TCM Classic Film Festival 2016 – Film Exhibition Report

Once again I am in the heart of Hollywood catching the annual Classic Film Festival held by the Turner Classic Movies channel.  Like every year before, the festival allows audiences the opportunity to see many of the best films of yesteryear as well as hear directly from many of the people involved in their making. Whether it be directors, actors, or film experts as the special guests, it’s a treat for anyone who considers themselves a film buff to be here. The festival is a four day event spread out across all the legendary theaters on Hollywood Boulevard.  I am here on Friday, the second day of the festival, with the intent of being here two days this time, instead of my usual one. This will be a two part coverage for you my readers, so hopefully I will have plenty to cover.  The focus of this year’s festival is inspirational films, with coming of age stories, underdog films, biblical epics, and movies about beating the odds taking the spotlight. These include classics such as Rocky (1976), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Boyz in the Hood (1991), The Pride of the Yankees (1942), and even Bambi (1943).  Political films are also highlighted. Last night included a special screening of All the President’s Men (1976), with journalist Carl Bernstein in attendance, as well as Spotlight (2015) director Tom McCarthy. The guest of honor for this year however is Francis Ford Coppola, who in addition to having a film screened at the festival, is also getting his handprints added to the legendary Chinese Theater.  His film The Conversation (1974) is the first film I hope to see and if I do, I will give you a detailed account of the presentation. So, let’s see how this festival turns out.

Day 1 (April 29, 2016)

To begin, my first show was the day’s spotlighted feature; Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. This presentation came only a couple hours after the hand print ceremony that was honored to Mr. Coppola. Given the importance of the attendee, this could have been a hard show to get into. And judging by the crowd inside, it indeed was a packed house. Thankfully careful pre planning got me inside, even if it meant waiting in the hot California sun for a couple hours. Anyone without a pass like me should take note; get there early so that you can snag up one of those remaining standby seats. Once inside, the show began with a brief introduction by frequent festival host and TCM regular Ben Mankiwecz. After a brief description of the film we were about to watch and the man who made it, Francis Ford Coppola was welcomed on stage. Naturally, he was met with a thunderous standing ovation. Ben Mankiwecz’s interview went over a few of the director’s career highlights, particularly those from his peak years in the 70’s, in addition to discussing The Conversation itself. Some of the interesting tidbits that Coppola talked about was his often hectic state of mind during those years, being both a professional as well as a family man, and having to balance the two. One of the reasons why Coppola says he made The Conversation was because it was a time when he was interested in telling a personal story, and this was a story that appealed to him, since it deals with issues of stress and privacy in such an interesting way.

Coppola has plenty of story’s to tell about one of the most important eras in film-making and most of the interview only delved into a little bit. Of course The Godfather movies were discussed, and it was interesting hearing from Coppola the experience of dealing with the studio executives who balked at some of his direction on the films. The studio for one thing didn’t want Al Pacino for the part of  Michael Corleone; or even Brando for that matter, because he was thought to be too difficult to work with.  Of course Coppola got some things through the studio system, and the end result is now considered one of the greatest movies ever made.  The amazing thing about The Conversation was the fact that it was made at the same time as The Godfather Part II (1974). Coppola especially wanted to point out the special work done by Sound Designer Walter Murch in the film, which is definitely some stand out work.  Coppola also gave us an interesting insight into the performance that was given by star Gene Hackman. He pointed out that Hackman felt uncomfortable in the role of the character.  He doesn’t know whether or not it was because Hackman disliked the character himself or because he probably felt it was too reflective of the person he really is, but over time Gene has accepted the performance as one of his best. The movie is one I’ve seen before, but never on the big screen, so this was a special treat to take in. And with Coppola there in person it made the show even better. After a good start to the day, my hope is that the rest of the day can follow it up well.



For the second show of the day, I made my way to the Chinese Theater Cineplex, located within the Hollywood & Highland Complex nearby, to watch the screening of John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood (1991).  This is the 25th anniversary of the groundbreaking movie, so it’s inclusion in this festival was both a fitting inclusion for the theme and a great way to celebrate the milestone as well.  The pre-show interview was conducted by film historian Donald Bogle, an expert in African-American cinema who has written extensively about the work of directors like Singleton.  After his introduction, he welcomed John Singleton and they discussed the making of and legacy about the film in question.  Singleton’s recollections were really fantastic to listen to.  He was only in his early 20’s when he made the movie, coming just out of film school at USC, and he pointed out that this script was something he was working on all throughout college.  The movie, as he put it, was sort of a semi-autobiographical account of his life growing up in South Central Los Angeles.  The film obviously has a personal statement to make, and as Singleton stated, this was his attempt to bring a defiant black voice to mainstream cinema; something that was only beginning to become accepted at that time in Hollywood, thanks to the success of filmmakers like him and Spike Lee.  Singleton also pointed out his influences, like Gangster flick, Kung Fu movies, and Blacksploitation films.  The Blacksploitation films in particular had a big effect on him as he stated in his best line of the interview, “Pam Grier’s breasts steered me into film-making.” (I’m paraphrasing this of course).  Like the interview with Coppola, it was great hearing about the film-making progress straight from the director himself.  His casting choices were also fascinating; apparently he wanted to have the entire group of NWA to play roles in the film, but in the end, he only managed to secure Ice Cube, who did give a great performance in the end.  After the film ended, I tried my best to fit another screening in for the night, which was to be The Manchurian Candidate (1962), with a special appearance by star Angela Lansbury.  Unfortunately, this show sold out before I got in, so this concluded my first day of the festival.  Even still, I managed to see two legendary filmmakers and watched their movies on the big screen, so I can’t complain.  So, hopefully, my Day 2 experience will turn out just as well.


Day 2 (April 30, 2016)


My second day began earlier than the first, because a mid morning showing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) was my next “must see” at this year’s festival.  Screened in the same multiplex theater as Boyz in the HoodCuckoo’s nest was a popular draw for the morning crowd, but thankfully I was there early enough to secure a seat.  Ben Mankiewicz once again acted as host for the screening and he let us know that we needed to wait until after the film to meet the special guests.  Those guests turned out to be actors Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd, both of whom played supporting roles in the movie; the first big screen role for Lloyd as we learned.   The interview gave us a interesting look into the making of the movie, especially with regards to director Milos Forman’s sometimes unusual tactics.  They mentioned that the hospital was a real working one that had authentic mental patients that Forman strongly encouraged his actors his actors to interact with, in order for them to gain more insight into the conditions that their characters are dealing with.  The two of them also talked about their experience of working with Jack Nicholson, which could sometimes be an adventure in itself.  Naturally, DeVito did most of the talking during the interview.  Lloyd maybe said no more than five words total during the interview.  Not that it was a bad thing; showing up in the first place was more than enough for him to do to make this showing worthwhile, in addition to Danny DeVito being there.  This was a nice highlight for this festival, and one that the festival runners managed to make happen at the last minute; the interview portion wasn’t listed on the programs, and the only way people could know about it is if they followed the festival on social media.  Thankfully, I managed to learn about it and work it into my festival schedule.  It’s a treat when you can hear about the film from the actor’s perspective, and here we got two from some genuine legends.




Next up, I went back to the marquee venue of the Chinese Theater and waited in line for the presentation of Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I (1956).  There was a window of opportunity where I could have fit in another movie, which if I had it would’ve been Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946) , which was playing at the Egyptian down the street.  Instead, because of the sell-out I experienced the night before, I decided to play it safe and wait in the standby line for over three hours, just so I could have a chance this time.  Thankfully, I was in the front 20 of the line, and it was early enough to get a seat for the show.  As the Chinese Theater once again had a jam packed crowd in attendance, we were treated to a pre-show interview, this time conducted by film critic Leonard Maltin.  His guest was one of the film’s stars, Rita Moreno; a legendary actress of both the stage and screen who is still active today at the age of 84.  She played the role of Tuptim in the movie and as Maltin pointed out, this was only one of the trio of classic Hollywood musicals that she played a part in; the others being Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and West Side Story, which won her an Oscar.  She shared with us her experience working on this movie, which she fondly remembers.  Some of the interesting tidbits she shared was the difficult orchestration the film-making team had to pull in order to stage the famous ballet sequence from the movie, as well as her experiences with her co-stars.  Her story about Deborah Kerr flashing her panties at her in the dressing room was an especially hilarious story.  She also mentioned her early years in Hollywood, including her brief fling Marlon Brando, something which allowed her to slyly plug her new memoir.  Overall, the interview was a treat and it was a perfect prelude to the feature itself.  Though I had seen The King and I before, I hadn’t watched it on a big screen until yesterday, and on the Chinese Theater’s massive screen, this was an especially worthwhile show.  Definitely worth baking outside in the California sun for.



