The Movies of Summer 2017

With a week to go before the Summer movie season gets underway, it makes sense to look over the year so far to see what the upcoming months will have to follow up on.  This year’s Winter and Spring movie seasons have been remarkably strong, both critically and financially.  Usually associated as being Hollywood’s dumping ground, we saw the early months of 2017 marked with some surprising quality efforts from unlikely places.  We got a shocking twist upfront when M. Night Shaymalan finally made a movie that everyone liked with Split.  Jordan Peele of Key & Peele fame made a remarkable directorial debut with his controversial thriller Get Out, which earned raves upon release that are usually reserved for Oscar nominated fare.  The Lego Batman Movie gave us even more hilarious fun with it’s plastic brick built world.  There was also solid thrills in movies like John Wick 2  and Kong: Skull Island and Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine was given an effective sendoff in the acclaimed Logan.  Ironically, the movie I liked the least from the first half of this year ended up being the highest grossing overall; the still loathsome Beauty and the Beast remake from Disney, which has grossed over a billion worldwide as of this writing.  Overall, it’s a solid start to the year, and one hopes that the upcoming summer season, where Hollywood makes room for their big guns, manages to keep the momentum going.  Like years before, I will be looking at the months ahead and tell you which movies are my Must Sees, the movies that have me worried, and the ones that I recommend you skip entirely.  Keep in mind, these are just my initial thoughts about the movies based on my expectations and how I respond to their marketing.  There could be some surprises and/or disappointments out there, and I admit that I’m not the best handicapper.  So, with that, let’s look at the Summer of 2017.



Let’s start this look at the summer by spotlighting how it’s going to begin.  Again, Marvel Studios is showing that they own this opening spot in the month of May, which has been so lucrative for them before with blockbusters like both AvengersIron Man (2008), and Captain America: Civil War (2016).  This year, they are launching the Summer with the sequel to one of their absolute best films.  Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) was a surprise hit when it debuted, taking a relatively obscure comic and turning it into a phenomenom thanks to a stellar directorial effort from James Gunn and star making performances from it’s cast.  The same team returns intact to take on another adventure, and the trailers are promising us more of the same, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  Guardians stands out from the rest of the Marvel field and it’s strengths are worth elaborating on in a sequel, including stuff like hilarious banter between the characters, colorful worlds to explore, and a world-class retro soundtrack.  I’m especially excited to see the new faces added to the mix, especially the perfectly cast Kurt Russell as the father of Guardian member Peter “Star-Lord” Quill.  Making a sequel to such a beloved first outing is going to be difficult no matter what, with everyone’s expectations now up so high.  I have faith that James Gunn, Christ Pratt and the rest can pull off something special with this.  Even if it’s not as good as the first, most of us will still appreciate it if it at least leaves us entertained.  And one thing’s for sure, that Baby Groot is going to be everywhere this Summer, so buy those toys now before they’re gone.  Marvel’s win streak should comfortably continue with these Guardians in place.


Christopher Nolan’s name at this point in his career is synonymous with the word “epic.”  Every film he makes now is big in scale and scope, and it’s to his credit that he continually focuses his vision onto many varied subjects, giving solid diversity to his body of work.  He revolutionized the super hero genre with his Dark Knight trilogy;  he explored the cosmos with Interstellar (2014); and he even delved into the endless possibilities within the human mind with Inception (2010).  With his newest film, however, he’s doing something very different, and that’s giving us a historical account of a harrowing event from World War II.  The Siege of Dunkirk is an interesting subject for Christopher Nolan to take on, though one that you would hardly expect.  The real life story is not one that’s about conflict, but instead about survival.  Half a million British soldiers were surrounded by German forces, trapped in the titular coastal town with the sea as their only window of escape.  Miraculously, most of the soldiers made it to safety in one of the greatest rescue efforts in modern history.  The scale of the event is probably what drew Nolan to the project, providing another opportunity for him to work with large format cinematography such as IMAX, which he’s used to great effect before.  My hope is that, like most of his other films before, he manages to balance the human emotion amidst all the spectacle.  More than anything, I’m just intrigued to see a director of his caliber working within this kind of genre.  This is sure to be one of the most epic scale war films ever made, and my hope is that it also stands as one of the best.  Anytime Christopher Nolan stands behind the camera, it signifies something eventful; something which few directors can do nowadays.


I know that a lot of you out there are probably sick of Spider-Man movies by now, especially now that it’s going into it’s second revival after the previous one fell flat.  But, the truth is, this may actually be the first “real” Spider-Man movie we’ll have seen on the big screen; not one that’s made by outside studio forces, but a true honest to goodness adaptation of the comics from Marvel themselves.  After getting the rights to the character back from Sony in a profit sharing deal, Marvel has quickly worked the webslinger into their Cinematic Universe, and he managed to already delight audiences again with his brief appearance in Captain America: Civil War.  Now, with his own film, Marvel is making the smart decision to not go all the way back to the beginning and start with another origin story, instead choosing to create a new story with an already established Spider-Man.  Tom Holland returns, and he looks to be just as charismatic here as he was in Civil War.  It works to the films benefit that here we’re finally seeing an actual teenage Peter Parker that’s truer to the comics than the late-20’s actors who have stepped into the role before.  The inclusion of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony “Iron Man” Stark is also a great inclusion for this film.  But, what makes me most excited is the casting of Michael Keaton as the villainous Vulture.  What a casting coup for Marvel, managing to to get cinema’s first Batman and having him cross the aisle, away from DC, to play a Spider-Man villain.  That alone is worth seeing, and Keaton looks so perfectly menacing in the part.  Overall, it should indeed be a very welcome homecoming for Marvel’s friendly neighborhood webslinger.


Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have had a pretty good and lucrative collaboration over the last decade.  They both won Oscars for their landmark war drama The Hurt Locker (2009); a historic win in Bigelow’s case.  They then followed that up with a comprehensive historical account of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty (2012), an acclaimed and cntroversial film in it’s own right.  Now, the two have turned their attention to another interesting subject; the 1968 riots that tore apart the city of Detroit during one of the most heated periods of the Civil Rights movement.  Bigelow’s intense, documentary like style could be a great fit for this subject, putting us right into the thick of the event, helping us to see what it was like to live through such a moment in time.  Not only that, but with the tumultuous time that we are living in now politically, and with tensions between civilians and law enforcement growing even higher, this could be a very timely history lesson as well.  My hope is that Bigelow and Boal applies their no-nonsense style of story-telling to this subject and gives us a captivating and intense experience, allowing us to see an unfiltered look at American history.  The inclusion of Star Wars‘ John Boyega as a central character also looks promising, as the up-and-coming actor is due for a quality lead role outside of the big franchsie.  Historical films usually are a hard sell during the summer; especially ones that take on such a touching subject matter.  But, this one looks to be in some capable hands.


Another director who manages to garner attention every time he puts a new movie out is Edgar Wright.  After a disappointing development cycle on the movie Ant-Man, where he famously parted ways with Marvel over creative differences, Wright returns with a new spin on the heist genre.  Instead of relying on his usual collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost to fill out the cast, he’s instead going in a different direction, working with a largely American cast and focusing far more on an action style rather than a comedic one.  Sure, it’s still carries some of Wright’s trademark sense of humor, but what this movie is also showcasing is an added sense of creativity in the action set pieces.  This is Edgar Wright moving beyond the realm of parody and finding new footing in the high octane action world; an area that he may actually prove to be a natural at.  While he is trying new things, my hope is that some of Edgar Wright’s trademark visual flair, which he refined throughout his Cornetto trilogy, manages to translate over, and this stylish trailer has me believing that it did.  The supporting cast in this film also looks impressive, with Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm making an impression as two seasoned criminals, and Kevin Spacey as always commanding the spotlight whenever he’s on screen.  Hopefully the fresher faced leads (Ansel Elgort and Lily James) can hold their own against these veterans.  At the very least, it will be interesting to see Edgar Wright work out of his element in a promising new field of film-making.



To be honest, I am cautiously optimistic about this one.  Sure, DC has been not very effective in launching their ambitious cinematic universe.  Batman v. Superman; Dawn of Justice was a convoluted mess, and Suicide Squad, while not a terrible film, did alienate DC even more from comic book fans with it’s messy execution.  Now, with Justice League on the horizon, DC desperately needs a solid hit in their stable, hitting the mark with both fans and critics.  And believe me, a lot of us want this to go well, because Wonder Woman is a superhero you don’t want to see cinematic-ally ruined.  On the plus side, Gal Gadot’s appearance as the titular hero in Batman v. Superman was one of that movie’s more positive aspects, and it did make me interested in seeing a full feature devoted to the character.  The trailers so far have done a fine job showing off the spectacle of Wonder Woman’s world, from the sumptuous locals of her island paradise home to the murky war zones of Europe during the Great War.  My hope is that the film manages to escape the studio interference that plagued it’s two predecessors and manages to define itself by it’s own merits.  This will be the first time that a female superhero has been featured in her own film, something that DC managed to do first before Marvel, so a lot is at stake with how well this feature performs.  Again, DC’s track record of late has tampered down many of our expectations, but hopefully this will be the film that finally rights the ship for DC.  Otherwise, the Justice League they’ve been so eager to form will be doomed before it even starts.


