All posts by James Humphreys

Collecting Criterion – The 39 Steps (1935)

39 Steps

While the Criterion Collection is renowned for bringing to light obscure and forgotten cinematic works from across the world, they are also responsible for preserving some of the lesser known works of the great masters.  Legendary filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and John  Ford have become a part of the Criterion library, with deluxe editions of some of their earlier films like Spine # 516  Stagecoach (1939) and #538 Paths of Glory (1957).  While some of these may not be as obscure as other titles in the Collection, Criterion nevertheless honors these directors by giving worthy notice to a few of these films, showing just how important they are to the growth of cinema in general.  In recent years, Criterion has also been looking for even more prestigious films to include in it’s library, including some of the most beloved movies of all time.  Among their titles today are some Oscar-winners like Laurence Olivier’s 1948 Best Picture winner Hamlet (Spine #82) and Elia Kazan’s 1954 winner On the Waterfront (#647).   Not only does the inclusion of these beloved masterpieces give a special acknowledgement to the filmmakers within the Collection, but it also shows that Criterion celebrates the Golden Era of Hollywood just as much as they do the art house scene.  And one particular Hollywood master has been long celebrated as part of the Criterion Collection, all the way back to even the early years of the label.  That director of course is the “Master of Suspense;” Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock is widely considered to be one of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers, if not the greatest.  No other director was more consistent in Hollywood, while at the same time breaking new ground with every production.  Most of his films are legendary; Psycho (1960), North by Northwest (1959), Rear Window (1954), and The Birds (1963) just to name a few.   In fact, the British Film Institute, for the first time ever, named a Hitchcock film as the “greatest movie ever made,” that being 1958’s Vertigo; it took the honor away from Citizen Kane (1941), which held that spot for over 40 years.   While these popular movies are kept in the public eye by the studios that made them, Criterion has also contributed greatly to showcasing the works of Alfred Hitchcock.  At one point, the Criterion Collection had seven Hitchcock films in their library.  These included the movies made during Hitchcock’s first few years in Hollywood; 1940’s Oscar-winner Rebecca (#135), 1945’s Spellbound (#136) and 1946’s Notorious (#137).  These Criterion editions have unfortunately gone out of print, and have returned back to their original studios for new editions, but Criterion still maintains the licence to a few other Hitchcock titles.  These are mainly the ones that were released during the earliest part of his career, back when he was still cutting his teeth in the British film industry.  It’s interesting looking back at this period in Hitchcock’s career, as we see the beginning of some of the things that would become synonymous with Hitchcock’s later work.   And if there is one Criterion film that best illustrates the beginning of the Hitchcockian style, it would be 1935’s The 39 Steps (Spine #56).

The 39 Steps is probably the best known of Hitchcock’s British films, though it doesn’t quite receive the same recognition that his later flicks do.  But, even so, many of the director’s trademark elements are there, and in many ways 39 Steps helped to set the standard for all of those that followed.  In particular, it began the “wrong man” scenario that would become a popular theme in most of Hitchcock’s later films.  The story follows a young Canadian traveler Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat) who finds himself wrongly accused of murder when an undercover spy (Luccie Mannheim) is found dead in his flat.  In her possession is a map to Scotland, which he uses to track down the people responsible for the murder, while at the same time avoiding getting caught himself.   Upon investigating the clues along the way, he learns that the head of the spy ring responsible for killing the girl is missing the top joint of one of his fingers, and he also discovers something known only as “the 39 steps”.  He escapes capture on the Scottish Moors, after being recognized by a fellow traveler named Pamela (Madeline Carroll) who believes he’s the murderer.  He soon finds refuge in the home of a respectable Scottish scholar, Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) who is willing to hear Richard’s side of the story.  Richard makes his plea and feels safe in the Professor’s estate; that is until he discovers that the Professor has a missing joint on one of his fingers.  Richard, having learned the identity of the true murderer, soon finds himself on the run again, only this time determined to learn the secret of the “39 Steps” before Professor Jordan can stop him, and learn what it has to do with a vaudeville performer named “Mr. Memory.”

The 39 Steps (1935) is small in scale compared to some of Hitchcock’s other great works, but all of the pieces are still there.  In fact, this film helped to introduce many of Hitchcock’s most familiar trademarks.  Apart from the obvious “wrong man” scenario, which would become a favorite theme in Hitchcock’s later works like North by Northwest, this film also introduced the idea of the MacGuffin to the cinematic language.  A MacGuffin is a cinematic term, coined by Hitchcock himself, that refers to the thing that the main characters are searching for, but in the end turns out to be something inconsequential to the audience.  In other words, it’s the thing that drives the motivations of the plot; making the directive more important than the actual reward.   Hitchcock’s uses of a MacGuffin in a movie are pretty noteworthy and here it’s pretty much the focus of the entire film.  In the end, we learn what the 39 Steps is during the final scene, but that piece of information really amounts to very little.  What we remember is the heart-pounding search to find it, and that’s what Hitchcock is known best for.  He was the “Master of Suspense” for a reason, and this film clearly shows how he refined his cinematic voice around this trademark.  You can also see in this movie how the director was finding his style as well.  The film features stunning camera work, which helps to elevate the suspenseful nature of the movie very well.  The scenes in Scotland in particular have a nice gloomy feel to them.  But, it’s the use of close-ups and quick-editing where we see the Hitchcock of later years start to develop, and it’s clear to see how this same filmmaker would redefine Hollywood movie-making in the years to come.

Does the film hold up against it’s more famous descendants?  It’s hard to put this film in the same category as some of Hitchcock’s later classics.  After all, Hitchcock’s prime was really in the 1950’s, when he pretty much could do no wrong.  The Hitchcock of the 1930’s was still trying to figure things out and probably didn’t have the same kind of control over his vision that he soon would have.  At the same time, The 39 Steps is still a very effective movie, and still holds up as a great example of early suspenseful story-telling.  Robert Donat makes a fine leading man in the film, playing the determined and resourceful Hannay with a lot of charm.  He embodies that “every man” sensibility that Hitchcock always loved to put into his main characters, and he gives the character a believable intelligence throughout.  The writing also retains much of that classic British wit that Hitchcock’s films are known for, especially the earlier ones.  It’s clever, without being too complicated, and it treats it’s audience intelligently, never resorting to spelling things out for us.  Hitchcock’s macabre sense of humor is also present in the movie, albeit more subdued here than in many of his later films.  Also, the black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous, showing Hitchcock’s keen eye for composition.  If the film has a major flaw, it’s the fact that it feels small.  The film is relatively short at 86 minutes, compared to Hitchcock’s later films which ran on average around 2 hours.  While it does fill it’s run-time with plenty of story, it feels like more could have been built upon the mystery.  Instead, the majority of the movie gives us the typical man on the run scenario, which gets worn out by the 1 hour mark.  Thankfully, the film finishes strong with a very memorable climax.  It’s clear that Hitchcock was still trying to figure out the “wrong man” narrative here, and this film feels like a good test run for his later movies like North by Northwest.

Criterion, of course, treats all of it’s new titles with special care, and Hitchcock’s 39 Steps is no different.  Given that the movie is very old, it needed to be given a special restoration in order to bring out the best possible image quality.   The 39 Steps was selected as a Criterion title very early on, and was released on DVD way back in the late 90’s.  The image quality of the DVD release was passable, but nowhere near what the film should actually look like.  So, when Criterion prepared the film for a Blu-ray re-release in 2012, they gave the movie a proper high-definition restoration.  The results of Criterion’s efforts are astounding.  The film, naturally, hasn’t looked this good in years.  While still maintaining the grainy look of a film it’s age, the restoration has helped to boost the levels of sharpness and detail to the image.  Color contrast is always something to take into consideration when restoring a black-and-white film, and here the  gray levels contrasted with the blacks and whites feels a lot more natural and authentic.  The sound quality has also been cleaned up, and is now free of the pops and buzzes that usually plague an older soundtrack.   Is it the best possible picture and sound that we’ve seen from Criterion.  Unfortunately, the original film elements were unavailable to Criterion, due to the original negative being lost to time.  But, Criterion did the absolute best that they could here, and the film has thankfully been cleaned up and preserved digitally for all of us to enjoy.  Given that it’s Hitchcock, the standards are pretty high, and Criterion does the legacy proud here.

The Criterion edition also features a good sampling of bonus features, many of which were carried over from the original DVD.  First off, there is an Audio Commentary by Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane.  Ms. Keane’s commentary is more of a lecture style analysis of the movie’s larger themes and the film’s lasting legacy.   This isn’t the kind of commentary track that you listen to for a breakdown of how and why the film got made, like so many director’s commentaries do.  This is more like the kind of analysis that you would hear in a college level film course, which is not bad if that’s something that interests you.  Marian Keane’s analysis is informative and well-researched.  Just be warned that it’s also very scholarly as well, and in no way substitutes for a behind-the-scenes look.   A documentary included on the disc does however go into the making of the film a little bit more.  Also carried over from the DVD is Hitchcock: The Early Years, which details the director’s early films made in his native England, including this one.  A complete radio dramatization is also present on this edition, created in 1937 for the Lux Radio Theatre show and starring Ida Lupino and Robert Montgomery in the roles of the main characters.   New features added exclusively for the blu-ray edition include footage from a 1966 interview with Hitchcock done for British television, where he talks a little about the making of this film.  Also, another Hitchcock scholar, Leonard Leff, recorded a visual essay, which goes into further detail of the film’s production.  Rounding out the special features is a gallery of original production design art, as well as an excerpt from another interview of Hitchcock, conducted by another filmmaker, Francois Truffaut.   All in all, a very nice set of features that makes this set feel very well-rounded.

If you consider yourself a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock, chances are you already are familiar with The 39 Steps and it’s place within the master’s entire filmography.  While it may not be as exciting as North by Northwest, or as chilling as Psycho, or as emotional as Vertigo, it nevertheless represents a nice stepping stone towards some of those later masterpieces.  I certainly look at it as a prime example of Hitchcock’s earliest work, because you can see all the elements there that would come to define his entire career.  It’s movies like The 39 Steps  that really illustrate perfectly the maturing of a filmmaker, and even though it doesn’t reach the heights that we know now that Hitchcock was capable of, it still stands on it’s own as a fine piece of entertainment.  I certainly recommend it for anyone who just wants to see a good old fashioned spy movie.  There were many others like it at the time, but few feel as effortless in it’s suspense as The 39 Steps does.  There are other Criterion editions of films made during Hitchcock’s early years, and they are worth checking out too, like 1938’s The Lady Vanishes (Spine #3) and 1940’s Foreign Correspondant (#696), which was the last film Hitchcock made before his move over to American cinema.  The 39 Steps unfortunately has been overlooked over the years as a defining film in Hitchcock’s career, so this Criterion edition is a welcomed spotlight for a movie that is deserving of it.  It’s always great to see where the beginnings of a great filmmakers style came from, and The 39 Steps is the kind of movie that shows that off perfectly.  Hitchcock holds an honored place in the Criterion Collection, and hopefully that spotlight will continue to extend to many more of the director’s great early films.

39 bluray

The Good Old West – Why Modern Revisionist Westerns are Failing

true grit

If there has been a literary and cinematic contribution to modern society that can be classified as distinctively American, it would be the Western.   Just as Shakespeare is to “merry Olde” England and anime art has been to Japan, the Western has become America’s most impactful addition to world culture, without ever loosing it’s national identity.  And like most other international contributions to popular culture, it has evolved over time; though still maintaining it’s genre characteristics.  No matter the setting or the circumstance, a Western will always involve characters exploring an untamed frontier and will usually center around a protagonist who is the very definition of a rugged individualist; more often than not, a gun-totting cowboy.  While the American West was naturally the setting for these stories over the years, the thematic elements of the genre don’t necessarily need to be tied to it.  The amazing thing about American Westerns is how much of an impact they’ve had on other forms of cultural art over the years; sometimes in unexpected places.  Akira Kurosawa for one drew a lot of inspiration from American Westerns when he made his Samurai films like Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961), both of which were then reimagined by Hollywood, becoming The Magnificent Seven (1960) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964) respectively.   But as society began to change in the later part of the 20th Century, so did the genre, and there became a need to reexamine what the American West was really about.  Thus, we got the era of the Revisionist Western, which has defined much of the genre for the last several decades.  But, with the recent failures of movies like Cowboys vs. Aliens (2011) and The Lone Ranger (2013), as well as this year’s A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014), is it possible that this era of revision is coming to an end?

The Western has become popular the world over, but what is it exactly about the genre that we like.  I think that it’s the idea of the frontier that we find so appealing.  It puts into perspective how little an impact we have individually in the world, thereby raising the tension when that same world tests you.  Because of this, the Western hero would be defined by very out-sized personalities, and this is probably why so many of them are still admired today.  When Westerns became a staple of the rising market of Hollywood, the actors and filmmakers responsible for making them likewise became larger than life figures in modern culture.  John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, and Jimmy Stewart; these men became the faces of the American West to the culture at large and they still embody the ideal of the rugged individualist today.  Likewise, whenever someone wants to recreate the image of the American West in a painting, a photograph, or a film, they will usually follow the visual eye of John Ford, Howard Hawkes, or Sergio Leone.  Orson Welles once said that he found his visual inspirations for his iconic Citizen Kane (1941) by watching John  Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) over and over again.   Because of these men, we have a definitive idea of what a Western is, and what it can be.  But, even the great masters weren’t tied down by the confines of their own genre either.  Of course, the Western is something that can be reinterpreted many times over, and filmmakers like Ford and Hawkes used their movies to tackle a variety of issues in society, including racism (The Searchers), paternal abuse (Red River), and civil rights (Cheyenne Autumn).   But, Westerns would go through a whole new phase once people who grew up on them began to turn their own eyes on the genre.

