Tag Archives: Movie Comparison

Tinseltown Throwdown – South Park vs. Team America

The Colorado born and raised duo of Trey Parker and Matt Stone have become two of the most unexpected influential filmmakers of the last quarter century.  As humorists, they are drawn to often sophomoric, low brow gags about flatulence and excessive vulgarity.  They are also some of the most astute satirists of their era, managing to perfectly mock their targets with some of the sharpest jabs known in comedy.  They are very much a combination of contradictions that in one way or another have managed to change and re-shape the worlds of filmmaking, politics, humor and animation over the years.  But, of course when you try to pin them down to one thing, Parker and Stone will refute your assesment of them.  As filmmakers, they have always strived to do one thing, which is to make movies and shows that they themselves find funny.  Their body of work reflects that well, especially the program that they are most well known for: the long running animated series South Park, which continues to run on Comedy Central after over 25 years.  Parker and Stone first connected while attending college at the University of Colorado in Boulder and found that their interests in cinema aligned perfectly.  They collaborated on a number of short student films while Trey Parker was also refining his skills in an animation program.  Parker’s animated thesis project titled American History (1992) became an unexpected hit and surprisingly earned him a Student Academy Award.  This helped to propel him quickly to Hollywood, and his friend Matt Stone was there by his side.  They spent years trying to develop projects that would get noticed in the industry while still adhering to their oddball sensibilities.  They managed to successfully get funding for their first feature, Cannibal: The Musical (1994), and had it play at Sundance, though it languished soon after without a wide distributor.  Meanwhile, Parker animated another short in the paper cut-out style that he used on American History.  This short called The Spirit of Christmas was a satirical play on upbeat Rankin Bass style holiday specials, but it introduced something more that would go on to define the rest of Parker and Stone’s careers; the town of South Park and it’s quirky inhabitants.

While The Spirit of Christmas special never got picked up by a TV station, a bootleg copy did manage to get out into the wild.  It got passed along to multiple A-listers in Hollywood, all of whom thought that it was one of the funniest things that they had ever seen.  Soon after, Parker and Stone, who had been languishing on the outskirts of the industry for a few years, were now in demand and getting meetings across the industry.  Naturally, they leaned into the success of The Spirit of Christmas and pitched a show completely about the town of South Park.  The show was picked up by the newly re-branded cable channel, Comedy Central, and South Park made it’s debut in the summer of 1997.  The show was an automatic hit, though it also stirred up quite a controversy too.  For those who thought The Simpsons was risque for it’s time were absolutely appalled once South Park arrived on the scene.  South Park was crude, vulgar, and unforgiving with it’s satirical edge.  What also made people take notice was how quickly South Park could comment on current events, as their newly adopted computer enhanced animation allowed them very short turnarounds on their episodes.  This, as a result, made Parker and Stone very influential political satirists as well, though the very centrist filmmakers would balk at being tied to any political ideology.  Nevertheless, their most monumental contributions to cinema have been movies that do address politics in a significant way.  While the duo has created a number of projects over the years, their biggest cinematic achievements are a big screen adaptation of their hit show, slyly titled South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999), and a War on Terror satire starring puppets called Team America: World Police (2004).  While there are major differences between the movie, the also are similar in that they represent Parker and Stone at their most pointed when hitting their satirical targets.

“I’m sorry I can’t help myself.  That movie has warped my fragile little mind.”

It should be noted the times in which the two films were made, as the political climates were very different (even in the span of 5 years) and they would be very influential on the themes of each film.  South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut was made in the tail end of the Clinton era in U.S. politics.  It was an era defined by peacetime and economic prosperity, but also about political division domestically as well.  The political opposition in America, defined by the Republican Party, tried to make a big deal about President Bill Clinton’s extra-marital affairs, both inside and outside of office, and this ended up turning into a debate about morality in American culture.  The arguments Republicans made about appropriate behavior would at times turn Puritanical, and this made people in the arts worried about a cultural backlash that would lead to more censorship.  This was also on the mind of Parker and Stone, as they centered the story of their South Park movie on this question of the limits of free expression.  In the movie, the South Park kids (Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman) begin to use more bad language than usual after seeing their favorite cartoon characters, Terrence and Phillip, in their newest movie. As a result, the parents of the kids go on a crusade to censor Terrence and Philip and everyone like them, which spirals out of control into a war between America and Canada which in turn could trigger the Apocalypse.  Of course, it’s Parker and Stone taking the situation to a hilariously extreme place, but you can’t help feel that they are drawing from the same censorship pressures that they have faced over the years in creating the story for this movie.  But, the world would be much different when Team America was made.  Not only would the Republican Party be back in power under President George W. Bush, but America was also hit by the worst terrorist attack in history with 9/11.  The response would find America once again on a war footing, and even more divided than before politically; with unfair questioning of patriotism leveled at those who opposed the war.  With Team America, Parker and Stone again take a critical eye towards the divisiveness of American politics and poke fun at both the callousness of unchecked patriotic fervor, as well as the impotent rage of those trying to combat it while not providing a clear alternative.  With regards to both films, they are very much perfect snapshots of the cultural mood of America in the times that they were made, and it’s fascinating to see just how different the country had changed in five short years.

“Remember, there is no ‘I’ in Team America.”  “Yes there is.”

What is interesting about Parker and Stone is how they have changed up their styles as filmmakers over the years.  They are not filmmakers who want to be tied down to just one style.  Before South Park, their filmography was certainly within the realm of comedy, but their targets were very different.  Cannibal: The Musical took traditional Hollywood musicals in the vein of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Oklahoma (1955) and added the gruesome aspect of cannibalism to the mix.  Their follow-up was a satire of the adult film industry with Orgazmo (1997), which again brought their absurdist sense of humor into a different kind of genre.  Even after their success with South Park and Team America, they would try their creative talents in a whole different kind of artform, creating the smash hit Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.  The same approach they have used for every film and project of theirs is well illustrated in the different ways that South Park and Team America are made.  South Park uses the same cut-out style of the show, but with the assistance of their computer animation, they are able to take the show’s style ever further thanks to the expanded budget of the movie.  The movie is also free from TV regulations and it leans hard into that R-rating with language.  And yet, it is a perfect continuation of the show on a grander scale.  Team America is definitely a different kind of movie altogether.  Instead of animation, they used marionette puppets on elaborate miniature sets.  It was inspired by the Sunday morning marionette show, Thunderbirds from the 1960’s, but they wanted to do that same kind of show with a Jerry Bruckheimer action flair to it.  The result is a hilarious riff on both, as the movie is a bombastic action film, but the characters are all still limited by the physicality of marionette puppetry.  One definitely has to marvel at the craft of it. as some of the miniature sets are insanely well detailed and the puppets are surprisingly expressive given their limited movement.  But, in typical Parker and Stone fashion, the comedy strives to reach the limits of what they are allowed, including having the puppets engaged in a very graphic sex scene mid-way through the movie.  With the South Park movie and Team America, you really see the filmmaking duo at the peak of their creative powers.

Where the films do deviate a bit is in terms of how well they have held up over the years.  In truth, they both still work as comedies and cinematic achievements in craft, but they are also limited by the fact that they are both products of their time.  In terms of how well these over twenty year old movies still play in the 2024, the times have been a bit kinder to South Park.  The ongoing debate about censorship and morality has morphed into a sadly never-ending “Culture War,” where conservatives and liberals have spilled over their political disagreements into the realm of pop culture, and has polarized the discourse even more.  Even South Park continues to be a battleground to this day, with right-wingers latching onto the critiques of major studios like Disney made in the recent special South Park: Joining the Paderverse, while at the same time misreading the more nuanced take that Parker and Stone are putting forth condemning people who only complain about stuff being “woke” while missing the point about corporations who just pander to marginalized groups and do nothing worthwhile to help them.  You can definitely see the beginnings of the “Culture War” crusade in the South Park movie, with the parents shirking responsibility for their parenting by blaming outside influence; in this case the nation of Canada.  You can see the same kind of scapegoating happening today, especially targeting the LGBTQ community.  Parker and Stone definitely saw the dangers of a mob mentality that sought to suppress creative expression and it’s terrible that this movie is just as relevant today as it was then.  On the other side, Team America unfortunately is weighed down by it’s War on Terror era identification.  With America largely out of their costly foreign wars today, the World Police aspect of the movie no longer feels relevant.  What unfortunately ages the movie even worse is the needless crude jokes aimed at the LGBTQ community.  Some are still funny, like how the Team America leader Spottswoode requires oral sex from the new guy Gary as a trust building measure of good faith, but other jokes really don’t age well.  The worst one would have to be the abbreviation for the Film Actors Guild, which of course turns into a derogatory slur for gay people; a joke that Parker and Stone thankfully have removed themselves from over the years.  By contrast, South Park has a surprisingly mature take on a gay relationship in it’s film, albeit between Satan and Saddam Hussein.  Even still, the jokes about the surface level, jingoistic patriotism of Bush-era America still hit pretty hard, especially in a time when it’s reached a scarier, fascistic level under Trump.  Also, the jokes at Alec Baldwin’s expense have aged like fine wine.

“Hey Satan, don’t be such a twit.  Mother Theresa won’t have shit on me.”

There’s another thing that connects the movies together, which also is something that makes them very different as well.  Continuing their tradition of incorporating music as a fundamental feature in their filmography, ever since they started with Cannibal: The Musical, both the South Park movie and Team America can be classified as musicals.  The label is more appropriate for the South Park movie, but given that every song in Team America is original, it can’t be dismissed as anything other than a musical.  The songs in Team America definitely feel like a compilation of songs that you would hear in the soundtrack of a Bruckheimer action film, ala Top Gun (1987) or Armageddon (1998).  A lot of rock music, country music, and any sort of red, white and blue tinted American styling that fits with the tone of the comedy.  What is amazing is that most of the songs are sung by Trey Parker himself, doing his best Springsteen imitation.  The majority of them are hilarious send-ups of action movie rock music, but the most hilarious one would have to the central theme called “America, F#$k Yeah.”  This song alone is one of the funniest things that Parker and Stone have ever written, as it is just takes jingoistic patriotism to the extreme, resulting in just a laundry list of things America has followed by “F$%k Yeah” from the chorus.  The other songs are good, but this is definitely the high point of the soundtrack.  The South Park movie by contrast is a much more standard musical film, and it also shows a more collaborative effort on the soundtrack than what they had on Team America.  For South Park, the duo worked with an actual Broadway and film score vet, Marc Shaiman, to develop the musical score.  The collaboration works as each song is well integrated into the story, including songs originally made for the show, like “Kyle’s Mom is a Bitch” and “What Would Brian Boitano Do?”  The highlight of the newer songs is definitely the Oscar-nominated “Blame Canada.”  While they did ultimately lose their Oscar to Phil Collins for a song he wrote for Disney’s Tarzan (1999), they team still had one of the greatest Oscar ceremony performances ever, with Robin Williams getting to sing the song in a lavish stage performance worthy of Broadway.  While both movies have great, hilarious songs in them, the music is just a more important factor in the South Park movie and as a result it enriches that movie more.

When it comes to be a technical achievement, I don’t think anything tops Team America with regards to Parker and Stone’s body of work as a whole.  The team spent years crafting the movie, all the while still working on new seasons of South Park.  Trey Parker described the experience of making Team America to be the most grueling thing he or Matt Stone have ever done; something that holds true to this day.  They went into the project with no experience in puppetry, and they were now tasked with not only perfecting it but also pushing the artform into a scope and scale unheard of before.  The film was only greenlighted by Paramount Studios in the first place because the executives were under the impression that a puppet movie would be cheap to make.  But when you look at the film, it’s ambitious in a way you would never think that a movie with marionette puppets would ever be.  The scale of the sets are incredible, especially the ones set in Cairo, the Panama Canal, and at Kim Jung-Il’s palace in North Korea.  One of the biggest assets to the making of the film was getting a veteran cinematographer on board who would shoot this fabricated world in the same way he would a true live action film.  They found that man in Bill Pope, who among other things has shot films like The Matrix (1999) and Spider-Man 2 (2004).  While South Park was just the show with an expanded budget, Team America was a true cinematic experiment that really paid off.  You can see the care put into the crafting of the movie, where it even gets to the point where you forget that you are watching puppets instead of real people on screen.  It’s a perfect execution of a vision that Parker and Stone set out to make a reality.  It’s unfortunate that they haven’t really done anything as uniquely different as this since.  Their focus probably got diverted to Broadway with Book of Mormon, where they saw that as their next mountain to conquer.  But in the last decade, it’s largely just been South Park and not much else.  One would hope that they have something unique in the cards like Team America still in them.  Perhaps the difficulty in making the movie has prevented them from trying it again.

“You are worthless, Arec Barrwin.”

Both South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut and Team America: World Police have held up remarkably well over the years, but the former certainly feels more prescient than the latter.  South Park’s take on “culture war” anxiety boiling over just shows how far ahead of it’s time it was, with the “blame Canada” fanatics not feeling that much dissimilar from the anti-woke culture warriors of today.  Team America’s look at the recklessness of the War on Terror and the resulting jingoistic patriotism that spawned from it  also helps it to stand out as a political satire, though it’s a lot more tied to it’s era than South Park is.  For the most part, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have done well to not tie themselves down to any particular ideology.  If anything, their critiques are aimed at the extremes of both the right and the left, and that is exemplified by these two movies.  They are not agenda driven movies, but really they exist primarily to point out the absurdity of politics in general.  That being said, there are times when their critiques get overshadowed by their desire to shock their audience.  For the most part, they are very good at poking fun at the targets that deserve the ridicule, but times do change values and some of the jokes that would have been funny in the past unfortunately don’t translate as well to the present.  That’s where South Park seems to benefit the most, because of it’s more universal theme about censorship and self-expression.  Also, by being the more heightened world in animation, South Park can get away with a bit more than the more grounded Team America.  As a filmmaking achievement, it can definitely be said that Team America represents Parker and Stone at the height of their craft, but as a cinematic experience, South Park is just the more complete package, and it’s clear why to this day the show remains the duo’s favorite child.  Even still, Team America is still far more cutting and relentless than the majority of political satires out there.  It is especially much better than any partisan political satire made in the year’s since, particularly from those on the right.  While they do have flaws, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut and Team America: World Police are still lightyears ahead of most modern satires, and that is something that definitely puts Trey Parker and Matt Stone in a class all their own as a filmmaking team.

“It seems that everything’s gone wrong since Canada came along.”

Tinseltown Throwdown – Fatman vs. Violent Night

There are a variety of flavors when it comes to holiday themed movies to choose from to watch this time of year.  There are your wholesome traditional religious themed classics, your subversive comedic classics, countless animated classics, as well as the warm hearted romantic classics, all of which will be filling your airways over the course of the weeks leading up to Christmas Day.  But, in some cases, there are Christmas movies that cross over into the less wholesome entertainment and add a bit of spice to the holiday cheer.  Specifically, these are movies that use the holiday aesthetic, but add a bit of horror and action to the mix.  This is why the debate over Die Hard (1988) being a Christmas movie is such a passionately argued one this time of year.  Not every movie about Christmas needs to be for all ages, and Die Hard is certainly the movie that proves that point.  But, at the same time, Die Hard isn’t inherently about Christmas either; it’s just a story that takes place during the holiday season.  Remove the holiday overlay, and Die Hard would be hardly different.  But, even still, many fans choose to make Die Hard part of their holiday watch list every year, and it’s without question a great movie to watch regardless of the time of year.  The interesting thing is that Die Hard has become such an influential film over the years that it has inspired filmmakers to resolve the Die Hard Christmas question by actually taking the same premise and fully making it about the holiday.  And that is accomplished by swapping out John McClane for Ol’ Saint Nick.  It’s such a no-brainer idea for a Christmas themed action movie to make Santa Claus an action hero, so it’s surprising that more movies haven’t attempted it over the years.  There have been two noteworthy attempts in recent years that work with this premise to varying degress of success.  And comparing them together, we see what it takes to make Santa Claus an action hero worth rooting for.

During the pandemic year of 2020, a low budget action movie centered on Santa Claus became available for video on demand just in time for Christmas.  Fatman (2020) features Mel Gibson as a world weary version of Santa, less motivated by holiday cheer and more about keeping his operation afloat in a changing economy.  His Santa is more factory foreman than a jolly old elf.  While he devises a plan to save his North Pole operation from foreclosure by agreeing to a military contract with the U.S. Government, a spoiled rich kid named Billy (Chance Hurtsfield) hires a hitman (Walton Goggins) to assassinate Santa after being slieghted on Christmas for being naughty.  The hitman has had a longtime vendetta set on Santa, and he goes to the North Pole with deadly force.  What results is a deadly attack on Santa’s compound with plenty of military and elf blood spilling on the new fallen snow.  The movie garnered a bit of attention over the lockdown affected holidays, especially given the silly premise and the casting of Mr. Gibson as Santa.  A couple years later, another action movie centered on Santa was released, only this time it’s one that unmistakably leans more into the Die Hard formula.  Violent Night (2022) involves Santa (played by David Harbour) finding himself embroiled in a home invasion scheme by heavily armed burglars.  Like with Det. McClane in Die Hard, the burglars are unaware of Santa’s presence until he begins to use his ancient Viking warrior skills to pick them off one by one.  He also becomes aware of the situation by being in contact with one of the hostages; a young girl named Trudy (Leah Brady) who communicates with him via a toy walkie talkie.  And of course all of the mayhem ensues in bloody excess, fitting the title of Violent Night.  Despite taking on the same premise, Santa Claus being an action hero, both films are thankfully very different in narrative, and actually do interesting things with the character of Santa in general that isn’t too out of character for the Christmas icon that we know.  The only thing is, which film did a better job of achieving that goal.