Fourteen years ago, Disney did the unthinkable and managed to turn a film based on one of their theme park attractions into a box office and critical success.  Largely thanks to Johnny Depp’s charismatic performance as Captain Jack Sparrow, we had one of the unlikliest of franchise born.  Unfortunately, it’s a franchise that also has lost a lot of it’s luster.  The two follow-up sequels (Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, which were shot simultaneously) did succeed at the box office, but were considered too convoluted in their plots to be considered better than the first film.  2011’s On Stranger Tides brought the franchise even lower, feeling unnecessary and frankly rather boring as a whole.  Now, Captain Jack returns for what might be one final gasp to save this tired franchise.  There is some hope behind this film project.  Acclaimed Norwegian directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, who won raves for their sea based adventure Kon-Tiki (2012), have taken over the reigns of this franchise, and have promised to put more emphasis on in camera stunts over CGI extravagance.  The casting of Javier Bardem as the villainous Captain Salazar is also a good thing, and I’m pleased to see Geoffrey Rush returning as my favorite character in the series, Barbosa.  On the other hand, Depp’s schtick as Jack Sparrow may have worn out it’s welcome over the years, and it might be time to put the character finally to rest.  I hope that this is an adventure worth taking, but my worry is that it’s one ride that no longer thrills.


Ridley Scott has certianly never been a director to rest on his laurels.  Even into his late 70’s, he is still continuing to churn out film after film, working in all sorts of different genres.  His new feature finds him on familiar ground, returning to the franchise that he helped to launch back in 1979 with the iconic Alien.  In 2012, he tackled the franchise again, only this time exploring the origins behind the titular monster with Prometheus.  Prometheus received a mixed reception from fans and critics, some calling it too self-indulgent and not exciting enough to carry the Alien franchise into another chapter.  I for one was okay with the movie; it was neither a franchise highlight, nor was it one of it’s lowpoints.  It was a perfectly serviceable sci-fi picture.  Scott returns now with what is possibly meant to be the linking piece between Alien and Prometheus in Alien: Covenant.  My worry however is that after the two previous films, is there anything left for Scott to explore with this franchise.  It seems like this movie is just retreading the same things we’ve seen before; watching each of the cast members being picked off one by one by the dreaded Xenomorph.  It was terrifying in the first Alienwhen Scott was breaking new ground, creating genuine scares that would influence a whole generation.  Now, with too many tools at his disposal, I don’t know if Scott can do that again.  At least he was able to let the atmosphere make Prometheus stand on it’s own.  With Covenant, it just feels like we’ve seen this all before.

CARS 3 (JUNE 16)

It pains me to have to put low expectations on something from the Pixar studio, but I am less optimistic about their entry this summer.  Truth be told, I thought the first film in the Cars franchise was a pretty good flick.  Not Pixar’s best, but still a pleasing feature with a unique visual aesthetic.  Unfortunately, Cars 2 holds the distinction of being Pixar’s first real failure.  After a decade of nothing but glorious raves for all their movies, Cars 2 was panned across the board as both visually and narratively lackluster.  The main problem is that it took the focus away from the first film’s central character Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) and shifted it to the obnoxious supporting character Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy), putting him into a nonsensical spy movie plot.  It seems that the filmmakers recognized the faults of the previous movie, and have sought to right the course of the series by putting Lightning McQueen back into the spotlight, but is it really necessary any more.  It felt like his character arc was complete in the first film, so I don’t see what more they need to do with this franchise.  My guess is that they’re going for a “one last hurrah” kind of story-line with this one, which to be honest may not be so bad for this series.  It makes more sense than Mater the Spy from Cars 2.  My hope is that Pixar doesn’t drop the ball with this one like they did the second time around, but again, maybe this is a franchise that’s better left off the track.  For a studio as groundbreaking as Pixar, their efforts are placed elsewhere than trying to put a new coat of paint on a busted old car.



For some crazy reason, Michael Bay’s increasingly moronic and over-stuffed Transformers franchise still manages to keep going.  Sure the franchise made a little improvement with the last film by swapping out Shia LaBeouf with Mark Wahlberg in the lead role, who is far more likable, but that was the only positive in the bloated mess that was Age of Extinction (2014).  The franchise now reaches it’s fifth entry, and I am struggling to find anything left worth caring for in this series.  The franchise resembles the original source cartoon and toy line very little now, and it still annoys me that the Transformers themselves are little more than supporting characters in a movie that’s supposed to be about them.  What we’ve gotten instead is Michael Bay throwing every cinematic indulgence that fits his fancy, and it makes all of his movies (especially these ones) nothing but convoluted messes.  What astonishes me about this one, however, is that he managed to wrangle in Anthony Hopkins for a role in the movie.  Hopkins, who is arguably one of the greatest actors of his generation, is too good to be in something like this, so I don’t know what kind of magic Michael Bay worked to bring him on board.  It might just be interesting to see how Sir Anthony does in this feature, but if it means that I’ll have to sit through nearly three hours of Michael Bay overkill just to get to his scenes, I don’t think it will be worth the effort.


In another desperate attempt to formulate a cinematic universe on the level of Marvel’s multi-franchise success, Universal Pictures has dug into their collection of movie monsters to build a collective universe around, to not as expected results.  Their first attempt was the very bland Dracula origin story, Dracula Untold (2014), which released to indifference with audiences and critics.  Now, it’s the Mummy’s turn to generate some heat in order to make their universe plans come to fruition.  The makers of this film did manage to land Tom Cruise is a key lead role, as well as Russell Crowe in the role of Dr. Jekyll (yeah, Jekyll meets the Mummy; wrap your head around that logic), but it doesn’t make the film feel any more interesting.  Like Dracula Untold, this movie just feels more like a studio mandate than an actual interesting story worth telling.  I think that it is worth revisiting The Mummy as a story again, but when it’s tied to this cynical cash grab attempt by a studio, it feels less exciting overall.  I would rather see something artistic done with the Mummy character, like a period piece or a more straight-foward horror remake.  This just feels bland, boring, and a waste of time.


Proof that not every cultural fad needs to be turned into a movie.  Now, truth be told, people scoffed at the idea of The Lego Movie (2014), and that film turned out to be a classic.  But, what benefited Lego was a witty script that did a brilliant job of entertaining while never feeling like a feature length commercial, effectively just turning the product into a cinematic tool rather than a marketing one.  This, however, looks to be nothing like that.  I’d say that The Emoji Movie has more in common with the recent Angry Birds movie from 2016, which felt like a rushed film project made to purely capitalize on a cultural craze while it was still popular.  I honestly don’t know where they can go with this project, and the trailer only indicates to me that all this movie is going to do is present a trivial story with a steady string of obvious visual puns.  Of course, visual puns are what emoji’s are all about, but no one wants to see a feature length film that does that.  Better to delete this unnecessary film out of any and all conversations in the future.

So, there you have my outlook on the Summer months ahead.  I’ll be sure to give you my thoughts on the big titles as the season goes along, starting with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which I plan to review next week.  Hopefully all my must sees are worthy of the hype surrounding them, but also I would like to see a few of the ones that worry me exceed my expectations and end up being better than I anticipated.  I’m pretty confident about where all these movies stand, but there have been years in the past when I’ve been way off.  In any case, my hope is that the movies this summer not only perform well, but actually stand out as exceptional cinematic achievements as well.  We’ve already seen some strong showings from the opening months of this year, so 2017 is already off to a good start.  I absolutely want to be dazzled by Marvel’s expanding cinematic universe with Guardians and Spider-Man, as well blown away by Christopher Nolan’s unparalleled vision with Dunkirk, and be genuinely entertained by new efforts from the likes of Edgar Wright and Ridley Scott.  At the same time, my hope is that some of the smaller fare this summer manages to shine through as well.  It’s always worthwhile to see the next Ex Machina (2015) or Swiss Army Man (2016) shine through amidst all the noise of the summer season.  In any case, I hope all of you have as much fun at the movies this Summer as I will.  Let’s hope that all of us won’t be disappointed in the end.

