The Director’s Chair – Martin Scorsese

When we think of the quintessential film director persona, a few faces certainly come to mind.  Usually it’s a larger than life individual who wields a strong commanding presence, with a touch of god-like will that strives to make everything on camera perfect.  While there are some directors that shy away from the spotlight, a few do step forward and not only give a face to the directing profession as a whole, but also become celebrities in their own right.  Cecil B. DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock were certainly the first of many film directors to become familiar faces to the average audience members, but their ability to put themselves forward also accomplished something even more than just extra publicity.  It made the director more accessible, and showed that this was a profession that was more than just work, but also a way of cementing authorship for the films they make.  The idea of the auteur filmmaker rose out of this time, and audiences began to take note that there was value in the collective works of each selective director and that it sparked interest in many wannabe filmmakers to follow in their footsteps.  But, even more important than the celebrity status that a film director achieves is what they choose to do with it.  Certainly most successful filmmakers today want to tell stories that have meaning and can inspire something in the viewer, but there are also a few that like to step back and view the medium of film-making as a whole and show the worth that it has in itself, and how it’s a gift that needs to be cultivated and preserved.  And certainly no filmmaker today has championed film history and preservation as passionately as Martin Scorsese.

Scorsese came out of an era of film-making that was decidedly separated from the Hollywood glitz and glamour of the past.  This was an era of rebel film-making, putting emphasis on darker story-lines and far less polished and grittier imagery.  Scorsese, who grew up in a impoverished immigrant community in Queens, New York, certainly brought the roughness of life on the streets with him as he began his film-making career, but he also brought with him a sense of the magical escapism that Hollywood also instilled into him, as he has been a lover of all cinema from childhood.  He was of a class of filmmakers during this time who had been reared up with cinema and were keenly aware of concept of auteurship in film-making.  That’s why today when you watch a Scorsese picture, even in some of the earlier ones, you see an assuredness of style that is un-mistakenly tied to the person that he is.  And it helps that he has a distinctive personality too.  The fast talking, hyperactive director is such a great ambassador of the film director profession, because he so perfectly articulates his process of film-making and convinces us the absolute power that cinema can have.  What I love best about Martin Scorsese is how he’s not just a great filmmaker, but also a champion of the art, casting the spotlight on cinema from all around the world that normally might fall through the cracks, and also advocating strongly for the preservation of cinematic treasures.  With his latest and very ambitious new film, Silence, about to be released nationwide, I thought it would be fitting to examine his body of work as a whole, and spotlight the things that define what makes up a Martin Scorsese picture.



Scorsese has worked within a number of genres, but if there was ever one that made up the vast majority of his body of work, it would be the crime genre.  In many ways, the first thing you think about when you think of a Scorsese movie is that it has gangsters and mafioso in it.  Scorsese may not have set out to become the go to guy for crime thrillers, but it’s something that he has certainly embraced over the years.  And it’s easy to see why; he’s just so good at it.  Certainly being raised in Queens may have given him some insight into this world.  Though his family largely spared him from gang violence, it’s probably very likely that he had run across a few members of the mafia in his youth.  And this insight helps to give him a different perspective on the genre.  Instead of just portraying violence for it’s own sake in his gangster pictures, Scorsese looks deeper into the culture of organized crime, and shows it as this fascinating world of different personalities, some more extreme than others, who approach the American dream in their own way.  Indeed, it’s the characters that really define a Scorsese gangster picture.  Just look at all the character dynamics at play in Goodfellas (1990); with Ray Liotta’a even tempered Henry Hill clashing so vividly with Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito in the famous “do I look funny to you” scene; a role that won Pesci an Oscar.   Scorsese also looks at criminal behavior outside of the New York crime world of his youth and gave us an interesting history of the mafia in Vegas with Casino (1995), and also the sometimes too often blurred lines between the crime world and the law with his Oscar-winning The Departed (2006).  He also used his unique style to spotlight the blue collar crime world with The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).  But, the great thing about his mark on this genre is that he doesn’t resort to making them action movies.  He instead attempts to tell the story of American crime in our modern age, and vividly portray all the different characters that inhabit it.



Like the worlds that he portrays on screen, the other thing that Martin Scorsese meticulously cultivates in his films are the characters.  What particularly interests him however are characters that feel like they are fully part of the world he is creating; characters who live, breathe and completely exist in the story.  For these characters to work as well as they do, it means that Scorsese needs to have actors that he can have complete confidence in.  That’s why I think he’s a director that likes to work with the same set of actors over and over again.  You certainly see this in his crime films, which usually has the same character actors like Pesci or Frank Vincent playing the same kinds of roles, usually because they are so good at fitting that type of character.  But even outside of the crime genre, you see a love of Scorsese’s for actors who disappear into their role.  It’s something that I’m sure he valued in the two time he’s worked with the master of method acting, Daniel Day-Lewis, who starred in The Age of Innocence (1993) and Gangs of New York (2002) respectively.  But there are two actors in particular that have especially defined his films over the years, and have been his two muses as it were.  They of course are Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio.  DeNiro was the face of Martin Scorsese’s early career, which focused more on the gritty underworld, with incredible raw performances as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) and as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980).  Both films in particular show the commitment to the role that DeNiro labored for, even to the point of transforming his physical appearance.  DiCaprio on the other hand is the perfect star for Scorsese’s newer era of more polished, matured era of film-making.  And in their work together, we see performance ranging from the reserved (Billy Costigan in The Departed), to the unhinged (Howard Hughes in The Aviator) to the completely bonkers (Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street) and all perfectly matched to Scorsese’s vision.  Keeping familial company with the same actors could become problematic for some filmmakers, but for Scorsese, it’s better to work with who you trust.



Often times when you look at the closest collaborator that a director has, who’s the indispensable part of their team that makes the director’s style come through, it often comes down to either the writer or the cinematographer, because they shape the language and the look of any movie.  For Scorsese, his most essential collaborator has been his editor.  Mrs. Thelma Schoonmaker has edited nearly every single film that Scorsese has made, with Taxi Driver being the most notable exception.  Her influence can not be understated because her input into the movies is felt so strongly.  In particular, she is a master at with montage editing.  You see that in her work on Goodfellas and Casino, which have to convey time passage without losing the narrative flow.  The death montage from Goodfellas, which is set to the melody of Eric Clapton’s “Layla,” is a particularly great example of her work.  But her editing also provides some great insights into character, like the delirious moments of isolation seen in The Aviator (2004) or Shutter Island (2010), which perfectly underline the mental breakdowns of their protagonists.  She’s also a master of making the violence in the movies carry greater impact.  When a character dies in one of Scorsese’s movies, you feel the loss of life, because it often comes without warning.  It takes a keen eye for pacing to know when to shock an audience and when to hold off.  The shootings at the end of The Departed in particular are perfect illustrations of this, because Thelma does such a great job of making all the moments that come before the gunshots feel so relaxed.  Her slow motion stretching out of the boxing match in Raging Bull also carries that same impact, but in the opposite way.  That’s why every great Scorsese film is marked by the incredible work by Thelma Schoonmaker, who really stands as one of the greatest film editors of all time.  They complement each other perfectly and have been essential to bringing out the best in each other, as all the best film collaborators have done.