Because of the extra-long length of The King and I, I only had a 10 minute window to get to my next and final show.  I quickly shuffled out of the Chinese Theater and rushed down the world-famous Walk of Fame to the Egyptian Theater a couple blocks away.  Thankfully, it was just enough time and because it was a late night show (9:30pm) in a non-marquee venue, there was plenty of seats still available.  To end my festival experience, I chose to do something unconventional as watch what was essentially a lecture presentation instead of a full movie.  This interested me because the entire presentation was on the History of Widescreen film.  The presentation was put on by Leonard Maltin, who showed up sporting a VistaVision logo t-shirt, and he was assisted by film technician and historian Christopher M. Reyna.  Together, they went through all the different widescreen film stock that has been used by filmmakers in and out of Hollywood over the years.  They began with some of the earliest know examples of Widescreen, including the famed Polyvision used in French filmmaker Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1926), which was presented in a clip projected on 70mm.  Next, they talked about the earliest known Widescreen film to still exist today, titled The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight from 1897.  From there they showed 1930 film The Big Trail, which was shot on an early process known as Grandeur 70.  After that came more popular processes like Cinerama, Cinemascope, Todd-AO, Technirama, VistaVision (Leonard’s favorite), and Ultra Panavision, and examples of each was shown to us with clips from movies like The Robe (1953), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Sleeping Beauty (1959), Oklahoma (1956), and To Catch a Thief (1956).  The collection of clips really gave a good sense of the fascinating history of the process and it was treat to see them on a big screen as well.  The power point presentation also did a good job of not feeling boring and helped to give us more visual details of the mechanical aspects behind the creation of a wider frame.  Thankfully, the show concluded with some of the most spectacular scenes ever put on Widescreen film and that was the Raid on Aquaba scene from Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and the chariot race from Ben-Hur (1959).  Maltin even gave us a special surprise with a Tom and Jerry cartoon that was made in Cinemascope.  It was a nice, unconventional way to end my festival experience for the year, and I’m pleased that the festival devoted time and effort to putting this one together.  It spoke to both the film buff and the one time movie theater projectionist that I once was.



So, as I’ve said in other years, if you are a resident of Los Angeles, or are just passing through, and you’re a devoted fan of classic films, this is a experience not worth passing up.  There are so many great films selected for this each year, and the fact that the festival runners go out of their way to bring in the people involved who made them to be a part of it only makes this even better.  Even though I had the unfortunate bad luck to miss out on that Manchurian Candidate screening, it still didn’t ruin my overall experience this year.  I still got to see Francis Ford Coppola, Rita Moreno, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd and John Singleton in person, and that made it all worth it.  If you have the money, a festival pass would be worthwhile, especially ones that get you VIP access.  But, the festival is also open to the casual viewer too, just as long as you don’t mind waiting in line for the last available seats.  So far, I’ve been going the standby route, and I’ve found a good seat in each showing I’ve been too.  Hopefully when the festival returns next year, I will be able to include more days and hopefully take in the full experience.  But, this was my first go at attending multiple days at the fest, and it turned out to be great.  I hope you’ve enjoyed my account of this year’s festival.  I hope the selection of film’s at the next one will be just as strong as this year’s.


The Movies of Summer 2016

cinerama dome

In the 3 years that I have been writing this blog, I have yet to see a summer movie season that has felt exactly the same overall from year to year.  Some years we see ambitious roll outs from the major studios, and then other years, we see a significant roll back as the production companies decide to hold off on big gambles.  And in recent years, it has become more and more common to see blockbuster movies outside of the summer season.  2016 is no exception.  As I write this, the year has already had 3 different films with opening weekends over the $100 million mark (Deadpool, Batman v. Superman, and The Jungle Book) and Summer hasn’t even begun yet.  Couple this with 3 movies already having grossed over $300 million domestic and 2016 is beginning to look like a record breaking year.  This hot streak looks to continue into the weeks ahead, as Marvel gears up their annual summer entry, along with ambitious releases from their competitors (DC/Warner and 20th Century Fox).  Sequels and remakes of course will dominate the field again, but I’m also intrigued to see how some of this summer’s independent fare will perform.  After all, last summer also gave us movies like Ex Machina which while not a huge moneymaker, it still stood out long enough among the big boys to be awarded by year’s end.  That’s usually what makes the Summer season so compelling in the end; not the big tentpoles, but the little surprises, even when they come in huge packages like Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) or Pacific Rim (2013).

As I’ve done before every Summer Movie season, I will be sharing with you my choices for the must see attractions of the coming months, as well as the movies that have me worried and the ones that I know will stink.  While I believe my picks are sound as I write this, keep in mind, I’ve never been all that good at handicapping these things.  In years past, I predicted that Tomorrowland (2015) was going to be a great movie and that Edge of Tomorrow (2014) was going to be a terrible one.  Of course, neither prediction panned out like I thought it would.  At the same time, some of these are safe bets, and others could end up being complete surprises.  I’ll certainly be interested in seeing how this season progresses.  Can Marvel continue it’s hot streak with Captain America: Civil War? Can DC revive it’s image with Suicide Squad?  What could end up being this year’s unexpected hit, or which one will be the most notorious flop?  Time to look over the Summer of 2016 schedule and see what’s ahead.



Let’s begin right where this Summer season launches with the next big Marvel movie release.  The Disney owned studio has dominated this weekend in recent years, with Avengers 1 and 2 opening to record-breaking numbers as well as Iron Man 3 (2013).  This year, Cap gets the prime spot, though of course he’s not alone in this third film in his standalone series.  The impressive cast includes pretty much every Avenger character we’ve seen to date, minus Thor and The Hulk, who will get their own separate movie next year.  Not only that, but this film will also mark the debut of Black Panther into the Marvel stable (played by Chadwick Boseman) as well as the triumphant re-introduction of Spider-Man into the Marvel Universe (here played by newcomer Tom Holland).  With a cast like this, you could just as well call this Avengers 2.5.  But, Avengers moniker or no , this still looks like an amazing film just based off of the trailers alone.  Really, I don’t blame Marvel for wanting to use their entire cast to the maximum even outside of the marquee Avengers franchise. The action scenes look top notch and the cast feels as comfortable in their roles as ever, especially Chris Evans as Captain America and Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man.  Certainly, in the wake of the mess that was Batman v. Superman, this will be Marvel’s example of how to do the formula right.  You could learn something from this Zack Snyder; pay close attention.  Hopefully, this won’t be a sign of overkill for the Marvel Studios and that their winning streak will continue as they push forward into their Phase 3 plan.


Speaking of DC Comics, they have their own film for this Summer season.  After the disappointing results of Batman v. SupermanSuicide Squad has an opportunity to turn things around in this cinematic universe and they can do that with a movie that hopefully has a lot more fun with it’s premise, instead of feeling like a cynical mandate.  And I honestly feel like this movie has set the right tone needed for DC.  Under the expert hand of director David Ayer (End of WatchFurySuicide Squad feels looser and more geared towards entertainment than other DC films.  The question is whether it can stand well on it’s own, or is merely just trying too hard to copy the vibe off of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.  Honestly, if they are trying to be the DC version of Guardians, I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing.  One thing that gets me excited about this film is it’s cast of characters.  If there’s one thing that DC does have over Marvel, it is their stronger “Rogues Gallery,” and here’s a movie that focuses entirely on just them.  Will Smith appears to be a good choice for Batman villain Deadshot, and it’s certainly been a while since I’ve been excited for any Smith film.  Plus, we are finally seeing the big screen debut of Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie), a comic book favorite that’s long been overlooked.  Jared Leto’s new take on the Joker also looks intriguing, and I’m happy that he’s doing his own thing with the character and not just rehashing Heath Ledger’s iconic version.  Overall, my hope is that this will become the tone-setter for DC going forward.  If DC wants to get the rest of us excited for their bold plan for a cinematic universe, it better be all of that.


