The Movies of Summer 2014


Start saving those movie passes now because Summer is almost upon us.  Generally seen as the biggest movie season of the year, this is the time when all the major studios gear up their big tent-pole pictures for release.  While many movies do become smash hits, recent years have shown us that the Summer is becoming increasingly competitive and now we are more likely to see big movies fail at the box office.  2013 in particular proved to be an incredibly ruthless year for big releases, leading to some of the hardest box office crashes the industry has ever seen.  Movies like Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) and Pacific Rim (2013), and Hangover Part 3 (2013) all under-performed last year, while other movies like The Long Ranger (2013), After Earth (2013), and Elysium (2013) proved to be costly failures.  Add to this the inexplicable successes of movies that people were almost certain would fail (World War Z and The Great Gatsby), and it becomes clear that the Summer movie season is becoming increasingly harder to handicap.  2014’s Summer season arrives a bit more quietly than last years slate of films, with fewer tent-pole movies of note, which may actually be a blessing for the industry.  This year, because of this cleared up schedule, there’s a better chance for movies to actually take hold at the box office and find an audience.
Of course this all depends on how well these movies are received.  I for one can see many films coming this Summer that will likely be terrible, and yet successful despite those shortcomings (I’m looking at you Transformers).  Just like last year, I will be taking a look at a few of the noteworthy movies that will be premiering in the months ahead and pick which ones that I believe are the must-sees of the season, a few which I’m interested in with a few reservations, and which ones I absolutely believe are worth skipping.  To help give some of you a frame of reference to what I’m talking about, I will include movie trailers for each of the highlighted movies.   So, without any further delay, let’s take a look at this Summer’s coming attractions.

The X-Men franchise has had a bumpy road over it’s now 7 movie run at the box office.  That said, the last two efforts in the series, 2011’s X-Men: First Class and 2013’s The Wolverine have both been solid efforts that both work as stand alone movies as well as continuations of the franchise, showing very clearly that the X-Men movies are now hitting their stride.  This year, what looks to be the most ambitious X-Men film to date, Days of Future Past, is making it to theaters and it is the movie I am most excited about seeing this Summer.  This is mainly due to the remarkable cast assembled for the film, including just about everyone that has appeared in an X-Men film to date. This includes series stalwart Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan returning as Charles Xavier and Magneto, as well as James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as their younger counterparts.  Add in Game of Thrones‘ Peter Dinklage as the villain and an army of the iconic Sentinel robots from the popular Marvel comics, and you’ve got a movie that looks to build upon everything that has come before it and take the series into even greater territory.  Also, recent controversies aside, it is great to see director Bryan Singer return to a series that he helped to start in the first place; a role he should have never left.

Speaking of Marvel Comics adaptations, 2014 also gives us the premiere of one of the publisher’s more obscure titles to the big screen.  Fans of the comics already are familiar with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and how they tie in with the larger Marvel universe that’s becoming the central focal point of the popular Avengers series, but the casual viewer does need to be sold on the concept of the story in order to make this film a success.  So the marketing behind this film deserves a lot of praise because the above trailer does an absolutely perfect job of setting up the characters and the world of this film.  I for one am sold just on the sense of humor alone.  What other trailer are you going to see the main character “flipping the bird” at the audience?  Space adventures are sometimes a hard sell these days, and while this movie may not look groundbreaking, it does look entertaining, which is exactly what audiences want from a Summer movie.  Here’s hoping that Marvel’s track record keeps going strong and helps to give a deserving series the boost that it needs.

It’s hard to believe that a Godzilla movie qualifies as a must see movie.  The Godzilla franchise is not exactly considered high cinematic art, and the last time Hollywood attempted to make a big budget film centered around the infamous monster, we got the ludicrous 1998 Roland Emmerich film.  This year, however, we not only have a Godzilla movie that looks ambitious, but actually looks to be treating the franchise more reverently.  Given that Guillermo del Toro proved last year that a movie centered around giant monsters could turn into a great film, it seems reasonable that a new movie centered around the King of Monsters could also be worthwhile.  The trailers so far have done an excellent job establishing this new take on the the monster, and the movie does look impressive; particularly when it comes to the scale of the destruction.  Also, Godzilla actually appears the way he should, and less like that lame T-Rex hybrid that Roland Emmerich tried to pass off.  This film also sports an impressive cast, led by heavyweights like Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe.  My hope is that the movie is able to live up to it’s marketing, and let the mighty Godzilla roar onto the screens once again.

For the first time in many years, we are not getting a movie from Pixar Studios in 2014.  Almost a staple in the Summer movie season, Pixar films are among the most consistently successful movies released every year.  So, with such a vacancy left open, it seems like a prime opportunity for other animation studios to release one of their movies without having to compete with the big boys, and the studio best set up to make a move this Summer is Pixar’s most direct competitor: Dreamworks Animation.  This is because Dreamworks is premiering a sequel to what is unquestionably their best film to date, 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon.  The sequel looks to expand the universe seen in the first film, which is what a good sequel should do, and the trailer does a good job of showing off the impressive scale and action adventure that we expect to see in a movie like this.  The first film’s entire cast looks to be returning to the series, and some of the notable new additions include Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett as the main hero’s long lost mother, as well as actors Djimon Hounsou and Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington as new adversaries.  The hope is that the sequel doesn’t waste the potential set up by it’s excellent predecessor.  It certainly benefits from ideal conditions for it’s world premiere with little competition in it’s way.

