So here we go again, only this time, you’re not hearing my past experiences but rather what I’m seeing right here and now. I am once again at the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival in the heart of Hollywood, California. And as I am righting this, I am currently waiting in line for my first film of the day. The weather of course is ideal. And so far Hollywood Boulevard is relatively quiet. The festival itself has been going on for two days now, but because of work, I could only attend this Saturday. Unfortunately that mean missing out on some exciting events earlier in the festival. This year’s festival opened on a high point this year as Hollywood celebrated the 50th anniversary of the classic musical The Sound of Music (1965), with stars Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer in attendance. Other screenings that I would have loved to have seen were a screening of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) with a discussion with Keith Carridine and also a screening of Chaplin’s Limelight (1952) with 100 year old Norman Lloyd in attendance and Apollo 13 (1995) with Captain Jim Lovell.
As for today, I am choosing to open my day with a screening of John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975), with a discussion with Christopher Plummer. It’s a film that I have yet to see, so I’m looking forward to it, especially since it gives me another opportunity to see Mr. Plummer, a legendary actor in person. I will continue to update the rest of the day with my personal accounts, including pictures. Hope you all enjoy reading this. And now, showtime.
First show complete and already I’m glad I made it. The Egyptian Theater was packed this morning, but even waiting in the standby line I still managed to get a seat. The show was preceded by a short introduction by film critic and historian Leonard Maltin, who of course was there to discuss the film with the special guest, Christopher Plummer. Mr. Plummer arrived to thunderous applause as he walked up towards the screen and once seated, the interview began. Maltin of course touched upon some of Plummer’s extensive career, but the discussion quickly moved on to the film in question. Plummer discussed briefly how he prepared for the role of Rudyard Kipling, the author of the story on which the film is based, detailing how he formed the look as well as his vocal performance.
The conversation then turned to Plummer’s experience working with John Huston. Plummer of course found his experience working with the legendary director to be very rewarding, though Huston was also quite intimidating as he recalled. He offered a funny anecdote about a particular shot in the movie where a camel in the background was being a particular nuisance. But instead of accommodating Plummer’s concerns about the shot, Huston instead argued for the camel’s sake, saying that he had just as much a right to be in the picture as anyone else. Plummer also detailed his experiences with the film’s two leads, Michael Caine and Sean Connery, which was basically an account of a lot of off-set drinking.
Overall, the presentation was excellent, and Christopher Plummer was as great as you would expect. I can definitely tell you after seeing him in person that he looks great for someone with as many years behind him. Still very sharp and with a lot of energy, and he brings with him a fantastic set of life experiences that have in turn become some legendary stories. What I especially liked from his interview in fact were his impersonations of the people he worked with, specifically Connery and Huston. His John Huston impression was especially spot on. The movie itself was also a delight. Presented with an original 35mm print, I’m glad that I waited until now to watch this movie on the big screen. Connery and Caine are wonderful in the film, and Plummer adds some great scenes in his brief role. Well, the first movie is in the books. Now I’m headed across the famed Walk of Fame to my next show at the legendary Chinese Theater.
Over at the Chinese Theater, I managed to catch a whole different type of show from the first. In this case, a musical. The show in question was the 1972 film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical 1776. It’s a film that I have seen before in parts, but never from beginning to end, so this was a perfect place to finally catch the entire thing. The film has recently received a full 4K digital scan and the Chinese Theater’s IMAX projectors perfectly represented the glowing restoration that’s been put into the film. Though I believe the number of audience members was roughly the same as my first movie, the theater wasn’t quite as packed this time and I attribute that more to just the sheer size of the venue. Luckily, I was there early enough to get a good seat; about halfway down in the auditorium.
Like the first film, 1776 had a discussion beforehand with people involved in its making. Hosted by TCM’s own resident host Ben Mankiewicz, the special guests were the film’s director Peter Hunt as well as the actors who played the lead roles of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson; William Daniels and Ken Howard respectively. The three men recounted their experience working on both the film and the stage musical from which they were all carried over. Peter Hunt talked extensively about having to deal with edits to the movie that were ordered by the producer Jack Warner after then President Richard Nixon expressed displeasure at some of the film’s more political undertones. Thankfully, years later, the edits made it back into the film, which was the version we saw this afternoon. With Daniels and Howard, they detailed their experiences on the set as well as how this movie helped to launch their film careers. Mankiewicz even noted that Daniels has since had a long history with John Adams, even being a teacher on the show Boy Meets Worlds named after the founding father.
The whole show was excellent and the movie looks beautiful and holds up very well. Though I’m not a particularly strong fan of movie musicals, I do consider myself a history buff and this movie does an excellent job of presenting a historical event in an entertaining way. And also watching a movie made for the big screen, in all its Panavision glory, is a delight. So, two movies down and now it’s off to the next one. I tried to go from this screening into another one in the Chinese Theater, but the line was too long for me to get a standby seat. That show in case you’re wondering was a screening of The Apartment (1960) with special guest Shirley MacLaine. So, instead I’m watching a film in one of the smaller Chinese Cineplex behind the Dolby Theater (home of the Oscars). That movie is a lesser known film starring Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn called Viva Zapata (1952). Show’s starting soon, so I’ll be back.
The screening ofViva Zapata began with an introduction by actress Ileana Douglas who invited the special guest present for the film, Anthony Quinn’s widow Kathrine Quinn. Mrs. Quinn talked extensively about her life with Anthony and what he was like as a husband and a father to their children, proving to be a ball of energy even into his late 70’s and early 80’s. Her stories were especially entertaining and gave us a great picture of the man that Anthony Quinn was. The best stories however were the ones that related to the movie itself. According to Kathrine, Anthony and Marlon did not get along well on set, and that tension was something that director Elia Kazan milked for the benefit of each other’s performances. This kind of knowledge helped to give the audience a nice little insight into the methods of both actors, and it was kind of an extra delight to see both men messing around onscreen, knowing how much they hated each other.
