Transformers: Age of Extinction – Review


Michael Bay is a difficult filmmaker to explain. His films are notable for being loud, bombastic, and sometimes very aggressively crass.  What is even more peculiar is the fact that his film career has been a very successful one, even with all the criticism his films have received.  He’s just been surprisingly good at making a lot of money.  And does he deserve it all?  While I can’t say that I particularly like his style of film making, I can’t deny that the man does have some talent behind the camera.  In fact, you could say that Mr. Bay has a style all his own, and that’s something that’s hard to come by in an industry as homogenous as Hollywood.  The only problem is that he has seemed to have wasted that same talent on what could be usually referred to as trash.   I don’t know if he chooses the films he makes through artistic motives or economic ones, because most of his recent work makes me think that he just doesn’t care what he does.  He’s shamelessly cashing in and relishing it at the same time.   His filmography has turned into the cinematic equivalent of fast food, and himself being it’s Ronald McDonald.  But even though Bay’s films are nothing but excuses for the director to indulge his cinematic excesses, every now and then he has managed to churn out something  special.   I for one really enjoy one of his earliest action thrillers called The Rock (1996), and his surprisingly smart 2005 thriller The Island.   Unfotunately, if there are films that do not fit into that quality category, it would be his series of Transformers films.

When the first Transformers was released back in 2007, it became a surprise hit and launched what would eventually be one of the biggest moneymaking franchises in movie history.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that the films are any good.  Based off of the popular toy line and 1980’s animated series of the same name, Transformers was basically a dumb but entertaining movie that was certainly geared towards being a crowd-pleaser.  And honestly, to bring a story of giant, transforming robots to the big screen proved to be a perfect match for someone of Michael Bay’s talents. The storyline of the first film may not have retained the charming cheese of the earlier animated series, but it did deliver in the visuals, delivering some really impressive CGI effects along the way.  Unfortunately, it seemed like Michael Bay’s ego took over in the follow-ups in the series, and the resulting films were an absolute mess.  The second film was rightly derided for its lack of story and for it’s indulgences into sex appeal (particularly when it came to female lead Megan Fox) and racial stereo-typing.   The third film tried to make up for the faults of the second, and the result was a movie that just felt like a bland retread of the first two.   This slow devolution of the Transformers series represents a strong example of a franchise becoming the victim of its own success, and it’s a decline that really only seems to affect those of us who wanted to see more out of this franchise.  Fans of the original series don’t even seem to recognize their beloved characters anymore, because Bay’s films have become something else entirely.  Casual fans, however, seem to still be eating this stuff up, which is beyond me.

Now, after two critically derided films, we get the fourth installment of the series; Transformers: Age of Extinction.  To Michael Bay’s credit, he has chosen this opportunity to shake things up a bit, possibly in order to bring some new focus into the series.  Gone is former male lead Shia LaBeouf, who himself had become something of a joke in the series, along with pretty much every other recurring cast member.  This is a good thing, in a way, because it puts more focus on the characters who should be the main characters, that being the Transformers themselves. Unfortunately, the new movie still puts way too much focus on it’s less interesting human cast.  Thankfully, the balance between the two is much less of a problem.   Overall, Age of Extinction is a step up from it’s predecessors, but not much of one. It works best as a reboot than as a continuation of the overall story, although the movie keeps reminding you of the previous movies at different points, so it makes the attempt at a reset pointless.   And though it may have changed things up, it didn’t necessarily make the series any better; only a little less offensive.  We are still a long way from making Transformers anything more than just a dumb action franchise.

So, how does this film build upon it’s predecessors?  In the years following the events of the previous movie, both races of the Transformers (Autobots and Decepticons) have been hunted down and exterminated by humans in a genocidal revenge mission conducted by the CIA, led by their director, played by Kelsey Grammer, as a response to the carnage caused by the wars between the bots.   All remaining Transformers have gone into hiding, hoping that salvation will come their way.  Meanwhile in Texas, a barnyard inventor named Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) comes across a rundown truck that he believes to be a hidden Transformer.  When he awakens the dormant Autobot, he soon learns that he’s no ordinary Transformer, but Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) the Autobot leader.   Optimus helps Cade and his family escape the pursuing CIA task force, and rendezvous with his remaining crew, including the ever helpful Bumblebee.  Unfortunately for them, they soon learn that they are being hunted down by more than just the CIA.   A demented Transformer bounty hunter, named Lockdown (voiced by Mark Ryan) is also on their trail.   Working together, Cade and Optimus become more aware of the stakes they are faced with, especially when they learn of the destructive force that Grammer’s agent character is after, and the means to which Lockdown will go to claim his trophies.   What follows is a globe trotting adventure that takes the characters from the American heartland all the way to the cityscapes of China.

There isn’t much to the story as you can already tell.  It’s just a series of events strung together for the purpose of bringing us from one action set piece to another.   And there in lies the primary problem with this movie.  Like the other films before it, there’s no real drama.  The movie never gives us any real character depth and instead spends most of its time showcasing just how awesome it’s action scenes are.  When that’s all your movie amounts to, it feels really hollow as a result.  And given that this film runs at a very bloated 165 minutes, the action scenes become very tiresome after a while.  Also,  without the necessary character depth needed, we grow less interested in rooting for our main heroes, because there is little in them that we find interesting or redeeming.  I think, in this case, that’s more of the fault of the writer, Ehren Kruger, than Michael Bay’s.  He actually holds up his end by making the film look good, but that means little when the final script lacks anything worthwhile.   It’s been the fundamental flaw of the series since day one, and unfortunately this new film has only made baby steps in trying to improve it.

