The Director’s Chair – The Coen Brothers

While film-making in general is a collaborative process, the role that takes the most prominence in the creation of a film is that of the director.  It’s the director who makes sure that everything captured in the camera’s frame is precisely in tune with the storytelling.  Primary among all their different tasks on the set is to guide the rest of the production team itself, ensuring that everything that the camera captures creates the perfect illusion of life.  This includes working with the cinematographer to determine how the film will be shot, dictating to the production designers what is needed on the set to fill each shot with foreground and background details, and of course, helping the actors find the motivation they’ll need to perform as their character within each scene.  It’s a multifaceted job that requires a lot of personal involvement, and that is why the director is often given the most important credit on a film.  Authorship in film-making often falls to the director, because they are the chief creative force behind each project.  In many cases, there are filmmakers whose style is so distinctive, that you can look at their whole body of work and see some chief characteristics that define it as a whole.  That’s why I wanted to start a new series for this site dedicated to looking at the distinctive film-making styles and cinematic breakthroughs made by some of the most celebrated filmmakers.  Entitled “The Director’s Chair,” my hope is to spotlight a different director in each entry of this series and spotlight 5 distinctive things about each one that has made them a special contributor to cinematic history, whether it be a distinctive trademark, a unique cinematic style, or just the impact that they have left on the industry as a whole.  And for the premiere article in this series, I decided to not just look at only one director, but instead spotlight two filmmakers that somehow have established themselves under a singular visionary style: the Coen Brothers.

Joel and Ethan Coen have worked together continuously for the last 32 years, beginning with their debut film Blood Simple in 1984, all the way up to their most recent film, Hail, Caesar (2016), and they plan on continuing to collaborate for many years to come.  They’re working relationship has been so close in fact, that they’ve often been jokingly referred to as “The Two-Headed Director.”  And it’s easy to see why.  While many other films that have been directed by two or more directors feel disjointed in their storytelling, every single Coen Brother movie is uniformly distinct and feels characteristically in line with every other movie they have made.  Sure, their style has evolved over the years, moving from the straight-forward thrills of Blood Simple to the complex, psychological tension of No Country for Old Men (2007), but the Coen Brother’s filmography has become something quite unique in the world of film-making that is purely of their own design.  One of the main reasons they have built such a unique body of work is mainly because of that close collaboration.  They write, produce and direct all of their movies, as well as work solely on the editing, under the pseudonym of Roderick Jaynes.  They also remain in charge of picking each of their projects; never taking on a commercial studio production and always working independently.  It’s worked out for the most part, apart from a few misguided speed bumps (2003’s Intolerable Cruelty and 2004’s The Ladykillers).  Their ability to experiment in different genres has also given their filmography a nice bit of variety, even though their style remains the same.  And among their body of work, distinctive characteristics become apparent, and it’s those features that I want to elaborate upon in this article, and see how they define each of the different films that the Coen Brothers have made over the years.



barton fink

If there was ever something that truly defined a Coen Brothers movie, it would be the unforgettable characters that populate them.  The Coens are masters of creating easily definable, enduring characters in their movies, and it’s mainly because their characters are perfect representations of every day human foibles personified in a single being.  Whenever we watch a Coen film, we always end up remembering these characters.  We don’t always remember their names, but we remember their personalities.  There are some extreme personalities that exist within their strange universe, such as John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski (1998), or Nicolas Cage’s H.I. McDunnough from Raising Arizona (1987), but the most endearing characters the Coen Brothers have ever created are the ones more grounded in reality.  One of their most beloved creations would have to be Marge Gunderson from Fargo (1996), played by Joel Coen’s own real life spouse Frances McDormand.  Marge, a pregnant small town cop in the American Midwest, is such a fascinating character in the movie simply by being so ordinary.  Her charm is not in being quirky, but by being the audience’s eyes into the crazy world that she stumbles into, and the more identifiable she is, the more we relate to her.  She’s just the average working class American hero, the kind of person who you’d want to meet in real life and listen to her stories, and that’s why we love her.  Another interesting aspect of Coen Brother characters is their often helpless situation.  The Coens had a religious upbringing in the Jewish faith, and while their movies aren’t based in religion, some biblical themes do manifest within their stories; in particular, the story of Job.  Like the biblical character, many of their characters often have to deal with situations well out of their control.  But while Job was shown mercy by God in the Bible, Coen Brother characters often left out to dry with no redemption or hope, like John Turturro’s Barton Fink or Michael Stuhlbarg’s Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man (2009), or Oscar Isaac’s Llewellyn Davis in Inside Llewellyn Davis (2013).




Another trademark aspect of the Coen Brothers’ movies is their incredibly dark sense of humor.  There are certainly some Coen Brother films that are more serious than others, but the one thing that defines them all is a twisted, often absurdist outlook on the world.  Oftentimes this is played off of the different quirks of the characters interacting with one another, but other times it’s because of the completely insane situations that the characters find themselves in.  Fargo is often cited as one of the perfect examples of a black comedy, and that’s due to the film’s horrific situation of kidnapping and murder being undercut by the silly personalities involved within it.  Any other filmmaker would have played a story like Fargo straight, but the Coens found the interesting angle of exploring how this situation would play out within this type of Western Minnesota community.  The backwaters setting and peculiar regional accent are certainly poked fun at within the movie (never in a mean spirited way though) and that helps the audience to find the humor in such a bleak story.  Some of the Coens’ more broader comedies also are injected with some horrifically dark moments, showing just how masterfully the Coens can walk the fine line between the unsettling and the hilarious.  A perfect example of that would be in the movie Burn After Reading (2008), where Brad Pitt’s dimwitted character Chad sneaks into the home of George Clooney’s equally dim Harry.  When discovered hiding inside a closet, the funny moment suddenly turns dark as the startled Harry shoots Chad in the head in a very grisly and graphic way.  By shifting the tone so dramatically, it actually punctuates the moment making it even more hilarious, just cause of the audacity of the Coens to go that extreme in the moment.  That’s why their comedy works so well, because of the fearless way that they shock our sensibilities in order to get a laugh out of us.


no country for old men


Something about the Coen Borthers’ style that might not be apparent to most viewers right away is the masterful use of one of cinema’s oldest techniques.  Shot and Reverse Shot, or the practice of editing between characters to establish on-going action during scenes of dialogue, is a technique as old as cinema itself and is often taken for granted by most filmmakers.  The Coen Brothers on the other hand use this technique to it’s full advantage by crafting their movies around it.  Character interactions are key parts of any Coen Brother film, so it makes it more important to capture the little reactions each character makes in each scene, because it reveals a lot about them that the writing itself cannot tell.  The Coens capture this by changing the rules a little bit with their framing.  Most dialogue conversations between two characters in movies are usually done over the shoulder, putting both actors in the frame.  The Coens put the camera in between the characters and capture each actor in a single composition.  By cutting back and forth between the two actors, they are able to emphasize more of the reactions that each character gives the other in their conversations, and given the way they edit each scene, those different reactions can often determine the tone.  Probably the most brilliant example of this is the Gas Station scene from No Country for Old Men, where Javier Bardem’s villainous Anton Chigurh asks the petrified proprietor (Gene Jones) “what’s the most you’ve ever lost in a coin toss.”  Apart from a single insert of a candy wrapper, every moment in this scene is in one-shots of the two actors.  The choices of how long to stay on each shot and when to cut back to the other determines the tempo of this whole scene, and it is a masterwork of building tension.  By determining which character is focused on in each shot, the Coens establish how important their reaction must be, and thereby reveal more about what each one of them is thinking.  By perfectly executing a technique that most of us take for granted, the Coens make their stories resound a whole lot more than they normally would, and it’s a testament to their skills as filmmakers.


