Noah – Review


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

Box Office Duels – Hollywood’s Reliance on Copycat Movies


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

Holy Grails – The Noble Search for Cinema’s Lost Treasures


One of the best things to happen to cinema over the last few years has been the emergence of digital archiving.  Sure, it is sad to see classic film stock disappearing as the norm, but there is a reason why movies are better suited for the digital realm.  If you have a digital backup for your film, you are better able to transfer it, download it, and make multiple duplications without ever losing video or sound quality.  When a movie exists as a digital file, it is set in stone visually and aurally as long as it is never erased.  This has become beneficial for people out there who do consider film restoration a passionate endeavor in life.  For years, film restorers have had to contend with the forces of time undoing all their hard work as they try to keep some of our most beloved films looking pristine.  Now, with digital tools at their disposal, preservationists can undo the years of wear and tear on most old films and make them look even better than when they were first released.  The advent of DVD and Blu-ray has given more studios a reason to go into their archives and dust off some of their long forgotten classics, and because of this, restorations have not only become a noble cause for the sake of film art, but also a necessity.  While there’s no trouble finding most movies in any studio archive, there are a few gems that usually have alluded archivist whereabouts for years, and these are known to film historians as the “Holy Grails” of cinema.
It’s hard to believe that there was once a time when film prints were considered disposable.  Back when the studio system was first starting up, it was commonplace for production companies to dispose of their used film stock once a film was no longer in rotation at the movie theaters.  This was done so that they could either make room for new releases, or to prevent any accidents from happening at their studio.  The reason film prints were considered dangerous to store in a warehouse back in the 20’s and 30’s was because they were made from nitrate, the same material used to make dynamite.  Several fires have happened to film vaults over the years because of nitrate film spontaneously combusting, including a 1967 incident at the MGM Studios in Culver City, CA.  Incidents like this, as well as the careless disposal of early films, are the reason why 90% of all films made before 1920 are lost to us today, according to Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation.  It wasn’t until the mid-30’s that filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin and Cecil B. DeMille started to actively preserve older movies, and their efforts have helped to keep many of these classics alive.  One thing that helped was the fact both Chaplin and DeMille had ownership over their work, so they could keep the original negatives preserved in their own collections and safe from studio hands.  Also, by keeping their films in good condition and preserved well enough to have them screened over and over again, it helped to convince the studios that it was worthwhile to do the same.
Even with better efforts to keep films archived and in good condition, older film stock still wears out over time and with many of them still made out of very volatile materials, many have just rotted away to ash in the vaults.  That is why many archivists have fully embraced the digital revolution, because it has enabled them to preserve many of these disappearing classics for posterity in a definitive way.  But, before a film can be preserved, the damage must be undone, and again digital tools are what saves these movies in the end.  There is a whole class of digital artist out there whose whole job is to scan older films from the best sources available and touch up the scratches and marks on every single frame.  Now that High Definition has become the norm in home entertainment, the results of film restorations are held to a much higher scrutiny, and that has led many studios to take better care of their whole catalog of flicks, which is nothing but a good thing for cinema as a whole.  The fact that some classic films like The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Casablanca (1943) look so good after so many years is a testament to the great efforts made by restorers over the years.  It would be unthinkable to see these kinds of films all scratched up and with faded coloring, which is why film restorations has to be an essential part of the studio business.
But, while beloved classics benefit from better care, some films have not been so lucky.  Early cinematic history is unfortunately a lost age for many film historians, because so much of it is gone.  We only know that many of these movies exist purely because of documentation from their filmmakers, or from a piece of advertisement that has been uncovered in an archive or private collection.  Sometimes movie trailers have popped up for a movie that no longer exists as a whole, like the early “lost” Frank Capra film called Say it with Sables (1928).  There are a few that have risen above the rest as films that are clearly calling out to be rediscovered and preserved.  These are the “Holy Grail” films, and some of them have become famous merely because of their elusiveness.  Like Indiana Jones searching for the Lost Ark, film preservationists have searched the world over for any evidence of the existence of these “Holy Grail” pieces of cinema.  Part of the allure of these films is the fact that they have remained unseen by the public for many years, and in some cases, never seen at all, and yet when given just one titillating glance from a press photo or from a storyboard proving their existence, it’s enough to send film nuts on a mad search.