If there’s something that does work in the movie’s favor, it’s that it doesn’t give into some of the series more obnoxious pitfalls from the past.  Getting rid of Shia LaBeouf was a good move, as his character was never deserving of a central place in one movie, let alone three.  The character of Sam Whitwhicky, played by LaBeouf, is one of cinemas most insufferable douchebags, and the fact that more screen time was devoted to him than a more deserving character like Optimus Prime was a real insult to the legacy of the original series.  At least this time around,  Bay has given Optimus more of the spotlight to work with, and something resembling a character arc.  Also, a lot of the obnoxious comic relief is missing this time around, which is another benefit to this movie. There’s no annoying parent characters eating pot brownies; no Stepin Fetchit level racist stereotype Transformers; and no moments where we see the Transformers either defecating or letting their robot balls hang out.   That being said, the movie doesn’t really add much to this story either.  It’s sad to think that the most offensive elements of the series has also been what has defined it.  Take all that away, and the result is just another generic action flick.  What I would’ve liked to have seen is more of the Transformers universe explored in this movie; maybe even a film set entirely in another world other than our own.  But, then again, that approach probably would’ve alienated it from the general audiences that produced the big grosses for them in the past.  In that case, playing it safe may have been a poor decision on Michael Bay’s part.

Beyond the story, the remainder of the film is generally a mixed bag. Some of the film surprisingly works, but the rest is pretty much what is expected of the series.  One thing that I did like in this movie, surprisingly, was the lead actor.  Mark Wahlberg is a huge improvement over Shia, and he does make the most of a character that, again, is poorly written.  Wahlberg kind of has the same gift as Nicolas Cage, where he can be entertaining and have a presence on screen, even when the movie and character itself is terrible.  Another thing that I liked in this film was the collection of villains.  Kelsey Grammer, of all people, actually brings a lot of menace to the film with his performance; very far removed from his days on Frasier.  Lockdown is also a very effective villain here; far more intimidating than any other Transformer villain in the past.  And part of the reason why the villainous characters work in this movie is because they are restrained in their characterizations.   It’s a prime example where the movie benefits from a more subtle approach. Also, there are welcome additions to the Transformers team (voiced by the likes of John Goodman and Ken Watanabe) and they actually contribute to the story, rather than work as distractions.  Unfortunately, the human characters, apart from Wahlberg, are just as generic as ever.  The romantic couple (played by newcomers Nicolas Peltz and Jack Reynor) are particularly useless in this movie.  It’s putting the human story ahead of the Transformer’s one that makes this film feel like a chore.  Either Michael Bay is too stubborn to commit to a fully alien storyline, or he’s bound to a formula that he can’t escape from.  In any case, it derails any chance this film has at making any change for the good in this series.

So overall, regardless of all the hard work that has been done to change course in the series, the results are still just the same.  The best thing that I can say about the movie is that it at least tries to do things a little more subtly than the more excessive films in the series.  It’s not obscene or crude, but it’s not interesting either.   It’s the film that probably best represents the fact that this franchise is stretching itself thin, especially at almost 3 hours in length.   Will audiences go for it?  Probably.  It doesn’t do anything that will make its base group of fans suddenly reject it. It may even win a few people over with it’s more low key approach. As for me, I’ve never been a Transformer fan before, and this movie did nothing to change that.  At the same time, I do appreciate the fact that Michael Bay finally recognized that something needed to change in this series, and even if he made a half-assed attempt to change course, it was still aimed in the right direction.   I only wish he had committed more fully and make a true Transformers film.   We do still get ladies in short shorts and brief uses of gay and racial stereotypes, but to a smaller degree, so I guess that’s some kind of effort on his part.  And like many other mega-hit franchises, the movie does leave room for a sequel, so I’m sure Michael Bay will be returning to the world of the Transformers again for the fifth time.   Honestly, I wish Mr. Bay would consider handing the franchise over to others and get back to films that fit his style better; movies like The Rock.   For now, unfortunately, Transformers: Age of Extinction is another film that is less than meets the eye.