While not the first nor last filmmaker to emphasize the influence of cinema as a whole in his work, Scorsese nevertheless has been one of the most vocal in the field.  He has shown through both his movies and his advocacy that movies are his driving force.  He references other movies in his films all the time, either overtly or suddenly, and many times he will try to emulate another filmmaker’s style as a gesture to their impact on his own style.  I particularly noticed this after watching his new film Silence, which is thankfully playing early here where I live in Los Angeles.  The Japan set feature has many moments that feel very much inspired by the work of Akira Kurosawa, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that was intentional on Scorsese’s part.  He’s been a fan of Kurosawa’s work for many years and even got to act in one of the Japanese master’s last films (1990’s Dreams, where he played Vincent Van Gogh), so it’s not inconceivable that he looked to Kurosawa’s films for inspiration when making Silence.  There are other clever ways that Scorsese has worked his knowledge of film history into some of his own movies.  In The Aviator, there’s a subtle but noticeable trick he does with the cinematography that helps to convey the time period.  For the first hour or so of the film, the color is graded in a way to make it look like the two strip color processing of the early 1930’s, which made everything look awash in sick greens and tan-ish reds.  Only a student of film history, like myself, would notice the difference and I’m glad that he put in the effort to include it there.  Scorsese also made a film that more acutely spotlighted his passion for film in 2011’s Hugo, a surprisingly family-friendly effort for the director.  In Hugo, we see the growth of a young boy who discovers the magic of cinema and helps a long forgotten master of the art, Georges Melies, believe in himself again.  I have no doubt that Hugo was a personal statement for the director and it’s really encouraging to see him share that with a movie that can speak to audiences of all ages.




If there is also another common theme that runs throughout his movies alongside violence and cinematic influences, it would be religion.  Scorsese himself has even stated, “My whole life has been movies and religion.  That’s it.  Nothing else.”  Naturally coming from an Italian immigrant family, the Catholic Church was a strong influence in his upbringing.  He even strongly considered joining the seminary to become a priest before a career in the cinematic arts came calling.  Even still, his Catholic faith remains a strong point of inspiration in his movies, sometimes focused on in surprising ways.  Though devout, Scorsese is not one to use his films to proselytize or preach.  Instead, he looks at religion from a very introspective angle, looking at the many good and negative things that faith brings to the world.  You see characters who deal with the conflicts of faith and real life in his crime movies like Mean Streets (1973) and The Departed (2006).  There are also films that very directly address man’s relationship with God in this world.  His first real statement on this was The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), which was widely panned by religious organizations because of it’s perceived flawed and too human portrayal of Jesus Christ, which is a misreading of the film’s intentions entirely.  He also examined faith of a different kind with Kundun (1997), a movie about the early life of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism.  And his new film, Silence, also focuses on religion, this time telling the story of two Jesuit priests trying to spread the faith in a part of the world that might never be able to accept it.  In all of these, you see Scorsese finding meaning in the complicated notions of religion and presenting an interesting voice that represents his own level of faith; one that is aware of it’s limits and interested in reaching for a deeper understanding.   His religious themed movies have a better grasp on religion overall than most other faith based films, so that is something that alone makes him a god send in the film community.

Even in these latter years of his amazing career, Scorsese is still a filmmaker that takes chances, which is itself something remarkable.  Just looking at something like The Wolf of Wall Street, you would think that it’s a movie made by some up and coming energetic hotshot and not from a seasoned veteran.  But, at the age of 74 as of this writing, Scorsese is not only slowing down, he’s revving up.  The Wolf of Wall Street is a manic, full of life cinematic wonder that perfectly resembles the energy of the man himself and the way he tells a story.  And it’s this kind of personal drive that he’s brought into every film he makes.  Scorsese is the kind of filmmaker that makes film-making look like the greatest job in the world.  It’s his love for trying new things and for being unashamedly in love with the medium of film itself that opened the door for other voices like Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright, and a whole host of other self-reflexive filmmakers.  His passion for keeping the history of film preserved is something that has also earned him due praise and you can’t help but wonder what treasures we may have lost over the years had people like Scorsese not worked hard to save them.  In addition, his personality alone makes one want to keep up with his body of work and follow in his footsteps to making films themselves.  It just shows that if you want to make films that have a great sense of character to them, it helps to be a character yourself, at least one that everybody can end up loving in the end.  Whether he’s sharing his love for cinema, or showing the gritty reality of life in the criminal underworld, or giving a personal introspection into faith, Scorsese is without a doubt a master storyteller and one of the greatest filmmakers of our time or any time.

It’s a Wonderful Life – 70 years of the Quintessential American Christmas Tale

On this Christmas Eve, many of you I’m sure are spending the holidays with loved ones, cherishing the warm feelings of Christmases of old.  Whether it’s the joys of opening gifts Christmas morining, or preparing the delicious Christmas dinners, or sharing the day with a loved one or a whole family, we all have our ideal Christmas experience that we want to relive each year.  For many like myself, the experience of the season is almost always tied with a love of cinema, and like so many years before, I am spending the holidays revisiting some of the classic standards of the season.  There are many Christmas movies out there that bring a different sensation out of me depending on what I’m looking for.  If I’m feeling nostalgic for Christmases of my childhood, I watch some of the Rankin Bass specials, or A Charlie Brown Christmas, or the original How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  If I’m looking for a good laugh, I watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989).  And if I’m looking for a mixture of both nostalgia and laughs, I put on Home Alone (1990).  There really is an endless supply of Christmas movies to appeal to any mood we have during the holidays.  But, while Christmas is a time filled with great joy, it can also be a time when we tend to reflect too much on the things wrong in the world.  And for a troubled year like 2016, when it looked as if the whole world was falling apart around us, silly things like Christmas movies just don’t seem to do enough to raise up our spirits again.  And yet, Christmas films also have the special ability to inspire, and make us see through the glitz and commercialism of the season to what Christmas is really all about in the end; hope.  And there has never been a Christmas movie that illustrated that better than Frank Capra’s masterpiece, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It’s amazing to think that It’s a Wonderful Life is celebrating it’s 70th Anniversary this year.  Even more amazing is the fact that it was once considered one of Hollywood’s biggest failures.  Now, we can’t even imagine a world without it in our lives.  It plays every year on television, it’s a highly influential movie that is referenced constantly and not just at Christmas time, and it is frequently held up as one of the greatest movies ever made.  The American Film Institute even placed it as high as #11 on their list of the Top 100.  But, it was a long road for this little film to become the classic that it is today.  In many ways, what turned it into a classic was the changing shift in our modern culture.  It’s a Wonderful Life told the story of a changing nation, where the America of old was being pulled towards a new identity, where life’s answers were no longer going to be so easily explained through the magic of cinema.  And yet, at the same time, It’s a Wonderful Life unashamedly delivers on all the same traditional Hollywood tricks to deliver a message that is considerably more modern.  And that message is specifically intended to say “you mean a lot to this world.”  You have to remember, 1946 was America’s first year out of a World War.  Soldiers who had been abroad for many Christmases were now asked to return to a sense of normalcy during the holidays that I think some of them thought would never come again.  It was an uncertain time for many Americans, and It’s a Wonderful Life spoke to that period.  I think that is why the movie has endured all these years; because it speaks to the worries of all Americans during times of uncertainty, renews their belief in the hope of the holiday season, and shows that through celebration and charity, the best of humanity can endure.