Probably the most famous example of a lost and found “Holy Grail” film is Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking classic Metropolis (1927).  Lang’s film was made during the height of silent film-making and is considered to be the era’s crowning achievement.  Made in Germany before the rise of Hitler, Metropolis was the most expensive film of it’s time, and showed to the world that European cinema was on par with the film industry emerging in Hollywood at the same time.  However, when the movie made it’s debut in America, it was subjected to heavy cuts due to it’s more pro-Socialist themes, taking the run-time down from 145 minutes to just under 2 hours.  The Nazi regime also destroyed most of the film’s early prints, as well as the original negatives, making a full restoration impossible to do over time.  For years, the shorter cut of Metropolis was all that audiences had to see, and while it did regain it’s reputation as a cinematic classic, it remained an incomplete vision.  Film preservationists had to fill in the missing gaps with title cards explaining what was missing for many years, but while a Blu-ray release was being prepped in 2008, something miraculous happened.  A print of the original uncut version of the movie was found in Argentina in a private film collection.  The Lang Film Foundation in Germany quickly picked up the find and made their best efforts to reincorporate the lost scenes.  Even though the restoration couldn’t make the new scenes look as beautiful as the rest of the movie, due to the damage on the film stock, we are now fortunate to have a nearly complete version of this monumental film.
The saga behind the rediscovery of Metropolis’ uncensored cut gives many people hope that these “Holy Grail” movies can someday be found, and the odds of that happening improves more all the time.  There is a more concerted effort to find lost treasures tucked away in film vaults across the world, and while some “Holy Grails” have remained elusive, the fruits of the film restorers’ labors are still reaping many rewards.  Many of these finds have emerged from private collections and some unlikely places.  Sometimes it’s thanks to a very forward thinking film technician or vault librarian who saved these treasures from early destruction, sometimes without even knowing it.  A 1911 short movie called Their First Misunderstanding, the very first film to feature legendary actress Mary Pickford, was discovered in a New Hampshire barn in 2006.  Even a simple mislabeling has been the fault of some of these classics being lost.  The first ever Best Picture winner at the Oscars, 1927’s Wings, was considered gone forever due to negligent care of the original nitrate negative at the Paramount Studio Vault.  But, the film was rediscovered in the Cinematheque Francaise archive in Paris, found almost by accident when the archivists were going through their back stock, and it was quickly given a more permanent and secure place in the Paramount vault.
Sometimes, like Metropolis, it’s not a whole film that gets lost, but rather fragments that are removed and then later discarded against the wishes of the filmmaker.  These are not what we commonly know as the Deleted Scenes that inevitably have to be trimmed by the editor to make a movie work more effectively.  What I’m talking about are pieces of the movie that are removed even after the film’s first premiere, leaving big chunks of the finished film out of the public eye for whatever reason.  Sometimes these cuts were made because of censorship, and done at the protest of the filmmakers.  Or they were trimmed for the purpose of time constraints.  Back in the late 50’s and early 60’s, there was a trend for big Hollywood pictures to be shown as Roadshow presentations; meaning they were special events complete with printed out programs, musical overtures played while the audience took their seats, and special intermission at the halfway point of the movie.  These were often 3 hour plus in length programs, so when these Roadshow movies had to make it to less grand theaters across the country, it meant that the whole show had to be trimmed to meet time constraints, including removing scenes from the actual movie.  Recently, film restorations have tried to reassemble these old Roadshow versions, and while many of these have been found intact, like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Spartacus (1960), a few have still yet to be fully restored.  Movies like George Cukor’s A Star is Born (1954) and Stanley Kramer’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) have been given partial restorations that do their best to make these films feel complete again with the best elements left available.
Sometimes, there are films that remain lost merely because they’re being withheld by a particular artist or by the production company that made it.  This usually is because the film’s are an embarrassing black mark on the person or studio’s reputation and they would prefer that it remains unseen.  But, the downside of withholding a known property is that it will inevitably raise people’s curiosity about these films, and it will in turn will put pressure on the filmmakers to make it available again.  The most notorious example of this would be the 1946 Disney film Song of the South, which the Disney company refuses to release to the public, due to fears that it will spark controversy over its racial themes.  Though not necessarily a “Holy Grail” film, due to the fact that it was available for many decades to the public and can still be seen by anyone who can secure a bootleg copy from Asia, we’ve still yet to see a fully restored version made by the Disney company.  One withheld film that surely would be considered a “Holy Grail” type would be Jerry Lewis’ notorious film The Day the Clown Cried, which has been seen by only a small handful of people in Mr. Lewis’ inner circle.  Supposedly because of the Holocaust setting and Mr. Lewis’ less than genuine depiction of the tragedy, the film has been kept hidden from the public, probably to spare Jerry from the controversy that could arise from it.  Still, rare behind the scenes footage did emerge last year, which has raised people’s curiosity about it once again.  We may someday get a true glance at both movies, but that choice is still determined by the ones who originally made them.