Rating:  5/10


Collecting Criterion – The 39 Steps (1935)

39 Steps

While the Criterion Collection is renowned for bringing to light obscure and forgotten cinematic works from across the world, they are also responsible for preserving some of the lesser known works of the great masters.  Legendary filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and John  Ford have become a part of the Criterion library, with deluxe editions of some of their earlier films like Spine # 516  Stagecoach (1939) and #538 Paths of Glory (1957).  While some of these may not be as obscure as other titles in the Collection, Criterion nevertheless honors these directors by giving worthy notice to a few of these films, showing just how important they are to the growth of cinema in general.  In recent years, Criterion has also been looking for even more prestigious films to include in it’s library, including some of the most beloved movies of all time.  Among their titles today are some Oscar-winners like Laurence Olivier’s 1948 Best Picture winner Hamlet (Spine #82) and Elia Kazan’s 1954 winner On the Waterfront (#647).   Not only does the inclusion of these beloved masterpieces give a special acknowledgement to the filmmakers within the Collection, but it also shows that Criterion celebrates the Golden Era of Hollywood just as much as they do the art house scene.  And one particular Hollywood master has been long celebrated as part of the Criterion Collection, all the way back to even the early years of the label.  That director of course is the “Master of Suspense;” Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock is widely considered to be one of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers, if not the greatest.  No other director was more consistent in Hollywood, while at the same time breaking new ground with every production.  Most of his films are legendary; Psycho (1960), North by Northwest (1959), Rear Window (1954), and The Birds (1963) just to name a few.   In fact, the British Film Institute, for the first time ever, named a Hitchcock film as the “greatest movie ever made,” that being 1958’s Vertigo; it took the honor away from Citizen Kane (1941), which held that spot for over 40 years.   While these popular movies are kept in the public eye by the studios that made them, Criterion has also contributed greatly to showcasing the works of Alfred Hitchcock.  At one point, the Criterion Collection had seven Hitchcock films in their library.  These included the movies made during Hitchcock’s first few years in Hollywood; 1940’s Oscar-winner Rebecca (#135), 1945’s Spellbound (#136) and 1946’s Notorious (#137).  These Criterion editions have unfortunately gone out of print, and have returned back to their original studios for new editions, but Criterion still maintains the licence to a few other Hitchcock titles.  These are mainly the ones that were released during the earliest part of his career, back when he was still cutting his teeth in the British film industry.  It’s interesting looking back at this period in Hitchcock’s career, as we see the beginning of some of the things that would become synonymous with Hitchcock’s later work.   And if there is one Criterion film that best illustrates the beginning of the Hitchcockian style, it would be 1935’s The 39 Steps (Spine #56).

The 39 Steps is probably the best known of Hitchcock’s British films, though it doesn’t quite receive the same recognition that his later flicks do.  But, even so, many of the director’s trademark elements are there, and in many ways 39 Steps helped to set the standard for all of those that followed.  In particular, it began the “wrong man” scenario that would become a popular theme in most of Hitchcock’s later films.  The story follows a young Canadian traveler Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat) who finds himself wrongly accused of murder when an undercover spy (Luccie Mannheim) is found dead in his flat.  In her possession is a map to Scotland, which he uses to track down the people responsible for the murder, while at the same time avoiding getting caught himself.   Upon investigating the clues along the way, he learns that the head of the spy ring responsible for killing the girl is missing the top joint of one of his fingers, and he also discovers something known only as “the 39 steps”.  He escapes capture on the Scottish Moors, after being recognized by a fellow traveler named Pamela (Madeline Carroll) who believes he’s the murderer.  He soon finds refuge in the home of a respectable Scottish scholar, Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) who is willing to hear Richard’s side of the story.  Richard makes his plea and feels safe in the Professor’s estate; that is until he discovers that the Professor has a missing joint on one of his fingers.  Richard, having learned the identity of the true murderer, soon finds himself on the run again, only this time determined to learn the secret of the “39 Steps” before Professor Jordan can stop him, and learn what it has to do with a vaudeville performer named “Mr. Memory.”

The 39 Steps (1935) is small in scale compared to some of Hitchcock’s other great works, but all of the pieces are still there.  In fact, this film helped to introduce many of Hitchcock’s most familiar trademarks.  Apart from the obvious “wrong man” scenario, which would become a favorite theme in Hitchcock’s later works like North by Northwest, this film also introduced the idea of the MacGuffin to the cinematic language.  A MacGuffin is a cinematic term, coined by Hitchcock himself, that refers to the thing that the main characters are searching for, but in the end turns out to be something inconsequential to the audience.  In other words, it’s the thing that drives the motivations of the plot; making the directive more important than the actual reward.   Hitchcock’s uses of a MacGuffin in a movie are pretty noteworthy and here it’s pretty much the focus of the entire film.  In the end, we learn what the 39 Steps is during the final scene, but that piece of information really amounts to very little.  What we remember is the heart-pounding search to find it, and that’s what Hitchcock is known best for.  He was the “Master of Suspense” for a reason, and this film clearly shows how he refined his cinematic voice around this trademark.  You can also see in this movie how the director was finding his style as well.  The film features stunning camera work, which helps to elevate the suspenseful nature of the movie very well.  The scenes in Scotland in particular have a nice gloomy feel to them.  But, it’s the use of close-ups and quick-editing where we see the Hitchcock of later years start to develop, and it’s clear to see how this same filmmaker would redefine Hollywood movie-making in the years to come.

