Evolution of Character – Queen Elizabeth I

queen elizabeth portrait

Whenever we’ve seen a character reappear in multiple cinematic treatments over the years, it’s usually a character out of fiction.  Fictional characters, particularly from classic literature, enjoy long histories of successful reinterpretations partly because their adaptations merely have to stay true to the character while at the same time being a little more care free with their role in the story or their place of existence.  That’s why we’ve sometimes seen Sherlock Holmes in modern day, or Robin Hood with an all animal cast, or even Romeo and Juliet as either arctic seals or garden gnomes.  But, sometimes Hollywood returns time and again to a character of a different type; that of a real historical figure.  Though not as common, we do sometimes see historical people interpreted in multiple films in many varied ways.  Albeit, the uses of a historical character in a film is more restricted than that of a fictional character, considering that the real history behind the character has to be accounted for.  But, whether they are the center of a true life story, or a background historical element in a work of pure fiction, it is interesting to see how some historical figures are portrayed in different ways on the big and small screens.  It also takes a special, larger than life figure to make it into multiple cinematic treatments and that’s why great leaders and monarchs are the ones who usually turn up in so many movies.  You can point to famous American presidents like Abraham Lincoln, or legendary commanders like Julius Caesar as historical figures who’ve turned up multiple times.  But, the most common example of reoccurring historical characters in cinema would be historical kings or queen of Merry Old England, and none more so than the Virgin Queen herself, Elizabeth the First.

Queen Elizabeth I is one of history’s most revered monarchs, and her reign is considered one of the most pivotal in English history.  The second daughter of Henry VIII, Elizabeth would rise to the throne in 1533 after the short but brutal reign of her half-sister Queen Mary, whom the Protestant rebels who opposed the Catholic monarch dubbed “Bloody Mary.”Elizabeth restored the Protestant reforms of her father as well as reconciled the religious rift in her country and rallied her people together against outside invading forces from France and Spain.  All the while she became a strong patron of the arts and a savvy stateswoman, leading England into a long period of wealth, culture and prosperity that historians now dub “The Golden Age” of English history.  But, beyond her amazing accomplishments, she is also a fascinating character and personality.  She was forward thinking in many ways that few of her male peers we’re at the time, particularly in her interest of exploration of the recently discovered New World.  Because of her, we have to this day a State called Virginia, named in her honor. In many ways, Elizabeth has made an ideal figure for classic romances, because few other woman have held as much power as her in history.  That power dynamic she wields has made her an endlessly fascinating character in many films, and as such, I’ve chosen to highlight a few of her more notable appearances on the big and small screens and see how the iconic image of the Virgin Queen has evolved over the years on film.

queen elizabeth bette davis


This was the most notable portrayals of Elizabeth in the early days of cinema, and the filmmakers could not have found an actress better suited for the part than Ms. Davis.  All-American Bette Davis may not have struck people today as the obvious choice to play the iconic English queen, but one only has to look at the finished product in the film and you’ll see her completely transformed.  Lusciously directed by Michael Curtiz for Warner Brothers in beautiful Technicolor, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex portrays the often tumultuous love affair between Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn).  It’s an old-fashioned, but still engaging classic period drama, and Bette Davis is absolutely the crowning jewel of it all.  She masters the regal-ness of the character, but at the same time explores her humanity in a captivating way.  And the work she put into transforming herself into Elizabeth is remarkable.  She actually had the make-up department shave off her eyebrows and part of her forehead in order to match the image of Elizabeth that we have from her portraits.  Now that’s a commitment to a role that you’ll rarely find in classic Hollywood.  Interesting enough, Bette Davis would return to the role of Queen Elizabeth many years later in the Cinemascope epic The Virgin Queen (1955).  That film isn’t quite as passionate and introspective as this version, but Davis again doesn’t disappoint and the film is worth seeing just for her performance alone.  Overall, for Elizabeth to become an iconic character in the early days of cinema, all Hollywood needed was to give the role to one of their ow reigning Queens, and it was a beautiful match indeed.

queen elizabeth jean simmons


Taking an entirely different view on the life of Queen Elizabeth, Queen Bess portrays the early years of Elizabeth, showing her ascension from princess to reigning monarch.  This film, however, is a little more “Hollywood” than previous versions of this story have been.  By “Hollywood,” I mean that it tacks on an entire romantic subplot that has no basis in history.  As Elizabeth grows into adulthood, she contends with a love triangle between her, the Queen Cathrine Parr(Deborah Kerr) and the dashing Sir Thomas Seymour (Stewart Granger).  Suffice to say, this is purely fictional and has no basis in real history.  Also, the reign of Queen Mary is completely ignored here; Elizabeth follows her brother Edward immediately in succession.  But, despite the historical inaccuracies, the film does attempt to give Elizabeth a dignified portrayal.  Jean Simmons is fine in the role, giving young Bess a sense of the weight of the responsibilities she must hold, while at the same time giving her the innocence of someone who has yet to carry the burden of her position.  Her performance can sometimes feel a little too naive, but Simmons is not a bad actress by any means and she does do the image of the Queen a lot of honor.  Not much is known of Elizabeth’s formative years, but Jean Simmons does portray a believable idea of what the one day Queen might have been like in that time.  Also of note in this film is the casting of Charles Laughton in the role of Henry VIII; a character which he had won an Oscar for playing  nearly 20 years prior in the Alexander Korda produced film, The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933).

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GLENDA JACKSON in ELIZABETH R miniseries (1971)

Elizabeth was a favorite figure for classic Hollywood, but of course her native country of England has also brought her story to life many times as well.  Though there have been many British films centered around the life of Elizabeth I, perhaps the most ambitious and comprehensive of them all would be this BBC produced miniseries for television.  Though lacking in the sumptuousness of a big screen production values, Elizabeth R more than makes up for it with it’s attention to the detail of the period and the people who inhabit it.  And at the center of it all is two time Oscar-winning actress Glenda Jackson.  Jackson may not be as well known to audiences today, but in the late 60’s and early 70’s, she was the “It Girl” of the time, winning numerous accolades and earning enormous respect from critics and audiences alike.  And then, she walked away from acting completely, instead choosing to pursue a life in politics, which helped her towards a long career as a Member of Parliament.  That political fervor that Glenda Jackson had in real life is well reflected in her portrayal of Elizabeth here.  Elizabeth R shows the Queen at her most commanding, effectively showing us the true might that the real Elizabeth might have wielded during her reign.  The lengthy production also gives us a complete portrait of Elizabeth’s life, both the highs and the lows.  It’s an interesting production, and Glenda Jackson gives a captivating performance.  Perhaps Jackson’s closeness to the character inspired where she would go next with her life, but if not, it’s a strong reminder of the power she had as a performer, which reflects well in the role of a Queen.

queen elizabeth cate blanchett


Here we find the marriage between real history and cinematic pageantry fully on display.  Directed by Indian born director Shekhar Kapur, Elizabeth and it’s sequel attempt to portray the life of the Queen with an emphasis on it’s visuals.  These are some very beautiful movies, photographed by British cinematographer Remi Adefarasin, but at times the visuals become a little too showy and distract from the drama that’s supposed to be grabbing our attention; this is more true in the sequel than the original.  Had the central role of Elizabeth been played by a less talented actress, this movie would have easily slumped into the “style over substance” category.  Thankfully, the film has one of the best actresses of our time in the role.  Cate Blanchett fits the role of Elizabeth like a glove and gives a commanding performance that stands out among all the pageantry.  She justly was nominated for her performance in both movies, and her mastery of both the character and her place within this world are remarkable.  Physically, she looks the part as well.  With her sharp features and pale skin, it’s almost as if she’s walked right out of a portrait of the Queen itself.  She also commands our attention through every regal speech she gives, playing the queen as both regal and aloof, depending on the situation she’s in.  This was also the film that introduced the Aussie actress to the world at large, so we can be thankful for that.  Had Cate not been a part of this film, I don’t think it would have worked out as well as it did, so it just shows how important it is to get the right actress for the part. For one of the more luscious productions set around the life of Elizabeth, with a truly great performance at it’s center, this will be one to seek out.