The movie itself was one I haven’t seen and overall I thought it was okay. Brando’s attempt at a Mexican accent was a little distracting and it is far from his best work. Quinn on the other hand felt very natural in this film, and it’s easy to see why he won an Oscar for his work. For one thing, I can see why TCM chose this movie as part of this festival, given that it fits within the overall theme of “History On Film.” Still, the movie felt a little stale after the highly entertaining1776 andThe Man Who Would Be King. But it was still worthy of catching at this festival. So, now I have one last opportunity to watch a film tonight and right now I am in line to enter the Chinese Theater once again, this time for a screening of 1971’sThe French Connection with director William Friedkin in attendance.
Well, it’s been a long day, but the night has come to an end. The French Connection is a film that I have seen before, but never on the big screen. The presentation in the Chinese Theater was still a great experience and it was almost like watching it anew. It holds up very well, especially with Gene Hackman’s Oscar-winning performance and that legendary train sequence. After the film, actor Alec Baldwin was brought out to conduct the interview with director William Friedkin. Now while everything Mr. Friedkin said was fascinating, he could also go off on many tangents. The Q&A went for nearly an hour after the movie ended and it touched upon everything about the movie, Friedkin’s filmography, and his method of direction. It was easily the longest interview I witnessed today, but it was still enlightening nonetheless.
The end of the show concluded with audience questions and one question was even asked by Boyz in the Hood director John Singleton. His question was regarding the film’s unique sound design, which is naturally the kind of question one acclaimed filmmaker would ask of another filmmaker. Overall, a nice high point to end the night. I hope all of you enjoyed reading this live blog of mine. Pretty remarkable that this worked considering that I’ve had to write this thing on the fly and on my smart phone this entire time. I hope in the years to come I can do more than one day at this festival. There are so many other good movies to see and so little time. If any of my readers are in the Los Angeles area, this is a festival that I strongly recommend catching. There are still some shows playing tomorrow, which closes out the festival. Anyway, this has been a good day for a classic film fan like me.
The films and career of filmmaker Terry Gilliam are unlike anything else seen in Hollywood. Starting off as the animator and sixth member of the legendary comedy troupe Monty Python, Gilliam soon made the transition to acclaimed filmmaker, bringing along his strange and whimsical sensibilities with him in the process. Though his films are practically produced, it’s the content and stories that often set his work apart. Gilliam has a fondess for fantasy and science fiction; really, anything that delves away from the ordinary. Couple that with an absurdist and anti-authoritarian point of view, and you can easily see the common current of Gilliam’s filmography. That stong artistic style that has shaped Terry Gilliam’s film career has also made him a favorite from the Criterion company, earning some of his movies a coveted place in their collection. Although Gilliam’s filmography isn’t as extensively included in the collection as some other filmmakers, the ones that are present are certainly worthy of their placement. They also give you a sense of the director’s versatility, showcasing his ability to create modern social commentaries (Brazil, Spine #51) as well as pure fantasy adventures (Time Bandits, #37). For this article, I will be taking a look at one of Terry Gilliam’s later pieces of work; one that actually marks a departure for the director in some ways, while at the same time being an ideal presentation of his unique style. It’s his 1998 cult hit, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Spine #175). And if there were one title that has benefitted greatly from the Criterion treatment, this oddball masterpiece would certainly be it.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was adapted from the book of the same name by Hunter S. Thompson, one of the counter-culture movement’s most notorious and influential writers. The creator of what would in time be called “Gonzo Journalism,” Hunter Thompson’s style of writing has achieved legendary status. He was known for injecting his own bizarre experiences into his press pieces and for documenting the social, political, and cultural upheavals of the 60’s and 70’s with a sharp critical perspective. And one of his favorite subjects to write about was the rising drug culture in America, one in which he had very personal knowledge of. While not what you would call the most natural journalist, Thompson’s writings are fascinating nonetheless, and offer a very unique voice to an era in our history that represented significant change. That, and the fact that Thomspon was such a bizarre character have also contributed to his status as one of the great writers of the last half century. Certainly, his writings have garnered many fans over the years, including Terry Gilliam. The pairing of these two only seems natural, because Gilliam is really the only kind of filmmaker who could capture the hallucinatory nature of Thompson’s writing effectively. But, even with the way out there style of Thompson’s writing, Fear and Loathing is also strangely accessible and grounded, which is probably a result of Gilliam’s assured direction, which retains a very knowing sense of humor throughout. Strange how two oddball minds can come together and make a piece of art that is strangely coherent, but that’s what we end up with here.
The plot itself is more or less a series of vignettes showing Hunter Thompson stand-in, Raoul Duke (an almost unrecognizable Johnny Depp) taking a trip to Las Vegas to cover a cross-country motorcycle race in the deserts outside of Sin City. With his companion and agent, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) by his side, Duke takes in the Vegas experience while doing pretty much every drug known to man. And the different experiences are altogether trippy and hilarious in their absurdity, such as Duke envisioning the people in a casino bar as literal “lounge lizards” or both Duke and Gonzo getting high off of ether and having difficulty making their way through a Circus themed casino. Though not every moment is played for laughs, as the movie does address the downside of drug use as well. One scene involves Duke trying to talk Gonzo down from a bad trip as the dangerous addict lies in stupor in a full bathtub. Another heavily dramatic and tense scene also involves Gonzo threatening a diner waitress (played by Ellen Barkin) during a heavy late night romp. The purpose of all these stories was mainly for Hunter Thompson to document the slow burn that followed the idealism of the hippy generation, as America was slowly slipping into a post Vietnam and Watergate malaise that involved many more people turning to drug use to forget the pain of their lives. As Hunter Thompson put it, this was America’s “season of hell,” and he saw that brought out most clearly in the decadent and flashy city of Las Vegas. Though not an easy kind of story to put into a narrative, Gilliam still managed to make it work, and Fear and Loathing ends up being both an engaging set of scenes as well as an eye-opening social commentary.