Does the film hold up against it’s more famous descendants?  It’s hard to put this film in the same category as some of Hitchcock’s later classics.  After all, Hitchcock’s prime was really in the 1950’s, when he pretty much could do no wrong.  The Hitchcock of the 1930’s was still trying to figure things out and probably didn’t have the same kind of control over his vision that he soon would have.  At the same time, The 39 Steps is still a very effective movie, and still holds up as a great example of early suspenseful story-telling.  Robert Donat makes a fine leading man in the film, playing the determined and resourceful Hannay with a lot of charm.  He embodies that “every man” sensibility that Hitchcock always loved to put into his main characters, and he gives the character a believable intelligence throughout.  The writing also retains much of that classic British wit that Hitchcock’s films are known for, especially the earlier ones.  It’s clever, without being too complicated, and it treats it’s audience intelligently, never resorting to spelling things out for us.  Hitchcock’s macabre sense of humor is also present in the movie, albeit more subdued here than in many of his later films.  Also, the black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous, showing Hitchcock’s keen eye for composition.  If the film has a major flaw, it’s the fact that it feels small.  The film is relatively short at 86 minutes, compared to Hitchcock’s later films which ran on average around 2 hours.  While it does fill it’s run-time with plenty of story, it feels like more could have been built upon the mystery.  Instead, the majority of the movie gives us the typical man on the run scenario, which gets worn out by the 1 hour mark.  Thankfully, the film finishes strong with a very memorable climax.  It’s clear that Hitchcock was still trying to figure out the “wrong man” narrative here, and this film feels like a good test run for his later movies like North by Northwest.

Criterion, of course, treats all of it’s new titles with special care, and Hitchcock’s 39 Steps is no different.  Given that the movie is very old, it needed to be given a special restoration in order to bring out the best possible image quality.   The 39 Steps was selected as a Criterion title very early on, and was released on DVD way back in the late 90’s.  The image quality of the DVD release was passable, but nowhere near what the film should actually look like.  So, when Criterion prepared the film for a Blu-ray re-release in 2012, they gave the movie a proper high-definition restoration.  The results of Criterion’s efforts are astounding.  The film, naturally, hasn’t looked this good in years.  While still maintaining the grainy look of a film it’s age, the restoration has helped to boost the levels of sharpness and detail to the image.  Color contrast is always something to take into consideration when restoring a black-and-white film, and here the  gray levels contrasted with the blacks and whites feels a lot more natural and authentic.  The sound quality has also been cleaned up, and is now free of the pops and buzzes that usually plague an older soundtrack.   Is it the best possible picture and sound that we’ve seen from Criterion.  Unfortunately, the original film elements were unavailable to Criterion, due to the original negative being lost to time.  But, Criterion did the absolute best that they could here, and the film has thankfully been cleaned up and preserved digitally for all of us to enjoy.  Given that it’s Hitchcock, the standards are pretty high, and Criterion does the legacy proud here.

The Criterion edition also features a good sampling of bonus features, many of which were carried over from the original DVD.  First off, there is an Audio Commentary by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane.  Ms. Keane’s commentary is more of a lecture style analysis of the movie’s larger themes and the film’s lasting legacy.   This isn’t the kind of commentary track that you listen to for a breakdown of how and why the film got made, like so many director’s commentaries do.  This is more like the kind of analysis that you would hear in a college level film course, which is not bad if that’s something that interests you.  Marian Keane’s analysis is informative and well-researched.  Just be warned that it’s also very scholarly as well, and in no way substitutes for a behind-the-scenes look.   A documentary included on the disc does however go into the making of the film a little bit more.  Also carried over from the DVD is Hitchcock: The Early Years, which details the director’s early films made in his native England, including this one.  A complete radio dramatization is also present on this edition, created in 1937 for the Lux Radio Theatre show and starring Ida Lupino and Robert Montgomery in the roles of the main characters.   New features added exclusively for the blu-ray edition include footage from a 1966 interview with Hitchcock done for British television, where he talks a little about the making of this film.  Also, another Hitchcock scholar, Leonard Leff, recorded a visual essay, which goes into further detail of the film’s production.  Rounding out the special features is a gallery of original production design art, as well as an excerpt from another interview of Hitchcock, conducted by another filmmaker, Francois Truffaut.   All in all, a very nice set of features that makes this set feel very well-rounded.

If you consider yourself a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock, chances are you already are familiar with The 39 Steps and it’s place within the master’s entire filmography.  While it may not be as exciting as North by Northwest, or as chilling as Psycho, or as emotional as Vertigo, it nevertheless represents a nice stepping stone towards some of those later masterpieces.  I certainly look at it as a prime example of Hitchcock’s earliest work, because you can see all the elements there that would come to define his entire career.  It’s movies like The 39 Steps  that really illustrate perfectly the maturing of a filmmaker, and even though it doesn’t reach the heights that we know now that Hitchcock was capable of, it still stands on it’s own as a fine piece of entertainment.  I certainly recommend it for anyone who just wants to see a good old fashioned spy movie.  There were many others like it at the time, but few feel as effortless in it’s suspense as The 39 Steps does.  There are other Criterion editions of films made during Hitchcock’s early years, and they are worth checking out too, like 1938’s The Lady Vanishes (Spine #3) and 1940’s Foreign Correspondant (#696), which was the last film Hitchcock made before his move over to American cinema.  The 39 Steps unfortunately has been overlooked over the years as a defining film in Hitchcock’s career, so this Criterion edition is a welcomed spotlight for a movie that is deserving of it.  It’s always great to see where the beginnings of a great filmmakers style came from, and The 39 Steps is the kind of movie that shows that off perfectly.  Hitchcock holds an honored place in the Criterion Collection, and hopefully that spotlight will continue to extend to many more of the director’s great early films.