It’s Not Easy Being Green – Hollywood’s Lack of Compelling Environmental Movies

Today is Earth Day and for many of us it’s a day where we take time to actively do our part to help keep the environment clean and healthy in some way.  But, at the same time, it’s also a time where we worry greatly that not enough is being done to keep the water and air clean and the resources that we live on sustainable.  For many, getting the message out that the Earth needs saving is a chore in of itself.  At a time when a few people out there are less willing to accept scientific consensus about the state of our world today, we are finding ourselves in a perilous situation where ignorance is the biggest threat to our world.  But, how do you convince people of the facts when the science may sometimes be too complex to understand or the message too dire?  That’s when you call upon entertainment to help out.  Environmental issues have long been an important subject in the mediums of art, song, and film, and sometimes they have effectively managed to move and motivate people to want to take action and do what’s best for the planet.  The only problem is, when relying on forms of entertainment to get the message across, environmental movements can sometimes run the risk of minimizing their cause by turning it into a cultural fad rather than a lasting legacy.  Entertainment politics have just as much of a sway on the effectiveness of an environmentally conscious program as it would on any other subject, and it wouldn’t be all that crucial if the message weren’t so important.  When it comes to environmental issues as entertainment, we unfortunately have a very inconsistent legacy that sadly undermines the message in a way that in some cases does more harm to the world than good.

Not that it’s a bad thing that Hollywood tries at all to make environmentally conscious films.  Not trying at all to address environmental issues would be even worse.  What specifically is the problem with some of these so-called “green” films is that they have to adhere to commercial appeal in order to be made in the first place (especially if they are backed by a studio) and in the process, they unfortunately find themselves compromised.  This can happen in a variety of ways.  Either the message of the film becomes diluted down so much to childish simplicity that it no longer has any weight at all, or it is exploited in an effort to satisfy the studio or filmmakers’ own agenda.  As a result, few if any quality films are made that take environmental issues as seriously as they should.  There are many degrees in which a lot of environmental films fall short, but I think the greatest problem overall is that too few of them actually hold their audience to task for the problems they are addressing.  I know that few people want to go to the movies to be lectured to, and it’s often a sure fire way to turn your audience off to a film, but what a lot of filmmakers who take environmental issues seriously need to know is that their audience needs to feel the importance of the issue; not just have it presented as a story point.  An audience needs to relate to an issue just as much as it needs to relate to the characters.  It has to hit them personally, and make them see that the problem won’t be solved until they make the move to change it themselves.  Now, one person motivated like this may not be the agent of change, but a whole bunch of people can and that’s why it’s crucial to get the message right in a film.  And even more importantly, it’s crucial to recognize where the message is effectively getting through and where it is not.

Environmental issues on the big screen has been a long evolving thing, changing very quickly over time to observe the changing attitudes in society as a whole.  Social films have always been a part of Hollywood, but they were more centered on human conflicts and despair rather than dangers facing the world itself.  You can see this in films like The Grapes of Wrath (1940), which brilliantly documents the hardships facing a family of migrant workers heading to California after being displaced by the Dust Bowl of the Midwest in the 1930’s, without ever discussing the environmental factors that led to the famine in the first place.  Postwar Hollywood took on environmental issues more definitively in the 50’s, but it was from a place of Cold War paranoia, where nuclear annihilation was seen as the biggest threat to the environment.  Even still, environmental consciousness became more important in these years, and likewise, Hollywood found stories worth telling that could motivate millions of viewers to take action.  You can see this in allegorical sci-fi films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), where an alien visitor warns the people of Earth to take better care of their world, or else face annihilation themselves.  It was pointed, but in a way that made audience take note that keeping the world a clean an orderly place was the best way to make their progress society as a whole.  You can also see this reflected in a slew of PSA films that were produced around this period, which among other things taught people how to keep their homes sanitary, how best to dispose of hazardous material in a safe way, and also how to avoid environmental hazards in their own backyards.  Some of these were pretty naive and sometimes completely absurd (“duck and cover” as a response to a nuclear blast for instance), but, Hollywood was finding out with these movies that taking on such issues in their movies could indeed affect social action.

It wasn’t until the 1970’s when Hollywood’s message machine and the call for action on environmental issues finally coalesced into one.  It was an era when it came abundantly clear that the Earth’s environment was in danger and that action needed to be taken.  Even President Richard Nixon, of all people, saw the importance of doing something to save the environment, which led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Likewise, Hollywood made an effort to state that environmental issues were no longer just a minor thing, but instead the most important thing and that we as a species could no longer just ignore it.  In this time, you saw a lot of movies that discussed the effect of pollution in our air and water, the clear-cutting of forests, and the negligence of industry that allowed for environmental degradation to happen.  What is special about the movies from this era is that they weren’t afraid to be bleak, which surprisingly proved to be a more effective tool in getting the message across.  With Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), you had a noir thriller centered around a real case of corruption in Depression era Los Angeles, which showed how manipulation of resources could degrade a once vibrant landscape and destroy the livelihood of those who worked the land.  The China Syndrome (1979) showed how corporate negligence at a nuclear power plant could lead to a possible destruction of a city within the blink of an eye, and show that maybe nuclear power wasn’t the best option for our energy production.  And there was also Soylent Green (1973), a disturbing dystopian look into a future plagued by overpopulation and food shortages compounded by pollution.  It’s a film where even the solutions to the problem are the stuff of nightmares.  But, what each of these films managed to do was to wake up the population to issues about the environment that were starting to affect us.  For a while, people did make an effort to consume less, hold corporations accountable, and do their best to improve the environment.  But as society changes, the message also changes, and newer messengers don’t quite have the same urgency to get the message out as before.

Since the 70’s, new facts have about the environment have made the issues more complex and as a result, far more harder to stress to a larger audience.  As a result, a new trend of environmental films have arisen that unfortunately dumb down the issue in order to make it more appealing to a general audience.  In some cases, filmmakers come across looking like they don’t care about the issues they are addressing and just want to make it appear like they do care just so that they can win some credibility points from environmental groups.  Unfortunately, if the whole project becomes disingenuous, it trivializes the message as a whole.  Case in point, the films of Roland Emmerich.  Emmerich is a filmmaker notorious for making shallow statements in his films on a variety of subjects, but none more so than with his environmental films The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and 2012 (2009).  The reason his films come across as shallow is because it’s clear that he’s ignoring scientific reality in favor of creating his own outlandish scenarios in order to add extra spectacle to his films.  That’s how you end up with preposterous segments in his movies like John Cusack outrunning a supervolcano explosion in a Winnebago from 2012, or Jake Gyllenhaal literally being chased down a hallway by the effects of global warming in The Day After Tomorrow.  I don’t think that Roland Emmerich isn’t concerned about the environment, but his shortcomings as a filmmaker only makes the message in his movies seem ridiculous and as a result, easier to dismiss; and that in of itself is a big disservice to environmental causes.  If you want to help the environment, you need to deal with it honestly, and not trivialize it with your own indulgences.  It’s sadly something that far too many filmmakers do nowadays with environmental movies.  Spectacle only makes the issue seem smaller, because you are associating real environmental problems with Hollywood magic, and reality has no magical solution.

An even worse problem with environmental movies today is how they are sometimes exploited for the purpose of a different agenda.  In particular, one thing that I have noticed with some environmental movies is that they scapegoat all environmental problems on some corporate entity.  Sure, many corporations over the years have been contributors to environmental degradation, but taking an anti-corporate stance in your movie is no solution to the problem of fixing the environment.  As a result, you have a movie that is undermined by it’s own lack of urgency and it’s insistence of shifting the blame to someone else.  By doing so, you creating a sense in the audience that they themselves no longer have a responsibility to the environment, because they only see the evil corporation as the offenders and not themselves.  For an environmental message to work, it must put the responsibility on the viewers shoulder to do something about the issue, and not let them off the hook.  That’s why conventional black and white morality in environmental movies makes the message far less effective.  You can see this in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), where he trivialized environmental issues by creating this corrupt straw-man corporate entity as an obvious antagonist within his story.  Had he presented a more even handed portrayal of the corporate characters, showing the complexity of their dilemma as well, then you might have had a more reasoned examination of the issue, with the environmentally conscious side standing up to scrutiny.  Instead, it just appeared that James Cameron wasn’t interested in a two sided argument, and that he wanted his beliefs presented without impediment.  Sure, he still managed to deliver a billion dollar hit movie, but it’s not the environmental arguments that we remember, and  it led to a less motivated audience because they were never able to connect with the issue.