The 1960’s marked the beginning of the counter-culture movement, which changed the outlook on all American culture in general.  The Western was reexamined during this time, and many new filmmakers saw the glorification of the American West in these films as a bad thing.  To many of them, the rugged individualist embodied by actors like John Wayne represented a view of America that was looking backwards and was impervious to change.  The plight of the American Indian became a popular theme in this time and many modern filmmakers wanted to highlight that untapped perspective in their movies.  One film in particular that explored this idea was Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970), which starred Dustin Hoffman as a white man raised by an Indian tribe in the old West.  The film is a very interesting reversal of the conventions of the Western, where the native people are the main heroes, and the cowboys are the villains.  While the movie still focuses on a white protagonist, it nevertheless puts emphasis on the Native American people that few films had done up to that point, and it was a revision that was very welcomed in-deed  at the time.  If you haven’t seen it yet, do so.  It’s a very interesting and surprisingly funny movie at times, and it treats the Native American characters humanely, while at the same time making them flawed and complex as individuals.  What Little Big Man also represented was a shift in the genre that would go on to define the Western for many years to come.  Suddenly, revision became the popular form of telling a Western story, though if you look at each film individually, you can still see the inspirations of past masters at work in these films.

The most popular kind of revisionist Westerns at this time were also the bloodiest.  Sam Peckinpah took the Western to a whole other level of brutality when he created his classic The Wild Bunch (1969).  This film resonated with audiences because it seemed to reflect more accurately how the world really was.  In The Wild Bunch, there are no clear winners or losers.  There was no nobility in the rugged individual in this movie; everyone was a dirty, rotten scoundrel.  In this film, moral relativity defined who we were rooting for, since all the characters were flawed in some way.  And with a bloody shootout at the very end that puts all other shootouts to shame, we saw a reflection of the true brutality of violence in the old West.  The fact that this movie came out during the height of the Vietnam War was no accident.  Peckinpah wanted audiences to see how brutal gun-fighting is and show that the gun-ho attitude that the American soldier picked up on after watching the Westerns of the past was probably not the best thing to bring into battle.  Other negative aspects of the old West were also reexamined during these heyday years of the Revisionist Western, and that included the awful history of racism in the old West.  This was the focal point of Mel Brook’s classic Western comedy Blazing Saddles (1974).  Blazing Saddles manages to effectively breakdown the issue of racism in a Western by exploiting the Hell out of it.  No other film mocks the conventions of the Western more effectively than Saddles, and it is still one of the funniest movies ever made.  And while these movies attempt to break apart every traditional Western convention,  the still manage to hold up as an effective Western themselves, which shows just how resilient the genre is.

However, over time, even a revisionist view of the genre tends to lose steam after a while.  While this type of re-interpretation of the genre continued to define much of it’s output in the last few decades, even through the hands of one of it’s icons (Clint Eastwood and his Oscar-winning Unforgiven (1992)), there came a point where the Revisionist Western itself became commonplace.  I believe this started around the time Dances With Wolves (1990) came into theaters.  While Dances With Wolves was an enormously popular movie, and a winner of multiple Oscars, it has unfortunately lost some of it’s luster over time, mainly due to the fact that we’ve grown too accustomed to a movie of it’s type.  Kevin Costner’s film depicts the life of an American soldier sent out West to live among the Native American tribes of the Western plains.  The film, while still having it’s heart in the right place, today seems a little too heavy-handed in it’s messaging, and at times almost pandering to the Native American audience.  The noble white man character has unfortunately become one of the less effective elements of the Revisionist Western, and it’s mainly because it takes away from the voices of the actual native people themselves.  What started with Dances With Wolves has continued on through other films in the genre, and it’s made the Western more predictable and less exciting over the years.  I understand the inclination to show the plight of an oppressed people through the eyes of an outsider, but in the end, I only think the decision is made because Hollywood thinks that Middle American white audiences won’t accept a movie unless they see someone they can identify with in it, especially if they are also a bankable star.  But, more likely, a big problem with these movies is that they put message over story, and in the end, that’s something that will hurt a film, no matter what the genre.

For some time after Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven, the Western began to disappear from movie theaters.  This led to many filmmakers trying to revive the genre by trying to do different things.  This included mash-ups like Cowboys vs. Aliens, which put a sci-fi spin on the traditional Western aesthetic, as well as the mega-budget flops like Wild Wild West (1999) and The Lone Ranger (2013), both of which seemed to think that a lot of eye-candy would be enough to bring in audiences.  Instead, it only made more people weary of the genre.  What has surprisingly been the reason for these movies’ colossal failures has actually been audiences desires for authentic Westerns.  The traditional Western, even with all it’s flaws has become desirable again to many viewers.  This is reflected in the fact that the only Westerns that have been a success in recent memory are remakes of classic Westerns in the past.  This includes the Russell Crowe and Christian Bale headlined 3:10 to Yuma (2007), which was a remake of the Glenn Ford classic, as well as a remake of the John Wayne classic, 1969’s True Grit, made by the Coen Brothers in 2010.  Both films are traditionalist Westerns right down to their DNA, albeit with modern flourish.  But, what is surprising about these films is their incredible runs at the box office, both making well over $100 million domestic.  True Grit (2010) in fact is the highest grossing Coen Brother movie ever,  making more than all their previous movies combined.  Could this be the beginning of another reversal in the genre, or is it just a reflection of how well made these two remakes are?

I think that audiences indeed are beginning to re-embrace the traditional Western once again.  This is reflected again in the popularity of older Westerns, as well as the remakes that we see today.  John Ford’s The Searchers saw one of the biggest jumps ever in recognition by the  industry when AFI made an updated list of their Top 100 movies; moving from #96 to #12 in ten short years.  Other people are also claiming Western movies as among their favorites and even the most successful revisionist Westerns today are ones that still honor the traditions of the older classics.  I’m sure Quentin Tarantino’s true intention behind the making of Django Unchained (2012) was to make an exciting Western, and less so to do with it’s statement on slavery.  That’s something that all the great Westerns have done in the past; be entertaining.  When a movie becomes too concerned with rewriting the conventions of the genre (Wild Wild West), or tries to mock it without understanding what the punchline will be (Million Ways to Die in the West) it leaves audiences cold and more inclined to just return back to what they like in the first place.  As Mel Brooks has said before, “We mock the things we love,” which means that to make a good revisionist Western, you have to be a fan of it as well.  In many ways, deconstructing the Western genre is what has kept it alive all these years.  Even Revisionist takes are now considered defining representations of the genre, like Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).  Any revision that doesn’t respect the past is doomed to be forgotten, and unfortunately that’s what has defined most recent Westerns.  If anything, my hope is that the classics will endure and still give inspiration to aspiring filmmakers, so that the Westerns of the future will still keep the Spirit of the West alive.

Game Over – Why So Many Video Game Movies Fail

Super Mario Bros

Just as going to the cinemas has become a cherished pastime for many people over many generations, we are now seeing a whole new type of media beginning to take charge and become an even larger part of our everyday lives.  For forty years now, we’ve seen the rise of video games, from crude blocks of color on the TV to full blown blockbuster releases that even rival what’s coming out of Hollywood today.  It’s quite a eye-opener when you see the newest Grand Theft Auto title out-grossing every film released in the same year, but that’s what’s happening in our culture  today.  Of course, Hollywood has taken notice, and really they’ve been trying to figure out gaming culture since it’s very inception.   The only problem is that there is no easy way to translate a video game experience to the big screen.  When we watch a movie, we expect that the story will guide us to a conclusion, but when playing a video game, we’re the ones who guide the story.  Sure, there are narrative driven games, but many others are built around the randomness of our own choices, and that’s what makes them unique.  Now that game programming has become as sophisticated as it is, video games are starting to eclipse what film-making is capable of.   With this kind of popularity, it’s only natural that Hollywood would want to capitalize on it.  The only problem is that by doing so, they lose some of that unique experience that video games gives us.  Not surprisingly, most video game inspired movies have failed over the years and that is due to them either trying too hard to be like the original game, or trying too little, or being so removed from the original concept that it becomes something else entirely.

When looking at all the problems that video game movies have, it helps to see where things went wrong at the very beginning.  In the early years of video gaming, the titles that were coming out were very primitive.  It wasn’t until titles like Donkey Kong came into the market that you could see any semblance of narrative.  Naturally in these early years, Hollywood became more interested in the gaming culture than with the games themselves.  Back in those days, nobody thought that 3D graphics and online play would be a reality, so everything was more or less about getting the highest score.   The lack of foresight may have been a reason why Hollywood never jumped headlong into video game culture and as a result, they’ve seen game development become competitive with their own industry.  The 1980’s showcased some examples of this exploitation of the culture as we saw many films feature Arcades as popular hangouts.  One film in fact centered entirely on the Arcade subculture of the 80’s; 1989’s The Wizard, starring The Wonder Years’s Fred Savage.  The Wizard offers a interesting window into how the world perceived video games years ago, but it’s also firmly a product of it’s time as well, treating a video game contest no differently than any other over-coming the odds narrative back then; the game itself was irrelevant.  However, there was one film at the time that actually did explore the possibilities of the gaming world; Disney’s Tron (1982).  The film explored the idea that a video game could be fully interactive world inhabited by simulated people based on our own selves.  In other words, it’s depicting something like a MMO (massive multi-player online) game, resembling World of Warcraft, that we all know today.  Though limited by what it was capable of in it’s time, Tron has proved to be a very forward thinking film, and naturally something that groundbreaking ended up being a failure at the box-office.

When Hollywood began to take video games seriously is at the point when video games started to have characters and narratives that people gravitated towards.  The early 90’s brought us the early beginnings of video game franchises, with the likes of Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog being among the biggest names.  And while Hollywood was smart enough to jump on board and bring some of these popular characters to the big screen, they unfortunately didn’t know exactly how to do it.  When you look at the original Super Mario game, you can see how difficult it was to translate.  Basically it’s a red-suited man jumping into pipes and breaking blocks with his head; not much to draw from to make a 90-minute film.  When 1993’s Super Mario Bros. made it to the big screen, it was instantly slammed by both critics and fans of the game alike.  What ended up happening was that with no clear idea of how to adapt the Mario game accurately, the filmmakers just threw in every weird idea they could think of in the end, making the finished movie an incomprehensible mess.  Instead of the big-headed Goomba minions from the game, we get the large-body, small head Goomba guards who look more creepy than silly.  Not only that, but we also get actor Dennis Hopper looking all sorts of confused while playing King Koopa, as a sort of lizard-human hybrid.  The only thing the movie got right was the casting of Bob Hoskins as Mario, who does indeed look and act the part well.  But, what Super Mario Bros. represented most was a prime example of Hollywood not understanding what a video game was and how to make it work as a film.  This would be systemic of most the 90’s video game adaptations, and namely for most if not all adaptations thereafter.

The big problem with video game adaptations today is that it’s impossible to make something interactive feel the same in a non-interactive form.  For the most part, a video game translation ends up just feeling like a cut-scene that never ends.  For gamers, the narrative is there to move them from one level to the other, all with the goal of reaching the end and beating the game.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that the story is irrelevant.  In fact, most video games have very complex and involving story-lines, particularly those that have come out in the last decade or so.   The reason why video game movie narratives suffer is because of the limited run-time.  Movies are only allowed on average about two hours to tell their entire story, so if you try to take a video game story that takes 10 times that amount to unravel and condense it into a film narrative, you’re going to have to lose quite a bit in the process.  As a result, most video game adaptations lack character development and spend way too much time setting up it’s world.  A prime example of this would be Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001).  The Final Fantasy series is heralded by both gamers and casual fans for both it’s colorful characters and it’s complex story-lines.  But the reason why these games are so complex is because they take many hours to complete; sometimes 50 hours or more.  If you take 50-plus hours of development and try to condense that same kind of complexity into a two-hour film, you’re going to get something that’s crushed tighter than bedrock.  That’s the fatal flaw of The Spirits Within, a film that’s so concerned with it’s world’s complexity (and being one of the first movies ever to utilize photo-realistic CG human characters), that it leaves everything else by the wayside, making the whole film feel very hollow, particularly with the characters.  While many of these films try to noblely translate beloved story-lines to the big screen, there’s just no possible way to contain it all.

Another problem is the fact that many video game movies try too hard to be just like the titles their trying to adapt.   This usually is evident in some of the film’s characterizations.  Video games can sometimes get away with generic and usually archetypal characters, because by playing the game, we are infusing ourselves into the story, so a blank-slate protagonists is usually a good thing.  When it comes to the movies, however, lack of character can pretty much sink a film.  This is especially painful when characters that people love in the games are translated so poorly by under-qualified actors.  The Mortal Kombat films in particular gives us the right look of the characters with no other depth beyond that.  That’s the unfortunate result we get from adapting something as simple as a fighting game.  There’s little character development to begin with, so if you take that directly to the big screen and do nothing to build upon that, you’re going to get very bland characters.   The same can be said for pretty much every other video game movie out there.  Also, another way that a video game adaptation can fail is by trying too hard is in capturing the look of the video game.  This is especially true of more recent video game movies.  With the advances in CGI over the years, simulated reality is becoming ever more convincing, and the lines between video game graphics and cinematic graphics is growing closer and closer.  Because of this, the limitations of film-making again come into play.  A video game lets the visuals unfold organically and lets the player examine it all at their own leisure.   A movie has to cut around and limit what the viewer sees.  That’s why video game movies that try to look so much like their predecessors, like 2005’s Doom and 2006’s Silent Hill suffer, because that interactive element is removed, making the viewer feel less involved.

Not that every video game adaptation has been a complete failure.  There have been exceptions over the years that have managed to make a dent at the box-office, even if it’s a minor accomplishment.  Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil series has been going strong for six films now; some of which people say are actually better than the more recent games in the wanning series.  Also succeeding is the Tomb Raider adaptations, both of which star Angelina Jolie as the popular archaeological adventurer, Lara Croft.   What I actually think is interesting about the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) is that it represents how to do a video game movie right.  While no masterpiece, the film is nevertheless competently made; finding a way to make Lara Croft work as a character on the big screen in a stand-alone film.  The movie doesn’t try to recreate the video game experience (how could it, with those Playstaion 1 graphics?), it merely translates the character’s personality into a narrative that can be told cinematically.  It doesn’t try to put the cart before the horse like so many other video game movies do, and let’s the character be the star rather than the world she lives in.   Naturally, because of this, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is one of the few films based off of a video that has been profitable.  Of course, it helps that the world it’s adapting is not particularly complex.  Sometimes a modest title is the best kind of game to adapt, which is probably why shoot-em-ups are popular adaptations today, like 2007’s Hitman  or a racing game turned movie like Need for Speed (2014).