Before Marvel had it’s stellar run, it was Pixar Animation Studios that had the best track record in Hollywood.  They’ve experienced a few pot holes as of late, both critically (Brave) and financially (The Good Dinosaur).  But, they are also riding a wave of goodwill from their beloved Inside Out, which was a dominant force in last year’s box office.  This year, they are releasing this sequel to their 2003 blockbuster hit, Finding Nemo.  It’s been quite a gap in time for this sequel to be released 13 years later, but Pixar has made it work before.  There was an eleven year gap between Toy Story 2 (1999) and 3 (2010), and a twelve year gap between Monsters Inc. (2001) and Monsters University (2013).  One of the bonuses for this sequel however is that it’s being directed by Nemo’s original creator, Andrew Stanton.  Unlike the others, which had the reigns handed over to newer teams, Stanton is bringing back his own vision for where the story will go; one that hopefully expands on the world instead of rehashing it.  After his disappointing foray into live action with John Carter (2012) this will be a homecoming for the director and the trailer clearly shows that the trademark Pixar heart and humor is still intact.  Ellen DeGeneres is of course returning as Dory (honestly, it wouldn’t be the same without her) as well as Albert Brooks as Marlin.  New cast members voiced by Ed O’Neil, Ty Burrell and Kaitlin Olsen also look to be welcome additions.  It may have been a long time for Pixar to make a return to the sea to rediscover these characters, but hopefully the wait will have been worth it.


This new entry in the rebooted Star Trek franchise should be an interesting one.  After two successful films since it relaunched, this series is now faced with having to redefine itself under new direction.  Director J.J. Abrams helped to bring the Star Trek brand up to date, but he’s been absent for the last few years, bringing that same cinematic magic to the other iconic Sci-Fi franchise, Star Wars.  In his place, Paramount Pictures tapped Fast and the Furious helmer Justin Lin to take over, which is no small order.  Abrams left big shoes to fill, and people worried that a filmmaker of Lin’s ilk might push for too much action in the series and not enough of the excellent character development that the Abram’s films were lauded for.  The stunt heavy trailer didn’t alleviate much doubt among some fans, and the Beastie Boys theme only solidified some of the worries that this movies was heading in a very non-Trek direction.  I for one feel that there’s still a lot to look forward to with this movie.  For one thing, the cast is still intact and true to character.  As long as the movie still keeps the character dynamics that have long been a part of the franchise the same, then I don’t think a little extra action would hurt the series at all.  Plus, the script for this entry is being co-penned by Simon Pegg, who’s also returning to the role of Scotty, and given his admiration for the series as a whole, I think this new direction for the series might turn out better than expected.  There may be a new Captain at the helm, but the Enterprise is still boldly heading into that final frontier the way it should be, and hopefully it will continue to do so.


Speaking of a franchise that has had to constantly reinvent itself, the X-Men franchise gives us their eighth entry this summer.  You would think that a long running series like this would have lost steam by this point, but X-Men is riding strong goodwill right now thanks to the success of their last film, Days of Future Past, which was not only the most critically praised entry in the series, but also the most profitable.  One thing that has helped this franchise out is the return of Bryan Singer to the director’s chair.  Having started the franchise way back with the first film in 2000, Singer made his return with Days of Future Past and has solidified his status as the best fit for the direction of this franchise.  His fourth X-Men film takes on one of the most beloved story-lines from the comic book series, and that’s the arrival of the titular heroes’ greatest threat; the god-like uber mutant known as Apocalypse.  Some fans have complained that the visual representation of the character is too much of a departure from his comic image, but I feel that the look of the character is less important than how he’s used in the final film.  Singer has done well in this franchise before, so I trust his judgment with the changes made to the costumes, as well as to the overall story.  I love the fact that he cast a quality actor like Oscar Isaac to the iconic role (having had a great 2015 appearing in both Ex Machina and Star Wars).  All of the other actors are returning as well, and hopefully their story-lines continue to bear fruit for this long running series.  It certainly appears to have the earth-shattering epic scope attached that’s befitting of the term apocalyptic.



Now, here we have something that on paper should sound amazing. Steven Spielberg, arguably the greatest filmmaker of his generation, taking on an adaptation of a Roald Dahl classic.  And to be honest, I’m actually very excited to see this movie regardless, because I feel like this is a movie adaptation long overdue.  The only thing is, I have a couple reservations that keeps me from being 100% enthusiastic about this.  For one thing, though Spielberg has been responsible for some of the greatest movies ever centered around children and child-like wonder, it’s been well over 25 years since he last ventured into this kind of story-telling.  And his last attempt at it was Hook (1991) which felt a little muddled and tonally confused in comparison to something like E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982).  Also, the CGI heavy visual presentation makes me worry that the film may not feel authentic in the way it should.  The BFG demands a subdued and magical tone to it’s story, and my worry is that too much CG eye candy might spoil the experience.  But, on the plus side, Spielberg is working from a script by the late Melissa Mathison, who also wrote E.T.  This will be their final collaboration so hopefully it will be a dignified swan song for the legendary screenwriter.  And despite my misgivings of CGI, I will admit the animation of the titular giant does look good (with a voice by recent Oscar winner Mark Rylance).  Hopefully after 20 years telling grown up stories, Spielberg can return to seeing the world through the eyes of a child again, and that it will be just as magical as before.


This is a strange direction that this franchise has taken.  A couple years back, you might remember that I added the first film to my “movies to skip” preview.  So, why am I upgrading the sequel into this year’s purgatory?  Because, judging by what I’ve seen in the trailers, this is actually one of the few cases where pandering to fan service may actually be a good thing.  The first film was rightly criticized for taking too many liberties with the premise and visual style of the Ninja Turtles, becoming more of a generic action thriller cash in than anything.  This time around, it looks like the filmmakers behind this actually were taking into account what die-hard fans of this Turtles have been asking for, and they are delivering the goods this time around.  It seems like every element from the popular animated series and toy-line that many people from my generation had grown up with has made it into the film; whether it be the van that shoots out manhole covers from the front to the inclusion of fan favorite minions Bebop and Rocksteady.  My own favorite character, Casey Jones (played by Arrow’s Stephen Amell) is also here too.  The only thing that keeps me from being too excited for this is the fact that it’s still a Michael Bay production.  But, unlike Bay’s Transformers franchise, which just treats it’s fan-base like idiots, this franchise is actually treating it’s fans more seriously and are listening to what they want, and that in the end is a step in the right direction.


It’s been a long eight year gap since we’ve seen Jason Bourne on the big screen.  The series hit a high point with it’s third film, The Bourne Ultimatum (2008), and the finale of that movie felt like a fitting final chapter in the groundbreaking action franchise’s run.  Unfortunately, Universal Pictures wanted to keep the series going, even though it’s star Matt Damon had stepped away.  The result was that we got a Jason Bourne-less sequel called The Bourne Legacy (2012), starring Jeremy Renner in the role of another spy unconnected with the title character, and the overall movie turned out to be a pointless retread of familiar ground.  Now, Matt Damon has returned to the role, but has the franchise already run out of steam to the point where even he can’t bring it back?  My hope is that there is still some juice left in this franchise to make another sequel necessary.  The return of director Paul Greengrass is a good sign, as is the addition of Tommy Lee Jones to the cast.  The only thing is that Ultimatum was such a high water mark and Legacy was such a boring disappointment that I worry that this series should be better left alone than continued.  Honestly, I don’t know if there is anything left to explore with the character.  And there is so many other Bourne clones in cinemas now, that I don’t think a new one will stand out like the original trilogy did years ago.  But, then again, I may be underestimating what Greengrass and Damon can do, and hopefully this will be one spy worth seeing again.