Yes, I know these movies are loud and dumb.  But, that’s why I like them so much.  Sylvester Stallone has crafted the Expendables series as a love letter to 80’s action films and has filled each movie with many of his old co-stars from that era, along with every action star that has headlined a film since then.  What I like about these movies the most is that they make no qualms about what they really are; they are a showcase for action movie icons doing what they do best and that’s kicking ass and blowing stuff up.  Now that the series is on it’s third film, it’s clear that many other people like me have gone along on this ride and have loved it so far.  The first two movies are mindless fun, and it looks like the new movie is more of the same, which is very much welcomed.  In addition to the returning cast, which includes Stallone, Jason Statham, and the “Governator” Arnold Schwartzenegger, this new film adds many more action icons like Antonio Banderas, Wesley Snipes, Mel Gibson, and Dr. Jones himself, Harrison Ford, taking the place of the absent Bruce Willis.  The new cast members alone are enough to get me excited for this movie.  It’s guilty pleasure fun and I’m not ashamed to be excited about this one.


The first movie released this summer is almost certainly going to be a huge hit and it looks like it’s going to be a huge crowd-pleaser.  So why am I not as excited about it as most people.  It’s mainly because it ‘s a sequel to a film that I didn’t like.  The first Amazing Spiderman was released in 2012, and rebooted the Spiderman franchise only five short years after the previous series ended; the one that starred Tobey Maguire as the web-slinger.  While I do believe that the reboot did some things right, like casting Andrew Garfield as Spiderman and focusing more on his development as a character, the end result was too lackluster and inconsistent in tone to make the reboot worth it.  Also, the film needlessly retreaded the origin story, which everyone had already seen in the previous films.  While this movie is freed up from the shackles of establishing the origin of Spiderman, it runs the unfortunate risk of trying to cram in too much too soon.  This movie has no less than 3 different villains taken from the comics; Electro (Jamie Foxx), The Rhino (Paul Giamatti) and the Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan).  Hopefully the movie gives everyone their due, otherwise it could all be a mess.  That being said, the film’s action set pieces do look exciting, and the transformation of Jamie Foxx into Electro does look impressive.  Let’s hope that this movie can outshine it’s disappointing predecessor.

Disney seems to recently be in the habit of adapting some of their most beloved animated films into live action movies.  It started with 101 Dalmatians  in 1996, starring Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil.  A decade later we saw Tim Burton’s take on Alice in Wonderland (2010).  And within the next couple years, we will see adaptations of Cinderella by Kenneth Branaugh and The Jungle Book  by Jon Favreau, both from the Disney company.  This year, we get the live action treatment of Sleeping Beauty (1959), but with a twist.  This version of the tale gives the villainess, the iconic Malificent, center stage, and she is played by non other than Angelina Jolie.  The reason why I’m uncertain about this film is because the recent track record for fairy tale adaptations hasn’t been so good, at least when it comes to the quality of the movies.  Tim Burton’s Alice was critically panned, as was two recent adaptations of Snow White, made by other studios.  Audiences and critics may generally reject this movie as more of the same, and certainly the CG heavy look of the film seems rather tiresome.  The bright spot, however, is the casting of Ms. Jolie herself in the title role.  She looks perfect for the role and seems to be relishing the part in her performance.  And if there’s a Disney villain who deserves her own film, it’s the mistress of all evil.

The Wachowskis have had a rough decade.  They exploded onto the scene with the monumental The Matrix (1999), which is a certifiable classic in every way.  Since then, they followed that up with two disappointing Matrix sequels, a horrid remake of Speed Racer (2008), and the ambitious Cloud Atlas (2012), which worked better in parts than as a whole.  Having not made a profitable film since 2003’s The Matrix Reloaded, there is a lot resting on the Wachowskis’ shoulders with their new movie Jupiter Ascending.  The movie looks ambitious, and it’s nice to see the Wachowskis’ take on a sci-fi thriller that doesn’t echo The Matrix in any way.  The only question is whether their movie is original enough to convince audiences to see it.  I like the look of the movie, but the “saving the princess” plot seems a little cliched, even within science fiction.  On the plus side, the movie has Sean Bean in the cast, which is a good thing in my book.  Let’s see if he stays alive through the whole film this time.  Hopefully this one will be a turn around for the once mighty Wachowskis, because they certainly need it.

Robert Rodriguez’s first adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City graffic novels was one of the most unique cinematic experiences I’ve ever had when it first premiered back in 2005, and it seems like an ideal film to follow up with a sequel.  I also thought the same thing of Rodriguez’s Machete (2010), but that was until I saw Machete Kills, one of the more disappointing sequels in recent memory.  Now, nearly a decade after the first film was released, Robert Rodriguez is making the long promised follow-up to Sin City.  The reason why I’m worried is because Rodriguez’s track record with sequels is very spotty.  For every Desperado (1995) there’s a dozen lackluster Spy Kids movies.  Hopefully the director brings his A-game to this film, because I absolutely love the first movie.  The good news is that much of the original cast returns, including heavyweights like Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis, and newer cast members include good actors like Josh Brolin and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Let’s hope that time hasn’t worn out Sin City’s appeal to audiences.


The vultures are already circling around this one.  Pretty much from the get go, people knew this was a bad idea, letting Michael Bay tackle a popular property like this one.  And now that we’ve seen the trailer, our worst fears seem to have been realized.  While I’m mixed on some things about this movie (I like the casting of William Fichtner as Shredder, for example), I do agree that the titular turtles just don’t look right at all.  I greatly prefer the Jim Henson crafted turtles from the cheesy but endearing original film.  Additionally, nothing good can come from the casting of Megan Fox as female lead, April O’Neil.  Right now, this movie stands as a clear example of the recent trend by Hollywood to take popular franchises from a generation ago, and water them down into shallow popcorn flicks for today’s newer audiences (i.e. Robocop).  Is this going to be the worst movie of the summer?  Who knows.  I can only say that it’s the one right now with the lowest expectations.