The wartime atmosphere had a lot to do with the making of this movie too.  In particular, it shaped what would become the quintessential American hero of George Bailey, who is brought to life in a career-defining performance by the incomparable Jimmy Stewart.  George Bailey is a man so driven by his kindness to others, but none of that same kindness is ever redirected his way.  Bad luck seems to follow him wherever he goes, and yet he never lets hardship turn him bitter.  It’s that basic sense of giving up oneself that defines him, and yet the movie has us believe that such men are unjustly punished by the world.  When he saves his brother from drowning in a frozen river, it causes hearing loss in one of his ears.  He finds the ideal woman to become his wife (played wonderfully by Donna Reed), and yet doesn’t have the means to give her everything she deserves.  He saves his hometown from financial ruin, but does so by sacrificing his nestegg for a vacation that he’s always wanted to take.  By being so nice, he has created a self-imposed prison.  It’s not the kind of narrative that you would expect for such a heroic character, but that’s what Capra and Stewart were trying to show us in the end.  We as a society tend to undervalue the kindness of the average individual and in many cases we only recognize their value once it is too late.  By the third act of this movie, George Bailey himself feels there is nothing he can do to set things right, and only taking his life will bring some sort of release from the pressure that’s on him.  That’s when the the Hollywood magic of a deus ex machina comes into the story, pulling him out of his despair, with the visit of an angel named Clarence (played by Henry Travers).  What follows is a considerably different tale than before, but it’s also what makes this movie the holiday classic that it is.

For a lot of postwar Americans, this movie must have been a bitter pill to swallow, with George continually losing out to others and driven so close to suicide.  The supernatural element of an angel coming to his rescue and showing him an alternate reality where he was never born, thereby showing his worth, must have seemed pretty naive as well.  And yet, this is exactly what ended up speaking to an entire new generation soon after.  We don’t see the value of the good works that we do in other peoples lives, but they do, and that goodwill manifests itself in the love they extend out to us in return.  We, like George Bailey, may think that what we do is foolish and unrewarding in the moment, but a lifetime of kindness gives us the right kind of rewards in the end, and that’s the distinction of being honorable.  That’s why this works so well as a holiday film, because it reminds us of the benefits of goodwill towards others.  In the years since it’s release, people have looked at the concluding act of this movie as a plea for generosity in our society, as many people who make our lives better often go unrewarded.  In the wake of World War II, a few American veterans were unsure if all their sacrifices were worth it in the end.  Sure there was peace, but they were returning home to families that they no longer recognized and with scars both physical and mental that would never heal.  But, in the years since, they would learn that George Bailey had more in common with them than they realized and that the message of generosity was not meant for them, but for everyone else.  It’s a Wonderful Life was a movie meant to make a changed American society remember that it is indeed virtuous to reward sacrifice for the greater good, especially during the holidays.

Is the movie a tad too sentimental at times; of course.  But, using the traditional Hollywood routines of old actually helps the narrative out a great bit.  George Bailey may seem like the quintessential Hollywood hero, but what we realize after watching the movie is that he’s not the typical Hollywood character at all.  He is a man on the periphery of society; the everyman whose small contributions make a little difference but more commonly go unnoticed.  He’s a community hero whose influence and recognition will probably never be recognized outside of the city limits of his hometown.  The ones who do gain national recognition tend to be the ones who make big, sweeping gestures that often come at the cost of disenfranchising people like George Bailey.  And that type of character is personified vividly in the form of Mr. Potter (played to perfection by the legendary Lionel Barrymore).  In It’s a Wonderful Life, George’s struggles often come as a result of Mr. Potter’s manipulations, as the shrewd old businessman is trying to force his will on the town of Bedford Falls as a whole.  Mr. Potter in this sense is a quintessential Hollywood baddie, but also one that is sadly all too recognizable in American society.  We see too many of his type in the world of business, in public discourse, and unfortunately far too often in the realm of politics (this election year clearly illustrating that point).  That’s what makes the story of George Bailey such a potent one for audiences, because it is the typical Hollywood underdog story, but given to the ordinary American servant doing what’s best for his community.  It’s a movie that inspires as much as it comforts, and reminds us that one of the important things to remember in life is to not let the Mr. Potters of the world make us feel worthless.

The common man struggle was always a favorite motif for director Frank Capra.  You can see it throughout his work in the 1930’s, especially with his Oscar-winning Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and You Can’t Take it With You (1938).  But in all his earlier films, it was always the underdog that had a clear sense of purpose in life, and who set out to change the minds of others.  It’s a Wonderful Life flips that narrative around and shows us that the underdog can sometimes be the one who’s lost and is in need of a new direction.  Capra understood the mind of a wayward soul because both he and Jimmy Stewart served in the war, and no doubt had come across many George Baileys during that time who probably had lost all faith in themselves and humanity.  Capra intended this to be a movie that spoke for those broken men, and show everyone else that more than ever before, this was the time to reach out to them.  That message may not have been received right away, and it’s probably only because of the fact that movies at the time were still dismissed as lighthearted fluff.  But, thanks to television, which sought to fill airtime during the holiday season with anything that fit the theme, this movie found new life and it spoke to an entire new generation that finally could understand the pain that so many of their elders were going through.  It’s because of this movie that a tradition of charity prospers during the holiday season.  It’s great to receive during the holidays, but it’s even more rewarding to make one poor person feel like the “richest man in town” just for one day, and help them realize that they matter.  Could such a tradition exist without this movie?  Absolutely, but It’s a Wonderful Life made such an outpouring of charity feel magical and it gave us an ideal to live up to for every holiday season.

On top of everything else, the movie just makes the holiday season feel even brighter.  The interesting thing about the movie is that very little of it actually takes place during the holidays.  It’s only once we get to the dire third act of the movie that a theme of Christmas begins to take center stage.  In many ways, the movie takes inspiration from Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol, which also focused on a man’s redemption through the intervention of heavenly spirits on Christmas Eve.  It’s a comparison that’s not unusual, because both Dickens and Capra were deeply humanist artists, usually casting their spotlights on the average forgotten citizen.  But, unlike Dickens, the story renews a man’s faith in himself, instead of showing him the error of his ways.  George Bailey’s fault is his own low self esteem, and thinking that he’d be better off dead.  As we learn from this movie, loneliness is the worst mood to have during the holidays.  Loneliness turns good men bitter, and seeing the eternally optimistic George fall into a void of isolation becomes the story’s most tragic element. As the final act proves to us, George’s sense of duty and honor closed him off and that all he needed to do was to not be ashamed to ask for a little help in return.  Wishing to never be born  and seeing the consequences of that illustrates to him that every good deed he makes reciprocates in the love and well-being of those around him, creating an atmosphere of normalcy that may not be apparent right away.  Seeing all of this, he becomes thankful for the greatest gift of all; life.  It’s that joy of understanding that every day of life is precious and that being a good person matters that makes George’s redemption so memorable.  Joyfulness for what we have in life is one of the great pleasures of this holiday season, and I don’t think there has ever been a better illustration of joy put on film than George Bailey running through the snow covered streets of Bedford Falls yelling, “Merry Christmas.”