o brother where art thou


The Coen Brothers often fill many of the most important roles themselves, but the one position that they rest heavily on the shoulders of someone else is that of the cinematographer, and they could not have found a better man for the job than Roger Deakins.  Deakins is, apart from the Coens themselves, the one most responsible for crafting the look of a Coen Brothers film.  Since first working with the duo on Barton Fink (1991), Deakins has been the cinematographer on almost all of their subsequent films.  And even the movies of their that he didn’t work on, like Burn After Reading (shot by Emmanuel Lubezski) and Inside Llewellyn Davis (shot by Bruno Delbonnel) still retain a Deakins inspired aesthetic to them, showing just how much the Coens value his input.  Roger Deakins style is a perfect match for the Coen Brothers, because it perfectly understates the style of storytelling they are after.  Deakins often muted colors and faded lighting helps to define the bleakness of the Coen Brothers’ world, and his extensive use of wide-angle lenses help to make much of the real world details of the settings part of the focus along with the characters.  It was because of him that the Coens put the camera in between the actors for their scenes of dialogue, because of his interest of showing the characters within their environment as part of each scene, making their uses of the Reverse Shot technique all the more effective.  I also like how his choices of color grading help to enrich the setting of each film.  When you look at the washed out colors of O Brother, Where art Thou (2000), or the Black and White photography of The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), you get a strong sense of a bygone time that these two movies are trying to invoke.  The Coen Brothers movies have a distinct look all their own, and it’s because of the valued input of a high class cinematographer like Roger Deakins that we can identify a Coen film from all the rest purely in a visual sense.


the big lebowski


One of the things that I love about a Coen Brothers’ movie is the fact that they rarely play by the standard rules of storytelling.  Whereas most Hollywood films follow a simple three act structure, Coen Brothers movies tend to be much more flexible.  This is mostly due to the brothers’ writing style, which relies less on pre-planning and instead involves them just writing scenes out and letting the story build out of that.  This can be infuriating to viewers who just want a story to go somewhere familiar, but the way that the Coens build their stories as they go along actually feels very refreshing.  And the unique thing that I noticed about a number of their movies is that they don’t resolve themselves at the end; at least not in a conventional way.  Oftentimes, each story just seems to play out as a series of unfortunate events that ultimately change nothing about their main character’s life in the long run.  In The Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges’ Dude gets involved in a caper involving kidnapping and ransoms, but instead of him figuring the mystery out and triumphantly exposing the conspiracy around him, the whole plot ends up resolving itself without his help and he just goes back to the life he had before, apart from losing his car, his rug, and his friend Donny (Steve Buscemi) in unrelated incidents.  Burn After Reading goes even further by stopping the movie cold right after John Malkovich’s character murders Richard Jenkin’s character with a hatchet.  The scene shifts abruptly to J.K. Simmons’ CIA director literally closing the book on the crazy case told in the movie and simply asking, “What did we learn?”  Sometimes this unconventional route can be frustrating, like Josh Brolin dying off-screen in No Country for Old Men, but other times it can be provocative, like the ambiguous Tornado finale A Serious Man, and it’s that ability to not take the conventional route that makes the Coen Brothers movies memorable in the end.  I like that they don’t have to rely on happy endings, or have their characters transform by film’s end, because usually it’s those differences that make the story better.

It’s easy to see why the Coens are some of the most beloved filmmakers working today.  Remarkably, they are two minds that have created a singular vision and it’s one that has maintained it’s own, uncompromising character over several, now classic films.  They are celebrated the world over, with Joel Coen being the only 3 time winner of the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival (for Barton FinkFargo, and The Man Who Wasn’t There) and the duo being only the second team of Directors to ever win the award for Best Director at the Oscars for No Country for Old Men (the other two winners being Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, sharing for West Side Story in 1961).  The Coen Brothers have also had a long lasting legacy in cinema, with Fargo now adapted into a critically acclaimed series on FX.  The Big Lebowski is also considered today to be among one of the funniest and most often quoted movies ever made, also turning the Dude into a cultural icon in the process.  Regardless if you find their style appealing or not, each one of their movies is worth looking at; even some of the bad ones.  I particularly think that the back-to-back masterpieces of Fargo and The Big Lebowski perfectly illustrate the brilliance of the brothers at the peak of their craft.  The Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men is also a cinematic treasure worth experiencing.  And if you haven’t seen it already, please watch their newest film Hail Ceaser, which is a near perfect love letter to classic Hollywood that any film buff will enjoy.  Watching any film of theirs becomes especially interesting when you start to notice the common themes and stylistic choices that tie them all together, especially with their editing choices and their twisted sense of humor.  It’s filmmakers like them that make it so enriching to look at their body of work as a whole, which I hope to continue with more beloved filmmakers in future articles like this.


Star Trek Beyond – Review

star trek beyond

This year, the Star Trek franchise hits a milestone, as it marks it’s 50th anniversary.  What started off as an ambitious, but admittedly cheesy prime time sci-fi adventure series on televisionin the 1960’s has since blossomed into one of the most influential and recognizable brands in entertainment.  In the last 50 years, the original series has spawned a movie franchise that in total has produced 13 films, albeit with questionable continuity.  It has also led to the creation of 4 different spin-off series, with another currently in development, all of which help to expand on the mythos that Star Trek is built upon and build up it’s legacy further.  And through all this, it’s still remarkable how Star Trek has managed to remain relevant all these years later.  Sure, the devoted fan base of the Trekkie population has always kept the series in the spotlight, but we are also still seeing even the casual viewer taking interest in Star Trek today, still holding it up in high regards.  I think what has helped Star Trek to adapt over the years has been the way it’s been guided by expert filmmakers who bring a bit of their own interests into the series.  When J.J. Abrams was tasked with bringing a re-imagined Star Trek to the big screen back in 2009, he stated that he was coming at it as someone who wasn’t a passionate fan of the series.  Don’t get him wrong, he still respected the Star Trek universe, but what he wanted to do was to create a version of the series that was not geared solely to the die hard fan, but also to the uninitiated viewer who may or may not be experiencing this universe for the first time.  And it was a new direction for the long running series that really paid off in the end.

J.J. Abrams re-imagined the Star Trek universe by bringing it back to it’s roots, with all the original characters, but opened up the possibilities of different directions by injecting the concept of an alternate timeline into the mix.  It was a genius way to allow a new, more up-to-date take on the origins of the Star Trek, but also give the devoted fan base the relief that it’s not rewriting what has happened before it; keeping the original series and films respectfully a part of this on-going franchise (take note Ghostbusters).  The 2009 relaunch of Star Trek was universally praised by both Trekkies and general audiences alike, but this also put pressure on the filmmakers on how they would follow this up.  The sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), encountered a much different reaction when it was released.  While not an outright disappointment, a lot of fans of Star Trek were underwhelmed by the uneven sequel.  The plot made very little sense; some of the cast were very out of character; and the finale of the film shamelessly stole scenes wholesale right out of the beloved Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), showing clear-cut audience pandering that left many fans cold.  While I stated in my review that I still enjoyed Into Darkness overall, I do acknowledge that it had a lot of unsolvable problems that hurt it, namely in the dreary, taking itself too seriously screenplay by Alex Kurtzman, Robert Orci and Damon Lindelof.  When it was announced that another Star Trek was in the works, many people feared that the wrong direction that Into Darkness was taking the series into was going to continue, and with J.J. Abrams jumping ship to relaunch the Star Wars series with The Force Awakens (2015), it looked like Star Trek was heading for a downfall, just as it was finding it’s footing once again.  So, with Star Trek Beyond now in theaters, are we seeing the best days of the series long behind us, or will this movie take it back to it’s celestial heights?