While we’re on the subject of Michael Bay, he also is bringing us the fourth entry in the Transformers franchise this Summer.  I will say that I did find the first film okay in it’s own right, but the series has devolved into one of the most self-indulgent and obnoxious franchises of recent memory.  These movies seem more geared towards satisfying Bay’s own tastes as a filmmaker than actually entertaining the audiences they were intended for, with it’s over-reliance on CGI mayhem and on-screen pyrotechnics in the place of actual character development.  This movie does the smart move of replacing Shia LaBeouf for the less obnoxious Mark Wahlberg, but after watching the trailer, it appears that we’re still going to be getting more of the same nonsense.  And once again, it looks like the Transformers themselves are just supporting characters in their own movie.

This film’s biggest disadvantage is that it’s been produced at a time when many stylistically similar movies are being made; and failing.  It looks too similar to forgettable sci-fi action thrillers like Battle Los Angeles (2011), and those battle suits look a lot like the mech-armors used in Elysium (2013); and you guys know how I felt about that film.  Hell, it was only last year that we saw another post-apocalyptic movie starring Tom Cruise; the equally forgettable Oblivion (2013).  Unfortunately for this movie, it and will probably follow in the footsteps of these other failed sci-fi epics.  Tom Cruise is a good actor, and he should be broadening his choices of roles now that he’s entering middle age, but it appears he’s still attracted to action film roles at the moment, for better or worse.  The plot also seems too gimmicky to stand out either; like a mix of Halo and Groundhogs Day (1992), and not in a good way.  It could end up surprising us and be a solid action movie (like last years World War Z), but given how poorly the sci-fi action genre has been of late, it’s a tall order to accomplish.
So, there you go; my outlook on the Summer of 2014 in movies.  There will probably be a few other films that will grab my attention over these next few months, and probably even a few surprises.  That was certainly the case with last Summer’s movies, and hopefully this year will be even better.  I hope that the fact that fewer movies are coming out this year with a lot of hype is a positive thing.  Lately, too much hype has negatively affected many people’s reactions to Summer movies, so hopefully Hollywood has been taking a hint and are acting more cautiously this year.  I doubt we’ll see anything like The Lone Ranger’s big meltdown this Summer.  My hope is that the movies I’m most excited about live up to my expectations, and the ones I’m cautious about will prove my worries wrong.  At the very least, I hope that I and everyone else just has a fun time at the movies during this busy season and not end up feeling like we wasted our time and money at the cinema.

Collecting Criterion – The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)