The film itself had been in the works for many years, even long before Terry Gilliam was involved. The rights to Thompson’s book floated around Hollywood for two decades, with british director Alex Cox (of Sid and Nancy fame) attached to write and direct at one point. Parts of Cox’s script treatment still exist in the final version, but it is clear that the project was entirely crafted towards Gilliam’s own tastes. Though a long time in coming, the end result is a perfect display of Gilliam’s talents. Filmed in the wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio(a rarity for a Gilliam film), the movie is a beautiful trip into the bizarre mind of Hunter Thompson, capturing all the hallucinatory sights with perfect and often hilarious excess. It’s a great showcase for all of the tricks of the trade that Gilliam has at his disposal, like the consistent use of wide angle lenses to highlight his characters heightened states, or having the hallucinations come to life through puppetry and visual effects. Not only that, but the amazing cinematography by the DP, Nicola Pecorini, and the production design by Alex McDowell does a great job of capturing the sleaziness of Las Vegas in the 1970’s. You can just smell the booze and cigarette smoke that permeates every frame, and the movie makes a point to highlight the garishness of the casino and hotel rooms that these characters inhabit. Overall, Terry Gilliam proved to be the ideal person to bring Hunter Thompson’s writings to life, because only he could have the vision to make the bizarre feel so real.
In addition to Gilliam’s amazing visuals, we also are treated to great performances by the two leads. Johnny Depp showcases his abilities to disappear into a role perfectly here as Raoul Duke. Depp considers himself to this day an avid fan of Thompson’s work and the two men became well acquainted during the making of this film. Even though the character is named differently, there’s absolutely no doubt that Depp crafted his performance into an imitation of Thompson. His character work here is so spot on and is hilarious without ever being too cartoonish. I especially like the way that Depp never removes the cigarette holder in his mouth while he speaks, which becomes an indelible part of the character’s voice overall. This performance left such a mark on Johnny Depp that it wouldn’t surprise me if there are shades of Hunter Thompson in some of his later performances; I can even see just a tiny bit of it in Captain Jack Sparrow. Benicio del Toro also holds his own as Dr. Gonzo, a character that becomes a roller coaster of emotion throughout the entire film. Del Toro’s work here is especially engrossing because he shifts between being hilariously inept (like his inability to jump off a moving carousel in one scene) to being frighteningly menacing in other moments (the already mentioned diner scene). The movie works wonders when both actors share the spotlight because their chemistry is so strong. While Gilliam’s visuals take frequent flights of fancy, it’s these two that really help to ground the movie as a whole. Both of course would go on to bigger roles in the future, but even here they’re both at the top of their game. The movie also fills the cast with some great cameo appearances from many well known actors, like Tobey Maquire playing a hitchhiker or Gary Busey playing an intimidating state trooper, rounding out a strong cast of odd characters.
Criterion usually has to put a lot of work into their restorations, but in this case, the film already was given to them in a mostly printine state. Such is the case with movies made in the last several decades that make it into the Criterion Collection. That’s not to say that Criterion transferred the edition with a lazy effort. The movie was given the best possible visual treatment on blu-ray as always, capturing all the visual flourishes of Gilliam’s film the way they were intended to be seen. Gilliam’s movies in particular are defined by their distinctive color schemes, and Criterion thankfully makes those colors pop in high definition. In particular, the brownish hues of the nearly washed out desert scenes really retain a consistent quality to them, and they contrast perfectly with the darkly lit and almost sickly hued hotel scenes. The audio presentation is also strong, capturing the sometimes hallucinatory nature of the soundscape in this movie. Though not a sensory overload experience in the audio department, there is nevertheless a lot of creativity in the sound mix, which the blu-ray presentation perfectly presents. It helps when the filmmaker is readily available to approve the quality of these presentation, and of course the edition is marked with Terry Gilliam’s seal of approval. Again, not a revelatory audio and visual presentation by Criterion, given that the edition had to work with some already well preserved elements, but it does represent the solid efforts that they put into every title, whether old or new.
The supplements are pretty healthy as well for this edition. First of all, the artwork used on both the outer cover as well as in the insert booklet help to give this edition a lot of character on its own. Provided by artist Ralph Steadman, the artwork perfectly stylized the movie with often bizarre illustrations that perfectly compliment the film you are about to watch. The features themselves include no less than three commentary tracks; one from Terry Gilliam, another with Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro, and even one from Hunter Thompson himself. Deleted scenes are also included with commentary from Gilliam. Most are fascinating to watch, especially since they show different elements of the actor’s performances, but it’s clear why many of them were cut, which is explained well enough by Gilliam. Another fascinating feature is a collection of correspondence written by Thompson over the course of the film’s making, all read aloud by Johnny Depp. It’s a treat to listen to Depp add more to his performance as the character, but it also offers an interesting insight into Thompson’s own experience during the the making of the film. A couple of short documentaries are also included, called Hunter Goes to Hollywood and Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood, which delve deeper into the long development of this movie. Another documentary also comments on the controversy surrounding the final script, when it changed hands between Alex Cox and Gilliam. Other materials include an excerpt from Fear and Loathing’s audio CD, trailers, production stills, and rare materials about Oscar Zeta Acosta, the real life inspiration for Dr. Gonzo. Overall, a very packed edition for a movie deserving of such a treatment.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a great oddball film experience and I’m glad Criterion saw it worthy of their film library. It didn’t take long for the film to make it into the Collection (just five short years after its premiere) which goes to show just how strong an impact the movie has left on audiences. Though not a box office success when first released, the movie has amassed a strong cult following, one in which this Criterion edition is clearly aimed at pleasing. I for one enjoy this film immensely, mostly as a showcase for Terry Gilliam’s style and for the stand out performances of Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro. As far as Hunter Thompson goes, I don’t prescribe to his sense of nostalgia over the drug culture of 60’s and 70’s, but I do admire his unique style as a writer. He was a one of a kind character and a unique voice in American pop culture. After his unfortunate suicide in 2005, his legend has continued to grow and this film marked a great entry point for anyone looking to see what made him stand out so much. But, even apart from it’s connection to the legendary author, the movie still stands as a unique cinematic experience. Terry Gilliam is a welcome visionary in the Criterion Collection and it’s surprising that his work is not more widely represented; something that is going to be partially remedied when Criterion adds The Fisher King (1991, #764) later this year. But if you’re looking for a unique film that showcases the director’s talents well, then give this Criterion edition a look. But don’t stay too long. This is bat country.
