Monday, July 24, 2017

A Look at Threequels

Yesterday’s episode of Sounds of Cinema took a look at threequels – third installments in a film series. Here’s a look at the movies discussed on the program as well as some additional titles.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Dir. Sergio Leone

Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone reinvented the Western genre with 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars and continued the story in For a Few Dollars More. Leone completed his trilogy with 1966’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, one of the most iconic motion pictures in the Western genre. This film is actually a prequel to the other films. It reveals the origins of the Man with No Name and this picture seals Clint Eastwood’s cinematic image as the mythic Western antihero. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has an extraordinary visual style and one of the great scores in all of film music provided by Ennio Morricone.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
Dir. Don Taylor 

The original series of Planet of the Apes films stretched from 1968 to 1973 with five films released in six years. The movies were renowned for their action and groundbreaking makeup effects and they have since been lauded for their political content. However, the best sequel of the original Apes saga is light on both action and politics. 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes has a decidedly lighter tone but it’s also the most dramatically engaging Apes sequel and the most heartbreaking entry in the series.

Rocky III (1982)
Dir. Sylvester Stallone

The Rocky series has an interesting tension between earnestness and self-awareness and never is that more evident than in Rocky III. The series is largely autobiographical on Sylvester Stallone’s part and Rocky III finds the character made soft by success. After becoming the heavyweight champion in the previous film, Rocky has to rediscover the “eye of the tiger.” The first half of this film is quite playful and pokes fun at the commodification of celebrities (and of Stallone himself) while the second half has some of the most satisfying drama of the series.

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
Dir. Richard Marquand

1983’s Return of the Jedi was the third entry in the original Star Wars trilogy and it is rightly ranked third in that initial batch of films. But it is in great company and just as Empire Strikes Back set a standard for what a sequel could be, Jedi created a template for what final chapters of a sci-fi and fantasy epic could accomplish. It also solidified the standing of Star Wars in pop culture and in the public mind.

Day of the Dead (1985)
Dir. George A. Romero

Day of the Dead was the third film in George A. Romero’s zombie series, following Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. At the time of its release and for many years following, Day of the Dead was considered an inferior sequel and it isn’t as influential as its predecessors. But Day of the Dead has undergone a reappraisal and it’s now regarded as one of the better horror films of the 1980s.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
Dir. Chuck Russell

The horror genre of the 1980s was awash with slasher films with many of them virtual remakes of their progenitors. However, Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors stands out and is one of the best horror sequels of any decade. The movie expanded the scope of the series and provided the backstory of Freddy Krueger while also featuring some ambitious special effects. The movie also heralded the direction for the rest of the series and subsequent Nightmare films had more to do with the style and tone of Dream Warriors than they did with the original film.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Dir. Peter Jackson

The Lord of the Rings was one of the most popular film series of the last decade and it concluded with 2003’s The Return of the King. This film ranks third among the three installments. The storytelling gets clunky in places and the extended cut shows signs of the hubris and self-indulgence that has dogged Peter Jackson’s later movies. Despite that, The Return of the King is a terrific piece of work and it tied the record with Ben-Hur and Titanic for the highest number of wins at the Academy Awards, earning eleven Oscars including Best Director and Best Picture.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Dir. Alfonso Cuaron
The Harry Potter series is one of the most popular and most successful franchises in history. However, the motion picture adaptation got off to a rocky start with 2001’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and 2002’s The Chamber of Secrets. Directed by Chris Columbus, the first two Potter films were lackluster fantasy filmmaking. Alfonso Cuaron may very well have saved the series with 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Cuaron’s film had impressive art direction and a terrific style as well as more complicated source material and this picture is frequently credited as one of the best films in the series.

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
Dir. Paul Greengrass

The story of superspy Jason Bourne reached its organic conclusion with 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum. It brought the story to a satisfying close by resolving Jason Bourne’s identity and his ongoing conflict with the Treadstone program. Two more sequels followed—The Bourne Legacy in 2012 and Jason Bourne in 2016—but this is an instance in which the studio should have left well enough alone.