“Damn chickenshit reindeer left me here to die.”

Probably the most important thing to compare between each film is how well they portray the character of Santa himself.  Santa Claus has been portrayed many different ways over the years, but in these two cases, Santa has to be believable as the central character of an action movie.  Both Mel Gibson and David Harbour are no strangers to working in action oriented filmmaking, but it is interesting to see how differently they approach their combat scenes in their respective movies.  Mel Gibson’s Santa is much more grounded and serious.  Despite the absurdity of the premise, Gibson plays the role very straight-forward, making his Santa grizzled old man whose doggedly protective of his territory.  Think of the Santa in Fatman as a Christmas version of a doomsday prepper, ready to take up arms if he finds his home base threatened by outsiders.  Basically, Mel is playing Santa not unlike his own grizzled, society shunning self, just minus the closed-minded bigotry.  In a sense, this fits the movie he’s in, given that the action scenes are brutal and not played for laughs.  Fatman surprisingly plays the action straightforward, with the violence at times being fairly brutal.  Violent Night by contrast is unmistakably an action comedy, with the violence played up to far more absurd levels.  And David Harbour matches that tone perfectly.  His Santa is not the most skilled action hero; part of the time he clumsily gets himself bruised up before he’s able to get his own licks in.  A lot of the movies best laughs come from the fact that Harbour is able to sell the sloppiness of Santa’s response to the situation just as well as he does with Santa fighting at his most competent.  And in general, his Santa is just a far more endearing character in that aspect.  The biggest problem with Mel’s Santa depiction is that he never elevates the persona beyond just that gruff center of his performance.  He does get a few great tough guy moments, but they are few and far between.  Harbour is consistently entertaining as Santa, from beginning to end; from his boozy, lackadaisical introduction to his bad ass final battle, his Santa Claus finds that perfect balance between fierce and funny, which helps to make his film much more fun in general.

“Some kids with a deer rifle put two holes in the sleigh and one in me.  All I have is a loathing for a world that’s forgotten me.”

There is also a major distinction in the films with regards to the threats that Santa faces.  In this regard, Fatman is the one that does a better job of breaking the mold.  Violent Night has a fun batch of baddies, led by John Leguizamo’s increasingly frustrated ringleader.  At the same time, the movie perhaps borrows a bit too much from it’s Die Hard inspiration, as most of the henchmen are little more than archetypes, with Leguizamo’s Scrooge being not much more than a discount Hans Gruber.  Fatman on the other hand has a fantastic villain in the form of Walton Goggin’s Skinny Man.  Skinny Man is a refreshingly different spin on the kind of hired hit man character that you would see in a action film of this type.  He takes the job of killing Santa Claus not just because of the money, but because he has devoted his life towards hunting Santa Claus down out of vengeance, making him the most qualified for the job.  We learn that he was slighted out of receiving a present as a kid because he was on the naughty list, and this was the tragic event that sparked his vengeful spirit.  Absurd, yes, but the great thing is that Walton Goggins plays the character completely straight.  He understood the assignment and he turns the Skinny Man into a legit intimidating presence in the movie.  What also makes the character work within the movie is that his deadly serious take on the character is balanced off of that of the kid playing the spoiled rich Billy; who seems to be a thinly veiled parody of Donald Trump, with the loose fitting suits, childish temperament, and malignant narcissism.  The kid definitely plays more into the absurd side of the premise, which helps to give Goggins the leeway to play more into the darker aspects of the character.  And between both this and Violent Night, the Skinny Man is without a doubt the most interesting character to have been imagined through this kind of premise.

One other thing that works in Fatman’s favor is that it is far more interested in worldbuilding around it’s premise than Violent NightViolent Night runs primarily on the belief that most of the audience will already be aware of the mythology surrounding Santa Claus.  All of the Santa related stuff is more or less there to satisfy the punchline of Santa being out of his element in this Die Hard scenario.  The movie does add the interesting aspect that Santa started out as a mercenary Viking with a high kill count in his past, and his weapon of choice was a sledgehammer named Skullcrusher.  But, apart from that, the movie sticks fairly closely to the Die Hard scenario and doesn’t build on any lore from there.  In Fatman, the movie goes much more into conforming the mythology of Santa Claus into a grounded, real world setting.  Instead of being at the geographic North Pole, Santa’s base of operations is actually in a rural Alaskan town called North Peak.  On the outside it looks like any other farm, but underground is where you’ll find the cavernous workshop, which looks not unlike most Amazon distribution centers.  It gives the Santa mythos a very 21st century aspect, but even still, the movie includes some of the fanciful elements.  His workshop is still run by elves and his sleigh is still led by flying reindeer.  The modern trappings of the workshop does a decent job of reinforcing Santa’s disillusionment with the work that he does, as he grows more weary with the increasing corporatization of the holiday season.  While I have a feeling some of the grounded look of the film was due to the movie having a very miniscule budget, I do give the movie credit for working around that and making it an integral part of the worldbuilding of it’s story.  It certainly makes it a different version of Santa’s workshop that we haven’t seen on film before, and it also makes for the right kind of setting for the violent confrontation that the movie ultimately leads to.

“Skullcrusher’s my hammer.  My favorite hammer.  I was a surgeon with that thing.  Used to be able to take three heads.  Line ’em up…”

There’s definitely one thing that the two movies have in common, which is that both genuinely earn that R-rating for violence.  With Fatman, the movie remains fairly blood free until the very end, with only short bursts committed by the Skinny Man until he eventually makes his way to Santa’s compound.  Then the blood spilling begins.  Violent Night by contrast gets to the violent stuff pretty quickly, but it does a fine job of maintaining the escalating violence throughout and even manages to one-up itself the further it goes.  Apart from the Die Hard influence, it’s clear that Violent Night was also inspired by another Christmas classic; Home Alone (1990).  Santa Claus not only fights off the bad guys in Violent Night with his bare hands, but also with whatever Christmas themed decorations he has on hand; much in the same way Kevin McCallister would’ve.  Though of course Kevin never impaled one of the Wet Bandits in the eye with a Star tree topper before.  There is a scene where the little girl Trudy even gets in on the action as she lures some of the bad guys into the attic, with traps that are pulled straight out of Home Alone, only taken to the fullest gory ends (and you guys thought the nail in the foot part was cringe inducing).  The violence in Fatman is played much less for laughs as they are in Violent Night, with the film leading to a very intense shoot out at Santa’s compound.  If you ever wanted to see a gun-touting Santa Claus duel it out in tactical combat, this is the movie.  The degree to which the audience responds to each film depends on the level of violence that they are willing to accept.  Violent Night is over the top and hilariously gory while Fatman is gritty and intense, and the two films pretty much deliver on what they promise.

But there’s one other question, which is whether one film works better as a Christmas movie than the other.  In this regard, I feel that Fatman falls a bit short.  It is more of a action movie wearing the skin of Christmas, while Violent Night brings in a lot more of the feel of the holiday season.  I think this is largely due to the way the secondary plot works in addition to the one involving Santa.  The family at the center of the home invasion function very well as an element of the Christmas style story being told, because they are a perfect distillation of a dysfunctional family trying way too hard to have a normal Christmas gathering.  I’m sure that it’s no accident that Beverly D’Angelo was cast as the matriarch of this family, since she famously played Ellen Griswold in the classic National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), the ultimate dysfunctional Christmas comedy classic.  The way that this family plays cutthroat with each other is just as hilarious as all of the Santa bits in the movie, and probably hits close to home for some people who have tried to soothe troubled waters over the holidays.  At the same time, the family does come together through the ordeal, though they still maintain toxic elements of their personality, and helping out Santa Claus beat back the bad guys does give them a renewed belief in the holiday spirit.  This helps to make Violent Night feel more like a seasonally appropriate movie.  Apart from the mythic Santa Claus elements, there really isn’t much that makes Fatman feel like a holiday film.  The movie could have just been about a lonely farmer fighting off an intruding assassin and the story would have been roughly the same.  There’s no, shall we say, Christmas magic to it.  Violent Night by contrast definitely wants to leave it’s audience with a sense of the holiday spirit by the end, even after seeing a man get violently ripped apart after being pulled up a chimney.  That’s probably why it’s the film that likely will be re-watched more often as part of a Christmas watchlist.

“You messed up big time, fat man!”

One of the pleasing things about the attempt to officially work the Die Hard formula into an authentic Christmas story is that it feels so natural.  It makes sense that it would fit, given that Die Hard was about disrupting a festive moment with a violent threat.  Only seems fitting that Santa Claus would be the one to save the day in the end.  As far as Fatman and Violent Night go with their takes on Santa Claus as an action icon, they both fit within the rules set by their respective films.  Fatman is a grounded, gritty film, and Mel Gibson does fit that version of Santa pretty well.  Violent Night on the other hand certainly plays things out in a sillier way, but to a point where it doesn’t do a disservice to the action, and David Harbour perfectly embodies that aspect of his Santa Claus.  You can definitely look at Harbour’s Santa as being the more Bruce Willis like of the two, while Mel Gibson’s Santa is more Clint Eastwood.  Out of both movies though, the best character still remains Walton Goggins Skinny Man, who is a genuinely effective and intimidating action villain.  The two movies more or less succeed in what they set out to be, but I feel like I’m going to be revisiting Violent Night more often as a Christmas re-watch.  It’s got a lot more wild moments that manage to make me laugh out loud, while Fatman just worked out as a serviceable action flick.  Violent Night also is the one that seems to celebrate the season a bit more, while Fatman is a tad more cynical.  But, what both movies do prove is that you can indeed turn Santa Claus into an action hero.  It’s definitely a sign of the versatility of the character, where his persona is not tied to any traditional bounds.  That’s why he can remain a relevant symbol to changing times and attitudes while still being distinctly Santa Claus.  I certainly like seeing a Santa that can hold his own in a mano y mano fight as these two films managed to show.  There’s a lot of stories that you can tell with Santa Claus, but in the end, he still has to represent that spirit of the season.  As long as a movie can do that, it doesn’t matter if Santa is also packing heat or cracking a few heads as well.  Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good fight.

“Ho, ho, holy shit.”

Tinseltown Throwdown – Henry V: Olivier vs. Branagh

Of all the plays written by Shakespeare, the one that many believe to be the most inspiring is his historical play Henry V.  Written in 1599, Henry V touches upon the life of the famed English monarch.  The play itself is actually part of a tetralogy of historical plays written by Shakespeare that all combine into a singular narrative, those other plays being Richard II, Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II.  The character of Henry V actually becomes the central character of the duo of Henry IV plays because those are less about the titular king and more about his rebellious son, Prince Hal, who will one day take his place as king.  Prince Hal of course is crowned king by the end of Henry IV and the play Henry V shows us the key moment that defined his rule; the war against the French.  While Shakespeare’s other historical plays were about coming of age and the makings of kings, his Henry V is very much an epic showing the glory of kingship and has long been seen as the most rousing of patriotic statements by the Bard with regards to presenting the English monarchy as a powerful force in the world.  Given that his patrons were the English aristocracy, most notably Queen Elizabeth, it’s clear that Shakespeare knew his audience.   But, the masses also loved Shakespeare’s take on history, as Henry V is a rousing piece of theater representing the Bard at his most bombastic.  With the inspiring centerpiece of the Battle of Agincourt as the defining moment within the play, Shakespeare gives us action and suspense on the stage that is far more alive on the page than the usual Shakespearean text.  To this day, Henry V remains one of Shakespeare’s most beloved and often re-staged plays, with many actors relishing the chance to take on the pivotal role of the inspiring boy king.

For many Shakespearean trained actors, the role of Henry V is an especially good one to undertake as a young performer.  A lot of the great actors of the stage and screen that we know of throughout the decades have at some point played Henry V on stage.  Multiple generations of actors, from Richard Burton to Timothee Chalamet have at some point donned the bowl cut and played the boy king.  For many, it’s an ideal launching point to show their skill not just with the Shakespearean text, but also with their ability to command the stage or the screen.  Henry V is a play about a man showing strength and courage beyond his years, and a kind of role like that demands attention from it’s audience.  If the actor pulls off the role perfectly, it can be a star making performance.  That’s probably the reason it’s a coveted role by so many actors.  The play of course has translated to the screen a number of times, but there is little doubt that the most substantial adaptations are the ones from the two men whose film careers are inexorably linked to Shakespeare; Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh.  Olivier and Branagh both came into the film business pretty much in the same fashion.  They began as actors in the Royal Shakespearean Theater before eventually transitioning into film acting, and then they later took their experience in film to undertake their own cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, and in the process both fundamentally changing the ways these plays are presented on screen through their own unique styles.  You can see many parallels between both Olivier’s and Branagh’s approach to Shakespeare on film, though often with focus on different plays.  Olivier was more focused on Shakespeare’s more stately plays centered around kings, while Branagh often looked for more of a mix, adapting some of the Bard’s comedies like Much Ado About Nothing (1993).  But they did overlap a couple times, including with Henry V, which coincidently was the movie that marked both of their film directing debuts.

“We would not seek a battle as we are, yet as we are, we say we will not shun it.”

It is interesting to examine the differences between both Olivier and Branagh’s versions of Shakespeare’s Henry V.  Despite using the same text, the approaches to the play are very different, which in many ways is reflective of the different eras that they were made in.  The production of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944) is significant specifically because of the era in which it was made.  When Olivier returned to England after his years in Hollywood, his homeland was deeply embroiled in the midst of World War II.  This was the “Keep Calm and Carry On,” moment in English history, as the nation tried it’s best to press through, even while German bomb raids became ever more frequent.  It’s not any surprise that Olivier chose in this moment to bring Henry V to the big screen.  Taking advantage of the play’s patriotic fervor, Olivier very much intended for his screen adaptation to be a rallying cry for his fellow countrymen; to inspire them to fight as well as they can to defend their country, much in the same way that Shakespeare’s Henry V did.  Sure, it’s turning the centuries old piece of theater into wartime propaganda, but honestly isn’t that what William Shakespeare intended with his original also.  Regardless, Olivier’s plan worked.  The movie was an inspiring piece of cinema that was warmly received by war time audiences, many whom were also inspired to live out the example of the historical king and do what they could to fight the good fight abroad and at home.  At the same time, it satisfied Olivier’s desire to adapt Shakespeare’s play onto the big screen that he felt honored the vision of Shakespeare himself.  Many filmmakers before Olivier had adapted the play before on film, but they were often tied closely to how they were performed on stage.  Olivier broke that mold and showed how Shakespeare could be cinematic without being unfaithful to the text.  This included being creative with how shots were blocked and how the camera moved, making the whole thing less stagey.  It boosted Olivier into a prosperous career behind the camera as well as in front, and inspired a whole new generation of filmmakers who would present Shakespeare in a whole new way on screen.

“Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s soul is his own.”

One of those inspired filmmakers to come after Olivier of course was Kenneth Branagh.  Branagh likewise chose to undertake Henry V (1989) as his directorial debut, but his approach was very different from Olivier’s; one that was far more reflective of the time in which it was made.  In Olivier’s time, England was engaged in a very clear cut war where the good and bad sides were clearly drawn.  In that spirit of the times, a rousing patriotic statement without contradiction is far more understandable.  But, by the eighties when Branagh made his Henry V, the world was a much different place.  It was the Cold War era, where the lines between good and bad were not so clear cut.  In the years since Olivier’s adaptation, England went through many different political upheavals, with future generations becoming far more cynical about the idea of patriotism and national identity.  In that time, the effects of the Vietnam War and smaller skirmishes like those in the Falkland Islands led many English youth to look less favorably on the power of the English empire that was in heavy decline.  So, in the midst of this, Kenneth Branagh took this traditionally rousing patriotic story and deconstructs it in a way that would appeal to a more cynical audience.  His Henry V is a far grittier take on the play than Olivier’s technicolor wonder.  And within it, he creates a version of the character that is far more nuanced and complex.  His Henry V is not the saintly monarch of past adaptations, but rather a fierce warrior that can both inspire the men around him, but also inspire fear in them as well.  Branagh is far more interested in the flaws of Henry V, and wishes to make them a crucial part of his version of the story.  Even with that, his adaptation is remarkably faithful to Shakespeare’s original text; almost using every word, as opposed to Olivier’s which abbreviated several parts.  It’s clear upon seeing both versions of the play that both filmmakers knew the kinds of audiences they wanted to reach with their adaptations, and in both cases they achieved what they wanted.  Olivier wanted to inspire, while Branagh wanted to examine.

The different approaches they took in presenting the character of Henry V through their performances reveals a lot about what they saw in the character and why it was important to re-tell the play in their own different ways.  For Olivier, his approach to the part of Henry V is very much a regal one.  Olivier’s style of performance is very direct and commanding.  He plays Henry with the authority of a noble king, unwavering in his duty and one who commands attention in every moment.  It’s the same kind of performance that Olivier honed throughout his career, whether he was doing Shakespeare or not.  And it is a style of performance that is effective in his version of Henry V.  The command of his voice brings out the power of Shakespeare’s words, and you can see why many war time audiences were inspired by his portrayal in the film.  In contrast, Branagh’s fluctuates far more with the way he portrays the role of Henry V.  Depending on the scene, Branagh’s Henry can go from fiercely growling his lines at his most angry to gently speaking his lines at his most intimate.  His performance commands in the same way as Olivier’s, but while Olivier presents more the idea of a king, Branagh presents us more of a depiction of a human being.  His Henry is complex, and full of a wide ranging array of emotions.  It definitely is reflective of a different kind of school of acting that Olivier and Branagh come from.  For Kenneth Branagh, his generation came up in a time where acting Shakespeare on film was more commonplace, so actors like him needed to find ways to make performing Shakespeare feel more natural.  This is definitely evident in the ways they both perform the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech, the most famous monologue from the play, and perhaps one of the most rousing speeches ever written in the English language.  Olivier delivers the speech like a great orator at a podium would; clear, commanding and easy for everyone to hear.  Branagh’s version is a calming speech delivered from the heart like a passionate declaration of love, making it feel like Henry is opening himself up to the men under his command and even trying to inspire himself as he speaks to them.