The story finds the crew of the starship Enterprise in the middle of their five year mission into deep space, or as famously stated, the Final Frontier.  Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) begins to question his place within the Federation hierarchy as the mundane and thankless missions take their toll on him, and he seriously considers giving up his captain’s seat for a vice admiral position.  At the same time, his First Officer Spock (Zachary Quinto) is torn by his duty to the ship and his desire to help his Vulcan people rebuild their culture, leading him to also consider leaving his position.  Their personal struggles are put on hold when a distress call is brought to their attention, leading them to take the Enterprise out to a remote planet on the edges of the galaxy.  There, the Enterprise is attacked by an immense, swarm-like fleet of ships, which leads to the destruction of the Enterprise and the forced evacuation of it’s crew. After crash landing on the remote planet, the Enterprise crew is split apart and at the mercy of the ruthless mercenary force, led by the mysterious Krall (Idris Elba).  Kirk and Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin) search for answers as to where their lost crew might be, and what Krall is after.  Spock, wounded from his encounters with the alien force, must rely on the help of Dr. “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) to survive.  Sulu (John  Cho) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) seek to escape the clutches of Krall’s forces as they are confined with the other hostages.  And Scotty (Simon Pegg) runs across a lone wolf rebel on the same planet named Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who may have the means necessary of helping the crew reunite and fight back against Krall.  But time is short for all of them, as Krall seeks to use a weapon in the Enterprise’s possession that could destroy millions of lives at the nearby Federation star base.

A lot of questions were raised whether or not the Star Trek franchise would manage in a post-Abrams direction, and the choice of direction given over to Justin Lin of Fast and the Furious fame seemed to make a lot of fans uneasy.  Thankfully, all of our fears were for not because Star Trek Beyond is a success all the way through; not just as a continuation of the Star Trek franchise, but as a movie in general.  From beginning to end, this is a thoroughly enjoyable film, and probably the most fun I’ve had watching a movie all summer.  The action scenes are phenomenal, and very creatively staged.  The cast is engaged and clearly having fun.  The script is also much more in tone with the basics of what this series is about.  It should be noted that a draft of this screenplay was written by Simon Pegg (who plays Scotty in the movie) and his input brings a renewed focus to the series.  Pegg is clearly a fan of Star Trek and he manages to show that in his writing by essentially crafting a two hour episode of the series.  The crew encounters a strange, new world; do battle with the hostile force; and return home after saving the day as a team; nothing more complex than that, and it works.  Pegg doesn’t have to rely on paying homage to the past or rehashing old ideas in a new context.  Here, he just let’s the story and characters go about their business like they normally would, and that makes for a much more engaging adventure in this universe.  Also, a lot of credit should go to director Lin for managing to keep the momentum going in this series after the departure of it’s high profile director.  Trekkies, rest assured, your franchise is in good hands.

Before I go into the many great things that work in this film, I also want to point out that it’s not 100% perfect either.  I think that the while I do enjoy the direction of Justin Lin in this movie, it can sometimes veer dangerously close to incomprehensibility.  Lin’s style matches the frenetic vibe of the Fast and the Furious series perfectly, but it sometimes clashes a bit with the story being told here.  The pacing for instance suffers a bit from the quick-editing that Lin is more used to, at least in the film’s opening act, where plot points are thrown our way without much time to stick properly.  But, thankfully, when the film reaches the remote planet in the second act, it begins to settle down, and allows the narrative to flow out more naturally.  Lin’s style also helps to make the action scenes more kinetic than in past films, and thankfully it’s not in a way that feels out of place here.  Those of you worried about the image of Kirk riding a motorcycle that was shown in the trailer, be rest assured; it plays out much better in context and is not a forced injection of Fast and the Furious machismo into the Star Trek universe.  The only other negative working against the film is unfortunately the central villain, Krall.  He’s something of a weak, underwritten character who’s motivations are barely explored, and even when we find out more about his past, it’s kind of shoe-horned in very awkwardly.  This is more the fault of the screenplay rather than the actor playing him, because Idris Elba does try his very best and does leave somewhat of an impression.  The character is adequate, but never grabs our attention the same way that Eric Bana’s Nero or Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan had done before.  Even still, the character could have been much more poorly handled, and it’s to the credit of Elba’s abilities as a performer that he works fine at all in this film.

Perhaps the film’s greatest strength would be the absolute stellar cast assembled for this series.  These actors were given the unenviable task of taking over iconic characters and making them their own, and each one of them has done a superb job.  Given that one of the stars of the film also served as screenwriter, it’s no surprise that much of the movie is devoted to building the interconnected relationships with one another.  What I love best about the film is that it attempts to pair up characters that don’t normally share screen-time together in this series and allows us to see what might happen as a result.  I especially liked the pairing of Spock and Bones in this film, as it gives the movie it’s most amusing subplot.  Spock, of all people, gets some of the film’s biggest laughs, and I thought it was a welcome surprise for this series to use the character this way, yet still remain true.  Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, and everyone else continue to impress as these iconic characters; embodying the roles without falling into parody.  I also liked the fact that they’re able to find new angles to explore with them.  News broke earlier that this film was going to reveal that this version of Sulu is gay (something that original Sulu and out actor George Takei objected to, despite it being a special acknowledgement to him), but I was pleased to see that it was presented in a very subtle, non-exploitative way that does not change anything about the character at all; it’s just a nice added detail.  I also liked how well the new character of Jaylah fit into the story, and the character dynamics overall.  She could have easily have been a stereotypical tough girl character, but her determination and resourcefulness really helps to add something to the film, and it makes her a more interesting character as a result.  I think she works especially well because she is paired with Scotty for most of the movie, and their distinctive personalities mesh together surprisingly well.

Star Trek Beyond’s visuals are also noteworthy of praise.  The film supposedly had a smaller budget than Into Darkness, but you wouldn’t know it.  Amazingly, this movie feels quite epic in scope.  The most impressive centerpiece of the film is the Yorktown Space Station, a massive glass enclosed satellite base that’s other-worldly and breathtaking at the same time.  It gives the viewer a sense of awe and wonder that you normally don’t find regularly in the Star Trek franchise.  The Base also provides a perfect setting for the climatic battle at the end, which is a significant upgrade from the previous film, which end in a very lackluster way.  I especially loved the way that the cityscapes of the colossal base seemed to layer on top of one another, making the climax all the more eye-catching.  The planet where most of the film is set also is beautifully realized, and feels at times like a hearken back to the classic series itself; with rock quarries and the remote California deserts and forests acting as stand-ins for an alien world (although this time, Canada served as the location shooting for this film).  Overall it’s a movie that feels big without ever trying too hard to look big.  It’s all in how the visuals ended up being used I guess.  Justin Lin takes the best of what he’s learned from Fast and the Furious and gives Star Trek a consistent, non-flashy identity, and that’s to be commended.  J.J. Abrams sometimes distracting lens flares are no where to be seen this time around, and I think that’s a positive move for the series.  There’s noting groundbreaking in this Star Trek; it’s just pure solid action in service of the story rather than a distraction from it.

So, I would highly recommend seeing Star Trek Beyond.  It may not be the greatest we’ve seen from the Star Trek universe, but it’s a worthy addition that provides great thrills nonetheless.  The characters are all still wonderfully realized, and the movie allows them to play off one another in a very fun and engaging way.  I especially like the new direction that Justin Lin brought to this series, which was in danger of growing stale after Into Darkness seemed to take a step backward.  He gives the movie an impressive sense of scale, while at the same time never overwhelming us with the action either; allowing the characters to drive the story instead.  I also love the way that Simon Pegg brought a sense of fun back to this franchise with his script.  He doesn’t try to be sanctimonious or too smart with the material, which is a good thing.  He knows what Star Trek is supposed to be, and he just let’s it play out like it normally would, making the adventure all the more engaging.  My hope is that this team continues on this road in future installments, because it came together almost perfectly here.  Sadly, they’ll be missing a crucial piece with the sudden passing of Chekov actor Anton Yelchin, who thankfully gets more of a presence in this feature and likewise delivered with a great amount of charm in his role.  The movie also pays tribute to original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, in a respectful way, and how they eulogize him within the film is an incredibly touching moment.  Overall, this was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had watching a movie this year.  Movies like Captain America: Civil War and Finding Dory may be better overall, but Star Trek Beyond might be the most fun cinematic experience you will have at the movies this summer season.  It’s blockbuster entertainment at it’s finest, and a very worthwhile way to honor the 50th anniversary of this monumental series.