It’s really hard to believe that a movie that was a box office failure in it’s time, and responsible for bankrupting the company that made it as well as halting the once prosperous career of it’s director, is today celebrating it’s 70th Anniversary as one of the most popular American films ever made.  Virtually every person in America has seen it, and that’s partly due to it’s inescapable presence on television during the holiday season.  But, despite it’s widespread exposure, audiences still adore it and hold it up as probably the greatest Christmas movie ever made.  I think that’s largely due to the universal themes within it.  It is a uniquely American tale, about a common man who through hard work and good deeds achieves some semblance of the American dream, and becomes an essential part of his community.  At the same time, the message of the movie speaks to all of us no matter where we come from.  It teaches us that charity is a fundamental tradition for the holiday season and that we should all help those in need feel welcome and appreciated, not just at Christmas time, but year round as well.  It also teaches us that giving back and being grateful are essential feelings to share with others during the holidays.  In a time right now when we as a country and as a world feel so helplessly fractured, the message of this movie becomes all the more timely.  I hope that It’s a Wonderful Life continues to live on for many more generations, because the happiness that is felt by George Bailey at the end of the movie should be one that is shared with every human being from this Christmas on.  So, please make another person feel special, give assistance and kind acknowledgement to a complete stranger, show unexpected kindness towards an enemy, and enjoy the festivities like they mean everything in the world to you, and your holidays will feel all the more worthwhile and life-fulfilling.  And maybe, even in these turbulent times, we can help a million angels earn their wings.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Review

A year ago, the whole world was deeply anticipating the long awaited return of the Star Wars franchise to the big screen with the release of the seventh film in the saga; The Force Awakens.  This was the first film in a new era for the series; unencumbered by it’s complete control under it’s creator George Lucas.  With the Disney company taking the reins, the Star Wars series was ready for the change it desperately needed.  And that change came in record-shattering fashion with The Force Awakens.  Though the story behind it wasn’t as fresh as people liked (basically it was a rehash of A New Hope for most people), the spirit behind it felt authentic, and it pleased a whole legion of fans young and old.  I for one included it on my best of the year list for 2015, more than anything just for the sheer entertainment value.  And while continuing the main saga of the Star Wars franchise is a pleasing mission to see realized in cinemas today, what Disney also had planned for this property actually is the thing that gives me the most excitement about the future.  What we are going to see from Disney and Star Wars is an endless series of standalone features dedicated to expanding the storyline outside of the main saga.  In other words, the sky is the limit to what can be turned into a feature with the Star Wars universe as it’s backdrop.  Primarily, we will be seeing backstories fleshed out, explore subplots in full length treatments, and experience other worlds that had until now been unseen.  Already Disney has been gearing up an origin story for one of Star Wars most beloved heroes, Hans Solo, which should be in theaters in 2018.  There are also standalone features rumored to feature Boba Fett and Obi-wan Kenobi in the near future.  But, this ambitious plan for an expanded universe must have a solid beginning, and this year, we have that foundation set by the first ever Star Wars StoryRogue One.

The idea to make this the first in the expanded universe tales seems like a sound one.  It’s taking a subplot from the original trilogy, about the Rebel spies who stole the Death Star plans from the Empire, and finally showing us how it was done and by whom.  If there is one thing that the Star Wars universe hasn’t devoted a lot of time to, it would be the lives and trial of the many people who make up the resistance.  Oh sure, we know about Leia and Han and of course Luke Skywalker, but what about all those nameless heroes who fight alongside them.  Rogue One finally lets us hear their story and learn about the sacrifices and hardships they face in the shadow of the evil Galactic Empire.  The movie also gives us another interesting side story to explore which is the creation of the ultimate weapon; the dreaded Death Star.  The Death Star of course is one of the most iconic pieces of the Star Wars universe, so seeing it again brought to life on the big screen is another thing that I’m sure will please fans.  Also, and more importantly, this movie’s strong sense of nostalgia is going to make it appealing to fans.  It takes place in the same time period as the original trilogy, and borrow strongly from that era’s visual aesthetic.  Because of that, many are hoping that this will be the first true Star Wars movie since the originals, and not the glossy retread that was The Force Awakens, or the garishly over-produced betrayals that were the prequels.  But, straying into the open world of an expanded universe can have it’s own troubling consequences if the stories are not strong enough to support the legacy behind them.  So, does Rogue One fall short of it’s astounding pedigree, or is it a hopeful indicator of the great things to come in the Star Wars universe.

Rogue One’s narrative begins in-between Episodes III and IV of the main saga; Revenge of the Sith (2005) and A New Hope (1977) to be specific.  In fact, it leads right up to the beginning of IV, in a very effective way.  The story introduces us to Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of a leading engineer for the Imperial Forces named Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who as we learn is the chief architect of the Death Star.  Jyn has spent years living as an outlaw trying to reconnect with her father and her misdeeds against both the Empire and the Resistence forces eventually gets her caught by a band of rebels led by Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his re-programmed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk).  They bring her before the Resistence leaders, including Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) and Senator Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits), who enlist her to help them retrieve a message from an Imperial pilot (Riz Ahmed) who had just defected and is in the custody of a rogue Rebel warlord named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker); a former acquaintance of Jyn’s.  They find Saw’s base on the Imperial occupied planet of Jedah, a once holy center for the Jedi Order.  There they encounter Imperial Stormtroopers all around, but are assisted by two resourceful rogue warriors; the sharpshooting Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and the blind daredevil monk Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen).  But, while this small band tries their best to discreetly complete their mission, final preparations are being made on the Death Star, with it’s overseeing Commading Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) eager to test out it’s planet destroying power.  Krennic’s ambitions drive him to even more drastic methods than many of the other Imperial commanders; which makes him especially threatening to the Rebels, and a nuisance to some of his superiors in the Imperial force including Grand Moff Tarkin (Guy Henry) and Darth Vader himself (voiced again by James Earl Jones).

As you can tell, this is a heavily packed film with quite a lot of characters and plot threads.  In fact, it may be the most ensemble heavy Star Wars film we’ve ever seen.  So, is that a good thing or a bad thing?  How does this stack up against the other Star Wars.  Well, judging this movie is challenging, mainly because it is part of this legendary legacy.  The Star Wars grading curve is a peculiar one, mainly because the high points of the series are almost insurmountable, and we all know by watching the prequels how low the series can get as well.  My rating of the movie is like this; if it weren’t for the fact that this was another Star Wars movie, I would say that Rogue One is one of the greatest sci-fi adventure movies ever made.  But, because it is a Star Wars , it inevitably has to be judged with the other movies in the series, and that unfortunately brings an unfortunate burden on the film as a whole.  It doesn’t quite have the same kind of flawless spirit that Star Wars  had at it’s height with A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back  (1980), or even the nostalgic heart that elevated The Force Awakens, but at the same time it is still an enormously enjoyable adventure in it’s own right.  The best way to judge this movie is to look at it as a war film instead as a part the Star Wars narrative, and in that regard, it is an exceptional piece of work.  The movie does an excellent job of giving a face to the Rebellion fighters, showing them as more than just screen filler standing around the franchises’ main stars.  They are all vulnerable beings fighting for something they believe in and are willing to accept the cost of even their lives.  There are no Jedis in this movie and only one character wields a lightsaber late in the film (in a truly spectacular moment).  This is instead a battle fought through wits, determination, and blasters and in a way that’s the refreshing thing about this movie that sets it apart from it’s predecessors.