“Customs curtsy to great kings.  We are the makers of manners.”

While the performances are distinctive, it can be said that both Olivier and Branagh take the same approach to adapting the play to the big screen with their direction, which is to be very creative with how they stage everything.  Olivier, out of the two, surprisingly takes the more experimental approach.  He starts his film with a recreation of how the play would’ve been staged in the original Globe Theater.  Starting off with an amazingly well shot descent from the rooftops of Renaissance London, across the different levels of the theater, and down to the stage itself, the movie begins with a narrator asking the audience to imagine the spectacular sights that only the stage production can hint at with it’s limitations.  For the first few scenes, Olivier begins the movie showing us just what the play itself would have looked like in the Globe.  The subsequent scenes move us into large interior sets that feel lest like they are on the stage and more like they were constructed on a soundstage.  And then once we arrive at the Battle of Agincourt scene, the movie has now moved outdoors onto a real field in the English countryside.  It’s as if the further into the play we go, the movie is reflecting what the audience would’ve imagined seeing the play performed on stage.  Through this clever staging, we see Olivier literally bringing a Shakespeare play to life before our eyes, blurring the lines between the stage and the screen.  Branagh by contrast keeps the staging consistent throughout his adaptation, while at the same time being creative with many of the shots in his film.  He dispenses with the whole stage conceit and just adapts the play straightforward like it’s a historical epic.  But, at the same time, he does some daring things on film, particularly with lighting and editing.  The more gritty tone is carried through in this adaptation through the visuals, with Branagh utilizing real castles as a part of his staging.  Combine this with very violent recreations of the Battle of Agincourt’s skirmishes and you’ve got an adaptation that definitely de-mystifies the shiny image of the original play.  Branagh’s gritty portrayal of medieval times would prove to be highly influential beyond the film, inspiring movies like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and Braveheart (1995) in it’s wake.

But what ultimately separates the two films is in how well it actually remains true to Shakespeare’s play.  The different eras in which these plays were written again determine how well the adaptations hold up compared to what Shakespeare wrote.  In that regard, Olivier’s version for the most part is a film for it’s own time for a specific purpose, while Branagh’s version is more timeless and faithful to the story and character of Henry V.  That’s not to say that Laurence Olivier faulted in his adaptation.  His film is a spectacular piece of cinematic art, and a film largely responsible for ushering in a whole new way of adapting Shakespeare for the big screen.  But, it is clear that he was using Shakespeare’s text for a different purpose altogether.  With some very noticeable omissions in the adaptation, it’s clear that Olivier wanted to present a version of Henry V that was a bit more sanitized.  England needed a war time hero to inspire them, and that’s why he made his Henry much more regal and saintly.  This kind of approach is understandable given that time period, but it’s a far cry from the complex character that Shakespeare put down on the page originally.  In many ways, Olivier’s Henry V is contained more within a bottle of it’s own specific narrative, with the intent of making us aware of it’s purpose to present heroism in it’s purest form.  Branagh by contrast brings the character of Henry V back to what he is on the page, which is a king with a complex past.  It’s clear that there is an awareness of the background of Henry’s character in Branagh’s adaptation based not just on the original play itself, but from the real historical account of King Henry V, as well as the story that had been built up through the past Shakespearean plays in which Henry was the focus.  Branagh demonstrates the more modern idea that leaders are not born, but rather made through adversity, and that’s why his version of Henry is flawed and yet still worthy of his sacred place within English history.  His film far more seeks to get to the truth of who Henry V was rather than just make him a symbol.  That’s why he’s a better fit for a more complex time in which morality and honor are not so easily defined in a world that sees things more in shades of gray.

“We charge you in the name of God, take heed how you awake our sleeping sword of war.”

In either case, both Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh created incredible adaptations of the same source Shakespearean play.  What is most important from either version is that they show us the ideal ways to adapt Shakespeare for the big screen.  Their films are not merely straight from the stage adaptations, but instead versions of Henry V that take full advantage of the language of cinema.  Olivier’s version in particular is remarkably ahead of it’s time with it’s unique framing, and it showed many filmmakers thereafter exactly how to take Shakespeare’s words and make them come alive on film.  Kenneth Branagh picked up the mantle set by Olivier and modernized the Bard even more with his version of Henry V, getting back to the complex character of the original text, while at the same time grounding the style in a very lived in depiction.  While both actors do their best to make their heroes stand out, they are at the same time supported by other Shakespearean trained talent that likewise rise to the challenge.  Branagh’s film in particular is filled with a who’s who of some of the greatest British character actors from that time, including Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, Brian Blessed, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, and even a young Christian Bale.  What is really interesting about comparing the two versions of Henry V is how the context of the times in which they were made are reflective in the presentation, even as the text itself is still eternal and true to Shakespeare’s words.  Olivier’s version was a clear statement of war time resolve with the complexities of the play smoothed over, while Branagh’s version embraces the complexities and is not afraid to create a grittier version of the story for a more cynical time.  Overall, I feel like Olivier’s version is more of the time capsule, looking far less timeless than Branagh’s more earthbound version.  In a more complex world, Olivier’s unvarnished Henry V feels far less realistic.  But, that’s not to say it’s not worth viewing.  Despite it’s datedness, it’s still a great cinematic achievement and is enormously entertaining.  The crown goes more to Kenneth Branagh’s more complex and interesting version of Shakespeare’s Henry V, but Laurence Olivier’s Henry is still a movie fit for a king.

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.  For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”

Tinseltown Throwdown – The Mummy 1999 vs. The Mummy 2017

It’s interesting to look at the placement of the Mummy within the context of the movie monster pantheon.  Unlike it’s fellow monsters, the specter of the Mummy does not come from a literary source or folkloric tales.  Instead, he (or in some cases she) is a monster pulled right from the headlines of the day.  In 1922, around the golden age of silent cinema, renowned Egyptologist Howard Carter made an astounding discovery in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.  His archeological dig uncovered the burial chamber of King Tutankhamun.  Before this discovery, the world was already well aware of ancient tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs, and the practice of mummification.  But what made the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb so monumental was the fact that it was left untouched for thousands of years.  Left undiscovered by grave robbers and unspoiled by the elements of the Sahara Desert, King Tut’s tomb was a treasure trove for archeology and the best record yet of how the Egyptian people prepared their dead for the afterlife.  But, just as much as the discovery of King Tut’s tomb captured the imagination of the world, so did the aftermath.  In the years following the unearthing of King Tut’s tomb, several people involved in the discovery would die of mysterious causes.  Of course, the deaths once investigated have shown to have easy explanations, including pre-existing ailments that preceded the discovery of the tomb.  But, it was still suspicious enough at the time to lead people to believe that the Tomb of King Tut was cursed.  The idea of the curse continued to flame through the popular imagination, with even a renowned author like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame even giving credence to the idea.  This of course led Hollywood to pick up on the idea of Egyptian curses as concept to exploit in their films.  But they of course would imagine something far more physically iconic that a phantom curse silently poisoning those who have disturbed the tombs of the kings.  They would imagine the curse of the pharaohs as the dead literally coming back to live to seek revenge on the living.  And thus, we saw the emergence of Mummies as a monster within the movies.

Typically, when we think of a mummy as a movie monster, we think of a figure wrapped head to toe in burial cloths.  It’s pretty much how we see the mummified remains unearthed after thousands of years.  The impression of a person wrapped in tightly in a lying position, placed in a stone sarcophagus ornamented with gold and jewels and an artistic rendering of the person inside.  But, in the movies, the haunting image of a corpse come to life made that already foreboding image of mummified remains even spookier.  The movie that really cemented the image of a mummy as a cinematic monster was the 1932 film The Mummy.  Made by the masters of Hollywood horror, Universal Studios, The Mummy (1932) defined what would eventually be the iconic lore behind the Mummy and his curse on the big screen.  The film brought the actor responsible for bringing Frankenstein’s monster to life a year prior, Boris Karloff, but as Hollywood would see, Karloff would not repeat the same tricks he used for creating the other vocally impaired creature.  Playing the Imhotep, the mummy of the film is not a mindless monster but rather a sophisticated high priest seeking a lost love, or what he thinks is the re-incarnation of his lost love.  Karloff, though playing an Egyptian high priest, tapped more into his English sensibilities to play the Mummy here.  Still, Karloff distinctive facial features translated well into the spooky personage of the walking dead.  And with some still impressive make-up work, he presents a version of the mummy that still elicits scares, showing us the corrupted flesh that lies underneath those decaying cloth scarves.  Karloff’s original is still the archetype for all movie mummies that followed.  And like with Frankenstein, it’s not uncommon to hear a mummy speak with a classy British accent as a nod to Boris.  But over the years, many filmmakers have tried to put their own spin on the Mummy; with many attempts hoping to make the creature scarier and sinister.  Universal Studios of course have done their part too, bringing the character back multiple times in order to breathe new life into this legacy monster in their studio.  Two noteworthy attempts at reviving the Mummy on the big screen stand out, mainly due to the things they get right about the character and it’s legacy, and what they get wrong.  To see how the Mummy stacks up in different eras of a studio’s history, let’s take a look at the big differences between The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy (2017).

“I only gamble with my life, never my money.”

In the late 90’s, the digital revolution was beginning to become a dominant force in filmmaking.  Thanks to computer animation technology, movie studios were able to be unbound when it came to making the impossible look real.  Movies like Jurassic Park (1993), Independence Day (1996), and Armageddon (1998) were pushing the limit of what could be done on the big screen when it comes to thrilling action.  In the midst of all this, writer and director Stephen Sommers came to Universal with a pitch to reboot their Mummy franchise.  It was perfect timing because Universal could see the potential for using CGI technology to bring as creature like the mummy to life like never before.  Instead of an actor under layers of make-up, this mummy could instead look like an actual rotting corpse brought to life; accomplishing what filmmakers in the past could only dream of doing in bringing these creatures to life.  But, what was interesting about Sommers approach to the story was that while it was using the latest in cinematic technologies, his film was also gesturing to the past.  The 1999 Mummy very much is a throwback to Golden Age Hollywood, mainly in it’s characterizations and dialogue.  Far less scary and more of a swashbuckling action adventure.  You can easily see any of the characters in the movie being played by cinematic icons of the past; swap out Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz with Tyrone Power or Deborah Kerr and the movie would still feel the same.  The performances are cornball but earnest and the dialogue cheesy but pleasing, and 1999’s Mummy would find it’s place easily within the company of Hollywood classics like The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and Gunga Din (1939), and even the original 1932 Mummy.  It’s the CGI effects that set it apart, with some effects that hold up well over the years while others don’t.  Even still, the movie still has it’s fans over 20 years later, and it was a strong hit upon release, leading to two sequels in 2002 and 2007.  Still, like the original movie it took it’s lead from, 1999’s The Mummy was a product of it’s time and Universal wanted to keep it’s stable of movie monsters in line with the changing times.  So, another reboot came on the horizon.

“Welcome to a new world of gods and monsters.”

In 2017, Universal was looking to bring not just their movie Mummy back to the silver screen, but all of their monsters as well.  While they were planning this, another cinematic factor was coming into play.  The Walt Disney Company was enjoying enormous success with their Marvel Cinematic Universe, a multi-film franchise built upon each movie having a connection to a grander narrative.  This led to other studios wanting to establish cinematic universes of their own to exploit.  Naturally, Universal looked at their classic stable of movie monsters as their entry point into their new cinematic market.  They would take their stable of monsters, build new franchises around them, and sell audiences on the idea that all these characters would combine together just like Marvel was doing with theirs.  They would call this the “Dark Universe,” and Universal was eager to exploit their master plan.  In a textbook case of putting the cart before the horse, Universal’s Dark Universe tried a bit too hard to get people excited for this new phase in their movie monster legacy.  They announced plans for new films centered on Dracula, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man, and of course the Mummy.  Going even further, they even announced casting choices for their various franchises, which included Johnny Depp as the new Invisible Man, Javier Bardem as the Wolf Man, and Tom Cruise as the hero of their Mummy franchise.  It was all very ambitious, but there was one problem; they needed a movie to prove themselves first.  The first planned movie to launch this Dark Universe fell on The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise and Sofia Boutella as the titular villain.  Your ambitious plans for a cinematic universe are only as strong as the foundation that you build it upon, and 2017’s The Mummy is no Iron Man (2008).  It barely even is a Mummy movie, choosing instead to be a film derivative of so many other films and completely lacking in it’s own identity.  It’s just more or less a film formed out of a studio mandate and nothing more.  Suffice to say, the Dark Universe withered away quickly on the box office failure of The Mummy, making it a rare misfire for Tom Cruise as well.  All the planned Dark Universe films were scrapped and the actors were released from their commitments.  Now the Dark Universe stands as a cautionary tale of mismanaged studio hype, and it’s unfortunate that the sacrificial lamb that made Universal learn that lesson had to be the Mummy.

There is no doubt that 1999 The Mummy is the vastly superior film, but it’s interesting to see how the two stack up to each other, particularly in how it carries on the legacy of it’s titular monster.  Let’s take the depictions of the Mummy itself.  In this case, the 2017 version fares a bit better in comparison.  The movie does stir things up a bit in an interesting way by gender swapping the Mummy creature.  Instead of the rotting, cloth wrapped walking corpse found in other mummy movies, the character in the 2017 film brings a far more ghostly presence as the creature.  Pale skinned and covered in hieroglyphic tattoos, this is a very different mummy than what we’re used to, on top of being female.  Sofia Boutella’s background as a trained dancer also helps with her physicality in the role, as she contorts her body in unnatural ways.  I also give the movie credit for casting an actress of North African descent in the role as opposed to white European like past versions, although she Algerian and not Egyptian.  Still, her character is pretty limited in the film, which favors over-produced action in place of actual scares.  There is a neat visual with her eyes, as they divide into two pupils, but that’s about the extant of the creepiness with the character.  In the 1999 version however, there is more of an effort to make the Mummy appear more scary.  Though the CGI looks dated now, the effects were ground-breaking at the time in making the Mummy in his most rotten form look real and believable.  The most eerie version of the mummy appears later in the film, when he is halfway through his transformation back to his original self; with flesh on some parts of the body but not others.  In a sense, the character becomes less scary as he becomes more human, with actor Arnold Vosloo perhaps being too handsome a figure to be believably menacing.  At least there was a bit more menace in Sofia Boutella’s Mummy even as she appeared more human.  The general result is that while the physical, human Mummy in the 2017 version is still unique, the 1999 version that appears through the help of primitive CGI still feels closer to what the character should be, and perhaps shows the ideal way to portray the character overall; the one furthest away from looking human like as possible.

“Death is only the beginning.”

One of the biggest assets that the 1999 version has is that the story never takes itself too seriously.  It is a movie that understands what it needs to be and has fun with that.  The throwback to classic Hollywood storytelling is easy to get across to the viewer; with the characters not just dealing with the threat of the Mummy, but also finding themselves in pursuit of the classic Hollywood tool known as the MacGuffin. In this case, it’s the Book of the Living, a spell book that is key to Imhotep’s quest of unlocking his immortality.   In the midst of fighting the Mummy, there is romance and slapstick humor abound, much in the same way old Hollywood adventures would give audiences a little bit of everything in their movies.  You can see a lot of influence that 1999’s The Mummy had in revitalizing the swash-buckling adventure film, eventually leading to like-minded movies in the next decade like Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean films.  But what ultimately makes the story work is that it knows what it wants to be.  The same cannot be said about the 2017 version.  That version of The Mummy is merely meant to be a cog in the gears of a much bigger machine, which ironically never managed to be built.  It especially gets frustrating in the movie when the character of Dr. Jekyll is introduced into the story, played by Russell Crowe.  He brings the Mummy as well as Tom Cruise’s character Nick Morton to his laboratory, where Easter eggs alluding to other monsters are found everywhere.  It’s here where the goal of the movie becomes so blatant and transparent.  This is a movie meant for no other reason than to set up other movies.  The thing that makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe work so well is the fact that most of their movies are able to stand on their own outside of their place within the greater continuity of the the MCU.  Because The Mummy (2017) lacks it’s own identity, it’s use of Easter eggs and future foreshadowing just feels like the cheap gimmick that it is , and just further illustrates the outright failure that the Dark Universe was.  What’s even more insulting is that The Mummy (2017) just outright steals moments from better movies.  Throughout the film, Tom Cruise’s Nick is haunted by the ghost of his dead comrade, played by Jake Johnson.  The scenes where he communicates to Nick what is happening to him, while appearing as a half rotting talking corpse, is stolen directly from similar moments in An American Werewolf in London (1981).  Audiences know when they are being cheated and pandered to, and 2017’s Mummy is a clear example of a studio mistakenly thinking that the gimmick will carry the film through on it’s own.