39 bluray

The Good Old West – Why Modern Revisionist Westerns are Failing

true grit

If there has been a literary and cinematic contribution to modern society that can be classified as distinctively American, it would be the Western.   Just as Shakespeare is to “merry Olde” England and anime art has been to Japan, the Western has become America’s most impactful addition to world culture, without ever loosing it’s national identity.  And like most other international contributions to popular culture, it has evolved over time; though still maintaining it’s genre characteristics.  No matter the setting or the circumstance, a Western will always involve characters exploring an untamed frontier and will usually center around a protagonist who is the very definition of a rugged individualist; more often than not, a gun-totting cowboy.  While the American West was naturally the setting for these stories over the years, the thematic elements of the genre don’t necessarily need to be tied to it.  The amazing thing about American Westerns is how much of an impact they’ve had on other forms of cultural art over the years; sometimes in unexpected places.  Akira Kurosawa for one drew a lot of inspiration from American Westerns when he made his Samurai films like Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961), both of which were then reimagined by Hollywood, becoming The Magnificent Seven (1960) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964) respectively.   But as society began to change in the later part of the 20th Century, so did the genre, and there became a need to reexamine what the American West was really about.  Thus, we got the era of the Revisionist Western, which has defined much of the genre for the last several decades.  But, with the recent failures of movies like Cowboys vs. Aliens (2011) and The Lone Ranger (2013), as well as this year’s A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014), is it possible that this era of revision is coming to an end?

The Western has become popular the world over, but what is it exactly about the genre that we like.  I think that it’s the idea of the frontier that we find so appealing.  It puts into perspective how little an impact we have individually in the world, thereby raising the tension when that same world tests you.  Because of this, the Western hero would be defined by very out-sized personalities, and this is probably why so many of them are still admired today.  When Westerns became a staple of the rising market of Hollywood, the actors and filmmakers responsible for making them likewise became larger than life figures in modern culture.  John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, and Jimmy Stewart; these men became the faces of the American West to the culture at large and they still embody the ideal of the rugged individualist today.  Likewise, whenever someone wants to recreate the image of the American West in a painting, a photograph, or a film, they will usually follow the visual eye of John Ford, Howard Hawkes, or Sergio Leone.  Orson Welles once said that he found his visual inspirations for his iconic Citizen Kane (1941) by watching John  Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) over and over again.   Because of these men, we have a definitive idea of what a Western is, and what it can be.  But, even the great masters weren’t tied down by the confines of their own genre either.  Of course, the Western is something that can be reinterpreted many times over, and filmmakers like Ford and Hawkes used their movies to tackle a variety of issues in society, including racism (The Searchers), paternal abuse (Red River), and civil rights (Cheyenne Autumn).   But, Westerns would go through a whole new phase once people who grew up on them began to turn their own eyes on the genre.

The 1960’s marked the beginning of the counter-culture movement, which changed the outlook on all American culture in general.  The Western was reexamined during this time, and many new filmmakers saw the glorification of the American West in these films as a bad thing.  To many of them, the rugged individualist embodied by actors like John Wayne represented a view of America that was looking backwards and was impervious to change.  The plight of the American Indian became a popular theme in this time and many modern filmmakers wanted to highlight that untapped perspective in their movies.  One film in particular that explored this idea was Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970), which starred Dustin Hoffman as a white man raised by an Indian tribe in the old West.  The film is a very interesting reversal of the conventions of the Western, where the native people are the main heroes, and the cowboys are the villains.  While the movie still focuses on a white protagonist, it nevertheless puts emphasis on the Native American people that few films had done up to that point, and it was a revision that was very welcomed in-deed  at the time.  If you haven’t seen it yet, do so.  It’s a very interesting and surprisingly funny movie at times, and it treats the Native American characters humanely, while at the same time making them flawed and complex as individuals.  What Little Big Man also represented was a shift in the genre that would go on to define the Western for many years to come.  Suddenly, revision became the popular form of telling a Western story, though if you look at each film individually, you can still see the inspirations of past masters at work in these films.

The most popular kind of revisionist Westerns at this time were also the bloodiest.  Sam Peckinpah took the Western to a whole other level of brutality when he created his classic The Wild Bunch (1969).  This film resonated with audiences because it seemed to reflect more accurately how the world really was.  In The Wild Bunch, there are no clear winners or losers.  There was no nobility in the rugged individual in this movie; everyone was a dirty, rotten scoundrel.  In this film, moral relativity defined who we were rooting for, since all the characters were flawed in some way.  And with a bloody shootout at the very end that puts all other shootouts to shame, we saw a reflection of the true brutality of violence in the old West.  The fact that this movie came out during the height of the Vietnam War was no accident.  Peckinpah wanted audiences to see how brutal gun-fighting is and show that the gun-ho attitude that the American soldier picked up on after watching the Westerns of the past was probably not the best thing to bring into battle.  Other negative aspects of the old West were also reexamined during these heyday years of the Revisionist Western, and that included the awful history of racism in the old West.  This was the focal point of Mel Brook’s classic Western comedy Blazing Saddles (1974).  Blazing Saddles manages to effectively breakdown the issue of racism in a Western by exploiting the Hell out of it.  No other film mocks the conventions of the Western more effectively than Saddles, and it is still one of the funniest movies ever made.  And while these movies attempt to break apart every traditional Western convention,  the still manage to hold up as an effective Western themselves, which shows just how resilient the genre is.