If the film has a major flaw in it, it would probably be with the characters.   None of the cast of characters in this movie are terrible per say, it’s just that very few of them are memorable.  This is one thing that made The Force Awakens a better film; it endeared us to the new characters of Rey and Finn and Kylo Ren with a lot more focus than there was on the story.  Here, characterizations are minimal, mainly because there is so little time to fit all of them in.  The one’s who suffer the most are the two leads; Jyn and Cassian.  The actors playing them do a fine job, but the characters are so underdeveloped that they come off as a little boring.  Jyn in particular is the biggest disappointment as a character, especially considering Star Wars history with strong heroines from Princess Leia to Rey.  The supporting players fare a little better.  I particularly liked the droid K-2SO.  He’s got all the resourcefulness of C-3PO, but with none of the cowardice, and he’s even got a sly sense of humor as well.  Some other great characters are Baze and Chirrut, the two exiled guards of a Jedi temple.  Chirrut is the one character in the movie that mentions the concept of the Force, and he in turn becomes the movie’s spiritual center.  It’s especially fun to see Donnie Yen’s martial arts skills put to good work with the character, especially knowing that the character is also supposed to be blind.  And Jiang’s Baze is just a great bad ass with a really big gun.  I also want to spotlight Ben Mendelsohn as the villain Krennic.  What could have easily turned into a whiny, unlikable villain instead becomes a richly textured character through Mendelsohn intimidating performance.  He even holds his own in scenes with Darth Vader, which is no easy task.

But while the cast of characters is a mixed bag, the visual presentation is beyond exceptional.  This is a spectacular looking film.  The epic scale is on par with Star Wars at it’s very best, and maybe even a little more.  Thankfully Disney and Director Gareth Edwards did not treat this side story any less important than the films in the main Star Wars saga.  In fact, the scale of production feels even greater here than it did in The Force Awakens.  In this movie, we are treated to incredible locals that we’ve surprisingly have yet to see in a Star Wars flick.  A tropical beach becomes a battleground for example, complete with all the classic Star Wars machinery that we’ve come to love over the years, including the mighty Imperial Walkers.  But, the visual give a lot more to the story than to show off, which is something that plagued most of the prequels.  I also commend the filmmakers for trying their hardest to recreate the texture and feel of classic Star Wars.  The movie has a definite lived in feel like the original films, with all the dirt and crime intact.  Some locals from the original trilogy even make a return appearance like the Yavin 4 moonbase of the Rebellion and of course the Death Star itself.  Speaking of the Death Star, this movie allows us to experience something that even the original trilogy was never able to show before, and that’s the true destructive force of it’s power.  In the original Star Wars, we saw the destruction of Alderaan from a wide shot, mainly because that was the only way 1970’s visual effects could portray a planet’s destruction on screen.  Here, we see the Death Star’s power demonstrated from the surface of the planet itself, and it is chilling.  I don’t think we’ve ever seen this kind of apocalyptic imagery shown in a Star Wars film before, and it really helps to elevate the true menace of the Death Star more than ever.

And that’s another thing that I like about this movie is that it does a great job of adding more lore to the Star Wars universe as a whole.  It actually helps to fill in some of the gaps in the overall Star Wars narrative and set things in motion in a very effective way.  Some of the classic characters are also used very well, although there is one distracting element about them that I have to point out.  Some characters who have aged too much over the years or whose actors have deceased since the original film’s release are digitally recreated in a very distracting way.  The CGI used for their faces are not the worst that I’ve seen, but it still falls into that uncanny valley where it just doesn’t look right and it takes you right out of the movie every time it happens.  Think of the de-aging effects they used on Jeff Bridges in Tron Legacy (2010), and you’ll get the idea.  It might of been better if they used make-up effects to do the same thing, or even cast someone who looks exactly like the original, like what they did for the character Mon Mothma.  Darth Vader fares much better as a revitalized character in this film.  He’s not in the movie a whole lot, but the few moments he has are spectacular.  You really get the sense of how much he was neutered as a character in the prequels, and this movie finally allows him to be the frightening force of nature that the original trilogy had made him to be.  Also, hearing James Earl Jones voice once again with the character is a true delight.  It all helps to make this film feel like it rightfully stands with the main saga, and best of all, by filling in the gaps in the story, it actually enhances the original film itself.

So, Rogue One may not live up to the stellar heights of the series at it’s very best, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a lot of fun to watch either.  What it lacks in characterizations it makes up for with thrilling action.  Some of the action moments here are among the best that I’ve seen in the series as a whole, including the final battle at the end which may even exceed the dogfight in space from Return of the Jedi (1983).  I commend this movie for it’s sense of scale, and for not pulling any punches either.  This is a dark and sometimes brutal film, and it really gives you a sense of the amount of sacrifice that the Rebels in the Star Wars universe go through in order to stop the Empire.  I think that this is the movie’s greatest contribution to the Star Wars lore; that it gives a face to the faceless rebels that we’ve only seen on the periphery of the main saga before.  These are not special people with special powers; they are merely survivors fighting against the odds and with only their skills and wits to help see them through.  That in itself makes Rogue One a triumph.  It may be rough around the edges and lacks the steady entertainment factor that elevated The Force Awakens, but it still is one hell of a ride, and it especially gives us a lot to look forward to in the future for this series.  Indeed, I’m happy this movie works as well as it does, because it shows us that any story outside of the main saga can hold it’s own on the big screen.  It makes me eager to see the planned Han Solo origin story, and especially excited to watch next year’s continuation of the saga with Episode VIII.   As for now, the force is still strong with Rogue One and it’s absolutely worth the journey to that galaxy far, far away once again for all audiences.

Rating: 8.5/10

Past, Present, and Future – An Evolution of Christmas in Cinema


As the days get shorter and the nights get colder, we all know that the most festive time of year is upon us.  The Holiday season can mean many things to different people, but essentially it’s a time of the year about reflection of the things that matter most to us, and how we hope to make the new year a better one than before.  Several celebrations make up this season from all cultural backgrounds, but the one that certainly defines the winter season most of all is Christmas.  Christmas truly has become the universal holiday marking the ending of each year, as it’s iconography and influence is found the whole world over.  In many ways, it has moved beyond it’s traditional Christian origin to become something more homogenized and inclusive of other cultural influences.  Though not celebrated by everyone, it nevertheless is a part of everyone’s holiday experience.  After all, why do people busy themselves with holiday shopping or attend Christmas themed parties even though it’s not a holiday that’s a part of their select religion or background. That’s because we as a culture have made Christmas a holiday about community rather than a religious institution, and whether it’s your co-workers or your acquaintances or a certain loved one involved, everyone becomes involved in the celebration.  And one of the things that has helped to turn Christmas into a communal holiday over the years is the influence of cinema.  Christmas has become a popular point of interest for filmmakers, because how we spend the holidays reveals so much about us as a culture, and likewise, movies also have a lasting effect on the same culture that helps to shape how we view the holiday season.

It’s interesting to look at the ever changing image we have of the Christmas season, and how so much of it comes from the movies we watch.  How many of you out there are able to pinpoint exactly what your favorite holiday film is within an instant?  Or how about the many times you’ve tried to make your holiday plans feel closer to what you’ve seen in the movies?  There are many non-Christians in our society today who don’t wake up on Christmas morning ready to open up presents under a tree, but will still spend the entire day watching A Christmas Story (1983), or It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), or even Elf (2003) just to feel some of the seasonal spirit.  Thankfully our culture accommodates for other cultural influences during this time too; I hear the “Dreidel Song” included in a lot more Holiday playlists nowadays.  But, the best thing about a tradition of Holiday themed films is that like all other movies, the main goal is have them appeal to all audiences.  There is universal appeal in all the best loved Holiday movies.  They make us laugh, cry, and more importantly, fill us with the hope that defines this time of year.  But, what is also interesting is that as our culture has changed, so have our Christmas movies.  The values espoused in some of the older Christmas movies aren’t the same as those of today, and it tells us a lot about how our own values have changed, even when the institutional foundation of the holiday has remained the same.   It more has to do with how the traditions are looked at from every proceeding decade, and how the definition of a Christmas movie has evolved.  Sometimes a movie will delve deep into the nostalgia of the holiday to remind us about tradition, while others will deconstruct it to reveal more about the world around us outside of the iconography of the season.  There is a lot that we can learn from examining the sub genre of Christmas movies as a whole, because all together it reveals a culture that is in constant change.