One other thing that you can see working against the 2017 Mummy is the fact that it doesn’t have faith in the strength of it’s own titular character.  The movie first and foremost focuses on Tom Cruise’s character, and Cruise very much looks lost in this film.  The normally charismatic box office powerhouse just looks lost in this role, giving his character Nick zero personality.  What’s even more frustrating is that it seems like the movie was treating his journey here like a superhero origin story because (not that you guys would care for spoilers for a movie like this) by the end of the movie, he somehow ends up with the powers of the Mummy, which you would presume would factor in more in future films that were planned.  And though Cruise can play action heroes that are worth rooting for, from Ethan Hunt to Maverick, his Nick is so devoid of redeemable qualities in the film that you honestly don’t care if he lives or dies by the end.  He is a mercenary who becomes cursed because he sought to enrich himself out of raiding an ancient tomb, and honestly he’s the kind of person who deserves the bad fortune that comes his way.  He’s no Iron Man, Captain America, or Batman for that matter, whose origins involve personal growth as they accept their responsibilities as super heroes.  Tom Cruise could play that kind of character, but the movie never allows for that kind of growth, because it’s far more interested in franchise building.  By contrast, 1999’s The Mummy fares better with their characters by keeping it simple.  The main hero and heroine are simple archetypes and are dependent on the actors playing them to fill out that personality.  Thankfully the parts are well cast.  Brendan Fraser perfectly fills the role of the affable, dashing hero Rick O’Connell, whose just got the right balance of roguish swagger and cheeky buffoonery.  Rachel Weisz perfectly compliments this as the resourceful, bookworm Evelyn Carnahan; the lady you can rely upon to explain all the lore to the audience in an informative way, while at the same time holding her own in the thick of a fight.  They are not deep characterizations, but the movie doesn’t require them to be.  All they need to be is likable, and worth rooting for, and the movie does this well by emphasizing the chemistry between the characters and endearing us to them through humor and harrowing action.  It also helps that Fraser and Weisz look at home in a throwback style movie like this one.  You could easily see their same performances working in a movie 40-50 years prior to this one.  In contrast, the 2017 Mummy feels even more like a cheat, because it took one of the most charismatic actors ever in Hollywood, and made him absolutely boring as a result in their movie.

“Sometimes it takes a monster to fight a monster.”

I think that the one thing that both movies fall short on in the long run is that they failed to make the Mummy into a scary force within their stories.  The classic monster movies of the past did a brilliant job of scaring audiences with perfectly spooky atmosphere and ambitious monster make-up and effects for their time.  One thing that we learned from these Mummy reboots in the digital era is that CGI does not make mummies any scarier.  To 1999’s Mummy’s credit, it did at least try.  The largely decayed mummy in that film does look like what a scary version of this is supposed to be, and is only undermined by the limitations of computer animation at the time.  While the 2017 mummy is unique, the last thing you can call it is scary.  One would hope that a bolder horror filmmaker out there can figure out a better way to create a realistic looking mummy that does manage to scare it’s audience.  It could be done, but it’s likely going to come from an outsider attempt and far less likely to come out of Hollywood.  The Mummy movies we are more familiar with from the movie industry tend to be more in the realm of action adventure and less from the realm of horror.  It probably has to do with the limitations of characterization when it comes to the Mummy itself.  Most of these movies focus more on the human characters either hunting down the mummy or being hunted by it.  From the two movies contrasted here, the 1999 film better understood the assignment.  It’s not trying to scare it’s audience, but rather bring new life into an old cinematic property while still appealing to a broad audience; and in that regards it succeeded handsomely.  The 2017 Mummy was just a blatant cash grab and nothing more, wasting the talents of not just those involved in the movie, but of all the people who placed their bets on that failed Dark Universe master plan.  But, if you want to experience a movie that genuinely captures the spooky aura of a Mummy adventure done right, watch the original 1932 version starring Boris Karloff.  It may be quaint by today’s standards of horror, but it does the best job of capturing the atmosphere of what this kind of movie is supposed to be, and Karloff’s take on the character is appropriately menacing.  A mummy movie doesn’t necessarily need to be spooky, but it does help if the creature at it’s center is chilling enough put him in the same league with other iconic movie monsters.

“For the record, if I don’t make it out of here, don’t put me down for mummification.”


Tinseltown Throwdown – West Side Story 1961 vs. West Side Story 2021

There are few movie musicals that have managed to cross over from the stage to the screen without losing any of it’s artistry.  The two mediums couldn’t be more different.  For a stage musical, everything is laid out in front of you at once, and your eye is allowed to wander and catch all the details of character and staging put there under the curtain.  For a movie, your eye is always directed to what the film wants you to see.  On stage, everything is artificial and the art directors and actors work with the power of suggestion to create a sense of a greater world than what our eyes see before us.  In a movie, the world is real and tactile.  The musical genre can and has thrived in both mediums of entertainment, but rarely do you see a crossover hit.  Some stage musicals have been turned into terrible movies, and some movie musicals have turned into terrible stage productions.  There are however a few musicals that have managed to crossover and in some cases, be considered among the greatest musicals of all time, both on stage and screen.  One such musical that definitely fits this bill is the classic West Side Story.  First staged on Broadway in 1957, the musical West Side Story took the age old story of Romeo and Juliet and re-contextualized it into a gang war on the streets of contemporary New York City’s West Side.  The book was written by playwright Arthur Laurents and the music was written by concert virtuoso Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics to the songs written by a very young Stephen Sondheim (making his Broadway debut).  Though that line-up of talent was impressive enough, the chief creative force behind the stage musical was director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, whose unique style of dance became the defining element of the musical.  West Side Story’s Broadway debut was a watershed moment for the theatrical industry and it instantly became a highly influential show in the years that followed.  And naturally such a huge success on the Broadway stage is bound to get the attention of Hollywood.

A mere couple of years after it’s stage debut, West Side Story was picked up by United Artists for a screen adaptation.  As part of the deal to make the picture, Jerome Robbins was tasked with continuing on as Director, just so they could maintain the same artistic quality that was his distinctive style.  However, Robbins was inexperienced in the field of film direction, so United Artists decided to add a co-director to the film to take charge of the cinematic side of the production.  That man was Robert Wise, who only a couple years later would go on to solo direct another beloved musical for the silver screen; 1965’s The Sound of Music.  With Wise keeping everything looking good on camera and Robbins working tirelessly with the performers to master their complex dance moves, the production of West Side Story went well on it’s way.  The cast was made up of a lot of talent straight from the Broadway stage, but there were also some well known faces from Hollywood in there as well; for better and worse.  Rising star Richard Beymer was given the key role of Tony (the musical’s Romeo stand-in) and Russ Tamblyn, who had previously shown off his dancing skills in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) was cast as Riff, leader of the Jets gang.  Rita Moreno had been playing bit parts in Hollywood for the better part of a decade (often in demeaning ethnic roles) but now was being given a chance to play an authentic Puerto Rican role for the first time as Anita.  And then there was the choice of Natalie Wood in the Role of Maria (the Juliet of this story); a pick that was even controversial in it’s own time.  Despite that, West Side Story became a smash hit at the box office and went on to win a staggering 10 Academy Awards, second at the time only to Ben-Hur (1959) which had 11.  Over time, the musical has been a high water mark for movie musicals and was often seen as untouchable for several decades afterwards.  Who would even dare to attempt to make another version of West Side Story for the big screen?

“When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way.  From your first cigarette to your last dyin’ day.”

Steven Spielberg, that’s who.  Spielberg of course is a film director in a class all his own.  With a career now in it’s seventh decade, Spielberg had seemed to be a filmmaker with no more mountains left to climb.  But, in all that time, he had never once directed a musical.  There were musical moments in a number of his movies (the opening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom comes to mind), but a full blown musical film was something that had always eluded him for years.  I’m sure for Spielberg, the choice for his first musical had to be a special one; one where his unique cinematic tastes would feel right at home.  So, it’s a little surprising that even though there have been plenty of un-adapted stage productions that he could have chosen from, as well as ideas for original movie musicals, he instead chose to take on a musical which had already conquered the screen before.  Not only that, but West Side Story is still to this day held up as one of not just the greatest musical movies of all time, but one of the greatest films period.  A few believed that even someone like Spielberg couldn’t make it happen; myself included (I mistakenly put it on my Movies to Skip list last year).  But, credit the master for finding a way to not only rise up to the challenge, but in some ways even surpassing the original.  Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story is a remarkably self assured movie musical for someone who has never worked in the genre before, and it makes you wonder why it took Stephen this long to actually getting around to it.  Despite being hampered by lower pandemic era box office (including a year long delay from it’s original premiere) 2021’s West Side Story has been a hit in the critical community, and like it’s predecessor, it has been an awards season favorite.  It may not match the original’s Best Picture win, but it’s still likely to come away with some gold.  What is interesting to note is that despite being from the same source material, the new West Side Story doesn’t feel at all like a remake, but rather like a revival; a new spin on a familiar story better contextualized for our modern day.  Comparing the two versions, it’s interesting to see how the same elements have been used differently to help make each film it’s own unique thing.

“Tonight, tonight, It all began tonight, I saw you and the world went away.”

One of the most striking differences between the movies is the use of it’s setting.  For the original, the 1961 version opened with a striking flyover of the island of Manhattan, and it’s concrete jungle of streets and skyscrapers.  It then brings us down to street level, where we see the rival gangs of the White Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, introduced with rhythmic finger snapping to Bernstein’s score.  The incredible element of this opening is that it’s all on location in the real New York.  There’s nothing that feels more cinematic than watching dancers perform ballet like moves on the same streets and sidewalks that are no doubt littered with traffic on an average day.  However, after that opening scene, the rest of the movie goes indoors, with the remaining scenes shot on soundstages; feeling very akin to the artificial look of how it would appear on stage. Though the movie does lose that authenticity of the real world, it still does capture a sense of place through the rest of the film that gives the movie character.  The jungle like rows of clotheslines and fire escapes for instance take on this iconic look for the film.  Spielberg’s film on the other hand spends a bit more time outdoors, though not in any real place.  Spielberg’s West Side Story is a period piece, set in the same time as the original, but with a landscape of a New York City that no longer exists.  What is an especially welcome addition to this story is the backdrop of a real life transformation that occurred in the real West Side.  During the 1950’s and 60’s, the old West Side was being demolished building by building to make way for new luxury high rises and ironically, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.  Both Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner added this element to the story to give a tragic context to underline an extra dilemma in the lives of these characters, as they are watching their neighborhood literally disappear.  Spielberg’s production team did a phenomenal job recreating this moment in history, with the West Side appearing like a bombed out city in a surreal and sad way.  Both films accomplish the best that they can in visualizing the musical for the screen, and in many ways are pretty equal in terms of visual splendor.

What’s also interesting in the production of both musicals is the way that they use the well known songs in different ways.  All the songs from the stage musical are in both films, but their placements are a bit different, and they offer different contexts to what’s being sung in those moments.  What I find interesting is the choice of song used after the pivotal Rumble scene.  The rumble, of course is the crucial moment where Riff is killed by the Sharks’ leader Bernardo (George Chakiris in 1961, David Alverez in 2021), the brother of Maria.  Bernardo is then killed by Tony in revenge, leaving two main characters tragically killed in that moment.  In the 1961 version, the song “Cool” is used to follow that scene, with the Jets trying to find a way to cope with the tragedy they just witnessed.  This song especially features some of the most distinctly Robbins-esque choreography of the whole movie and is a tour de force of staging for the screen.  In Spielberg’s version, the song “Cool” is performed before the Rumble by Tony (Ansel Elgort) as a warning to Riff (Michael Faist).  The song is much less powerful in that context, as it just serves to give Tony one more song in Spielberg’s version, and the dancing is not as impressive.  But, Spielberg makes a very interesting choice in moving Maria’s song “I Fell Pretty” into a post Rumble placement.  It adds a new tragic connotation to that song that isn’t in the 1961 version.  In that trade off, Spielberg actually improves on the number, by giving it more weight than it had before.  There is one musical number that thankfully shines in both versions; that being the iconic show-stopping number “America.”  But even there, both movies have their own unique spins on the song that make it work for their own movies.  In the original, Anita, Bernardo, and the remaining Jets all perform the song on a rooftop under a starry night sky.  In Spielberg’s version, it’s performed on the streets in bright, sunny daylight.  The original also hold the camera still for long takes that lets the viewer take in Jerome Robbins’ incredible choreography, while the newer one almost lets the camera dance along with the characters with some incredible flowing cinematography from DP Janusz Kaminski.  These are some interesting creative choices that both work in each movie’s favor, though some in more interesting ways than others.

“See the pretty girl in that mirror there?  Who can that attractive girl be?  Such a pretty face, such a pretty dress, such a pretty smile.  Such a pretty me!”

There is no doubt that the most crucial difference between the movies, and the one that definitely works in Spielberg’s favor is the casting.  West Side Story is a story about a clash of cultures, but up until now, we haven’t seen that idea actually depicted correctly on screen.  A sad commentary on the time it was made, but most of the Puerto Rican characters in the original West Side Story were played by White actors in brown face.  Even Rita Moreno, the only authentic Puerto Rican actor in the cast, was made to darken her fair skin for the role.  This has been a contentious point in retrospect for the film, and it sadly makes this well-meaning production about racial tolerance feel hypocritical by today’s eyes.  Despite this, the performances in the original are still strong.  Both Moreno and Greek-American George Chakiris won Oscars for their roles as Anita and Bernardo.  And despite being entirely wrong for the role to begin with, Natalie Wood still tries her best as Maria.  Thankfully when it came to casting the new version, Spielberg went out of his way to make sure that the Latino representation was accurate for his cast.  The biggest improvement of course was in finding a true Latina actress to play Maria, which they did with Columbian-American Rachel Zegler.  She has that same wide-eyed innocence found in Wood’s version, but without the cringe brown face make-up, and she is not dubbed this time like Natalie Wood was.  The rest of the cast also is made up of Broadway regulars, and the incredible Rita Moreno returns to play a different role at the age of 90; an incredible 60 years after her first run with the musical.  The new version does have a weak spot, however, and it’s sadly Ansel Elgort as Tony.  Off screen scandals aside, he’s not exactly giving a terrible performance in this movie.  It just becomes clear as you watch the film that he’s a movie actor in a cast full of Broadway stars.  he doesn’t ruin the movie as a whole, but you can also feel him dragging the film away from all-time status.  Still, the fact that Spielberg went out of his way to right a few cinematic wrongs when it came to representation in his movie, as well as doing some consulting with key members of the Puerto Rican and general Latino communities, is a commendable act, and something that this musical really need for the big screen.

If I were to say that there’s is something that the original still has over the newer version, it’s the level of choreography presented.  The dancing in Spielberg’s West Side Story is not bad by any means, and they are especially highlighted with Spielberg’s legendary oners that he always works into his movies.  But, they also feel like the standard balletic moves that you see performed in any standard stage musical.  The original West Side Story first and foremost reminds you that it’s a Jerome Robbins’ musical.  His style of choreography has it’s own unique character, and it’s on full display in the original.  Sure, he put his dancers through hell during the making of this movie, with some of them dancing until their heels were bleeding through their shoes.  But, all of that hard work is presented there on screen, and the dance numbers in the original are still unmatched all these years later.  I think that’s what helps to keep the movie with the lofty reputation that it still enjoys today.  It’s a musical with character that could only be achieved through the vision of it’s original creator.  Robbins brought this musical to life on the stage, so it’s only fitting that he managed to faithfully carry it over onto the silver screen.  With Robert Wise helping to give it that cinematic grandeur, allowing not an inch of that incredible 70mm frame to go to waste, 1961’s West Side Story is a musical all unto it’s own.  Just the way that the dancers contort their bodies in that stylized way is something that only Jerome Robbins could’ve imagined.  I credit Spielberg for not trying to even attempt to match that level of choreography, instead focusing on the interesting ways to shoot his dance scene; very much acting in a more Robert Wise sense.  Both versions are certainly stellar representation of staging incredible dance scenes for a musical; only one is clearly more standard while the other is a bit more Avant Garde.

“There’s a place for us, a time a place for us.  Hold my hand and we’re halfway there.  Hold my hand and I’ll take you there, somehow, some day, somewhere!”

You’ve definitely got to hand it to Spielberg.  He did the nearly unthinkable by trying to follow in the footsteps of a masterpiece and in turn created one of his own.  I especially respect how Spielberg managed to find his own voice in this iconic musical, and not try in any way to upstage the original.  It’s an adaptation that’s respectful of the original, but at the same time, asserts it’s own own perspective.  It’s especially superior in getting across the original message of the story, as Spielberg managed to have an actual culturally diverse cast on board.  The original still, however, I think stands just a little higher.  It might be just because it’s so familiar to us, being an iconic and influential film for so many years.  It’s also because there’s just so much character found in that original.  The Jerome Robbins’ choreography is often imitated, but never matched and West Side Story is no doubt his masterwork.  But, I would definitely say that from a cinematography standpoint, Spielberg’s film is far more dynamic an experience.  The way he soars a camera around a scene, like the incredible Dance in the Gymnasium, is just breathtaking.  Once again, it’s unbelievable that this is Spielberg’s first foray into movie musicals.  It’s like he’s been preparing for this opportunity his whole life.  He never once tries to copy a shot from the original, creating a version of West Side Story that’s all in his own voice, and that helps to make it escape the definition of a remake.  It’s Spielberg’s West Side Story while the original is Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story; two great artists giving us two unique perspectives on the same story.  It will be interesting to see how well Spielberg’s version holds up over the years.  Will it have the same kind of legacy as the original.  Too early to know, but one thing is for sure, and that’s the fact that Spielberg proved himself as a musical director.  Regardless of which version you chose, you will be treated to a musical for the ages.  And it’s remarkable that this one musical has managed to make it’s mark with not one, but two distinctive classics in it’s honored history.