Remakes are a tricky sell in Hollywood, especially when they take on beloved classics.  This summer, we are getting a modern re-telling of the classic Ben-Hur.  The original from 1959 is considered by many to be one of the crown jewels of Hollywood’s Golden Age of the 1950’s; an unmatched epic scale production that still inspires filmmakers today.  Certainly one of those inspired by the movie had to be Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch) who is taking on the risky challenge of adapting this story himself.  I’ll give him this, it’s a decision that takes a lot of guts to do.  Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone can truly recapture the wonder and scope of William Wyler’s masterpiece, but it will be interesting to see someone try.  Can this movie work as a remake of the classic film?  Probably not.  Can it do an adequate job of retelling of Lew Wallace’s classic story?  Maybe.  There are some interesting visual ideas seen in the trailer; though it looks like too many other Gladiator wannabes we’ve seen over the years.  The inclusion of Morgan Freeman in the cast also has me intrigued.  Still, I’m sure that too much self-indulgent eye candy may spoil this film’s presentation, especially in the famous chariot race that was so remarkably staged in the original classic.  But, even despite this, I don’t exactly hold Ben-Hur up as this untouchable work of art, so I’m still interested in seeing if any new take on it might turn out something at least interesting.



Now here’s a remake that I have not one shred of faith in.  Let me be clear, I don’t object to the casting of female actors in the roles.  That’s an idea that absolutely could have worked if given the same amount of care as the original.  No, what I object to is the heavy handed slapstick that they’ve added.  The original Ghostbusters (1984) is a masterpiece of character driven, understated, dry witty humor that was perfectly in tune with it’s cast that included Bill Murray and the late Harold Ramis.  This remake seems to think that all they need to get a laugh is to rely on shtick and physical gags.  This is not what made Ghostbusters a classic in the first place.  The original also had the great juxtaposition of genuine scary elements mixed in with the sarcastic one-liners.  This remake almost feels restrained and lazy.  Seriously, they’re lowering themselves down to another Exorcist reference.  The overly used CGI doesn’t help either, because it only adds to the artificiality of it all.  Maybe the cast will try their hardest to be funny, but unless they get the tone right, this remake is doomed to fail.  And I hold the original up in such high regards that I feel any attempt to piggy back on it’s legacy is pretty much doomed to fail as well.  Sadly, with the talent involved, this is going to be a disaster that will hurt and I worry that this will end up tarnishing the good name of a comedy masterpiece.  No, just no.


Here we have a sequel coming to theaters after an extremely long absence; 20 years in fact, almost to the day.  Roland Emmerich’s 1996 original was a true phenomenon, breaking box office records and revolutionizing the use of CGI graphics and cinematic scale into the Summer blockbuster for it’s time.  It also spotlighted actor Will Smith, turning him into a bankable star overnight.  At the same time Independence Day was also big and dumb, but in a nice goofy way, just as long as you didn’t take it too seriously.  Unfortunately, over time Roland Emmerich has lost some of the playful goofiness of his earlier work and has now turned into a director that rehashes the same old tricks, only with less of a sense of humor attached.  His movies (like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow) have only gotten dumber and too self-important, and sadly it looks like he’s bringing that same sense of storytelling back to the film that made him famous.  Independence Day: Resurgence just looks like all the worst Emmerich tropes all rolled up into one; wooden characters, self-important aggrandizing, and excessive CGI-assisted disaster porn, all without the knowing self-aware humor that made the original tolerable.  The absence of Will Smith is noticeable too.  Sadly, Jeff Goldblum might not be able to save this movie alone.  It’s a big bloated sequel that is perhaps a decade too late and from a director who’s clearly lost his ability to have some clever, winking fun.


Disney seems determined to adapt all of their animated classics into live action and so far the results are mixed.  Some have been excellent (Cinderella), some just okay (The Jungle Book), and others have been outright terrible (Maleficent).  But certainly the one that missed the mark the most was their 2010 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton.  The film was a mess of tone and characterizations that felt nowhere close to the spirit of the animated classic, or even the original Lewis Carroll novel.  So, why is it getting a sequel?  Oh yeah, it made over a billion dollars worldwide, despite the poor reviews surrounding it.  Even still, this follow up doesn’t indicate to me a step in the right direction.  Instead it just looks like more of the same things that made the original so disappointing; overused CGI, an unnecessary grim tone, a poorly written script, Johnny Depp doing another weird hammy performance, and a severe lack of insight into what the story is actually about.  The only thing I did like from the original was Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, and I’m glad to see her return here.  Also, Tim Burton is sitting this one out, with The Muppet Movie (2011) director James Bobin taking his place, which could be helpful.  But, even still, there’s not much hope I see here, even with the addition of Sasha Baron Cohen to the cast, who might be in a ham acting duel with Johnny Depp for most of the movie.

So, there are my predictions for this summer season.  Hopefully, there will be a lot to praise this year, and nothing to overall complain about.  Certainly, the over reliance on sequels during this time of year is discouraging, but when the franchises still enough mojo left in them to be worthwhile (like Captain America and X-Men), I really can’t complain.  This is still the time of year for Hollywood to flex it’s muscles, and given the already stellar start that 2016 has seen, it will be interesting to see if this summer can continue the trend.  It’s really fascinating to see the way that audiences go to the movies now, where these seasons don’t really matter as much like they used to.  A blockbuster can now find it’s audience in the dead of winter, like Deadpool managed to earlier this year.  At some point, we’ll be seeing an opening weekend north of $100 million in every month of the year at this rate.  Even still, the Summer Movie Season has it’s own special draw and hopefully we’ll have a standout on this year.  I’ll certainly be getting my fair share of entertainment as I try my best to review as many of these big releases over the next few months.  But, then again, it’s the thing that never changes for me at the movies whether I’m writing about it or not.  I hope you all find worthwhile entertainment at the movies this summer too and that this guide was helpful overall.

The Legacy of Leia – The Gender Politics of Star Wars and other Science Fiction

jyn erso

Cinema has never had a series of films that has touched the lives of so many people around the world as much as Star Wars has.  Since it’s premiere in the summer of 1977, George Lucas’ creation has gone on to become one of the most profitable and influential films in the last half century.  And it’s influence extends far beyond just the big screen.  With sequels, prequels, published extended universe novels as well as merchandise and product tie-ins, Star Wars has continued to remain relevant in our culture at large and will remain so for some time.  No other series has managed to cross the generations as well as it has, to the point where older audiences are now sharing their Star Wars memories with their grandchildren.  And it’s that broad appeal that has helped the series grow over the years and continue to find new stories to tell.  With the acquisition by Disney in 2012, Lucasfilm (the company behind the series) has promised to open the flood gates, not just continuing the beloved story that we all know, but expanding the broad scope of the universe to tell all kinds of new stories in the same setting.  This bold plan started off perfectly with the release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015), which is now the highest grossing film of all time domestically.  But, that was just the beginning.  Coming this December, we will be getting the first of the extended universe spin-offs in the form of Rogue OneA Star Wars Story.  The recently released teaser was universally praised (and rightly so), but it was also met with controversy, which unfortunately addressed an issue which shouldn’t be all that important in the first place; that being the gender of the main character.

The Rogue One teaser introduces us to Jyn Erso (played by Oscar nominee Felicity Jones from The Theory of Everything) a rebel spy who is recruited by the rebellion to help a band of rebel fighters steal the blueprint files for the Death Star away from the Imperial Forces of the evil Empire.  As we see in the trailer, Jyn is somewhat of an enigmatic figure who may or may not be the most trustworthy person for this task.  It’s an intriguing introduction for the character, and I for one am very interested in learning more about her and how she fits into the Star Wars universe.  And that’s a sentiment that’s shared by the vast majority of fans who are just excited to see more Star Wars anyway.  But, some people have foolishly complained online that Star Wars is making too many movies with female characters at it’s center, and that it’s a betrayal to the Star Wars franchise as they see it.  This is presumably in response to this movie coming on the heels of The Force Awakens, which also centered around the character Rey (played by Daisy Ridley), who’s also female.  The assumption that focusing on female protagonists is against what Star Wars is about is wrong on many levels.  For one thing, who says that Star Wars was only meant for boys?  There are just as many female Star Wars fans out there as male, and they’ve never once complained before about all the male heroes in the series.  Secondly, it doesn’t matter what gender the character is; it only matters what part they have to play in the narrative in this universe.  And thirdly, Star Wars hasn’t just suddenly awakened to the notion of gender equality in their narrative; it’s been a part of Star Wars from the very beginning and both The Force Awakens and Rogue One are continuations of that principle.  Jyn Erso and Rey aren’t just filling some gender mandate for the franchise; they are continuing the rich legacy set from the beginning by one Princess Leia.