Toy Story 3 (2010)
Dir. Lee Unkrich

Pixar has now invested itself in sequels. This has been a financial goldmine for the studio but with diminished creative returns. However, the Toy Story sequels are the impressive exception. The third film was made fifteen years after the original and it played to the now adult audience who had grown up watching the first two installments. Toy Story 3 was about the passage into adulthood and it is among the best movies Pixar has produced.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Dir. Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan finished his Batman trilogy with 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. Although it’s unwieldy and not as perfectly crafted as 2008’s The Dark Knight, Nolan’s third Batman film has an ambitious and epic scope. Where a lot of other superhero franchises sputtered out (the Christopher Reeve Superman films, the 1990s’s Batman movies, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy), The Dark Knight trilogy is consistently excellent and comes to a compelling close that’s unlike anything else in the superhero genre.

Before Midnight (2013)
Dir. Richard Linklater

A lot of the most notable threequels are works of science fiction and fantasy because those genres lend themselves to serialization. However, one of the best motion picture trilogies is Richard Linklater’s Before series consisting of 1995’s Before Sunrise, 2004’s Before Sunset, and 2013’s Before Midnight. The ongoing story concerns the relationship between an American man and a French woman (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) with each installment checking in on them about every ten years. Where the first two movies were about their burgeoning romance, Before Midnight finds the couple at a crisis point.

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)
Dir. Matt Reeves

The Apes series was rebooted with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, continued with 2014’s Dawn, and concluded with 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes. The third film brings the story arc begun in Rise to a satisfying conclusion and like the best of the classic Apes pictures, War takes some dark turns while delving into themes of survival and civilization. In terms of quality, consistency, and narrative follow through, the new Apes series is one of the most consistent film trilogies ever created.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Controversial Films 2017

Independence Day weekend brings with it Sounds of Cinema's annual controversial films special. The episode celebrates freedom of speech with a look at movies that have been censored, banned, or were otherwise controversial. Note that this is not intended to be a complete list of controversial titles, just a selection of relevant pictures that are of interest. For more information on controversial films, see the links at the bottom. You can also check out the blog post for last year's episode.

Django Unchained (2012)
Dir. Quentin Tarantino

The films of Quentin Tarantino have consistently raised some level of controversy. The ultra-violence of Reservoir Dogs, the cavalier use of the n-word in Jackie Brown, and the creative revision of history in Inglourious Basterds have made Tarantino a regular target of critics and commentators. But the film that elicited the most passionate debate was Django Unchained. The film tells the story of a freed slave who becomes a bounty hunter and quests to free his wife from a vicious plantation owner.

Django Unchained began to generate controversy before it even opened when filmmaker Spike Lee, who had criticized Tarantino in the past, said the film was disrespectful to the memory of those who suffered through slavery. On Twitter Lee wrote, “American Slavery was not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti western. It was a Holocaust. My ancestors are slaves. Stolen from Africa. I will honor them.” A few commentators followed Lee, criticizing Tarantino for the use of the n-word, which is spoken in the movie over 100 times. Others harped on the historical inaccuracies or felt that Django Unchained failed in its satirical aspirations and exploited the history of slavery for the sake of staging bloody gunfights.

Like many of Tarantino’s movies, Django Unchained borrows from the history of exploitation and grindhouse cinema but this film took the unusual step of commenting on the history of the Western genre and put many racial and political conventions on their heads. This isn’t really a movie about the history of American slavery but about the history of slavery as depicted in Hollywood films. At every turn, Django Unchained subverts the villainous portrayal of African American men seen in films like 1915’s Birth of a Nation while questioning the cultural myth of the genteel antebellum American South as portrayed in movies like Gone with the Wind. This understanding of the film was effectively enunciated by Adam Serwer in Mother Jones, who wrote that Django Unchained is “a two-hour-plus lecture on racism in American film, an extended f--- you to DW Griffith and John Ford, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood.”