There are many right and wrong ways to deliver an effective environmental story, and sometimes the best way to do it is to not appear on the surface like you are an environmental film at all.  That’s what made the films of the 70’s like Chinatown and Soylent Green so effective because they were compelling stories on their own that just so happened to involve environmentally relevant issues.  What I think to be one of the greatest environmentally conscious movies of all time does this perfectly; the Pixar-created animated film Wall-E (2008).  Wall-E is primarily just a love story between two robots, but as the story goes along, you see that it has a profound statement to make about man’s responsibility to his environment.  In the film, Wall-E the robot travels to the far reaches of space, and finds the remnants of humanity living on a space cruise ship, confined to lounge chairs and absorbed into distracting social media.  And all the while, their home planet is a garbage filled wasteland, which Wall-E has alone been tidying up.  If that’s not a compelling statement on our societal problems contributing to environmental degradation, than I don’t know what is.  And the movie has the intelligence to not let the viewer off the hook and asks us what is in our best interest going forward with environmental issues.  Contrast this with Illumination Entertainment’s adaptation of The Lorax (2012), which took every bad environmental movie cliche, and distracted it’s audience with trivial nonsense while at the same time pretending like it cared.  Dr. Seuss’ original story was about the dangers of over-consumption and it taught it’s audience to be more responsible with a compelling one word warning: “Unless.”  The CGI animated Lorax instead proved to be the most hypocritical of films by minimizing Seuss’ message and shamelessly cross-promoting itself with corporate sponsors, effectively promoting more consumption, which is an insult to Seuss’ intent.  This shows that a movie that sells itself as environmentally conscious may in fact not be, and that the more unexpected the environmental message the better it will affect it’s audience.

Overall, environmental movies should not be taken as just light entertainment, because the real problems we face are far too important to ignore.  For the most part, it’s a problem that is more closely associated with fictional environmental films than say something made in the non-fiction medium like a documentary.  But, even in the documentary field, it’s important to have a clear message that connects with the audience and makes them want to take action.  For Hollywood films, it matters to make environmental issues relatable, and that means not being afraid to take a few risks no and then.  I’m sure viewers became more concerned about the preservation of wildlife after they saw the death of Bambi’s mother from a hunters gunshot.  And I’m sure that Soylent Green made more people aware of their daily consumption, and that it was perhaps better to hold back a little, or else far worse things could happen.  Essentially, good stories told well can deliver a strong message on environmental issues, but the real change comes from not holding back and putting a sense of urgency into the minds of the audience.  When you trivialize the issue by mixing it too much with Hollywood style entertainment, then you create a passive indifference in the mind of the audience, leading them to take the issues facing the environment less seriously.  We’ve seen before that it can be done, but it must respect the intelligence level of it’s audience.  An audience will want to make a difference only if they’ve been moved and inspired.  And you can find far little inspiration in a movie that treats global catastrophes as spectacle, or presents a scapegoat that let’s the audience off the hook.  And you’ll find no more insulting environmental message than the Lorax hocking “green-approved” cars and IHOP pancakes.  Seriously, shame on that movie.  With our world growing increasingly fragile, it’s more important that we make environmental films that get real results and motivates more people to do the right thing.  It’ll be good when the fact that they are entertaining as well can be the only real by product in the end.

Evolution of Character – Jesus Christ

Icon, savior, prophet, rabbi, messiah, son of God.  Whatever your personal beliefs and your view of who this man from Nazareth was (or is), there’s no denying that Jesus Christ is a figure who has shaped the course of human history.  Some believe in his divinity, while others just view him as an influential historical figure.  But still, whether you accept belief in him or not, his influence is felt in all of our lives; sadly, sometimes in very negative ways.  Perhaps the most powerful influence of Christ can be found in art.  Pretty much every great and influential artist of the past millennia has taken their shot at depicting Christ in some way; in painting, sculpture, carvings, performance, and of course, cinema.  Jesus has proven to be just as powerful figure on the silver screen as he has been in any other artistic medium.  At the same time, he is also one of the trickiest roles to fill.  A lot of pressure falls on those who puts on the robes to portray Christ, because if they do a poor job, they run the risk of upsetting a multitude of the faithful, most of whom take the image of Christ very seriously.  Some movies sometimes even take careful measures to avoid any controversy at all by showing Jesus either from a distance, like in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) or from over the shoulder without showing his face, like in Ben-Hur (1959).  But, there are plenty of films that do take the risk of not only showing Christ on screen, but also delving deep into his story and analyzing what kind of person he was.  What’s most interesting is how different eras of cinema have incredibly different views on the figure of Christ.  In this article, I will be looking at a few of these, limited solely to depictions from Hollywood; so no international depictions, or TV movie adaptations, nor any Christploitation films the Christian film market.  So let’s look at Jesus Christ’s journey as a cinematic icon.


For an examination of Christ’s presence on the silver screen, it’s fitting to look back and see one of the earliest.  In D. W. Griffith’s now century old epic, we are presented with four interlocking stories depicting different eras in world history, all centered around the theme of intolerance.  The shortest of these story-lines is devoted to the story of Jesus, and his persecution at the hands of the Pharisee priests who are determined to silence his ministry.  The story is sadly limited, but the depiction of Christ is nevertheless interesting in the film.  Actor Howard Gaye certainly was cast based on his resemblance to the commonly accepted image of Jesus in centuries of artwork.  Through Griffith’s film, we see the icon of Jesus that was familiar to the world through it’s artwork brought to life through the magic of cinema.  Because of Griffith’s film, this image of a long faced, flowing hair, and white robed Jesus would endure into the realm of cinema and influence all future depictions from then on.  It’s an interesting aspect that Griffith chose to use the image of Christ in his grand statement on the nature of intolerance.  Though brief, Christ’s story is interconnected with stories of the fall of the Babylonian Empire, religious wars in Renaissance era France, and a present day story of religious zealots breaking apart a disadvantaged family.  What I think Griffith misses however in his film is the irony that the persecution that each of his main characters face is done in the name of someone who went through the same persecution.  I think Griffith was more interested in the cruel cycle of intolerance that humanity has faced over the years, and he viewed Jesus’ own persecution as one chapter of that.


Later on in the silent era, we were given a much more substantial portrayal of Jesus Christ on film, which came from a filmmaker who is now synonymous with the biblical epic genre; Cecil B. DeMille.  DeMille was already established filmmaker at this point in his career, and had already won praise for bringing The Ten Commandments (1923) to the big screen.  But, many consider his depiction of Jesus Christ in The King of Kings to be one of his greatest achievements.  Here we find a Christ that is both humane and divine; relateable and yet also ethereal.  It is certainly one of the more idealized versions of Christ that we’ve seen on film, with actor H. B. Warner giving a standout performance.  Warner fits the same image iconic image of Christ, but what he brings is more sophistication to his portrayal, making him feel more human and personable.  It’s clearly DeMille’s to utilize the cinematic medium to present Jesus is the most sympathetic light possible.  Here, Christ almost glows on screen, with DeMille using diffused lighting to spotlight Christ and make him standout from everyone else.  Even the Resurrection of Christ utilized some remarkable cinematic tricks, with DeMille inter-cutting a Technicolor sunrise into the scene (color photography was only recently introduced and was considered cutting edge for it’s time, making the shot all the more special).  Though old fashioned by today’s standards, DeMille’s epic became a gold standard for the depiction of Christ on film for many years to come, and it is still to this day one of the most cinematic-ally pleasing.


The 50’s and 60’s saw an booming industry in Hollywood for Biblical epics.  For years, it appeared that any biblical story was fair game for adaptation, leading to some of the most impressive cinematic wonders that have ever been committed to celluloid.  Included among them is this George Stevens directed epic about the life of Christ, depicting his baptism (with Charlton Heston as John the Baptism) all the way to his Crucifixion.  Like most of the movies of it’s era, The Greatest Story Ever Told was a star studded blockbuster, which was both a blessing and a curse; it unfortunately had the problem of miscasting several roles, including an awkwardly placed John Wayne as a Roman centurion, who utters the now infamous line, “Surely this man was the son of Gawd.”  But, the movie did strike it rich with the excellent casting of legendary Swedish actor Max von Sydow as Christ.  Sydow brings an intensity to the role that had never been seen before and it makes Jesus a compelling character throughout the film.  From the gracefulness of his gentle ministry to the intense anger that he displays against the money changers at the Temple in Jerusalem, to the quiet vulnerability that he displays while being crucified, Sydow is compelling in the role from beginning to end, and he carries this sometimes uneven film on his sturdy shoulders.  He also does an excellent job of giving the iconic look of Jesus the kind of expressiveness it needs to work in a more sophisticated cinematic outing.  The movie is an odd mixture of old Hollywood melodrama, mixed in with a more modern sensibility towards the role of religion in our lives and how the image of Christ fits into that, and Sydow’s Jesus is a perfect match for that more modern image of Christ in our changing culture.