Leia Organa of Alderaan holds a special place in the hearts of Star Wars fans, and it has more to do than with just her place in the story.  Leia was never your average damsel in distress, because not once in the story does she ever in distress.  She is fiesty, independent minded, resourceful, and above all else, a natural leader.  A lot of her personalty certainly derives from the equally independent minded actress playing her, Carrie Fisher, and her portrayal can’t be understated.  Up until the 1970’s, Science Fiction was not exactly a gender neutral genre in Hollywood.  For the most part, female characters were either potential victims of spaced-based monsters needing to be rescued by the hero, or the exotic object of desire that our hero aspires to claim for his own.  You can see a strongly minimized role for female characters in many B-movie Sci-Fi films of the 50’s, with many of them basically in there to scream as the giant monsters come their way.  And Science Fiction films that did center on a rebellious female character would usually turn them into the monster themselves like The Leech Woman (1960) or Attack of the 50ft. Woman (1958).  Basically, 50’s Sci-Fi reinforced outdated gender roles as opposed to breaking them and their rebellious 60’s counterparts didn’t help much either. 1968’s Barbarella did feature a female protagonist who was liberated, but mostly in a sexual sense, which merely just fetishised the sci-fi heroine in the end.  After all of these, Princess Leia was a huge step forward for the presence of a heroine in the Sci-Fi genre.  No longer would the girl be a bystander to the heroics of her male counterparts; she would stand out on her own and be the hero herself.

Of course, Star Wars (at least in the original trilogy) is Luke Skywalker’s heroic journey for the most part, but Leia carries a captivating arc of her own.  She’s a vital member of the rebellion against the empire, entrusted with delivering the secret plans for the Death Star to her base.  It is through her resourcefulness that the plans stay out of the hands of the villainous Darth Vader, who captures and imprisons her.  The remarkable thing about her character throughout the whole movie, which marked a big departure for female heroines in the overall genre to that point, is that not once does she feel helpless in the face of her predicament.  She’s defiant towards her enemy, even dissing her captor by saying “I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.”  Even being rescued gives her no pause, as she reacts sarcastically to her rescuer Luke by saying, “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”  All this shows that she’s a woman who determines her own fate and is not waiting for her prince to sweep her off her feet.  And it’s not as if George Lucas set out to rewrite the books on how to create a compelling heroine in Science Fiction.  Leia is a product of her environment.  In a conflict between an Empire and a rebellion, a woman at it’s center would indeed be defiant and independent as well as resourceful, and that’s what makes her so appealing a character.  She plays a part in the story that only she can fill, and it’s far more complex than just filling a female quotient to the cast.  She’s on a mission just as much as Luke or Han Solo or any other male character.  So, by giving her that complex role, Lucas was able to change the Science Fiction heroine forever.

Leia would begin an era in science fiction that changed the role that female characters played in each story-line, though probably not by design.  Lucas merely made her equally important as her male counterparts because it was essential to the plot.  But, that simple act of elevating her purpose paved the way for Hollywood to accept more of a female presence in the genre.  The influence of Leia perhaps played a part in the casting of Sigourney Weaver in the role of Ripley in the classic Sci-Fi thriller Alien (1978).  Had Star Wars not been a success, I don’t believe Fox would have gone forward with Ridley Scott’s dark take on the genre, and had Leia not been such standout in the movie, I don’t think the studio would’ve comfortably gone with a heroine at the film’s center.  Amazingly, Ripley was originally written as a male character and it was only later that the decision was made to swap genders, with little to no change to the script.  That decision would propel the presence of female characters in the genre even further and through much of the 80’s, it became more frequent to see films with heroic women in big Hollywood productions, especially in the Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres.  James Cameron in particular made the heroic female character archetype a special trademark of his writing style, with Sarah Connor of the Terminator series being one of Science Fiction’s most iconic characters, as well as one of it’s toughest.  Princess Leia may not have much in common with these other heroines, but her influence can be felt in a lot of them.  Had Leia not been such a hit with fans, female characters in the Science Fiction genre would probably be very different today.

At the same time, Star Wars doesn’t flaunt the fact that it’s rewriting gender roles into the genre.  When George Lucas wrote the character, I don’t think he had it in his mind to make a statement about gender politics.  His upbringing probably gave him a more progressive view of the role of women in society in general and it’s that worldview that just ended up being reflected in his creation of Leia.  Leia Organa is not written to represent the idealized, women’s lib poster child; she is just who she is and that’s what makes her essential to the story.  I think it would be a mistake to say that Leia only exists because of some greater statement on gender roles in society.  Certainly the women’s liberation movement came into it’s own around the time of Star Wars premiere, but I don’t see it reflected in the characterization of Leia.  The reason she stood out was because the genre itself had been stuck in the past and George Lucas was merely writing his story with a mindset caught up to the present.  Leia was both timely and timeless, and that accounts for her enduring appeal.  She was modern in design, but still belonged within the world of the setting.  I think it would have spoiled the character for her to have been too much of a winking gesture to the gender politics of the day, because that would have dated her character and limited her legacy.  Such a “white knight” gesture to female audiences would have diminished the film’s appeal too because it would have come across as cynical and disingenuous.  It nevertheless is beneficial to the series to have had an up to date sense of women’s roles in society and by making that an underlying subtext in the story, it has helped to make Star Wars both influential and revolutionary to audiences of all genders.

That legacy continues in the series, though not without some minor missteps.  Though I don’t think it was intended to be such a big deal, the Leia “slave girl” outfit has become a contentious point of interest for both female and male fans.  In Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), Leia’s attempt to rescue Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt results in her own capture, and she is forced to wear a revealing, gold-patted bikini outfit for Jabba’s pleasure.  For male fans, this turned Leia into a “sex idol” and many claim that this endeared her to them as their first big screen crush.  Meanwhile, female fans complained that this reduced Leia’s character to a sexual object and that it was a big step backward for the character.  There is merit to the last point, and it is sad to think that some only find Leia appealing because of this version of her.  But, at the same time, I don’t feel that the character was ruined by this either.  Story-wise, you can tell that Leia wears the costume under protest and her only satisfaction in the sequence is at the end is when she uses her own slave chain to choke the life out of Jabba.  Still, it’s unfortunate that a sensationalized aspect of the character’s overall story has turned into such a contentious point and that the progress made with regards to gender roles in the series was overwhelmed by the preoccupation over what Leia was wearing.  Honestly, it matters little how she dresses; she certainly was not any different a person in her slave outfit as she was with her bun-haired get-up in the first movie. But, doing this probably diminished the idea that gender roles were meant to be equal in this story-line, as the studio perhaps saw an opportunity to capitalize on a little sex appeal with their heroine.  This certainly didn’t help much in the prequel trilogy either, where Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) is diminished in the story to just being a love interest and mother of Luke and Leia, as opposed to a genuine force in the story overall.

That is why I am glad to see more focus on female protagonists in the Star Wars franchise today, because it feels like a nod to the overall legacy of Princess Leia in the series.  It’s especially great to see Carrie Fisher return to the character as well, showing that this renewed focus has the full blessing of the one who started it.  I especially like the fact that having strong central female characters in Star Wars only feels natural at this point and that the large majority of Star Wars fans accept that fact.  Anyone who complains that Star Wars has too many girls in it and has been taken over by a feminist agenda clearly doesn’t understand Star Wars at all.  This has always been a part of the the franchise from the very beginning, and it all comes from George Lucas’ own choice to not reduce his heroine to strict gender constraints and instead make her an active force in the story.  Princess Leia is rightly held up as one of Hollywood’s most iconic heroines, and she has achieved that status by never compromising who she is, even when put into compromising situations.  How can you not love a character who tells her potential love interest that he’s a “scruffy looking nerf-herder.”  The fact that she’s still a present in this series today, handing off the reins to the new generation while still being the face of the Rebellion, is a treat for every Star Wars fan.  I also can’t wait to see the future Jedi training that awaits Rey in Episode VIII, as well as learning what intriguing role Jyn Erso plays in this universe.  I like the fact that Disney and Lucasfilm are choosing to put strong characterizations to the forefront and that the genders of the characters are becoming more of an afterthought.  It’s a reason why Star Wars is as relevant today as it was nearly 40 years ago, because it stays relevant with the times and values that we live in.  The force is still strong with the ladies of Star Wars, and may it forever be so.

The Untouchables – Can Good Art be Separated from the Bad Behavior of it’s Creators?