What I do love is the fact that film restoration is no longer looked at as just a noble cause, but rather an essential part of cinema as a whole.  With data back-ups as common as they are now, we are far less likely to see catastrophic losses of film like we did before digital tools were made available to us.  Today we can securely preserve the works of our present as well as restore the classics of our past.  And the search for the most intriguing “Holy Grails” of cinema will undoubtedly continue to inspire both archivists and treasure hunters for years to come.  Now that we’ve managed to see Metropolis become complete, the focus now shifts to the next big find, like the lost Lon Chaney thriller London After Midnight (1927), the most notable victim of the MGM fire; the lost director’s cut of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1943); or the full 7 1/2 hour version of Erich von Stroheim’s legendary silent epic, Greed (1924).  Some of these films may sadly be forever lost, but the hope always remains.  The great thing about these searches though is that it demonstrates the importance of preserving our cinematic legacy.  Martin Scorsese illustrated this idea beautifully in his 2011 film Hugo, where a young boy helps to rediscover a long forgotten filmmaker, whose legacy has all but disappeared due to the destruction of his original film prints.  Thanks to passionate film preservationists like Mr. Scorsese and the people that work in film foundations and archives around the world, our cinematic legacy is no longer disappearing, but is instead coming back to life again more and more.

300: Rise of an Empire – Review


Portraying history on film accurately is often harder to do than portraying pure fiction.  In many ways, it is almost impossible to make a 100% accurate historical representation work, because cinema is all about making the artificial feel real.  Some movies feel more true to history than others, and yet the best loved historical films are the ones that, for the most part, play very loose with historical facts.  Case in point, Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning Braveheart (1995).  The movie is a slap to the face of anyone who takes the history of William Wallace and the Scottish Rebellion seriously, and yet it’s still an enormously entertaining movie, and also a personal favorite of mine.  Gladiator (2000) likewise is pretty loose with history, only it gets away with it more because of the fact that it has a fictional character at it’s center.  When a movie takes real history and changes it to the point where it no longer resembles the truth, it could be argued that the story has crossed into the realm of fable story-telling, which is itself an honored narrative tradition.  People always have embellished real events in order to make them sound more interesting.  George Washington never threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River, but we like to think he did.  A Roman general never turned into a Gladiator who then defied the Caesar, and yet we still welcome the idea of it.
Basically, we all enjoy telling tall tales to make our heroes greater than they were, and one of the most obvious examples of taking history and turning it into a larger than life fable in recent years is the 2007 Zack Snyder film, 300.  Based off of the real historical account of Spartan King Leonidas’ last stand against the invading Persian empire, as well as the graphic novel by Frank Miller, 300 was somewhat of a surprise hit when it was first released.  The years after Ridley Scott’s Gladiator hit the Oscar jackpot were not kind to sword and sandals epics.  Both Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004) and Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004) failed as historical retelling and as entertaining action flicks.  Not to mention Ridley Scott’s own epic follow-up, Kingdom of Heaven (2005) fell flat.  So, when Zack Snyder’s 300 was being developed, I’m sure many people had their doubts as well.  It’s not hard to see why, since the movie (like the graphic novel) doesn’t even remotely try to take the history of the event seriously.  And yet, after grossing $200 million domestic, those doubts went away.  300 was a unique film that actually fictionalized history in a way that everyone could accept.  By making the legend of Leonidas so outlandishly over the top to the point of pure fairy-tale level accuracy, it actually made the meaning behind the event much easier to digest.  Naturally, with a film this successful, it’s inevitable that a follow-up would come in it’s wake, though it’s surprising that it took so long for this sequel, Rise of an Empire, to make it’s debut.
As far as movie sequels go, 300: Rise of an Empire has a lot that works in it’s favor and a lot that that works against it.  One of the things that unfortunately hinders the film is the familiarity everyone has with the original movie.  Zack Snyder did not direct the sequel, instead giving the reigns over to newcomer Noam Murro.  Snyder did co-write the screenplay and there’s no mistaking the fact that this movie strictly adheres to the first film’s formula.  This movie is actually more like a side-quel rather than a true sequel.  The events of the first film happen concurrently with the events in this movie.  So, pretty much if you haven’t seen the first 300, you won’t be lost because this movie will constantly remind you of what happened with Leonidas and his 300 spartan soldiers, since it’s happening at the same time.  Only, Leonidas (played in the first film memorably by Gerard Butler) is barely even seen here, shown only in brief snippets pulled from the first film.  Rise of an Empire instead follows a whole different group of characters not even attached to ancient Sparta.  And this is one of the more jarring problems with the movie.  What made 300 work so well was our interest in the Spartan characters; their culture, their devotion to their king and countrymen, and their fearlessness in the face of danger.  That focus on the characters is a bit more scatter-shot in Rise of an Empire, though not to the point of sinking the whole narrative.