Released in the same year as Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth, we find a film with an entirely different take on the famed Queen.  Here we find a portrayal of Elizabeth in her latter years, slowed down by age, but no less intimidating in her command over her subjects.  The movie of course is more centered around the life of William Shakespeare (played here by Joseph Fiennes) and is a largely fictional tale about a private romance between the Bard and a noble maiden (Gwyneth Paltrow) that inspired the writing of Romeo and Juliet.  Now, some have argued that this movie unfairly robbed Saving Private Ryan of the Best Picture Oscar, and I’m not going to lie, I find myself in that camp too.  This film is delightful and entertaining, but Best Picture worthy?  I don’t think so.  What is less arguable though is the praise given to the portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in this movie, brought to vivid life by the great Dame Judi Dench.  Dench appears in only seven minutes total in the film, but my God does she make the most of those seven minutes.  Her Elizabeth is a force of nature, both intimidating and alluring all at the same time; and also surprisingly funny.  I especially love a bit in the movie where she waits for the men of her court to lay down their cloaks over a puddle for her to walk over, but then she gets impatient and walks across anyway, yelling back at them “too late.”  Dench deserved her Oscar for the role, and the movie is blessed with her presence.  She perfectly portrays the image of a Queen who has the experience behind her and the knowledge of how to wield power, and she steals every scene she’s in.

queen elizabeth helen mirren

HELEN MIRREN in ELIZABETH I miniseries (2005)

Helen Mirren holds the unique distinction of having played both Queen Elizabeths in her career.  She won an Oscar for her portrayal of Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears’ The Queen (2006), and she played Elizabeth I here in this joint BBC/HBO production, directed by Tom Hopper of The King’s Speech (2010) fame.  This miniseries portrays the queen in middle age, focusing mostly on two private affairs that shaped her life during this period; those being the one’s she had with the Earl of Leicester (Jeremy Irons) and the Earl of Essex (Hugh Dancy), who ultimately betrayed her.  What this miniseries manages to accomplish is to show the influence that Elizabeth’s private life had on her ability to govern, showing the way it built her character.  Mirren of course is more than capable of assuming the role, and perhaps more than any actress before her, she managed to convey the person that Elizabeth was, rather than just capture her image.  Bette Davis and Cate Blanchett commanded in the role before, but their performances tended to be in service to the pageantry.  Here the pageantry takes a back seat to the performance, and Helen Mirren creates a vivid portrait of a woman burdened by the responsibilities of her position and how that takes a toll on her over time.  This miniseries gives the best sense of how Elizabeth’s daily life might of been, and how the necessities of her duty as ruler often conflicted with her desires as a person, and how that conflict would sometimes lead her astray.  Naturally, one of England’s greatest modern actress could so effectively find the woman behind the icon, and Helen Mirren’s performance as Elizabeth I is one of the most natural we’ve seen.

938495 -Anonymous


This portrayal of the famed Queen is one of the more problematic, not to mention one of the most insulting to history.  Anonymous is a portrayal of the conspiracy theory espoused by the Anti-Strattfordian movement that claims that William Shakespeare didn’t actually write his plays, and that the true author was a nobleman by the name of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.  Naturally, a tale about Shakespeare would involve Queen Elizabeth in some way (given her patronage of Shakespeare’s work during that time), and this movie makes the ludicrous claim that not only was Edward de Vere (played by Rhys Ifans) a bastard child born from Elizabeth, but that he would go on to unknowingly have an incestuous relationship with her many years later.  Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.  The film was directed by disaster movie king Roland Emmerich, and it’s about as unsubtle and factually reckless as his blockbusters like 2012 (2009) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004).  But, perhaps the film’s greatest fault is how it trashes these real historical figures in service of a bogus narrative that purely exists to indulge this insane conspiracy theory.  And worst of all, it wastes the talents of a legendary actress like Vanessa Redgrave.  Here we find Elizabeth at her most corrupt and lecherous.  This is by far the ugliest portrayal of the Queen, showing her as a creepy old woman blind to the sins of her past.  Vanessa Redgrave can do a whole lot better, and could have given Elizabeth a more dignified portrayal, even as a corrupt monarch.  Sadly, this movie gives her nothing to work with, other than to indulge the lunacy of the director’s theories, and it is by far the last place where you’ll find a fitting portrayal of the iconic Queen.

Whether she has been the subject of a true, historical retelling, or part of the background in a work of complete fiction, Elizabeth I has held an interesting place in cinematic history.  What I find interesting about all these different versions is that the role of Queen Elizabeth has belonged almost exclusively to the best actresses throughout film history.  From Bette Davis, to Glenda Jackson, to Cate Blanchett and to Helen Mirren, each one is regarded among the best in their class.  In fact, of all the actresses I highlighted, only one of them had never won an Academy Award in her lifetime (Jean Simmons).  Some of these performances stand out more than others; Bette Davis is the showiest of the bunch, while Cate Blanchett and Helen Mirren are the more intimate.  And Judi Dench’s portrayal in Shakespeare in Love is in a realm all it’s own.  I also think that those interested should check out Glenda Jackson’s work in Elizabeth R; it’s a little drier than the rest, but no less fascinating.  Part of why we love the presence of Queen Elizabeth in the movies of course is because of the performers playing the part, but it’s also because Elizabeth remains a fascinating figure to this day.  Not only was she a unique player in history (a Queen who wielded enormous influence at a time when few women were allowed positions of power), but her legacy would define the period that she lived in.  All these portrayals do an acceptable job of portraying the woman behind the icon (except Anonymous, but that’s not Mrs. Redgrave’s fault).  Hopefully future portrayals continue to delve deeper into this historical tale and make the legendary Queen come alive once again.

Off the Page – War of the Worlds

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One type of story element that has been popular to both literature and cinema has been the use of allegory.  An allegorical story has the benefit of addressing issues that affect the reader and the viewer in their present day, without ever being tied down by the restrictions of time or setting, or even reality.  A storyteller can be as fanciful as they want with their tale, but the truths behind it will still be familiar and will resonate with the audience.  Because allegory is an effective tool for addressing important issues, it’s often been used by authors and filmmakers alike to inject social and political messages into popular entertainment.  We may think we’re going to read a story about animals running a farm by themselves after the farmer has left, but instead, we are treated to a meditation on the rise of Stalinist totalitarianism.  We may think we’re watching Batman fighting the Joker, but instead we’re presented with an examination of the corrupting power of paranoia, and how it erodes our moral judgments.  No ones goes into these story-lines expecting to be given a lecture on larger issues, but we’re rewarded with thought provoking ideas that actually enrich the experience overall.  However, though allegory is useful for tackling universal issues, there comes a risk of having that same allegory unfortunately tied to the time and place that it was used.  Now, time does shine favorably on antiquated allegories, because it does cast light on ideas from the past and how storytellers observed the world that they lived in.  But, when one storyteller tries to take one allegorical story and re-purposes that into a different setting or time, well then you start to see problems in the adaptation.

One of the most interesting authors who used allegory to great effect in his work was H.G. Wells.  Wells, along with his contemporaries at the time (Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs) created for the most part what we know now as modern Science-Fiction.  But, while Verne wrote about the ingenuity and wonder of science, and Burroughs wrote about the fantastical and otherworldly aspect, Wells was much more interested in the dangers of science.  Wells was a political writer in addition to being a creative one, and he often sought to address larger societal issues in his writing.  But, what set him apart from other political writers was the fact that he always wrote with an eye towards popular entertainment.  When his work was published in the late Victorian period in England, people were far more interested in stories about adventure and exploration, and far less about social issues of the day.  So, with an eye towards allegory, Wells found a way to force these important issues of the day into the public eye by including them in the kinds of stories they would normally clamor for.  His best example of allegory disguised as popular entertainment would be the 1898 classic The War of the Worlds.  Yes it’s got monstrous aliens and tension filled horror that readers would have found engaging, but when you read deeper, you see the intent of what Wells was trying to say.  He lived in a world corrupt by the idea of Empire and exploiting the less fortunate for the benefit of those who had everything.  By flipping the concept on it’s head, and having the seemingly mighty Great Britain invaded by a superior, extra-terrestrial force, Wells was making his audience see their world in a different light.  It’s an allegory that fits it’s time well, but when adapted for another period, like in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation, you can see how an allegory’s effectiveness can change with it.

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“No one believed in the early years of the 21st century that our world was being watched by intelligence greater than our own.”

Steven Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds is a fascinating, if somewhat flawed adaptation of Wells classic novel.  In many ways, it retains a faithful adherence to the tension and paranoia of the original novel, and yet, some of that adherence ends up doing a disservice to the actual message that the director wanted to deliver in his movie.  What is fascinating however is how allegories from another time and place take on a whole new meaning when adapted into something else, and that’s the case with Spielberg’s film.  When H.G. Wells first wrote his novel, England was the dominant power in the world, with an Empire that included territory on every continent across the globe.  In his day, the notion of invasion from a superior power would have seemed foreign and purely in the realm of fiction, but Wells wanted to address this arrogance of such a notion in his novel and the foolish nature of viewing oneself as superior to others.  When Spielberg sought to tackle Wells classic story, England’s empire had long diminished and America had emerged in the years since as the world’s most powerful nation.  But, unlike when Wells had written his novel, in 2005, America was still reeling from the recent attacks of 9/11.  Though the country wasn’t attacked by a superior force akin to Wells’ Martians, it was still an attack that shook the foundations of our country and it’s a struggle that we have yet to shake off even today.  Spielberg adapted the story in a time when even the mighty could be brought low by outside forces, and in a sense, that’s where his adaptation actually gives a fresh new meaning to Wells’ tale.  According to Spielberg in the making of documentaries found on the War of the Worlds DVD, he wanted to create a vision of a refugee experience in America, where survivors of the alien invasion are forced to flee their homes and survive in an increasingly hostile world.  It’s something he says you don’t see in our society today, which is a concept close to Wells’ own intent.  Where Wells addressed a society arrogant in that they never believed they could be invaded by a superior force, Spielberg was addressing a society that felt apathetic towards refugees across the world because they too never thought it could happen here.