Rating: 8.5/10

Focus on a Franchise – Harry Potter: Part One

harry potter

Many of the franchises that I have covered in this series usually evolved over many years, and sometimes decades, adapting to the times and taking interesting turns the further they went along.  That wasn’t so much the case with the Harry Potter franchise.  Based on author J.K. Rowling’s sprawling, seven volume epic series of novels, Harry Potter was a huge gamble for Warner Brothers to take on in the early 2000’s.  They had to build a franchise around a cast of young characters in a genre that had, until that time, not clicked at the box office.  And the big problem with planning such a long lasting franchise starring child actors is that they eventually grow up; fast.  And yet, Warner Bros. benefited from having a source material with a built in audience that not only could work on the big screen, but in deed lended itself perfectly to the medium.  Rowling’s grand magnum opus was a phenomenon that deserved all of it’s praise, and the pressure was on to make the films just as engaging as the books themselves, and do it quick (8 films in 10 years).  As we know now, the franchise was a smash hit, and managed to fulfill it’s promise of capturing the full breadth of Rowling’s narrative.  Following the titular hero on his adventures at the Hogwarts School of Wizarding and Witchcraft, the Potter franchise is both surprisingly faithful to the spirit of the novels, but distinctive in it’s own right as a cinematic achievement.  Despite all it’s success, it wasn’t without some hurdles over time, especially in the beginning, but by the release of the eighth film in 2011 (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2), everyone could agree that this was one of the most monumental film franchises ever.

Because there is a lot to talk about with each film, I decided to do something different with this series and spread my discussion over two parts.  For this first article, I will go over the first four films in the Harry Potter franchise, and then discuss the final four in the next entry of this series; hopefully before the release of the spin-off movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them this Thanksgiving.  I’ll avoid going over plot summaries, since I’m sure that most of you already know these stories intimately by now.  What I will write about is the way that the franchised progressed, movie by movie, and how this massive series built itself up to what it became in a relatively short amount of time.  I will examine the development of the cast, the different visionary approaches to the same story, and more or less discuss how well each brought the world of J.K. Rowling’s universe to life.  So now, let’s grab our brooms, don our robes, and hold out our wands as we look back at the franchise about the “boy who lived,” Harry Potter.

harry potter and the sorcerers stone


Directed by Chris Columbus

So, a lot of anticipation led up to the premiere of this first Harry Potter film.  Fans of the books couldn’t wait to see this story come to full life while, at the same time, were worried that it wasn’t going to live up to their imagination.  The film certainly had a sizable budget behind it, as well as the backing of everyone at Warner Brothers, hoping the boy wizard would be the next big thing.  And indeed, their gamble paid off, becoming a huge box office success and the highest grossing film of 2001, even in direct competition with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, which was released only weeks after.  But, here’s the thing; yes the movie was popular, but was it any good?  The answer is, kind of.  Unfortunately for Sorcerer’s Stone, in hindsight, it is universally viewed as the weakest film in the series, and it’s easy to see why.  My own big problem with the movie is the fact that it’s not well directed.  Chris Columbus has proven to be a fine producer over his many years in Hollywood, but his track record as a director is a bit shakier.  Some of his movies are beloved (Home Alone); some are not (Pixels).  While Harry Potter doesn’t represent Columbus’ worst work ever, it still shows a lot of his short-comings as a filmmaker.  Namely, the fact that his movies lack any style to them.  Sorcerer’s Stone is beautifully constructed, but the uninteresting cinematography and simplistic staging only reinforces the fact in the mind of the viewer that they are watching something shot on a soundstage, and not in a living, breathing world.  Couple this with the fact that the movie is afraid to remove anything from the book, so you have a movie that feels both flat and bloated.

But, that’s not to say that the movie is a failure either.  There is still plenty things to like and at times the film can be quite watchable and absorbing.  Despite Chris Columbus’ short-comings as a director, I do give him credit for at least establishing all the pieces that would come to define the series in the years ahead and making them all appropriately iconic.  Hogwarts is wonderfully realized, and effectively epic in scale.  The production design overall is solid, with costumes, sets, and visual effects feeling all appropriately magical, if perhaps a little too basic.  But, what’s most special about this movie, and for the franchise overall is the stellar, all-star cast.  Many of Britain’s best character actors can all be found here, including Richard Harris as Professor Dumbledore, as well as Maggie Smith, Richard Griffiths, Robbie Coltrane, David Bradley, and John Hurt all giving their best.  It should also be mentioned that they lucked out with the casting of Alan Rickman as Professor Snape, in what would be the greatest role of his stellar career, and a perfectly matched one too.  But, it’s the casting of the main roles of the children where the movie really shines.  Emma Watson and Rupert Grint click almost immediately in the crucial roles of Hermoine Granger and Ron Wesley respectively, and so do many of the other young stars.  The only one who seems a little out of his league in this first film, unfortunately, is Daniel Radcliffe as Harry himself.  I don’t see that as his fault, though, considering that he’s got to play the boring, every-man protagonist here, and I think that too much was expected of him so early on.  He at least looked perfect for the role.  As we would see in future movies ahead, his growth as an actor and his role as the character would take many unpredictable turns in the years ahead.

harry potter and the chamber of secrets


Directed by Chris Columbus

Filmed simultaneously with Sorcerer’s StoneHarry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets made it to theaters exactly a year later.  And while the movie improved on the original in some ways, it also sadly had some of the same problems.  For one thing, the filmmakers seemed uncertain whether or not to cut moments from the book, so again they hedged their bets and included just about everything.  This results in a movie that runs a staggering 162 minutes (the longest in the whole series) and you feel every bit of it.  While it is neat to see so much time devoted to showcasing this amazing world, there are still plenty of things that could have been cut down.  The Quidditch Match scene for example, while beautifully executed and epic in scope, goes on for way too long and could have done with a couple edits.  Some of the plot detours could have used some better focus and time management too, like the whole Polyjuice Potion segment.  Still, the movie does excel better than it’s predecessor.  Chris Columbus manages to utilize his directorial tricks more effectively here, giving the movie a better cinematic look overall.  He also manages to deliver on tone much better.  The scenes within the Forbidden Woods and the titular Chamber are effectively creepy without feeling toned down.  In addition, the film actually takes some chances by being shockingly violent at times, including a moment where Harry’s arm is brutally stabbed by the fang of a ferocious giant serpent.  But, that’s not to say that the movie veers too quickly into darker territory.  It’s still a film aimed at audiences of all ages (perhaps a little too much so) and it still retains an aura of wonderment overall.

Again, the cast is the shining element of this film.  All the key players return, along with some welcome additions.  Jason Issacs brings an appropriately menacing and sneering turn as the villainous Lucius Malfoy, father of hated Potter rival Draco (played by Tom Felton).  My favorite addition to the cast though is Kenneth Branaugh as the pompous Professor Gilderoy Lockheart.  The famed Shakespearean thespian and filmmaker delivers a delightfully hammy performance that enables him to steal every scene he’s in and it’s an overall inspired choice of casting.  The child actors are also improved as well, especially Radcliffe as Harry, although he still hasn’t shaken off the bland, wide-eyed wonder expression that plagues his performance in these first couple films (seriously kid, it’s your second year at school; you should be used to this stuff by now).  This was also sadly the final screen performance of actor Richard Harris, as this movie was released posthumously after his death in between films.  He thankfully finished all his scenes before passing, and manages to deliver a wonderful swan song of a performance here.  The movie is also notable for the introduction of Dobby, the series first fully CGI animated principle character.  While he was annoying to some (mostly because he was unfairly compared to Lord of the Rings Gollum, who also was introduced that same year) the animation on the character was no less groundbreaking for it’s time and his presence helped to give this movie a much more magical feeling overall.   It may not have been the fully realized Potter film we’ve been wanting to see just yet, but this entry nevertheless showed us that better things were to come for the franchise, and with Chris Columbus stepping aside as director, we would see that those better things were much closer than we expected.