When we watch movies, we for the most part accept it all as good escapist fun.  If the story is strong enough, and the characters are likable, then the movie will stand on it’s own.  But, we also must know that behind every story is a storyteller, and they have real lives of their own that sometimes turn out to be more compelling than fiction.  While the Hollywood industry is built around entertainment in storytelling, it’s also built around the ability to sell and promote talent as well.  Publicity, marketing, and celebrity journalism is just as much a part of Hollywood as actual production, and in some cases, they tend to outweigh the other costs in the long run.  Hollywood is just as involved in creating a positive fiction about itself than any of the films it produces.  For the most part, it’s not hard to see why.  When you are spending so much money making a movie, you want to create enough goodwill with the audiences to see a return on your investments, and that involves making sure that no bad press circles around your projects.  Most of the time, a film company can spin a good outlook on a troubled production, but one thing they have less control over is the behavior of the players involved, which can sometimes derail a project at the worst possible moment.  We tend to forget that some of the people in film-making are only human in the end, and like all humans they carry their own behavioral baggage.  The most professional of talent in Hollywood is usually able to separate work from real life, but there are others who have so much baggage, that it tends to overshadow the good work they do and as a result, it casts a bad light on everything else.

Hollywood has always had a longstanding battle against scandal and negative press.  Like many other high profile professions, Hollywood is held to a higher standards than normal.  Actors and filmmakers are considered role models to many in society and because of that, moral standards affect them more than usual.  Only politicians who work in government face as much scrutiny as celebrities do, but unfortunately for Hollywood, the press in their industry is far more intrusive and is less concerned with the consequences of invading the privacy of their subjects than their Beltway counterparts.  The sad thing is that the public feeds this animal more.  We concern ourselves far more with what’s going on in Tinseltown than we do with any other part of the world, and for the most part, it’s a whole lot of nothing.  But, sometimes the higher standards we hold celebrities to also exposes bad behavior that shouldn’t be tolerated at all and it causes us to question whether or not the person responsible is still worthy of our goodwill in the end.  For some, evidence points to the fact that there are some celebrities that are very bad people despite being very talented in front or behind the camera.  Usually it’s from a pattern of terrible acts or just committing an inexcusable crime in general, and despite the person’s attempts to undo their past deeds, it sadly casts a dark pallor over everything else that they do.  This also tends to be compounded by media that feeds on bad press.  In Hollywood, there is an unfortunate confluence between the work that people do and the way they live, and this often takes it’s toll on the art of film-making, because despite what a person does in the public eye, they still are capable of creating great art as part of their job.  So the question is raised, can an artist’s bad behavior really condemn the work that they do forever, or is it possible to separate the two?

What is interesting about the way we react to a celebrity’s bad behavior is that it tends to be a different reaction for different people.  Take for instance, some of the more recent celebrity controversies that have erupted in recent years.  A perfect example would be the string of incidents surrounding actor/director Mel Gibson.  When he self-financed his religious passion project The Passion of the Christ (2004), claims of antisemitism arose based on the reading of the shooting script used for the film, which the A-list star was able to escape partially due to his goodwill with audiences that he built up for years; and the movie became an overwhelming success.  Cut ahead a couple years and those rumors of Antisemitism became less rumored and more fact due to a drunken rant that the actor went on during an arrest for drunk driving (the infamous “Sugar Tits” incident).  He apologized, but the shiny veneer of his celebrity status was forever tarnished, because his bigoted statements were now publicly known.  Still, he hoped to revitalize his image through better roles and with the help of his close industry friends, but those efforts were again undone by his messy divorce and disastrous relationship with a new woman who also exposed more inflammatory statements in recorded tapes of their private conversations.  Of course there’s absolutely no doubt that Mel is responsible for his own downfall, but is everything he has done capable of making him un-hire-able in Hollywood today?  For some people, that’s absolutely the case, and if they are repulsed by Mr. Gibson’s behavior, it’s within their right to reject him.  But, what about the close friends that still stand by him?  Are they in the wrong, or do they simply want to allow the talent that still exists within him to flourish and possibly give him a chance to redeem himself?  That’s ultimately the question we ask ourselves as an audience when we judge the movies and the man separately.

Gibson’s case is interesting because while what he has done is clearly wrong and bigoted, he at the same time has not broken any laws.  His only crime is acting like a narrow-minded jackass, something that he might even fess up to on his own.  But, is that something that makes everything he has done before and since toxic?  It asks us to consider if a piece of art is forever tied to the individual that made it.  That can all depend on the audience member who carries their own prejudices with them depending on how they view the individual.  I for one try to take perspective into account, and while I can’t excuse Mel Gibson for what he’s done, I’m still able to divorce his behavior from his work, because despite it all, he still makes great films.  Braveheart(1995) is still a favorite of mine and I believe he still deserves those Oscars.  The Passion is more of a mixed bag, but his follow-up Apocalypto (2006) is an astounding and underrated piece of film-making that does deserve a second look.  Also, bad behavior aside, I feel that he’s still capable of great things and I am eager to see what he’s capable of doing next.  In Hollywood, there sometimes comes a point where the industry is able to put a person’s past behind them, as has been the case with amazing career turnarounds like Robert Downey Jr.’s (who coincidentally is one of Mel’s longest friends) so there may come a day when that will happen to him too.  I think it’s been his string of bad choices that have compounded his situation, so it’s up to him to make the move towards redemption.  Certainly making good use of his talent will help, but we’ll need to see more of a public commitment out of him for it to seriously stick within the eyes of the audience.

More of a problem arises when a celebrity gets involved in an actual crime, and it’s in these cases where the opinion of the public matters in how well a person is able to recover, depending on the severity of the crime.  Sometimes the audience will show sympathy and allow the person to recover their status, like the aforementioned Robert Downey Jr. (drug possession), or to another extant Winona Ryder (shoplifting), both who committed punishable but not unforgivable crimes.  The harsher reactions tend to follow after more severe crimes, such as sexual or physical abuse perpetrated by the person.  In some of these cases, there seems to be different degrees that we’ll tolerate a persons personal life in opposition to how we’ll view their work on film.  Directors Woody Allen and Roman Polanski have both run up against this dilemma, with histories of sexual crimes coming to light in the press.  In Woody’s case they’ve been limited to accusations of child molestation (though not formally charged), but in Polanski’s case he has been convicted with the crime of statutory rape and in response, he’s fled the country and lived in exile in order to avoid jail time.  Despite how guilty both men may be, they continue to make movies to this day, and many of them are still quite good.  Polanski in fact won an Oscar for directing The Pianist (2002), but because of his self-imposed exile, he’s unable to claim it.  This presents the awkward dilemma of whether or not honoring a movie is right if the person who made it has done something incredibly unlawful.  For both Allen and Polanski, they’ve managed to stay relevant even despite the tarnish to their public image.  But, make no mistake, if the evidence proves misconduct on their part, their celebrity status should never shield them from facing punishment for the crimes they’ve committed.  And in the end, even if celebrity status does help them out of a jam, a lifetime of misdeeds will still ruin a person’s reputation for eternity, as we’re seeing unfold right now in the case of Bill Cosby.

With regards to whether or not we should honor a person’s film despite their misdeeds, the answer should always be yes.  And that’s because film-making is a collaborative art.  The director has the most influence, of course, but there are hundreds of people who have a hand in the making of a movie, and dismissing a movie just because of something bad that one person involved had done outside of work would be doing a disservice to everyone else.  Some people were wondering whether the accusations against Woody Allen would hurt actress Cate Blanchett’s chances of winning an Oscar that year for appearing in Allen’s film Blue Jasmine (2013).  It didn’t, she still won and she thanked him personally in her acceptance speech, even despite the controversy.  I believe that it’s that belief that a film is more than just the vision of it’s director and instead a collaboration of many talented efforts that enables us to accept art on it’s own merits.  Film history is full of examples where influential art often comes with less than ideal baggage attached to them.  D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation wrote the language of modern cinema that we still adhere to today, but we also have to live with the fact that the same movie was a piece of racist propaganda that made the Ku Klux Klan look heroic.  The works of Sergei Eisenstein and Leni Reifenstahl also represent great artistic advances in film-making, but their films were also in the service of promoting horribly brutal dictatorships at the same time.  Even the many wartime propaganda films that were sometimes made by some of our greatest filmmakers (John Ford, George Stevens, and John Huston for example) often come across as xenophobic in attitude when taken out of context of their period.  Attitudes change over time, but celluloid remains constant, and not every artistic expression ages well.  Still, we have the ability to discern the craft from the intent, as well the cloud around their creators, and be able to respect the creation while not wholeheartedly embracing everything about it.