The 1970’s yet again was another shifting time for cultural attitudes towards religion, and this was reflected in some of the interesting ways that religion found it’s ways into movies at the time.  In this Norman Jewison directed adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, we saw a completely different kind of portrayal of Christ brought to the screen.  Sure, it is kind of jarring to see Christ and his followers singing rock tunes out in the desert (shot on location in Israel), but the movie is still surprisingly respectful to the image of Christ, both scripturally and cinematically.  Christ remains a figure of intense spiritual purity in this film, but it’s the aura that surrounds him that defines his power.  Like the title of the film states, Christ’s persona gives him a superstar status among the people around him, giving him a cult of worshipers that he clearly struggles with.  It’s a superstar status that makes him beloved, but also reviled, and he finds himself at odds whether remaining the savior for humanity is really something he should have resting on his shoulders.  It’s a more conflicted side of Jesus than we’ve seen before, but one that still represents the spiritual power that we’ve seen before.  Ted Neely, who was brought into the film after playing the role first on stage, clearly fits the image of Christ very well, and his impressive pipes give an interesting new intensity to the character as well.  Funny how the image of Christ was not a huge leap to make from the usual aesthetic of the average hippie at the time of this film’s making.  Neely had little more to do than just put on a robe and he becomes Jesus automatically; which literally does take place in the film’s opening minutes.  It’s a product of it’s era, but still, an interesting new direction to take the persona of Christ into on the big screen.


Here we have probably cinema’s most human depiction of Christ, which itself resulted in quite a bit of controversy.  Adapted from Nikos Kazantzakis’ equally controversial book of the same name, Martin Scorsese’s film is an interesting spiritual examination of Jesus’ struggles with his own destiny.  In this movie, Chirst knows he’s the son of God and that his purpose is to die for all the sins of humanity, and this is a burden on him that makes him feel distant from the rest of humanity.  In his dying hours on the cross, Jesus asks God why he has forsaken him, and then the film stops to show what life would be like for Christ if he had denied his purpose and refused to sacrifice himself, instead choosing a normal life.  This section itself was what stirred up the controversy behind the book and film, because it shows Christ in what some consider a sacrilegious portrayal; getting married, having sex, fathering children, and denying his divinity.  But, many forget that in both cases these are just visions and not reality.  Christ still dies on the cross like he was destined too, and everything we see beforehand is just a final temptation by the devil to coax him away from his destiny.  Scorsese still considers himself a devout Christian, but he’s also an introspective filmmaker who wants to explore interesting concepts when it comes to religious themes, and that’s what attracted him to this film.  He made a very wise choice in the casting of Willem Dafoe as Jesus, who gives the character a remarkable vulnerability that we have never seen before on film.  Dafoe perfectly embodies a version of Jesus that is both frightened of his destiny and yet determined to see it through, and it’s that introspective view of the journey ahead that makes his performance so compelling.  When he triumphantly smiles in the closing moments of the film and proclaims, “It is accomplished,” it is a powerful depiction of a man who has conquered evil, both on the outside and from within, and that makes for one powerful portrait of Jesus Christ.


The other most controversial depiction of Jesus Christ is also the one that strives for the most accuracy.  Mel Gibson’s often divisive portrayal of Christ’s torturous final hours is an interesting cinematic experiment, because it goes out of it’s way to recreate the period of time it is set in; even to the point of using dead languages in all of it’s dialogue.  Whether that makes it historically accurate is debatable since it’s source of story comes from the Gospels.  Still, it’s an interesting choice for a director to make in order to set their depiction of Christ apart from all the rest.  Mel also cast largely unknown actors in most of the film’s roles, except for a couple exceptions; one being Jesus himself.  The role of Christ went to established American actor Jim Caviezel, who took on the role based off of his own devout Catholic background.  And like the person he was portraying, his own experience would turn into a test of faith.  Not only did he have to endure long hours working outdoors in very little clothing, but he also endured some rather bizarre freak injuries while filming.  At one point, one of the whips used in the scourging scene missed the padded protection on his back and actually cut a real gash on his side.  And then during the crucifixion scene, he was struck by lightning in the middle of filming.  Not to mention he had to learn to deliver all his lines in Aramaic.  Suffice to say, this is a definitive example of an actor suffering for his art, but it does translate into a powerful performance on screen.  Caviezel embodies a quiet strength as Jesus, enduring such horror but still remaining steadfast in his resolve.  Whatever you think about the movie itself, you still have to admire the work that the actor put into it, making a determined attempt to be more true to the personage of Jesus than anything we’ve seen before.


Here we have one of the more recent depictions of Christ on the big screen.  The movie imagines a fictional encounter during Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the desert, where he is confronted by the devil and is told that he holds the fate of a family he has met on his journey in the balance.  It’s a tight, simple narrative that nevertheless offers an interesting window in understanding the psyche of someone like Jesus.  Ewan McGregor takes on the dual role of portraying Christ and the Devil (who is shown in the  film as a twisted reflection of Christ, confident and sinister while Jesus remains doubtful but pure).  His portrayal is a unique one, having his Jesus be someone who is still trying to understand his purpose.  What’s more, his Jesus is someone who knows of his disconnect from humanity, having grown up without knowing his true father, and feeling frustrated with the fact that he is unable to communicate with him.  This movie grapples with the notion of whether Christ was truly divine or not, and it’s dealt with in a very open-ended way.  Jesus sees God’s signs everywhere, and he imagines the Devil by his side as a manifestation of all his doubt and anger, but in the end he is unsure if God really has set him apart for a reason, or if he may possibly not be there at all.  And yet, the movie shows the eternal spiritual purity of Jesus, and how his journey would inform the spirituality of many more after him.  McGregor gives Christ a very subtle humanity, one that doesn’t have to marry itself to all other depictions before it, and yet still remains true to the character.  Here, he portrays a man seeking self discovery before his fully obtains the confidence to becoming the Savior of humanity.  It’s interesting that the movie chose to explore the often overlooked period of Jesus’ fasting in the desert, because it’s really the best point to examine Jesus as a blank slate, something that Hollywood has rarely dared to tackle before.

So, there you have some of the many depictions of Christ that we have seen on the big screen.  Interestingly enough, apart from these straightforward portrayals of Christ’s life on the big screen, you can still see his influence in a variety of other movies.  You see it very clearly in the common cinematic trope of the Chirst-figure character; a main protagonist who is specially singled out by some mystical prophecy or fate that makes him the only person capable of destroying evil.  Whether it is Neo from The Matrix (1999), Harry Potter from his wizarding world franchise, or Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars franchise, many of cinema’s most famous heroes have often fallen into this Christlike path of destiny.  The Lego Movie (2014) mocked this trope perfectly by referring to it’s hero as “the Special.”  Darth Vader from Star Wars can often be viewed as a Christ figure in reverse; a character of special significance whose destiny only leads him towards becoming more evil.  But, despite how Hollywood has exploited and made fun of the Christ figure in cinematic history, you’ll never actually see an actual mockery of Christ the person.  Even movies that do attempt it often do it through the misguided insanity of one of their characters, like “Buddy Jesus” in Kevin Smith’s Dogma (1999), which is representative of a ill-advised public relations campaign by a church to make religion appear more “hip.”  Even the always irreverent South Park, which includes Jesus as a regular character, portrays him as a pure soul and a force for good.  There can be many ways to do a bad portrayal of Christ on screen, but even some of the good ones can still draw the ire of some very devout followers.  Regardless of where anyone stands on faith, we still have to acknowledge the importance of Christ as a symbol, both in everyday lives and in our art.  He has remained a constant force on the big screen, and will so for many years to come, and it’s our responsibility as storytellers and filmmakers to make sure that his image is used only for the purposes of good in our world.

TCM Classic Film Festival 2017 – Film Exhibition Report

The Turner Classic Movies Channel (TCM) offers up one of the finest programming line-ups that you’ll ever find on cable television, especially if you are a classic movie fan like me.  Knowing that their fan-base is strong and growing, TCM has given those of us in the Los Angeles area a special treat in their yearly film festival, held in the heart of Hollywood.  Spread across several theaters on Hollywood Blvd. (The Chinese, the Egyptian, and the Cineplex of Hollywood & Highland), the TCM fest offers up four days of nothing but the best in classic cinema.  In addition to seeing these classics on a big screen, those who attend are given the added treat of having their films introduced by notable celebrity figures who have some involvement in the film’s making, or are themselves enormous fans of the films they are introducing.  Also, there’s also just the atmosphere of Hollywood alone that makes this festival unique.  More than likely some of these movies probably had their world premieres in the very same venues, so the festival is not just a weekend of entertainment, but a dive into the history of cinema itself, with each grand old movie house acting as a living museum to cinema.  This year marks the fourth in a row that I am documenting this festival for you, my readers.  However, unlike previous years, I tried to do something different for this year’s fest, which was to cover all four days of the festival.  I’m happy to say that I did get all four days in, having to manage it around my work schedule.  It unfortunately gave me little down time to do anything else this weekend, hence why I’m writing this on a weekday, as opposed to my usual Saturday posts.  Thankfully, with experience under my belt, I was able to schedule everything out in order to make it into all of my top choices each day, with only one roadblock in my way.  So, let’s look at the TCM Classic Film Festival of 2017.