“I like the island Manhattan.  Smoke on your pipe and put that in!”

Tinseltown Throwdown – Mary Poppins vs. My Fair Lady

Whenever I spotlight movies with similar plots and thematic elements in this series, it’s usually a competition between movies that are indirect competition, whose standing as a movie doesn’t necessarily need to be defined with it’s comparison to another.  But there are instances in Hollywood history where movies were indeed made to compete against one another, and in some cases, the behind the scenes story of these competitions becomes just as intriguing as the movies themselves.  Such was the case with the year 1964, when the big budget movie musical saw a brief revival in the early part of that decade and hit a high point when two studios actively jumped in and took shots at placing itself atop with their own additions to the genre.  Surprising to many is that this cutthroat competition at the box office involves two musicals with the unlikeliest of settings to appeal to a broad American audience; that being turn of the century Edwardian England.  The two movies in question were of course the Broadway to Hollywood transplant that was Warner Brothers’ My Fair Lady (1964) and the cinematic original Mary Poppins (1964) from Walt Disney Productions.  Today, these two movies are quaint, audience pleasing relics of a bygone era in old Hollywood, but it may surprise many that behind the scenes, these movies involved a back and forth war between two studio giants that saw the making and breaking of creative partnerships between the executives and the talent involved.  Despite the turmoil behind the scenes, the movies still became huge successes for both parties, and both remain perennial favorites for cinephiles everywhere.  But based on their weaknesses and strengths, it is interesting looking at how they stack up together, especially considering their shared history.  So, let’s take that jolly holiday back to Golden Age Hollywood and see which lady remains the fairer.

First off it is interesting looking how these two movies came into being in the first place.  My Fair Lady had previously started on the Broadway stage in 1958, with music and lyrics by the team of Lerner & Lowe, the same people who turned Camelot into a massive hit on the stage a couple years prior.  The musical itself was based on the famous play Pygmalion by English playwright George Bernard Shaw, which itself was inspired by the Greek myth of the same name.  The musical added songs, but still retained the core plot, characters and whit of Shaw’s original piece.  Lady of course was a smash hit and Hollywood took notice immediately.   Warner Brothers won out in a bidding war with other studios and began development immediately on a screen adaptation.  Unfortunately for them, the movie languished for a while as it became harder and harder to fill the different roles with actors that would fit.  In the end, it was decided that the original Broadway cast would be carried over, except for one notable exclusion; the original Eliza Doolittle, Julie Andrews.  According to historians, Andrews was passed over because Warner Brothers’ head Jack Warner didn’t view her as a big enough name to carry a movie this size.  Rex Harrison, the other lead in the musical playing Professor Henry Higgins, was just coming off a major role as Julius Ceaser in Fox’s Cleopatra (1963), which shielded him from the same scrutiny, so unfortunately for Ms. Andrews, who had yet to make the jump from stage to screen was denied her shot, despite the rave reviews she had earned before in the role.  Jack Warner instead turned to Oscar-winning screen legend Audrey Hepburn for the role of Eliza, which turned a few heads in the industry because Hepburn did not have a musical background.  She had sung on screen before, including the song “Moonriver” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), but that was a far cry from what she was going to undertake as Eliza Doolittle, which is not an easy role.  And indeed, even Jack Warner began to have second thoughts, even after passing over Julie for Audrey.  He made the controversial decision to dub over all of Audrey’s singing tracks with an uncredited vocalist named Marni Nixon, who had previously done dub work for Deborah Kerr in The King and I (1956).  Unfortunately, the news of this replacement broke through and became a scandal of it’s own, which sadly reflected back on Audrey Hepburn and damaged her reputation as a vocalist on screen for some time after.

“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.  You find the fun, and snap…the job’s a game.”

Meanwhile, Disney was in the midst of it’s own tumultuous development of a big screen musical.  Instead of taking a known property from the stage, Walt Disney and company set out to create one from scratch, adapting a well known children’s book series to screen.  This two languished on for years, as Walt Disney had to contend with Mary Poppins’ notoriously stubborn original author P. L. Travers in order to secure the rights.  The back and forth with Ms. Travers itself inspired it’s own movie called Saving Mr. Banks (2013), starring Emma Thompson as Travers and Tom Hanks as Disney.  Walt did eventually get Travers on board, though just barely, and set out to make Mary Poppins the culmination of all his cinematic prowess that he had gained up to this point.  With a collection of catchy songs by the Sherman Brothers and top notch talent assembled from across the studio, Disney had the movie ready to roll.  There was only one issue left; who would play Mary?  As it turned out, Walt had a gift land right into his lap as Warner Brothers discarded one of the top tier Broadway talents off of their My Fair Lady adaptation, and she was suddenly available.  Walt, who was also a fan of Broadway, had been trying to sway Julie Andrews over to his studio ever since her introduction in Camelot, and not one to miss an opportunity, he took full advantage of Jack Warner’s misstep.  Julie Andrews was offered the role of Mary Poppins without ever auditioning, and she gladly accepted the part on the spot.  With their Mary in place, Disney’s production went into full swing, just as Warner Brothers was deep into production with their Andrews-less My Fair Lady.  With high expectations for both, they entered cinemas months apart, Poppins first in the summer and then Lady in the late fall, and were both immediate smash hits.  Indeed, their competition lasted long into the next year and gave a huge boost to the then flailing movie musical genre.  This extended well into Oscar Season, where My Fair Lady came out on top with the Best Picture honor, but Julie Andrews (the one Jack Warner thought was not ready for the movies) earning Best Actress, in a race where Audrey Hepburn had been completely shut out of.

“The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain.”

It might be easy to view this as a case of Audrey Hepburn being horribly miscast in the role of Eliza Doolittle, but that entirely not true at all.  Audrey’s performance in My Fair Lady is actually quite strong and divorced from all the controversy surrounding her casting in this film, one could look at this movie and believe rightly that Audrey Hepburn is actually perfectly cast in the part.  It’s Warner Brothers, and Jack Warner in particular, who are responsible for shaping the controversial reputation of her role in the film with their terrible mismanagement of the back stage drama that unfolded.  When she’s onscreen, Audrey is magnetic.  She brings an infectious energy to the role, does surprisingly well with Eliza’s cockney accent in the early part of the movie, and just looks flat out amazing in the lavish dresses.  In many ways, the reason why her performance falters in the overall movie is not her fault at all.  It’s an incomplete performance, made all the more noticeable by the fact that Marni Nixon’s melodic voice is so different than her own.  Nixon has a thoroughly stage trained voice meant to invoke power, whereas Hepburn’s singing voice comes from a more earthbound place.  That’s not to say they couldn’t make Hepburn’s more natural tones work for the role.  Over the years snippets of Hepburn’s real vocal tracks have emerged and they prove that she indeed had the vocal range to deliver in this role, but sadly we get the mismatch that occurs in the final film, and it is a negative reflection on the film.  No inconsistencies exist in Mary Poppins on the other side.  Walt knew fully well of the gift he was granted with the angelic voice of Julie Andrews it is used to the fullest in Poppins.  From “Spoon Full of Sugar” to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” to “Feed the Birds”, Julie’s Mary imbues the movie with unimaginable grace, and her Mary remains to this day one of the most beloved movie heroines of all time.  Not only that, but Julie also shows a maturity in front of the camera that you wouldn’t expect from a Hollywood novice, and it immediately brought her fully off the stage and onto the screen.  And yes, Jack Warner realized this as well, only after it was too late.

But, My Fair Lady does have many elements that make it stand out strong in comparison to it’s competitor, and in some ways is even superior in comparison.  One is the story itself.  Mary Poppins is a thoroughly entertaining piece of cinema on the whole, but one nitpick that someone might make about it is that it’s light on story.  Mary Poppins, a magical nanny, swoops into the lives of the Banks family and through a series of extraordinary events, manages to repair their fractured relationship before leaving to return to wherever she came from.  It’s the nature of adapting a narrative from a episodic series like the original Poppins books that the movie itself would take on an episodic structure.  That’s essentially what we get in Mary Poppins.  It’s a movie with interconnected adventures loosely tied together, and as great as those individual adventures are, they really don’t have much bearing on the overall story.  Much of the narrative drive of Mary Poppins is not focused her, nor the Banks children but instead on George Banks, the father (played superbly by David Tomlinson) who’s the only character with an arc in the movie.  Mary Poppins, throughout the entire movie, remains mostly an enigma, providing instigation to the plot rather than any active participation.  By comparison, the character arcs in My Fair Lady are far more layered and intriguing.  Taking it’s cue from George Bernard Shaw, Lady has much more bite to it than Mary Poppins.  It takes the risk of introducing it’s characters in a not so flattering light upfront, with Eliza Doolittle introduced being a brash, unsophisticated street vendor and Henry Higgins introduced as a misogynistic high class jerk who looks down on the poor.  It’s a story about transformation, as Eliza goes from Cockney to classy, and in turn she forces a change in Higgins where he begins to learn the error of his ways and softens his brash façade.  A tried old tale of a selfish man believing that he can craft the perfect woman, only to find that a perfect woman is one that doesn’t need him in order to feel complete, and him in turn forced to change his ways to prove his own worth.  Shaw reinvisioned it for his own time in Pygmalion, and the musical perfectly carries that forward through song, and you can see the same story play out in more a modern reimagining like Pretty Woman (1990) and She’s All That (1999).  Overall, it’s what gives My Fair Lady extra cinematic weight over the more airy Mary Poppins.

“Winds in the east, mist coming in.  Like somethin’ is brewin’ and ’bout to begin.  Can’t put my finger on what lies in store, but I feel what’s to happen all happened before.”

Another thing that My Fair Lady has over Poppins is a more commanding second lead.  Much has been said about the controversial choice of casting Dick Van Dyke as a cockney voiced chimney sweep in Edwardian London.  True, Dick Van Dyke is a national treasure and a still living legend as of this writing, and his presence in Mary Poppins is a welcome one, especially in the musical numbers where he excels.  However, the accent is notoriously bad, as the all-American star of stage and screen finds it well out of his range to convince us he’s a Cockney.  Compared to his co-star whose Englishness is gracefully on display through the whole movie, he definitely looks a bit out of place, though his chemistry with Julie is strong.  In My Fair Lady, we get Rex Harrison at the height of his power as a performer.  In a sense, this was a difficult role to undertake, as Henry Higgins is not an easy character to like.  With such a backwards, toxic view of the opposite sex, how are we ever to believe that Henry Higgins can be a worthwhile romantic foil for Eliza Doolittle by the end of the movie.  Somehow, Rex Harrison manages to balance all that perfectly in his performance.  His delightfully salty insults carry this edge of ridiculousness that helps to soften the blow and make the character intriguing to the audience.  Only an actor with the kind of presence as Rex Harrison could believably pull this off, because if you were to say the things that Henry Higgins says to Eliza in the movie outside of context in the real world, you’re probably opening yourself up for a workplace harassment suit.  An interesting side note about Harrison’s performance in the film is that he refused to do a dub track for himself.  As a veteran stage actor, he was used to delivering a different level of performance with every show, and he wanted to maintain that even in the movie.  If they pre-recorded his voice, it wouldn’t match what he was giving them in front of the camera.  So, unlike his fellow actors, he had his vocal tracks recorded live on the set instead of in a separate booth later.  If you look closely in the movie, there are hidden mics sewn into his costumes, such as a tie or a corsage pinned to his suit, just so they could capture his singing in the moment.

One of the things that both movies actually illustrate brilliantly together is the level of production design that went into making them.  Despite the fact that both movies are set in Edwardian London during the early part of the 20th century, it will amaze many to know that both movies were actually shot entirely in sunny Burbank, California and completely indoors on soundstages at their respective studio lots.  In fact, it’s quite possible that both movies were shooting simultaneously within only a mile distance from one another; I know, I’ve walked that actual distance between the studios, it can be done in less than 15 minutes (depending on the timing of the crosswalks).  It’s amazing how both films are still able to convey an authentic sense of time and place even under these conditions.  You never question the fact that you’re looking at studio built sets that invoke the feeling of the outdoors.  In some cases, they really pulled out all stops to convey authenticity, like the Ascot Gavotte sequence in My Fair Lady, where the crew actually had real race horses gallop at full speed across the different ends of the stage to make it feel like the characters were at a real track.  Still, there are several moments in My Fair Lady where it’s hard to shake off the stage bound origins it derives from.  It’s a very interior heavy film, and a lot of the movie is set within people’s homes and far fewer set out in the open streets.  Mary Poppins on the other hand expands far beyond the limits of the soundstage.  Spends much more of it’s time outside, which feels authentic and detailed even though it’s all still in a soundstage.  With a combination of brilliant set design, plus exquisitely detailed matte paintings done by the legendary Peter Ellenshaw, Mary Poppins gives you a more fully enriched and alive London, which feels remarkably real to the viewer.  The movie even broke ground by placing it’s actors in an animated world (Disney’s strong suit) in a still impressive to this day visual effect.  Though My Fair Lady has top notch production values, Mary Poppins on the whole is the movie that takes the most advantage of it’s cinematic options and in general feels the most alive.  When you can convince an audience that they are indeed in cold, damp London, England and not in a scorching hot soundstage in Burbank, California, you know you’ve done right.

“The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.”

In the end, audiences were blessed with two classics that have indeed withstood the test of time to remain cinematic favorites to this day.  Indeed, for some it’s hard to choose one over the other, because they are both so brilliantly crafted and offer different experiences.  The one thing that binds them together is the fact that one movie benefitted from the callous oversight of the other and created this fascinating “what if” scenario that cinephiles have speculated over.  How different would things have been had Jack Warner not shunned Julie Andrews and allowed her to play the role she had created for the stage originally?  Would Mary Poppins have been the masterpiece that it is had someone else filled Andrews place in the role?  Would Audrey Hepburn have escaped that unfortunate cloud of controversy that would leave a mark on her otherwise flawless career?  Certainly in the end Julie Andrews got the last laugh.  Upon receiving a Golden Globe win before her inevitable Oscar, she thanked in her speech the man responsible for making it happen, Mr. Jack Warner, in a not so subtle dig at the man who thought she was not ready for the big screen.  It is indeed unthinkable to imagine anyone else in the original role of Mary Poppins than Julie Andrews, and it was a stroke of great timing on Walt Disney’s part to bring her on board the moment she was available.  And of course she would carry that on into an even bigger role as Maria von Trapp in the juggernaut that was The Sound of Music (1965) a year later.  One thing that I hope no one overlooks is that Audrey Hepburn was not an inferior replacement; she was a great Eliza Doolittle in her own right.  I think taken on that alone most audiences today will recognize that she is indeed one of the things that makes My Fair Lady a continuing classic to this day.  Mary Poppins is indeed the more ambitious of the two, but My Fair Lady holds it’s own with impressive production values and great performances to it’s credit as well.  It’s a close call competition that leaves a stellar legacy for both productions that are both “loverly” and “practically perfect in every way.”

“It’s a Jolly Holiday with Mary.  No wonder that it’s Mary that we love.”

Tinseltown Throwdown – Shrek vs. Monsters Inc.

You would be hard pressed to find a career within the movie industry that has experienced the kinds of highs and lows of those that happened to Jeffrey Katzenberg.  Once a rising star executive at two major studios, Katzenberg had a notorious falling out with one that led to his eventual and lucrative collaboration with some of Hollywood’s biggest players, creating a new landmark studio which he then left behind to pursue a new game-changing venture that ultimately became one of the biggest blunders in media history.  The story of Katzenberg’s rises and falls are no doubt going to become the stuff of Hollywood legend, but there is no doubt that such tumultuous career could only belong to a creative executive who throughout his whole life has done nothing but bold steps.  He first began his meteoric rise through the ranks at Paramount Pictures, where he managed to successfully revive the Star Trek franchise for the big screen.  After that, he followed the then President of Paramount, Michael Eisner, to a new assignment at the Walt Disney Studios, where the latter was taking the reigns as the new CEO.  Under Eisner’s watchful eye, Katzenberg was put in charge of the dwindling animation department; a field that Katzenberg knew nothing about.  But, despite the lack of experience, Katzenberg oversaw a revival of animation at the studio with what is now known as the Disney Renaissance.  However, his relationship with Eisner soured despite all the success, and he parted ways with Disney in a highly publicized feud that in many ways scared Katzenberg’s reputation in Hollywood.  But, in a few months time, Katzenberg teamed up with two of the biggest names in showbiz, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, to co-create what ultimately would be his most lasting legacy; Dreamworks Animation.

For Katzenberg, starting his own animation unit at Dreamworks was more than just a creative endeavor; it was also about besting Disney at their own game.  This was readily apparent from the get go, as it became suspiciously convenient that both Disney and Dreamworks had computer animated movies with insects as characters being developed at the same time (1998’s Antz and A Bug’s Life).  The same would apply for a number of other simultaneous releases within the same year, like two movies with a Latin American setting (Dreamworks’ The Road to El Dorado and Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove) or two movies about aquatic wildlife (Dreamworks’ Shark Tale and Disney’s Finding Nemo).  Because the movies were so close together, you couldn’t say one was copying the other due to the lengthy production periods that animated movies need to be completed, and there were enough different elements in each one to dispel any complaints of plagiarism.  But, even still, there was a definite strategy behind Dreamworks’ direct challenges to the powerhouse that was Disney.  And the reason why it worried Disney was because Dreamworks was successful at it.  Katzenberg not only was redefining the animated movie over at Dreamworks, with it’s more edgy style, he was also getting the mainstream audiences to jump on board as well.  The PG-rated The Prince of Egypt (1998) became the first non-Disney animated film to cross the $100 million mark at the box office, and Antz‘s more adult humor became much more of a hit with the critical community than the “safe” family friendly A Bug’s Life.   But one of the most crucial head to head battles occurred twenty years ago, in the year 2001, when Dreamworks delivered it’s first true mega hit, Shrek,  into theaters, with Disney and their animation partner Pixar delivering another film centered around a monster protagonist called Monsters Inc. only a few months after.   The head to head battle at the time certainly favored Dreamworks, and it also sparked a rivalry with the two studios that would come to dominate the following decade.  But in the years since, does Shrek still come out on top of Monsters, or did the long game work in the latter’s favor.  More than anything, this rivalry certainly reveals an interesting window into what drove the future of animation into the new millennium.