However, over time, even a revisionist view of the genre tends to lose steam after a while.  While this type of re-interpretation of the genre continued to define much of it’s output in the last few decades, even through the hands of one of it’s icons (Clint Eastwood and his Oscar-winning Unforgiven (1992)), there came a point where the Revisionist Western itself became commonplace.  I believe this started around the time Dances With Wolves (1990) came into theaters.  While Dances With Wolves was an enormously popular movie, and a winner of multiple Oscars, it has unfortunately lost some of it’s luster over time, mainly due to the fact that we’ve grown too accustomed to a movie of it’s type.  Kevin Costner’s film depicts the life of an American soldier sent out West to live among the Native American tribes of the Western plains.  The film, while still having it’s heart in the right place, today seems a little too heavy-handed in it’s messaging, and at times almost pandering to the Native American audience.  The noble white man character has unfortunately become one of the less effective elements of the Revisionist Western, and it’s mainly because it takes away from the voices of the actual native people themselves.  What started with Dances With Wolves has continued on through other films in the genre, and it’s made the Western more predictable and less exciting over the years.  I understand the inclination to show the plight of an oppressed people through the eyes of an outsider, but in the end, I only think the decision is made because Hollywood thinks that Middle American white audiences won’t accept a movie unless they see someone they can identify with in it, especially if they are also a bankable star.  But, more likely, a big problem with these movies is that they put message over story, and in the end, that’s something that will hurt a film, no matter what the genre.

For some time after Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven, the Western began to disappear from movie theaters.  This led to many filmmakers trying to revive the genre by trying to do different things.  This included mash-ups like Cowboys vs. Aliens, which put a sci-fi spin on the traditional Western aesthetic, as well as the mega-budget flops like Wild Wild West (1999) and The Lone Ranger (2013), both of which seemed to think that a lot of eye-candy would be enough to bring in audiences.  Instead, it only made more people weary of the genre.  What has surprisingly been the reason for these movies’ colossal failures has actually been audiences desires for authentic Westerns.  The traditional Western, even with all it’s flaws has become desirable again to many viewers.  This is reflected in the fact that the only Westerns that have been a success in recent memory are remakes of classic Westerns in the past.  This includes the Russell Crowe and Christian Bale headlined 3:10 to Yuma (2007), which was a remake of the Glenn Ford classic, as well as a remake of the John Wayne classic, 1969’s True Grit, made by the Coen Brothers in 2010.  Both films are traditionalist Westerns right down to their DNA, albeit with modern flourish.  But, what is surprising about these films is their incredible runs at the box office, both making well over $100 million domestic.  True Grit (2010) in fact is the highest grossing Coen Brother movie ever,  making more than all their previous movies combined.  Could this be the beginning of another reversal in the genre, or is it just a reflection of how well made these two remakes are?

I think that audiences indeed are beginning to re-embrace the traditional Western once again.  This is reflected again in the popularity of older Westerns, as well as the remakes that we see today.  John Ford’s The Searchers saw one of the biggest jumps ever in recognition by the  industry when AFI made an updated list of their Top 100 movies; moving from #96 to #12 in ten short years.  Other people are also claiming Western movies as among their favorites and even the most successful revisionist Westerns today are ones that still honor the traditions of the older classics.  I’m sure Quentin Tarantino’s true intention behind the making of Django Unchained (2012) was to make an exciting Western, and less so to do with it’s statement on slavery.  That’s something that all the great Westerns have done in the past; be entertaining.  When a movie becomes too concerned with rewriting the conventions of the genre (Wild Wild West), or tries to mock it without understanding what the punchline will be (Million Ways to Die in the West) it leaves audiences cold and more inclined to just return back to what they like in the first place.  As Mel Brooks has said before, “We mock the things we love,” which means that to make a good revisionist Western, you have to be a fan of it as well.  In many ways, deconstructing the Western genre is what has kept it alive all these years.  Even Revisionist takes are now considered defining representations of the genre, like Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).  Any revision that doesn’t respect the past is doomed to be forgotten, and unfortunately that’s what has defined most recent Westerns.  If anything, my hope is that the classics will endure and still give inspiration to aspiring filmmakers, so that the Westerns of the future will still keep the Spirit of the West alive.