Of course, sometimes the opposite comes true, when a filmmaker or studio takes something that can translate perfectly to the big screen and uses the completely wrong approach.  That was the case with the Disney produced Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010).  Prince of Persia was already a very cinematically infused game before this movie came out, so Disney should’ve had an easy time making it translate onto film.  Unfortunately with a miscast lead (Jake Gyllenhaal), a un-focused director (Mike Newell), and an out-of-control production budget (est. $200 million), the movie failed on every level and sullied not just the reputation of it’s creators, but it also sullied the Prince of Persia brand overall.  No game in the series has been released since, and probably never will, at least until the memory of the movie has gone away and the demand for the game returns.   At the same time, there are also people out there who only adapt video games as a way of exploiting them.  Sometimes it’s as harmless as an up-and-comer who wants to showcase what they can do by taking a little known video game title and putting their own spin on it.  And then, you have someone like Uwe Boll, who’s whole career has been defined by cheap adaptations of video games like Bloodrayne (2006) and Alone in the Dark (2005).  The only reason he adapts video games, turns out, is because of a tax loophole in his native Germany that let’s him make more money off failed adaptations of licenced games.  So, not only is he getting rich off of bad movies, but he’s also trashing games that people have loved for many years, making it the worst kind of exploitation.  The wrong approach usually ends up being worse than a confused or bland adaptation, because in the end, it’s the original games that suffer and the legacy that they carry.

So, even with all the failure that have come in the past, will there ever be a video game movie that will actually become a huge hit.  I would like to see it happen, but it probably never will, because there are just too many fundamental differences in the way to keep it from ever happening.  For one thing, a movie can never capture the interactive experience that a video game presents.  And with more and more video games growing visually more complex, it’s clear that Hollywood filmmaking is starting to face some tough competition.  But, to the industry’s credit, they have found a way to embrace video game culture over the years, and make it a part of itself.  Many studios have their own software development departments and it’s very common to see tie-in video games released alongside major Hollywood releases.   Even still, Hollywood still hasn’t given up on trying to make a big-screen translation of a video game work.  Adaptations of Assassin’s Creed, World of Warcraft, and even Angry Birds are in the works, though I highly doubt any of these will feel exactly like the original games.  In reality, I think Hollywood is better off looking at what the games mean to us, rather than take a literal translation approach.  I strongly recommend films like Tron and Wreck-it Ralph (2012), both really fun movies that look at video games as a lived in world rather than as a form of diversion.  Also, I strongly recommend the documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2008) which brilliantly presents the impact video games have on our culture.  One day, Hollywood will figure out the formula and hopefully deliver a great video game adaptation someday.  I can tell you this; I’ve been waiting my whole life for that Legend of Zelda movie, and that wait is still going strong.

 

Maleficent – Review

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Coming after a long string of other fairy tale adaptations in theaters, the new movie Maleficent brings us a retelling of the classic tale of Sleeping Beauty, only this time told from an angle that we haven’t seen yet.  As you can tell from the title, this version is less about the slumbering princess and instead is centered primarily on the one who cursed her in the first place; the dark fairy, Maleficent.  Naturally this fantasy film comes from the Walt Disney Company, who are taking their inspiration not only from the original fairy tale, but from their own 1959 animated classic as well. Celebrating it’s 55th anniversary this year, Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) is a film that has withstood the test of time and has become a favorite to many, including myself.  Sleeping Beauty actually holds a special place in my heart because it was one of the very first movies that I ever got to see in a movie theater.  It was during a 1985 re-release that I had my first experience with the tale and the 2 1/2 year old me was forever changed by it.  That movie, along with another Disney classic I saw that same year (1961’s 101 Dalmatians), probably are what helped propel me towards becoming a lifelong film buff, and because of this, I still hold the film in very high regard.  The same is probably true for many other people too across the globe.
Walt Disney created the original Sleeping Beauty at a transitional time for animation.  Walt Disney saw that tastes in styles were changing in the late 50’s, so he decided to take a whole new approach to Sleeping Beauty by giving it a very unique look.  Styled to look like medieval tapestry art, the movie was unlike anything the studio had ever made before and it still looks magnificent in all it’s 70 mm widescreen glory.  But,  it’s art style isn’t what has become the film’s biggest triumph over the years.  Instead, that honor goes to the creation of it’s villain, Maleficent.  Drawn by legendary animator Marc Davis and voice brilliantly by actress Eleanor Audley, Maleficent is an all time great antagonist; one by which all other Disney villains are now measured against.  In fact, her popularity has grown so much over the years that she has since become the unofficial antagonist of the entire Disney community.  You’re more likely to see her sparing with the likes of Mickey Mouse and friends today than with characters in her original film.  This is evidenced in other mediums by the company that she has also featured in, like the Kingdom Hearts video games and the Fantasmic nighttime shows at the Disney Parks.  Not to mention the numerous merchandise made available with her image on them.  Given a legacy like this, it’s not all that surprising that Disney would feature her prominently in their brand new live-action adaptation.  What is surprising, however, is that Disney would take their most popular villain and try to make her sympathetic.  Given how much she’s beloved by many people like me as someone we love to hate, it’s a risky revision to undertake, and one that does have to face some extra scrutiny from fans.
What is unique about this movie is that it looks at all of the events of the story from Maleficent’s perspective.  It begins with her childhood as a powerful yet innocent fairy living in a magical kingdom called the Moors.  Soon she meets a young human boy from the neighboring kingdom named Stefan, who becomes her closest companion as they grow older.  But when they become adults, they grow apart.  Maleficent (played as an adult by Angelina Jolie) soon finds her kingdom at war with the neighboring King, who grants his crown to anyone who can kill the winged Maleficent.  Stefan (played by Sharlto Copley) betrays his friend by cutting Maleficent’s giant wings off her back, leaving her both grounded and defenseless.  Stefan becomes the new king thereafter and Maleficent vows vengeance, which she soon enacts once Stefan and his Queen have a child.  At the presentation ceremony, Maleficent places a curse on the child, ensuring that she will be put into a death-like sleep once she turns 16.  The years pass and Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) grows up far from Stefan’s care in the woods, raised by three fairies (played by Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple).  Unbeknownst to the others though, Aurora is also being looked after by Maleficent herself, who surprisingly grows attached to the young girl and begins to regret the curse that she made out of anger.
So, as you can tell from this premise, the movie actually takes the angle of making Maleficent less of a villain and portrays her more as a hero.  Stefan on the other hand is cast as the villain of the story, with Aurora still caught in the middle.  This may be jarring to people who have grown up with the original movie, but it’s a reversal that is not without precedence.  The Broadway musical Wicked has become a popular retelling of the Wizard of Oz tale, centered around the maturity of the villainous Wicked Witch of the West.  In that retelling as well, the popular villain is treated more sympathetically, becoming something of a misunderstood hero, while the Wizard is cast as the cold-hearted villain.  It’s a reversal of roles that works perfectly in that story, but unfortunately works less so here.  I’m not saying that it can’t be done.  It’s just not given as much care as it was with Wicked.  Unfortunately, it also takes away a bit from what made Maleficent so memorable in the first place.  She’s really at her best when she’s at her worst; being an unruly source of terror that strikes fear into all.  The original animated classic did that perfectly and it’s mainly why she is remembered so well today.  In this version, the movie hits it’s high points when Maleficent is allowed to be menacing, especially in the presentation of Aurora scene, which is almost lifted directly from the original film, including some of the same dialogue.  That moment works very well and unfortunately it’s an aspect that is not carried throughout the entire film.
I have to say that the biggest problem with this movie is it’s inconsistency.  Tonally, it is all over the place, not knowing whether to be dark and brooding or fun and lighthearted.  Sometimes the shifts in tone are so abrupt, that it will be absolutely distracting.  I attribute this to the screenplay, written by Linda Woolverton, who does have a long legacy with the Disney company, having drafted scripts for both Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994), as well as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010).  Unfortunately, her grasp on a story-line isn’t as refined as it was on her early work.  While not as needless complicated in plot as Wonderland was, Maleficent still feels incomplete, particularly when it comes to the characterizations.  Maleficent gets fully fleshed out in the film, but Aurora and most other characters do not.  I feel like another draft of the script could have worked some of these problems out, because there are some genuinely good ideas present there in the script.  Also problematic is the direction.  The film is helmed by first-time director Roger Stromberg, an Oscar-winning visual effects artist and production designer whose work we’ve seen in films like Avatar (2009), Alice in Wonderland (2010), and Oz, The Great and Powerful (2013).  Unfortunately, by giving direction over to a novice more comfortable with visual effects, you’re most likely to have a film that looks pretty, but feels hollow, and that’s unfortunately what happened here.  The inconsistency in tone is probably the result of Stromberg being unsure about what kind of movie he wants to make, and it shows.
But the movie isn’t un-salvageable.  What does hold up is some of the performances, particularly Angelina Jolie as the titular character.  Jolie’s involvement probably helped to give this film a boost during development and thankfully the potential in that casting is not wasted.  Thanks to some rather good make-up work by the great Rick Baker, Jolie is spot-on as the iconic character.  She matches the original look of the character perfectly and she plays the character well, clearly relishing the grandiose nature of the part.  She also makes the transitions between Maleficent’s darker and lighter sides feel more natural than they do in the script, which helps to keep the film from falling apart.  One other character that proved to be surprisingly effective is her companion  Diaval (played by actor Sam Riley).  In the original film, he was personified as a pet raven named Diablo, a character with very little complexity.  Here, he shifts forms between human and raven, and even into other creatures, depending on the needs of Maleficent.  What could have been a throwaway servant character actually turns into a thoroughly likable individual.  He works perfectly off Maleficent as her companion, bringing out some of the movies most genuinely humorous moments.  I give the movie a lot of credit for taking a minor character from the original film and reshaping him into a more involved personality that actually contributes something good to the overall story.  Honestly, I would have preferred more scenes with Diaval and Maleficent, since they are the only characters that had any sort of chemistry throughout the whole movie.
Unfortunately many of the other characters aren’t as well balanced as those two.  King Stefan is a mixed bag as a character.  Sharlto Copley does give a solid performance, especially in the later scenes where he begins to descend further into madness.  Unfortunately, he gets the shorter end of the stick when it comes to the role reversal of the story line.  Taking Maleficent’s place as the villain, King Stefan feels a little out of his element.  He doesn’t have the same kind of menace that Maleficent had in the original film, and he never comes across as truly terrifying.  It’s a missed opportunity with the character and it unfortunately reduces the impact that the final showdown at the end could have had.  Elle Fanning’s Aurora is likewise a one-dimensional character, but to the movie’s defense, she was pretty bland in the original film as well.  Most problematic though are the depictions of the Three Good Fairies.  In this film, they are very obnoxious and incompetent characters, who seem more preoccupied with squabbling with each other than looking after the princess.  At times, these characters almost made the movie insufferable to sit through, particularly when you think about how well portrayed they were in the original movie.  The fairies were actually the heroes of the original film, and I for one love their characterizations from that version; especially Merryweather.  God I wish Merryweather was in this movie.  I don’t understand why the filmmakers chose to go that route with the characters, but I can tell you that it did the movie a big disservice.
So, did the movie honor the legacy of the original, or did it insult it?  I do have to say that at certain points, this movie did come very close to losing me.  Only the strength of Angelina’s magnetic performance helped to pull this movie off of the ledge.  I do think that there is a great movie in there wanting to come out, but is hampered by a lackluster script and uneven direction.  The performances help to make this film bearable, and I do think Angelina Jolie could not have been more perfectly cast.  The film unfortunately doesn’t break the recent trend of tired, CGI heavy fairy tale adaptations for the young adult crowd that have failed to live up to their potential.  Following in the wake of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and 2012’s two failed attempts at the story of Snow White (Mirror, Mirror  and Snow White and the Huntsman), Maleficent likewise fails and instead becomes a jumbled mess trying to be too many things at once.  Albeit, this version does do some things right and probably is the best movie out of this trend that we’ve seen, but that’s not saying much.  Hopefully, Disney gets the tone right when they release their live action adaptation of Cinderella next Spring, directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Cate Blanchett as the wicked stepmother.  As far as this movie goes, I’d rather stick with the original that has been a part of my life since childhood.  At least in that version, the “mistress of all evil” is allowed to be as such.  I greatly prefer the dark side of the character, though I don’t discredit this movie for trying something different.  It’s not a terrible take on the character, but I feel like it could have been done better.
Rating: 6/10