Nekromantik (1987) & Nekromantik 2 (1991)
Dir. Jörg Buttgereit

One of the strangest filmmakers to come out of Germany—or anywhere else for that matter—was Jörg Buttgereit. He grew up in West Germany and Buttgereit was frustrated by state-enforced censorship. He deliberately set out to create movies that would violate boundaries of good taste. 1987’s Nekromantik concerned a married couple who decide to spice up their love life by bringing a corpse into the bedroom. Eventually the wife leaves her husband for the corpse, sending him into a tailspin of despair. As the premise suggests, Nekromantik is very gross. But it’s also earnest and plays out as a mordant melodrama of a relationship coming apart. The film has been banned in several countries and territories including Nova Scotia, Finland, Iceland, and Norway. The British Board of Film Classification didn’t certify Nekromantik until 2014. Due to its content and its scandalous reputation, Nekromantik became a cult title.

Note: The following trailer is probably not safe for work.

Jörg Buttgereit made a sequel in 1991. Nekromantik 2 follows up with the wife from the first film and her frustrated attempts to maintain a romantic relationship with a partner who is still alive. Where the original Nekromantik was an underground film, the sequel opened with some notoriety and it was banned in Germany. Munich police raided a screening of Nekromantik 2 as well as the offices of the film’s producer. The authorities intended to destroy the film negative and Buttgereit was put on trial for glorifying violence. According to Buttgereit, German law enforcement prosecuted Nekromantik 2 by overextending a statute intended to outlaw Nazi propaganda. During the trial, Buttgerieit and the movie were saved by a film historian who claimed that Nekromantik 2 was really about the decay in East Germany and therefore had artistic merit.

Jörg Buttgereit recently adapted the Nekromanik films into comic books which extended the story with a new sequel: “Son of Nekromantik.”

Note: The following trailer is probably not safe for work.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Dir. Ang Lee

Based on a short story by Annie Proulx, Brokeback Mountain was a drama about the love affair between two homosexual cowboys. Predictably, groups that oppose homosexuality precipitated a backlash against the film. Brokeback Mountain was pulled from exhibition by a Utah theater chain and protests were held outside of show houses in Auburn, California and Panama City, Florida. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops originally classified Brokeback Mountain an L for “limited adult audience” and conceded that the film was "a serious contemplation of loneliness and connection." However, the USCCB reclassified Brokeback Mountain as “morally offensive” after homosexually hostile groups criticized the review.

Despite the protests, the reaction to Brokeback Mountain was generally positive. The film was released just as mainstream acceptance of homosexuality reached a tipping point and the popular reaction to Brokeback Mountain illustrated how cultural mores had shifted. Among the best examples of this was Wal-Mart. The retailer had a family friendly image and it refused to sell music CDs with Parental Advisory stickers on them. George Carlin’s book When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? was banned from Wal-Mart’s shelves as were skin magazines like Maxim and gay publications such as The Advocate. Hoping to enlist Wal-Mart as an ally, the American Family Association launched a campaign to dissuade the retailer from stocking Brokeback Mountain when it was released on DVD. A decade earlier Wal-Mart might have acquiesced but it ignored the campaign and sold the movie anyway.

Prior to Brokeback Mountain, gay cinema had generally been considered a niche arthouse subject but the film was a commercial and critical success and Brokeback Mountain earned the most nominations at the 2006 Academy Awards. Its recognition was a source of criticism from anti-gay groups but when Brokeback Mountain was passed over for Best Picture in favor of Crash, the movie’s fans considered this a great injustice and a result of homophobia within Hollywood. (Brokeback Mountain author Annie Proulx wrote a bitter editorial about it and W. David Lichty drafted an equally tart retort.) The anger over Brokeback Mountain’s loss was somewhat assuaged by the subsequent Best Picture win of Milk in 2009.  

Internationally, Brokeback Mountain had a mixed reaction. The movie was directed by Chinese filmmaker Ang Lee but it was banned in his home country. Brokeback Mountain was also banned in the Bahamas and the United Arab Emirates. One of the strangest reactions to Brokeback Mountain came in Italy when it was shown on state television in 2008. The movie was re-edited in a way that removed the homosexual romance, transforming Brokeback Mountain from a gay love story and into a film about a platonic male friendship.