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“It’s the same everywhere – once the tripods begin to move, no more news comes out of that area.”

Now, with an adaptation, especially one that changes the time and setting of an original story, there obviously needs to be alterations made to both the plot and, specifically with this movie, the characters.  In this aspect, I actually believe that Spielberg did Wells one better.  Wells original novel was less interested in character development, and far more interested in describing the world in which they inhabit.  His main character isn’t even named in the novel, and it’s told entirely from his perspective.  In this case, it’s a presentation that suits Wells novel, because it allows the reader to better identify with the narrator and see the horrors of the alien invasion through a first person account.  It’s a presentation brilliantly re-imagined in Orson Welles legendary radio adaptation, which works because it’s another medium that allows for the audience to paint the picture in their own minds.  However, those same rules don’t apply to film, where we need characters with depth and personality in order to follow their story.  Spielberg and his writers Josh Friedman and David Koepp, created the entirely original character of Ray Ferrier to be the substitute for the nameless narrator.  In addition, they added a family dynamic to the story by having Ray (Tom Cruise) escaping the destruction around him by having his children Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin) in tow.  Though some of their family drama is cliched in the movie, it nevertheless gives the story a human face it desperately needs, and all credit is due to the cast for believably immersing themselves into the film’s situations.  Tom Cruise in particular manages to put his matinee idol status in check and conveys to us that he’s a broken man who’s desperately trying to stay strong through a perilous situation.  And the movie smartly keeps the story focused on their survival.  It’s not about grander geopolitical ramifications.  It’s about survival, and that fits much better into Spielberg’s refugee allegory.

But, though Spielberg changes the human perspective and creates a whole new story-line with his new main characters, it doesn’t mean that Wells’ story is unrecognizable either.  In fact, much of the actual invasion that takes up most of the movie is pulled directly out of the novel.  The Tripods themselves in particular are almost exactly as Wells envisioned them.  The only difference made about the invading force is their origin, and it’s an understandable change.  In Wells time, Mars was believed to have been an inhabitable world filled with Martian people (a concept that Edgar Rice Burroughs also shared in his John Carter series) and it made sense to him and his audience that an alien invasion could naturally come from our nearest celestial neighbor.  Of course, we now know that Mars is inhabitable, so Spielberg is more vague about where his aliens came from.  And, in the end, it really doesn’t matter.  The tension actually comes out of not quite knowing what’s going on and it’s a story point that serves well both the novel and the movie.  Spielberg almost relishes the overwhelming threat that the Tripod vessels pose to the characters, giving them the sense of scale that they deserve.  From the moment that the first Tripod rises out of the ground, it invokes a sense of true terror into the hearts of anyone who sees it.  And when it begins blasting people away with it’ s heat ray, it is truly shocking.  I think that it’s what makes Spielberg the best possible choice to adapt Wells work.  They both work in the realm of popular entertainment, but they also take in the gravity of their story-lines, and address the fantastical bits with the same seriousness that one would with a real life emergency.  The Tripod attacks are easily the highlights of the movie, and where Spielberg adapts Wells’ vision to it’s fullest potential.

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“This isn’t a war any more than there’s a war between men and maggots… This is an extermination.”

But, the problem with transplanting the setting of your allegorical story is that not all the pieces will translate quite as well outside of their original context.  For a lot of people, where the movie actually falters is in it’s later half, after it appears that Ray has lost his son Robbie in one of the attacks.  He and Rachel find shelter in a nearby farmhouse being occupied by a mysterious and somewhat unhinged man named Ogilvy (Tim Robbins).  It’s this scene in the basement that really breaks apart the audience reaction to this movie, from those who love it to those who hate it.  I’ll agree that it is a problematic stretch of the film because it completely shifts gears and slows the story down to a halt.  What was a harrowing adventure about staying alive amid almost certain death suddenly becomes a claustrophobic human drama where the danger becomes more internalized.  I don’t dislike the scene (the part where they hide from the alien probe is spectacularly staged), but it does feel out of place in the film.  But, it’s also strangely enough from the original novel, albeit condensed.  People tend to forget that Wells, like many other authors of the time, published his work in serial form, and War of the Worlds was released in two separate volumes.  His first volume portrayed the invasion; the second, the aftermath.  Spielberg tried to put the two together into one narrative, but the mashing together is very awkward and diminishes the effectiveness of both sides of the story.  More than anything, I think it’s the abruptness that became the problem.   The farmhouse is indeed where much of Spielberg’s allegory of post-9/11 paranoia comes into play, but it does so in detriment to the momentum of the action.  He could have indulged himself in more of the spectacle of mayhem, but he would have lost that crucial allegory in the process.

The film falters, but not for the sake of trying on Spielberg’s part, nor because of trying to force Wells’ novel into modern times.  Adaptations are just difficult to pull off, even when they are faithful and done with good intentions.  For most of the movie, Spielberg actually delivers on the thrills and the sense of awe, but then he ends up undermining the things that he was trying to accomplish within even the very next scene.  I think one of the biggest mistakes he made overall was actually showing us what the aliens looked like.  True, Wells did that as well in his novel, describing the Martians as spindly, grey skinned tri-ped creatures.  It’s fine to be descriptive on the page, but visualizing that on the big screen is different, and will likely please no one.  This movie, as well as the 1953 adaptation produced by George Pal, were at their best when the aliens remained hidden within their machines.  But, you take them out, and show them as the more vulnerable creatures that they are, you lose the menace that they pose.  What Wells wanted to show in his novel was that these aliens were superior to us in every way, and that this superiority is what made them malicious towards us.  It was his critique of the concept of Social Darwinism, which proclaimed that the strong were entitled to rule above others because it is natures will; a perversion of Darwin’s theory of evolution that would go on to inspire many despised philosophies like Eugenics and even Fascism.  By showing humans as the weak instead of the strong, he is able to make us look at how our own arrogance about our place in the world has driven us to do horrible things to those that we view as inferior.  It’s a concept that could have worked just as well in Spielberg’s adaptation, in a world shaken by Terrorism and how confronting an undefinable enemy has left many displaced and disillusioned, but that all goes away once we see the bizarre looking aliens who carry none of the menace that this story needs.  And it’s a strange underwhelming tactic used by someone who has been so good at creating menace out of non-human forces (the shark in Jaws or the raptors in Jurassic Park) in the past.

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“When it’s ready, my body will just push it out.”

While there are flaws, you can’t say that Spielberg and Cruise didn’t try their best to bring Wells’ classic to life in the 21st century.  When it does get it right, it does so in a spectacular way.  The Tripod alien death machines are hauntingly realized and could be among the most frightening things we’ve ever seen in any science fiction film.  Some of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s best work is in this movie, including the amazing ferry boat scene and the facade of the church being destroyed by the cracking earth beneath it.  I can also praise the unsettling music written by John Williams too.  But, despite high quality work done by all involved, you can’t help but think that the sum of what they had didn’t quite add up to what they wanted.  And some of the fault of that might be in the adaptation itself.  Wells novel was a product of it’s time, but also one that addressed many issues that we still deal with today.  Wells delivered us a harrowing vision of what it might be like to have our securities challenged by something that is greater than ourselves, and he did so in a narrow, claustrophobic point of view.  It works because it puts us into the shoes of a survivor and asks us to see how one has to live when they have nothing.  Spielberg tries to do that by constantly pushing his characters into harms way, but he ultimately undermines his message by rewarding his characters with a happy resolution.  The only time that it doesn’t make things so easy is when Ray must commit a murder to save his own child, but sadly, this character defining moment is underplayed.  And seriously, his son appearing at the end is one of the worst plot twists ever, and more than anything is an insult to what Wells intended.  But, apart from that, I do admire Spielberg’s attempt to find new allegorical meaning in War of the Worlds in the chaotic world that we find ourselves in.  It shows that Wells story was far more prescient and universal than he knew, and that a message worth saying can still find it’s place in blockbuster entertainment.

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“By a toll of a billion deaths, man had earned his immunity, his right to survive among this planet’s infinite organisms.  And that right is ours against all challenges.  For neither do men live nor die in vain.”