If there’s one thing that Disney has managed to perfect over it’s long history, it’s being able to bring classic fairy tales to the big screen. Starting with their beloved first film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) all the way up to their recent megahit Frozen (2013), Disney Animation has proven time and again to be the go to people for traditional fairy tale entertainment. And it’s easy to see why. Fairy tales lend themselves perfectly to the animated medium, which perfectly renders all the flights of fantasy to its fullest potential without having to live by the rules of the real world. But, given the success of some of Disney’s films over the years, there also comes the pressure of having to top that success with something better. Walt Disney was strongly resistant to creating sequels to his movies, instead choosing to look ahead to the next project, which meant that most of Disney’s animated output was made up of one and done story lines, and not all of them were huge successes right away. It’s been a practice that Disney Animation has mostly stuck to long after Walt’s time, which has been beneficial for them since it’s allowed them to grow their stable of characters every year, instead of just rehashing the same ones to the point of irrelevance. But, in order to keep some of their old classics still fresh in people’s minds, Disney has also taken the sometimes controversial step of remaking their films, but in the live action medium. This has developed mostly in recent years, and unfortunately the end results have been mixed. Though the movies have done well at the box office, the quality of the storytelling is usually subpar, at least compared to the originals. Some are merely just okay, like 1996’s slapsticky 101 Dalmatians, or misguidedly dark and unappealing like 2010’s Alice in Wonderland or 2014’s Maleficent. Because these movies have done well despite the negative reviews, it has convinced Disney to look to even more of it’s classics to be given over to the live action medium regardless of the outcome. And this year’s newest entry to the field is a remake of their 1950 classic Cinderella.
Now, if you’ve read my review of last year’s Maleficent, you’ll know that I’m not too happy with these recent remakes of Disney classics. In particular, I hate the way that they’re taking the original stories and try to force some kind of “edginess” into it. While this was a nuisance in Tim Burton’s Alice remake, it can be seen as understandable given Burton’s style. Maleficent on the other hand made the big mistake of trying to force an action adventure narrative into a traditional fairy tale, and try the not-so-clever spin of reversing the roles of the heroes and villains. That plan backfired with the new takes on the characters never quite carrying the film and leaving the whole picture a disgraceful shell of what had come before. Mainly the problem with these movies is that they do what is commonly seen as the cliched trope of making the heroines in these stories edgier by putting a sword in their hands. This is an unfortunate by product of the success of movie series like The Lord of the Rings and Narnia, which has led to the mistaken belief in Hollywood that every fantasy film needs to have an epic battle scene in it, whether it’s there in the original story of not. And Disney is not alone having fallen into this trap; Universal made the same assumption when they released their own “edgy” fairy tale Snow White and the Huntsman (2013). So, it actually comes as a blessing when watching Disney’s new film Cinderella, because it avoids that cliche completely, and ends up making the story work well on its own merits.
The story should be familiar to anyone who has heard the original fairy tale, or has seen Disney’s original animated version. Young Ella (Lily James) grows up in a happy upper middle class household in a fictional, unnamed European kingdom. When her mother suddenly is taken ill and passes away, she and her father try to cope with the loss in the best way possible. In time, Ella’s father decides to remarry, bringing in the vain and greedy Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) into the household, along with her two ugly daughters Anastasia and Drisella (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger). Not long after, Ella’s father also dies unexpectedly, and Lady Tremaine begins to take charge of the home, forcing Ella into servitude in her own home. In order to keep warm at night, Ella sleeps by the fire and ends up with cinder soot all over her skin, leading the stepsisters to jokingly call her Cinderella. Soon, all Cinderella has for company are her animal companions, whom she carries on one-way conversations with. But, that changes all maidens in the land are invited to attend a ball at the palace, as a means to help the Prince (Richard Madden) choose a bride. Lady Tremaine forbids Cinderella from going, but with the help of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), she manages to go anyway. The rest of the story is wha you’d expect, including the significance of Cinderella’s iconic glass slippers.
This new version of Cinderella on the surface doesn’t look like anything special. And on paper, I’m sure that’s how it would appear as well. It doesn’t do anything groundbreaking or original with the story. It just follows the blueprint without deviation. And surprisingly, that’s what makes it work in the end. This movie is a wonderful retelling of the classic fairy tale, with all the familiar pieces in tact with no needless and distracting additions. It’s almost so ordinary that it’s revolutionary. After the boring and needlessly complicated plots of Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent, it’s nice to see Disney actually deliver a worthy remake this time around. I believe that a big part of why this movie works so well is the combination of a smart and witty script by Chris Weitz (American Pie and About a Boy) and imaginative direction by Kenneth Branagh. Weitz in particular had the daunting task of trying to bring new life into an already too familiar storyline, and he managed to pull it off by not trying to make it too complicated. It’s a simple retelling that’s avoids the pitfalls of adding too much plot detail, and instead leaves more room for the things that matter in a script, like character development as well as a healthy helping of wit and charm. Kenneth Branagh also feels right at home with this material. Famously known for his lavish Shakespearean productions, Branagh brings a strong sense of visual splendor to his film, while never losing track of the characters or the story either. Together, the director and the writer make familiarity a great asset with this story and present Cinderella with all the grace it deserves.