Top Ten Worst Adam Sandler Movies…So Far

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How do you sum up the movie career of one Mr. Adam Sandler?  The former Saturday Night Live alum has had a film career that is surprisingly resilient, despite also being responsible for some of the worst movies in recent memory.  But as a result of relying so heavily on formula, Adam Sandler has inadvertently closed off his range as a performer, becoming something as a one trick pony rather than a quality actor.  Believe me when I say that I believe that Sandler is indeed a talented performer, and sometimes even a great actor.  When given a meaty role to work with (which rarely happens), like he had in the woefully under-appreciated P. T. Anderson film, Punch Drunk Love (2002), he can actually be quite good; Oscar-worthy even.  But, unfortunately no one pays to see a serious Adam Sandler performance.  It’s the goofy Sandler that brings in the money.  And you know, there was a time when that was welcome too.  Sandler’s first two headlined films, Billy Madison (1995) and Happy Gilmore (1996) are both very funny, and surprisingly still hold up nearly 20 years later.  But recent years have brought a steep decline in the quality of Sandler’s cinematic output, and it only seems to be getting worse.
One thing I noticed from his movies is that most of them more or less interchangeable  and follow the same kind of formula.  They usually involve Sandler acting with a man-childish personality; they contain numerous jokes involving bodily fluids; they usually feature actor Rob Schneider as an offensive racial stereotype; and they often try to shoehorn an uplifting message at the end as some sort of concession to make audiences less repulsed by what they just saw.  At the same time, I noticed that Sandler is looking less interested in these films with each new release; like he’s phoning it in just until the check clears.  Given that he’s also the producer of his movies, through his production company Happy Madison, it’s clear that he’s continually putting less effort into his onscreen presence, instead using his movies as a means to keep his affluent lifestyle going.  This is most evident in his recent films, which includes taking trips to exotic locations.  Is this his way of saving money by getting a paid vacation?  Whatever motivates Adam Sandler’s movies, it’s very clear that most of them feel lazy, or even worse, offensively insulting to it’s audience.  What follows is my list of the 10 worst films he has made to date, and what ended up surprising me was not what made it in, but rather what made it off the list; because there are just so many bad ones.
10.
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JUST GO WITH IT (2011) 
One of the other notable trends in Adam Sandler’s film career is his proclivity for remakes.  This particular one is based off of the 1969 Walter Matthau/ Ingrid Bergman film Cactus Flower.  That movie was a charming story about middle aged professionals pretending to be a couple so that the Matthau character can impress a much younger girl that he’s got his eyes on, played by a very young Goldie Hawn in a performance that won her a Supporting Actress Oscar.  Ingrid Bergman played the other professional in question, and the film was about her coming out of her awkward shell and becoming more of the ideal woman for Matthau’s character, making the entire film a nice complex character driven comedy.  Adam Sandler took that same set-up, removed everything that made the original charming and replaced it with pointless slap-stick and formulaic plotting.  By no means the most offensively horrible Sandler film, but probably by far his laziest.  There is absolutely no effort put into this movie.   The 45 year old original will probably make you laugh more frequently.  The only person who comes away from this film with any kind of dignity is co-star Jennifer Aniston, and even she looks like she would rather be doing something else.
9.
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BULLETPROOF (1996)
The first cinematic flop of Sandler’s career, this movie was released right on the heels of the enormously popular Happy Gilmore.  I for one remember being excited to see this movie because of how much I enjoyed Sandler’s first couple films, and the fact that this was his first R-rated flick.  That fact alone should have signaled this as a must-see, because it meant that we were going to see Sandler completely unrestricted.  Instead, what we got was a weak comedy/action thriller, with a completely charmless performance by Mr. Sandler himself.  Bulletproof is trying to be like a reverse of the 48 Hours movies, with Sandler filling in the Eddie Murphy role and fellow comedian Damon Wayans in place of Nick Nolte, only it fails on every level.  The action scenes are lame, the comedy is weak, and the characters never amount to more than simplistic caricatures.  While Adam Sandler wasn’t really known for his range just yet (or ever), this film should have been a great opportunity for him.   Instead it just made us long for more movies like Billy Madison, which is what we got for better or worse.  Perhaps Adam Sandler’s lack of originality in his later films can be linked all the way back to the failure of this one, because it forced him to not play outside of his comfort zone.  That, or because he just didn’t have a fun time making this, which isn’t surprising.
8.
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THE LONGEST YARD (2005)
Yet another Adam Sandler remake, only this time he takes on a sports movie classic.  The Longest Yard was a 1974 film about a former football pro (played by Burt Reynolds) serving time in prison and who is forced by the warden to form a team of inmates who will take the field against an opposing squad made up of the prison’s sadistic guards.  It was a smart, character driven movie about teamwork and overcoming oppression through peaceful means.  Adam Sandler’s remake on the other hand took out all the subtlety of the original and again replaced it with more slap-stick humor and stereotyped characterizations.  What’s more upsetting is that Burt Reynolds came on board this film to play the coach of the team, in a lame attempt to give this movie some credibility and pay homage to the original.  Sandler’s version again lacks effort and feels more like a Cliff Notes of the original and better movie.  Add to this some of the more annoying aspects of Sandler films, like ethnic and gay stereotypes, a self-centered main character, plot conveniences, and yet another Rob Schneider cameo, and you’ve got a movie that doesn’t pay homage to a better movie, but instead disgraces it.
7.
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GROWN UPS 2 (2013)
The first Grown Ups (2010) was no masterpiece either, but the fact that Sandler and Co. managed to eek out another flick from the already weak premise of the original film just makes this movie all the more unnecessary.  The first film was about four high school friends reconnecting in their adult years during a Fourth of July weekend trip.  The second movie is exactly the same plot, only it’s Spring Break and the four friends (Sandler and co-stars Chris Rock, David Spade, and Kevin James) must contend with aggressive college kids who have invaded their favorite vacation spot.  Not surprisingly, this is not a plot driven film.  The movie is more or less a collection of unfunny vignettes involving crude body humor and pointless slapstick.  Sadly, everyone in this movie looks again like they are phoning it in, and of course with a movie centered around vacationing, you can probably guess the true purpose behind the making of this movie.  And it’s too bad because I know some of the other actors here can be really funny, Chris Rock and David Spade in particular; Kevin James less so.  But, given that this is a Sandler-produced picture, it is indicative of the larger problem of Adam Sandler movies in that it’s just playing to the lowest common denominator with no real purpose other than to make the star more money.
6.
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MR. DEEDS (2002)
Yet another remake of a classic film, and this one is by far the worst.  The original movie, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) is a beloved masterpiece that starred Gary Cooper as a simple, working man who inherits a fortune and is raised into the upper-class overnight, leading to a lot of misunderstandings and heartwarming life lessons.  Directed by Frank Capra, who won an Oscar for his work on the film, the movie was an intelligent and humorous look at class differences in Depression-era America and a brilliant expose on the true nature of the American dream.  Adam Sandler of course had no use for smart socially commentary in his version and he instead used the premise to just show off his trademark brand of sophomoric humor, once again.  Why Sandler thinks he can improve upon these beloved classics is beyond me.  The gap between the original and Sandler’s version is most pronounced here.  Gone is the touching portrayal of Cooper’s original protagonist, replaced by an obnoxious man-child who enjoys showing off his frostbitten foot.  Just what the original needed more of: frostbite.  Do yourself a favor and watch the original masterpiece instead.  The fact that Adam Sandler thought we wouldn’t know about the original at all is enough to earn this terrible movie a spot on this list.  And it just get’s worse from here.
5.
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CLICK (2006)
What’s worse than doing a lazy and crude remake of a classic story?  It’s taking a wholly original idea and spoiling any potential it had.  That’s what happened with Adam Sandler’s high-concept comedy Click.  The movie follows the story of a man who gains control over his complicated life when he gains possession of a magical remote control, given to him by a strange salesman played by Christopher Walken.  Naturally, this leads to some hi-jinks where Sandler has near God-like control over time and space, and it typically is crude in nature.  But that’s not where the movie falters.  What happens is that the movie has a huge 180º turn in tone, where the story goes from silly to deeply serious.  Sandler’s character begins to lose control of the power given to him and his life flashes ahead faster than he can appreciate it, creating a very dour and dark final act.  This whiplash in tone is what ultimately sinks the movie.  Had the film stayed true to this dramatic tone, it could have worked, but given that it’s following about 90 minutes of crude, sophomoric slapstick, it feels like a cheat meant to shoehorn sincerity into a movie where it doesn’t fit.  Not only that, but the shift is handled so poorly, that the movie becomes this weird mishmash of two very different types of movies.  Probably more than any film on this list, this is the one that disappointed audiences, and myself, the most.
4.
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JACK AND JILL (2011)
This film on the other hand did not disappoint.  Pretty much from the moment everyone saw the trailer to this movie, we all knew that this was going to be terrible; and it certainly was.  The movie mainly exists to let Adam Sandler act in drag and the result is one of the most obnoxious characters that he has ever created; and that’s saying something.  The Jill character will grate on you from the moment that she appears to the very end.  Even worse is the fact that Sandler’s Jack, the twin brother, is also a self-centered jerk, so we get two awful characters from Sandler for the price of one.  The plot again serves no purpose other than to string together many different comic situations, most of which are not funny.  One really odd subplot has Jill being pursued by a lustful Al Pacino.  Yep, the Al Pacino.  The film also shows the characters taking a cruise, so once again, we are pretty much watching another one of Adam Sandler’s vacation videos.  Unlike most of Sandler’s other comedies, however, this movie actually under-performed at the box office, showing that even his fan-base were growing tired of the shtick.  It lived up to it’s already notorious reputation, but there’s wasn’t anything particularly reprehensible about it, unlike the following movies.
3.
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THAT’S MY BOY (2012)
You’ve got to really question a comedic performer’s sensibilities when he bases the premise of his film around the issue of pedophilia.  That’s exactly what happened with That’s My Boy, and it’s an uncomfortable subtext that just sabotages everything else in this film before anything else takes hold.  At the start of the film, a pre-teen boy is seduced by his attractive and much older teacher and the two end up having sex and producing a child from this.  The teacher goes to jail and the irresponsible boy ends up raising the baby, and this is all played for laughs.  Would it be funny if the genders were reversed?  It’s not funny either way, and the movie seems to think that this is no big deal.  Sandler plays the boy as a grown man, and he’s again resorting to his obnoxious man-child persona, only with none of the charm of Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore.  The child he raised is grown-up as well, and is played here by Sandler-in-training Andy Samberg, who at least attempts to play a likable character.  Unfortunately nothing in the movie escapes the reprehensible nature of it’s premise and everything that follows is not funny enough to make us forget it.  I don’t usually dismiss movies when they poke fun at something taboo, but this is one example where the film clearly crossed the line and fails to make up for it with anything worth watching.
2.
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EIGHT CRAZY NIGHTS (2002)
You would think that someone as cartoonish as Adam Sandler would fit perfectly in an animated film.  Unfortunately, Eight Crazy Nights is just as irritating as the other movies on this list.  What makes this movie worse is the fact that it is posing as a movie made for all ages, and in addition, tries to emulate classic Holiday specials from the past.  How the Grinch Stole Christmas this is not.  In fact, I would take the Grinch over the jerk that Sandler voices here any time.  Named after a verse from Sandler’s popular “Hannakuh Song,” Eight Crazy Nights follows the story of a dead-beat who slowly relearns the meaning of the holiday season after interacting with a couple of ostracized care-givers.  What could have been a heartwarming story is undermined by Sandler’s typical crude and gross-out humor, which I’m sure upset a lot of family audiences who probably were tricked into seeing a PG-13 movie because it was animated.  Surprisingly, the animation in this movie is really good (done by the same team that worked on 1999’s The Iron Giant, believe it or not) which makes the fact that it’s wasted on poop jokes and racial stereotypes all the more infuriating.  In addition, Sandler provides the voices of all the main characters, including the elderly care-givers who come off as horrible Semitic caricatures.  Even Mel Gibson wasn’t this insulting to the Jewish people, and Sandler himself is a Jew.  The whole thing is a baffling assortment of awful ideas and easily the worst holiday themed film ever, if not worst animated one too.
1.
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I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK & LARRY (2007)
And now we come to the absolute worst movie of Sandler’s career.  Why is this movie the worst?  Where to start?  The story is about two heterosexual firefighters played by Sandler and Kevin James who pretend to be gay so that they can take advantage of the State of Massachusetts then newly legalized same-sex marriage and marry each other in order to receive family medical benefits as a couple.  The movie centers around this deception and is merely just an excuse to throw in every gay joke in the book.  Now, the fact that they are poking fun at homosexuality is not what makes this film so offensive, though it certainly contributes.  There are plenty of comedies that exploit gay humor well (Mel Brook’s The Producers (1968) for example).  What makes Chuck & Larry so reprehensible is the fact that it tries to pass itself off as a pro-gay film, with some shoehorned message at the very end.  The idea that Adam Sandler thought he was making a movie favorable towards gay rights after exploiting every tired stereotype beforehand is what truly makes this film so hate-able.  If you wanted to make a positive movie about gay marriage, you should show a gay character having his or her rights restricted and then reclaiming it by the end.  That’s not what Sandler did.  Instead most of the plot centers around how uncomfortable the two leads feel doing things that gay men and women are completely comfortable with.  Sure, Sandler probably sympathizes with the causes of gay people, but this movie clearly shows that he made no effort trying to understand them, and that’s why this film is not only bad, but insulting as well.
So, these are my choices for the worst movies of Adam Sandler’s career.  Of course, given that he’s still relevant in Hollywood, there will probably be many more to come.  This weekend brings the latest entry in his filmography called Blended, costarring Drew Barrymore and it looks as formulaic as all the others.  But, like I said before, when Adam Sandler leaves his comfort zone, his films can actually sometimes be good.  The reason why his movies tend to suffer is because they try to please too many people, being both crude but also heartwarming, which creates an uneven mixture.  When Sandler films work, it’s because they are either genuinely heartwarming (2002’s Punch Drunk Love and 1998’s The Wedding Singer) or they completely embrace their insanity (2000’s Little Nicky and 2008’s You Don’t Mess With the Zohan).  And again, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore are still funny today, so that does say something.  If Sandler want’s to be taken seriously as a performer, he probably should look at his collective work and recognize what has been missing all these years.  Well, now that I’ve ripped apart Adam Sandler for an entire article, I thought that I should conclude with some moments that I genuinely enjoyed from the man.