Carnal Knowledge (1971)
Dir. Mike Nichols

Several movies of the late 1960s and early 70s addressed the shifts in public morality during what’s now called the sexual revolution. Movies like Shampoo, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and The Last Picture Show explored the new boundaries of cinema. Among the most important of these titles was Mike Nichols’ 1971 film Carnal Knowledge. The picture stars Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel and follows their characters’ romantic and sexual exploits over several decades. The two men have opposing but problematic views of women; Garfunkel’s character idolizes women to a fault while Nicholson’s character views them as sex objects. The movie takes on topics of lust, power, and misogyny in a way that is still relevant and upsetting more than four decades later. As a product of the sexual revolution, Carnal Knowledge was reflective rather than celebratory of the new freedoms; as Bruce Eder puts it, Carnal Knowledge was “the rude awakening following sexual awakening.” The movie was so identified with the changing morality of the 1970s that the television show The Wonder Years built an episode around the movie in which the underage characters sneak into a screening. 

For its time, Carnal Knowledge was extraordinarily frank about sexuality. This movie allegedly has the first appearance of a condom in a motion picture and the dialogue includes many blunt exchanges. For some, the movie went too far. According to Sean Axmaker at TCM, Carnal Knowledge was banned for a time in Italy and some newspapers refused to run advertisements for it. A print of Carnal Knowledge was seized by police from a cinema in Athens, Georgia and the theater owner was arrested and convicted of distributing obscene material. The trial went all the way to the United States Supreme Court who acquitted the theater owner and struck down the George obscenity law.

The Da Vinci Code (2006)
Dr. Ron Howard

The Da Vinci Code was based on the popular novel by Dan Brown. The story is basically a murder mystery but it incorporates elements of history, religion, and art, specifically the work of Leonardo Da Vinci. The film posits, among other things, that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus Christ and birthed his children and over the centuries the Catholic Church has engaged in a conspiracy to conceal the truth.

Despite its worldwide success, the book was contentious and had attracted criticism from religious figures and scholars and when The Da Vinci Code was adapted into a motion picture the controversy escalated. The intensification was partly due to the high profile names attached to the movie including director Ron Howard and actors Tom Hanks and Ian McKellen but it was also an implicit acknowledgement of the power of movies in popular culture. As the film’s release neared, The Da Vinci Code attracted significant pushback from Catholic leaders. The church declared the film morally offensive and Archbishop Angelo Amato, secretary for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, suggested that Catholics around the world should boycott the film and organize protests against it. Elsewhere, The Da Vinci Code was banned in several Asian and Middle Eastern countries.

The sequel Angels and Demons was released in 2009 with most of the major cast and crew returning. Because of the controversy over The Da Vinci Code, the filmmakers were banned from shooting inside any Catholic buildings in Rome. However, it was later revealed that the filmmakers sent cameramen posing as tourists into churches and other Vatican-owned property to take photographs and shoot video footage that were used to recreate those spaces for the production.

Ghostbusters (2016)
Dr. Paul Feig

Ghostbusters was one of the seminal titles of the 1980s, inspiring merchandise, Halloween costumes, a spinoff cartoon, and a middling sequel that was released in 1989. After years of rumors and false starts, Sony Pictures made the decision to reboot the franchise with director Paul Feig and a new cast of all female characters.

From the outset, reaction to the Ghostbusters reboot was overwhelmingly negative. Sexist knuckle draggers mobilized against the picture in much the same way they had in the Gamergate controversy. When the first preview of the Ghostbusters reboot was released online it became the most disliked movie trailer in YouTube’s history and the Internet Movie Database was flooded with negative reviews before the film even opened.

