  I can’t see anybody really getting excited for this one; other than die-hard Keanu Reeves fans, if they’re still out there.  The trailer feels very paint-by-numbers, emphasizing the effects work over everything else, which doesn’t bode well for the effectiveness of the story-line.  I can see this film being an almost certain failure, and I highly doubt that it will surprise me at all in that regard.
So, this is my outlook of the Fall 2013 season.  Some of the films look really exciting and hopefully the upcoming slate of movies helps to make up for the really weak summer season that we had. My picks reveal how I feel about these films at this moment and it could all change in the upcoming months.  Also, I know I left out quite a few more movies worth mentioning, which just proves how competitive the end of the year is for the film industry.  Hopefully, there will be a few surprises coming our way in the months ahead.

Elysium – Review


Pollution is bad. Overpopulation is bad.  Economic disparity is bad.  I’m not making any political statements here in this review.  I’m just sharing with you the complexity of the political messages made in the new film Elysium.  From the director of 2009’s Oscar-nominated District 9, Neill Blomkamp, Elysium arrived into theaters amid a lot of anticipation from Science Fiction fans who were looking for a smart, well crafted thriller that would be a worthy addition to the genre.  Blomkamp made an impressive and unique sci-fi adventure with District 9, which was done on a small indie budget, with no known stars in the cast and it touched upon issues that you usually don’t see in many mainstream films.  Given that his follw-up film Elysium has been given a more substantial budget and features a few notable actors like Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, you’d think that Blomkamp would’ve delivered amazing based on how well he did the first time around. Unfortunately Elysium is a misfire on every level, and probably stands as the worst movie I’ve seen all summer, if not this year.  It’s clunky, boring, ugly to look at, and worst of all insulting.  Not just insulting on the level of its political subtext, but insulting in it’s storytelling as well.  There’s so much wrong with this movie that it’s astounding to see so many talented people involved.
The story is paper thin, and is essentially a race against the clock narrative.  Matt Damon’s character, named Max DeCosta, is a blue-collar factory worker in Los Angeles in the year 2154.  He trudges through his daily life, dreaming of earning enough money to reach Elysium, a massive satellite colony orbiting around the earth.  Elysium is where all the wealthy people have migrated to, after pollution and overpopulation has made Earth a horrible place to live.  Citizenship on Elysium is extended only to those who can afford it, and everyone else is left to live on earth, policed by an army of robotic officers.  Max suffers an accident at work which leaves him only five days to live and the only cure for him is on Elysium.  This leads to him joining up with a band of underground smugglers, who have been sending up ships filled with people to Elysium in an attempt to get them the health care they need.  Max offers to assist the smugglers in their attempt to hack into Elysium’s security system; even putting a body-enhancement armor wired into his brain as a way to keep him functional as his body deteriorates.  At the same time, the security manager on board Elysium, Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), is taking desperate measures to prevent any more illegal immigrants from entering the colony, to the point of staging a coup against the leaders of Elysium and hiring a deadly mercenary named Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to hunt down the smugglers.
Now, there’s nothing really wrong with the premise itself; it’s the execution.  Elysium feels disjointed and lackluster from the opening prologue all the way to the anti-climatic finale.  It’s as if Blomkamp just crafted the idea of the story and then never bothered to flesh it out.  The film feels like it was stitched together from a bunch of different action set-pieces, with plot conveniences acting as the glue.  There’s a scene about halfway through the film that just left me stunned at how incompetently it was staged.  First off, Max finds himself in the home of a childhood friend, who works as a nurse, and who helped to heal a wound of his in secret.  Max learns that his friend’s daughter is also sick and needs to be healed on Elysium too.  The dialogue in this scene between Max and the little girl is so on the nose that it’s maddening, and you just know that it will come up again later once Max has his “heroic” moment in the finale.  Also, once Max exits the house, almost immediately he’s spotted by a drone spy camera sent by the mercenary Kruger; a plot development so convenient it’s laughable.  It’s scenes like this that illustrate just how phony the film feels.  There’s no logical progression in the character’s motives and actions; it’s all telegraphed beforehand by the necessities of the plot.
Character development is also kept to a minimum, and any attempt to add any is quickly brushed over in favor of more action scenes.  Max makes for a very obnoxious protagonist as he continually does one selfish thing after another.  It seems like he was meant to be representative of the average blue-collar guy who always gets short-handed in life, which in turn will make us want to root for him.  But I found Max to be a selfish and cynical wise-ass, and I felt no connection to him at all. Max isn’t some noble crusader for justice; he’s just a selfish guy who doesn’t want to die.  His quest would be more noble if he wasn’t dragging other people into it, many of whom sacrifice their lives to help him succeed, including his neighborhood buddy.  You can make a cynical character work out sometimes in a story like this, as long as there’s some depth to him.  Max unfortunately doesn’t change throughout the whole movie; he’s just a man on a mission and that’s all there is to him.  Any attempts to flesh his character out is usually sidetracked or just plain dropped within seconds in the movie; including an attempt at a romantic connection with the childhood friend, which went absolutely nowhere.