At the center of Rise of an Empire is the Athenian navy, led by their commander Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton).  Themistokles is tasked with holding the Persian navy back while Leonidas’ army delays the invading Persians on land, all in the hope that their brave sacrifice unites all of Greece together to fight as one.  The Persians are led by the power hungry Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, reprising his role from the first 300) and his own naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green) who has helped the Persian king rise his way to the throne to become the “God King.”  Most of the movie follows the same trajectory as 300, as the majority of the run-time is devoted to a string of bloody, stylized battles.  To the movie’s credit, it doesn’t merely try to copy 300 exactly in these fight scenes, and having all the action scenes take place on warships in the middle of the Aegean Sea is a nice change of scenery.  The standoff between the two navies is the main centerpiece of the movie, and the film rarely departs from this set-up.  This is both to the film’s benefit and it’s detriment.  The good thing is that the movie is actually very well focused, and like the first movie, isn’t overstuffed with a lot of convoluted plotting.  The downside of this however, is that most of it feels like a retread of things we’ve already seen, with no new ground gained in  the process.  For people who wanted a sequel in the truest sense, this might be a disappointment since the story-line only expands the narrative rather than continues it.
But, as a standalone piece of mindless entertainment, the movie surprisingly still works, though not as successfully as the first film.  Everything in this movie is a mixed bag, from the story to the characters.  When the movie does something wrong, it’s distracting and drags the film down; but when it gets something right, it does it exceptionally well.  There were some action scenes that I did enjoy well enough, and then there were others that were so uninspired that I just tuned out; an opening battle scene in particular felt very bland.  For those who enjoyed the stylized blood splatters and slow mo swordplay in the first movie, you’ll be happy to know that there is plenty more of it in this film; perhaps a tad too much.  The characters and performances are also a mixed bag.  Australian newcomer Sullivan Stapleton has the physique and the fighting skills down for the role of Themistokles, but he’s a charisma black hole every time he speaks, and remarkably enough, only makes you long for the star magnetism of Gerard Butler.  The other Athenians are also equally bland.  I couldn’t care about a single one of them, which was probably the biggest fault of the movie.  The only interesting characters on the heroic side are the ones returning from the first film which includes Game of Thrones‘ Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo and David Wenham as the lone surviving “300” spartan Dilios.  Unfortunately, their screen-time is limited to only a few scenes.
The film’s best element, and the one thing that makes this movie work as well as it does, is Eva Green’s performance as Artemisia.  Eva Green steals this movie in a big way and you can tell she’s having the time of her life doing it.  Artemisia is one hell of a villainess and she manages to outshine even the big, bad Xerxes himself.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a character like this who not only worked as a great villain, but actually improved the movie every time she was on screen.  She’s the most three-dimensional character in a film that is severely lacking in them, and her back-story is worthy of a film all it’s own.  She’s the kind of character that actually demands more screen-time and thankfully the film delivers on that.  Every scene she’s in is a gem, and remarkably, her interactions with Themistokles actually help to improve his characterization as well.  It’s actually really surprising to see a character this good in a movie like this, and that’s a testament to how good an actress Eva Green is.  She’s most well known as the Bond girl opposite Daniel Craig’s 007 in Casino Royale (2006), but this performance couldn’t be more different.  Here, she has the right balance between sexy and ruthless, as well as displaying unmatched charisma.  Her fight/sex scene in the movie with Themistokles is a particular highlight, and it displays perfectly Ms. Green’s fearlessness as a performer.  Her performance as Artemesia is much better than the movie is really asking for, and in the end, it is what makes the movie worth watching.
Fortunately, the movie is not without some other positive elements.  For one thing, it does carry over the visual look of the first movie very well, without feeling like a direct carbon copy.  Taking the action to the sea helps to make this film feel distinct, and there are some very spectacular visuals at play here.  Think of the naval battle scenes from Ben-Hur (1959), but in the 300 style, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what this movie is like.  To director Murro’s credit, he does keep things from feeling repetitive, and actually makes the action moments feel fluid and easy to follow.  He may not have the same command over the style that Zack Snyder has, but he still manages to keep everything grounded and believable, which is saying something in a film like this.  At the same time, there’s no mistaking this as anything other than a follow-up to 300.  The visual style is what makes these films distinct from every other sword and sandals epic out there.  There’s no dramatic departure from formula or style; you want another 300 movie, you’ve got one.  300 was groundbreaking at the time for having completely CGI’ed environments and set-pieces for it’s live action actors to interact with.  Today, that kind of technique has become more commonplace, so you would think that by doing the same thing in Rise of an Empire it would feel stale, but remarkably enough it still manages to work in it’s favor.