harry potter and the prisoner of azkaban


Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Now this is more like it.  After Chris Columbus’ departure, Warner Brothers tapped Mexican filmmaker (and future Oscar-Winner) Alfonso Cuaron to direct the third feature in the series, and his input made a whole lot of difference.  Cuaron proved to be a perfect choice because he brought a very distinct sense of style to the movie; something that would go on to define the rest of the series thereafter.  The film no longer looked basic, but instead had visual flair to it.  With artistic tricks like ink-blot transition fades, impressionistic framing, and Cuaron’s trademark long takes, this became a film that not only stood out from it’s predecessors, but also made Harry Potter distinctive from other films too.  What Cuaron also did to change the face of the franchise was to take it out into the real world.  Instead of shooting entirely around the vicinity of the studio lot that most of the original films were made in, Cuaron shot several exterior scenes on location in the Scottish Highlands.  Because of this, the movie has an authenticity that the first two films didn’t.  The universe of Harry Potter finally felt like a lived-in, functioning world, and that’s the biggest and most rewarding contribution Prisoner of Azkaban made to the franchise.  At the same time, the film still feels like a natural continuation to what came before, and in addition to the great artistic leaps that this movie made, it also benefited from a renewed focus on the story.  Prisoner of Azkaban finally delivers some much needed insight into Harry’s backstory, including the truth behind the murder of his family, and why his importance in this world matters.

Because of the more introspective details of this plot, it puts Harry’s personal journey more into the spotlight, and this in turn leads to one of the film’s other great improvements.  For the first time in the series, Daniel Radcliffe finally shines as the character of Harry.  He gives his best performance to date here, and I think that it’s because the series finally allows him to emote rather than react to what’s happening.  It basically becomes a difference between performing and acting, and here, Radcliffe finally figured out how to embody the character.  And it makes sense; Harry finally learns more about how the tragedies that shaped his life and how nothing is what it seems, making his inner turmoil all the more defining to his character.  It also helps that Radcliffe had fantastic role models in the cast to help guide his acting abilities to new heights, such as the additions of Gary Oldman as Sirius Black and David Thewlis as Reamus Lupin, both giving standout performances.  Also worth noting is the recasting of Dumbledore, with veteran actor Michael Gambon assuming the role after Richard Harris’ passing.  While I admire Harris’ take on the character, I actually thing Gambon proved to be a better fit.  Harris was a bit too ethereal as Dumbledore, while Gambon’s version came across as much more accessible, and a lot more natural as a result.  The movie also makes the wise choice of cutting out any unnecessary scenes, making this movie feel much less bloated than previous films.  Quidditch is portrayed to the bare minimum, and more time is devoted to the things that matter, like character relationships.  While some things are curiously left out (the true authors of the Marauder’s Map) there’s nothing in this movie that shouldn’t be here, and that’s refreshing.  Prisoner of Azkaban changed up the franchise in the best way possible, and that’s why it’s considered by most to be the best in the series.

harry potter and the goblet of fire


Directed by Mike Newell

While I do admire Prisoner of Azkaban a great deal, and what it brought to the franchise as a whole, I actually would consider it’s successor to be my own favorite film in this series.  Azkaban revolutionized and set the tone for the rest of the series, but I believe Goblet of Fire is the one movie that perfected it.   My reaction may have to do with Goblet also being my favorite book from the series, but it’s not without a lot of remarkable film-making that helps to earn it that distinction as well.  Director Mike Newell takes what Alfonso Cuaron built in the last movie, and amps it up to 11.  The scale is bigger, with all the Triwizard Tournament sequences making a colossal impression; as does the impressive Quidditch World Cup that opens the feature.  Not only that, but the characters themselves go through many life-altering changes.  Romantic relationships come more into focus in this movie, with Harry finding his first crush in his fellow student Cho Chang (Katie Leung).  Ron and Hermoine’s budding romance is also explored further, with sometimes very hilarious results.  Conflicts between characters are also given more insight, as Harry begins to feel more of the pressure that his celebrity status in the Wizarding World and the negative effect it has.  His friendship with Ron hits a few hurdles, as Harry seems to achieve glory without any effort and Ron sees it as a betrayal.  I love all of this deeper stuff injected into the story, making the movie feel more than just a spectacle, but instead closer to the rich narrative that J.K. Rowling had imagined.

New members of the already stellar cast once again proves the ambitious casting choices of the series paying off so far.  Brendan Gleeson delivers a delightfully unhinged performance as the curmudgeonly Mad Eye Moody, a character that both commands attention in every scene and brings some very welcome comic relief.  Many other great British character actors bring plenty of flavor to the film as well, including Miranda Richardson as the nosy Rita Skeeter and Doctor Who‘s David Tennant delivering a very slimy performance as Barty Crouch Jr.  Also, future sparkling vampire Robert Pattinson shows up as Hogwart’s resident hunk, Cedric Diggory.  But, the film’s greatest addition to the series is the role that was probably the most crucial casting choice overall apart from Harry himself, and that’s the role of the primary villain; Lord Voldemort.   After teasing his return for three movies, Voldemort finally shows his ugly face in the climax of this feature, and the filmmakers should be commended for getting someone as noteworthy as Ralph Fiennes for the role.  Fiennes performance is iconic; both mesmerizing and terrifying at the same time.  The way he goes from cool confidence to seething rage in an instant is frighteningly realized and the whole resurrection scene near the film’s end is easily one of the series finest moments, if not the best overall.  Because of this dark turn, the franchise would likewise never be the same after this.  The wizarding world would become a much darker place, where even Hogwarts would no longer be a safe haven, and the films commendably adopted that newer, darker tone gracefully.

So, there you have the first four features in the Harry Potter franchise.  Unlike most series that tend to loose luster over time, Harry Potter is one of the few examples where it managed to get better the longer it went on.  Much like how the children at it’s center grew up and matured, the series itself started off unfocused and uncertain, only to gain confidence as it kept growing.  Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets are by no mean bad movies, but they do pale in comparison to where the series would ultimately go in the years after.  I can’t stress enough how important Prisoner of Azkaban was in finally setting the tone for the series and helping to give it the distinctive character that it was lacking up to that point.  But, when looked at entirely, you can’t deny that it does faithfully bring to life J.K. Rowling’s imaginative story; especially with regards to the characters.  Just as with the novels themselves, I believe the real appeal of the Potter series is the incredible way that it perfectly captures the experience of childhood within a school environment.  Sure, this a world of witches and wizards, but the interconnected relationships between characters are as real as anything we’ve all experienced when going through school.  Just like all of us, Harry and his friends have to deal with the pressures of homework, the dangers of school bullying, as well as the reliance of friends in times of crisis.  Rowling’s genius is in the fact that each of her novels is devoted to an entire school year, making the progression of the narrative feel familiar to any of us who recall our memories of school based on all the different levels of development we achieved.  For the start of this franchise, we would see the sweet innocence and promise of youth give way to the harsh realities of adulthood just across the horizon, and that’s what awaits us in the final four films of the Harry Potter franchise.  So, until then…

….to be continued.