A lot of our foundation for what the Christmas season is all about comes from the earliest representations of the holiday in cinema.  Just like how Coca-Cola’s marketing was responsible for crafting the modern image of Santa Claus for our culture (with the white fur trimmed red coat ensemble and the rosy-cheeked jolly smile through his furry white beard), Christmas movies in the early days of cinema crafted the modern ideals of how the holiday should be celebrated.  In movies like Christmas in Connecticut (1945), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), and Holiday Inn (1942), we see an influence of Hollywood glitz and glamour presenting to us the idea of a perfect Christmas.  During this time, Christmas celebrations moved away from the deep spiritual reflection that it once had been, and instead presented to us an image of how the every-man celebrates the holiday; with family, friends and even perfect strangers coming together to feast and play.  The sense of Christmas being a communal festivity is strongly felt in these earlier films.  It also perpetuated the ideal of a white Christmas, with the stark winter weather providing a nice counterpoint to warmth of a Christmas gathering.  It’s also no surprise that the Hollywood movie machine also provided us with many of the most beloved holiday standards that are now a part of every Christmas playlist.  Songs like Meet Me in St. Louis’ “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and Holiday Inn’s “White Christmas” are as synonymous with the holiday today as Santa Claus.  But, the reason why these movies resonate as much as they do is because of the time they were created.  In the 30’s and 40’s, America was pulling itself out of a Depression and were about to delve into a World War, so for most people, Christmas could only be ideally seen within the movies.  Our holiday foundations are found deeply in this era of escapist entertainment, but despite how naive they might seem today, they are still the ideals we hold dear to our hearts and still aspire to.

The post-war years however changed the idea of what a Christmas movie could be and it shows us the first sign of how a holiday film can very clearly reflect the changes in our culture over time.  America post-war was very different than it had been before and even during the conflict.  Many soldiers returned home changed men, and the idea of Christmas became something rather distant now to many of them, as most veterans had spent too many holidays away from home and from loved ones.  The movies of this era became less about indulging in holiday traditions but instead were about trying to rediscover them.  It was Hollywood’s attempt at healing a broken nation whose people had suffered through too much and were not so easily persuaded by escapist entertainment anymore.  A perfect example of this kind of feeling represented in a Christmas film would be Frank Capra’s immortal It’s a Wonderful Life.  Here’s a movie all about the healing aspect of the holiday season.  When we see Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey driven to the edge of despair, his life is saved by a Christmas miracle, which enables him to see beyond the hardship and view how his life is valuable to others.  And it’s through an act of Christmas charity that we see his life redeemed, showing a new kind of ideal for others to follow in the season, which is the idea of giving to those less fortunate.  Like George Bailey, many disenfranchised veterans were in need of charity, and because of films like this, Christmas reminded us as a nation that it was essential to give back.  But, the idea of having to reinvigorate the Holiday spirit wasn’t always present as bleak as in It’s a Wonderful Life.  We saw in the classic Miracle on 34th Street (1947) how a personal visit from Mr. Kringle could move a cynical nation away from selfish interests towards a more optimistic holiday spirit.  Post war America and the World in general needed lessons like these to help center itself again around something pure and ideal, and Hollywood provided that in the Christmas spirit.

Since the pre and post-War years, Christmas movies tended to become more of a niche market.  We no longer had films that used Christmas as their primary theme or backdrop, but rather as smaller parts of a bigger picture.  Television picked up the slack though, with Christmas specials and variety shows becoming annual institutions.  In this time, Hollywood not only presented their ideals of what the Christmas season was all about, but did so with unencumbered glitz and glamour.  What we also got from television at this time were the animated specials from people like Rankin Bass and Chuck Jones.  These Christmas themed animated specials like Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) became the standards for another generation of fans, presenting Christmas stories that moved even further away from the original spiritual traditions towards a more universally appealing vision of the holiday.  In these movies we also saw how universal lessons that were important to people in that time, like the need for tolerance and understanding, became the focus rather than living up to the ideals of the holiday’s traditions.  Another holiday special, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), even addressed the growing disparity between the traditional spiritual base of the holiday and the increasingly homogenized festivity it had become because of the influence of pop culture.  It’s an identity crisis that is exceptionally well explored and given a very enlightened explanation by the end, when Charlie Brown finally understands that tradition and changing values are all what makes Christmas so special.  The fundamental origin of Christ’s birth is always a part of the season, and our cultural traditions that we’ve added to the holiday have not buried that aspect, but instead embody the ideals that Christ represented.  As Charlie Brown struggles to find meaning through directing a Nativity play, he comes to understand this as what Christmas means to him; the joy of giving a part of himself to improve someone else’s holiday.

After a long run on television, holiday films did find new life in the cinema during the 80’s and 90’s.  What is interesting about this era though is how the definition of Christmas movies changed.  Sure there were films that were unmistakably centered around Christmas themes, like A Christmas StoryScrooged (1988), and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), but there were other movies made at this time that used Christmas as a backdrop, but were not necessarily about Christmas.  This has led to many speculations in recent years whether or not some of these actually qualify as Christmas movies at all.  One film for example would be Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984).  It’s set during Christmas, and uses a lot of the season’s iconography as part of it’s story, but the narrative centered around mischievous grotesque monsters could also find a home within the Halloween season as well.  Within another genre, there is also the classic thriller Die Hard, which some fans will defiantly proclaim is absolutely a Christmas movie.  Is there a reason why Die Hard needs to take place during Christmas?  Not really.  But screenwriter Steven deSouza still makes good use of holiday tropes to add some flavor to the story, including one point where the hero John McClane jokingly sends a message to the villains that says, “Now I have a machine gun.  Ho, Ho, Ho.”  Other films from this period use more overt representations of the holiday, but could have been set during any time of the year.  Home Alone (1990) is one such case.  The concept of a child left all alone at home could work without the Christmas setting, but it makes a lot of sense that it would serve that purpose for this particular story.  Through movies like these, we get a changing attitude towards the holidays in movies, where Christmas is no longer an institution that is reinforced by the culture but instead is reflective of the culture.  Hollywood no longer needed to hold up the ideal, but instead could draw from it to add a little extra to something totally unrelated.