The worst thing that we can do is to standardize morality around art in order to prevent a shadow of controversy from surrounding it.  Sometimes controversy can be a good thing for a work of art, as long as it generates discussion.  Sadly, many can’t accept anything that challenges their world views and that leads to acts of censorship.  This has always been a struggle for Hollywood, and for the most part they’ve managed to keep outside influences from imposing their morality upon them.  Still, a self-policed standard in Hollywood has led to unfortunate overreaches by the industry, including the restrictive Hays Code that they were pressured to adopt by religious organizations, or the even more intrusive Blacklist that was created in response to the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) led by Senator Joseph McCarthy.  The Blacklist was especially destructive because it put good people out of work simply for their political beliefs, or their refusal to cooperate with the committee.  This is a case where a standardized code in place to avoid controversy only creates a worst atmosphere for the industry.  Hollywood believed they were doing the right thing for itself by avoiding the cloud of controversy, but with such an unfair overreaction that put a lot of people out of work, Hollywood only made themselves look weak and untrustworthy as a result.  And the unfair standards that they’ve place on themselves wasn’t just limited to political controversies.  Actress Ingrid Bergman was forced into exile for many years because of the revelation of her adulterous affair with director Roberto Roselinni, which kept the Hollywood icon out of the limelight for many years.  Again, no one would ever have judged a person’s work in film any different had Hollywood not brought attention to it with such reactionary aversion to anything controversial.  As time goes on, we can see that tabloid scandal has a much shorter shelf-life than the work of a true artist and that censorship is not a practice that helps to secure a good audience reaction over time.

Despite the tight controls that the industry puts on it’s talent, it’s ultimately up to the audience to decide if the final product is worthy of attention or not.  Certainly, it’s hard to ignore the real life drama of an entertainer’s exploits outside of work, especially when the Hollywood press makes such a big deal out of it.  But, at the same time, a movie should be able to stand on it’s own; by it’s own merits even if it includes the involvement of some very unsavory people.  There is still value in a well told story crafted with bold artistic choices.  Despite what I think about people like Mel Gibson, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and other controversial figures, I am still interested in watching their films, because they are still capable of putting effort into their art.  The ones that I actually hold more disdain for me in the industry are people who have just gotten lazy and put little effort into their work, instead just coasting by on their fame.  And that seems to be what really makes someone undesirable in Hollywood; being unlikable to the point where no one wants to work for them.  Gibson, Allen, and Polanski may have done bad things in their life, but they are at least professionals when they’re on the set and that’s why people still want to work with them.  If you’re a bully on set who demands too much, as has been rumored with filmmakers like David O. Russell and Jason Reitman, or are a self-absorbed narcissist such as been reported with actors like Shia LaBeouf and Kathrine Heigl, then you begin to see a pattern where the person gets fewer options given to them.  Even though it’s always hard to appear to be a good person, especially in the oppressive limelight of Hollywood, a commitment to making good art does go a long way and in the end, art can overcome the dark shadow cast by it’s creator by just being intriguing, thought-provoking, and overall entertaining in the end.  And in turn, a person may find redemption through the good work that they do.

Tinseltown Throwdown – Troy vs. Alexander

troy vs alexander

Epic movies probably define the character of Hollywood more than any other type of film.  They are big, excessive monsters of cinema that reflect the over-the-top excesses of the industry itself, and that’s what draws many audiences to them.  They are the epitome of what the art of cinema can do, as long as they are done well.  One downside to epic film-making is the enormous cost behind them, and not just in terms of dollars and cents.  These productions are painstaking efforts that take much longer to make and must include long commitments from their actors and crew to pull them off.  David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) for example filmed over a 18 month shooting schedule in the Arabian desert where temperatures would consistently rise to over 100 degrees during the day.  It took a lot of commitment on the people involved to see that through, and they were making a film that wasn’t even recreating a far off time period.  Epics, in turn, are some of Hollywood’s most prized accomplishments, at least in regards to the classic era of cinema.  Apart from historical dramas like Lawrence or Gone with the Wind (1939), the most popular form of epic in these early days tended to be the Biblical epic.  Sure, the biblical stories could satisfy some of the moral backbone that many audiences wanted from their movies, but they also gave other audiences something more and that was spectacle; bloody battles, sword fighting, romance, and pageantry on a massive scale.  These in time became known as the “Sword and Sandal” Epic and during Hollywood’s Golden Era, they also proved to be big business.  Films like The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), and Spartacus (1960) dominated cinemas and despite their astronomical costs to make, they also proved to be profitable.

But, like many other fads in Hollywood, the “Sword and Sandal” epic spectacle saw it’s own decline.  Costly failures like Cleopatra (1963) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1965) brought the genre down to it’s knees, and for many years the genre was deemed to risky a venture for most studios.  But, after the renegade 70’s, Hollywood began to return to spectacles again with the rise of the “Blockbuster.”  Though spectacle became widely accepted by audiences again, it would take some time for the “Sword and Sandal” epic to find it’s footing again.  A major push came unexpectedly in the form of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995), which presented an entertaining throwback to the excessive epic dramas of old Hollywood, but with the benefit of less censorship over the brutal violence that defined the time period.  Meeting Braveheart‘s challenge, director Ridley Scott created his own throwback homage to “Sword in Sandal” epics in the form of Gladiator (2000), which completely reinvigorated the genre for a new generation.  Gladiator took all the elements of the “Sword and Sandal” epic and gave it an earnest approach that clicked with modern audiences, thanks to charismatic performances from the likes of Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix and astounding epic sense of scale.  It was a box office hit and even surprised everyone by winning Best Picture at the Oscars.  But, like with most unexpected hits in Hollywood, it also spawned it’s fair share of copycats.  Warner Brothers, hoping for big profits of their own, took the ambitious step of releasing two “Sword and Sandal” epics months apart from each other in 2004, and let’s just say that what worked for Gladiator didn’t exactly work for them.  In this article, I will be looking at these two attempts at modern epic film-making, Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004) and Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004), and see which one better satisfied as a true representation of it’s genre.

troy battle

“Do you know what’s waiting beyond that beach? Immortality! Take it!  It’s yours!”

When both Troy and Alexander premiered in 2004, many had hoped that they would follow in Gladiator‘s footsteps to box office and awards glory.  Instead, they were received tepidly by critics and fell way short at the box office, more so in Alexander‘s case.  On the surface, you can’t really pinpoint exactly what went wrong.  They followed the Gladiator formula both visually and narratively.  They both come from very familiar epic stories; Troy based on legend and Alexander based on real historical figures.  Both are lavishly constructed and display every cent of their nearly $200 million budgets.  So, how did they both fail?  More than anything it’s their flawed executions that sunk both films.  Despite having Gladiator to thank for their existence, living in it’s shadow may have also been one of the factors against them.  When Ridley Scott created his Oscar winner, he was tackling an old, out-of-date genre that no one had any regards for anymore, which allowed him more creative freedom to create a more cohesive and engaging vision.  By contrast, Troy and Alexander had Gladiator to live up to and both buckled under the expectations put on them.  But, what is interesting about the two is that while flawed, their failures and strengths are so different that it does offer up some intriguing contrasts.  Namely it’s in the style of the film-making that was given to their productions, the strengths of their overall casts, and the seriousness that they approach their subjects and themes that separate the two.  Of these two ambitious failures that represented the collapse of this short-lived revival of the “Sword and Sandal” epic, one must clearly stand as the better effort and it’s that contrast that will help determine which one stands taller than the other.