Godzilla (2014) – Review

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It’s hard to believe that a giant, spiked lizard could have such a long lasting legacy on the big screen.  This year marks the 60th anniversary of the King of the Monsters, Godzilla, and there could be no better way to celebrate that milestone than with a big new blockbuster film.  First seen in the original Japanese movie Gojira (1954), Godzilla was clearly a product of his time.  For a nation still reeling from destruction by a nuclear bomb, Godzilla was a symbol of Japan’s fears about it’s own insecurity in the post-war years.  Godzilla’s reign of terror in those early films was clearly meant to represent the dangers of nuclear warfare, but his presence could have also represented any other kind of force of nature that is well out of mankind’s control.  That’s probably why Godzilla has enjoyed such longevity on the big screen.  He represents a timeless menace that everyone can fear, no matter what time or place he exists.  That, and the fact that Godzilla movies are almost always fun to watch.  To date, there have been 28 Godzilla movies in total, most of them made in his native Japan by the Toho film company.  The original film still holds up as a classic thriller, even with the crude special effects.  It proved to be so popular in fact that it was one of the first Japanese post-war films to have a wide international release; even premiering in most American first-run cinemas, thanks to an Americanized cut that presented the original movie with actor Raymond Burr spliced in for narration.
Of course, most Godzilla movies look dated now because special effects have become much more sophisticated over time.  Today, it would look silly to have a man in the Godzilla costume walking around and destroying a model set, but that’s what worked well enough 60 years ago.  Now with CGI becoming the norm in visual effects, it makes much more sense to have the creature be animated; it makes him look far less artificial (to a point).  American filmmakers have certainly looked at the creature for inspiration in their own larger than life monster movies, and to date there have been two major attempts by Hollywood at making their own films centered around the big green brute.  The first attempt was Roland Emmerich’s 1998 adaptation, which is a classic example of how not to make a Godzilla movie.  Godzilla (1998) is a notoriously bad film.  It puts much more emphasis on it’s uninteresting human characters, relies too heavily on goofy humor, and it redesigned the monster to the point where it was no longer recognizable.  In fact, Godzilla looked more like a rejected design for one of the T-Rex’s in Jurassic Park (1993), a movie that this Godzilla was clearly trying to emulate and failed.  Sixteen years after this notorious misfire, Warner Brothers has now released a new Godzilla (2014), and it sticks much more closely to the formula that has been used for 60 years in Japan.  Did it work this time around?  Kinda.
The story is nothing that we haven’t seen before.  It’s basically the same plot of every Godzilla movie before it, only done on a much more global scale.  The story begins with nuclear engineer Joe Brody (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) witnessing the destruction of his power plant by some unseen force.  After losing his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) in the accident, Joe becomes obsessed with finding out the truth about what happened.  Fifteen years pass and Joe is confronted by his Army-trained, bomb expert son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who begrudgingly follows him back into the quarantined area of the accident.  There they find what caused the mayhem in the first place, and it’s now just waking up from it’s slumber.  A giant, spider-like creature called a MUTO (mysterious unidentified terrestrial organism) starts wrecking havoc and begins making it’s way across the Pacific Ocean.  Ford quickly makes his way back to America in order to help stop the advancing threat, but not before being informed by scientists, Doctors Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Graham (Sally Hawkins), that another monster is also following the Muto across the Pacific; it’s natural predator and ancient adversary: Godzilla.  What follows is a race against time between the monsters and the humans before an inevitable showdown in the city of San Francisco.
Naturally, with a film based off of a legacy like this one is, it’s going to have to face some scrutiny with comparisons to other films.  The movie, for me, is a mixed bag.  Is it bad?  Not really.  I can see a lot of people enjoying this one, especially when it gets to the climatic battle scenes.  Also, as far as Americanized Godzilla movies go, this one is light-years better than the Roland Emmerich version.  This movie, for one thing, doesn’t resort to using goofball hi-jinks with it’s human characters in order to entertain it’s audience.  This movie treats everything and everyone involved with the utmost seriousness; something that it probably does a little too well.  Let, me state right away what my biggest issue was with this movie, and that is it’s pacing.  It takes this movie a long time to build up steam towards what it intends to deliver.  For most of the film, you witness more of the aftermath of what these creatures are doing rather than the actual destruction.  There are a lot of instances where the movie cuts to news footage of the mayhem, which isn’t as effective as it would’ve been if the movie had actually let us see it up close.  Now, I do understand that most of the early Japanese Godzilla movies were structured like this as well; saving all the best action moments for the end.  Unfortunately, the movie isn’t effective enough during it’s monster-less moments to make this kind of structure work.
I do blame this more on the shoddy editing rather than on the strengths of the performances.  The human actors here unfortunately have little to do, other than to react to what’s going on.  The movie moves around so much that character development suffers, and many of the main cast usually just fall into stock characterizations.  Aaron-Taylor Johnson suffers the most because of this in his performance.  He’s a fine actor, but the movie never gives him the chance to show off anything interesting in his persona, so he just resorts to becoming your standard every-man protagonist.  Ford really doesn’t have anything to contribute to the movie until one course of action towards the very end, and even still, it’s nothing compared to what’s going on with the monsters.  It’s surprising that a cast this prestigious, filled with many award winners, comes across as so bland in this movie.  Only Cranston and Watanabe stand out in their roles, and just barely.  It may be a little unfair to make the comparison, but this is why a movie like Pacific Rim (2013) works so much better.  That movie managed to balance out the human story-lines with the fighting monsters plot perfectly, giving both the time and focus they needed to work and it kept everything simple.  In this movie, you’ll start getting impatient because the plot chooses to hold off on it’s monsters, which just makes 2/3’s of this movie feel like one, prolonged tease.
But, when it does get to that final 1/3 of the movie, it is indeed spectacular.  At that point, the film knows who the star is, and he doesn’t disappoint.  If people come away from this movie satisfied, it will be because of the final showdown at the end.  One of the many reasons why this Godzilla is so much better than the Emmerich version is because he looks the way that Godzilla should look.  While slightly modified, this Godzilla looks more like the classic version.  One thing that this movie does improve upon from all other Godzilla movies before it is the sense of scale given to the monsters.  His presence in this movie will show you exactly why he is called the “King of the Monsters.”  When Godzilla makes his first appearance in the movie, it is a chilling moment, and it perfectly illustrates why we love the monster in the first place.  You know you’ve done a good job with bringing the creature to life when Godzilla makes the audience break out in applause at certain points.  Also, I give the filmmakers a lot of credit for keeping Godzilla’s one-of-a-kind roar in this movie, because he wouldn’t be the same without it.  Even though the movie makes you wait long stretches for him, it does do right by the character.  That’s mainly why the film can be infuriating at times, because all you want is more of the big guy.  Maybe the filmmakers wanted to be careful and not spoil the character with too many scenes, but I think this is where caution should have been discouraged.
The film is especially well crafted, and does work well at portraying the mayhem caused by the monsters in the movie.  The film was made by Gareth Edwards, a former visual effects producer who’s only directed one feature prior to this one; the far more modestly budgeted Monsters (2010).  While I think Mr. Edwards still needs to refine his skills as a story-teller, I do believe that he has a remarkable vision when it comes to the scope of this movie.  He especially avoids the tiresome Michael Bay convention of shaky camera work, and lets the action play out in tightly controlled compositions.  We thankfully get very long and detailed looks at the monsters, which helps the audience comprehend what’s going on in every scene.  And again, the director’s sense of scale is very well displayed here.  The design team also deserves a lot of credit, helping to make this film feel right at home with the look of the original movies, while at the same time retaining that Hollywood gloss that we’ve come to expect from a big tent-pole film.  The Muto creatures are a nice hybrid of that modern design and traditional Japanese aesthetic that the movie is trying to accomplish.  I often thought that they looked like armor-plated versions of the Cloverfield (2008) monster, and they compliment Godzilla very well and make great foes for him in the end.  Where the movie falters in it’s story, it does indeed make it up in it’s visuals, and it can definitely be said that Godzilla has never looked better on the big screen.
If this movie becomes a big success, which indeed seems very likely, I’m sure we’ll see more Hollywood films centered around the big, green guy again.  My hope is that the filmmakers actually puts more of the focus on the creatures themselves, and less on the plots concerning the humans.  Maybe the filmmakers were living by the motto that less is more with regards to monster movies, but I think they went a little too far.  Yes, the showdown at the end is worth the wait (especially when Godzilla shows off his special trick), but it’s a long way to get there.  When your movie is named after a certain monster, you’d expect to see plenty of him throughout the run-time.  Oddly enough, more screen-time is devoted to the Mutos in this movie than Godzilla himself.  This is indeed how the original Godzilla movies structured, but I think it may have worked better in the movie’s favor if it broke from tradition in this sense.  More interesting human characters would’ve helped too.  It’s probably me being nit-picky, but I feel like the movie could’ve been better if it did something a little different.  That being said, it does a fine job living up to the legacy of the franchise and it will continue to make Godzilla a relevant presence on the big screen for many years to come.  It certainly does that better than the awful 1998 version.  Godzilla has been an influential force on western-based monster movies for years, such as Cloverfield (2008) and last year’s Pacific Rim.  Now the King of Monsters is here to be a force in American cinemas on his own, and let’s hope that Hollywood will serve right by him right in the future.
Rating: 7/10

Evolution of Character – King Arthur

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A good old fashioned medieval tale is something that has always been a favorite sub-genre in Hollywood.  Whether it is based in history or in the realm of fantasy, epics surrounding the adventures of kings and knights go back to the very beginning of cinema.  You can track an interesting progression through the years as the Middle Ages would inspire swashbuckling adventures throughout early cinema; starring the likes of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn.  These movies soon led to the grandiose period epics of the 50’s and 60’s, where history and pageantry reigned on the big and wide screens.  In the 80’s, we got the boom of Fantasy epics, with movies like Dragonslayer (1981), Ladyhawke (1985), and Legend (1986) borrowing heavily from the Middle Age aesthetic.  This then led to a period of gritty historical films set in the same time period, like Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1992) and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995).  The fantasy genre made yet another return with the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the 2000’s and today we are seeing the same genre hit it big on television with Game of Thrones.  Suffice to say, whether it’s fantasy or history, we just love watching medieval stories.  And no character better defines that bridge between the historical and the fanciful on film than the King of Camelot himself: Arthur Pendragon.
King Arthur’s legendary status is interesting because no one quite knows where it exactly started.  Some believe that Arthur is based off of a real 6th century ruler in early British history, while others believe that he’s merely a fictional character transplanted by the invading Normans in their literature.  Whatever his origin, Arthur has nevertheless become one of the most iconic characters to ever come out of medieval culture.  To this day, the character still symbolizes the ideal of true kingship, and he has usually served as the model for most monarchs in literature.  While there is no set original text from which to adapt Arthur’s story from, there have been some plot elements that have been turned into canon over time; such as his pulling Excalibur from a stone to prove his true claim to the throne, his rivalry with the witch Morgana, his friendship with the wizard Merlin, and his fall after the betrayal of his queen Guinevere.  These elements have become expected in most Arthurian stories, though not every adaptation is necessarily bound to it.  In fact, film adaptations of the King Arthur legend are about as varied as any other genre of film.  It’s actually very fascinating to see how many unique ways you can make a movie about the same character.  Below, you will find my examination of some of the most notable film adaptations over the years, and how they’ve managed to define our own modern view of King Arthur.
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MEL FERRAR from KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE (1953) 
 
Although King Arthur and his knights had made appearances in many silent adventures and serial swashbucklers of Hollywood’s early years, it wouldn’t be until this particular feature that the kingdom of Camelot would be fully realized.  The film is notable because it was the first widescreen production made by MGM, and it’s clear why this production holds that distinction.  It’s a grand, epic scale retelling of the Arthurian legend shot on location in England with a cast of then A-list movie stars.  However, like most of these early productions, the film is less about Arthur himself and more about the knights who serve him.  In particular, the love story between Lancelot (Robert Taylor) and Guinevere (Ava Gardner) takes center stage.  The film does give Arthur a prominent place in the story, however, and it does show his strength as a leader.  Mel Ferrar looks the part well enough, with his chiseled face and commanding stature, but unfortunately he never is quite able to shake off his New Jersey accent.  This makes his performance a little distracting at times, and unfortunately causes the film to suffer.  Though the movie is beautiful to look at, it is firmly a product of it’s time.  King Arthur would have to wait a bit longer to receive his due on the big screen.
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WART from WALT DISNEY’S THE SWORD IN THE STONE (1963)
 
Finally, a film devoted entirely to the character of King Arthur.  Based off the novels The Sword and the Stone and The Once and Future King by English author T.H. White, the story follows the adventures of Arthur during boyhood, before he knew of his noble lineage and was working as a squire to lesser knights.  In the books, he is tutored by the wizard Merlin and soon is led to the mythical Sword in the Stone, from which he pulls Excalibur and proves he is the true heir to the throne.  Given that Walt Disney Pictures is known for their fairy tale adaptations, this one seemed a natural choice for them.  Interestingly though, the film is unlike most other medieval tales and it’s even unique among Disney movies as well.  This is a film about the relationship between a teacher and his student, which is something that you rarely find central to any movie’s plot.  Of course, there is magic involved, but most of the film is devoted to Wart (as Arthur is called in this movie) learning that there is more to life than just being a knight; lessons of wisdom that will someday influence him when he becomes king.  It may not be one of Disney’s most heralded films, but there is still plenty to like about it.  It’s colorful and the characters’ relationships are wonderfully constructed, especially between Wart and Merlin.  Also, the film is unique for it’s sense of humor.  It was the first animated film to use anachronistic humor and pop culture references, something that has become common in animated films since, like Aladdin (1992) and Shrek (2001).
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RICHARD HARRIS from CAMELOT (1967)
 
With a legendary, grandiose story like the tale of King Arthur, it seems natural that it would inspire a musical retelling.  Adapted from the same T.H. White novels and the Lerner & Loewe Broadway musical, this grand scale production was made at the tail-end of the epic musical craze of the 50’s and 60’s.  Stylistically, it is very different from what you would expect of the era, given it’s grittier production design and darker cinematography.  The film feels a little disjointed because of this, given Lerner & Loewe’s bouncy musical score.  The odd juxtaposition was probably made because of the changing styles of the times, as late-sixties film-making became less light-hearted.  Unfortunately, none of the Broadway cast made it into this film, including it’s original stars Richard Burton and Julie Andrews.  This film did however do right by the casting of Arthur himself.  Richard Harris gives a commanding performance as the character, balancing both the charming aspects of Arthur as well as the menacing aspects.  And he can sing very well too.  The film focuses again on the betrayal of Guinevere and his trusted knight Lancelot, both played by real-life couple Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero; but here the focus is on the turmoil Arthur feels over losing trust in those he loves, which Harris captures beautifully.  Though not as good of a musical movie as it could have been, there’s no doubt that King Arthur was served well by Mr. Harris’ performance.
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GRAHAM CHAPMAN from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)
 