Artsy Fartsy – The Fine Line Between the Surreal and the Pretentious in Movies

swiss army man

In the midst of all the big summer season blockbusters that are released this time of year, there are also a handful of small independent films that make it into theaters.  Usually the independent film industry tries to aim for year end releases, if they feel that their movie is award worthy, but oftentimes there are some films that are released earlier in the year, purely because of audience curiosity hitting a high pitch on which the filmmakers wish to capitalize, or because the studios didn’t know where else to put them in their schedule.  This latter camp could be for two reasons; one, because the movie in question is so strange that the studio is unsure how the audience will react to it, or that it’s just plain unwatchable and the studio dumps it into theaters.  Whatever the movie turns out to be, the audience ultimately decides.  There is a part of the indie film audience that craves for the weird and unpredictable, but this is also an audience with discerning tastes.  For the most part, art house audiences want to see something challenging and provocative; something different from the norm of the average studio output.  But, like with all art-forms, there stands a fine line between making something that’s provocative, and something that rings hollow.  Filmmakers must never forget that cinema is an art-form with the clear purpose of entertainment.  You need to make something that can grab and hold your audiences attention for two hours at a time, and to do that, concessions to the audiences tastes must be accounted for.  That’s not to mean that a filmmakers artistic expression needs to be watered down to appeal to the public; it just means that the filmmaker must examine whether or not their vision can hold weight within the medium of cinema.

This was the thought that ran through my head over the last couple weeks as I experienced two of this summer’s most talked about independent films.  The first one I saw was a bizarre, dryly dark comedy called The Lobster, which stars Colin Ferrell as a lonely man who is mandated to find his true love at a resort, or else he will be transformed into the animal of his choice; the titular lobster.  The second film that I saw was Swiss Army Man, a buddy comedy about a marooned castaway played by Paul Dano who finds his way home thanks to the many talents of his resourceful friend; a farting corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe.  Both films commit to their ridiculous premises and even manage to find a surprising profoundness within their narratives, mostly pertaining to human relationships and the pressures that society puts on the individual.  But, after seeing both, I’m surprised how different my reaction was to both movies.  I found Swiss Army Man to be the far more effective of the two, ,mainly because of it’s charm, and the very noticeable lack of charm in The Lobster.  Even still, I can understand completely how some people might have the opposite opinion and prefer The Lobster as the better film, or find them both equally charming.  I can also completely understand if someone ends up hating both as well.  It’s clear that indie films like Swiss Army Man and The Lobster are not for anyone, and their target audience may be minuscule at best.  But, if one keeps an open mind, they may find the appeal of movies like these in unexpected ways, and that sense of discovery is what really helps to drive the independent market.  Indie films tend to be a crap shoot for the industry, because oftentimes you’ll find movies within it that have limited appeal and then other times you’ll find the next big thing.

I think the reason why I responded so strongly to something like Swiss Army Man was because there was a sense that came through that the filmmakers knew what kind of movie they were making.  The directors, Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (credited as The Daniels), have even stated in interviews that the movie sort of started as a bet, seeing whether or not they could make a movie centered around a flatulent corpse.  The fact that they made it work, and even found a surprisingly humane narrative about companionship with it, is something rather remarkable and it shows the real power of creative storytelling.  But, what the movie also does well is to not take itself too seriously, while at the same time keeping it relentlessly absurd.  I think this was helped immensely by the performances of the two leads, Dano and Radcliffe.  If you don’t buy into their performances, then the absurdity of the premise rings hollow.  Radcliffe in particular takes command of the film, making the film’s sentient corpse feel authentic and not at all farcical; like an artsy Weekend at Bernie’s (1989).  The humor is overall balanced, and that’s a large part of why it works.  The gags come naturally out of the situation and support the narrative of these two characters.  By doing that, it avoids a pitfall that too many other quirky independent films fall into called pretentiousness.

The Lobster is unfortunately the kind of movie that I feel earns the label of pretentious; but at the same time, it is also far from being the most pretentious thing I’ve ever seen on the big screen.  The Lobster’s main fault is that it takes what should be absurdly funny within it’s premise and strips it down into a cold, sterile presentation.    It’s clinical, when it should be farcical.  I recognize where the humor should be, but the staging undermines what humor could have been there.  The director, Yorgos Lanthimos, crafted a pretty looking movie around this premise, with beautiful cinematography, but he did so in detriment to the humor.  The film has a languid pace to it, making the ridiculousness feel like a chore, and that ultimately is what makes the movie fail.  It becomes pretentious because it never quite earns the huge artistic leaps that it attempts to take.  If the movie stuck with a cohesive tone either underlined the message of the film, or the artistic ambitions of the director, or the desire to cultivate an absurd world in which this story takes place, there might have been something here; and yet, nothing comes out of all that ambition.  But, maybe pretentious could be too strong a word to label this movie.  I don’t know what the director’s ultimate intent was, but the result feels too much like art for arts-sake.  But, it could have just been because this movie didn’t connect with me like Swiss Army Man did.  Swiss Army Man has it’s pretentious moments too (including existential soliloquies by it’s characters, and rhythmic montages that don’t really add anything, and a completely baffling finale) but they didn’t spoil the experience for me.  Man balances it’s art with story, while Lobster let’s the art overwhelm everything else.

It’s an occurrence you see a lot within the artistic community; where there becomes a disconnect between the artist and the viewer.  Sometimes it’ll take a while for a piece of art to connect with it’s audience, and then there are other times when no connection will be made at all.  The most dangerous thing for an artist to do is think that what they make is for their own indulgence.  Movies should have a broad appeal, because it’s the only thing that justifies their creation in the end.  You take an audience’s reaction for granted and you open yourself up to failure.  But, pretentious film-making isn’t usually characteristic of most independent film-making; if anything, pretension more often comes from established, mainstream artists.  The Wachowskis for instance have made what I consider some of the most pretentious films in recent memory; and they accomplished this through big studio backing.  The Matrix (1999) managed to be that rare box office hit that kept it’s philosophical musings and crowd pleasing action sequences in a nice balance, because both were delivered with an earnestness that kept everything interesting.  But the novelty wore off in the sequels, and The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions (both 2003) collapsed under the lack of cohesion, and both the action and philosophical elements lost their power due to the Wachowskis desire to show off instead of reinvent their franchise.  They have continued down this road with muddled messes like Speed Racer (2008) and Jupiter Ascending (2015), movies that never become as profound or as thrilling as the Wachowskis seem to think they’ll be.  The films of M. Night Shaymalan also come to mind, where it seems like the filmmaker is holding the audience at a distance while trying to make his narrative hit the mark that he believes it should make.  And action filmmakers Roland Emmerich and Zack Snyder are achieving new levels of pretentiousness as they make films that believe they are provocative, but are really just stupid.

But, should a filmmaker compromise their vision in order to avoid appearing pretentious and find broader appeal.  Not at all.  The thing that will help a filmmaker out the most in the industry is to find their own unique voice.  Some audiences will accept something odd and unique at their local theater if they already are familiar with the person or people that make it.  Some independent filmmakers luck out whenever their unique style clicks with an audience, and it helps them gain a little more ease when attempting to make films their own way.  A really unique voice to rise and mature out of the independent field would be someone like Wes Anderson.  Anderson’s style is unlike any other in film-making, and easy to define, and has changed little since his early days.  And still, it’s understandable if his style doesn’t click with everyone, but the man has earned enough trust with his audience to where he has a sizable fan base that will allow him to make whatever he wants to.  His confidence in his art has allowed his movies to avoid the pitfalls of pretension, even though his overly artistic style could easily fall that way if he ever took it for granted and choose to just repeat himself over and over again.  A fundamental understanding of a person’s own artistic limits and their skills to tell a story are essential for becoming a success.  I think that’s one of the things that separates the amateurs from the professionals, and why a good film education is needed.  I had my own film school experience, and it showed me how knowledge of the medium would give my fellow students the much needed balance that they would need to make movies that would work.  Any person can point and shoot a camera, but a film education teaches you how to pace, compose, and edit a scene, making what you shoot all the more potent in the end.