The movie also works well as a pseudo-parody of the first movie.  Though not intentional, I did pick up on some subtle jabs at the first movie’s more notable excesses.  Most of these come out of Artemesia’s sarcastic asides, which play well into her character.  She even manages to mock Xerxes over-the-top extravagance at one point in some biting put downs, and who could blame her; Xerxes is one of the most ridiculous looking villains in movie history, with his golden thong and chain link piercings all over his body.  Also, audiences noticed an underlining homo-eroticism in the first movie that couldn’t be ignored, with all the scantily clad Spartan men forming close, but never sexual bonds between battles.  In this movie, that homoerotic subtext is actually touched upon slightly; sometimes in a joking way, though not always.  In fact, there’s a slight hint that the main character Themistokles could be bisexual, given that he devotes just as much passion towards the men that serve under him as he does to the women that he lays down with, and sometimes he even has a stronger kinship to those same men.  Perhaps I’m reading too much into the movie, but I was happy to see that the film actually touched upon this subtext rather than just cast it aside like the first movie did.  The film also smartly avoids going too over the top with some of the series’ more notorious excesses.  There are fewer grotesque creatures in this film, which actually makes it slightly more historically accurate than the first movie; but of course that’s all in perspective.
So, is 300: Rise of an Empire a worthy sequel, or more importantly, is it worth watching at all.  I would have to say that it is a lesser movie than the first 300, but still an enormously entertaining flick in it’s own right.  The film does work as an action movie, and anyone who wants to see stylish swordplay in action will not be disappointed.  I’d say it’s worth checking out just for Eva Green’s Artemisia alone, because she is that good a character.  As a sequel to 300, it probably could’ve been better.  I certainly wanted to see this movie build more onto the last film’s narrative, especially with the way that 300 ended.  Also, the blandness of Themistokles and the other Greek soldiers in the movie really makes the absence of Leonidas and the 300 Spartans feel all the glaring.  Showing the other side of the story is fine, but not when the more compelling story has already been told.  Other than that, I was genuinely pleased by what I saw.  I actually came to this movie with low expectations, since I saw the 300 as a perfectly fine standalone piece.  This side-quel that we got didn’t blow me away, but it didn’t disappoint either, and in some ways actually exceeded my expectations; especially when it came to the villain.  Overall, I see it as a worthy companion piece to the first movie.  It may be wrong to show little concern for the truth in real history when making a movie, but sometimes it’s the legends that make the history come alive for us today.
Rating: 7/10

Top Ten Failed Oscar Bait Movies


When we look at all the movies that have taken home the top award at the Oscars, there will naturally be a few that will divide public opinion over whether they were deserving or not.  The Academy Awards are never 100% correct and usually they have made efforts to correct past mistakes whenever they’ve snubbed a film that has gone on to become a classic.  But there’s one thing that’s for sure and it’s the fact that earning an Oscar is tough game for anyone.  Studios pour millions of dollars into Oscar campaigns, and even still they may come up empty.  Like most political campaigns, it all comes down to persuading a large group of people to all think the same way, and in order to do that, the studios will more than likely appeal to the hearts rather than the minds of the voters.  One thing you will notice about many Oscar-winning films is that they usually have a message or a cause behind it.  Hollywood is a politically minded place, so it seems natural that they would honor films that speak directly to their worldviews.  Many well-deserving message movies have been awarded at the Oscars over the years (1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird for example), but every now and then, the movie industry tries a little too hard to appeal to the emotions of the Academy’s voting block.
That is when you see what we commonly refer to as Oscar-bait movies.  While you can say that pretty much any film released around award season is an Oscar-bait movie, the ones that do earn the moniker though are the ones that are so transparently crafted for this purpose.  The definition of an Oscar-bait movie is not easily defined, but characteristically it is the kind of movie that panders to it’s audience and demands recognition, whether it is deserving or not.  And usually when they pander, they will do so in the most embarrassingly manipulative ways.  There are some common characteristics that usually defines these kinds of movies: they usually center around a great tragedy (the Holocaust being one of the most exploited); they will have a main character that is handicapped in some way; they usually shoehorn their message in so awkwardly that it actually defeats the purpose of the story; and are more than likely it is too simplistic to be taken seriously.  Not all Oscar-bait movies fail; and some are actually very good as a stand alone film.  You could argue that some of this year’s favorites fall into this category (Dallas Buyers Club, for example).  But when you do recognize that some movies are made purely for Awards attention, it does cast a dark cloud over some of the choices that the film industry has made.  What I find fascinating are the failures in this particular class of film, mainly because some of them are among the most notorious failures in cinema history.  What follows are my picks for the 10 films that tried too hard to win the gold and failed the hardest.