As odd as it may seem, the men of Monty Python may have come closer to authentically portraying the Arthurian legend than anything before it.  At least they certainly got the dinginess of medieval times down exactly.  It would make sense in this time period that Arthur would be identified as King because “he hasn’t got shit all over him.”  The film is a comic masterpiece and one of the most oft-quoted movies of all time.  I also love the way that it both celebrates Arthurian legends, and mocks them relentlessly, often at the same time.  Graham Chapman perfectly encapsulates this kind of idea in his portrayal of Arthur, making the king both noble and incompetent simultaneously.  And in this kind of medieval world, every iconic element of Arthur’s story gets sent-up.  Whether it’s hacking a stubborn Black Knight to pieces, or searching for an elusive shrubbery, or tossing Holy Hand Grenades, nothing is seen as too ridiculous in this story, and it’s all hilarious.  At the same time, the movie points out that the very nature of these legends are ludicrous, especially as role models for modern government and traditions in British society.  They make as much sense today as a man playing dress up and pretending to gallop around while clapping coconuts together. Truly, how can one be called a king just because some “watery tart threw a sword at you” in some “farcical aquatic ceremony?”
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NIGEL TERRY from EXCALIBUR (1981)
 
Director John Boorman proudly took the biggest step forward in making a genuine epic film centered entirely around King Arthur.  His Excalibur is seen as one of the movies that started the fantasy film Renaissance of the 1980’s, and the film holds up very well today.  It embraces every single aspect of the Arthur legend, from both the mystical elements, personified in the characters of Merlin (Nicol Williamson) and the evil Morgana (Helen Mirren), to the historical authenticity of it’s time period.  Nigel Terry also portrays an Arthur that we’ve never seen before; that being the reluctant warrior who grows into his role of king and ultimately earns the trust of all his knights through strength of wisdom.  Terry’s performance may be the best version of the character we’ve seen overall because of the many nuances that he brings to it.  This film is one of the best examples of the genre because of the way that it embraces everything that we come to expect from a fantasy and pushes it into directions that we never expected it to go.  Boorman is known for his very gritty and sometimes odd-ball style, best shown in his early thrillers like Deliverance (1972) and Zardoz (1974).  Excalibur feels right at home with those movies, and has an almost dream-like quality to it’s narrative and production design.  If you want to see the most earnest attempt to make an authentic film about King Arthur, than this will be the movie that’ll satisfy all your needs.
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SEAN CONNERY from FIRST KNIGHT (1995)
 
First Knight is a noble attempt to craft a very ambitious Arthurian tale, but it falls short in many ways.  Again King Arthur is relegated to the background as Guinevere (Julia Ormond) and Lancelot (an oddly miscast Richard Gere) takes center stage with their secret romance driving most of the plot.  The film also dismisses most of the mystical elements of the legend as well.  Merlin is no where to be seen, and traditional villains Morgana and Mordred are replaced by disgraced Prince Malagant (Ben Cross), who proves to be a very ineffective antagonist.  Not only that, the film’s tone is all over the place, probably because it was made by former comedy director Jerry Zucker (of Airplane and Naked Gun fame) who probably didn’t have the confidence to make a period drama.  So why is this film still a noteworthy adaptation of the Arthurian legend?  Because it has Sean freaking Connery as King Arthur.  The man carries the weight of this film on his shoulders, and is easily the best thing about this movie.  Connery just looks absolutely right playing the aging Arthur.  If you made a shortlist of all the actors who were tailor-made to portray the King, Connery would certainly be near the top.  If only this film had been made while Sean was still in his 007 prime, but still, he makes the most of his time in this movie and the film is better off for it.  First Knight is a flawed retelling of the legend, but it does deserve credit for giving us the ideal version of King Arthur that we’ve always wanted.
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CLIVE OWEN from KING ARTHUR (2004)
 
The most recent adaptation of the legend gives us what is probably the most historical version of the character to date.  This movie takes us to the very beginning of Arthur’s origins, showing him as a Roman legion general who defends the people of Britain from invading Vikings once the Roman Empire’s influence has left them.  Accompanied by his centurion knights including, Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), and allied with the Saxon queen, Guinevere (Keira Knightly), they repel the Viking king Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard) as his vast army.  Once again, we get the right kind of actor in the role of Arthur.  Clive Owen is definitely likable here and he has a commanding presence on screen.  Unfortunately, the film seems more preoccupied with the action sequences in the narrative rather than the character development.  The film was made in the post-Gladiator (2000) era, and it certainly feels like a movie crafted a little too quickly to cash in on the success of that previous film.  While I do credit the movie for at least trying to do something different with the legend of King Arthur, I just wish they had made something that was a little more interesting.  Instead, we get a flimsy plot holding together a collection of action scenes.  Clive Owen does what he can as Arthur, but the movie never gives him any room to delve deeper into the character’s motivations.  In the end, we end up with an ambitious take on the legend that never really lives up to it’s potential.
Looking at the whole of King Arthur’s trips to the big screen, it’s very interesting to see how varied the different versions are.  I, in particular, found the ones that centered on the King himself to be the ones that stood out the best.  Boorman’s Excalibur best personifies how to adapt the legend to the big screen, though other individual films do give us worthy versions of the king as well, like in Sean Connery and Richard Harris’ versions.  I think the best way to portray the legend of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is to fully embrace all the aspects of the story; even the most fanciful versions.  After all, Arthur is a larger than life character and his story should reflect that.  I particularly love all the inclusions of Merlin in the story-lines, especially when the movies focus on their long standing friendship.  You take that away and you make Arthur just another ordinary king.  I’m sure we’ll see many more adaptations of the legend in the years to come, and hopefully more of them will follow along with that same principle.  Long live King Arthur.

Focus on a Franchise – Spider-Man

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Super hero movies dominate our movie landscape right now, with Marvel Comics clearly leading the charge.  And if there was a character in the Marvel stable that has truly achieved iconic status both on the page and on the screen, it would be Spider-Man.  Created in 1962 by the great writer/editor Stan Lee and fellow artist Steve Ditko, Spider-Man has since become Marvel’s most prolific character, and has even challenged DC comics’ Superman and Batman in terms of international popularity.  Naturally, with a character as popular in comic book form as Spider-Man is, it seems natural that he would also make an impact on the big screen as well.  The task of bringing the web-slinger to the big screen was given to director Sam Raimi in the early 2000’s and his first attempt was not only a success, but it even shattered box office records, becoming the first movie ever to make over $100 million in it’s opening weekend.  Raimi would go on to make two more Spider-Man movies, with mixed results.  Although Raimi is no longer behind the reigns of the Spider-Man franchise, the impact of his trilogy can still be felt today in the recent crop of superhero movies.  This week, I will be looking at the Sam Raimi directed films in the Spider-Man franchise, and how they work individually as movies and as part of the whole Spider-Man mythos.
First of all, one has to look at what makes a Spider-Man movie work in the first place.  It has to center around the coming-of-age story of it’s main protagonist and Spider-Man’s alter ego, Peter Parker.  Parker is unlike most other super hero characters in that he’s still not a fully matured man yet in his story-line.  He’s a fresh out of high school teenager who’s still trying to balance a normal social life while at the same time fighting crime, thanks to his extraordinary abilities.  His powers are also not genetically inherent like they are for other superheros like Superman and Wolverine.  They come to him after a genetic mutation he receives due to a bite from a radioactive spider.  These are the fundamental aspects that each Spider-Man story-line must follow, and for the most part, each Spider-Man film has stayed true to the origin.  The varying degrees of success come from whether or not the movies are able to let an audience buy into the believe-ability of the character.
Casting also matters, especially when it comes to Spider-Man himself, and Sam Raimi gave those honors to actor Tobey Maguire.  While I’m mixed on Mr. Maguire as an actor on the whole, and I think he may have been a bit too bulky to play the slimmer looking Spider-Man that I remember in the comics, I do think he brought out the charm in the character, and he definitely nailed the socially awkward and nerdy aspects of Peter Parker in his performance.  The same care with the casting also factors in with the many foes that Spider-Man faces, and some of those characters are what really makes or breaks these kinds of movies.  Each film does take the character seriously, mostly, and you can tell that Raimi set out to make genuinely fun movies.  So, let’s take a look at how they work individually.
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SPIDER-MAN (2002)
 
The triumphant arrival of Spider-Man to the big screen.  After years of trying to get this film off the ground, Marvel finally brought their beloved character to cinemas in a movie that was not only ambitious, but unique.  It follows the comic origin pretty effectively, perhaps even a bit too much so.  Peter Parker visits a science exhibition with his classmates Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) and Harry Osborn (James Franco), and unexpectedly runs into contact with that fateful spider bite.  The next morning, he discovers that he has gained extra-ordinary abilities like super strength, the ability to stick to walls and shoot webbing from his wrists, and most importantly something called his “Spider Sense,” which alerts him to oncoming danger.  Peter selfishly uses his powers for financial gain at first, until his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) is killed by a criminal that Peter unknowingly ignored.  From that point on, he vows to use his powers to fight crime, while hiding his identity to protect those he loves, particularly his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), who helped raise him.  Things get complicated when Harry’s father, a corporate tycoon and mad scientist Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) gains powers of his own and becomes the supervillain, The Green Goblin.
It’s clear to see why this movie became such a success when it first came out.  It was colorful, action packed, and had a unique sense of humor.  The action sequences hold up and the look of the characters is particularly well done.  Spider-Man’s costume, in particular, is perfect.  Practical and iconic, and yet still something that you could believe was put together by a teenager, it’s a costume that instantly makes the character pop on the screen.  The Green Goblin’s costume is even more spectacular, departing a bit from the look in the comics, while still feeling right for the character.  The helmet itself even becomes a character in the movie, with Norman Osborn’s inner monologue taking on a life of it’s own through the helmet.  Sam Raimi’s inventiveness with his camera work has become his trademark, and the film hits it’s high marks whenever the director lets loose and has a little fun with any particular angle or set-up.
Unfortunately, the movie feels a little flat apart from these aspects.  It’s not a bad movie by any means; it’s just underwhelming.  I always thought that this first Spider-Man felt a little hollow; like it hadn’t found it’s footing yet.  Sam Raimi certainly made a pretty film, but his grasp on the story feels a little routine.  Remember how I mentioned that the movie followed the origin a little too closely; that’s because the movie feels like it’s going through the paces as you watch it.  It’s a problem that most origin story-lines have in superhero franchises, given all the heavy exposition that each has to deal with.  This film unfortunately succumbs to this as well.  The performances are also sort of lackluster, because no one in the film seems to understand their roles yet.  Dafoe especially suffers in this movie, playing over-the-top as the Green Goblin in a way that doesn’t quite work.  He actually is more effective without the mask as Norman Osborn.  The scenes where he speaks to himself through a schizophrenic conversation do work well, and they are some of the movie’s highlights.  Overall, the first Spider-Man is a noble beginning for the character, but one that is too flawed to be considered one of the all-time greats.
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SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)
 
Sam Raimi’s follow-up sequel is a whole different story.  Spider-Man 2 is far and away the best movie to date in the whole franchise, and a text book example of how to make a great superhero movie.  Not only that, it probably stands as one of my all-time favorite superhero movies ever; right alongside The Avengers (2012) and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.  Quite a step up from the disappointing first film.  In this movie, Peter Parker struggles in his new life as a crime fighter.  Unfortunately, he’s lost the friendship he had with Harry Osborn, who is vowing revenge against Spider-Man for the death of his father.  Mary Jane’s budding career as an actress is also creating friction between her and Peter.  On top of this, Peter is beginning to lose control over his powers, which seem to be decreasing.  He seeks help from a mentoring scientist named Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), who unfortunately succumbs to a failed experiment that causes metallic tentacles to be fused to his spine.  Overcome with vengeance and obsession, Dr. Octavius becomes Spider-Man’s new nemesis, Doctor Octopus, and he unfortunately begins causing mayhem around town at a time when Peter is unsure whether he still has it in him to be the hero.
This movie works in almost every way.  It’s well written, well acted, and the action scenes are phenomenally staged.  Sam Raimi even changed the screen size for his franchise, from the 1.85:1 aspect ratio for the first film to the 2:40:1 widescreen for the sequel, knowing that this movie was going to be much bigger than before.  First of all, let me highlight the performances, particularly Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus, or Doc Ock as he’s commonly known.  His performance as the villain works in every aspect where Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin failed.  Doc Ock has a couple over-the-top moments, but they are balanced by many other scenes where the character is cold and menacing.  Not only that, but the character has a fully developed arc that helps carry the film along.  The special effects team also did an amazing job complimenting Molina’s standout performance with their animation of Doc’s mechanical arms, which become characters in their own right.  A stronger villain also helps to elevate the effectiveness of the hero as well, and Tobey Maguire’s performance as Spider-Man is infinitely better in this movie.  Supporting characters also shine, especially J.K. Simmons as Peter Parker’s blusterous boss at the Daily Bugle newspaper.
And, of course, there are the exceptional action scenes.  An extended sequence on top of an elevated train car is an especially memorable part of the movie, and probably one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed.  If the movie has any flaw, it’s that the final act loses steam towards the end.  It’s not a bad ending, but it kind of lacks punch after that amazing train sequence.  Otherwise, everything else is done perfectly.  Spider-Man 2 holds together mainly because it finally lets Sam Raimi tell the Spider-Man story that he’s always wanted to do, and not have to be burdened by cumbersome exposition.  He also brought on board a veteran screenwriter, Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People, Paper Moon), to refine the dramatic aspects of the story, and this move helped to make the movie not only exciting, but poignant as well.  Best of all, it certified that the Spider-Man franchise wasn’t just popcorn-faire, but also a landmark series with at least one genuine classic to define it as such.  Unfortunately, this achievement would be short-lived.
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SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007)
 