Making the Cut – The Saving Power of a Great Edit

editing film

When watching a movie, it’s easy to see all the many ingredients that go into making the story come to life.   Engaging dialogue from a tightly written screenplay, standout performances from the committed actors, and a vision from the director that helps to make the scene feel as authentic as possible.  But, there’s another ingredient thrown into the mix that doesn’t quite capture the intention of the viewer yet it’s the one thing that affects everything else in the finished product by the end.  That crucial ingredient is film edit.  Without the job of a proper edit, a story has no form or character.  It’s just images without reason.  Editing is what brings out the context of the images that we see and shows us how one thing can relate to another.  And, in the grand scheme of things, editing is probably the hardest job of all for a filmmaker.  While a lot of work goes into the writing and the filming of a story, it’s not until the post-production editing process that the filmmakers are able to find the story that they want to tell.  There, they are able to find the emotion through the contrasting of images or tension through the compression of time, and through that, they are able to get creative with the tools that are available to them.  But, strangely enough, the work of the editor is often unheralded, mainly due to the fact that in order for the editor to do their job well, their work must be made invisible to the viewer.  Unless otherwise made to be seen on purpose, essential film editing must work in service to the story and not overwhelm it, thereby causing many of us in the audience to take the work of an editor for granted.  But, in so many cases throughout film history, it’s been the excellent editing of a movie that causes it to stand out.

Now a lot of people probably think that it’s not that hard at all to edit together a movie.  All you need to do is to plan out your cuts ahead of time and follow the blueprint right?  It’s far more complicated than that.  For an editor to do their job, they must first analyze countless hours of footage, depending on the length of the feature.  Even with a scene mapped out in pre-production, the actual filming must take into account all the necessary coverage from multiple angles, as well as the multiple takes that will inevitably happen, since no one is ever satisfied with just one take.  And it’s from that pool of material that the editor must find the story, taking the best takes out of the mix from the best angles and piecing them together to make it feel like one whole piece.  Not only that, but they must be observant with every bit of footage, looking for continuity mistakes that may undermine the flow of the scene.  Lastly, they must also time their edits perfectly, making each cut feel natural and never abrupt; something that may even matter by only a frame or two.  And this is just the essentials for a practical editing job.  There’s a whole bunch of other tricks of the trade that an editor can use to take things in a more creative direction.  Overall, it’s time consuming and often tedious, but when you find the story forming in front of you, it can also be  rewarding and sometimes even surprising process.  I’ve been through it myself before, and it’s often the process where you see the clarity of what you’re creating come through.  Hell, when I was splicing together film stock as a projectionist a while ago, I could easily see the value of how a couple missing frames might affect the overall viewing experience.  It’s a highly precise art, yet one that must also always support everything else.

From the moment that cinema began, filmmakers have been tinkering around with editing.  The turn of the century often relied on single shot moments to showcase the medium, like a train arriving at a station or a vaudeville performer doing their act, but over time, some visionaries discovered how they could use the moving picture camera to tell a story.  Georges Melies created magnificent stories through fixed camera tableau like his 1902 classic A Trip to the Moon, that didn’t feature much in the way of editing shot to shot but did show that the process could be used in the service of other things like visual effects.  Simple editing remained the norm until American filmmaker D.W. Griffith pioneered the concept of cross-cutting images in service of the story.  With his epic scale production of The Birth of a Nation (1915), Griffith created a new film-making language, having different juxtaposed shots edited next to each other to underline a theme or connect multiple story-lines into one.  Every film since then has followed Griffith’s technique and it has become the standard of modern film editing.  Griffith not only broke ground with his first epic feature, but he would continue to push the medium further with his follow-up, Intolerance (1916), which took the bold step of cutting between four different unrelated story-lines, connected solely by their common themes, showing how far the process can go and still work.  What Griffith discovered was that an edit could convey meaning and it’s something that was explored even further by filmmakers in Soviet Russia.  For the propaganda films of the early Soviet Union, an editing process called montage was developed, which used a mix of images related to theme and edited them in a way to provoke a feeling out of the viewer.  The most famous example of this was the Odessa Steps scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, where the recreation of a massacre is given extra poignancy by the inclusion of a falling baby stroller amidst all the chaos.  Even in the days before dialogue, and perhaps more so, filmmakers saw the value of how editing could make their stories come to life.

Though extraordinary surprises could come out of an edit, Hollywood more or less standardized the language of editing around the time sound was introduced to the medium.  Filmmakers could use fancy editing techniques, such as in some of the lavish musical numbers found in Busby Berkeley productions, but the limitations of sound recording led to fewer innovations in the process.  Classic style cutting was the norm for many years, and was often effectively used.  Sometimes, filmmakers would get creative with their edits and used them to set up a punchline and pay it off (watch any Three Stooges short to see what I mean) or use their edits sparingly to immerse the audience into the moment (often seen in many tense one-shot mood setters from Alfred Hitchcock).  Montages were also effectively utilized in early Hollywood, mostly as a way to quickly show a passage of time rather than convey an emotion like the Soviets would do.  But, despite the lack of innovation in the art-form of editing, it didn’t mean that the classic style wasn’t used in meaningful ways during this time.  Just look at the final pivotal scene at the end of Casablanca (1943).  For that brief moment between the lines where Captain Rennault (Claude Rains) says to the Germans “Major Strasser has been shot” and “Round up the usual suspects,” we get two quick close-ups of Rennault and Rick (Humphrey Bogart) looking to one another, and then after the pivotal line, a quick pan across to show Rick smiling back.  It’s a simple but elegant moment that’s made entirely possible through editing, and in those two close ups we are told so much without any words spoken.  This is an example where just a basic editing style can effectively tell a story, and it showed that the standardized style did illustrate that artful editing can be found in the simplest of uses.

But, innovation did become more prevalent once editing tools became more advanced and reliable.  The French New Wave brought in new concepts like smash cutting, freeze frames, and slow-motion into the language of editing, and that in turn influenced the film editing styles in Hollywood.  It became an era where the filmmakers felt more comfortable showing the editing process on screen rather than hiding it.  Abrupt cuts between scenes were popularized in the films of Jean-Luc Goddard and Francois Truffaut, and it was adopted by some of the more counter-cultural filmmakers across the pond, because they felt that it gave their movies a grittier, more modern sensibility.  Even prestigious films picked up on the style.  You can credit that famous cut in Lawrence of Arabia (where Peter O’Toole blows out the match and it cuts to a sunrise) to the influence of the French New Wave.  While these processes were always available to filmmakers before, none had been spotlighted as much, and by taking full advantage of these different tools, the same filmmakers helped to increase the awareness of the value of editing in movies.  In many ways, it gave the audience a keen awareness of different styles that a movie can have, and it helped to differentiate how the movies of their era were different than those of the past.  Form then on, innovation in the editing process would underline the advancements of the industry as a whole.  We would see the character of a film or a cinematic movement come out of it’s editing process, whether it be the renegade style of editing from the maverick 70’s or the stripped back style of the indie movement of the late 80’s and early 90’s.  In many ways, a film was more or less dependent on how well it’s editor was in tune with their era, otherwise they would come across as two old-fashioned or too far ahead of their time.

For many years up to today, the director is often reliant more than ever on the work of their editor.  In the past, the editor would usually sit alone in their editing rooms and compile the films themselves and only get feedback later once their initial work is complete.  Now, the editor and the director work in tandem to hammer out an edit of the film, made much easier now that there is a digital intermediate to work with rather than having to re-splice the same film over and over again.  And it’s through this collaboration that a vision can come out of the project.  An editor may sometimes understand the value of a cut better than the director (who might be too protective of every shot they filmed) and their suggestions often help to reign in the story.  There have been many examples over the years of movies that were saved in the editing room after disastrous productions.  Star Wars is probably the most famous example.  Those who worked on George Lucas grand vision often were lost with regards to what they were doing and where the story was actually leading to, and some said that Lucas himself wasn’t entirely sure of what he was getting into.  But, thanks to an expert editing team (which included Marcia Lucas, George’s then wife), they somehow found the essence of the story and condensed it into the solid adventure that we know today.  Sadly, George Lucas has shown less restraint over the years, and we now know what a lack of controlled editing looks like in the Star Wars universe thanks to the prequels and Special Editions.  Apocalypse Now (1979) is another example of a movie saved by an imaginative edit, which paints a beautiful portrait out of what was a notoriously disastrous shoot.  No film is ever lost unless there is a smart, precise edit done to it.  I think that’s why so many directors often reuse the same editors on each film; they need someone they can trust.  Every Spielberg production has seen the dutiful hands of Michael Kahn on it, as has almost every Scorsese pic with Thelma Schoonmaker, and so on.  Sometimes, if you’re the Coen Brothers or Steven Soderbergh, the edit becomes an entirely singular operation too.  Overall, the final character of the film is determined mostly by how well the editor and the director collaborate together.