J. EDGAR (2011)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
This one had all the makings of a sure-fire Awards juggernaut.  A notorious historical subject with numerous exploits to draw a story from.  An A-list star (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the lead, backed up by a strong supporting cast.  A script by recent Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black (2008’s Milk).  And it was directed by one of the Gods of Hollywood; Clint Eastwood.  So, what went wrong?  This is one movie that I think illustrates the idea of Hollywood trying too hard.  There’s no real focus to this movie, despite some nobly mounted attempts.  The lack of focus only highlights the flaws in the movie and anything that does work gets overshadowed.  Black’s screenplay seems more interested in the personal demons of the notorious FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, but it never really establishes exactly why Hoover was the monumental force that he was famous for being.  I do admire the film’s bold attempt to depict Hoover’s secret homosexuality honestly in the movie, but that only gets overshadowed by the heavy-handed delivery of the film’s subtext.  Not to mention the horrendous old-age make-up used on DiCaprio and his co-star Armie Hammer.  Clint Eastwood is known as a subtle and no-nonsense director, but this film is very uncharacteristic of his style, and not surprisingly, it fell short of his usual success at the Oscars.
Directed by Peter Kassovitz
The Holocaust has regrettably become one of the most overly used subjects for Oscar-bait movies.  The success of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) at the Oscars sparked a frenzy in  Hollywood to try to find more interesting stories to tell from this heartbreaking period in history.  While more discussion of the Holocaust is a good thing, few film have been able to match what Schindler’s List accomplished.  It was a gritty, brutal film that took it’s subject seriously and brought the horror of it all to life in a way that felt natural.  Jakob the Liar was the complete opposite.  The film makes the horrible mistake of trying to be a Holocaust movie as well as a starring vehicle for comedic actor Robin Williams.  Now Mr. Williams can be a versatile actor and has pulled off a great dramatic performance now and again (i.e. his Oscar-winning work in 1997’s Good Will Hunting).  But, this movie doesn’t allow him to expand his dramatic chops.  Here, the film has Robin acting as a shopkeeper in a Jewish ghetto who impersonates a radio program, delivering news of the war in a fun way in order to give hope to the people in his community.  That’s right, this is a film that allows Robin Williams to do his comedy shtick, in a Holocaust movie!!  While the film isn’t too offensively out of tone, this nevertheless feels like a blatant attempt to give Robin Williams an Awards season boost, which thankfully backfired.  The movie was dumped off in early September, effectively leaving it forgotten by Awards time.
STAR! (1968)
Directed by Robert Wise
One of the earliest examples of Hollywood going for Oscar gold, and failing in spectacular fashion.  Only a couple years after the booming success of The Sound of Music (1965), 20th Century Fox decided they wanted to invest in another grand-scale musical starring Julie Andrews.  They reunited her with Sound of Music director Robert Wise and chose for the film’s subject legendary English stage performer Gertrude Lawrence, a role that seemed to be a perfect fit for Ms. Andrews.  The film hoped to piggy-back off of the success of Music, and Mary Poppins (1964) for that matter, but unfortunately Fox failed to predict how public tastes would change in the coming years.  By the time Star! was released, it was seen as too old-fashioned and audiences could not have been less interested.  Unfortunately, Fox had gone over-budget on the film, and the movie bombed almost instantly.  The Sound of Music may have been an awards juggernaut in 1965, but it had the luck of being exactly what the audiences wanted at the time.  Star! showed that you can’t repeat that kind of success twice in a row, even with all the same players; something that commonly happens with many Oscar-bait movies in the years since.  Ironically, Star! lost out at the Oscars to another musical; the grittier, and much shorter Oliver (1968), directed by Carol Reed.  The ingredients may work well, but it all depends on whether it’s what we ordered in the first place.
RADIO (2003)
Directed by Michael Tollin
This is one of the more notorious types of movies that we consider Oscar-bait; the ones that center around a character with a disability.  Usually the uncomfortable factor comes from the fact that these characters are most often portrayed by able-bodied actors, who we know don’t suffer from these real ailments but they still try to make us believe that they do.  Sometimes this works in movies if the actor does put the work into making the disability feel real and honest; like with Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (1988) or Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump (1994), or to a minor extant with Colin Firth in The King’s Speech (2010).  I would’ve put Sean Penn’s notorious performance in I Am Sam (2001) here, but I left it out because Penn’s a good enough actor to almost pull it off.  Almost.  Unfortunately, Cuba Gooding Jr. was a little out of his league with his role in the movie Radio.  Mr. Gooding is a good actor, but his performance is uncomfortably bad in this movie, mainly because he brings little depth to the character.  All we see is a actor trying to play mentally-challenged and it just derails the entire film.  Not only that, but it makes the movies feel like another pandering attempt to earn the actor an Oscar, which is only deserved if the performer actually shows restraint and humanity in the role.  It reminds me of the now infamous monologue delivered by Robert Downey Jr. in the movie Tropic Thunder (2008).  You never, ever go “full retard.”