Game Over – Why So Many Video Game Movies Fail

Super Mario Bros

Just as going to the cinemas has become a cherished pastime for many people over many generations, we are now seeing a whole new type of media beginning to take charge and become an even larger part of our everyday lives.  For forty years now, we’ve seen the rise of video games, from crude blocks of color on the TV to full blown blockbuster releases that even rival what’s coming out of Hollywood today.  It’s quite a eye-opener when you see the newest Grand Theft Auto title out-grossing every film released in the same year, but that’s what’s happening in our culture  today.  Of course, Hollywood has taken notice, and really they’ve been trying to figure out gaming culture since it’s very inception.   The only problem is that there is no easy way to translate a video game experience to the big screen.  When we watch a movie, we expect that the story will guide us to a conclusion, but when playing a video game, we’re the ones who guide the story.  Sure, there are narrative driven games, but many others are built around the randomness of our own choices, and that’s what makes them unique.  Now that game programming has become as sophisticated as it is, video games are starting to eclipse what film-making is capable of.   With this kind of popularity, it’s only natural that Hollywood would want to capitalize on it.  The only problem is that by doing so, they lose some of that unique experience that video games gives us.  Not surprisingly, most video game inspired movies have failed over the years and that is due to them either trying too hard to be like the original game, or trying too little, or being so removed from the original concept that it becomes something else entirely.

When looking at all the problems that video game movies have, it helps to see where things went wrong at the very beginning.  In the early years of video gaming, the titles that were coming out were very primitive.  It wasn’t until titles like Donkey Kong came into the market that you could see any semblance of narrative.  Naturally in these early years, Hollywood became more interested in the gaming culture than with the games themselves.  Back in those days, nobody thought that 3D graphics and online play would be a reality, so everything was more or less about getting the highest score.   The lack of foresight may have been a reason why Hollywood never jumped headlong into video game culture and as a result, they’ve seen game development become competitive with their own industry.  The 1980’s showcased some examples of this exploitation of the culture as we saw many films feature Arcades as popular hangouts.  One film in fact centered entirely on the Arcade subculture of the 80’s; 1989’s The Wizard, starring The Wonder Years’s Fred Savage.  The Wizard offers a interesting window into how the world perceived video games years ago, but it’s also firmly a product of it’s time as well, treating a video game contest no differently than any other over-coming the odds narrative back then; the game itself was irrelevant.  However, there was one film at the time that actually did explore the possibilities of the gaming world; Disney’s Tron (1982).  The film explored the idea that a video game could be fully interactive world inhabited by simulated people based on our own selves.  In other words, it’s depicting something like a MMO (massive multi-player online) game, resembling World of Warcraft, that we all know today.  Though limited by what it was capable of in it’s time, Tron has proved to be a very forward thinking film, and naturally something that groundbreaking ended up being a failure at the box-office.

When Hollywood began to take video games seriously is at the point when video games started to have characters and narratives that people gravitated towards.  The early 90’s brought us the early beginnings of video game franchises, with the likes of Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog being among the biggest names.  And while Hollywood was smart enough to jump on board and bring some of these popular characters to the big screen, they unfortunately didn’t know exactly how to do it.  When you look at the original Super Mario game, you can see how difficult it was to translate.  Basically it’s a red-suited man jumping into pipes and breaking blocks with his head; not much to draw from to make a 90-minute film.  When 1993’s Super Mario Bros. made it to the big screen, it was instantly slammed by both critics and fans of the game alike.  What ended up happening was that with no clear idea of how to adapt the Mario game accurately, the filmmakers just threw in every weird idea they could think of in the end, making the finished movie an incomprehensible mess.  Instead of the big-headed Goomba minions from the game, we get the large-body, small head Goomba guards who look more creepy than silly.  Not only that, but we also get actor Dennis Hopper looking all sorts of confused while playing King Koopa, as a sort of lizard-human hybrid.  The only thing the movie got right was the casting of Bob Hoskins as Mario, who does indeed look and act the part well.  But, what Super Mario Bros. represented most was a prime example of Hollywood not understanding what a video game was and how to make it work as a film.  This would be systemic of most the 90’s video game adaptations, and namely for most if not all adaptations thereafter.

The big problem with video game adaptations today is that it’s impossible to make something interactive feel the same in a non-interactive form.  For the most part, a video game translation ends up just feeling like a cut-scene that never ends.  For gamers, the narrative is there to move them from one level to the other, all with the goal of reaching the end and beating the game.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that the story is irrelevant.  In fact, most video games have very complex and involving story-lines, particularly those that have come out in the last decade or so.   The reason why video game movie narratives suffer is because of the limited run-time.  Movies are only allowed on average about two hours to tell their entire story, so if you try to take a video game story that takes 10 times that amount to unravel and condense it into a film narrative, you’re going to have to lose quite a bit in the process.  As a result, most video game adaptations lack character development and spend way too much time setting up it’s world.  A prime example of this would be Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001).  The Final Fantasy series is heralded by both gamers and casual fans for both it’s colorful characters and it’s complex story-lines.  But the reason why these games are so complex is because they take many hours to complete; sometimes 50 hours or more.  If you take 50-plus hours of development and try to condense that same kind of complexity into a two-hour film, you’re going to get something that’s crushed tighter than bedrock.  That’s the fatal flaw of The Spirits Within, a film that’s so concerned with it’s world’s complexity (and being one of the first movies ever to utilize photo-realistic CG human characters), that it leaves everything else by the wayside, making the whole film feel very hollow, particularly with the characters.  While many of these films try to noblely translate beloved story-lines to the big screen, there’s just no possible way to contain it all.