However, there is more to unpack in the Ghostbusters controversy. There certainly were sexist trolls who piled onto this movie simply because the lead actors were female. But the trailer was not very good and it was criticized on its cinematic merits by people such as filmmaker Kevin Smith, online commentator Comic Book Girl 19, and 2016 Ghostbusters star Melissa McCarthy who called the trailer “very confusing.” Also opposing the remake was a contingent of nostalgia-driven fans who saw it as a crass exploitation of a classic movie. Unfortunately, a lot of the reporting about the Ghostbusters controversy lumped the sexist remarks together with reasonable critiques. This was best exemplified when James Rolfe, better known as the Angry Video Game Nerd, issued a Youtube video in which he refused to review or even watch the new film. Rolfe’s reasoning was flawed and self-indulgent but it was not sexist. That nuance was lost on Rolfe’s detractors who wrongfully defamed him as a misogynist.

Almost as odious as the online sexism was the way Sony molded its Ghostbusters marketing campaign around it. Instead of repairing the damage done by the trailer, reassuring the fan base, and selling the movie on its own merits, the studio tried to turn the Ghostbusters reboot into a political cause. Sony’s pitch inspired editorials that suggested feminist viewers had an obligation to see the movie to help fix Hollywood sexism. The critics at Red Letter Media allege that Sony manipulated the comments section of the movie’s trailer and deleted relevant critiques of the clip but retained the sexist ones in order to further this narrative. Whether deliberately or as an unintended side effect, the combined efforts of internet trolls and Sony’s marketing department poisoned the entire discussion around Ghostbusters and created an environment in which anyone who said anything negative about the film was labeled a misogynist.

When it was finally released, Ghostbusters underperformed at the box office (relative to its budget) and sequel plans have apparently been scrapped. It’s hard to say if the sexist response impacted the box office results. The film was entertaining but unremarkable. Then again, the box office is less an indicator of the quality of a film and more a verdict on the effectiveness of the marketing campaign. As Matthew Rozsa points out, the dispute over Ghostbusters politicized the film. For an audience that was already exhausted by the tawdry presidential election of 2016, the politicization of Ghostbusters may have soured them on the idea of seeing it.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990)
Dr. John McNaughton

Throughout the 1980s, the slasher film was an extremely popular and profitable genre. Movies like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street played very successfully in theaters and video store shelves were flooded with a lot of forgettable direct-to-video titles. In the midst of this trend, first time director John McNaughton made Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Unlike the campy horror titles that were popular at that time, Henry was a serious look at the life of a psychopath loosely based on real life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. The movie was shot in a grim documentary style and featured first-rate performances by the cast, including the screen debut of actor Michael Rooker as Henry. When McNaughton showed the movie to his financers they were disappointed. They had expected the teenage gore fests that everyone else was churning out at the time and they didn’t know what to do with the picture and so Henry was shelved for three years. In 1989 Henry was screened at several film festivals and got glowing reviews from several high profile critics and was then set for release.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer ran into a snag when it was submitted to the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board. In order to open in mainstream theaters the film had to get an R-rating but it was given an X. The X was a commercial death sentence. When the rating system was originally devised in the 1960s, the X rating was simply intended to identify movies that were only appropriate for adult audiences. But the X rating was coopted by the pornographic film industry and most theaters would not play X-rated movies nor would newspapers or television stations run advertisements for them. Typically, the MPAA would identify problematic sequences or shots and filmmakers would find a way to edit their film to achieve an R-rating but in the case of Henry there was no editing to be done. The MPAA claimed that Henry had an unacceptable moral tone and there was nothing that could be cut to change the movie. When word of the film’s struggle with the ratings board went public, the MPAA found itself on the receiving end of a lot of criticism. As a result, the MPAA changed the X to the NC-17. The intent was to rehabilitate the “adults only” rating but distributors and exhibitors continued to treat NC-17 rated films the same as those rated X and so the switch did little to actually correct the problem.