The Criterion Collection has honored all kinds of beloved cinema by making them a part of it’s library, but they’ve also spread their wings out to include movies that carry a dark cloud of controversy around them.  Many of these types of movies within the Criterion Collection include a box set devoted to the I am Curious series, which were Swedish films that were deemed pornographic and were banned for years in the United States.  Also included in the Collection are the silent documentary on Satanism, Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), the movies of controversial Danish director Lars von Trier, and perhaps the most controversial film of all, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom (1975); a movie that I will one day brave my way through and review for this series.  Criterion does an honorable job of collecting these button-pushing movies, because regardless of the controversy that surrounds them, they still stand as cinematic touchstones and are worthy of preservation and posterity.  Given that Easter is almost upon us, I thought that I should review for you one of the most scandalous movies of all times that has also gone on to become one of Criterion’s most interesting titles; and which also fits within the religious theme of the holiday.  That film is Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).
The interesting thing about this Criterion title is that it’s the only Scorsese film that has been selected as part of the Collection.  This is probably because Scorsese’s other movies probably don’t carry the same stigma that this one does, and have found an easier time getting distribution.  The Last Temptation of Christ more than likely could only ever get released through the Criterion label because no other studio would dare claim it.  Nevertheless, I’m sure that Scorsese is quite pleased with this film’s place within the Criterion Collection, as well as he should be.  Criterion has done a masterful job of restoring the movie and giving it a proper home video release.  In the 25 years since the movie has first premiered, the controversy surrounding it has subsided, especially in the wake of the firestorm surrounding Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), so Criterion’s distribution of the film itself is far from controversial.  Of course, when watching the movie itself, it becomes very apparent why the movie sparked heated emotions in the first place.  Scorsese has always been a risk-taker, and it’s to his credit as a film director that his movies have done as well as they have.  With The Last Temptation, he was fulfilling a life-long ambition to make a film about the life of Jesus Christ, no doubt having grown up watching the great biblical epics of Hollywood’s golden era and being raised in a Catholic household.  But, making a movie like this in a different era with a reputation like what Mr. Scorsese had was going to lead to some tension no matter what, and Scorsese certainly found out how hard it was to fulfill his own dreams.
First and foremost it must be understood that the movie is not based on a scriptural source, but rather is adapted from the similarly controversial novel of the same name by Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, the same man who wrote Zorba the Greek.  Though Nikos was always a devoted Christian author, he was nevertheless condemned by both the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, and his book was banned in several countries.  Despite what the Church thought of his writing, Nikos believed that he was honoring Christ by showing his humanity.  In the novel, Jesus is not depicted as an infallible deity, but rather as a passionate and troubled human being who strives to do God’s work on Earth even when doubts his own strength to accomplish it.  The Jesus in the novel remains pure and accomplishes everything he’s been entrusted to do by God, but the novel also examines the temptations that are laid out in front of him that try to pull him away from becoming the Messiah.  The final temptation shows him giving up his crucifixion and leading a normal human life; marrying Mary Magdelene, raising children, and dying at an old age.  Of course, Jesus resists the temptation and goes through with the sacrifice in the end, but the novel details the life that may have been, and this is probably what drove many religious figures to be upset.  Despite Mr. Kazantzakis’ best intentions, the idea of a fallible Christ was unacceptable to many people and sadly it lead to the author’s downfall.
Martin Scorsese was drawn to the ideas of Nikos Kazatzakis’ novel, particularly the way it looked at Christ the man, and he held onto the rights to the novel for many years, hoping to bring it to the screen himself when he had the opportunity.  Scorsese made the movie at a transitional time for him personally.  He had beaten a drug addiction that plagued most of his early career and was now going through something of a spiritual reawakening.  Most of his films during the 1980’s were markedly different in tone to his gritty crime dramas of the 70’s.  In 1983, he made the dark comedy The King of Comedy, which he then followed up with the very low budgeted dramas of After Hours (1985) and The Color of Money (1986).  The Last Temptation pushed Scorsese into even more foreign territory, since the director had never done a period film before, let alone a religious one.
While he knew that the source material was controversial, Scorsese wanted to make this movie as an affirmation of his own Catholic faith.  Indeed, watching this movie you can see Scorsese’s own view of spirituality come through, and it stays true to the scriptural teachings of Jesus Christ.  Unlike Mel Gibson’s The Passion, Scorsese did manage to secure financial backing from a major studio (Universal), albeit with a very small budget.  It was warmly received by critics, but naturally was condemned by Church organizations who didn’t understand it.  The backlash from religious viewers was so intense in fact that the movie is still banned in some countries, and one screening in Paris during it’s premiere was the scene of a terrorist attack by Christian zealots, leading to the death of one person. Suffice to say that The Last Temptation of Christ still stands as Martin Scorsese’ most polarizing film to date.  Upon viewing the movie today, the film isn’t as scandalous on the surface as it once was perceived to be, although I’m sure you still won’t hear any mention of it in religious circles.
My own impression of the movie is that it’s an intriguing, if somewhat flawed, depiction of the life of Jesus.  The most controversial elements of the movie, that being the moments of temptation laid before Jesus, are actually the strongest parts, and shows Scorsese’s knack for making challenging cinema accessible for the average viewer especially well.  The extended sequence at the end of the movie, depicting the life Jesus could’ve had if he gave up his sacrifice for humanity is especially captivating, and spells out perfectly exactly why Christ was meant to be the Savior of humanity according to scripture; a subtlety that I think a lot of religious zealots tend to overlook.  Unfortunately, Scorsese’s film is a bit on the overlong side.  Running 2 hours and 45 minutes long, the movie doesn’t have the same kind of driven pacing that Scorsese’s other movies have, and tends to drag through many of the more introspective moments of the narrative.  In addition, the movie is unfortunately dated by a terrible soundtrack, made by recording artist Peter Gabriel.  While unique, the music does feel out of place in this biblical tale, and makes many of the scenes feel like a bad 1980’s music video instead of an uplifting spiritual movie.
Where the movie does shine, however, is in it’s performances, particularly with Willem Dafoe as Jesus.  Dafoe carries this movie on his shoulders and creates a Jesus Christ that we’ve never seen before on the big screen.  I liked the way that he showed Jesus’ confusion and fear throughout his entire journey, which helps to make the character much more personable than relatable.  Now, many religious people argue that Jesus must be unknowable because he was more than just a man, but Dafoe’s performance shows that Jesus’ teachings can have more power when we understand better the person who is giving it to us.  And better yet, Dafoe’s performance has a lot of passion behind it, making Jesus captivating as a character.  When we see Jesus in this movie, we begin to understand why he was able to inspire people to follow his teachings.
The supporting cast also adds a lot to the movie, especially Harvey Keitel as a very sympathetic Judas Iscariot.  Some of the other casting can be a little random at times; like The Empire Strikes Back (1980) director Irvin Kershner showing up briefly as a stone-throwing zealot; and hold on, was that David Bowie as Pontius Pilate?  One cameo that I did find interesting was Harry Dean Stanton as religious convert Saint Paul, who manages to help even Jesus himself learn more about God’s plan.  The movie’s visual design is also spectacular in this movie.  Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus gives the film an epic scope, and helps to make the film feel big even with the limited budget.  Also, many of the trademark Scorsese touches are there, particularly in the dramatic lighting of certain scenes.  Scorsese’s unique cinematic touches throughout help to stand this movie apart from other biblical movies, particularly with one interesting technique during the crucifixion scene where the camera tilts down 90 degrees in front of Jesus on the cross, showing a sideways view of the image.  It’s a simply done trick, but it does leave a definite impression.
Criterion’s edition of the movie brings out the best of this film by giving it a spectacular restoration.  Produced through a high-definition scan from the original negative elements, the movie looks almost brand new in it’s blu-ray edition.  Thankfully Universal has kept the original negative safe in it’s vault; a religious organization called Campus Crusade for Christ once offered the studio $10 million for the negative just so they could destroy it.  Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker supervised the restoration, alongside cinematographer Ballhaus, and the film definitely looks like it reflects the artistic visions off all involved.  The score, for better or worse, does sound great in the restoration.  You’ll especially appreciate how clear the sound mix is.
The extras, while not particularly as lavish as some other Criterion titles, is nevertheless worth checking out.  First there’s a group audio commentary pieced together from interviews with Scorsese himself, along with Willem Dafoe and screenwriters Paul Schrader and Jay Cocks.  Production footage of the crew on location is also available to view in this package, which gives you the interesting insight into the making of the movie, and seeing Scorsese at work behind the camera is always interesting to watch.  It also gives you a nice idea of what it takes to make a period drama look authentic.  A brand new interview is also included with composer Peter Gabriel, as he details the influences that went into his work on the film’s score.  While I already made my feelings known about the music, it’s still interesting to hear Peter Gabriel’s methods behind his work, and what he thought of collaborating with Scorsese at the time.  Rounding out the extras is an interesting gallery of production and publicity stills.
While the controversy surrounding the movie has dissipated over time, Criterion was still taking risk keeping this movie in the public’s eye, and I give them a lot of credit for continuing to stand up for challenging works of cinema like this overall.  The Last Temptation of Christ is still a monumental work of cinematic art, and while it may not be the most enriching biblical film I’ve ever seen, or even the best example of Scorsese’s work as a director, it’s still a movie that is absolutely worth seeing.  I particularly would like to see religious organizations take another look at this film, because I think it’s more true to the spirit of Jesus’ teachings than they would like to believe.  Contrary to what they may believe, Scorsese did not make this movie because he wanted to attack Jesus’ image.  In the end, Christ does fulfill his purpose in God’s plan and goes through with his sacrifice.  What Scorsese showed us in the movie was that Jesus was also a man, and still vulnerable to the same faults as humankind.  The fact that he overcame them is what made Jesus special, and that’s what Martin Scorsese took away from his own perspective on religion.  Scorsese assures us that his movie is not scriptural but rather a dramatic interpretation of one extraordinary man’s journey through life, something which is stated before the movie’s opening credits.  Regardless of how the final movie turned out, I still thank Scorsese for taking an honest and unique approach to such a touchy subject.  The Last Temptation of Christ is still one of the most unique religious themed films ever made and it makes a worthy addition to anyone’s Criterion collection.