Probably the biggest reason why the movie works so well, beyond how well it is written, is its visual extravagance. This movie is a stunning visual treat. It’s not surprising given that Kenneth Branagh is behind this film, since he brings almost operatic grandeur to every production he does, whether it’s his four hour long staging of Hamlet (1996), or his venture into the Marvel cinematic universe with Thor (2011). Cinderella continues that stellar track record with colorful cinematography and eye-catching production design. The ball scene alone is an unrivaled visual feast. But, even with the incredible work put into the production, it doesn’t overwhelm either. The film manages to keep itself firmly grounded and doesn’t try to distract you with its visuals either. Really, some of the best parts of the movie actually take place in some of the darker settings, like a late confrontation between Cinderella and her step-mother in the attic, which has a nice gloomy atmosphere to it. But, when the film calls for it, the epic grandeur delivers beautifully. It also takes its cues from the classic Disney version as well, trying to match some of its most standout visual moments in th same way. There’s a scene when Cinderella arrives at the ball which calls to mind the same moment from the animated film. It’s not trying to copy it shot for shot, but rather invoke the same sense of wonder, and it manages to do it very well. The production design and costumes were done by multi award winning veterans Dante Ferretti and Sandy Powell, and Cinderella represents the two working at their highest level.
Anoter thing that helps to make the movie work especially well is the performances. One of the saving graces for most of Disney’s live action remakes has been their castings, especially in the villain roles. Glenn Close delivered a delightfully over-the-top performance as Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians, while Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent was that movie’s only redeemable feature. In Cinderella, the cast is top to bottom exceptionally well-rounded, especially with the two leads. Lily James (who’s been recently seen on Downton Abbey) manages to bring a lot of depth to a character that’s notoriously hard to get right in a performance. How do you make such a subservient character relatable and complex? In this film, Cinderella is instilled with the lesson of having strength through kindness, and it’s a character trait that Ms. James perfectly brings out in the character. She remains kind and noble, even against overwhelming hatred, and that’s where her strength as a character comes alive. But, even she is overshadowed in the movie by a knockout performance by Cate Blanchett as the villainous Lady Tremaine. Blanchett shows once again why she is one of our greatest living actresses by taking on the role of the wicked stepmother that we all know, but also finding the depth behind that villainy as well. She chews up the scenery like nobody’s business and commands every moment. Naturally, she’s a big name that Disney always tries to go for with these important character roles, and it’s nice to see she’s not wasted here. The rest of the cast also is very strong. The two step sisters are hilariously over-the-top, and Helena Bonham Carter manages to deliver a nice subdued turn as the charming Fairy Godmother. And speaking of charming, Richard Madden (of Game of Thornes fame) is able to make the most of a character who has very often been underwritten in most retellings of the story, including the animated version. His Prince character actually is given a worthy arc to go along with the story that compliments Cinderella’s story very nicely.
If the film has a flaw at all, it might be with some of the visual effects. The grounded visuals of the film, which relies heavily on practical sets, are so well done, that it actually becomes distracting when you see an out-of-place CGI effect put into place. Not all the visual effects are terrible though. Some of the set extensions are stunning to look at, and there is a jaw-droppingly gorgeous moment when Cinderella’s dress is transformed by the Fairy Godmother into the ball gown. But what doesn’t work so well is the animation used on the animal characters, particularly the mice. I know the mice where important characters in the original film, and their presence her is a nice nod to the classic. But, the film here chooses to portray them as realistic looking mice, animated through CGI. Unfortunately, as hard as they tried, the animators could not pull off the trick. The CGI mice still just look too fake, and unfortunately lack personality. The animation looks even more distracting later in the film when the animals are transformed into Cinderella’s coach horses and footmen. The end result just comes off as a bit too rubbery. Still, I don’t fault the filmmakers so much as just the overwhelming reliance that the industry puts on CGI tinkering. For a film that does so well with practically built visuals, it’s somewhat unnecessary to include so much computer enhanced imagery. It doesn’t spoil it too much; it just becomes something of a distraction over the course of an otherwise tightly controlled production.
Overall, I am very pleased to see Disney finally get the formula right for a change. After coming up short so many times before, it’s great to see a remake from the House of Mouse that is actually worthy and respectful to it’s source rather than exploitive. A lot of credit should go to director Kenneth Branagh, who brought his usual visual flair to a story that was perfectly suited for it, as well as to writer Chris Weitz who managed to bring a great deal of depth and wit to this retelling; something that the other fairy tale remakes have been lacking. As someone who grew up with the classic Disney versions of these fairy tales, and one who has been incredibly disappointed with the remakes so far, it pleases me enormously to see that Cinderella was given a worthy treatment. The story itself is simple and uncomplicated and it’s a pleasurable experience for all audiences. Clearly it’s targetted towards the young girl demographic, and it hits that target with sniper like accuracy, but audiences of all kinds will still find a lot to enjoy in this movie. Of course, this won’t be Disney’s last live action adaptation of one of their animated classics. Some of the adaptations do look promising (like Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book in 2016) while others are not so much (Tim Burton’s recently announced Dumbo remake). At least now we have an example of how to do it right. So, if your nostalgic for some classic Disney storytelling, or just want to see a lavishly put together big screen fairy tale, then you should defiantly check out this new version of Cinderella. It’s further proof that assured direction and thoughtful storytelling can indeed deliver something magical.