DAY #1 (APRIL 6, 2017)

The festival runs a different theme every year to spotlight in their line-up of movies.  This year, the theme was Comedy.  Most of the marquee attractions this year were meant to be a good rundown of all the different eras of comedy in Hollywood, from Monkey Business (1931) with the Marx Brothers, to the work of Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and the Abrams/Zucker parody flicks.   Even the more recent Christopher Guest mockumentaries were spotlighted.  It makes sense that this was a running theme since the guests of honor at this year’s hand-print ceremony in front of the Chinese Theater were comedy legend Carl Reiner and his son, director Rob Reiner.  This festival was also significant this year being the first without iconic TCM anchor Robert Osborne, who has long been the face of the channel.  His passing a couple months ago could be felt across the board at this year’s fest, with several of the TCM staff sharing their fond memories.  Each of the opening night films included a brief memorial video of Robert that was very well done and appropriate as a way of stating his importance to the festival as a whole.  The opening night also included a special red carpet screening of In the Heat of the Night (1967), which celebrates it’s 50th anniversary this year.  In attendance for this showing, TCM brought in director Norman Jewison, composer Quincy Jones, producer Walter Mirisch, and stars Sidney Poitier and Lee Grant.  Unfortunately, standby tickets were unavailable for this showing, and since I was limited to standby seating the whole festival, I couldn’t go in myself, as much as I wanted to.  Instead, I opted for a screening of a classic movie I had never seen before; the Bette Davis film Jezebel (1938).

The early evening screening of Jezebel took place in one of the smaller auditoriums in the Chinese Multiplex theater in the Hollywood & Highland complex.  Because of the limited space, fewer seats were available, and I just barely made it in from the standby line.  All that were left were front row seats, which were not at a particularly good angle for watching the film.  They did however give me a good, up close view of the pre-show introduction.  Before the movie, TCM personality Tiffany Vazquez walked on stage to introduce the very enthusiastic (and flashy) guest speaker, Richard Skipper; an east coast journalist and producer who was invited to speak at this festival after winning a contest.  Richard spoke of his fan-hood for Ms. Bette Davis and his love of the movie, Jezebel, which we learned from his speech was a consolation film for Bette after she was turned down for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939).  He also talked about how Bette got along with director William Wyler and co-stars Fay Bainter and Henry Fonda.  Interesting enough, we also learned from the historical background that Fonda had to leave the film immediately after it wrapped in order to be there for the birth of his daughter, Jane.  It was a thankfully information filled introduction from a true fan that helped us appreciate the movie even more.  For me, I enjoyed it, but couldn’t help but think of Gone With the Wind the whole time, and how much grander it is.

From there, I tried to rush my way down the busy, tourist filled sidewalks to the Egyptian Theater a few blocks away.  Thanks to a heads up alert from social media, I learned that the theater had a special screening of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) planned, utilizing a brand new projection process that allows the theater to screen ultra-sensitive nitrate film stock.  That alone would have interested me, but the alert also indicated that director Martin Scorsese was going to be there to introduce the movie himself, and discuss the preservation of nitrate film, which is a particular passion of his.  I managed to make it outside the Egyptian, and received a number for the standby line.  When it got close to the start of the show, the festival crew let in only a small handful of standby tickets holders.  After twenty or so people, it was announced that there would be no more let in, and I unfortunately was among those left outside.  It would have been neat to have seen Scorsese in person, but this is the unfortunate outcome that you have to expect when you roll the dice waiting in standby.  It was worth the try in any case.  After that, I decided to skip all the other available screenings, and call it a night.  It was an opening night disappointment, but there was plenty of festival still left.

DAY #2 (APRIL 7, 2017)

Coming straight from work, I made my way to the Chinese cineplex again to catch a screening of James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News (1987).  I was thankfully there in time to get a good seat and it was also bless-fully in one of the larger auditoriums, making seats readily available for all standby tickets.  Before the show, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz arrived to conduct the opening introduction.  Now, I should point out that at this point in the festival, the souvenir guide books indicated that director James L. Brooks was going to be the pre-show guest.  But, in front of us on stage, there were three chairs waiting; one for Ben, one for James, and one for someone we didn’t know.  Well, that third chair was saved for comedian and actor Albert Brooks, who was a surprise last minute addition.  This surprise almost makes up for missing out on Scorsese the night before.  Both actor Brooks and director Brooks discussed their experience making the film, including the lengthy amount of research that went into accurately portraying the inner workings of a broadcast newsroom.  They talked about co-stars Holly Hunter and William Hurt, as well as how this movie reflects on the state of media today.  Albert naturally gave the audience quite a few laughs to enjoy, but James L. Brooks was equally as entertaining in this intro.  Seeing the movie itself was a first time for me, and I quite enjoyed it as a whole; particularly with the stellar performances.  It was a good start off to the day, but my primary goal was to make it into the nighttime showing in the Chinese Theater immediately after.

The reason I desperately wanted to get into this next show was because it was going to feature one of my all time favorite filmmakers; comedy legend Mel Brooks.  His spoof of Hitchcock films, High Anxiety (1977), was the featured show, but it was really seeing Mel live in person that interested me.  I had managed to catch an appearance of him several festivals back, but it was in one of the smaller venues and not from a great viewing advantage.  Thankfully, I got into this screening, which is thankfully in the very large Chinese Theater, and I managed to get a close up seat only a few rows from the front of the venue.  Mel Brooks, at 90 years old today, is in remarkable shape, and is just as full of comedic energy as he has ever been.  Ben Mankiewicz was there to conduct the interview, but Mel completely took control and did most of the talking himself, leading poor Ben to not know where the interview would go next.  Mel did offer up some interesting stories, like his meeting with Alfred Hitchcock and his pitch to him about the movie High Anxiety.  Hitchcock loved the final film by the way.  He also discussed working with his co-stars, including Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and Harvey Korman.  More than anything, it was just fantastic to see a comedy legend still be able to make all of us laugh, and show that old age hasn’t slowed him down at all.  It was also pleasing to watch High Anxiety on a big screen.  I’ve watched the film before, but not like this, and never with a full audience either.  So, I went 2 for 2 on day 2 and my hopes were up for the rest of the festival.

DAY #3 (APRIL 8, 2017)

Because of my work schedule, I was unavailable to attend most of the morning shows, which included some very promising screenings I would have liked to have attended.  This includes a screening of This is Cinerama (1952) in it’s original format in the Cinerama Dome, and of The Jerk (1979) with director Carl Reiner in attendance.  I haven’t seen the 90 year old Reiner yet, and something tells me that fewer chances will come my way in the future, so this was unfortunate.  Still, there were a few more promising screenings that interested me on this day.  I got to the Chinese complex again and received my standby ticket for a screening of Christopher Guest’s 2000 classic Best in Show.  For this screening, we were privileged to have four members of the cast there to speak before the film.  On stage there were actors John Michael Higgins, Jim Piddock, Bob Balaban, and Fred Willard.  The longtime collaborators discussed their improvised style of comedy, which is a trademark of Guest’s mockumentaries, and what they brought to their own characters.  Higgins talked about what it was like playing one half of the film’s sassy gay couple (opposite Michael McKean), and Willard and Piddock talked about what it was like playing the hilariously mismatched color commentators in the fictional dog show competition.  Amazingly, we learned that their scenes were all shot in one day.  Balaban unfortunately couldn’t speak because he was battling laryngitis, but still his presence there was appreciated.  I had seen the movie before, but again, watching it in a theater with an audience gave it an extra bit of enjoyment.  From there, it was off to the Chinese again.

The nighttime presentation at the Chinese Theater on this third day was the universally beloved Mike Nichols film, The Graduate (1967).  Another film celebrating it’s 50th anniversary this year, the film was a popular draw this night.  Thankfully, my Best in Show screening finished with enough time for me to get in the standby line for this film.  I managed to get a pretty good seat in the theater; not too close and not too far.  It gave me a good view of the stage up front, and a good view of the screen, which is quite big (it’s built for screening IMAX).  For this show, we were privileged to be joined by the film’s screenwriter, Buck Henry.  Buck, while still witty at times, clearly wasn’t as spry as Mel was the previous night, but at the same time you can excuse him for that.  Ben Mankiewicz kept the interview moving along, despite the fact that Buck was giving him long stares most of the time (which were sometimes funny in of themselves), but some interesting tidbits did come out in the interview.  We learned about what it was like working with Mike Nichols as well as stars Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft.  We also learned about stars who nearly made it into the movie, like Robert Redford and Gene Hackman (who in fact was fired right before filming began).  It was pleasing to see a legendary writer like Buck Henry participate in this festival, even in his old age which has more or less made him a little more ornery than usual.  It wasn’t my first time seeing this movie, but again, on a big screen, it’s a whole other experience and what can I say other than this is still a classic for all times.  And with that, another day down, with one left to go.