TCM Classic Film Festival 2014 – Film Exhibition Report


Film Festivals are usually set up to show off the talents of contemporary artists and the rising stars of tomorrow.  But, rarely do you see one that focuses entirely on the past.  Located right in the center of Hollywood itself, the Turner Classic Movies channel (TCM) is currently showcasing it’s 5th annual Classic Film Festival.  The festival is held every year in April and it features presentations of some of cinema’s greatest classics on the big screen, along with special appearances from a few Hollywood legends.  It’s a special treat for anyone living in the Los Angeles area, including myself, and I made an effort this year to have the full experience in order to share my thoughts with you, my readers.  First of all, I should say that one of the best things about this film festival is that it’s very easy for anyone to experience.  Unlike other prestigious industry film festivals, this one is more friendly to the casual viewer and for only $20 a ticket ($10 with a student ID), you have a good chance of getting into one of the many screenings.  Priority seating does go to people who have purchased the full festival passes, which run between $250 to $1500, but there is always a standby line outside the theater for everyone else, and usually those waiting in line do get in.  Suffice to say, this is what I did, and it was still worth the $20 a ticket price every time.  I managed to fit in three screenings throughout the day and the best part is that every experience was unique.
Since the festival is sponsored by the TCM, it’s not surprising that the faces of the channel were there in attendance as well.  Hosts Robert Osbourne and Ben Mankiewicz were on hand to introduce the movies throughout the day, as well as to conduct pre-screening interviews with the many special guests in attendance.  Also making appearances at the festival were film critics like Time Magazine’s Richard Corliss and Leonard Maltin, among others, who were also there to conduct interviews with the special guests.  All together, the presences of the hosts and guests is what sets this festival apart from others.  Not only are you getting to see classic movies on the big screen once again, but you also get the opportunity to see some of the people involved in their making up close and in person, sharing their own experiences.  Some of the most noteworthy people in attendance at this year’s festival have been Quincy Jones, Mel Brooks, Richard Dreyfuss, Jerry Lewis, and Maureen O’Hara.  A couple years ago, I managed to get into a screening of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) with Kirk Douglas himself at the theater, which was remarkable and shows just how special an event like this can be, because it lets us the audience see many of these great legends of cinema before they are all gone.  This year was no different, and what follows is a breakdown of my day at the festival.
The day started for me right at the heart of the festival at what is pretty much the world’s most famous movie theater, the iconic Chinese Theater.  Built in 1927, and home to some of the most famous world premieres in Hollywood’s history, the theater is like a living museum and it still has the ability to wow newcomers all these years later.  With a film festival happening this week, along with the sunny California weather, foot traffic was pretty heavy this weekend on Hollywood Boulevard, so getting to the theater was a hassle at times.  My first screening took place in the Chinese at it was the classic Vincente Minnelli musical Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).  It was a movie that I hadn’t seen before (odd, right?) and I was determined this year to watch films that were new to me, so this one seemed like a logical choice.  Plus, it allowed me to experience the Chinese Theater once again, which has gone through a full remodel in the last year, changing the old theater into a modern, stadium seating IMAX venue.  The remodel was beautifully done, and still manages to keep the original integrity of the theater’s ornate artistry; including the stunning ceiling centerpiece.
Below the impressively giant screen was a small stage platform set up for the pre-screening interview.  Richard Corliss of Time Magazine walked out to greet us before the movie began and gave us a brief overview of the film’s production and legacy.  After his short introduction, he welcomed to the stage actress Margaret O’Brien, who played one of the key roles in the movie.  Margaret was a perfect choice of guest for this screening, because of her own on set experience, and she had a wealth of stories to tell, which is remarkable given that the movie is celebrating it’s 70th anniversary this year, and she was only a little girl when she was making it.  She talked about performing alongside the legendary Judy Garland, working with Vincente Minnelli, and how they managed to make her cry believably on film.  The interview was short, but nonetheless very worthwhile, and it certainly opened up our eyes in the audience to things we probably wouldn’t have noticed before, had we not heard it from Margaret O’Brien beforehand.  I particularly liked this interview portion, because she explained very well the experience of being a child actor in that era, and she shared her memories very well, including the knowledge that she acted alongside the late Mickey Rooney recently on what will be his last film.  The movie itself was fine enough for a first viewing (not much of a musical fan here), but it was a good start to the day.
In the lobby of the Chinese Theater was a special treat for film buffs.  Enclosed in glass displays were some original costumes loaned out from various studio archives.  One of the most popular was Dorothy’s blue dress from The Wizard of Oz (1939), which readily had a line in front of it for pictures after the screening was over.  I, of course, didn’t waste the opportunity either.  It was a great added treat for film buffs like me.  Elsewhere in the lobby, I also found a dress worn by Julie Andrews in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), the famous curtains dress Vivian Leigh wore in Gone With the Wind (1939) (which made me instantly think of the gag version Carol Burnett wore on her show), as well as some new costumes from the movie Noah (2014), which is still in theaters.  Displays like these were very welcome, but sadly not very extensive.  I would’ve loved to have seen a full gallery display somewhere at the festival for film memorabilia of all kinds, but I guess with an event being as busy as this was, it was about as good as they could do.  Still, a worthwhile thing to add to the overall experience.