For such a collaborative process, the quality of a movie usually boils down to the quality of the different people who make it. It’s not just the director that makes the movie worthwhile; his job is mainly to serve as the coach pushing his team across the finish line. A final product must also rely on an inventive cinematographer, creative production designers, fearless and professional actors, as well as an editor with a lot of patience. But, sometimes the person who may end up having the biggest impact on the final film is the person who puts on the finishing touches; the composer. It’s remarkable how much influence music can have on narrative. Done well, it can punctuate a moment and instantly make it memorable. If done poorly, such as an out-of-place music cue, and the emotion of the moment is spoiled. Sometimes filmmakers can even mold their films around a particular piece of music if it stands out well enough. Think of Rocky’s training montage without Bill Conti’s rousing theme or Jaws without the rising tension of John Williams’ two note beat. Music is the corner stone of great cinema, and is the marker of a completed production. What ends up happening with any particular film’s popularity is that it reflects back on the music too, and a film’s soundtrack has the extra benefit of being an extra source of revenue for the film studios that make them. Film composers as a result end up becoming some of the more recognizable crew members in the industry, and that’s a distinction that I believe is well earned.
I for one love the music of the movies. In particular, I am a big fan of rousing, epic musical themes. Epic music usually is big and bombastic and it often has it’s basis in the classical style, which I also love. If it’s backed by a full orchestra and is able to give my body goosebumps, than it’ll definitely end up on my favorite playlists. And given Hollywood’s great love for epic-scale cinema, there hasn’t been any shortage of great musical themes written over the years. The 1980’s and 90’s was a particularly strong Golden Age for film scores, with great composers like John Williams, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, and James Horner among others coming into their own. My favorite pieces usually fall within this time period, but that’s also because these were the decades that I grew up in, so my choices are more or less tied to my childhood preferences. Even still, I do admire all the great music that Hollywood it’s entire history. Sometimes, even mediocre films can contribute a memorable tune that stays fresh in my memory for years to come. What follows is a top 10 list of my personal favorite epic musical themes from movies. I have also included audio/video tracks of each piece, to let you hear exactly what I’m referring to with each. Keep in mind, this list is made up of entirely orchestral themes from non-Musical films. Popular songs are left for another list entirely, and these picks are of one particular track of music, and not the whole score itself. For the most part, these represent the rousing, epic theme music that I continually listen to time and time again.
“ESCAPING THE SMOKERS” from WATERWORLD (1995)
Composed by James Newton Howard
Waterworld, to be frank, is a pretty big mess of a movie. With a confused script that touches on larger environmental and societal issues but never fully commits and actors not quite knowing what they’re doing (except the great Dennis Hopper, who’s a blast to watch in his hammy performance as the villain), the movie is all ambition but no heart. Couple that with a bloated production that nearly sank the careers of all involved, and you’ve got one of Hollywood’s most notorious flops. But the one saving grace for this Kevin Costner-headlined movie is it’s musical score. Composed by James Newton Howard (one of the many composers of this Golden Age era), the music of Waterworld is effectively epic and no more so than this particular theme. This is probably the most recognizable piece from the whole movie and with good reason. Underscoring the climatic battle scene of the film’s finale, Escaping the Smokers is a perfect example of the music themes typical of the era. Bombastic, fast-paced and instantly memorable, this piece like many others of the 80’s and 90’s was meant to give it’s film an identity. The rousing repeated beat easily grabs a hold of you and helps you to identify this as uniquely a part of the Waterworld experience. The same holds true for many of the others on this list, but Escaping the Smokers makes it onto mine purely because I just like listening to it. It’s got an energy to it and it’s a great example where even a flawed and mediocre film can indeed be home to some great music.
“PARADE OF THE CHARIOTEERS” from BEN-HUR (1959)
Composed by Miklos Rozsa
Another remarkable era for film orchestration was in the 1950’s, when Hollywood was bingeing on elaborate historical and biblical epics. Though most of the scores of this period usually all sounded the same, there was no denying that the trend of this period leaned more in the big and grand direction. There were standouts, like young Elmer Bernstein’s breakthrough work in The Ten Commandments (1956), or Alex North’s contemporary influenced Spartacus (1960). But if there was an epic score that really defined the era, it would be the music of Ben-Hur, composed by Hollywood veteran Miklos Rozsa. Rozsa had built a stellar career in Hollywood, contributing scores to nearly 100 films for over four decades. Ben-Hur was by far his biggest project, and his exceptional and spiritually moving score easily won him a well deserved Oscar. There are plenty of tracks that are noteworthy in the movie, but the one that really stands out for me is this piece, the Parade of the Charioteers; used as the lead up music to the film’s iconic chariot race. There’s no way to know how processional music of the Roman Empire might’ve sounded in real life, but Rozsa’s melody sounds authentic enough to feel just right for this movie. I love the way that the marching beat keeps building in this, along with the trumpets that really helps to boost the grandness behind the march. In the movie, this music is played as the charioteers make their way around the arena before their race, and it’s a scene played almost dialogue free. It’s a beautiful example in the movie where the music helps to guide the moment, allowing it to take the spotlight. As far as classic Hollywood music goes, they don’t get more grand than this.
“PROMONTORY” from THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1992)
Composed by Randy Edelman & Trevor Jones
Now a decidedly more modern sounding musical theme. Promontory is one of the more unusual themes to find it’s way into a historical epic, but that’s what makes it such a great piece of music as well. Befitting the tastes of director Michael Mann (not the most likely of names to be associated with a period drama), this piece of music has a very modern beat to it, with electronically enhanced rhythms. But, even still, it does feel right for the movie that Mann created. Based on the early American classic by James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans is a gritty epic that delves deeply into the fractured relationship between English colonialists and the Native Americans with whom they are clashing. The piece of music itself actually compliments this dichotomy perfectly, with the Native American drumbeat mixed beautifully with the English strings. And the pulsing melody builds to an exhilarating conclusion; which in the movie plays out during the memorable and dialogue-free finale. The Daniel Day-Lewis headlined film marked a stark contrast with other epics of the time. While many of the epics of this period were more rousing and upbeat, with music that supported that style, The Last of the Mohicans was considerably darker and less glamorous. Promontory is a perfect representation of that melancholy mood. Michael Mann called upon two composers for his film, but the end result doesn’t feel disjointed. In fact, it’s a rare case where two minds managed to make the entire piece feel like a cohesive whole. Though the whole score of the movie is strong, Promontory is by far the standout, and probably the most haunting piece on this list. It’s also a good movie theme to have on your workout playlist, given the steady buildup of the score’s beat. It’s the kind of music that really helps to reve yourself up.