Mondo Cane (1962)
Dir. Paolo Cavara, Gualtiero Jacopetti, and Franco Prosperi

Mondo Cane was an Italian travelogue documentary released in 1962. At the time it was made, mainstream audiences were primarily exposed to people and cultures of faraway lands through newsreel footage which was generally polite and highlighted whatever that country’s government or chamber of commerce wanted outsiders to see. Filmmakers Paolo Cavara, Gualtiero Jacopetti, and Franco Prosperi intended Mondo Cane as counterprogramming to the typical travelogue movie. Their film showcased the exotic, weird, scandalous, and violent aspects of nature and world culture. It portrayed women in a lurid way and featured copious amounts of nudity as well as animal violence such as footage of a matador being gored in a bullfight. While much of this footage was genuine, some of it was alleged to be manipulated or fabricated, such as a sequence involving a sea turtle stranded on its back with no explanation of how it got that way. Mondo Cane, which translates as “a dog’s world,” juxtaposed advanced and developing cultures and suggested that human beings were barbaric creatures regardless of their industrial or economic sophistication.  

Mondo Cane received mixed reviews. Some critics hailed the film while others found it exploitative and dishonest. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called Mondo Cane “an extraordinarily candid factual film” while Pauline Kael called Jacopetti and Prosperi "perhaps the most devious and irresponsible filmmakers who have ever lived." The movie was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival but it was initially rejected by the British Board of Film Classification, which required fourteen minutes of cuts. That polarized reception is indicative of the genius of Jacopetti and Prosperi. Mondo Cane weaved sleazy exploitation with the style of an arthouse production. Strange and in some cases revolting visuals were filmed and edited with showmanship and suggested irony. The acerbic narration contrasted with the beautiful music score to create the impression of legitimacy and profundity even if that impression was just an illusion.

Mondo Cane was an international hit and one of the most important titles of the post-war era. The film inspired an entire genre of documentaries that would be known as mondo or shockumentary films. Jacopetti and Prosperi would make Mondo Cane 2, Women of the World, Africa Addio, and Goodbye, Uncle Tom with each film more scandalous than the last. Meanwhile, other filmmakers got in on the act with rip offs and imitators that were more lurid, more violent, and more unscrupulous about fabricating their footage. The devolution of the mondo genre culminated in the early 1980s with the advent of videotape and the release of The Faces of Death. The repercussions of Mondo Cane are still with us. Much of so-called reality television like The Bachelor and The Real Housewives and Cops and Girls Gone Wild rely upon the same appeals of Mondo Cane and frequently employ the same dishonest and unethical techniques pioneered by Jacopetti and Prosperi. 

The music of Mondo Cane was composed by Riz Ortolani and included the song “More.” This piece became a huge hit and was rerecorded by such artists as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, and Judy Garland.

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)
Dir. Todd Haynes

Karen Carpenter and her brother Richard formed the singing duo The Carpenters who were popular throughout the 1970s with hit songs like “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” In 1983, Karen Carpenter died of heart failure brought on by anorexia. Her life has since been the subject of several dramatic films, most notably 1987’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Superstar was an experimental short film in which Karen Carpenter and her companions were portrayed by Barbie dolls. The film was directed by Todd Haynes who would go on to have a successful career helming movies like Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There, and Carol. According to the Denver Film Society, Richard Carpenter was irate over Superstar’s insinuation that he was gay and Carpenter filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against the filmmakers for their unauthorized use of The Carpenters music. Richard Carpenter won the lawsuit and Superstar was—and still is—legally prohibited from being sold or commercially exhibited. However, the film has been shown at the Museum of Art and Design, bootleg versions are widely available, and Superstar has become among the most popular cult films

An authorized live action biopic of Karen Carpenter’s life, simply titled The Karen Carpenter Story, was made for television and broadcast on CBS in 1989. Richard Carpenter was credited as a producer on the project and he even wrote some original music for it but Carpenter later spoke poorly of the film. In the liner notes to The Carpenters: Gold – 35th Anniversary Edition CD set, he referred to 1989’s The Karen Carpenter Story as “approximately 90 minutes of creative license that give biopics, in general, a dubious name.”