Directed by Mimi Leder
Another common trait among Oscar-bait movies is the film with a message.  Now, most movies have their hearts in the right place and can present a message that is well worth delivering.  The way that an Oscar-bait movie can ruin this is by taking away all subtlety out of their message and tries to force feed it to an audience.  That is the problem with a movie like Pay it Forward.  The movie presents the idea of spreading harmony around the world through random acts of kindness done for a stranger, thereby leading that same person to do the same for others, and so on.  This pyramid level, trickle-down theory sounds inviting enough and surely deserves a better movie than this.  The problem with Pay it Forward is that it doesn’t trust it’s audience to pick up the message naturally, so the message is delivered by characters who are far from realistic and who speak in trite, on-the-nose philosophical dialogue that no normal human being says in reality.  The most obnoxious example of this is the character of Trevor McKinney, played by Haley Joel Osment in his first post-Sixth Sense starring role, who comes up with the titular theory of the movie.  The character is little more than an adorable tool used by the filmmakers to draw up sympathy for the movie’s message, considering that he has no other personality otherwise.  The even more insulting aspect of the film is the fact that it tries to drive home the message by killing off Trevor at the end.  That’s exactly what you want in a feel good message movie; a child’s horrible death.  The movie was thankfully overlooked by the Academy, and showed that you can’t always pander your way to a award.
Directed by Alan Parker
Historical dramas are also a sure-fire way to gain attention from the Academy, especially if they have a message to them too.  Come See the Paradise is a largely forgotten historical drama that centers around the internment camps set up here in the United States to hold Japanese American citizens during WWII.  One of the more regrettable actions taken by the US government in recent history, it has become the subject of many films since.  Alan Parker’s movie made such an attempt, depicting the events of this time in our history through a fictionalized account of an white American soldier (Dennis Quaid) who is drafted to fight in the war, while his Japanese American wife (Tamlyn Tomita) is held captive in one of the camps.  The film could have worked, had it not made the mistake of indulging too much in the love story at it’s center.  Like most other failed historical romances, this movie leaves the historical elements as an afterthought, making it all look like the filmmakers were using them as a means to make their flimsy love story feel more important.  Sometimes it can work in a movie (1997’s Titanic); sometimes it fails (2001’s Pearl Harbor).  Come See the Paradise falls short of these films mainly because it just feels lazy.  Alan Parker’s direction lacks subtlety and it just makes the movie feel like a historical soap opera, rather than an honest account of the trials that Japanese Americans faced in the camps.  History matters to people, and any lackluster attempts at it will make people see films like this as pandering.
Directed by Tom Shadyac
Oh, Robin Williams.  Are you really this desperate to win another Oscar?  Patch Adams is a notoriously misguided movie, but it’s also distinctive for showing us the depths to which Hollywood would sink to trying to win an Oscar.  The real Patch Adams, Dr. Hunter Doherty Adams M.D. is an award winning medical doctor known for helping his patients recover through the use of laughter and fun.  He’s also someone who takes his profession seriously and works hard to help people around the world.  This movie doesn’t acknowledge that and, like Jakob the Liar, instead uses the film to let Robin Williams act like a clown and do his own brand of shtick.  The film’s most shameful act, however, is in how it shifted aspects of the real Patch Adam’s life in order to make a more “interesting” story-line.  Patch lost a close friend and colleague in a tragic murder early in his career, and the movie includes this in the plot.  But it does the shamefully pandering act of changing the sex of the real life person to turn him from a male into a female, so that the movie could have a love interest for Patch, which did not in fact exist.  This alone gives you some idea of just how desperate some movies are for Oscar attention.  Thankfully, the film was rightfully panned before the Academy could even consider it.  Also, the real Dr. Adams has been strongly critical of the film, and with good reason.  It’s better to be honest with your film’s subject matter, especially when he can still speak for himself, and shows a lot more intelligence and creativity than the movie ever did.
Directed by Steven Zallian
Here’s a rare example of Hollywood actually attempting a remake of a Best Picture winner, in the hopes that it will have the same outcome.  The original All the King’s Men won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1949, along with a Best Actor award for it’s star Broaderick Crawford.  The remake was undertaken by Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zallian (Schindler’s List), who brought together top-tier talent to craft a lavish production based off the original.  The cast included Sean Penn, playing Southern politician Willie Stark, who was supposed to be inspired by the real-life Huey Long.  Also on board was a cast of A-list actors, like Jude Law, Kate Winslet, and Anthony Hopkins.  It all looked like the makings of a movie destined for the Academy’s top award.  Instead, the movie was delayed a full year, was dumped off in early September, and was critically panned on release.  What went wrong?  Again, it’s Hollywood trying too hard to win the gold.  Steve Zallian’s script and direction both lacked subtlety, not to mention Penn’s wildly over the top performance.  Everyone could see what the true purpose was behind this movie long before it even made it to theaters, which was to wow the Academy with it’s lavish production values and all-star cast; and no one was buying it.  The reason why I put it so high on this list is because of how so much was done to achieve so little, and how the hype only helped in dooming the final product.  It proves that you can’t manufacture a sure-fire Oscar caliber film, especially if it’s a remake of another winner.