Of course, I still had a lot to fit in on this day, so I quickly made my way to the next screening.  This one took me to the TCL Chinese 6 Theater, which is a brand new multiplex built adjacent to the legendary Chinese Theater and continues it’s same theme, but with some modern flourish.  The Chinese 6 was built as part of the whole Hollywood & Highland development that included the new home of the Academy Awards, the Dolby Theater, which is literally right next door to this venue.  Of the six screens in the multiplex, three were given over to the film festival for some of the screenings of the smaller and more obscure films of the festival.  But, even with the smaller venue, the screenings were still treated with the same respect as the ones in the bigger theaters.  The screening I caught here was for another film I had yet to see; Peter Bogdanovich’s Oscar-winning film Paper Moon (1973).  Like some of the other screening’s, we were promised a pre-show interview, but unfortunately this time, our special guest was a no-show; that being the film’s star Ryan O’Neal.  The volunteer staff did a good job letting us know ahead of time that Mr. O’Neal had canceled at the last minute, which does happen.  Ben Mankiewicz also filled us in on the situation during his introduction, and he mentioned that he was crossing his fingers that the same thing wouldn’t happen before his big interview with Jerry Lewis before the The Nutty Professor (1963) screening the next day.  Even without the special guest, it was still a nice experience seeing a classic film on the big screen for the first time, which is how it should always happen.
Once night fell, I got in line for my final screening which was going to be for Blazing Saddles (1974), with the legendary Mel Brooks in attendance.  As a Mel Brooks fan, suffice to say, this was a screening that I was definitely looking forward to.  Unfortunately, I experienced my first sell-out of the festival here.  There weren’t enough seats left to fill with people waiting in the standby line, even with the huge venue that is the Chinese Theater.  The volunteer staff recommended that we check out some of the other screenings still going on at other venues, which would start over the next hour.  After checking my schedule, I noticed that the Egyptian Theater down the road was screening the classic Michael Caine film The Italian Job (1969), with composer Quincy Jones in attendance.  Luckily, since it was after 9 pm, there was less sidewalk traffic, so I was able to cover the half-mile between the Chinese and the Egyptian in no time, and this screening proved to be a great alternative for the night.  First of all, I had never been in the Egyptian up until now, so this was going to be something new for me, even if it was to see a movie that I had watched before.  The Egyptian Theater also has it’s own storied history; it’s older than the Chinese Theater, having opened in 1922, for one thing.  The theater also experienced a dramatic renovation as well, albeit removing much of the original ornate decorations in favor of a more sterile, modern look.
The highlight of the screening, however, was the pre-show interview with Mr. Quincy Jones.  Ben Mankiewicz had the honors of conducting the Q & A, and it was very apparent that he was speaking to someone that he very much admired.  Before the interview began, Ben introduced a special career retrospective video that played on the big screen, which beautifully laid out all the contributions that Quincy has made to both the film and music industry.  Quincy Jones was brought up on stage next and the interview went into the man’s own experiences working in all facets of the entertainment industry, as well as working on a film score like the one he did for The Italian Job.  Let me tell you, this man has some great stories; the interview could have gone on for hours and the whole audience would’ve still been captivated.  The interview was so good, that the movie itself would’ve been a letdown if it wasn’t also a good movie.  Ben Mankiewicz was also very drawn in, and he even said he wanted to go overtime a bit because he was loving Quincy’s stories so much, especially the one’s about his friendship with Frank Sinatra.  Once the interview portion was over, Quincy Jones walked off stage and actually stayed to watch the movie, which some of the special guests rarely do, especially this late at night.  I was excited because he took his seat only two rows ahead of where I sat, and let me tell you, he was enjoying the movie experience just as well as the rest of us.  It’s special perks like that which makes this kind of film festival special and it helped to make up for missing out on seeing Mel Brooks at that Blazing Saddles showing.
Overall, these were my experiences at the TCM Classic Film Festival this year, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  For one thing, you’re watching all these classic movies in the very heart of Hollywood culture itself; at places where many of these movies had their world premieres many years ago.  Secondly, you get the chance to take in a lot of film history, either by seeing a movie in one of the legendary theaters, or by attending a screening with one of the special guests in attendance.  Even with all that I was able to see at the festival this year, there were still many other events that I wasn’t able to get into; and ones I couldn’t get in at all because they were exclusive to premium pass holders.  Some of the other events taking place at this year’s festival were a special presentation at the Chinese Theater commemorating a new postage stamp in honor of actor Charlton Heston, with his son Fraser in attendance.  There was also a special tribute held for recently deceased actor Mickey Rooney, as well as special one on one interviews held at a special area called Club TCM, located in the legendary Roosevelt Hotel, across the street from the Chinese Theater.  Other venues like the Montalban Theater and the El Capitan also have featured screenings as part of the festival, which helps to give this event a very wide spread variety of things to do.
This was my third year of attending the festival and the first time I’ve ever fit in more than one screening.  Like I mentioned before, the first time I came to this was for the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea showing with Kirk Douglas in attendance (he was 95 years old at the time).  The second year I caught a screening of Mel Brook’s The Twelve Chairs (1970), which Mr. Brooks was also present; which made my sell-out the other night not as painful as it could have been.  This year was another excellent year for the festival and I hope that it continues to stay popular for years to come.  It’s especially worthwhile for anyone who’s a fan of classic movies and would wish to see many of the people involved in the making of these films before they are long gone.  Hopefully in the future I will be able to afford one of the premium passes available, so that I can get better access to all the different events and see more of the movies.  The festival is still going on now through Saturday and Sunday, and it will return the following April with a whole new line-up of films and honored guests.  If you live in the LA area, and like classic movies, I strongly suggest you make your way to Hollywood now and enjoy this special gift to classic movie fan-dom.