Another problem is the fact that many video game movies try too hard to be just like the titles their trying to adapt.   This usually is evident in some of the film’s characterizations.  Video games can sometimes get away with generic and usually archetypal characters, because by playing the game, we are infusing ourselves into the story, so a blank-slate protagonists is usually a good thing.  When it comes to the movies, however, lack of character can pretty much sink a film.  This is especially painful when characters that people love in the games are translated so poorly by under-qualified actors.  The Mortal Kombat films in particular gives us the right look of the characters with no other depth beyond that.  That’s the unfortunate result we get from adapting something as simple as a fighting game.  There’s little character development to begin with, so if you take that directly to the big screen and do nothing to build upon that, you’re going to get very bland characters.   The same can be said for pretty much every other video game movie out there.  Also, another way that a video game adaptation can fail is by trying too hard is in capturing the look of the video game.  This is especially true of more recent video game movies.  With the advances in CGI over the years, simulated reality is becoming ever more convincing, and the lines between video game graphics and cinematic graphics is growing closer and closer.  Because of this, the limitations of film-making again come into play.  A video game lets the visuals unfold organically and lets the player examine it all at their own leisure.   A movie has to cut around and limit what the viewer sees.  That’s why video game movies that try to look so much like their predecessors, like 2005’s Doom and 2006’s Silent Hill suffer, because that interactive element is removed, making the viewer feel less involved.

Not that every video game adaptation has been a complete failure.  There have been exceptions over the years that have managed to make a dent at the box-office, even if it’s a minor accomplishment.  Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil series has been going strong for six films now; some of which people say are actually better than the more recent games in the wanning series.  Also succeeding is the Tomb Raider adaptations, both of which star Angelina Jolie as the popular archaeological adventurer, Lara Croft.   What I actually think is interesting about the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) is that it represents how to do a video game movie right.  While no masterpiece, the film is nevertheless competently made; finding a way to make Lara Croft work as a character on the big screen in a stand-alone film.  The movie doesn’t try to recreate the video game experience (how could it, with those Playstaion 1 graphics?), it merely translates the character’s personality into a narrative that can be told cinematically.  It doesn’t try to put the cart before the horse like so many other video game movies do, and let’s the character be the star rather than the world she lives in.   Naturally, because of this, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is one of the few films based off of a video that has been profitable.  Of course, it helps that the world it’s adapting is not particularly complex.  Sometimes a modest title is the best kind of game to adapt, which is probably why shoot-em-ups are popular adaptations today, like 2007’s Hitman  or a racing game turned movie like Need for Speed (2014).

Of course, sometimes the opposite comes true, when a filmmaker or studio takes something that can translate perfectly to the big screen and uses the completely wrong approach.  That was the case with the Disney produced Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010).  Prince of Persia was already a very cinematically infused game before this movie came out, so Disney should’ve had an easy time making it translate onto film.  Unfortunately with a miscast lead (Jake Gyllenhaal), a un-focused director (Mike Newell), and an out-of-control production budget (est. $200 million), the movie failed on every level and sullied not just the reputation of it’s creators, but it also sullied the Prince of Persia brand overall.  No game in the series has been released since, and probably never will, at least until the memory of the movie has gone away and the demand for the game returns.   At the same time, there are also people out there who only adapt video games as a way of exploiting them.  Sometimes it’s as harmless as an up-and-comer who wants to showcase what they can do by taking a little known video game title and putting their own spin on it.  And then, you have someone like Uwe Boll, who’s whole career has been defined by cheap adaptations of video games like Bloodrayne (2006) and Alone in the Dark (2005).  The only reason he adapts video games, turns out, is because of a tax loophole in his native Germany that let’s him make more money off failed adaptations of licenced games.  So, not only is he getting rich off of bad movies, but he’s also trashing games that people have loved for many years, making it the worst kind of exploitation.  The wrong approach usually ends up being worse than a confused or bland adaptation, because in the end, it’s the original games that suffer and the legacy that they carry.

So, even with all the failure that have come in the past, will there ever be a video game movie that will actually become a huge hit.  I would like to see it happen, but it probably never will, because there are just too many fundamental differences in the way to keep it from ever happening.  For one thing, a movie can never capture the interactive experience that a video game presents.  And with more and more video games growing visually more complex, it’s clear that Hollywood filmmaking is starting to face some tough competition.  But, to the industry’s credit, they have found a way to embrace video game culture over the years, and make it a part of itself.  Many studios have their own software development departments and it’s very common to see tie-in video games released alongside major Hollywood releases.   Even still, Hollywood still hasn’t given up on trying to make a big-screen translation of a video game work.  Adaptations of Assassin’s Creed, World of Warcraft, and even Angry Birds are in the works, though I highly doubt any of these will feel exactly like the original games.  In reality, I think Hollywood is better off looking at what the games mean to us, rather than take a literal translation approach.  I strongly recommend films like Tron and Wreck-it Ralph (2012), both really fun movies that look at video games as a lived in world rather than as a form of diversion.  Also, I strongly recommend the documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2008) which brilliantly presents the impact video games have on our culture.  One day, Hollywood will figure out the formula and hopefully deliver a great video game adaptation someday.  I can tell you this; I’ve been waiting my whole life for that Legend of Zelda movie, and that wait is still going strong.