But, not every collaboration leads to golden results.  Sometimes, a movie is often hindered by a sometimes overzealous editing job.  This has become especially problematic in the era of MTV music videos and quick paced commercials on television that we’ve now been accustomed to.  Many up and coming filmmakers make the wrong assumption that the more editing they use in their movies the better, because it gives their work a grittier, more frantic style.  Unfortunately, quick editing does more to disorient the viewer than it does to engage them into the film.  While it works for some films, like a war picture or a documentary style drama, it can often feel out of place in most anything else.  Editing is meant to establish setting just as much as it is used to convey momentum and emotion to a scene.  If the edits are too wild and can’t focus on it’s subjects, then the audience feels disconnected from the moment.  I’ve complained about the style of Michael Bay a lot already, but his use of editing is a perfect example of this disorienting quick edit style that serves no purpose.  But, even more restrained editing can become obnoxious if misused in a movie.  Sometime filmmakers like to use montages and flashy editing as a way to create poetry in imagery, and it can often backfire and look pretentious as a result.  Even respected filmmakers like Gus Van Sant and Terrence Malick have developed just as many detractors as fans for sometimes getting too fancy with their lyrical editing.  Just look at the pointless long shots of nature in Van Sant’s Last Days (2005) or the showy, meandering editing of Malick’s To the Wonder (2013), and you’ll know what I mean.  Essentially, for an edit to work, there needs to be a purpose behind it, and not just to indulge the filmmaker’s desires.

The editing of a movie is more than anything where the story comes to life.  All the hard work on the production design, the cinematography, the acting, and the dialogue matters little unless it all colludes together as a whole in the editing room.  In the end, the editor’s job is often thankless, but ever so crucial, because they’re mostly responsible for creating the finished product that all of get to see and the success of their job relies on their work not being noticed by the viewer.  Thankfully, with films that celebrate the art of a good edit, we can at least see an editor’s hard work on display occasionally.  In the classic style, it’s always neat to see an edit put the perfect punchline on a well placed gag (Hitchcock’s famous train going into a tunnel innuendo from North by Northwest is a great example).  And in the maverick 60’s and 70’s, it was interesting to see the limits of the art-form explored.  But for me, what I love best about editing is the way that it shows how much even just a few frames of film matter.  There are some moments in movies (like Han Solo’s great surprise arrival at the Death Star late in Star Wars or the final haunting shot of Psycho with Norman’s face superimposed with a skull) that could have been spoiled if they went on just a second longer than they did.  Sometimes it comes down to the one single frame that makes the difference, which is staggering when you consider that 24 frames makes up only a second of film.  My hope is that every filmmaker approaches the editing process with a certain amount of understanding and respect that it deserves.  Play around with what you’re able to do, and you’ll find a completely different story than you might have expected going in.  Many pieces go into the making of a film, but the edit is what puts all those pieces into place and turns that puzzle into the whole picture in the end.

Half the Story – When Hollywood Abandons Incomplete Franchises

golden compass

When Hollywood has a movie that is popular, then it’s a beloved asset.  If it’s a story that’s open enough for a sequel, even better.  Building a franchise, more than anything, is what the big studios strive for, because it guarantees them added revenue for years and decades to come.  The only problem is that not every story is well suited for a franchise.  Some movies are better as singular experiences with clear cut conclusions that leaves no loose threads dangling.  And yet, Hollywood will still try to squeeze every last bit of substance they can in order to stretch their success further.  Strangely enough, some of the movies in the last year have shown that with enough creativity and purpose, some franchises can live on and prosper, even after years of dormancy.  With the cases of Star WarsMad Max, or Rocky, we are now seeing franchises enter their seventh or fourth iterations, and come out of it even stronger than before.  Not only that, but these movies also make the bold assertion that there will be more to come later.  Of course, with some of these franchises, their continuation makes sense because it’s built into their base levels to be ongoing stories.  But, for that to work, the movies have to bank on the expectations of the audience that they’ll be willing to come back again and again.  And in some cases, when a film series is starting from scratch, it becomes a gamble to have your audiences expect more.  Sadly, some of the biggest misfires that Hollywood has ever made have come from the misguided attempts to build a franchise while forgetting to make the movies stand on their own.

Truth be told, this is far too often the result of having too much story for one movie.  Many franchises we see today are based off of works of literature, particularly the kinds that tell their stories over multiple volumes.  When the story is vast enough to guarantee enough plot for a lot more movies, then it appeals greatly to filmmakers interested in starting up a franchise.  But, when the translation happens, those same filmmakers have to take into account a few things; can they get away with telling only part of the story and is that something that’ll please their audience.  For most of these franchises, they all run into the same problem and that’s the opening film hurdle.  The first film in a franchise, especially one that is supposed to start off a planned series, is always the hardest film to make and it’s by far the one film in each series that makes or breaks the entire operation.  Within it, you must devote a huge amount of run-time purely to set up your main cast of characters, the world they live in, the special rules that pertain to said world, the stakes within, and if you’re lucky, hopefully there will be room for some plot as well.  For many wannabe franchises, this first film is often the stumbling block, just because an insane amount of exposition must be applied in order to set up what comes after.  Exposition is a valuable tool when writing a book and is generally accepted when readers come across it on the page, but in movies, it can often be monster.  When a movie stops to explain something, it grinds the film to a halt, thus making exposition a thing that most screenwriters and directors fear.  This is what defines the biggest problem with most opening films in franchises, and it sadly is what prevents many of them from ever finding their footing.

But, if a franchise does get over that hurdle, then it has a chance of succeeding.  And indeed, the best franchises we’ve seen over the years, at least the ones that come from literary sources, are the ones who managed to establish their worlds and characters successfully.  Once that hurdle has been conquered, then anything is possible and chances can finally be taken.  It was the situation that we saw play out a lot in the early to mid-2000’s when this idea of franchises built from multi-volume literary sources suddenly became the rage in the industry.  In 2001, we saw the start of two series that not only gambled and succeeded with their ambitious first features, but would also go on to set the template for the next decade in Hollywood.  These of course were the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises.  Rings you could argue was the more successful because it was the better stand alone movie, but Potter did well enough at the box office to warrant it’s expected sequels and only later did it finds it’s footing with the sequels that took more chances.  But regardless of how good the first films were, the fact that they succeeded allowed for the franchise to breath a little easier going forward.  Rings and Potter improved as they went along, but, they had to gain the trust of their audiences in order to keep going.  That’s what made their opening films so crucial, because if the audience didn’t buy into the story from the start, what need would they have for it to continue.  Fortunately for Rings and Potter, they had the benefit of capable filmmakers behind them who believed in what they were doing.  Most of the failed franchises weren’t so lucky.

Though a lot of franchises have come and gone over the decades, the 2000’s seemed to be an especially brutal one for “one and done” attempts at building a series.  Mostly, this was a result of many studios trying way too hard to ride the coattails of Rings and Potter.  Those films had the benefit of a built in base of support that saw them through their entire run, and the audiences were even rewarded with some better than expected results.  Other franchises failed because they made no effort to distinguish themselves and merely just tried to copy the formula that had come before.  Sadly, this happened too often to franchises that had potential, but were saddled with lame, amateurish productions.  A good example of this is something like Eragon (2005).  On the outside, this looked like a feature that embodied the same spirit and style of Lord of the Rings.  Written by wunderkind American fantasy writer Christopher Paolini, Eragon had all the makings of a great classic series; high production values, a stellar cast (Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Rachel Weisz), and a beloved source novel.  How could it possibly fail?  With lackluster direction and a 90-minute running time that stripped the story down to it’s bare bones; that’s how.  The movie was a cliche filled mess and it drove audiences away, mainly because there was nothing of interest for them to grab onto.  It was all plot and no heart.  Sadly, the lackluster adaptation stop any chance of the series continuing and all we have now is just the first stand alone film.  It probably failed because it added nothing to the fantasy genre that we already hadn’t seen.  Unfortunately, other franchises would likewise fall into the “one and done” pitfall despite having promise.  The quirkiness of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) should have helped it stand out, as well as the uniqueness of The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008) modern day American setting.  And yet, uninspired productions sank these franchises two before they could ever get themselves going.