“Monsters Incorporated.  We scare, because we care.”

Animation was in a state of flux at the time that Shrek and Monsters Inc. made their way into theaters.  The hand drawn style that Jeffrey Katzenberg had helped bring back from the dead and dominated the decade prior, was again falling behind, thanks in no small part to the rise of computer animation.  The double blow of these two movies in the same year no doubt was one of final death blows to traditional animation, especially after Disney’s own Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) crashed and burned that same Summer.  Dreamworks’ rise came at an opportune time, as Disney was itself struggling once again, and were relying upon Pixar to keep their reputation afloat.  Though Dreamworks’ rivalry was geared to target Disney directly, Pixar would end up being the most effective weapon for the studio for a time, and that in itself was a tenuous alliance.  Pixar was looking to break free once their contract was up after the movie Cars (2006), which would’ve put Disney in a precarious position if they had to face off against two rivals instead of one.  More than anything, the inability to deal with the competition from Dreamworks and the rocky relationship with Pixar is what led to an abrupt end to Michael Eisner’s reign at the head of Disney, and ultimately to Bob Iger who’s first order of business was to finally buy out Pixar completely and make it an official part of the company.  All the while, Pixar continued to build on every movie they made, and push animation further.  Monsters Inc. was an especially important moment for the studio, as it was the first film to be directed by someone other than Pixar founder John Lasseter.  In the director’s chair this time was Pete Doctor, who would go on to direct classics like Up (2009), Inside Out (2015) and the recent Soul (2020), while also ascending to the Creative Director of Pixar role after Lasseter’s departure.  While continuing the studio’s high standard of animation, Monsters Inc. would also help to define the thing that would help Pixar to differentiate itself from competitors like Dreamworks the most; it’s heartfelt devotion to story.

“We can stay up late, swapping manly stories, and in the morning, I’m making waffles!”

Comparing the two movies, there is one thing that is clearly apparent between the two, and that is it’s sense of humor.  They are both very funny movies, but there is a clear distinction behind the target of the comedy.  Shrek is first and foremost a satire; specifically with an intent to mock the Walt Disney Company.  Though based on a children’s book by William Steig, Shrek becomes over the course of the film a deconstruction of fairy tale tropes and characters, with the titular ogre often being the one dolling out the sarcastic commentary that drives home the absurdity of the world he lives in.  By contrast, Monsters Inc.‘s comedy is more situational and character driven.  Sure, there are satirical elements thrown about with the way that the world of the monsters is constructed to reflect our own, but it’s largely in the background, with the humor being derived more from character interactions.  Shrek also has that, but it’s very apparent that Katzenberg wants to bring more attention to the satirical bits that particularly take shots at his old employer.  This is evident in the scene when Shrek and his companion Donkey enter the kingdom of Dulac, home of the villainous Lord Farquad.  Dulac is clearly based on the faux fairy tale aesthetic of a Disney theme park, where everything is clean and orderly.  A bit of this scene does get a little mean-spirited, especially with the “It’s a Small World” parody song, though I will admit the scene where a frightened Dulac citizen runs away from Shrek while still staying within the roped queue line is still pretty hilarious and on point.  There are no sharply satiric gags in Monsters Inc., as it takes it’s jabs at the soullessness of corporate culture a bit more seriously, but at the same time, I would say it is still a very funny movie.  The big difference between the comedy of the two movies could easily be summed up as Monsters is more Laurel and Hardy while Shrek is more Marx Brothers, considering where each individual movie targets it’s funniest moments.

The characters themselves are also an interesting dichotomy of where the movies differ.  The protagonists themselves are presented in interestingly different ways.  Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) begins his story as an outsider, content on his solitude and deeply cynical towards the idea of fairy tale endings.  James P. Sullivan, or Sully for short (voiced by John Goodman) is a monster on top of his game and a strong believer in the status quo system.  But, over the course of the story, Shrek begins to let go of his cynical edge and opens up to allow more people into his life, namely the wisecracking Donkey (voiced by Eddie Murphy) and the enchanting Princess Fiona (voiced by Cameron Diaz).  The growth of Shrek’s character finds a nice parable within movie itself through the metaphor of onions and their layers.  Sully’s journey comes less from a growth and more of a sacrifice, and he finds his notion of content life shaken once he encounters a little human girl he names Boo.  In the monster world, human children are considered toxic and radioactive, so Sully has been taught to avoid contact, except when he’s harvesting screams for energy production.  Once he meets Boo, he learns that all the precautions he was taught to uphold were made off of false information, it shakes his belief in the system that has defined his whole life.  Both Shrek and Sully make fundamental changes, but they both start and end in different places.  Shrek is softened while Sully is hardened.  At the same time, it doesn’t change their characters entirely; Shrek remains a grouchy ogre through it all, but now he is able to let others into his world, while Sully remains a kind monster at heart, but less gullible and more determined to set things right even at his own expense.  What both movies get right is in showing how their adventures shape the person that they are destined to be, or in a more metaphoric sense, peeling away the layers of the onion.  Part of the reason why both movies resonated so well with audiences is that both Shrek and Sully work as engaging and lovable heroes that we the audience immediately grow attached to.

“Twenty-three nineteen.  We have a Twenty-three nineteen!!”

One thing that is also comparable about the two movies is that much of the stories center on the protagonist’s relationship with their comedic foil.  Shrek and Sully are largely the straightmen to their zanier counterparts, Donkey and Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal).  The chemistry between the characters in their selective films are similar but the resulting level of laughs can differ.  Don’t get me wrong, Billy Crystal is very funny in the role of Mike Wazowski, but it’s something that doesn’t feel too out of character for him either, even as he’s playing a one-eyeballed creature.  Eddie Murphy on the other hand delivers a stand-out comedic performance as Donkey, and humor resonates a little more because it does feel more out of place in the grand scheme of the movie.  It’s Eddie Murphy, delivering his usual high energy zaniness, but done through the body of a talking donkey, which makes the character even more hilariously unpredictable.  In a way, I feel that Eddie Murphy is having to pull a lot more weight with his role and making it his own, while Billy Crystal is doing his part but not in a particularly ground-breaking way.  Mike Wazowski is a sidekick character that we are largely already familiar with, while Donkey is not, and that helps to give Shrek a little bit of an edge.  Where Monsters manages to counter that edge is in the role of the antagonist.  In the movie Shrek, Lord Farquad is as stock of a villain as you could’ve expected (though still voiced well by John Lithgow).  In many ways, he exists more as another pointed jab at Katzenberg’s former boss Michael Eisner, as they share similar jawlines; though Farquad’s short stature is a closer resemblance to Katzenberg’s own height, so I guess it’s him taking a bit of his own medicine too.  In contrast, Monsters Inc.‘s Randall Boggs (voiced by Steve Buscemi) is a far more menacing rival, with a motivation that’s far more sinister.  Given the childish motivations of Farquad’s plans (marrying Princess Fiona against her wishes) and the insidiousness of Randall’s plans (kidnapping children for cheap energy extraction), the stakes just feel a bit higher in Monsters Inc. as a whole, and as a result the story resonates a bit stronger.

There is a lot to say about the character, humor, and plotting to separate the effectiveness of the two films, but what about the level of animation.  In a way, I think that Shrek actually succeeds a little better at world building, as it broke a lot of new ground at the time with regards to environmental animation.  There is a lot of variety in the locations found throughout Shrek; from the ogre’s swamp, to the sanitized (and phallic) Dulac, to the lushness of the Enchanted Woods, to the imaginative Castle on top of a volcano.  By contrast, Monsters Inc. doesn’t quite take advantage of it’s locals.  We only get the smallest sampling of the larger world of the monsters, and how their society is modified to accommodate creatures of all shapes and sizes.  The majority of the movie is set solely within the confines of the Monsters Inc. facility itself, which kind of minimizes our view of the world at large itself.  It’s like the movie holds back from an even grander tale by just limiting everything to a single location.  The movie does expand out towards the end, once Sulley, Mike and Boo travel into the expansive and mind-blowing Door Vault at Monsters Inc.  But where they saved the big showpiece for the end, Shrek delivers through the whole movie, and delivers a rich bit of variety throughout.  But, as good as the environments are in Shrek, the character animation leaves much to be desired.  For some reason, Dreamworks believed in recreating as much photo-realism with the human characters as they could, which sadly dips into the uncanny valley region, especially with Princess Fiona.  With Shrek being the most caricatured character, he fares a bit better, but let’s just say the years haven’t been kind to all the other character models in ShrekMonsters Inc. on the other hand features incredible character animation that stays true to the cartoonish look that Pixar has always strived for.  The fur on Sully was especially ground-breaking for it’s time, and set the standard for rendering realistic looking hair and fur for computer animation in the years after.  Shrek proved through it’s own mistake that animation should adhere to stylized character models, and thankfully Dreamworks has moved more in that direction over the years, especially with their human characters.  Both movies certainly broke new ground in computer animation in their own way, but I feel that Monsters Inc. is the one that holds up better over time given all the advances that have been made since.

“Oh, you were expecting Prince Charming?”

There’s no doubt that after all is said and done, the the most lasting thing that Jeffrey Katzenberg will leave behind in Hollywood is the legacy of Shrek and it’s influence in turning Dreamworks into a powerhouse in animation.  It’s probably even enough to overcome the embarrassing failure of Katzenberg’s most recent creative endeavor, Quibi, which turned into a $2 billion catastrophe that couldn’t even take off in the middle of a streaming boom.  Though Katzenberg has long moved on from the animation giant that he helped to build, his influence can still be felt there, and that’s largely due to the standard that was set by Shrek.  Dreamworks Animation is defined by it’s hard edges, and willingness to be a little irreverent towards old Hollywood tropes.  Shrek no doubt is the best version of this mission statement, but I can’t help but feel that the edge has been dulled over time.  One thing that hasn’t helped out Shrek much is the over-abundance of sequels and spin-offs that have stemmed from it.  In a way, Shrek being as highly marketable as it was, became the very thing that the original film was mocking in the first place; a soulless corporate cash cow.  In the meantime, Monsters Inc. grew in stature and still is fondly remembered to this day.  It didn’t even entertain the idea of a sequel until after Shrek had made three already, releasing Monsters University (2013), a full 12 year later.  Monsters’ other long legacy, no doubt helped by director Pete Doctor, was in continuing the importance of emotional story-telling.  The film’s closing moment, where Sully reunites with Boo, is a moment that will warm anyone’s heart, and its something that Pixar continues to strive for with every new film thereafter.  I think that’s the ultimate result of the contentious rivalry between Dreamworks and Disney/Pixar; while Dreamworks can launch movies off like a rocket, Disney and Pixar make movies that burn long into the night.  Shrek is a ground-breaking movie, and one that still has entertainment value, but I think is most potent element is sadly tied up in the past, when it was more in vogue to knock Disney down a few pegs.  In the years since, it has proven much more effective to be a timeless, evergreen story rather than a sharp-tongued satire forever anchored to a specific moment in time.  And that is why Monsters Inc.  continues to remain a perennial classic, while Shrek is looking more and more like a relic.


Tinseltown Throwdown – Outbreak vs. Contagion

The 2020 pandemic almost at times feels like we are living through a movie in real time.  Acts of heroism and selflessness within our hospital walls; families suddenly stricken with the hardship of loosing their financial security; dysfunction at the highest levels of our governing bodies.  If it all weren’t so tragically real, this day and age would make for a harrowing thriller.  And I have no doubt that once Hollywood does eventually land on it’s feet after this is all over, we will see multiple dramatic recreations of this period of time.  In many ways, real life has eclipsed fiction with it’s unpredictability.  But, in the past, we have seen Hollywood take a shot at dramatizing the possible effects of what a worldwide pandemic may be like.  The only problem is audiences up until now had no interest in movies centered around medical crises.  Most global pandemics don’t quite have the grisly sort of fatality that’ll intrigue audiences, as many of them are slow, possibly less lethal diseases.  So, for many pandemic movies, the filmmakers usually spice things up by adding something else to the mix, like a plague of zombies.  This is evident in things like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) or Will Smith’s I am Legend (2007).  Usually it’s a story about science run amok or about the fragility of human civilization, but as we can see, the disease alone has not been the thing that has interested filmmakers about pandemics, but rather the fallout that comes after.  What is rare in Hollywood is a movie that actually takes a good serious look at the actual steps taken towards combating an out of control viral outbreak.  Given how COVID-19 has taken over pretty much every part of our lives this year, it’s interesting to look at some of the few movies that actually have dramatized what a response to a pandemic would look like, and in some cases it’s interesting to see just how close and how far some of them actually came to showing what would actually happen.

The last time a global pandemic raged through the human population with such a ferocity as COVID-19 has, cinema was still in it’s infancy.  Whatever little documentation we have of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic has been the historical basis on which we have drawn from for most of our understanding of viral outbreaks.  COVID-19, like the 1918 Flu, is a respiratory disease with a very high transmission rate, but up to now has been thankfully less lethal; helped greatly by the lessons we learned from the last outbreak and the advances in medicine we’ve made since then.  But because Hollywood didn’t yet exist during the 1918 pandemic, there is little to no film documentation that chronicled the horrors of that plague.  So, Hollywood has had to rely heavily on past tense information or just use their imagination.  Now, there are two different ways that a Hollywood movie can dramatize a pandemic on screen; either remain very true to the scientific realities of a pandemic, or just make a whole lot of it up to punch up the drama.  Two of the most noteworthy pandemic movies represent both of these examples.  One is the movie Outbreak (1995) from director Wolfgang Petersen, and the other is Contagion (2011) from director Steven Soderbergh.  The former takes the pandemic concept far less seriously and uses it as a backdrop for your typical Hollywood action movie set pieces.  The latter delivers a deadly (no pun intended) serious dramatization of each step of a global pandemic.  Each has it’s set goals, and having watched both of them in the middle of an actual pandemic does offer some interesting insight into the different ways to tackle the same subject from differing angles.  The question isn’t does one more accurately depict a pandemic better than the other, because there is no question that the more scientifically sound Contagion comes out on top.  What is more intriguing when analyzing both movies is whether or not they do their job well in actually turning a pandemic story into a compelling piece of cinema on their own.

“Why can’t they invent a shot that keeps time from passing?”

First of all, you’ve got to look at the time periods in which the movies were made in order to see how they viewed what a threat of a pandemic would actually look like.  The movie Outbreak came out in the middle of the 1990’s, which was both a time of relative good health on the medical front globally, but also one where new emerging diseases sparked periodic anxiety.  Take for instance the emergence of Ebola in sub-Saharan Africa in the mid-90’s.  This devastating disease really worried a lot of people across the world, because of the high level of suffering the infected endured before succumbing to the bug.  Thankfully, it was found out that Ebola outbreaks could be easily isolated because of it’s low transferable rate, or as the World Health Organization (WHO) calls it the R0 value.  But still, the world took notice and wondered what would happen if the disease made it’s way over here.  At the same time, the world was also dealing with the fallout of another devastating pandemic that sadly went unchecked for years; the AIDS pandemic.  Because LGBTQ were scapegoated for much of the spread of the sexually transmitted HIV virus that caused AIDS, the treatment of this particular pandemic was sadly never given the right amount of containment, and it ended up ravaging it’s way through the oppressed queer community.  In the mid-90’s, Hollywood was finally acknowledging the devastating reality of an unchecked pandemic like AIDS, especially after losing some of their own to the disease, and the need to take pandemics more seriously became much more paramount as a result.  For the movie Outbreak, they use the examples of these notorious pandemics as the basis for their own.  It starts from Sub-Saharan Africa like Ebola, and it’s transmission through human contact is similar as well.  It’s origination from primates takes it’s inspiration from the HIV virus, but that’s where the comparisons end.  From there, we see Hollywood’ imagination go wild, and it’s not exactly true to science from that point on.

“Go without a mask.  You’ll see better.”

Contagion on the other hand almost plays out like a handbook from the Center for Disease Control (CDC).  Truly, upon watching this movie in the last week or so, I was struck by just how on the nose it was with regards to showing the moment by moment happenings of a global pandemic crises.  Made almost 9 years before the COVID-19 outbreak, Contagion is eerily prophetic.  It’s a respiratory disease that spreads rapidly, originated in China, causes a devastating impact on the global economy, and it exposes the fractures within our disease response system.  The one major difference is that COVID-19 is far less lethal than the one in the movie, which ends up killing in the millions within a two month span.  As bad as COVID-19 is, it’s global death rate remains low, and some countries have managed to successfully irradiate it altogether; sadly America is not one of them.  Contagion’s disease really shows us a worst case scenario and it is refreshing to see a movie where the science is focused on so intently.  The movie shows a well researched analysis of how a pandemic response would play out, both when it’s running effectively and when it is not.  At the time of the movie’s making, the most noteworthy pandemics we had known in the new century were the short lived ones like SARS, the Bird Flu, and the Swine Flu.  The H1N1 Swine Flu in particular served as a dramatic inspiration for Contagion, because it was the one freshest in everyone’s mind.  The 2009 outbreak led to the most widespread roll-out of Disease Control protocols in a long time, though it stopped short of extreme measures like social distancing and stay at home orders.  Contagion examines what would happen when that next step was needed, and sadly, reality and fiction would collide in less than a decade.