DAY #4 (APRIL 9, 2017)

This final day gave me something that none of the others had, and that was a wide open schedule.  A day off work meant that I had the entire day to catch anything that I wanted.  So, to start the day, I made my way to the Chinese complex to catch a showing that I knew would have some significance at this year’s festival.  It was a screening of Postcards from the Edge, a movie written by the late Carrie Fisher, loosely based on her experience with drug addiction and growing up under the shadow of a famous mother.  Starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine as the fictional daughter and mother respectively, the movie is a fascinating window into Carrie’s relationship with her real-life mom Debbie Reynolds, who also shockingly passed away only hours after her daughter last year.  This gives the movie an added poignancy and for a first time viewing on my part, this film truly was one of the highlights of this year’s festival.  After the movie, Ben Mankiewicz welcomed on stage two special guests.  One was Todd Fisher, brother to Carrie and son to Debbie, as well as previously unannounced surprise guest, actor Richard Dreyfus, who had a small part in the film.  The discussed the film very little, and of course devoted most of the interview to sharing memories of the two legends.  Dreyfus, who was a close friend to Carrie, even broke down into tears during the interview, showing how the grief is still affecting him today.  Todd shared some interesting family stories as well, and stated how much of the film captured the essence of both of them.  It was a really enriching experience, and one that I felt great about choosing for this year’s festival.

From there, I made my way to the Egyptian Theater and had better luck this time getting in.  It was for a screening of the Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Streisand screwball comedy What’s Up Doc? (1972), directed by Peter Bogdanovich.  Bogdanovich was himself there to introduce the movie, and it was a special treat to see him in person, knowing his contributions to both film-making and film criticism.  He talked about what it was like working in such a different style of comedy than what he was used to at the time, just coming off of the Oscar-winning The Last Picture Show (1971).  He also talked about working with O’Neal and Streisand, as well as placing Madeline Kahn in her first ever screen role; one in which she becomes a scene-stealer.  He also talked about all the challenges he faced filming the climatic chase scene through the streets of San Francisco, which included several instances where they caused real physical damage to some of the city’s infrastructure.  He finished his interview by treating us to his Jimmy Stewart impression, which was not bad.  The movie itself was a first time viewing for me, and I’m happy to say that I enjoyed it.  I got more out of the supporting cast than I did from the main stars to be honest, but what really impressed me was the confident direction from Bogdanovich, which really captured the screwball style of comedy that was perfected so well in the 30’s and 40’s.  After that, there was only one film left to go.

I chose to remain at the Egyptian for my final film, mainly to experience a screening of one of these heralded nitrate prints that the festival was spotlighting so strongly.  I tried to the first night screening with Scorsese in attendance and failed, and the second and third nights conflicted with other movies I wanted to see.  Those other two prints were of the classic Otto Preminger noir drama Laura (1944) and the Powell and Pressburger technicolor classic Black Narcissus (1946).  The final night’s nitrate screening belonged to the Ginger Rogers musical extravaganza Lady in the Dark (1944).  This technicolor film looked very interesting on a nitrate print, which had a smoothness to the frame rate that was noticeably different than celluloid.  The colors also had a different hue to them, more muted than most other technicolor prints I’ve seen.  The film itself was a mixed bag however. Actress Rose McGowan arrived to introduce the movie beforehand and shared with us her appreciation for the artistry of the movie, particularly with the art direction in the dream sequences and the stunning costumes designed by Edith Head.  However, she did pre-warn us of some of the more outdated social attitudes presented in the film, which are a bit problematic.  Watching the movie, I can see what she meant, because the movie is hilariously old-fashioned.  The film is so blatantly misogynistic and ill-informed about the science of psychoanalysis that you’ll just laugh throughout at just how politically incorrect this movie is today.  Well, at least we were given warning beforehand.  That made for an interesting finish to my festival experience.  At least I got a sense of what nitrate film projection looks like and it’s something that I hope continues in future festivals.

And with that, the TCM Film Festival of 2017 comes to a close.  I honestly felt very happy to have finally gotten in the full four days of the festival.  Sure, I had to work it around my work schedule, which prevented me from seeing some of the films I was interested in, but for the most part, I did get to see what I wanted.  The only disappointment in the whole thing was not getting into that screening where Scorsese was going to premiere, and even there I still was almost successful.  Overall, I caught 8 movies total, which is not bad at all, and 5 of them were first time viewings.  Buying a festival pass would have given me better access and a better choice of seats, but my success rate was still good in the standby line, and was an especially good option for someone who’s on a budget like me. I was especially happy to see legends like Mel Brooks and Buck Henry live in person, as well as see other greats like the Best in Show cast and Peter Bogdanovich.  Also, the Postcards from the Edge discussion centered on remembering Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher was an especially worthwhile moment.  But, even apart from the movies themselves, I also just enjoyed talking to other people in line who like myself are huge fans of classic cinema.  I was talking to a couple guys in line just about stuff like the philosophical meanings behind the films of Stanley Kubrick, and in another line, I met an older couple who said that their first time seeing The Graduate was on one of their first dates in high school.  It’s a shared communal experience like that which make festivals like TCM’s so enriching.  I hope to get in a full experience in like this again next year, so until then, I hope you appreciated my lengthy report.  And please, watch and support classic cinema whenever you can.


A Fool’s Game – The Ever Changing Face of Comedic Films

Our traditional April Fool’s Day usually has us working towards making a fool out of someone else, whether it be through a cleverly worded joke or through an elaborate prank.  Regardless of the outcome, most of the fun comes from the realization that something genuinely hilarious has happened, and one hopes that the humor in each situation is shared by all.  Sometimes a joke will go too far, and then other times, a joke will not have gone far enough, and the end result of no one finding it funny may be the worst result of all.  What proves to be the best scenario for April Fool’s shenanigans is if both the fooler and the fooled both have a healthy sense of humor.  And in our culture, we have the movies to thank for giving us foundations on which to base our senses of humor.  Everyone may not be able to pinpoint what their favorite comedy might be, but they can usually draw upon their favorite moments or funny phrase as a demonstration of their comedic tastes.  How many of us out there have bopped their head to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” ever since first seeing Wayne’s World (1992)?  How many of us have used Bill Murray’s “Final Hole at Augusta” monologue from Caddyshack (1980) when playing a game of golf?  How many of us have at one time uttered the word “Ni” just to annoy our friends, or welcome them to join in?  Comedy has, more than probably any other genre, soaked itself into the cultural zeitgeist, to the point where we think about a funny moment from a movie sometimes without knowing where it originated.  But, comedy in movies is also a constantly changing thing that sometimes remains strong for years or can sometimes fade into obscurity.  For a comedic movie to have staying power, it first of all must stand out in the field, have character to it, must have something to say, and most importantly not just be comical for comedy’s sake.

Despite being ingrained in the culture, comedy also runs the disadvantage of falling victim to shifting, and often unpredictable attitudes.  What was considered funny yesterday might not be considered funny today.  Sometimes the changing responses to comedy are necessary, as different values become more important all the time, and it becomes understandable when one joke has lost it’s impact as a result of the change.  But, to disparage a comedy because of it’s outdated content isn’t a healthy attitude either.  Comedy over history is defined by how it has evolved with the times, and while some jokes of the past may seem quaint or even offensive to those of us watching today, understanding their context allows us to see how it has shaped the sense of humor of our culture as a whole.  Comedy has been around since really the very beginning of cinema.  You can see it all the way back to the short vignettes of the very first film images created by Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers, who often called upon vaudeville acts to perform in front of the camera.  Since sound film had yet to be invented, you can understand that the dominant form of comedy in these days was physical in nature.  This was the era when slapstick and visual gags ruled.  In this era, you saw the emergence of the first true comedic movie stars, like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.  Silent comedy had it’s limitations, but remarkably it has proved to be one of the most resilient and influential forms of comedy in all of cinema.  You can see the influence of all these pioneers in slapstick comedy today.  Some of the performers most outrageous stunts even hold up as remarkable feats so many years later, like Harold Lloyd’s harrowing dangle from a clock face in Safety Last (1923), or Buster Keaton’s stunts on a real moving train in The General (1926).  Talkies of course would take the comedy genre in a different direction, but there would always be a place for physical comedy in the years ahead thanks to these pioneers.