But what a filmmaker must also realize is that their artistic style is also prone to evolving into pretension if not experimented with.  The best filmmakers have their own style, but they also change their styles slightly to fit with the times.  Picking the right subjects for your future projects makes all the difference.  Some filmmakers make the mistake of relying too heavily on their styles, forcing them into story-lines where it doesn’t fit.  This is a problem that I see with someone like Terrence Malick.  He famously took a nearly 30 year break from film-making, only to return in the late 90’s with the war epic, The Thin Red Line (1998).  Since then, he has been consistently turning out ambitious, but overly poetic dramas, each one more dense than the last.  His style basically involves a free flowing narrative with his characters expressing their emotions in dubbed over narration that often sounds like their reading poetry.  Interesting enough, his style works best when it’s put into unexpected places, like a World War II setting in The Thin Red Line, or pre-colonial America in The New World (2005).  But since these epics, he’s focused his style on examinations of American life, whether it’s post-War suburbia in The Tree of Life (2011), the contemporary American Midwest in To the Wonder (2013) or the glitziness of Hollywood in Knight of Cups (2016) and his style has lost much of it’s appeal in the process.  While before he was reinventing different genres with his unique voice, now he is repeating himself with too many similar narratives, and his style now feels minimized as a result.  His last three films are pretentious, because they say noting that Malick hasn’t already said before and are just are for the sake of art; beautiful as they may be.  Filmmakers of the same ilk as Malick, like David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick have similar uncompromising styles, but they made them work over longer periods by applying them to different things; whether it be different genres or narrative structures.  It’s how they’ve avoided the pitfalls of pretension that Malick has sadly found himself within.

Overall, we as an audience must decide what is deemed pretentious and what is not, and ultimately, we probably will never find a full consensus of what that actually means.  We do know pretentious when we see it, but sometimes a pretentious piece of art may actually be something we appreciate, while for others it will remain garbage.  I certainly responded the former way to Swiss Army Man, even though I do acknowledge that it will not be for everyone.  Hell, the movie rubbed some people the wrong way right from the moment it premiered at Sundance Film Festival, where audience members at the prestigious event even walked out; probably put off by the seemingly sophomoric flatulence humor.  But, there were others like me that responded well enough and it got the buzz that it deserves to receive a big enough release (no pun intended).  The Lobster on the other hand left me underwhelmed because it was quirky without the emotional drive needed for me to care.  That being said, many other critics have praised the film for it’s uniqueness, and I can understand that response as well.  Surreal movies that defy easy explanation are necessary for the film industry, because they allow for new ideas and techniques to take hold in the medium.  It takes earnestness in the project itself and a willingness to make it appealing that ultimately decides whether or not it will connect with it’s audience.  Also, trust the intelligence of your audience.  If you go too far artistically, or make your themes too heavy or not heavy enough for the narrative to carry, than the audience will reject your work.  It’s the story that ultimately matters most in the end, and a commitment to that can allow for any of the insane things that you attach onto it.  Believe me, I’ve seen some weird things on the movie screen over the years.  Some of it may drive people away, but if you commit to seeing it through to the end, then you’ll know for sure if it escapes the pitfall of pretension and achieves what it’s maker wanted, and it could be the movie that can possibly change cinema forever.

Evolution of Character – Wyatt Earp

wyatt earp

In my last article for this series, I highlighted Queen Elizabeth I, a real historical figure that has enjoyed many varied depictions on the big screen.  In this article, I chose to highlight yet another subject from history, but from a decidedly different era altogether. The American West has given the world many fascinating figures of legend , whether real, fictional, or a combination of both.  Larger than life characters like Jesse James, Calamity Jane, Billy the Kid, and “Buffalo” Bill Cody have all achieved immortality within folklore and later through cinematic adaptation.  But if there was one that stood out as the most prolific, it would be legendary U.S. Marshall Wyatt Earp.  Born in 1848, Earp worked all across the American frontier, but once he arrived in the town of Dodge City, Kansas, he fell into the role that would eventually define him; that of a lawman.  After a semi-successful career in Dodge City (where he would meet one of his most trusted associates, John “Doc” Holliday), Earp took up the head U.S. Marshall position at a boomtown in the Arizona Territory called Tombstone, and it was here that he would become a legend.  The moment that defined his life and career came on October 26, 1881, when Earp, Holliday, and two of Earp’s brothers faced down the Clanton gang at the Tombstone O.K. Corral, which led to the most famous gunfight in U.S. history.  In the end, the cowboy gang was slaughtered and Earp’s posse was triumphant.  The incident became the basis for so many Western legends since.  Naturally, Wyatt Earp makes for an ideal Western hero, and Hollywood has revisited his story many times on the big screen.  In this article, I will take a look at how that legendary image translated to cinema and endured over the years as the genre itself had changed.

earp randolph scott


Wyatt Earp’s standoff at the O.K. Corral had been recreated many times over in the silent era of film, but in the era of talkies, Hollywood didn’t get around to adapting his story until this feature.  In the role of Earp, the filmmakers cast rising star Randolph Scott, an actor who would come to define the Western genre in the years since.  Though Scott plays the role of a frontier lawman well enough, the problem is that the character he depicts in the movie shares nothing with the real Wyatt Earp other than just his name.  The movie Frontier Marshall doesn’t portray the story of Wyatt Earp so much as it appropriates it into the formulaic Western narrative that it wanted to tell.  Here, Earp is as interchangeable as any other Western hero from that time period.  The film even rewrites the famous O.K. corral scene, portraying it as a lone standoff between Earp and the outlaw cowboys.  Doc Holliday (portrayed here by Cesar Romero) is not present in that moment like he was in real life; something that would be rectified in future adaptations. Despite Hollywood playing loosely with the real life facts behind the story, Scott still leaves a serviceable impression as the legendary lawman.  In the role, you can see the makings of the genre icon that he would eventually become.  Because of that, you can excuse the fact that he also doesn’t look much like the real Earp as well, missing the trademark mustache.  Eventually, though, Hollywood would recognize that the real life Gunfight was due for an accurate portrayal.

earp henry fonda


As the Western genre matured, so did the attempts to adapt the life of Wyatt Earp as well.  Fun fact: Wyatt Earp lived long enough to see the early cinematic adaptations of his legendary gunfight being filmed, and on one occasion, Earp visited a set where a young director by the name of John Ford was working.  Many years after that encounter, Ford would bring the story of Wyatt Earp to the big-screen in what many consider to be one of the greatest Westerns ever made.  For one thing, the casting of Henry Fonda couldn’t be more perfect.  The dashing leading man gives the role a dignified air, and while at times he can be a bit too stoic in the role, Fonda nevertheless delivers on making Earp a beloved hero worth rooting for.  They also got the look right, with Fonda sporting the trademark mustache for the role.  The gunfight in particular is perfectly staged; intense and suspenseful.  The buildup to the climatic moment is what really makes it a standout, building quietly without music and minimal dialogue.  It’s a mastery of direction that you would only find from the genre’s definitive director, John Ford.  In addition, the movie also finds time for the other members of Earp’s posse, with Victor Mature lending great support as Doc Holliday as well as from Ward Bond and Tim Holt as the Earp brothers.  But make no mistake, it’s Fonda that really carries this movie, making Wyatt Earp the idealized lawman; pure in his intentions and steadfast in his resolve.  The image of Earp sitting on the front porch of his office, with one leg raised up against a pillar as he looks down the street has since become one of the most iconic images of the Western genre, and it’s a moment that only a great artist like Ford could pull off.

earp joel mccrea


When the genre entered the 1950’s, the Western became a perfect showcase for the new widescreen process.  Naturally, with the wider canvas, Hollywood wanted to show off the Western frontier in a big way and they drew once again from some of the most legendary stories in the genre.  Wyatt Earp was once again chosen as an ideal subject for this new era of Westerns, but Wichita did something very different with the character, and that was to portray the early years of the man’s life instead of the most defining ones in Tombstone.  In this film, we are introduced to Earp during his time as a cattle rustler in Kansas.  As the film shows, the young Earp runs afoul of bandits and other outlaw cowboys making life hard for the people of Wichita, and through these encounters, it leads him down the road to becoming a marshal of law in the small town.  It’s an interesting look into Earp’s early years, seeing the events that would eventually lead him down the road to the man he would become.  Unfortunately the movie also has the disadvantage of not being too historically accurate.  It was in Dodge City that Earp finally became marshal; not Wichita, where he was only a deputy.  Also, Earp was in his mid twenties during his time in Wichita, so casting middle-aged Joel McCrea in the role seems a little off.  Despite this, McCrea is perfectly serviceable in the role, giving Earp a rugged sternness that works well enough.  The widescreen panoramas are also beautiful to look at, capturing the beauty of the American Prairie wonderfully.  Overall, this movie does offer up an interestingly different side to the legend of Wyatt Earp, showing his beginnings rather than just relying on showing us his most famous moment yet again.