One of the biggest differences between the movies is no doubt the style of film-making.  Wolfgang Petersen has built a career making big, bombastic action films.  From his groundbreaking war pic Das Boot (1981), to his gritty natural disaster epic The Perfect Storm (2000), to the sword and sandals extravaganza Troy (2004); he is a director that likes to make his movies big and loud.  Unfortunately, pandemics don’t offer a lot of action, because it’s just doctors in PPE trying to keep people alive in hospitals.  So, for Outbreak, he pushes the science to the background and instead adds a lot of melodrama to the story.  The movie turns into a conspiracy thriller halfway through, with the military brass wanting to flex it’s muscles in response to the outbreak of this deadly disease.  It’s a very 90’s movie, where there is a lot of posturing and virtue-signalling from the movie stars playing doctors.  Dustin Hoffman’s lead character does some pretty reckless actions in order to diffuse the warmongering actions of Donald Sutherland’s General at Arms, and it makes the movie less about teaching it’s audience about the real threats of a pandemic, and more about a good guy vs. bad guy showdown.  Subtle, this movie is not.  Sutherland’s general even chooses to use a nuclear option to eradicate the disease; which would’ve seemed far fetched in the Clinton years, but maybe not so much during this current Trump administration.  Soderbergh’s approach, by contrast is extremely stripped back.  There are no explosions, no virtue-signalling, and very little melodrama.  The multitasking filmmaker basically treats the movie like a docudrama, showing every moment with the utmost sincerity towards the subject.  It’s refreshingly informative, but perhaps a little too dry as well.  Say what you will about Petersen’s bombastic style; it’s often entertaining.  Depending on what you’re looking for, something sober or something explosive, each movie offers it’s unique take on the issue of viral pandemics.

“Godzilla, King Kong, Frankenstein all in one.”

One of the most interesting things that both movies do have in common besides the infectious diseases is that they both feature all-star casts.  Outbreak has the previously mentioned Hoffman and Sutherland, but all features the likes of Kevin Spacey, Rene Russo, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Morgan Freeman.  Not to be outdone, Contagion has Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cottilard, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, and Gwyneth Paltrow as patient zero.  It’s a stellar line up of Oscar caliber talent lined up on both sides, but the difference between them is in how they are used.  Outbreak unfortunately saddles it’s incredible cast with a laughable, illogical script.  Dustin Hoffman suffers the most, because he’s got to carry the dramatic weight of the plot on his shoulders, and it’s clear that he really is not all that into the performance.  The one nice thing about watching Outbreak today is that you do see Kevin Spacey get infected with the disease and he suffers to the point of bleeding out of his eyes,  Given what we know now about Spacey, this moment does have a nice cathartic undertone now.  The cast of Contagion are much better served by the script to their movie.  Contagion doesn’t waste time building character motivations, nor does it try to give any of them a self-aggrandizing savior moment.  The movie plops all these disparate characters into the situation of a pandemic out of control, and defines them by their actions in response.  The performances for the most part are muted, but that serves the purpose of the film perfectly.  Damon comes off very believable as a protective father trying to keep life for his beleaguered daughter as normal as possible .  Fishburne is very convincing as the overwhelmed CDC director.  The only downside for the cast in the movie is that there is perhaps too many of them.  The movie jumps from story-line to story-line so rapidly that few if any of the subplots ever feel fully fleshed out.  Marion Cottilard’s kidnapping subplot in fact seems to have been forgotten about for almost a third of the movie.  Even still, it does a good job of keeping the through-line of battling the disease the driving force, and every actor is committed to each role they play.

What I think really puts Contagion ahead is the fact that it gives us a more provocative look at society in general with regards to how we respond to something like a pandemic; something of which that has become more profound during this year.  Outbreak keeps things fairly small, so that it doesn’t have to delve too much into the moral grays of society.  For Outbreak, it’s a clear good vs. evil plot as the enlightened doctors face down the interference of ignorant military personnel.  That’s basic Screenwriting 101, but the true science behind disease control is that viruses hold no allegiance to ideology.  Everyone is at risk, and to turn the film into a clear cut battle of ideas, the disease must take a back seat.  Contagion does a much better job of showing that the frailty of civilized humanity is not a by product of a pandemic, but rather it exposes the cracks that are already there.  This is perfectly encapsulated in the character played by Jude Law, a renegade journalist that tries to use the pandemic crises to further his own career.  He uses his platform in the movie to tout an unproven drug treatment as a cure for the disease and secretly profits off the sale of the same drug.  Sound familiar.  Sure, the character exists as a means of giving the story something of a antagonist, but as we observe in the movie, his success only happens because of the desperate greed that society is driven towards in self-preservation.  By not educating ourselves and listening to science, we have made it easy for grifters like the one in this movie to get away with their shenanigans, and that’s a harsh indictment on all of us as a whole that this movie makes.  Even the “good guy” scientists in the movie are not beyond making selfish acts, like when the CDC director recklessly instructs his wife to leave one of the hot spot cities, which inevitably leaks to the public and causes the public to start panicking.  By not letting the audience off the hook, Soderbergh creates a far more resounding message in his movie, and given what has happened this year, it’s any wonder why we didn’t see this crises coming.

“We are fugitives of the law.  Idiocy is our only option.”

Neither movie is perfect, but Contagion is far more interesting to watch in our current pandemic ravaged world right now.  Outbreak comes from a more innocent time that viewed widespread pandemics as more fodder for science fiction.  And indeed, that has been the way Hollywood has treated the threat of pandemics on the big screen; as something far-fetched.  I’m honestly surprised that Contagion not only took the genre in a far more serious direction when it did, but did so with so much scientific insight that it nearly predicted the future.  We know the truth far too harshly now that pandemics are all too real.  It’s happening now, it’s happened before, and it will happen again.  Hopefully, the lesson of 2020 will prepare us for something worse in the future, but then again, I’m sure that they thought the same thing back in 1918.  Anyone looking for something light and escapist can look to Outbreak, with it’s cheesy quaintness.  It’s a product of it’s time, and while not even remotely worth seeing to inform yourself about the way pandemics work, it is ridiculous enough to show just how off the mark Hollywood can get sometimes in a hilarious way.  If anything, it’s far more offensive as a waste of a good cast rather than an affront to cinematic story-telling.  Contagion on the other hand is very informative and eerily true to life.  It’s not for anyone looking for an edge of your seat experience, but at the same time, you’ll be blown away by just how close it actually got to predicting the current predicament we are in now.  For anyone needing a clear cut explanation of how Disease Control works and how to do it properly, Contagion offers the best possible example that I think has ever been put on screen.  It’s provocative without being patronizing, and shows us exactly how our own actions have an effect on our ability to fight these kinds of devastating diseases.  In this regard, Contagion ultimately remains a very positive film even with the horrible tragedy at it’s center, because it shows science as a rescuing force in our world, something we should be spotlighting more often.  For the movie, misinformation is the real enemy of good health, and by sticking so close to the actual reality of disease science, we see a perfect visual playbook there to guide us through the right way to deal with a pandemic.  If only we had followed it from the beginning.

“Somewhere in the world, the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat.”

Tinseltown Throwdown – Rocky vs. Raging Bull

Fall is in full swing and the holidays are upon us.  So, let’s talk about sports movies for a bit.  Cinema’s long history has given us a wealth of great sports related films throughout the years.  Football, basketball, and especially baseball, the many great American pastimes have provided plenty of uplifting tales of underdog heroism.  And the same goes for the many international sports, like soccer, rugby, and even cricket.  But if there was one sport in particular that has become something rather poetic for filmmakers and audiences alike, it would be boxing.  There is something about the sport of boxing that has lent itself so passionately to the art of cinema.  Perhaps it’s the grueling nature of the sport that feels so cinematic, especially when captured within the ring itself.  Maybe it’s the psychological and physical tolls taken on the the individual boxers that provides so much drama.  Each boxer depicted in these movies becomes almost mythical in a way, as they’re struggles inside the ring become almost like a echoes of the troubles that have plagued them on the outside, and we the audience see that these fights are more than just trading blows.  It’s probably why boxing movies have won more Oscars than any other sport in film.  It goes all the way back to 1931’s The Champ, where Wallace Berry won Best Actor for his portrayal of a tragic but lovable heavyweight champion.  Since then, every generation seems to have it’s own iconic portrayal of the life of a champion boxer, whether it’s classics like Gentleman Jim (1942), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) and Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), to modern hits like Million Dollar Baby (2004) and The Fighter (2010).  But there are two boxing movies in particular that have particularly risen to become the pinnacle of the genre, and both are unsurprisingly major awards winners; 1976’s Rocky and 1980’s Raging Bull.

It should be interesting to note the time period in which both movies were first released.  The late 70’s were a turbulent time in America.  Watergate had risen distrust in the United States government to an all time high, and the country was firmly divided.  At the time, even the newly elected President, Jimmy Carter, couldn’t find a way to mend the broken nation that had been suffering the scars of the Vietnam War and the unthinkable corruption behind Watergate.  At the same time, Hollywood was going through it’s own period of transition and upheaval.  The 1970’s was the decade of the director; a period where maverick filmmakers were given creative license that they had otherwise never had under the old studio system.  This allowed for bolder, grittier artistic expression, with the directors rewriting the rules of film-making as they went.  Films made in this time were decidedly rougher, more documentary like, and audiences were embracing this so-called New Hollywood.  Out of this period emerged many filmmakers who would go on to change the industry forever, like Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, William Friedkin, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.  But not everything from this era represented a rejection of establishment; there were crowd-pleasers made as well.  Enter a less renowned, but not to be forgotten filmmaker named John G. Avildsen, who just happened to stumble upon the right kind of movie at the right time, taking a chance on a script written by a struggling actor named Sylvester Stallone.  That movie would be the story of a fictional amateur boxer from Philadelphia named Rocky Balboa who gets his one big shot to prove his worth.  That movie would not only surprise everyone by becoming a big hit, but it even became an inspiration for a country to believe in hopeful once again.  At the same time, Martin Scorsese was closing out a turbulent decade for himself with a very personal and harsh portrayal of real life boxer Jake LaMotta with his new film Raging Bull.  What is interesting when looking at both movies is how they both strongly make their case for being the quintessential boxing movie, but with wildly different tones and stories.  Both are undeniably classics in their own right, but which one does the better job of portraying the mythic life struggle of a boxer.

“You’re going to eat lightning and you’re going to crap thunder!”

It’s interesting to look at the boxers themselves.  Rocky Balboa, a fictional character who no doubt was inspired by many similar boxers of the period and most likely also by the actor portraying him, is a working class stiff with the determination to make something better of himself.  Jake LaMotta, who was a real life professional boxer, starts out at the top of his game and only ends up sliding downward.  These are the obvious differences between the movies; one is a feel good triumph while the other is a tragic portrayal of hubris.  But, they are both highly celebrated, and that’s mainly due to the incredible strength of both characters.  Sylvester Stallone became an overnight success story with the release of Rocky, finally achieving that success in Hollywood that had long alluded him.  And in many ways, it mirrors Rocky’s own story of working hard to prove his worth.  For his portrayal of Jake LaMotta, Robert DeNiro took a decidedly different route.  DeNiro was already firmly established in Hollywood, having already won a Supporting Actor Oscar for The Godfather Part II (1974) and having already established a great working relationship with director Scorsese in both Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976).  But, with Raging Bull, he chose to not just make the boxing scenes feel authentic, but to also make Jake LaMotta look and feel as nasty as his reputation spoke to.  DeNiro went through a full body transformation during the making of the movie, putting on nearly 50 lbs. in order to play LaMotta in his overweight post-boxing days.  It’s interesting that both movies illustrate the rough life of a boxer, as both have demons that they want to excise, with the ring as their escape.  But while Rocky manages to pull himself up, LaMotta just continues to drag himself down, succumbing to pride, jealousy, and just his own bad judgment.  And yet, even in the closing moments, Scorsese and DeNiro give Jake LaMotta a bit of a bittersweet reexamination, as he literally takes a look at his own reflection and decides to move forward.  In the end, that’s the hardest match he’s ever had to win.

“You didn’t get me down Ray.”

It’s interesting to note how one movie works as a textbook example of the genre, while the other challenges it’s conventions and still represents it perfectly.  It probably has to do with the characters themselves.  Rocky, despite being a little rough around the edges, is quite lovable.  Stallone gives him an undeniable charm, and you see that reflected in the magnetic way that he earns the love and respect for all those around him, as he depends on their support to get to the top.  The movie has some wonderful tender moments between Rocky and his love interest Adrian (Talia Shire).  There’s also a great mentor/ trainee relationship that builds between Rocky and his trainer Mickey (played by an unforgettable Burgess Meredith).  The great thing about these relationships is that they help to build Rocky up for us the audience.  As they grow to like him more, we do too, and that enables us to want to see him succeed by the end.  It’s also fascinating to watch how his determination clashes against the myopic perception that is given to him by the champion he’s about to face, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).  To him, Rocky is just a step towards another fight, but to Rocky it’s so much more.  In Raging Bull, the fights only make up the background of his story.  Martin Socrsese is far more interested in seeing how the fighter exists outside the ring, and he shows how the fight sadly never leaves the fighter, even after the bell has rung.  Jake LaMotta is so wired into the sport that even the slightest provocation is enough to send him into fisticuffs.  We see that reflected in his world, as he’s constantly arguing with his wife Vicki (Cathy Moriarty) as well as his friend and manager Joey (Joe Pesci), who’s prone to violent outbursts himself (as evidenced by that legendary beat down he gives to Frank Vincent’s Salvy in the movie).  In this way, we see where the characters wildly differ, because we see where one uses the ring to be a monster while the other uses it to become a champion.

There’s a lot to be said about the different ways the movies are filmed as well.  Rocky is nothing out of the ordinary for it’s era.  It was shot in the same gritty, documentary style that was typical of the 1970’s.  And really, that’s all you need for this kind of story.  Rocky is a movie for mass audiences, but done economically enough to feel authentic, so that’s why John G. Avildsen’s direction is clean and unobtrusive.  He only saves the more emotional, cinematic stuff for the finale, as the final fight between Balboa and Creed is colorful and bright, elevating it’s almost mythic stature.  Everything else almost feels subdued, as we are almost ease-dropping into the lives of these characters.  Martin Scorsese on the other hand, treats the entirety of Raging Bull as a bold cinematic expression.  He shot the entire movie in black and white, which was oddly enough a reversal of a trend for cinema in that time.  Monochromatic movies had been almost treated as a relic of the past by filmmakers of these maverick days of cinema, so it’s interesting to see it used here.  In a way, Scorsese sort of revived the black and white movie, which has made sporadic returns throughout the years.  It’s also the one and only time that he would ever shoot a movie like that, showing just how important it was to telling of this particular story.  Scorsese’s use of black and white is probably a reflection of how he wanted to portray LaMotta’s story; stripped of all flashiness and laid bare for the viewer.  The boxing matches in particular even take on this otherworldly appearance, with the smoke filled grays of the environment almost make the scenes glow.  There’s something conventional about the way that Rocky appears, and that’s in a good way.  We in a way expect to the final fight in Rocky to look as bright as it does.  But it’s the stark bleakness of Raging Bull‘s colorless hue that unsettles us as a viewer and that helps to create a whole other experience that is no less enriching.

“He doesn’t know it’s a damn show! He thinks it’s a damn fight!”

You will also never find more brilliantly edited movies anywhere.  The movie Rocky all but invented the training montage, which has become a staple of both boxing movies and all movies in general.  Underscored by Bill Conti’s now legendary musical theme, the training montage is almost a movie within itself, conveying so much story in such a short amount of time.  It’s often imitated, but rarely matched.  And the reason it works as well as it does is no doubt because of how well it is edited to the rhythm of Conti’s music.  By the time Rocky makes his final run up the steps of the Museum of Art and he does that triumphant dance at the top, you feel absolutely uplifted as a viewer, almost like you’ve trained alongside Rocky yourself.  There is almost a lyrical way to the editing of the movie, with the edits and the music almost working together to tell the story and that extends all the way to the final match.  Which is very much in contrast with how Raging Bull is edited.  Pieced together by the unmatched champion of her profession, Thelma Schoonmaker, Raging Bull treats the fighting matches as an almost wild experience.  She mixes in slow motion as well as sped up footage at almost random points, illustrating just how chaotic a boxing match can be, but it’s not in the service of showing us the fight in a fully realistic sense.  She uses her edits to convey what a boxing match can feel like for the boxers themselves, with each blow almost creating lapses in time for the fighter, which no doubt conveys the brain damage that they go through.  The movie otherwise is relatively calm outside those boxing scenes, with Scorsese holding the camera steady for the most part.  In those chaotic boxing scenes, we find Scorsese and Schoonmaker finding the real window in the mind of a boxer, which fills us in to how the character behaves for the rest of the movie.  In this sense, both movies use their editing to convey the mythical sense of the sport, in ways that only the medium of film can.