On the plus side, many of these franchises smartly remembered that they were stand alone films in addition to being parts of a larger narrative.  The biggest mistake that a wannabe franchise can do is to leave itself open-ended, making the misguided assumption that the franchise will have legs beyond one feature.  Sadly, there have been many failed franchises that not only ended up with just one feature, but also ones that had that same one film feel incomplete.  Oddly enough, this is a practice that was following in the footsteps of a successful franchise that somehow worked to it’s own advantage.  In The Lord of the Ring: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), the movie left us with an open ending, with the main characters advancing towards the next stage of their journey.  While this was a gamble itself, director Peter Jackson somehow made this acceptable by working everything before feel like a logical conclusion to this phase in the story, allowing the tease at the end to feel more natural.  Unfortunately, not every continuing narrative has these nice and neat breaks to conclude an opening chapter.  Sadly, too many Rings wannabes tried to give themselves these teaser endings to get us excited for what’s next, and having it backfire.  Perhaps the worst attempt at this was a film called The Golden Compass (2007).  Based off the Phillip Pullman novels (which has often been described as Narnia for Atheists), The Golden Compass was New Line Cinema’s misguided attempt to create their own fantasy franchise in the same vein as Rings.  A convoluted adaptation followed and to make it even more infuriating, the movie thought it could conclude open-ended like Rings.  Unfortunately, because they picked a horrible place to cut the story off (which ignores a far more satisfying ending from the book) the movie just feels incomplete as a result instead of being a satisfying experience on it’s own.  This is a perfect example of how not to do a teaser ending, and is the primary reason why The Golden Compass‘ open ending remains so painfully awkward today.

This is perhaps the main reason these failed franchises feel so pathetic in the end; because we know that there is more story to be told and yet we’ll never get to see any of it on the big screen because the openings let us down.  The Golden Compass especially feels irritatingly hollow because it dared to think we’d be clammouring for more in the end, but did nothing to earn it.  But, some movies can get away with it by making each feature feel complete and avoid those ending teasers that only end up infuriating the audience.  Harry Potter had the benefit that each volume of it’s series more or less has it’s own story that only ends up tying together the further into the larger narrative you go.  If the first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer Stone (2001) failed and no more were made after, it could still stand on it’s own because the film’s plot was more or less a complete one.  In the end, all films must follow the same act structure as every other film, having a beginning, middle, and ending that all make sense.  Even stories that take in the center of a larger narrative and can get away with it.  Movies that just pick up or leave the story without context will only end up confusing their audience.  That’s what makes every individual Potter film work in the end; their individual narratives.  Some failed franchises withhold elements that could lift the drive of their individual plots in favor of saving them for future installments, and becomes another unnecessary fault that defines them because it robs the urgency of the story.  The only explanation could be that studios want to follow a formula and that doesn’t fit into each stories narrative and you end up with films that feel more like exercises rather than experiences.

The commerce angle behind these franchise makings can also become their downfall.  Sometimes, when the source material is too large to fit into a single feature, or even just a couple, then some productions make the mistake of cramming too much into a movie.  It’s the opposite problem to the hollow withdrawing of material like what happened with The Golden Compass; but it’s no less destructive to the plot of a movie.  Try to tell too much story, and you end up with a plot that never gives the audience a chance to absorb it all, or it tells only a fraction of what’s really there to begin with.  Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events fell victim to this, with many of the 18 novels in the series crammed into a disjointed narrative that never settles into a rhythm.  M. Night Shaymalan’s failed attempt to adapt the Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender resulted in a Cliff Notes version of the first season called The Last Airbender (2010) which gave us all the high points with none of the emotion and ended up being loathed by audiences of all kinds.  This is the unfortunate result of trying to force a giant story into the confines of a cinematic format, and again, forcing the story again leads to failure which in turn leads to abandonment.  Thank God George R. R. Martin turned down Hollywood attempts to adapt his Song of Ice and Fire series into a single condensed film, and instead waited for HBO to come calling.  What he proved is that sometimes there are other ways to adapt a lengthy story, including television, and that it matters to give a narrative it’s proper pace and format.  Rings and Potter had their formulas, but they only worked best for their own stories.  Many of these other failed franchises would have done best to establish their own formulas to follow.

In the end, the best thing to do is to think about each film as it’s own story.  Sadly, even ongoing narratives still have to gamble with the changing times.  Harry Potter was lucky to survive for over a decade, mainly by gaining goodwill from the audience by taking chances.  But, even still, time will change perspectives and audiences will ultimately decide if a series is worth continuing.  We did end up with 3 Narnias in this fantasy craze of the 2000’s, but that was short lived, and we may never see the final four that are still waiting.  It’s a gamble in the end, but one that more or less can depend on the willingness of the filmmakers.  If you are purely just in it to follow a fad, then your series will be short lived.  If you believe in the project, and understand the best way to tell the story on screen, then you might have a chance.  Unfortunately, so many franchises make the mistake of putting too much faith in their first film and then abandoning that faith when it doesn’t turn out like they expected.  EragonThe Golden Compass, and Lemony Snicket are the unfortunate lost children of Hollywood’s make-or-break approach to franchise building.  Their failures are only made more harsh by the fact that they feel more incomplete than the average film, the result of a misguided belief that these stories can only carry over into the next chapters.  The reason why we see series like Star Wars continue to stay strong even after a long absence, and is allowed to conclude each film with a more or less open ending, is because it’s earned the right to.  Each open ending does have a sense fulfillment by the end, and audiences accept it.  Nothing is withheld or forced on us, and the plot has been firmly established with a satisfying three act progression.  That’s why when we see Luke and Leia standing together as they plan a rescue for their friend Han Solo at the conclusion of The Empire Strikes Back, it feels like a natural ending without truly ending.  It’s a story worth the cliffhanger, and sadly the formula doesn’t fit all stories despite Hollywood’s attempts to make it fit. There’s nothing more unfortunate in Hollywood than a story that will never be concluded, and that’s the worst kind of cliffhanger that any storyteller can imagine.

Top Ten Movies of 2015

movies 2015

The year of 2015 has come and gone and what a year it turned out to be.  Hollywood of course is pleased with how it all turned out because it ended up being a year for the record books.  No less than 5 movies crossed the billion dollar mark at the world wide box office this year, with a few more nearly reaching that mark as well.  Overall, it was the biggest box office ever in a single year, reaching $11 billion domestic for the first time ever.  And this astronomical number was surprisingly lifted by box office hits that came from long dormant franchises.  This turned into a year where we learned that big business can still be made from franchises that most people thought were done for good, and that fandom should not be underestimated.  But it mattered that these movies also delivered on what their audience was asking for, and it helped that the people making them have long been fans of the titles themselves.  That’s why these movies hit as big as they did; they appealed to the audiences sweet spot, but also made them feel fresh at the same time.  And, in the case of Star Wars and Jurassic World, we are seeing the kings of old dominate once again.  But, overall, this was also a year that delivered some of the biggest surprises as well as some of the most crushing disappointments.  That’s why, here at the end of the year, it made compiling this list more difficult than usual.  Of all the movies this year, a good amount of them made a very strong case to be on my best of the year list; particularly at the top.  It’s just a sign of the quality of entertainment this year; a lot of great films floated to the top, while the rest sank to the bottom, with not a lot in between.  Regardless, I still narrowed it down to my top ten, and it’s a list that I feel confident about now.

Before I begin though, I’d like to share with you all the movies that I did enjoy this year, but felt that they fell just short of my top then.  Some of these were particularly close to making it, and I still strongly recommend that you see them because they are thoroughly enjoyable.  In alphabetical order: Avengers: Age of UltronBlack Mass, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Cinderella, Crimson Peak, The Hateful Eight, Jurassic World, Kingsmen: The Secret Service, Love and Mercy, Mad Max: Fury Road, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, The Peanuts Movie, Spectre, Spotlight, Straight Outta Compton, Trainwreck, and The Walk.  So, with those out of the way, let’s get into my choices of the Top Ten Movies of 2015.  Keep in mind, though I watch more new movies than the average person, I still haven’t seen every movie this year, including some of the late or limited releases, so sorry Room, Beasts of No Nation and Son of Saul; your absence here is purely because I haven’t run across you yet.  And so, let us begin the countdown.


ex machina poster


Directed by Alex Garland

Perhaps the most fascinating indie film of the year, Ex Machina is a stunning debut for first time director Alex Garland.  Though the movie can sometimes become a little too languid and ponderous at times, it makes up for it with it’s well executed ideas.  Detailing a bizarre weekend in the secluded compound of an eccentric tech industry tycoon, where said tycoon uses one of his clueless employees as a guinea pig for testing his new invention (an advanced artificial intelligence housed in a nearly human like robot), this is one of the more unique science fiction films to come in recent years.  And what’s great about this movie is that it makes remarkable use of it’s limitations.  Using only a single location (the compound) and only three main actors, this movie feels intimate while at the same time allowing you to contemplate some very big concepts within the story.  But, what makes this movie work most of all are the characters.  Domhnall Gleeson plays a likable sap in his role as the smart but gullible hero.  Alicia Vikander brings remarkable life to the challenging role of the robot, making her feel strangely human but distant as well, perfectly challenging the audience with that same question placed on the hero.  But, the movie truly belongs to Oscar Issac as the eccentric billionaire.  He steals every scene he’s in and gives one of the best and most unpredictable performances of the year.  His bizarre dance scene in the middle of the film may also be one of the greatest moments of the year in my opinion.  It’s a strange little film that should absolutely be experienced, especially for the performances, but also for the interesting questions it raises as well.