While some of these films continue to perpetuate the ideals of the holidays, we also have seen other films take a more critical eye towards Christmas films as well.  These are reflective of even more change that we’ve witnessed in our culture, as negative aspects of tradition and spirituality have affected people in many ways.  That’s why movies that intend to deconstruct the Christmas Holiday have become more prevalent in recent years.  Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) for example took an idea of looking at the Christmas season from an outsiders point of view and questioned whether the holiday traditions were exclusive to only one thing, or was it open to other influences, like say the ideas of icons from the Halloween season.   There was also the film Bad Santa (2002) which deconstructed the image of Santa himself, putting a foul-mouthed conman played by Billy Bob Thornton in the suit and beard and taking presenting seasonal icons in the most perverse way possible.  And strangely enough, these films which break down some of the traditional ideals of the holiday have also become themselves new seasonal classics for a modern audience.  And that’s because despite their unorthodox presentations, they still hold up the spirit of the Holiday, which is one of community and tolerance to others.  But, by poking fun at some of the more outdated aspects of the holiday, it has unfortunately opened these films up to some criticism.  There is a narrow-minded segment of the audience out there who misinterpret some of these irreverent films as part of a “War on Christmas,” and that is not the case.  Christmas movies bring the spirit of the holiday to people of all kinds, and tailoring them to contemporary audiences of diverse backgrounds is essential to keeping Christmas alive and relevant, even if it means presenting them a little cruder in the process.  To say that Christmas movies should just be one way and cater to one certain set of people is in itself an attack on Christmas.  We need diversity in our Christmas films, because it gives us the window into our culture that helps us to understand each other and why we should all value each other during the holidays.

That’s essentially what makes Christmas movies so fascinating as a part of cinematic history, and that’s the ever-changing nature of them.  Every generation adds it’s own voice to the cultural touchstones of the season, and looking back on them, we see the ever changing face of who we are.  Early Hollywood set the base stones of what our idea of the holiday can be, but subsequent generations after have taught us what Christmas should be, and that’s a holiday experience that should be inclusive of everyone.  I for one have like how Hollywood has not forgotten that Christmastime should be about reflection and understanding the value in ourselves and our fellow men.  Of course, there are the obvious films that forget that and instead indulge in the selfish commercialism of the holiday, like Jingle all the Way (1996) and the awful 2000 remake of The Grinch.  Can some modern Christmas movies be a little too cynical; of course (see Ben Affleck’s Surviving Christmas from 2004, or rather, don’t).  But, Hollywood has done well by the holiday and we have them to thank for perpetuating the best aspects of the holiday year after year.  Christmas is ever-changing, and that’s why the movies are helpful to us to understand the meaning of our changing culture.  There’s no need to have it saved, and certainly the last person I’d want to see save it would be Kirk Cameron.  We cherish the nostalgia of Christmases past through the perennial classics like It’s a Wonderful Life, but we also celebrate what the holiday means to us today on the big screen, and more recently it’s a reflection of our desire to party with our fellow man, like in last year’s The Night Before and this year’s Office Christmas Party.  The spirits of Past, Present and Future all come together in the movies to enrich our end of the year celebration, and it’s up to us to live up to that Christmas spirit year round.

What the Hell Was That? – Australia (2008)


If there is one genre that I would consider a favorite out of all the ones to rise out of Hollywood, it would be the historical epic.  Nowhere else will you see the Hollywood machine at its finest than when it presents to us a grandiose, ambitious historically inspired melodrama on the big screen.  It’s the foundation that most of Hollywood is built upon to be fair.  Since D.W. Griffith’s epic silent pictures of the nineteen teens, every era of Hollywood film-making has aspired to bring history alive with all the spectacle that you would expect out of Tinseltown.  The 1950’s in particular became a Golden Era for these types of pictures, as new Widescreen processes allowed for movies to feel even more larger than life than they had before.  I for one have a soft spot for this era, as some of my favorite movies of all time emerged out of Hollywood in this time.  My favorite above all else, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), represented the quintessential Hollywood epic, devoting a operatic scale to a moment in history, and not even ancient history like Biblical epics but rather the Arabian theater of the World War I conflict, showing just how effective Hollywood prestige can be on any story.  Lawrence became a high water mark in Hollywood for many years to come, and many filmmakers raised on David Lean’s masterpiece have sought to recapture some of it’s power in their own work.  Films like Apocalypse Now (1979), The Last Emperor (1987), and Braveheart (1995) again proved to us the unending appeal of the great Hollywood historical epic, and that would again hit another peak with James Cameron’s Titanic (1997).  But, afterwards, the historical epic has since seemed to struggle, as epic scale has been more devoted to Fantasy and Comic Book films instead.  Any new entries are more likely to draw more on Hollywood nostalgia for their presentations, and not always for the better.

My feeling is that the success of Titanic was so big, that it made it nearly impossible for a movie of it’s ilk to every achieve that level of popularity ever again.  It was a genre high-point and a genre killer at the same time.  Historical films are still made today, but just not at that same epic level anymore.  The only way you can get audiences to sit down for three hours in a movie theater today is if it’s got wizards and dragons in it.  Try to sell them a history lesson through the same experience and they’ll stay away in droves.  In the nearly twenty years since Titanic, we’ve seen very few epic historical dramas, and the ones that have made it to the big screen recently are not very good at all.  Two notable failures pop out to me, both of which try to emulate a nostalgic Hollywood feel, but fail in very different ways.  The first failed epic is Pearl Harbor, which was itself a direct answer to Titanic, bringing a tragic love story into a different historical human tragedy utilizing many of the same big budget movie tricks.  Directed by Michael Bay, the movie fails to make us care about it’s central characters, trivializes the actual historical account of the Pearl Harbor attack for it’s own purposes, and just flat out represents all the horrible excess that we’ve come to expect from Michael Bay.  But, that’s not the epic failure that I want to focus on (I’ll save that for another day).  The other failed epic I wish to talk about it Aussie director Baz Luhrmann’s nostalgia laden ode to his home country, titled simply Australia (2008).  It’s failure I find more problematic than those of Pearl Harbor, because it goes far beyond just excessive cinematic style, and more into the themes and story behind it, which results in an infuriating experience.  To me, Australia is the textbook example of how not to make a historical epic.

Of course, to understand the disappointment of this movie, I have to address the person behind it, because it is first and foremost a director driven film.  Baz Luhrmann is not what you would call the quintessential Australian director, but his excessive artistic style does fall in line with some of the country’s colorful character.  Starting off in the theater, he moved on to directing films starting off with 1992’s Strictly Ballroom, followed up with his Shakespearean adaptation Romeo+Juliet (1996), and then his big award winner Moulin Rouge (2001), a movie many claim as the one that revived the long dormant Hollywood musical.  With that string of rising success, Luhrmann finally had the clout in the industry to make the film that he’s always wanted to make, which was a defining epic throwback melodramatic ode to the nation that reared him.  That in itself is a noble goal.  I’m sure that like myself, Luhrmann loves the grand Hollywood epics of yesteryear, and this was his opportunity to give Australia it’s own epic worthy of that bygone era.  One thing that I can’t fault Luhrmann for is ambition.  It’s a trademark of his style.  Just watching anything he makes, you can see the workings of a director who wants to make every frame a visual treat.  Australia certainly has scale and production values on it’s side, but what it lacks is focus and narrative drive.  It’s a movie that unfortunately falls into the same faults that many other passion projects have, in that it succumbs to the director’s inability to move beyond their love of the concept in service of the story they want to have told.  It’s a movie built on love, but Luhrmann cannot quite find the best way to share that with us.