With the use of sound, comedy became more reliant on tools such as wit, innuendo, and word play to generate laughs out of their audiences.  But, there was still a place in Hollywood for both the physical and the verbal to coexist in comedy.  The 30’s saw the rise of the screwball comedy, with comedians performing on screen who both excelled at physical humor and joke telling.  In this era, you would see the emergence of Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, and most successfully the Marx Brothers, who managed to get away with more in their comedies than most others could.  Screwball comedies were so popular at the time that they even managed to attract performers not normally known for their comedic chops, like Cary Grant and Kathrine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938) or Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941).  As films became more sophisticated over time, so did comedy.  Preston Sturges not only created comedies that were humorous, but were also socially relevant, like with Sullivan’s Travels (1941).  Comedy evolved even further in the 50’s and 60’s, with shifting social attitudes making an impact.  You had more comedies that addressed topics like sex (1967’s The Graduate), war (1964’s Dr. Strangelove), and even fascism (1967’s The Producers).  The 70’s in particular was a era when comedy was all about pushing boundaries, with filmmakers like Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and the Monty Python comedy team consistently testing the limits of broadness and taste in their films.  The 80’s began the era of satire, where self reflexive comedies like Airplane (1980) and The Naked Gun (1988) emerged.  By this time, television has left a strong influence on cinematic comedy, with a lot of crossover stars coming from shows like Saturday Night Live.  And all through these different eras, you can see a strong through-line of different generations inspiring what would come after.  All comedy in one way or another has shaped what we now find funny today.  And through the best of them, we can see what has worked over time, and what does not.

What is apparent from all the greatest comedies from film history is how well they stand apart from the rest of the field.  Despite the influence that comedies have on the culture and the business of film-making, it should also be understood that there are ten times more failures in the genre than there are successes.  Comedy has the disadvantage of being a heavily derivative genre, with so many copycats emerging in the wake of a success in the field.  The key to comedy is the element of subverting your audiences expectations and making them react to an unexpected and hilarious result.  The best comedies are all defined by how well they make their punchlines land.  Unfortunately, when another movie tries to copy that same formula, it doesn’t have that same impact, because the audience will already be aware of what it’s leading to.  Other times, some comedies just don’t even try to do anything special, and just coast along on the premise alone.  It’s the reason why you see something like a 21 Jump Street (2012) succeed and a CHiPS (2017) fail.  Even people who have succeeded with a comedy before end up failing when they don’t adapt their style.  You could see this with the comedic team-up of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, who landed a huge hit with Wedding Crashers in 2005, but failed to see the same repeat when they re-teamed for The Internship (2013).  We even see this in drawn out, tired franchises like The Hangover series.  Extra effort is what makes great comedies great, and the ability to share gags and jokes that no one has heard or seen before.  But, doing so comes with a lot of risk and Hollywood tends to not put their money behind unproven potential.  So, for any new progress to be made to change the face of comedy, it has to be something that stands out and hits hard with every punchline, and that’s why only the best comedies last throughout the years.

Another thing that helps comedies along on their road to greatness is in how well they are defined by their character.  Comedy falls into several subcategories, all of which have their own best and worst examples.  You’ve got the romantic comedy, the screwball comedy, the satirical comedy, the gross-out comedy, and even the dark comedy.  This all helps to make each type distinguishable from the others, so that there doesn’t have to be a set standard for all comedy.  But, even in the sub-classes, comedies still need to define what they are in order to stand out.  So, it helps for them to play around with genre tropes in order to either subvert them or conform them to a new direction.  You can see that in characteristically unique comedies like the original Ghostbusters (1984).  In that film, you had a mix of comedy and terror, mixed together in a surprisingly effective way.  The scary moments are genuinely scary, but they are punctuated by the witty sarcasm of Bill Murray or the goofy nerdiness of Dan Aykroyd.  Through that mixture, you get a comedy that by it’s very unique character is able to stand out.  Utilizing the comedic style of it’s creator, a comedy can also stand out.  You can see how the movies of Woody Allen, Jerry Lewis and Mel Brooks stand out from the crowd, because they are so tied to the comedy that those men are known for.  You can also see this in the work of directors who are comedians themselves, but are so comfortable working in the genre, like Judd Apatow and Edgar Wright.  Edgar Wright in particular has that special talent to make very similar movies, but they all feel fresh and hilarious, because he only ties them together by style and not by the routines; although a few running gags permeate his entire filmography.  Relying on your performers is also essential to finding the character of your comedy, especially if they are a scene-stealer like John Belushi in Animal House (1978).  You can see where a lack of character can sink a comedy, which can happen from miscasting a performer to just not finding an interesting angle to hang your jokes and gags on.  Comedy needs identity and the more broad it is, the better it will be able to make us laugh.

Having a statement in your comedy is also a helpful tool.  Movies have always been a powerful tool for changing people’s minds and affecting cultural attitudes, but no other genre manages to make a bigger impact in that regards than comedy.  This is especially true in the way that comedies often use their medium to attack authority figures through the power of mockery.  Oftentimes, the targets of comedy have been especially deserving of ridicule.  Charlie Chaplin famously attacked the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany with his film The Great Dictator (1940), which chronicled a buffoonish despotic dictator not unlike the Furher himself.  Chaplin’s response to Hitler was especially savage after the liberal-minded filmmaker learned that the notorious ruler had shaped his own mustache after Chaplin’s.  Stanley Kubrick addressed the absurdity of Cold War politics in the only way he knew how, with a screwball comedy where a cowboy hat wearing soldier rides a nuclear bomb like a bucking bronco as it’s dropped from the sky.  Mel Brooks tackled racial tensions from the 1970’s in a western spoof called Blazing Saddles (1974), where every racial and ethnic stereotype is lampooned relentlessly in often hilarious ways, all with the purpose of showing how ridiculous racial bigotry is.  Does every great comedy need to have a profound statement behind it?  Not necessarily, but it can help it stand out as a strong statement of it’s time.  That’s not to say that every comedy that tries to give themselves a political or socially relevant message works either.  I don’t know what the point behind George Clooney’s The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) was, but I know for sure it didn’t make me laugh.  Still, for a comedy to be remembered for more than just it’s jokes, it must also have something interesting to say, or push forward an unconventional idea that can have a profound influence.  Whether that ends up lasting long after remains to be seen, but a comedy will be notable nonetheless for doing it.

Also, it may be redundant to say this, but a comedy must try it’s best to be funny.  You would be surprised how few films actually accomplish this.  True, comedy is a subjective medium, and what’s funny to one person, might not be funny to another.  But, there are several so-called “comedies” out there that don’t even try to attempt to reach all audiences with their style of humor.  Oftentimes, there will be several comedies that are so insistent on throwing anything at the wall to see if it will stick.  You see this a lot in the spoof movies that have followed in the wake of Scary Movie (2000), all of which have the mistaken belief that movie and pop culture references equals comedy gold.  Probably the worst offender of the “kitchen sink” approach to comedy however is Adam Sandler and his Happy Madison production comedy.  Sandler seems to believe that rehashing the same tired comedy routines through consistently dumb premises is enough to leave your mark on comedy.  Well, it does, but probably not in the good way that Sandler believes is owed to him.  There was a time when Sandler’s comedic style was funny, but that was the late 90’s, and it’s now been 20 years since Billy Madison (1995) and Happy Gilmore (1996) managed to make us laugh.  What these movies demonstrate is that a comedy can’t just work on routine alone.  It has got to earn our laughter.  When you have Sandler movies that just poke fun at a character’s ugly appearance, or has animals defecating on another character, or throws in outdated and offensive tropes like gay panic or ethnic stereotypes, then you’re doing nothing to broaden your appeal as a comedic talent.  It’s cheap and lazy comedy, and audiences are too discerning today to fall for tricks like that anymore.  Just because these comedic bits have worked before doesn’t mean they’ll work for you again, and it’s a bad sign when 20 plus years in the business only leads you to do the same bits over and over again.

We all know which comedies we like and which ones we don’t like.  The only thing that remains to be seen is what we may find funny years from now, because comedy is a constantly movie goal line.  Our attitudes as a culture evolves and puts new values on things, so punchlines that made us laugh when we were young might not make us laugh when we are old.  It’s especially more difficult when we try to provide our own input into comedy as well, because not all of us find the same things funny.  And yet, some comedy does stand the test of time despite all the change.  Chaplin an Keaton still are praised as comedic geniuses, and it remains a marvel to watch modern audiences still laugh out loud watching comedies made nearly a century ago.  Some of this comedy does benefit from nostalgic value, but there are others like Blazing Saddles and Dr. Strangelove that still carry a punch to this day.  The biggest mistake that a movie can make is to chase after a punchline that no one will like.  And in a world that’s grown increasingly absurd, and where more and more people take a punchline way too seriously and miss the point entirely, finding comedy that results in a positive change is becoming harder to come by.  In the end, we need the positive influence of substantive comedy that’s not afraid to step on a few toes and mock those deserving of ridicule.  In troubled times, comedy is the best weapon that a culture can have.  And yes, there is even value in tough times to seeing absurd things like Bill Murray hunting down a puppeteer-ed gopher in Caddyshack (1980), or Adam Sandler fighting Bob Barker in Happy Gilmore, or Steve Carrell getting his chest waxed in The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005).  There is no better feeling at the end of the day than to have a good, full unencumbered laugh, especially when it is shared with someone else.  The only fools left out there are the ones who find nothing funny in the end.