earp burt lancaster


A couple years later, the legendary gunfight would also be revisited on the big screen, only this time, portrayed with a more gritty tone.  The interesting thing about this version of the story is that it gives equal attention to both Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.  The moving stars longtime friends Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as Earp and Holliday respectfully, and it’s easy to see their comraddery translate perfectly into this film.  Lancaster makes a natural choice for Earp, though they interestingly left the mustache off this time.  He gives the character a nice hard edge, making him both trustworthy, but also intimidating at the same time.  But, Kirk Douglas steals the spotlight here as the slick Holliday, and their conflicts on screen generate the best moments on screen.  The climatic titular battle is also legendary, supposedly shot over a full week just for six minutes of screen-time.  Director John Sturges illustrated his skill as a filmmaker with his spectacular recreation of this scene.  You feel the power of ever gunshot as a viewer and for the first time ever, you see the carnage of the event portrayed without diluting the impact.  Physically imposing Lancaster would stand for many years after as the standard for the character, maybe not so much in physicality, but certainly in terms of personality.  Earp would in the years ahead move away from the purer image seen in My Darling Clementine, and instead become the more tough as nails version that Lancaster portrayed him to be, and that would indeed be a good thing considering how the Western genre changed over time.

earp james garner


Years after Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, John Sturges once again returned to Wyatt Earp as a subject, only this time from a different angle.  Instead of rehashing the legendary gunfight again, Sturges chose to show what happened afterwards; portraying the later years of Earp’s life as he deals with the consequences of his actions.  This makes an interesting companion piece with Wichita, as that movie showed the origins of a legend, this movie likewise shows his deconstruction in the years after the moment that would define his life.  Hour of the Gun came at a time when the Western genre was going through a big change, as the genre was less interested in glamorizing the violence of the old West and instead was looking more introspectively into the grim realities of Western life.  In this movie, Earp’s triumphant shootout is shown to be just the beginning of a continuing nightmare, as retribution comes back and Earp must face the reality that his duty as lawman puts a bulls-eye on him at all times.  The film shows him cleaning up the remaining Clanton gang with his friend Holliday (portrayed here by Jason Robards), and the hunt proves to be even more perilous than the shootout he faced before.  Replacing Lancaster as Earp this time was TV’s Maverick himself, James Garner.  Garner gives the character of Wyatt Earp a nice vulnerability that you rarely see in other versions.  Here, Earp questions his abilities and yet never loses his resolve to serve the law, and it makes for a nice rounded portrayal.  And thankfully the mustache makes a return here.  It’s a nice look into how a person deals with the consequences of accomplishing a legendary act and how that may be harder than anyone might expect.

earp kurt russell


As Hollywood moved into the blockbuster era, the Western genre would also leave the gritty and introspective mood of the 60’s and 70’s, once again returning to the over-the-top spectacle that it once was.  Wyatt Earp’s story would be given such a treatment in this classic retelling that has since become a beloved hit among Western fans.  Let’s be clear, Tombstone is not a subtle movie by any means.  Anyone looking for a true to life portrayal of the events surrounding the legendary gunfight should look elsewhere.  Still, this larger than life approach is exactly what makes this movie so good.  Kurt Russell portrays the legendary Marshall, and it is by far my favorite version of this character.  Russell manages to balance the two sides of Earp perfectly; the charming, straight-narrowed man of the law as well as the ruthless, sometimes unhinged gunfighter.  Russell gives Earp a ferociousness little seen in other versions of the character, and that makes this portrayal especially great to watch.  I especially love the scene where Earp’s posse is ambushed at a watering hole, and Earp begins to lose his mind and take on the entire team of outlaws himself.  This moment in particular also has what is perhaps the greatest utterance of the word “NO” ever put on screen.  Russell isn’t the only great thing in the movie though, and in fact, his Earp is actually somewhat underdeveloped in relation to other characters.  The spotlight in the movie actually belongs to the scene stealing Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, making it the best version of that character we’ve ever seen.  Bill Paxton and Sam Elliot are also solid as Earp’s brothers, as is Stephen Lang as the leader of the Clanton gang.  Few other re-tellings of the legendary gunfight have as much cinematic fun with the events as this one does, and though it may be over-the-top, it’s done in a way that actually elevates the legend rather than deter from it.

earp kevin costner


The year following Tombstone, we received another movie about the legendary lawman, this time from Director Lawrence Kasdan and star Kevin Costner.  While most films about Wyatt Earp kept focus on the famous O.K. Corral gunfight and it’s participants, this movie chooses instead to tell the full breadth of Earp’s life, from his early days in Kansas to his final days in California.  It’s an ambitious film, clocking in a little over 3 hours, and it does a noble attempt of trying to give Earp’s life an epic overview.  Unfortunately, such a broad canvas also makes this film feel unfocused and a little stale at times.  There’s a reason why previous films focused on just certain events in Earp’s life, because they were the moments that revealed the most about who Wyatt Earp really was.  Portraying the full scope of the man’s life and career only diminishes these moments because they become only parts of the whole, rather than the standouts.  Still, the movie is not bad and Costner does alright as Earp, even if it is kind of one-note.  What I do praise, however, is the portrayal of the legendary gunfight.  This film presents what is probably the most historically accurate portrayal of this moment.  In reality, the gunfight lasted only 30 seconds, according to eyewitnesses.  Wyatt Earp recreates that precisely, showing the shootout as the ugly, quick-bursting killing spree that it probably was in real life; not glamorizing the moment one bit; instead showing the brutality of it.  For that attention to detail, I do commend the movie for at least seeking to be true to history.  Still, we’ve seen better in the Western genre from both Kasdan (Silverado) and Costner (Dances With Wolves, Open Range), and Wyatt Earp stands as a very flawed, but noble take on the legend.  It may have hit a note a little harder had Tombstone  not outshone it a year before, but that’s how we judge movies in the Western genre in general.  The legends tend to be more fun to watch than the real history.

It’s clear that Wyatt Earp has been a resilient figure in the Western genre over the years, and whether or not the movies represent a historically accurate portrait of the man, it’s nevertheless clear that he’s left an impact.  You can see the influence of Wyatt Earp in every heroic fictional Western lawman from Gary Cooper’s Marshall Kane in High Noon (1952) to Adam Cartwright in TV’s Bonanza.  The legendary O.K. Corral gunfight has also become the inspiration for pretty much every shootout ever portrayed in cinema, even in the revisionist Spaghetti Westerns.  But, it all shows how one moment of destiny can turn any ordinary individual into a legend for all time.  Wyatt Earp may not have been the greatest lawman the West has ever known, but his story (embellished or not) has over time become the quintessential representation of everything that we love about the Westerns.  I think that when Wyatt Earp’s story is presented in it’s most idealized form, like with My Darling Clementine and Tombstone, it makes for the best Western.  Even still, Wyatt EarpGunfight at the O.K. Corral and Hour of the Gun also do a serviceable job of building on the legend as well.   Whether or not the real Wyatt Earp was like his cinematic portrayals is beside the point now.  Just like with how we look at the Founding Fathers of our country, we focus more on the legacy that men like Wyatt Earp leave behind, rather than taking a hard look at the person that they really were.  The Western genre is built around idealized heroes and Earp fit that image perfectly.  Had he not come out of that pivotal gunfight unscathed, Westerns today would look very different.