carol poster


Directed by Todd Haynes

It was a landmark year for gay rights, with the Supreme Court’s landmark decision.  But, Hollywood has often had a difficult time bringing gay themes into their films in a believable way.  Sure, Hollywood has long supported gay people for a while now, and some of the reason peoples’ minds have changed over the years towards the issue is because of the way sympathetic depictions of gay characters in most movies.  But, an unfortunate by product of this is that many films from Hollywood that are trying to appeal to the notion of Queer Cinema often are unfocused and rely too heavily on melodrama to accurately portray the gay experience in their movies.  As a result, too many gay-themed films feel inauthentic and often cliched, making their gay characters sadly too one-dimensional.  That’s what makes Carol so refreshing.  This movie could have been handled very poorly, either being too melodramatic, preachy, or just plain old boring, and thankfully it avoids all that and instead just focuses on it’s characters and their story.  Todd Haynes, a pioneer in the rise of Queer Cinema over the last few decades, imbues this movie with a warm rich atmosphere that recalls the classic melodramas of classic Hollywood, and yet he also manages to keep the sentimentality to a minimum, making this the least melodramatic of melodramas.  It also spotlights a segment of the gay community that I feel is underrepresented in Queer Cinema by focusing on a love story between two lesbian women.  The performances are excellent here, especially Cate Blanchett who’s stunning to watch on screen in every scene she inhabits.  Rooney Mara likewise delivers her career best work as well.  It’s Todd Haynes most assured and beautifully constructed film to date that thankfully pays homage to classic Hollywood glamour while also acknowledging the moral distinctions that we’re aware of today, and never once forces the story to be anything other than what it needs to be.


star wars force awakens poster


Directed by J. J. Abrams

Let’s face it; all of 2015 was leading up to this movie right here.  Right from the moment the movie was announced after the handover of Lucasfilm Ltd. to the Disney Studios, people were excited.  Finally the Star Wars saga was going to continue beyond where it left off with Return of the Jedi.  Then we heard that J.J. Abrams was going to direct, and that many of the original cast was returning as well, and we got more psyched.  And then, over the course of the last year, we were treated to several expertly crafted trailers, that boosted the anticipation even more.  Perhaps no other movie in history has come to theaters with so much hype behind it, which led me to worry that it could also have been the year’s biggest disappointment if it didn’t deliver.  Thankfully, it not only did not disappoint, it was even better than I expected.  There are flaws, sure, but they are so minor compared to all the things they get right.  The characters are the film’s biggest triumph, both old and new.  I’m also amazed by how well the film managed to deal with the expectations put on while still feeling confident enough to not deviate from the story it needed to tell.  There is one particular shocking moment late in the film that I won’t spoil, but I will say that had it been poorly handled, it would have angered fans everywhere and would’ve sabotaged the master plan for the series as a whole.  Thankfully, the moment was handled perfectly and it’s a game-changer that brings stakes back into the franchise and helps to build anticipation for what’s next.  Many have debated what the better revival was this year; Star Wars or Mad Max.  While I do admire what George Miller did with his gritty franchise, I felt that Star Wars hit more of the right notes for me overall.  It was the year of Star Wars in many ways and it’s so refreshing to see a blockbuster that actually is worthy of the hype that preceded it.


creed poster


Directed by Ryan Coogler

But, despite the amazing work done in both Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the best franchise revival of the year belongs to Creed, a remarkably stirring continuation of the legendary Rocky franchise.  Not only does this movie perfectly continue the long running story of boxer Rocky Balboa, but it may actually better than any of the films that have come before it.  The story focuses on the rise of boxer Adonis “Creed” Johnson, the illegitimate son of Rocky’s one-time rival turned friend Apollo Creed, and follows his own underdog story as he trains hard in order to come out of the shadow of his famous father, with the help of none other than Rocky himself as trainer.  It’s a story we’ve obviously seen before, and yet director Ryan Coogler makes it all feel new.  What’s amazing about this movie is how well Coogler manages to revive the feeling of what made the Rocky films great in the first place, but at the same time manages to feel unique on it’s own.  Michael B. Jordan delivers a knockout performance as Adonis, capturing a complex individual who has more to prove about himself than what his name gives him.  However, it’s Sylvester Stallone who stands out the most.  He delivers what is probably his best performance ever continuing in a role that has come to define his career.  His aging Rocky is lovingly reborn in this new film and he reminds us once again why we fell in love with Rocky Balboa in the first place.  Coogler clearly meant this movie to be a love letter to the franchise, and the nods to the past Rocky films are expertly displayed here.  And boy, did this movie pick the perfect moment to include the famed Bill Conti theme.  This movie proves that it’s not just worthwhile to continue the Rocky franchise; it’s essential.  It’s expertly crafted, heartfelt, and brilliantly acted and easily one of the years best.


steve jobs poster


Directed by Danny Boyle

This was probably the most interesting cinematic experiment of the year.  Could you tell the story of a real life person (and cultural icon for that matter) and do it with only three scenes.  That’s the approach that director Danny Boyle brought to his biopic of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, one of the 20th Century’s most influential visionaries.  All two hours of the movie is devoted entirely to three half hour long scenes, showing Steve Jobs balancing both personal and professional dilemmas behind closed doors on the eve of the product launches of some of his most famed creations; the Macintosh computer in 1984, the NeXT computer in 1988, and finally the iMac in 1998.  Jobs meets and clashes with all the same people in each scene and the film turns into a fascinating exploration into how people change over the years and how regrets and grudges tend to grow over the passing years.  It’s a cinematic experiment that works amazingly well, and helps to redefine the rules about how to make a biopic.  Danny Boyle makes good uses of his usually flamboyant style here, but the real key to this film’s success is the sharp as a nail screenplay by Aaron Sorkin.  It’s clear to anyone that nobody writes two sided arguments better than Sorkin does, and there are a few here that are more edge-of-your-seat compelling than a dozen action thrillers, particularly one in the middle between Jobs and Apple CEO Joe Cooley (played by Jeff Daniels).  Michael Fassbender also does an amazing job disappearing into the role, which is especially impressive given the very public identity that Jobs had.  Kate Winslet is also great as Job’s resourceful and long suffering assistant.  And best of all, the movie smartly doesn’t try to turn it’s subject into a saint either.  Steve Jobs accomplished great things, but this movie perfectly shows the monster than he could be in between the moments of brilliance.


the big short poster


Directed by Adam McKay

It’s hard to believe that the same guy responsible for many of the Will Farrell comedies over the last decade, which includes Anchorman (2004) Talladega Nights (2006) and Step Brothers (2008), could also be responsible for what is the smartest and most gutting and politically charged movie of the year.  Well, as was true in the medieval times, the person best able to speak truth to power when no one else would turned out to be the court jester, and that’s what makes the usually comedic director Adam McKay’s new film such an eye-opener.  The Big Short details the difficult to explain housing market crash of the late 2000’s, an economic disaster that nearly destroyed the entire world economy.  It’s a subject that is difficult to explain to the average viewer, and the movie does a masterful job of explaining the un-explainable in both funny and enraging ways.  What I liked best about this movies is the take-no-prisoners approach to the satire.  Everyone is to blame for the corruption and fraud that led to the market downfall in this movie; the bankers especially, but also the politicians, the regulators, even us in the audience who still remain ignorant to the problem.  The movie has a great gimmick where the film will cut away to celebrity guests who will explain to us the things we don’t understand, showing how the power of distraction was a tool that allowed the problem to go on for so long without being noticed.  A great cast, led by Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, and Ryan Gosling among others portray the men who saw the disaster coming, and the movie smartly shows that even they were just as guilty of profiteering from the disaster as some of the worst offenders.  It’s hilarious, but also enlightening and it will anger you in ways that few other political films do.  It’s a satire of the highest level, and would be laugh out loud if it weren’t so painfully true.  And it shows that sometimes the funny man can be the smartest person in the room.


inside out poster


Directed by Pete Docter

Pixar is one of the most revered brands in all of film-making, let alone the world of animation.  But, after a lull in quality over the last couple years, people were wondering if they were still capable of making classics like they did in their heyday.  Thankfully this year, we were treated to an instant classic called Inside Out, which is not just one of the best movies this year, but one of Pixar’s all-time greats.  The movie is a stunner from beginning to end, taking us into the most unlikely of settings: the mind of a pre-teen girl.  What I liked about this movie the most were the incredible characters.  Each emotion is a fully developed personality, each perfectly embodying the emotion they represent.  The scene-stealer of course is Sadness, whose characterization is just perfection and is brilliantly voiced by The Office’s Phyllis Smith.  In addition, every moment in the movie is an ingenious execution of one great concept after another.  It’s great to see a movie take on a subject like psychology and the workings of emotions and portray it in a way that is both entertaining and informative to audiences of all ages.  This will probably be a great introduction to the science of psychology to children, showing that life shouldn’t be lived by one emotion alone, but through a mixture of all of them.   And there is plenty of drama and knowing humor that will keep the adults entertained as well.  And it’s amazing to think that a movie can make us shed a tear for a character named Bing Bong (“Who’s your friend who likes to play?”).  Director Pete Docter delivers an assured and fully-rounded cinematic experience that is eye-popping and mind-opening from beginning to end.  And it proves once again that Pixar still has it.