But what is most interesting about both films is that they speak to different personal aspects of their creators, and how they both reflect different points of success through their subjects.  For Rocky, it is a movie about dreaming; hoping that you don’t blow your one shot once you’ve got it and then riding that opportunity to a better life.  That’s what was on Sylvester Stallone’s mind as he began writing the screenplay for the movie.  He was a struggling actor who had tried for years to find his big break in the business.  He was not typical leading man, being a little rough around the edges.  In Rocky, he imagined a rise to fame that he himself hoped he could have for himself.  Ever the avid boxing fan, Stallone saw in this amateur boxer a version of himself, taking on an impossible job and proving everyone wrong.  In the end, it’s not about winning the fight, but showing that you are more than just a gimmick.  Rocky was only supposed to stand up against Apollo Creed for ten rounds, knowing that the fight was never going to be in his favor.  But what Rocky proves is that he can not only fulfill his obligation, but he could even give Apollo a worthy challenge as well.  So even when Creed is declared the winner, Rocky still feels like a champion, because he proved he was a worthy fighter.  Stallone may not have gained any awards for his work, but Rocky gave him a lasting career as an actor, and I’m sure that makes him feel like a champ all these years later.  At the same time, Martin Scorsese approached Raging Bull with a different set of eyes.  In the late-70’s, Scorsese was recovering from a drug addiction, something which he feared would ruin his career forever.  Having cleaned up, he wanted to make a movie that almost therapeutically reflected his own struggles, and he found that in the story of Jake LaMotta.  I almost think that’s why Raging Bull is such a harsh narrative with regards to it’s subject, because it was coming at the same time that Scorsese was so hard on himself.  For Rocky, we see someone hoping to show his worth, while Raging Bull shows us what happens after that rise to worthiness has crested.  Indeed, Scorsese almost became a different director after Raging Bull, and for the better, as it enabled him to continue on for the next forty years with a renewed outlook on life.

“If you win, you win. If you lose, you still win.”

It’s hard to say which one comes out on top as the better movie, because they are both masterpieces in their own way.  Rocky would go on to spawn a long running franchise, and even has led to a spin-off series of it’s own, Creed, which has extended the Rocky legacy even further.  Though Stallone’s film career has been through it’s ups and downs, his portrayal of Rocky Balboa is still something that makes him an iconic star in Hollywood.  When accepting his Golden Globe for the movie Creed in 2016, he thanked his “imaginary” friend Rocky Balboa, for as he said, “being the best friend an actor could ever have.”  The city of Philadelphia still celebrates the star and the character as a symbol of their city; including having a statue of Rocky sitting atop those famous steps.  At the same time, Scorsese honors Raging Bull as a pivotal turning point for his career as a filmmaker.  Not only did it allow him to excise some of the demons of his own past, but it allowed him to build his artistic senses even further.  He was able to continue building that meaningful friendship and collaboration with his leading man Robert DeNiro, which has extended many decades, even extending to today with the release of The Irishman this week on Netflix.  DeNiro likewise views Jake LaMotta as an important part of his experience as an actor.  He still claims it as his most important role, and he’s got a nice Best Actor Oscar to back that up.  In the end, how you view the movie in direct competition comes down to personal taste.  If this were a boxing match, I’d say that it’d come down to a draw, but for me I honestly would re-watch the more inspirational Rocky more times than the harsher Raging Bull.  Bull may be more artistically daring, but Rocky has the better story.  Even still, they are true icons of cinema, and without a doubt the best movies made about the sport of boxing to ever grace the silver screen.  Whether triumphant or sour, these movies are true champions.

“Yo Adrian!!!”


Tinseltown Throwdown – Iron Man vs. Man of Steel

Of all the things that Marvel has changed over the last decade in Hollywood, perhaps it’s most influential would be the concept and execution of a shared cinematic universe.  There have been serialization in movies before, but never to this magnitude, and with this many seperate franchises involved.  And the experiment has become on of the most astounding success stories in cinema history, with Avengers: Endgame currently on it’s way to the all time box office crown.  Because of Marvel’s success with it’s shared universe, the last decade saw many more studios try to build up cinematic universes of their own; all to varying degrees.  Some proved surprisingly successful (The Conjuring universe), while many others fell flat (GhostbustersThe Amazing Spider-Man), and some failed in the most spectacular of fashion (Universal’s Dark Universe).  While Marvel’s example was largely the blueprint for many of these wannabe cinematic universes, few of them could ever figure out exactly how to harness it and make it work for them.  What most didn’t realize is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe succeeded both by it’s superb organization, but also by sheer luck.  It came at the right time, when audiences were willing to follow along with a large arcing narrative that’s pieced together through multiple films.  And because they came at the right time, they created a foundation that has helped to support everything that has followed after, and with seemingly no competition.  It’s that foundation that more than anything has become responsible for it’s success, and to see how it stacks up with another like minded cinematic universe, it helps to take a look at where things started to determine what makes and breaks such an endeavor.

If there was any cinematic universe that could compete with the likes of Marvel for cinematic dominance, it would be it’s own competitor on the comic book shelves; DC comics.  Before Marvel began it’s rise to box office dominance, it was DC who had long been the standard bearer when it came to comic book adaptations.  Richard Donner’s classic Superman (1978) was for the longest time the quintessential super hero movie, showing for the first time how stories and characters from the comic book page could be translated faithfully to the big screen.  A decade later, Tim Burton introduced Batman to the big screen with his 1989 film, which further increased the box office appeal of comic book characters.  It wouldn’t be until the turn of the millennium that Marvel finally jumped in with their first entry into the genre, naturally focused on their most popular character from the comics, Spider-Man.  Sam Raimi’s 2002 broke all sorts of box office records at the time, and ushered in an era of box office dominance that continues to this day.  For much of the 2000’s, DC and Marvel were equally competitive at the box office, with Raimi’s Spider-Man films and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy trading places constantly atop the box office charts.  But, one thing that Marvel didn’t have was the organizational support that DC had with their parent company Warner Brothers.  So, in comes producer Kevin Feige who established Marvel Studios, with the intention of not only giving the publisher more creative control over it’s characters, but also to create a shared cinematic universe where all of them could coexist on the big screen.  An idea like this seemed natural, since it’s largely what goes on in the comic books themselves, but what shocked most people was the fact that Marvel planned to launch this with the most unlikely of characters; Tony Stark aka Iron Man.  Iron Man is an icon now, but a decade ago, he was largely viewed as second tier compared to the likes of Spider-Man.  But, it was a gamble that paid off and in many ways it was the key to the success of everything that followed after.  Iron Man was the pivotal foundation and it becomes all the more apparent when you stack up where his place at the start of a cinematic universe compares to another, with DC beginning it’s own universe on the back of it’s most iconic character; Superman.

“They say that the best weapon is the one you never have to fire.  I respectfully disagree.  I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once.”

Iron Man had long been in development for years, with few people ever seriously interested in making the film, or playing the character.  For a while, Tom Cruise expressed interest in playing Tony Stark, but the movie never materialized, and ironically Tom ended up being the foundational face of one of the most embarrassing launches for a failed cinematic universe ever, with his remake of The Mummy (2017) which was supposed to begin the Dark Universe.  The newly formed Marvel Studios finally took the character seriously, and knew right away that to make the character work, it needed people who were the right match.  Luckily they struck upon the likes of Jon Favreau, who as a director brought a unique sense of mixing action and humor that in many ways perfectly suited the wise-cracking character from the comics. But Favreau’s greatest decision would end up proving to be his casting choice for Iron Man.  You would think that the original inclination would be to go with a movie star of Tom Cruise’s caliber, but instead Favreau sought out Robert Downey Jr. for the role.  It’s true that Downey does bear a natural resemblance to Tony Stark as he’s been envisioned on the the comic page, but at the time, casting him in the role was seen as a huge risk.  After years of struggling through a crippling drug addiction and spending time in prison for multiple violations, Downey’s career as an actor was pretty much dead, so casting him in anything was a huge risk.  But, Marvel saw it Favreau’s way and took the chance, and it proved to be the beast choice they could ever make.  The reason for this is simple; Robert Downey Jr. was the only choice to play Tony Stark, because he is Tony Stark.  Stark himself is a self-destructive, arrogant character who seeks redemption and a chance to better himself, and that turn for the character closely mirrored Downey’s own spiral and climb back out of the abyss.  Both him and Favreau knew that it wasn’t the iron suit that made the hero, it was the person inside, and for the movie to work, you needed to faithfully capture that aspect of the character.  Downey’s contribution became the example that all future casting choices had to follow, and from the Marvel side, their continued success comes from knowing that you cast based on the person and not on how well they’ll look in the costume.

“Born on Krypton and raised on Earth, you had the best of both and were meant to be the bridge between two worlds.”

That has in many ways been where most other cinematic universes have fallen apart.  For DC, they have had a mixed result from their casting choices.  Some have worked out really well, like Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman or Jason Momoa as Aguaman, while others failed miserably, like Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor.  But where DC found itself at a disadvantage was not merely in how they cast the character, but in the lack of insight into knowing who these characters really are.  This was apparent in the movie that was meant to launch their own cinematic universe, titled Man of Steel (2013).  Steel was their relaunch of the Superman mythos, using their most iconic hero as a the foundation on which they would build the universe.  But one thing that we’ve come to learn from building a cinematic universe with already established characters is that if you are going to start from scratch, you need to find a way to make the character feel fresh again.  Marvel managed to do that successfully with both the Hulk and Spider-Man, largely by ignoring all past character development and just having the characters already established with their powers.  Man of Steel, however, opted to go right back to the beginning and show us Superman’s origin story again, which only made the movie feel superfluous, because it’s a story-line we already know and are not surprised by.  Not only that, but the movie lacks any real insight into Superman as a character, instead putting every development in his life up as a mark of destiny; that he was always meant to be this hero, and none of it feels earned in the end.  Actor Henry Cavill is fine in the role, and does indeed look the part, but his Superman doesn’t inspire us as well as past Supers like Christopher Reeve.  There never is that moment where he makes the choice to be Superman; to be that crusader for good in the world.  Iron Man devotes half it’s movie to watching Stark build and refine his super suit, showing how he’s devoting himself to becoming an ideal, using his skill set towards a greater purpose.  Man of Steel’s Superman just exists because the universe needs him to.

There truthfully is no comparison between characters, since Tony Stark is a mere mortal man who builds himself into a hero, while the other is a god among men who must learn the best way to use his gifts in life.  One starts as a hero, while the other grows into a hero.  But there is plenty of similarities that both movies share, and it mainly has to do with how they establish themselves as the bedrock of their cinematic universes.  Again, Marvel establishes it’s cinematic universe much better, but one can almost argue that they do it a bit too much in the movie.  For instance, there are Easter eggs thrown about all over the movie, that for some eagle eye viewers hints at movies that would be coming in the future, like seeing Captain America’s shield subtly placed on Tony Stark’s workbench in his underground lab.  The introduction of S.H.I.E.L.D. is also executed well as a part of the movie, with Samuel L. Jackson’s end credits appearance as Nick Fury now becoming the stuff of legend.  But the movie also sets up threads that never followed through in the MCU, like the introduction of the Ten Rings terrorist group, which was meant to allude to Iron Man nemesis The Mandarin, and we all saw how disappointing that thread turned out to be.  Marvel sometimes falls into the trap of planting too many seeds that never fully take root, and that’s apparent in Iron Man, where it seemed they got too carried away sometimes with their fan service.  Man of Steel by comparison plays it a little closer to the chest with their hints at a larger universe.  For the most part it sticks closely with Superman’s story-line, and only throws in the barest sampling of Easter eggs, like a brief glimpse of corporate logos for LexCorp and Wayne Enterprises.  With those, they could easily tease the things that we knew were coming next in the pipeline, namely Lex Luthor and Batman, and not have us distracted with universe wide elements known only to those who had read the comics.  Of course, they would blow it with the Easter Egg heavy Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but at least Man of Steel knew to remain focused solely on Superman for the time being.

“Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe.  You just don’t know it yet.”

The other advantage that Man of Steel carried with it is the fact that Superman has a far more legendary rogues gallery.  Because of this, the stakes feel a little higher in Man of Steel than it does in Iron Man.  For someone as over-powered as Superman to feel vulnerable, you need to have him face a threat on an equal level, and Man of Steel does that with the character of General Zod, played by Michael Shannon.  A surviving Kryptonian like Superman, Zod matches the same power level, but combines this with a merciless, genocidal ambition for conquest.  General Zod seeks to make Earth the new home for his people, and that means wiping out the native human population in the process, which Superman has lived among and been raised by since he was sent there as a child.  For Superman, the fight with Zod is a confirmation of his duty to be Earth’s protector, and the movie does go out of it’s way to show that the confrontation with Zod is going to be the test of his full potential.  Even the much maligned death blow that Superman uses to stop Zod has a purposefulness in the story, because it places doubt in Superman’s mind if he did the right thing or not; which despite being out of character compared with the comics, does show a crucial development in his character that shows that he still is capable of being vulnerable.  Sadly, it didn’t help that director Zack Snyder made the baffling defense of this choice by saying that he believed Superman had to kill in order to learn that killing is wrong (???).  By contrast, Iron Man’s first nemesis is just a rival seeking to outshine his accomplishments out of pure pettiness, personified in the character of Obediah Stein.  Sure, they got an acting legend like Jeff Bridges to play the part, who does have a menacing presence in the film, but Stein’s whole plan is just to build another Iron Man suit, only bigger, becoming the Iron Monger.  Overall, he’s a weak villain that keeps the stakes pretty small in the original Iron Man.  And that has been the case with most of the Iron Man films, where the hero far outshines the villains, despite having excellent actors filling the roles like Mickey Rourke and Ben Kingsley.  In the end, Man of Steel benefited from a stronger villain, who almost made up for the lack of personality found in the hero himself.

For the most part, I did find more to like in the movie Man of Steel than dislike, but at the same time, it’s hard to ignore that it’s many flaws put the DCEU on such a rocky footing to begin with.  A lot of that falls on the clearly miscast choice of director with Zack Snyder.  Snyder was never a good fit with the character of Superman, because his style is so morose and devoid of light.  He makes a fine choice for stylistic and gritty comic adaptations like 300 (2007) and Watchmen (2009), but not for a character as inspirational and good-natured as Superman.  The biggest complaint about Man of Steel usually falls on the film’s muted color palette, which drains the joy out of the movie.  It’s a far cry from the lush, bright colors of Donner’s original, and for comic book fans especially, it probably felt like a betrayal to see the blue and red of Superman’s costume be so de-emphasized.  Man of Steel almost feels like a holdover from another era, where filmmakers almost felt ashamed of presenting a superhero dressed in brightly colored tights and a cape, and instead chose to make the costumes a little more modern and edgy.  Marvel on the other hand, not only has chosen to faithfully translate their comic character’s looks to the big screen, but they seem to celebrate it as well.  In Iron Man, during the process of building his final prototype for his suit, he decides to add a little “hot rod red” to the color scheme, matching the gold and red colors that the character model is famous for in the comics.  This example has follow through with every Marvel character since, with Spider-Man returning back to his tights and Captain America proudly donning the red white and blue across his armor.  More than anything, this brought the super hero genre out of it’s misguided tilt toward gritty make-overs and instead showed that it indeed was worthwhile to embrace everything fun about the characters, even their campy looks.  Only now are we seeing DC finally adopt that ideal as well, with the light-hearted Shazam being the most recent example.  Unfortunately, the Snyder style stuck to DC for far too long and hampered any chance of it striking the same chord with an audience that Marvel managed to achieve.

“I was bred to be a warrior, Kal.  Trained my entire life to master my senses.  Where did you train? ON A FARM?”

It’s hard to think what Marvel’s Cinematic Universe might have been like had Iron Man had not been it’s starting off point.  Jon Favreau’s deft and well-intentioned approach is what Marvel needed for the launch of their ambitious plans, and it is remarkable that it was all built around an actor who once was considered to be un-hirable in Hollywood.  The tables have certainly turned, and not only is Iron Man now an A-List super hero in the same league as Superman and Batman, but he’s even carried Spider-Man under his wing.  Robert Downey Jr.’s on-screen charisma no doubt endeared the character to fans around the world, and it’s clear why he gave it his all over so many years.  You could say that the life that Iron Man saved above all was that of the actor playing him.  The movie saved his reputation, has kept him clean and sober for over a decade now, and has made him fans all over the world, something he certainly indulges as he promotes the movies worldwide in a fashion not all that dissimilar from the persona of Tony Stark.  Hollywood loves a redemption story, and the real life one involving Robert Downey Jr. has been just that.  Sadly, Superman’s most recent big screen outing hasn’t carried that inspiring story along with it.  Henry Cavill, a talented actor in his own right, felt burdened by the lack of direction with his character and after a while, he felt that it just wasn’t worth continuing, so as of right now, Superman’s future on the big screen is once again in limbo.  If DC had put more effort into the character, and given him a story arc as inspiring as that of Iron Man, they may have been able to hold onto their actors as long as Marvel has managed to hold onto theirs.  The saddest part is that Cavill’s Superman doesn’t get the closure that he deserves, which is especially unfortunate considering how satisfying the departures in Avengers: Endgame turned out.  It all shows that when you plan to build a major cinematic universe, it helps to make sure that you are getting it right the first time, and that involves a little bit of risk, a whole lot of luck, as well as embracing what made these characters beloved in the first place.  That’s why Marvel are the kings of Hollywood right now, because they gambled and won, whereas DC tried to put their best horse forward and had him stumble out of the gate in a race he shouldn’t have started in the first place.  All the more remarkable is that all of this, the MCU and this era of cinematic universes, was all started by a once disgraced actor playing man who built a suit of iron in a cave with a box of scraps.