Truth be told, I really wanted this movie to work.  Ever since seeing Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen in my teens, I have wanted the great Hollywood historical epic to come back in a big way.  When it was announced that Baz Luhrmann had this film lined up as his next picture, I was genuinely excited.  I wasn’t entirely enthralled with Moulin Rouge when it first came out, but I recognized the artistry behind it and was excited with what it could look like in a genre that I’m more interested in.  Not only that, but the setting itself brings out so many possibilities for epic adventures.  With it’s wide open, untouched natural beauty, Australia is tailor-made for epic treatment.  Plus, a nearly three hour epic run-time told me that this story could not only be epic, but far-reaching as well, giving us a Gone With the Wind (1939) sized story of all the people, places, and history of Australia.  Sadly, what I saw in the movie theater presented none of that.  We get a ham-fisted, melodramatic romance with a historical backdrop that was neither insightful nor endearing.  This epic has annoyed me like no other in the genre, and it’s largely due to just how poorly it is presented.  I cared about none of the characters, felt the story was hackneyed and unoriginal, and more importantly of all, felt that some of the themes and messages were so badly delivered that it ended up having the opposite effect and became more offensive than enlightening.  And it all falls on the director, who seemed too wrapped up in the things he adores about the genre that he couldn’t observe the glaring problems that were right there in front of him.  A glossy shine cannot distract from the ugly, over-long mire that this movie going experience was for me.

First of all, so little development is given to the characters that it really becomes a joke at times.  Every person here is fully formed by the time they are introduced, and apart from some backstory revelations here or there, we don’t really know any more about them than what they go through in the film’s running time.  I do give Luhrmann credit for giving the movie an all-Australian cast.  Even the lead character who is given an English background is played by noted Aussie actress Nicole Kidman.  Sadly, none of the spark of her Oscar-nominated work in her last collaboration with Luhrmann is found here.  Kidman merely is there to be a place holder for the type of ideal heroine of old Hollywood, like Grace Kelley or Janet Leigh.  Unfortunately, her character emulates these ideals, but offers nothing more.  She’s a symbol rather than an individual, there simply to conform to her new surrounding, rather than leave an impression on it.  It’s a waste of Ms. Kidman’s talent, because I know she can do better.  Here, her character is less Scarlett O’Hara and more Marilyn Monroe; less active and more reactive.  There’s a moment where she attempts to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz which may be one of the most cringe-inducing moments I’ve ever seen an actress required to do in a movie ever; and it made me feel so bad for her.  She’s not alone though as a faulty character in the movie.  Everyone seems to be shorthanded.  Hugh Jackman’s character is so undefined that he’s not even given a name; he’s solely referred to as the Drover (an Aussie term for Cattle Rustler).  It’s so clear that this character was more a concept than an actual, tennable personality, and Jackman (really this generation’s defining Australian performer) is given nothing to work with.  His Drover merely just comes across as a poor man’s Crocodile Dundee.  Only the villain, played by David Wenham, stands out, and even he’s a thinly drawn character.  He makes Billy Zane’s over the top baddie in Titanic look subtle, but I credit Wenham for at least finding something to work with.  It shows even a talented cast can’t save lackluster material.

Another huge problem is that Luhrmann doesn’t know what his grand epic story wants to be.  Australia has a rich history to draw from, and it’s setting alone can inspire so many stories on it’s own.  But, with the movie Australia, Luhrmann has all of these ideas and pinpoints of interest, but noting to anchor it down.  We have the melodrama of the central romance, but because the characters are so thinly drawn, there’s not a lot to mine there.  So, Luhrmann looks at some of the defining elements of Australian history to focus on, but even here the execution is weak.  We are shown the troubled, and often brutal relations between the white Australians and the native Aboriginals whom they had oppressed for many years, as well as the hypocrisy of those in power, who often exploited the natives while at the same time keeping them down.  This issue alone is worthy of a movie of it’s own to explore, and the problem here is that it’s not focused on enough.  We learn about the dehumanizing programs that were in place in Australia in the early 20th century that took mixed race children away from their families and trained them for life as servants in White households, as a means that one horrible character describes in the movie to “breed the black out of them.”  I credit Luhrmann for not glancing over this horrible stain on his nation’s history, but sadly he undermines it later on in the movie by indulging in another historical touchstone of Australian history.  Just as the racial element gains traction in the story, suddenly World War II comes to Australia, and the completely unnecessary inclusion of the Japanese bombing of Northern Australia happens.  This whiplash change of focus for the story ruins what otherwise could have been a valuable historical lesson.  For Luhrmann, it proved that he got too greedy and that he spoiled the meal by adding one ingredient too many.

But, even without the unnecessary historical intrusion, the movie also undermines it’s well-intentioned message about race relations by again misusing old Hollywood tricks.  At the film’s center is a relationship between Kidman’s Sarah Ashley and a young mixed race boy named Nullah.  Nullah, as a character, is the film’s most troublesome element, because I think Luhrmann made the mistake of making a character that was so pure that he ends up becoming unrealistic.  Luhrmann, probably feeling ashamed of his own country’s history towards the Aboriginal people, wanted to portray them in the best possible light as possible, but in doing so, he robs them of any real depth.  Nullah is sadly nothing more than a prop to focus the movie’s message onto.  Young Brandon Walters is fine in the role, but the character is just an empty vessel for the story to reflect around.  Not only that, but they give him this annoying mystical quirk to his character, with awkward singing that supposedly puts him in tune with nature.  I know there’s some cultural basis for this among the aboriginal people, but it doesn’t translate on film.  Maybe the movie would’ve made this work better if he was more of a focus in the story.  Instead, and I hate to say this, he falls into that painful Hollywood cliche of the “magical Negro.”  Coined by Spike Lee, this trope is one referring to a minority character in a movie (most often Black) whose only purpose in the story is to impart wisdom and understanding on the sympathetic white protagonists, sometimes even through actual magic.  Nullah, fills that trope to a “t” and that ends up making Baz Luhrmann’s film feel very backwards and insulting, even with it’s good intentions.  Better movies have been made about the plights of the aboriginal people in Australia; director Phillip Noyce’s grittier Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) for example.   For Baz Luhrmann to not follow through with it here makes the end result feel more exploitative than informative, and it ultimately makes this a very loathsome movie as a result.

There are few other movie epics that stand out to me as such a crushing disappointment as Australia was.  I really want historical epic dramas to be a big part of Hollywood once again, but I feel that Baz Luhrmann’s film only dug the genre deeper into a too self-important hole.  More seriously, I feel that the movie missed the point of telling the true story of Australia by trying to be too much all at the same time.  Baz Luhrmann clearly loves his country and old Hollywood epics, but he can’t quite make the two come together.  Tapping into the nostalgia of the style undermines the importance of the film’s ultimate message, and I feel that this movie ends up telling us less about the people and places of Australia than it should have done.  The aboriginal people in particular seemed to be short-changed, and this is in a movie meant to shed light on their tortured history.  I understand Baz’s passion for this project, but I feel that he was ultimately the wrong fit for this kind of sweeping epic tale.  His greatest strength is taking usually dryer material, and giving it his own unexpected visual flair, like with Romeo+Juliet and his more recent The Great Gatsby (2013), a movie that I liked a whole lot more than this one.   Perhaps sticking too close to home was not a smart move for the director.  There was rumors that he was going to make another epic project centered around Alexander the Great, and that’s a subject that I think he could’ve done very well with.  Australian cinema is not without it’s exceptional pieces that adequately tell it’s story.  Peter Weir gave us interesting epic stories like Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Gallipoli (1981) in his early career, and of course one cannot forget the work of George Miller and his Mad Max series.  Also, check of John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005), a haunting, gritty film with an outback setting similar to the one in Australia.  But, for a true Australian epic to stand above all others, Baz Luhrmann’s attempt rose high and fell hard, and in the end, became one of my least favorite epic films of all time.