The Gospel According to Mel – “The Passion” Ten Years Later and Bringing Scripture to the Big Screen


Often we see a renowned filmmaker and/or a movie star step off the pedestal that the entertainment business has set them upon in order to make something that not only is risky, but could also jeopardize all the goodwill that they have earned in their career.  I put together a top ten list of these kinds of “passion projects” before, but one that certainly has left an impact over the last decade, on both the industry and on it’s creator, is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004).  This year marks the 10th anniversary of this controversial film, which may be a milestone of celebration to some and a dark chapter for others who wish to forget.  No matter what your opinion is on the movie, you cannot deny that it is one of the most monumental films of the new century, and it’s legacy will probably be felt for a long time to come.  But, for the most part, that legacy centers more around the controversy surrounding it and less about how it stands as cinematic art.  No doubt Mel Gibson himself has been unable to shake away from the legacy of this film, and all the divisiveness surrounding it; and for better or worse, it will be the movie that defines his career in Hollywood.  Looking at the ten years since The Passion’s debut, we have learned a lot about how difficult it is to take holy texts and bring them to the big screen.  Did Mel Gibson’s film prove that biblical stories can indeed work in movie form, or did it show that it’s better to keep religion out of entertainment?
In order to understand why Mel Gibson would risk his reputation over a single movie, you have to understand the conditions that led up to it’s production.  Long before The Passion, Mel tried to segway his acting career into directing, starting off with 1993’s The Man Without a Face.  This was a modest production that earned Mr. Gibson some good praise, but considering that Mel was mentored in his early career by visionary and ambitious Australian directors like George Miller (The Road Warrior) and Peter Weir (Gallipoli), he had something much more epic in mind.  Naturally, his follow-up was the groundbreaking Braveheart (1995), which earned Gibson Oscars for both Best Picture and Best Director.  After Braveheart, Mel returned to acting regularly, until the early 2000’s, when he decided to bring a story near and dear to his heart to the big screen; the story of Christ’s crucifixion.  Raised in a ultra-traditionalist Catholic household, it was no surprise that Mel would look to scripture for inspiration, and while nobody doubted that he could pull it off cinematically, concerns about whether or not he should soon arose.  It wasn’t until the script was made public that the controversy around the film started, given that people interpreted it as anti-Semitic.  Mel’s project was dropped from all interested parties as a result and he ended up funding the project with his own money.  The movie eventually made it to theaters, and despite all the controversy, or perhaps because of it, The Passion of the Christ became a box office phenomenon, earning $83 million on opening weekend and $370 million overall.
Despite what Mel intended for the film, it’s aftermath took on a life of it’s own.  It became a focal point in what many people call the “culture war” in America, which in turn took the whole controversy surrounding the film and politicized it.  The “culture war” is basically a term created by news media to frame political arguments related to pop culture, and show a cultural divide between the left and the right in America whether there is one or not.  Given that The Passion was released in 2004, which was also an election year, the movie became sort of a rallying point for both political camps, with Christian conservatives seeing the movie as a powerful affirmation of their beliefs, while liberals were almost universally opposed to the movie, calling it religious propaganda.  There were people who did break ranks from ideology and judged the film on it’s own merits; Christianity Today, a faith-based publication, was sharply critical of the movie when it premiered, while left-wing film critics Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper both gave the movie two thumbs up, and stood by their reviews many years later.  Nevertheless, reactions to The Passion divided America, probably more so than it should have.  It became a political tool, which I believe is something that Mel never wanted it to be.  Though Mr. Gibson leans to the right politically, he’s never been exactly been a dyed-in-the-wool Republican icon; and for the most part, he’s been sharply critical of all political parties his whole career.  The movie becoming a lightning rod for this so-called “culture war” is probably the legacy that Mr. Gibson wishes the film had avoided.
But, regardless of intent, Mel Gibson had to have known that the movie was going to upset people no matter what.  This is the risk that comes with adapting scripture to film.  There always are skeptics out there who will dismiss biblical stories as nonsense, as well as others who take every word as, well gospel.  Naturally, if you make an earnest attempt at bringing the film to the big screen, it will be scrutinized, especially if it strays from expectations.  You see this in other modern attempts at adapting stories from the Bible.  Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was sharply criticized by people of faith for it’s depiction of a “what if” scenario where Jesus chose life instead of sacrifice.  In the movie, Christ still dies for man-kind’s sins like he does in the Bible, but Scorsese let’s the film explore the idea of how Jesus might of struggled with that choice.  Opening up that dialog proved to be to much for traditionalist Christians, who condemned the movie as blasphemous.  A similar controversy is brewing right now over Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014), with Christians once again attacking a film over it’s revisions.  But despite all of the controversies, I believe that each of these films have more in common than people think.  Again, I believe that it’s all the nonsense about a “culture war” that has shaped the divided responses to these movies.  Overall, they each represent an expression of faith on the part of their respective filmmakers, and each shows how the cinematic medium can find stories that are interesting and complex in a source as widely familiar as the Bible.