the revenant poster


Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu

Director Inarritu is on a career high right now.  After years of making small, mostly non-linear films that featured large ensembles, he decided to change things up recently and try his talents in different genres.  And this has been an experiment that has paid off.  Last year he made Birdman, a dark comedy set in the backdrop of Broadway, and it ended up winning the coveted Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as an Oscar for directing to Inarritu himself.  That film was also my own choice for the best movie of last year, which put a lot of heavy expectations on what he would make next.  Thankfully, he delivered something really spectacular as an encore.  The Revenant is an “Epic” worthy of the word and shows that Alejandro Inarritu is capably of creating a trans-formative film in any genre.  After going light with his last movie, here he goes dark and bloody, telling the harrowing story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fur trapper in the American wilderness in the early 19th century, who’s left for dead after a bear attack and must fight his way back to civilization in order to kill the man who murdered his son.  The visuals in this movie are stunning, accomplished by back-to-back Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, and there are many “how did they shoot that?” moments that will leave people amazed.  Really, this was the best visual experience of the year for me.  DiCaprio once again proves why he’s one of the best actors working today, and this shoot must have been a hard one to go through.  But, it’s Tom Hardy who steal the film as the villain, becoming almost unrecognizable in the role.  It’s a brutal cinematic experience, but one that’s rewarding by the end, and it shows that the newly crowned Oscar-winning director still has a lot more to show us.


the martian poster


Directed by Ridley Scott

One of the year’s breakout hits, The Martian also proved to be one of the surprising cinematic experiences as well.  While a lot of people expected this to be a thrilling, action packed extravaganza, I’m sure that no one expected this to be as smart, funny, and ultimately inspiring as it turned out to be.  The film tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney (a perfectly cast Matt Damon) who is left behind when his crew leaves him for dead on the Martian surface after their camp is hit by a sand storm.  After surviving the incident, Mark must find a way to live on the inhospitable terrain of Mars before a rescue team can come and retrieve him; a process that may take up to 4 years.  Much of the joy of watching this movie is seeing the ingenious processes that Mark Watney undertakes to stay alive, and the unwavering determination of the people back on earth to bring him home safely.  It’s the positivity that the characters approach their missions with that makes this movie so refreshing.  While many other science fiction films will often get bogged down in melodramatic contrivances, The Martian instead celebrates the ingenious and cooperative progression that the characters takes.  And best of all, it puts the Science back into Science Fiction.  In a time we live in now when Science is so often villified, whether it’s denying climate change or dismissing the benefits of vaccination or just flat out denying the fact that man has walked on the moon, it’s great to finally see a movie that celebrates the use of science and praises the work of scientists.  Director Ridley Scott of course delivers on the visuals, but it’s also a treat to see him work with a story built around optimism rather than tragedy.  Plus, it’s got a great disco based soundtrack as well.  It’s one of the years finest film-making achievements and one of the more pleasurable cinematic experiences as well.

And finally…..


sicario poster


Directed by Denis Villeneuve

This was one of the most unexpected and haunting cinematic experiences this year.  Sicario was a punch to the gut for me as movies go, and I still haven’t been able to shake it from my mind.  It works on just about every level; from the relentless and oppressive atmosphere, to the deceptively sparse screenplay, to the flat out amazing performances.  It was the movie that stuck with me longer after seeing it than any other this year.  The movie follows a rag tag group of law enforcement agents fighting in the drug war along the U.S./ Mexican border.  The movie starts off with a chilling discovery in a horror house filled with decaying corpses out in the middle of the Arizona desert and it takes us from their into a nightmarish journey down the rabbit hole into the madness of America’s War on Drugs against the ruthless Mexican cartels.  Some of the imagery throughout the movie will stick with you, like the bodies of the Cartel’s victims hanging off the edge of a highway bypass, or the unbelievably brutal final confrontation at the end.  I won’t spoil what happens, but let’s just say it’s the most shocking moment in any movie I saw this year.  And yet, with all this horror and mayhem, it still proves to be a rewarding experience, and that’s because of how truthful it is to both the subject and the characters.  The performances are amazing throughout.  Emily Blunt proves once again how versatile she is and becomes a perfect witness for the audience to identify with through all the craziness.  Josh Brolin also offers some much needed levity as the cynical smartass Agent Carver.  But it’s Benicio del Toro who owns the movie.  His mysterious Agent Alejandro may be my favorite character of the year, and it’ll be a crime if he’s not nominated for an Oscar for this performance.  It’s a cinematic experience all of you should see, and it stands as my favorite of the year in a very crowded field.

But, of course I can’t tell you my best of the year picks without also sharing my picks for the worst.  I usually steer clear of bad movies in the theaters as you know, but there were some that were just unavoidable, even if I could see them coming.  So, here are the Top Five Worst of 2015.


TOMORROWLAND –  Without a doubt the year’s most disappointing film.  Believe me, I wanted to love this film, given the talent behind it.  But sadly, what we got instead was a tired, cliched wannabe sci-fi classic that never fully explored the promising ideas that it only hints at.  I wanted to see a grand adventure, and all I ended up with was a road movie.  Please don’t let us down again Brad Bird.


ALOHA – Speaking of wasting away a lot of promise, director Cameron Crowe just can’t seem to recapture the creative drive that once made him a standout many years ago with movies like Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous.  Aloha represents yet another poor attempt by Crowe to recapture some of that lost inspiration, but even the pretty Hawaiian locales can’t save this movie from a boring story and lackluster characters.  Not to mention it has the notoriously bad miscasting of Emma Stone as a part-Asian character.


TED 2 – The crumbling of the Seth MacFarlane empire has been going on for a while now, and this lame sequel is just another sign of that.  I did enjoy the first Ted back in 2012, but the novelty has worn off since.  This over long, contrived comedy fails on all levels to be worth the effort.  Only a well-done cameo by Liam Neeson managed to get a laugh out of me while watching the film.  Other than that: crickets.


TERMINATOR: GENYSIS – In a year when we saw triumphant revivals of legendary franchises, the Terminator series was the only one that we saw sink further.  This uninspired sequel manages to have the gall to go back to the original classic and disrupt the timeline, wiping the slate clean.  This might have been interesting had the end result not been so lame.  Yes, it’s nice to see Arnold back in the iconic role, but every other character is a one-dimensional bore.  And how dare they make Sarah Connor such a bland character.  It’s tired, predictable, and a disgrace to the once mighty franchise.

And the worst film of 2015 is….


FANTASTIC FOUR – Yeah, you probably knew this was coming.  I tore this movie apart in my earlier review and the opinion still stands.  This was a trainwreck of a movie on every level; visually, narratively, performance-wise, everything.  Even the people who made it have expressed how horrible the experience was.  The only ones who seem to want to keep this disaster going are the studio heads at Fox, who are just greedily holding onto the rights in order to keep the characters away from Marvel.  It’s a cynical business ploy that represents the worst kind of film-making.  Hopefully, Fox will learn that this no way to make a movie and will give up their grip-hold on these characters, and allow this travesty of a film to be forgotten.

So, there you go.  My picks for the best and worst of 2015.  It was an interesting year that brought us some grandiose and record breaking entertainment.  But, we were also treated to many surprises that also proved to be worthwhile.  Looking ahead now, we begin another year of movies that again looks promising, if a bit less ambitious than the previous year.  We’ll get an extra large helping of Superhero films this year including two big crossover events like Captain America: Civil War (May) and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (March), plus the anticipated sequel X-Men: Apocalypse (Memorial Day), as well as the introduction of a new face to the mix: Doctor Strange (November).  Plenty of sequels await (Alice Through the Looking GlassFinding DoryIndependence Day:ResurgenceStar Trek Beyond) plus a couple of re-imaginings (The Jungle Book) and even a revival (all-female Ghostbusters).  Plus, we’re going to get ambitious new films from some of cinema’s great masters like Steven Spielberg (The BFG), a first ever screenplay from famed Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), and a stand alone Star Wars flick to help keep us satisfied in between Episodes VII and VIII (Star Wars: Rogue One).  It’s going to be an unpredictable year, and while I don’t think we’ll see some of the box office highs that we witnessed this last year, I’m sure there will be plenty of worthwhile entertainment to be had.  And I’ll be sure to cover as much as I can of it for you my readers.  Happy New Year and let’s all still have a blast watching and talking about the movies.