 Directed by Stephen Daldry
This film reads like an Oscar-bait movie checklist.  Child with a mental disorder? Check.  Grandparents are Holocaust survivors? Check.  Father dies tragically in the 9/11 disaster? Check.  My god, even the main character’s actual name is Oscar.  Couple that with incredibly pandering dialogue and self-empowerment message so full of itself that it would make even Oprah gag, and you get a text-book example of an Oscar-bait movie.  This film, probably more than any of the others so far, was manufactured solely for the purpose of winning multiple Oscars.  There’s not an inkling of authenticity in this entire movie.  It makes it all the more insulting do to the fact that there were so many talented people involved, and none of them are good (except maybe actor Max von Sydow).  This film is notorious for a lot of things; particularly for the image of Tom Hanks falling from the top floors of the Twin Towers on 9/11.  But, what makes me dislike the movie more than anything else is the main character, Oscar.  He’s Trevor from Pay it Forward, only less subtle and far more obnoxious.  And again, he’s less of an authentic child and more like a tool used by the filmmakers to hammer home the message.  This, honestly, is one of the worst movies I have ever seen in my entire life, and I’ve seen a lot of bad movies.  The reason it doesn’t top my list here is because it nearly succeeded at it’s goal.  It inexplicably managed to earn a nomination for Best Picture, despite being critically panned.  Still, it probably illustrates the most blatant example on this list of a movie made purely as Oscar-bait.
Directed by Michael Cimino
This movie tops the list mainly because no other film has crashed and burned more heavily in it’s quest for Oscar gold than this one.  Michael Cimino set out to create an epic to end all epics with Heaven’s Gate and he had the clout in Hollywood to do it after his hugely successful The Deer Hunter took home Best Picture in 1978.  United Artist bankrolled his follow-up, hoping to capture that same success with Cimino and take home a Best Picture win for themselves.  What ended up happening was an out-of-control production where the budget skyrocketed and the prospects of an Oscar win dimmed very quickly.  Eventually, the film was released after costing $44 million (well over $250 million today) and it made only a 1/10 of that back at the box-office.  Not only that, but the movie only managed to scrounge up one Oscar nod in the end; for Art Direction.  It lost, of course.  Heaven’s Gate is still considered one of the biggest blunders in Hollywood history.  Cimino’s reputation as a director never recovered, and United Artists went into bankruptcy, eventually having to sell itself to a bigger studio, MGM.  And all because they wanted their shot at a big Oscar win.  It’s not a particularly bad movie by any means, and 30 years later it did get a Criterion home video release, which I wrote a review of earlier.  The reason I put it at the top of the list is because it represents the biggest failed attempt to create an Oscar winning movie.  Much like All the King’s Men, it shows that you can’t just can’t manufacture Oscar glory; only King’s Men didn’t cause the same level of destruction that Heaven’s Gate did.
So, with Oscar Sunday happening tomorrow, I’m sure there will be a lot of second guessing among those who tried hard to win, and didn’t get it.  This year, I think there were fewer film’s that were screaming out for Awards attention.  Sure, some of them are clear examples of the movies that the Academy likes to honor, but I think this year’s nominees were genuinely made for the purpose to entertain and to inform.  None of them seem transparently manipulative or are as pandering as the films that I highlighted on this list.  The reason why these movies have a notorious reputation has less to do with the stories themselves, and more to do with the presentation.  Audiences, particularly those who vote for the awards, are much more aware and intelligent than some filmmakers like to think they are, and they can tell when they are being manipulated; most of the time.  If a movie tries too hard to appeal to the hearts rather than the minds of it’s audience, that same audience will not take it seriously.  All movies are manipulative, but if there’s no substance behind it, then it becomes obvious to us that the filmmaker’s only motive behind the manipulation was to garner attention.  I think that’s why I like the Oscars more than most other awards.  The members who vote are from a diverse crowd of the industry elite, and they don’t all agree on the same thing, and are even less easy to manipulate as a whole.  It’s that unpredictability that makes some of these failed attempts so fascinating, because really there’s no easy way to work the Academy in your favor.