“OVERTURE” from ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES (1991)
Composed by Michael Kamen
Say what you will about Kevin Costner, but his movies seem to always deliver in the music department. And no more so than this beautiful piece by the late, great Michael Kamen. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is not exactly beloved by everyone. Some find it corny with an unsubtle screenplay and some fairly laughable performances (especially when Costner tries to feign an English accent). But the one thing that people can’t complain about with this movie is the musical score, and indeed the whole soundtrack may in fact be composer Kamen’s best work. The Overture is exactly what the name entails, which is the opening theme over the titles, shown over images of the famed Bayeaux Tapestry; a fitting mix of sound and visuals to open an epic adventure. It’s also a nice example of a contemporary composer writing something with a classical sound. This theme could have played perfectly well in any era of Hollywood epics, but it’s also not too out of place in our own time either. To be honest, I’m actually an unapologetic fan of this entire movie. I acknowledge that it’s cheesy, but that’s part of the charm for me. And a big reason why I love Prince of Thieves so much is because of how good the musical score is. Really the whole soundtrack is worth listening to. The rousing melody here perfectly invokes the meaning of the word “epic” and the Overture, which gives us the main recurring theme of the film, is easily the most recognizable and beloved part of the movie. It’s a piece of music that was widely reused in a lot of film trailers for many years, especially immediately after it’s premiere. And when other movie studios like you music so much they use it for their own marketing, that’s when you know you’ve got something great.
“BATMAN THEME” from BATMAN (1989)
Composed by Danny Elfman
Probably the best source for epic theme music today comes from super hero genre, given the recent boom in the market. And while many of them are stirring and sometimes memorable, there’s also the danger of having them sound too much alike as well, with composers playing more with what works rather than getting creative. John Williams definitely set the bar high when he created his iconic Superman theme for the 1978 Richard Donner film. But, if there was ever a piece of music that broke the rules of the Super Hero genre and did something so far removed from John Williams’ theme, it would be this equally iconic piece of music from Danny Elfman. Elfman is one of those rare film composers who has a distinctive sound that is all his own. A Danny Elfman tune is easily recognizable and it seems he always saves his best bits for his long time collaborator Tim Burton. I’m sure that both Burton and Elfman were seen as odd choices to bring the Caped Crusader to the big screen, but it turns out they were exactly the right men for the job. Much like the movie itself, Elfman’s music perfectly encapsulates what Batman is; dark, Gothic, menacing, with just a hint of melancholy and a tiny bit of weirdness. It’s a perfect melody to announce to the world that Batman has arrived. Hans Zimmer also wrote a memorable theme for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but even that doesn’t have the same kind of imprint on the character that this theme does. Nobody brought out the best in the Dark Knight more than Danny Elfman, and this is easily my favorite musical theme ever for a super hero.
“RIDERS OF DOOM” from CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982)
Composed by Basil Poledouris
Going from something moody to something just plain “BIG,” this piece of music is the very definition of the word epic. It’s a textbook example of how to pump up a cinematic moment with music. The relentless drum beat, the soaring strings, and the overwhelming vocal choir. Composer Basil Poledouris almost seems like he wants this to be the epic theme to end all other epic themes. Surprisingly in the movie, which was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first starring role, the music isn’t used for any epic moment though. You would think that it belongs with a huge battle scene or a climatic showdown between hero and villain. But, that actually isn’t the case. Instead it’s used to introduce the titular “riders” into the movie as they lay waste to a small village. Either director John Milius didn’t realize the gold that he had with this music, or Poledouris went above and beyond what he was called upon to do. Either way, this is an exceptional piece of music. It probably stands better to listen to this piece separated from the movie itself. Nintendo famously used this music to promote an upcoming release of their beloved Legend of Zelda series in a pre-lease trailer, which is befitting given the game’s medieval battle motif. Other film companies also have used the music for their movie trailers too, which shows once again how a popular piece of music can have a life of it’s own outside of the movie. I for one just love the energy of this piece. It’s the kind of music that gives the listener goosebumps, knowing that they are listening to something with power to it; something which all the best pieces of music can do.
“THE THRONE ROOM” from STAR WARS EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE (1977)
Composed by John Williams
Yeah, you knew Star Wars was going to end up on this list at some point. Widely considered the greatest film score of all time (and certified as such by the American Film Institute), Star Wars is a tour de force of cinematic music. John Williams, who became an instant legend with his work on this film, broke from the standard of 1970’s theme music (which favored quieter and more intimate orchestrations) and delivered a musical score steeped very much in the classical style. Inspired very heavily by the works of Igor Stravinsky, John Williams’ Star Wars score is big and assertive, and it perfectly matched the bold vision of George Lucas’ groundbreaking space opera. But, with a film score this iconic, which one of it’s melodies stands out as the best? It’s a tough choice because there is so many to choose from. The unforgettable Opening Theme, the dreamy Force theme, the oppressive Imperial March, or heck even the cheesy Cantina Theme. If I had to choose the best one, it would be the final piece at the end called The Throne Room. It’s a triumphant orchestration that really cements the score as a whole, leaving the audience with a strong reminder of the glorious thing they have just witnessed. The sound of the trumpets over the rest of the orchestra is what really sells the grandness of the piece. Seen as part of the movie, where it plays over the scene where Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are given medals for their service, the music perfectly establishes the epic feel of the moment. Had George Lucas not called upon John Williams to score his film, I don’t think the movie would have developed the following that it has today. His contribution is what ultimately helped to send this adventure beyond the stars.