The same is true with some of the other characters.  The Elysium inhabitants have absolutely nothing that distinguishes them apart from one another.  Many of them aren’t even named.  Only Secretary Delacourt is given any amount of substantial screen-time, and even she has nothing special to add to the story.  She’s probably the blandest villain I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. We’re supposed to see her as this tough-as-nails overlord, but the film does nothing more than to show her sitting in her commander’s chair looking stern as she barks out her orders to her security team.  We learn that she wants to take command away from the governing body of Elysium, but that’s it.  Again, Blomkamp is trying to make us feel one way about a character without ever explaining what motivates her characteristics.  Every character in this story is just one cardboard cut-out after another.  The one standout, and the film’s only saving grace, is Sharlto Copley’s Kruger.  His character is still archetypal, but done in such an extreme way that it actually becomes entertaining.  I credit this more to Copley’s performance than to the way the character is written. When Kruger starts to wreck havoc in the film, it’s the only time that the movie comes alive, because here you have a character that is actually doing something unpredictable and actually throws a few twists into plot.  If only the other characters could have been given this type of treatment; then I would have overlooked some of the film’s other shortcomings.
The politics of the film are also problematic; not in the fact that they’re there, but rather in the way they are delivered.  Blomkamp’s political allegories are about as subtle as a bag of rocks to the head, and they’re delivered in the most ham-fisted, patronizing way possible.  Now, it can be said that District 9 lacked subtlety too, and I wouldn’t argue that point.  But what District 9 did so well was to get audiences invested in the personal story of it’s characters while using the political issues as the subtext for what was going on; in this case, the arrival and quarantine of an extraterrestrial race acting as an allegory for Apartheid policies in South Africa.  That film kept the politics and the story balanced well enough to make the film resonate both as a narrative and as a social studies lesson.  In Elysium, that balance is gone, and you can’t help but feel like you’re being lectured to in the most gratingly obvious ways.
Not only that, but I feel like Blomkamp is trying to inject too many political ideas into his film, some which lead to a number of contradictions.  For instance, the movie states that overpopulation is a plaguing problem for people on Earth, while at the same time also saying that one of the unfair inequalities between the rich and the poor is that the wealthy inhabitants on Elysium have amazing health care that cures them of all diseases and age flaws.  Not to sound horribly unsympathetic, but wouldn’t technology like this make overpopulation even worse if everyone had access to it, making it so no one would ever die.  I know Blomkamp is trying to make a case for universal healthcare, but it seems like he undercuts his own statement in the film by trying to mix it with another, completely different issue.  And while I don’t want to fault Blomkamp for wanting to make a politically-conscious film, I just wish he would have at least thought through how all the statements could have worked together as a whole.  I go to the movies to be entertained, not to be preached to, and Elysium just feels like one empty pontification after another.
The film also has many faults in it’s design, as well as it’s pacing.  The film has the unfortunate timing of being at the tail-end of a summer full of post-apocalyptic sci-fi movies.  With films like Oblivion, After Earth, and Pacific Rim already reaching theaters before it, audiences can’t help but feel fatigued by all these similarly themed films.  Pacific Rim was able to distinguish itself because of its playful nature, but Elysium just doesn’t have the same kind of confidence in itself.  The art design feels like a mixture of Blomkamp’s own District 9 with a bit of Kubrick’s 2001, a bit of George Miller’s Road Warrior, and even some oddly-placed Anime inspired visual motifs are thrown about. (Seriously, what the hell was with those blossom trees in a factory during the film’s climax?) For the most part, the film has a grimy and dirty visual look, which would have worked had it not felt so heavy-handed and artificial.  Not helping much is the awkward pacing of the movie.  It runs 109 minutes, but it will feel much longer mainly because the story-line is so predictable.  You’re left impatiently waiting there for the film to reach the conclusions that you already know are going to happen and the fact that no scene in the movie ever concludes on a satisfying note will also leave many people as bored as I was.
Elysium is a colossal disappointment from beginning to end.  There are so many other good Science Fiction films that touch upon political issues out there, including Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, and I recommend everyone should see that film instead of this piece of junk.  The film’s reception has been a tepid one, but it has received some mild reviews from the critical community.  Sorry to be a little cynical about other critic’s opinions, but I feel like some of them are glossing over the film’s narrative shortcomings because they agree so heavily with the politics behind it.  Again, it’s not the political messages that I have a problem with here; it’s the execution of the story.  I can excuse some cases where a film has an agenda driven message as long as it functions well enough within the story-line.  Elysium just felt like such a shallow attempt to make an action movie with a “brain,” so to speak.  If it weren’t so lazy and blatant, I would have probably reacted a little differently to the film.  Elysium set out to make me feel many different things over the course of it’s run time and in that case, it succeeded; it made me feel bitter, apathetic, and wondering why I wasted my money to see it.
Rating:   3/10

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


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

D23 Expo 2013 – Film Exhibition Report


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

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


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