Spiderman 2‘s reception was so positive that it made many people excited for what was to come next.  Unfortunately Spider-Man 3 proved to be a big letdown.  I wrote an article last year about “Second Sequels,” and how many of them usually don’t work.  This movie would be a perfect example of that, and the reasons are very fascinating.  Apparently Sam Raimi and Columbia Pictures, the company financing the movies, were never on the same page when it came to how the next Spider-Man movie should go; particularly when it came to the choices of the villains.  Sam Raimi wanted a more classic villain like Sandman, while Columbia executives wanted to use the fan favorite villain Venom.  What we got in the final film was both, both awkwardly shoe-horned together into a story-line that would have worked better with just one of the two.  Not only that, but the movie also wraps up the Harry Osborn plot that’s been building over the entire series, so you have a film with three different villains.  Sufficed to say, the movie suffers from having to cram in too much into too little time.  Not only that, but it takes away from Peter Parker’s development, which could have had an interesting arc centered around him finding the alien symbiote virus.
Where does the movie falter?  There are too many things to count.  Perhaps the biggest blunder of the movie is the way it handles the character of Venom.  Never mind the horrible miscasting of Topher Grace as the villain and his alter ego Eddie Brock.  What should have been one of the most iconic villains in the whole franchise is given just 10 short minutes of screen-time towards the end of the movie, and has little significance to the plot as a whole.  It’s clear that Sam Raimi didn’t want the character in the movie at all and was just fulfilling an obligation to the studio.  Unfortunately, by promising to use the character, he sabotages any real attempt to make the story work as a whole.  It’s clear that Sandman (Thomas Hayden Church) was the character that Raimi wanted at the center of the movie, and his purpose in the plot makes no sense once Venom starts to become a factor.  Many of the other problems within the film are all pretty notorious (Emo Peter Parker, the omelette making scene, the dreaded dance number), but the fundamental problems with the movie stem pretty much from the compromised nature of the story-line.  The movie would’ve benefited greatly from having a central villain in the movie, like Spider-Man 2‘s Doc Ock.
As flawed and schizophrenic as the movie is, it’s not the worst superhero movie ever made however.  There are some things that do work.  When Sam Raimi is on his game, he can still deliver some memorable moments, particularly a scene where Sandman first comes to life.  Done entirely without dialogue, the scene shows the character slowly pulling himself together from millions of grains of sand.  It’s a poignant and captivating scene that shows effectively the kind of movie that Raimi was going for.  Church’s performance is also effective, if a little too underplayed.  Oddly enough, the performances from the leads in this movie are the lackluster ones.  It’s seems that Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst lost interest in the series at this point in their careers and are just sleep-walking through their roles.  That or they just didn’t believe in this particular plot.  The only actor who seems to be having fun while making this movie ironically enough is James Franco, who was probably the weakest actor in the other films.  Here, he’s actually fun to watch.  This is probably because it came at a time when Franco was starting to move away from the matinee idol persona and into the bohemian weirdo that we know him as today; and oddly enough it works here.  Spider-Man 3 is a bad movie, but it’s flawed in a way that makes it oddly fascinating and watchable.  I actually view this movie more often than the blander first film.  Still, it is a disappointing follow-up to the genuinely great second film.
So, while the Spider-Man franchise is a little disjointed, it’s nevertheless has done it’s job and has helped to turn the iconic comic book character into a true force at the box-office.  This weekend, Spider-Man makes his fifth appearance on the big screen; surpassed only by Batman, Superman, and Wolverine in total number of films.  I only wanted to focus on the Sam Raimi trilogy for this article, because I consider the rebooted Amazing Spider-Man series as an entirely different franchise.  Upon re-watching all these movies again, I was actually struck by how much they have influenced today’s recent batch of superhero movies; particularly the one’s made by Marvel.  It could be said that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man contributed to what we know now as the Marvel house style of film-making, with it’s colorful cinematography and emphasis on humor within the action scenes; similar in how Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies are now influencing the darker, grittier style of DC’s recent film adaptations.  Unfortunately, Columbia Pictures’ parent company Sony still holds the film rights to the character of Spider-Man, so we won’t see the web-slinger joining his Marvel comrades at Disney any time soon for one of the upcoming Avengers movies.  Still, I do admire what director Sam Raimi did with the character during his tenure in the franchise.  Not only did he make the hero fly off the page, but he also set the trend for everything that would come afterward.

The Movies of Summer 2014

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Start saving those movie passes now because Summer is almost upon us.  Generally seen as the biggest movie season of the year, this is the time when all the major studios gear up their big tent-pole pictures for release.  While many movies do become smash hits, recent years have shown us that the Summer is becoming increasingly competitive and now we are more likely to see big movies fail at the box office.  2013 in particular proved to be an incredibly ruthless year for big releases, leading to some of the hardest box office crashes the industry has ever seen.  Movies like Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) and Pacific Rim (2013), and Hangover Part 3 (2013) all under-performed last year, while other movies like The Long Ranger (2013), After Earth (2013), and Elysium (2013) proved to be costly failures.  Add to this the inexplicable successes of movies that people were almost certain would fail (World War Z and The Great Gatsby), and it becomes clear that the Summer movie season is becoming increasingly harder to handicap.  2014’s Summer season arrives a bit more quietly than last years slate of films, with fewer tent-pole movies of note, which may actually be a blessing for the industry.  This year, because of this cleared up schedule, there’s a better chance for movies to actually take hold at the box office and find an audience.
Of course this all depends on how well these movies are received.  I for one can see many films coming this Summer that will likely be terrible, and yet successful despite those shortcomings (I’m looking at you Transformers).  Just like last year, I will be taking a look at a few of the noteworthy movies that will be premiering in the months ahead and pick which ones that I believe are the must-sees of the season, a few which I’m interested in with a few reservations, and which ones I absolutely believe are worth skipping.  To help give some of you a frame of reference to what I’m talking about, I will include movie trailers for each of the highlighted movies.   So, without any further delay, let’s take a look at this Summer’s coming attractions.
MUST SEES:
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (MAY 23)

The X-Men franchise has had a bumpy road over it’s now 7 movie run at the box office.  That said, the last two efforts in the series, 2011’s X-Men: First Class and 2013’s The Wolverine have both been solid efforts that both work as stand alone movies as well as continuations of the franchise, showing very clearly that the X-Men movies are now hitting their stride.  This year, what looks to be the most ambitious X-Men film to date, Days of Future Past, is making it to theaters and it is the movie I am most excited about seeing this Summer.  This is mainly due to the remarkable cast assembled for the film, including just about everyone that has appeared in an X-Men film to date. This includes series stalwart Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan returning as Charles Xavier and Magneto, as well as James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as their younger counterparts.  Add in Game of Thrones‘ Peter Dinklage as the villain and an army of the iconic Sentinel robots from the popular Marvel comics, and you’ve got a movie that looks to build upon everything that has come before it and take the series into even greater territory.  Also, recent controversies aside, it is great to see director Bryan Singer return to a series that he helped to start in the first place; a role he should have never left.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (AUGUST 1)

Speaking of Marvel Comics adaptations, 2014 also gives us the premiere of one of the publisher’s more obscure titles to the big screen.  Fans of the comics already are familiar with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and how they tie in with the larger Marvel universe that’s becoming the central focal point of the popular Avengers series, but the casual viewer does need to be sold on the concept of the story in order to make this film a success.  So the marketing behind this film deserves a lot of praise because the above trailer does an absolutely perfect job of setting up the characters and the world of this film.  I for one am sold just on the sense of humor alone.  What other trailer are you going to see the main character “flipping the bird” at the audience?  Space adventures are sometimes a hard sell these days, and while this movie may not look groundbreaking, it does look entertaining, which is exactly what audiences want from a Summer movie.  Here’s hoping that Marvel’s track record keeps going strong and helps to give a deserving series the boost that it needs.
GODZILLA (MAY 16)

It’s hard to believe that a Godzilla movie qualifies as a must see movie.  The Godzilla franchise is not exactly considered high cinematic art, and the last time Hollywood attempted to make a big budget film centered around the infamous monster, we got the ludicrous 1998 Roland Emmerich film.  This year, however, we not only have a Godzilla movie that looks ambitious, but actually looks to be treating the franchise more reverently.  Given that Guillermo del Toro proved last year that a movie centered around giant monsters could turn into a great film, it seems reasonable that a new movie centered around the King of Monsters could also be worthwhile.  The trailers so far have done an excellent job establishing this new take on the the monster, and the movie does look impressive; particularly when it comes to the scale of the destruction.  Also, Godzilla actually appears the way he should, and less like that lame T-Rex hybrid that Roland Emmerich tried to pass off.  This film also sports an impressive cast, led by heavyweights like Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe.  My hope is that the movie is able to live up to it’s marketing, and let the mighty Godzilla roar onto the screens once again.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (JUNE 13)

For the first time in many years, we are not getting a movie from Pixar Studios in 2014.  Almost a staple in the Summer movie season, Pixar films are among the most consistently successful movies released every year.  So, with such a vacancy left open, it seems like a prime opportunity for other animation studios to release one of their movies without having to compete with the big boys, and the studio best set up to make a move this Summer is Pixar’s most direct competitor: Dreamworks Animation.  This is because Dreamworks is premiering a sequel to what is unquestionably their best film to date, 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon.  The sequel looks to expand the universe seen in the first film, which is what a good sequel should do, and the trailer does a good job of showing off the impressive scale and action adventure that we expect to see in a movie like this.  The first film’s entire cast looks to be returning to the series, and some of the notable new additions include Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett as the main hero’s long lost mother, as well as actors Djimon Hounsou and Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington as new adversaries.  The hope is that the sequel doesn’t waste the potential set up by it’s excellent predecessor.  It certainly benefits from ideal conditions for it’s world premiere with little competition in it’s way.
THE EXPENDABLES 3 (AUGUST 15)

Yes, I know these movies are loud and dumb.  But, that’s why I like them so much.  Sylvester Stallone has crafted the Expendables series as a love letter to 80’s action films and has filled each movie with many of his old co-stars from that era, along with every action star that has headlined a film since then.  What I like about these movies the most is that they make no qualms about what they really are; they are a showcase for action movie icons doing what they do best and that’s kicking ass and blowing stuff up.  Now that the series is on it’s third film, it’s clear that many other people like me have gone along on this ride and have loved it so far.  The first two movies are mindless fun, and it looks like the new movie is more of the same, which is very much welcomed.  In addition to the returning cast, which includes Stallone, Jason Statham, and the “Governator” Arnold Schwartzenegger, this new film adds many more action icons like Antonio Banderas, Wesley Snipes, Mel Gibson, and Dr. Jones himself, Harrison Ford, taking the place of the absent Bruce Willis.  The new cast members alone are enough to get me excited for this movie.  It’s guilty pleasure fun and I’m not ashamed to be excited about this one.
MOVIES THAT HAVE ME WORRIED:

THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2 (MAY 2)

The first movie released this summer is almost certainly going to be a huge hit and it looks like it’s going to be a huge crowd-pleaser.  So why am I not as excited about it as most people.  It’s mainly because it ‘s a sequel to a film that I didn’t like.  The first Amazing Spiderman was released in 2012, and rebooted the Spiderman franchise only five short years after the previous series ended; the one that starred Tobey Maguire as the web-slinger.  While I do believe that the reboot did some things right, like casting Andrew Garfield as Spiderman and focusing more on his development as a character, the end result was too lackluster and inconsistent in tone to make the reboot worth it.  Also, the film needlessly retreaded the origin story, which everyone had already seen in the previous films.  While this movie is freed up from the shackles of establishing the origin of Spiderman, it runs the unfortunate risk of trying to cram in too much too soon.  This movie has no less than 3 different villains taken from the comics; Electro (Jamie Foxx), The Rhino (Paul Giamatti) and the Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan).  Hopefully the movie gives everyone their due, otherwise it could all be a mess.  That being said, the film’s action set pieces do look exciting, and the transformation of Jamie Foxx into Electro does look impressive.  Let’s hope that this movie can outshine it’s disappointing predecessor.
MALIFICENT (MAY 30)

Disney seems to recently be in the habit of adapting some of their most beloved animated films into live action movies.  It started with 101 Dalmatians  in 1996, starring Glenn Close as Cruella de Vil.  A decade later we saw Tim Burton’s take on Alice in Wonderland (2010).  And within the next couple years, we will see adaptations of Cinderella by Kenneth Branaugh and The Jungle Book  by Jon Favreau, both from the Disney company.  This year, we get the live action treatment of Sleeping Beauty (1959), but with a twist.  This version of the tale gives the villainess, the iconic Malificent, center stage, and she is played by non other than Angelina Jolie.  The reason why I’m uncertain about this film is because the recent track record for fairy tale adaptations hasn’t been so good, at least when it comes to the quality of the movies.  Tim Burton’s Alice was critically panned, as was two recent adaptations of Snow White, made by other studios.  Audiences and critics may generally reject this movie as more of the same, and certainly the CG heavy look of the film seems rather tiresome.  The bright spot, however, is the casting of Ms. Jolie herself in the title role.  She looks perfect for the role and seems to be relishing the part in her performance.  And if there’s a Disney villain who deserves her own film, it’s the mistress of all evil.
 JUPITER ASCENDING (JULY 18)

The Wachowskis have had a rough decade.  They exploded onto the scene with the monumental The Matrix (1999), which is a certifiable classic in every way.  Since then, they followed that up with two disappointing Matrix sequels, a horrid remake of Speed Racer (2008), and the ambitious Cloud Atlas (2012), which worked better in parts than as a whole.  Having not made a profitable film since 2003’s The Matrix Reloaded, there is a lot resting on the Wachowskis’ shoulders with their new movie Jupiter Ascending.  The movie looks ambitious, and it’s nice to see the Wachowskis’ take on a sci-fi thriller that doesn’t echo The Matrix in any way.  The only question is whether their movie is original enough to convince audiences to see it.  I like the look of the movie, but the “saving the princess” plot seems a little cliched, even within science fiction.  On the plus side, the movie has Sean Bean in the cast, which is a good thing in my book.  Let’s see if he stays alive through the whole film this time.  Hopefully this one will be a turn around for the once mighty Wachowskis, because they certainly need it.
SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR (AUGUST 22)