“ARRIVAL AT AUDA’S CAMP” from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)
Composed by Maurice Jarre
I’ve said it before, but again Lawrence of Arabia is my all time favorite film and the music is a big part of why I love it so, naturally it also earns a place on this list as well. The entire score, brilliantly composed by Maurice Jarre, is both epic and intimate. At some points it will blow you away with it’s grandiosity, and then in other moments it will slow down into a moody, contemplative tune. And it all perfectly matches the setting and the narrative of the story, showing the life of an English officer who helped to lead an Arab revolt against the Turks in WWI. It’s equal parts classical and modern, which underlies the theme of a changing world that’s entering the 20th Century. But, while I do like the moody, and very Arabic inspired melodies during the film’s quieter moments, my favorite parts are still when the score really hits it’s big moments. And the score’s high point would be this almost biblical scale piece called Arrival at Auda’s Camp. In the movie, Lawrence and his companions are invited by Sheik Auda abu Tayi (brilliantly played by Anthony Quinn) to come to his camp in the valley of Wadi Rum, which he jokingly refers to as a “poor place.” Of course, Wadi Rum is anything but poor, and the music perfectly underlines just how majestic the valley really is. Maurice Jarre’s music really celebrates the scale of the scene, giving the moment grandiosity but also establishing a jovial beat as well. Seen with the unbelievable visuals, the music is almost transcendent; very much underlining the epic scale of the whole production. Jarre deservedly won an Oscar for his work on the film, and no doubt this particular piece helped to earn the film it’s widespread acclaim.
“THE LIGHTING OF THE BEACONS” from THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003)
Composed by Howard Shore
Peter Jackson’s groundbreaking epic trilogy is still fondly remembered today for it’s grandiose music just as much as for it’s out-of-this-world visuals. What was surprising to some was the fact that the entire trilogy’s musical scores were composed by someone like Howard Shore. Shore came from the world of scoring zany comedies and oddball action thrillers. He even got his start in the business as a music director for Saturday Night Live. Not the kind of resume you would expect for someone tasked with bringing the music of Middle Earth to life. But not only did Howard Shore deliver the goods in this trilogy, he ran away with them as well, taking home three Oscars in the process. The whole trilogy is full of instantly recognizable themes, from the iconic “Fellowship” theme of the first movie to the haunting Rohan theme of the second. But Howard Shore saved his best for the finale as The Return of the King features two of probably the grandest musical arrangements ever brought to film. One is the glorious Charge of the Rohirrim, which is one of the greatest battle themes ever written. But even that amazing piece is overshadowed by what I think is the trilogy’s highest point. That of course is a piece called The Lighting of the Beacons. This arrangement is the epitome of “epic,” starting slow and then building up to a mighty crescendo that easily will raise anyone’s goosebumps. Peter Jackson clearly wanted to showcase Howard’s music in the movie, as this musical theme plays over a montage of epic visuals that perfectly matches the rising momentum of the melody; those visuals being flyovers of the landscape of Middle Earth as beacons are lit on the high mountaintops between the nations of Gondor and Rohan. Even with all the amazing work done up to that point in the trilogy, Shore still managed to deliver a knockout in the third film, and it clearly showed why he was the right person in the end to bring the music of Middle Earth to life.
“PARADE OF THE SLAVE CHILDREN” from INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984)
Composed by John Williams
Of course John Williams takes the top spot, but many of you may find this an odd choice for #1. Why this piece, out of all the amazing scores that Mr. Williams has written. Well it just comes down to personal preference. I’m a huge fan of Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom is my favorite film in the series, thanks in no small part to Williams’ score. But, beyond that, I also just believe that Temple of Doom is top to bottom John Williams’ strongest score in his entire career; even more so than Star Wars Episode IV. It is the master composer at his most epic and the whole score is filled with unbelievably rousing orchestral themes. Chief among them though is this piece titled Parade of the Slave Children. The music underscores the scene where Indiana Jones (a pitch perfect Harrison Ford) helps the enslaved children held captive by the Temple’s leaders escape. While the scene doesn’t call for anything truly epic or memorable, John Williams somehow saw potential in this moment and delivers what is probably his grandest theme yet; at least in my opinion. I love everything about this piece of music; the rising, slightly metallic downbeat, the big orchestral sweeps, and just the fact that it easily conjures up the feeling of adventure. While I do like the Indiana Jones March a lot too, this is still the melody that embodies the Indiana Jones movies the most for me. It’s Dr. Jones at his most epic. I always have this piece at the top of my playlists and it’s a great tune to reve myself up for anything, whether it’s working out or writing. It’s also the musical piece that best represents the idea of “epic” for me. While many of the others on this list are quintessentially epic as well, none manage to grab my attention more than Williams’ work in Temple of Doom, and that’s why I give it the highest spot on my list.
So, that’s my list of my favorite Epic musical themes from movies. While I’m sure that some of you can think of other musical pieces that stick with you more than these, my hope is that I still made a list that best represents the value of epic scale orchestrations in movies. Indeed, sometimes it’s the music that ultimately makes or breaks a final film. It all depends on how much effort the composer puts into his work. If he’s just cashing in a pay check, then it’s likely that the movie’s score will sound generic and uninspiring. But, if inspiration hits that same composer in unlikely ways, than something special can come out in their music. Usually it’s the composer who tries to experiment with new things that ends up leaving the biggest impact. And great trend setters like John Williams, Danny Elfman, and Hans Zimmer have easily earned their place as icons of the industry by continually pushing their limits and the movies they work on are the better for it. Hopefully, my list helps to highlight some really great pieces of music and has helped a few of you choose some new melodies to put on your playlists. Whether it’s big and bombastic or small and intimate, music is one of the most powerful tools in film-making and one that I hope continues to be used in creative and interesting new ways.