First of all, what does define the genre more than anything?  Spectacle.  Troy has the benefit of being directed by a filmmaker comfortable with bringing spectacle to the big screen.  Wolfgang Petersen made a name for himself with his ambitious war epic Das Boot (1981) and he continued to grow as a filmmaker, taking on both gritty action thrillers like In the Line of Fire (1993) and Air Force One (1997), and effects heavy spectacles like The Perfect Storm (2000).  His The NeverEnding Story(1987) however represents the filmmaker at his most imaginative, showing a great sense of pageantry in his work that could have made him a great fit for the “Sword and Sandals” epic genre.  The results in Troy are a little mixed however.  His sense of scale is impressive, especially the grandiose battle scenes and the epic flyover shot of the Greecian fleet on it’s way to war with Troy.  But, there’s also a severe lack of character to the film’s presentation.  All the battle scenes look the same as the movie goes along, which seems to be an unfortunate result of the film’s singular location; with the Baja Californian coast playing the part of the Trojan harbor.  Most of the movie is washed out in constant sunlight and we see the same drab stone walls and sandy beaches for most of the film’s runtime.  It’s a lack of diversity that hinders the visual presentation.  Alexander by contrast benefits from a more varied approach.  Oliver Stone, while not known for tackling the epic genre much in his career, does take an ambitious approach to his staging here.  The film was shot all over the world in locations as varied as Morocco and Thailand, with some of the battles being spectacularly staged and distinct.  One in particular, against an army riding aboard stampeding elephants is jaw-droppingly beautiful and shows more creativity than any of the many battles in Troy.  This is one element that Alexander has over Troy, and it makes for a more visceral experience as a result.

alexander elephant

“Conquer your fear, and I promise you, you will conquer death.”

Unfortunately, despite Oliver Stone’s strong visual sense, he has less success with the direction of his actors.  The cast of Alexander is a really big mish-mash of poor casting and really bizarre performance choices.  Some of the cast are surprisingly effective; Jared Leto as Hephaistion for example.  But there is also a fair share of really over-the-top and terrible performances from normally talented people here; some funny (Val Kilmer as historical Macedonian king Philip) and others that are just awful (Angelina Jolie as Queen Olympia, with an indeterminate accent).  But, worst of all is the lackluster effort by it’s lead: Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great.  This is one of histories most influential figures; a man who conquered the entire known world in his day.  To pull off this role you need someone inspiring, and Farrell is not that.  The casting of Colin as Alexander probably had more to do with his rising star status at the time and less to do with his actual potential in the role.  Thankfully he would mature as an actor years later in movies like In Brudges (2008), but when you seem him staring blankly and looking foolish in a blonde wig as he does here, you can easily see how his miscasting hurt the movie.  Troy doesn’t fare much better with it’s lead.  Brad Pitt is out of place as legendary hero Achilles and he can’t bring more to the character other than a few ominous stares and grunting arrogant tough guy dialogue.  The rest of the cast in Troy is a bit more balanced than in Alexander however, especially the veterans like Brian Cox and Peter O’Toole.  The casting of Sean Bean as Odysseus alone makes me wish that they had continued on with him in an adaptation of The Odyssey; plus it’s a rare role that leaves him alive at the end.  Also in addition, Troy has the best performance overall from both movies and that’s Eric Bana as Hector.  He comes off as the true hero of the film; sympathetic and very much within the story’s world.  So, the use of it’s cast benefits Troy more, because they at least feel more at home in their roles overall.

troy hector paris

“Men are haunted by the vastness of eternity.  And so we ask ourselves: will our actions echo across the centuries?”

Another thing that distinguishes these movies from one another is the effectiveness of their presentations on the stories they tell.  In a way, both movies suffered from the fact that we all know the narratives already.  Troy takes it’s cue from Homer’s The Iliad, which is commonly read in schools and literary circles across the world, and Alexander follows the exploits of it’s real life historic figure.  What benefited Gladiator was the fact that it was an original, fictional tale set within a historical setting around real historical figures.  As a result, we were able to get a look into historical ancient Rome through the eyes of a protagonist whose story was completely new to us, thereby making it more intriguing.  Troy and Alexander needed to make the familiar feel fresh again due to the fact that we already know what happens by the end; Troy is destroyed by a wooden horse after Achilles is undone by exploiting the weakness in his heel, and Alexander’s empire falls apart after extending his armies too far and succumbing to the conspiracies led by his commanders, leaving him dead while still in his prime.  To Alexander’s benefit, Oliver Stone takes a less than conventional approach to telling the life story of Alexander the Great.  The story is told through the recollections of Alexander’s trusted ally Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) as he dictates his memoirs, and through this motif, the story unfolds out of order.  We begin the film with Alexander at his most triumphant, defeating the Persian Empire, but then as the film goes on, new recollections come into play, revealing new layers about the character and it deconstructs the man from the legend.  Troy on the other hand tells the story as a straight forward action thriller.  It works in that respect, but it lacks the engaging disjointedness of Alexander‘s approach, as well as the magical elements of Homer’s poem.  In this respect, I find that Alexander‘s confused focus actually works to it’s benefit.  It’s disjointed, but it keeps it from being bland.

This is something that’s more of a result of the different filmmakers styles than anything.  Petersen is a very commercial director, able to deliver scale and action exactly the way that the studios wants them.  Oliver Stone on the other hand is a bit of a rebel as a filmmaker and it’s any wonder why he was able to secure enough clout in order to make a big screen epic like this one given his reputation.  But, Stone’s instincts as a filmmaker does give him something that Petersen doesn’t have, and that’s the ability to be subversive with his movies.  Alexander may be a mess with many things, but there is something to admire about it’s ability to tackle more challenging themes with it’s story.  In Troy, the themes tend to center more around the making’s of a hero, and most of it is delivered in a clunky, unsubtle way.  We hear Achilles talk about immortality and his place in history in a way that feels too self aware.  It also treats it’s themes in a very commercial and non-controversial way.  Alexander on the other hand tackles some very heavy issues, such as the relativity of good and evil and the responsibilities of kings.  But perhaps the film’s most commendable act is that it does’t shy away from the historical account of Alexander the Great’s homosexual relationship with Hephaistion.  For a big budget epic like Alexander to openly address this at a time when gay themes were still absent in Hollywood movies in general was a bold step on Stone’s part.  It’s also a missed opportunity on the part of Troy too.  Homer’s epic poem stated that Achilles had a male lover as well named Patroclus, but in the movie the character (played by Garrett Hedlund) is turned into Achilles’ cousin, thereby removing the sexuality angle.  Wouldn’t it have been revolutionary to have an epic action movie where the tough, heroic main character played by one of Hollywood’s A-list leading men portrayed as openly Gay?  Sadly, Troy was not that progressive, but on the other hand, Alexander was and in that respect, it’s the much more admirable film.

alexander farrell leto

“My poor child.  You’re like Achilles: cursed by your greatness.”

By no accounts are either Troy and Alexander great movies.  But, neither are they embarrassments either.  Despite mediocre premieres, both movies still do well in the home video market.  Oliver Stone in fact seems to hold the movie up as a passion project of his, having done three more cuts of the film since it’s debut a decade ago; each released separately on Blu-ray and DVD.  His final cut even includes a classic Hollywood Roadshow presentation and a three and a half hour running time that greatly fixes may of the plot holes in the theatrical version.  But, as the years have passed, I find myself drawn more to Alexander over Troy.  And the simple fact is this; despite being more coherent and better acted, I just find Troy to be the more boring of the two.  Alexander is a colossal mess, yes, but it’s an intriguing mess, made by a true artist.  Wolfgang Petersen delivers on the action, but there’s nothing visionary about it.  Troy just feels like a studio driven mandate rather than a genuine cinematic wonder.  I just love Oliver Stone’s eccentricities in Alexander more, and it stands up over time much better, even though I still feel the main character in it is a bore.  Are either movie worthy of the historical legacies behind them?  Hardly, but hey, few Hollywood epics are historically accurate.  Both films of course pale in comparison to their predecessor Gladiator, and it’s sadly a result of the quickly changing tastes of the audience that these movies didn’t hit their mark.  The “Sword and Sandal” epic had a short reprieve before it was inevitably done in by deconstructive efforts like Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007).  Even Ridley Scott failed to keep it alive when he followed up with his own ambitious Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven (2005).  Given the cost and the lackluster results these two movies ended up being, it’s unlikely we’ll see it revived again.  For the brief time that it was reborn, it was interesting to see the “Sword ad Sandals” epic become a part of Hollywood again.  And between the two, Alexander proved to be the victor just because it failed in a far more epic-ly appropriate way.

alexaner babylon

“Alexander used to say that we are most alone when we are with the myths.”