Robert Rodriguez’s first adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City graffic novels was one of the most unique cinematic experiences I’ve ever had when it first premiered back in 2005, and it seems like an ideal film to follow up with a sequel.  I also thought the same thing of Rodriguez’s Machete (2010), but that was until I saw Machete Kills, one of the more disappointing sequels in recent memory.  Now, nearly a decade after the first film was released, Robert Rodriguez is making the long promised follow-up to Sin City.  The reason why I’m worried is because Rodriguez’s track record with sequels is very spotty.  For every Desperado (1995) there’s a dozen lackluster Spy Kids movies.  Hopefully the director brings his A-game to this film, because I absolutely love the first movie.  The good news is that much of the original cast returns, including heavyweights like Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis, and newer cast members include good actors like Josh Brolin and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Let’s hope that time hasn’t worn out Sin City’s appeal to audiences.
MOVIES TO SKIP:

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (AUGUST 8)

The vultures are already circling around this one.  Pretty much from the get go, people knew this was a bad idea, letting Michael Bay tackle a popular property like this one.  And now that we’ve seen the trailer, our worst fears seem to have been realized.  While I’m mixed on some things about this movie (I like the casting of William Fichtner as Shredder, for example), I do agree that the titular turtles just don’t look right at all.  I greatly prefer the Jim Henson crafted turtles from the cheesy but endearing original film.  Additionally, nothing good can come from the casting of Megan Fox as female lead, April O’Neil.  Right now, this movie stands as a clear example of the recent trend by Hollywood to take popular franchises from a generation ago, and water them down into shallow popcorn flicks for today’s newer audiences (i.e. Robocop).  Is this going to be the worst movie of the summer?  Who knows.  I can only say that it’s the one right now with the lowest expectations.
TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION (JUNE 27)

While we’re on the subject of Michael Bay, he also is bringing us the fourth entry in the Transformers franchise this Summer.  I will say that I did find the first film okay in it’s own right, but the series has devolved into one of the most self-indulgent and obnoxious franchises of recent memory.  These movies seem more geared towards satisfying Bay’s own tastes as a filmmaker than actually entertaining the audiences they were intended for, with it’s over-reliance on CGI mayhem and on-screen pyrotechnics in the place of actual character development.  This movie does the smart move of replacing Shia LaBeouf for the less obnoxious Mark Wahlberg, but after watching the trailer, it appears that we’re still going to be getting more of the same nonsense.  And once again, it looks like the Transformers themselves are just supporting characters in their own movie.
EDGE OF TOMORROW (JUNE 6)

This film’s biggest disadvantage is that it’s been produced at a time when many stylistically similar movies are being made; and failing.  It looks too similar to forgettable sci-fi action thrillers like Battle Los Angeles (2011), and those battle suits look a lot like the mech-armors used in Elysium (2013); and you guys know how I felt about that film.  Hell, it was only last year that we saw another post-apocalyptic movie starring Tom Cruise; the equally forgettable Oblivion (2013).  Unfortunately for this movie, it and will probably follow in the footsteps of these other failed sci-fi epics.  Tom Cruise is a good actor, and he should be broadening his choices of roles now that he’s entering middle age, but it appears he’s still attracted to action film roles at the moment, for better or worse.  The plot also seems too gimmicky to stand out either; like a mix of Halo and Groundhogs Day (1992), and not in a good way.  It could end up surprising us and be a solid action movie (like last years World War Z), but given how poorly the sci-fi action genre has been of late, it’s a tall order to accomplish.
So, there you go; my outlook on the Summer of 2014 in movies.  There will probably be a few other films that will grab my attention over these next few months, and probably even a few surprises.  That was certainly the case with last Summer’s movies, and hopefully this year will be even better.  I hope that the fact that fewer movies are coming out this year with a lot of hype is a positive thing.  Lately, too much hype has negatively affected many people’s reactions to Summer movies, so hopefully Hollywood has been taking a hint and are acting more cautiously this year.  I doubt we’ll see anything like The Lone Ranger’s big meltdown this Summer.  My hope is that the movies I’m most excited about live up to my expectations, and the ones I’m cautious about will prove my worries wrong.  At the very least, I hope that I and everyone else just has a fun time at the movies during this busy season and not end up feeling like we wasted our time and money at the cinema.

Collecting Criterion – The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

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The Criterion Collection has honored all kinds of beloved cinema by making them a part of it’s library, but they’ve also spread their wings out to include movies that carry a dark cloud of controversy around them.  Many of these types of movies within the Criterion Collection include a box set devoted to the I am Curious series, which were Swedish films that were deemed pornographic and were banned for years in the United States.  Also included in the Collection are the silent documentary on Satanism, Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), the movies of controversial Danish director Lars von Trier, and perhaps the most controversial film of all, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom (1975); a movie that I will one day brave my way through and review for this series.  Criterion does an honorable job of collecting these button-pushing movies, because regardless of the controversy that surrounds them, they still stand as cinematic touchstones and are worthy of preservation and posterity.  Given that Easter is almost upon us, I thought that I should review for you one of the most scandalous movies of all times that has also gone on to become one of Criterion’s most interesting titles; and which also fits within the religious theme of the holiday.  That film is Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).
The interesting thing about this Criterion title is that it’s the only Scorsese film that has been selected as part of the Collection.  This is probably because Scorsese’s other movies probably don’t carry the same stigma that this one does, and have found an easier time getting distribution.  The Last Temptation of Christ more than likely could only ever get released through the Criterion label because no other studio would dare claim it.  Nevertheless, I’m sure that Scorsese is quite pleased with this film’s place within the Criterion Collection, as well as he should be.  Criterion has done a masterful job of restoring the movie and giving it a proper home video release.  In the 25 years since the movie has first premiered, the controversy surrounding it has subsided, especially in the wake of the firestorm surrounding Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), so Criterion’s distribution of the film itself is far from controversial.  Of course, when watching the movie itself, it becomes very apparent why the movie sparked heated emotions in the first place.  Scorsese has always been a risk-taker, and it’s to his credit as a film director that his movies have done as well as they have.  With The Last Temptation, he was fulfilling a life-long ambition to make a film about the life of Jesus Christ, no doubt having grown up watching the great biblical epics of Hollywood’s golden era and being raised in a Catholic household.  But, making a movie like this in a different era with a reputation like what Mr. Scorsese had was going to lead to some tension no matter what, and Scorsese certainly found out how hard it was to fulfill his own dreams.
First and foremost it must be understood that the movie is not based on a scriptural source, but rather is adapted from the similarly controversial novel of the same name by Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, the same man who wrote Zorba the Greek.  Though Nikos was always a devoted Christian author, he was nevertheless condemned by both the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, and his book was banned in several countries.  Despite what the Church thought of his writing, Nikos believed that he was honoring Christ by showing his humanity.  In the novel, Jesus is not depicted as an infallible deity, but rather as a passionate and troubled human being who strives to do God’s work on Earth even when doubts his own strength to accomplish it.  The Jesus in the novel remains pure and accomplishes everything he’s been entrusted to do by God, but the novel also examines the temptations that are laid out in front of him that try to pull him away from becoming the Messiah.  The final temptation shows him giving up his crucifixion and leading a normal human life; marrying Mary Magdelene, raising children, and dying at an old age.  Of course, Jesus resists the temptation and goes through with the sacrifice in the end, but the novel details the life that may have been, and this is probably what drove many religious figures to be upset.  Despite Mr. Kazantzakis’ best intentions, the idea of a fallible Christ was unacceptable to many people and sadly it lead to the author’s downfall.
Martin Scorsese was drawn to the ideas of Nikos Kazatzakis’ novel, particularly the way it looked at Christ the man, and he held onto the rights to the novel for many years, hoping to bring it to the screen himself when he had the opportunity.  Scorsese made the movie at a transitional time for him personally.  He had beaten a drug addiction that plagued most of his early career and was now going through something of a spiritual reawakening.  Most of his films during the 1980’s were markedly different in tone to his gritty crime dramas of the 70’s.  In 1983, he made the dark comedy The King of Comedy, which he then followed up with the very low budgeted dramas of After Hours (1985) and The Color of Money (1986).  The Last Temptation pushed Scorsese into even more foreign territory, since the director had never done a period film before, let alone a religious one.
While he knew that the source material was controversial, Scorsese wanted to make this movie as an affirmation of his own Catholic faith.  Indeed, watching this movie you can see Scorsese’s own view of spirituality come through, and it stays true to the scriptural teachings of Jesus Christ.  Unlike Mel Gibson’s The Passion, Scorsese did manage to secure financial backing from a major studio (Universal), albeit with a very small budget.  It was warmly received by critics, but naturally was condemned by Church organizations who didn’t understand it.  The backlash from religious viewers was so intense in fact that the movie is still banned in some countries, and one screening in Paris during it’s premiere was the scene of a terrorist attack by Christian zealots, leading to the death of one person. Suffice to say that The Last Temptation of Christ still stands as Martin Scorsese’ most polarizing film to date.  Upon viewing the movie today, the film isn’t as scandalous on the surface as it once was perceived to be, although I’m sure you still won’t hear any mention of it in religious circles.
My own impression of the movie is that it’s an intriguing, if somewhat flawed, depiction of the life of Jesus.  The most controversial elements of the movie, that being the moments of temptation laid before Jesus, are actually the strongest parts, and shows Scorsese’s knack for making challenging cinema accessible for the average viewer especially well.  The extended sequence at the end of the movie, depicting the life Jesus could’ve had if he gave up his sacrifice for humanity is especially captivating, and spells out perfectly exactly why Christ was meant to be the Savior of humanity according to scripture; a subtlety that I think a lot of religious zealots tend to overlook.  Unfortunately, Scorsese’s film is a bit on the overlong side.  Running 2 hours and 45 minutes long, the movie doesn’t have the same kind of driven pacing that Scorsese’s other movies have, and tends to drag through many of the more introspective moments of the narrative.  In addition, the movie is unfortunately dated by a terrible soundtrack, made by recording artist Peter Gabriel.  While unique, the music does feel out of place in this biblical tale, and makes many of the scenes feel like a bad 1980’s music video instead of an uplifting spiritual movie.
Where the movie does shine, however, is in it’s performances, particularly with Willem Dafoe as Jesus.  Dafoe carries this movie on his shoulders and creates a Jesus Christ that we’ve never seen before on the big screen.  I liked the way that he showed Jesus’ confusion and fear throughout his entire journey, which helps to make the character much more personable than relatable.  Now, many religious people argue that Jesus must be unknowable because he was more than just a man, but Dafoe’s performance shows that Jesus’ teachings can have more power when we understand better the person who is giving it to us.  And better yet, Dafoe’s performance has a lot of passion behind it, making Jesus captivating as a character.  When we see Jesus in this movie, we begin to understand why he was able to inspire people to follow his teachings.
The supporting cast also adds a lot to the movie, especially Harvey Keitel as a very sympathetic Judas Iscariot.  Some of the other casting can be a little random at times; like The Empire Strikes Back (1980) director Irvin Kershner showing up briefly as a stone-throwing zealot; and hold on, was that David Bowie as Pontius Pilate?  One cameo that I did find interesting was Harry Dean Stanton as religious convert Saint Paul, who manages to help even Jesus himself learn more about God’s plan.  The movie’s visual design is also spectacular in this movie.  Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus gives the film an epic scope, and helps to make the film feel big even with the limited budget.  Also, many of the trademark Scorsese touches are there, particularly in the dramatic lighting of certain scenes.  Scorsese’s unique cinematic touches throughout help to stand this movie apart from other biblical movies, particularly with one interesting technique during the crucifixion scene where the camera tilts down 90 degrees in front of Jesus on the cross, showing a sideways view of the image.  It’s a simply done trick, but it does leave a definite impression.
Criterion’s edition of the movie brings out the best of this film by giving it a spectacular restoration.  Produced through a high-definition scan from the original negative elements, the movie looks almost brand new in it’s blu-ray edition.  Thankfully Universal has kept the original negative safe in it’s vault; a religious organization called Campus Crusade for Christ once offered the studio $10 million for the negative just so they could destroy it.  Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker supervised the restoration, alongside cinematographer Ballhaus, and the film definitely looks like it reflects the artistic visions off all involved.  The score, for better or worse, does sound great in the restoration.  You’ll especially appreciate how clear the sound mix is.
The extras, while not particularly as lavish as some other Criterion titles, is nevertheless worth checking out.  First there’s a group audio commentary pieced together from interviews with Scorsese himself, along with Willem Dafoe and screenwriters Paul Schrader and Jay Cocks.  Production footage of the crew on location is also available to view in this package, which gives you the interesting insight into the making of the movie, and seeing Scorsese at work behind the camera is always interesting to watch.  It also gives you a nice idea of what it takes to make a period drama look authentic.  A brand new interview is also included with composer Peter Gabriel, as he details the influences that went into his work on the film’s score.  While I already made my feelings known about the music, it’s still interesting to hear Peter Gabriel’s methods behind his work, and what he thought of collaborating with Scorsese at the time.  Rounding out the extras is an interesting gallery of production and publicity stills.
While the controversy surrounding the movie has dissipated over time, Criterion was still taking risk keeping this movie in the public’s eye, and I give them a lot of credit for continuing to stand up for challenging works of cinema like this overall.  The Last Temptation of Christ is still a monumental work of cinematic art, and while it may not be the most enriching biblical film I’ve ever seen, or even the best example of Scorsese’s work as a director, it’s still a movie that is absolutely worth seeing.  I particularly would like to see religious organizations take another look at this film, because I think it’s more true to the spirit of Jesus’ teachings than they would like to believe.  Contrary to what they may believe, Scorsese did not make this movie because he wanted to attack Jesus’ image.  In the end, Christ does fulfill his purpose in God’s plan and goes through with his sacrifice.  What Scorsese showed us in the movie was that Jesus was also a man, and still vulnerable to the same faults as humankind.  The fact that he overcame them is what made Jesus special, and that’s what Martin Scorsese took away from his own perspective on religion.  Scorsese assures us that his movie is not scriptural but rather a dramatic interpretation of one extraordinary man’s journey through life, something which is stated before the movie’s opening credits.  Regardless of how the final movie turned out, I still thank Scorsese for taking an honest and unique approach to such a touchy subject.  The Last Temptation of Christ is still one of the most unique religious themed films ever made and it makes a worthy addition to anyone’s Criterion collection.