You may be wondering what I actually think of Mel Gibson’s The Passion, especially looking back on it now over ten years.  To put it simply, it’s an easy film for me to respect than to admire.  I do think that it is a triumph of film-making; showing Mel Gibson’s unparalleled talent as a director.  I am amazed that the movie was self funded and completed on just a $30 million dollar budget.  It was released around the same time as big-budget epics like 2004’s Troy and Alexander, and yet feels more authentic to it’s time period than those two ever did, even with their $200 million plus budgets.  The film is also gorgeously crafted, and shot by one of the world’s greatest cinematographers, Caleb Deschanel.  Actor Jim Cavizel shines in the role of Jesus, bringing new meaning to the phrase “suffering for his art.”  Where the film is at fault though is in it’s story.  I know it’s odd for me to critique the “greaest story ever told,” but my problem has more to do with Mel’s interpretation.  Like Mr. Gibson, I was raised Catholic (albeit in a less traditionalist church), so I know all the important points of the story by heart.  Where the movie loses me is in how it’s all focused.  Mel just lets the events of Christ’s crucifixion play out without grounding it in a narrative.  Pretty much the story just goes through the paces, indulging more in the grim details than explaining exactly why they are happening.  This leads to a lack of character development that sadly makes most of the supporting players feel less interesting.  The only standouts in terms of character are Cavizel’s Jesus, actress Maia Morgenstern’s outstanding portrayal of the virgin mother Mary, and a chilling interpretation of Satan by Italian actress Rosalinda Celentano, who taunts Christ by taking the form of a mother figure.
I do remember seeing the movie with family back when it first premiered, as well as the hours long conversation we had about it afterwards.  While we were moved by the movie, I don’t think it had any kind of effect on our religious beliefs.  To be honest, I’ve moved further away from the Catholic church in the years since, but not as a result of this movie.  I still respect the risk Mel took to make it, and I’m glad the movie exists.  As far as the anti-Semitic undertones that people claim the movie promotes, I have a hard time seeing them.  Sure, there are people who see the depictions of the Hebrew high priests in the movie as problematic, but to me the priests depicted in the film are so far removed from modern day Jews that I don’t even see the two as even remotely comparable.  Not only that, but the movie does go out of it’s way to portray the Roman guards as the true villains in Christ’s story.  If there is any criticism that’s leveled against the film that has any merit, it’s in the way the Gibson indulges in the suffering of Jesus in his final hours.  The movie shows you every cut, gouge, and impaling that is inflicted onto Jesus during his execution, and it literally is the focus of the entire movie.  It could be argued that Mel is obsessed with portraying suffering and torture on film in gruesome detail, much like he did with the ending of Braveheart, and that this misses the point of Christ’s teachings in the first place.  While I don’t think Mel intentionally misinterpreted Biblical passages in order to indulge his own cinematic passions, the film nevertheless is defined more by it’s gruesome elements than by it’s uplifting message.
In the ten years since, people have been trying to interpret exactly what was meant by Mel Gibson’s film, and what it means for the future of scriptural film-making.  Unfortunately, Mel’s personal life problems have clouded the reputation of the film, and Mel’s drunken rants have given weight to the claims of antisemitism.  Because of the sharply divided responses from people due to the ongoing “culture war,” faith-based films have once again been marginalized into a niche market; choosing to preach to the faithful rather than have their movies appeal to all audiences.  The recent success of the Christian film God is Not Dead (2014) is something that I see as being a negative result of the “culture war” division, because it portrays a “straw-man” argument that all Christians are morally right and that atheists are using education to corrupt people.  The same argument can be made on the other side, when Hollywood adapted The Golden Compass (2007) to the big screen, which itself was a atheistic fantasy story that portrayed religion as an evil force.  Religious films are best when they don’t insult the intelligence of the viewer and actually challenges their beliefs, no matter what their faith is.  Back in the Golden Age of cinema, Hollywood found a way to make movies that faithfully adapted scripture, while still maintaining a sense of entertainment.  Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) has stood the test of time because people of all faiths enjoy the spectacle that DeMille put into his production, while William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959) is still beloved because of it’s universal story of adversity against hatred.  Like these films have shown, Biblical stories can work in cinema if one knows how to reach their audience correctly.
So, while Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ may have taken on a life of it’s own beyond what the filmmaker intended, it nevertheless is still one of the most monumental films in recent memory.  You bring this movie up in conversation and even 10 years later this movie will still stir up passionate feelings in people.  While Mel has his own moral issues to deal with, I don’t believe that he created this movie out of a need to condemn, but rather to explore his own feelings about his faith.  I think he felt like there was a lack of worthwhile religious themed films out there and he sought to fill that gap in some way.  I think the movie stands up over time, especially compared to the lackluster, church-funded movies that have come in it’s wake.  It’s not the best faith-based movie I’ve seen, and certainly not one of Mel Gibson’s best either; I still look at Braveheart as his masterpiece, and his Passion follow-up Apocalypto (2006) is an underrated gem.  Even still, the best legacy this film could have made is that it sparked a renewed interest in making unique and personal Biblical films once again, which cinema has been severely lacking in.  It took a while, but Aronofsky’s Noah seems to be that film the first film since The Passion to actually make good on that promise, though of course time will tell if it lasts.  As for The Passion of the Christ, as flawed as it may be, it nevertheless changed the way Biblical movies are seen in our modern culture and showed that taking a big risk has it’s rewards in Hollywood; a legacy that I think serves the movie well over time.