The Tin Drum (1979)
Dir. Volker Schlöndorff

The Tin Drum was an adaptation of the novel by Günter Grass. The story is a work of magical realism set during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Three-year-old Oskar is revolted by the adult world and he decides to stop growing. Clinging to his tin drum, Oskar remains in the body of a child even while his mind continues to mature. He lives through World War II and has romantic relationships with several grown women. The Tin Drum is a study of the Polish experience during World War II and the way fascism infected the culture. The film’s unusual premise suggests that our attempts to hold onto our innocence are ultimately foiled.

The Tin Drum was well received, winning the Palm d’Or at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival and the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 1980 Academy Awards. The film’s decorations did not spare it from censorship and controversy. At issue were several sequences in which Oskar, played by child actor David Bennent, was shown in sexual situations with adult women. This led to The Tin Drum being accused of child pornography and it was cut for its initial release in the United Kingdom and it was banned in Ontario, Canada. 

The highest profile dispute over The Tin Drum came eighteen years after the film was released. Prompted by the community organization Oklahomans for Children and Families, the Oklahoma City police department seized copies of The Tin Drum from local video stores and public libraries. The authorities did not have a warrant, putting them in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States’ Constitution. The officers also obtained the rental history of The Tin Drum in order to track down circulating copies. This violated the Video Privacy Protection Act, a federal law passed in 1988 that protects consumer video rental records. As it happened, one of the copies of The Tin Drum was checked out to an employee of the American Civil Liberties Union. After police officers confiscated the tape from his home, the ACLU employee filed a lawsuit against the city and the police department for illegal search and seizure. Similar lawsuits were also brought by the Oklahoma City Metropolitan Library System and the Video Software Dealers’ Association. A federal judge reviewed The Tin Drum and found that it did not violate obscenity laws and the movie returned to the shelves. During the controversy, copies of The Tin Drum were sold in other states with a sticker proclaiming that the movie was “Banned in Oklahoma” and The Tin Drum became the most rented foreign film in Oklahoma video stores.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
Dir. George P. Cosmatos

The character of John Rambo was introduced in 1982’s First Blood. Based on David Morell’s novel and starring Sylvester Stallone, First Blood was about a troubled Vietnam veteran who gets in trouble with the law. The movie’s success led to a sequel released in 1985. Where First Blood was a modestly scaled thriller, Rambo: First Blood Part II was a larger than life action extravaganza in which the character was sent to Vietnam on a secret mission in search of American prisoners of war. The sequel was a blockbuster success which naturally led to merchandising opportunities including toys and other products aimed at children. As was common in those days, the toy line was associated with a syndicated cartoon, Rambo: The Force of Freedom. However, the cartoon had more in common with other animated programs popular at that time like G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero than it did with the live action Rambo movies. The marketing of a violent, R-rated action franchise to children led to protest. Peace group the War Resisters League picketed outside a stockholder’s meeting of toy manufacturer Coleco Industries. The protest was part of a broader effort against war toys. Film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert dedicated an entire episode of their television program to the controversy. Although they had given a positive review to Rambo: First Blood Part II, Siskel and Ebert were critical of the marketing of war toys to children.

  • 50 Most Controversial Films at Sky Movies
  • 50 Most Controversial Movies Ever by David Fear, Joshua Rothkopf, and Keith Uhlich at Time Out New York
  • The 101 Most Controversial Films of All Time at Listal
  • "Banned in Oklahoma." The Tin Drum. Criterion Collection, 2004. DVD. 
  • The Godfathers of Mondo. Dir. David Gregory. Blue Underground, 2003. DVD. 
  • Kerekes, David and David Slater. Killing for Culture: From Edision to ISIS: A New History of Death on Film. Headpress: 2016.
  • Kimber, Shaun. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Palgrave, 2011. Controversies Series.
  • Most Controversial Films of All Time by Tim Dirks at AMC Filmsite
  • "Portrait: The Making of Henry." Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Dark Sky Films, 2009. Blu-Ray. 
  • Warf, Barney and Thomas Chapman. “Cathedrals of Consumption: A Political Phenomenology of Wal-Mart.” Wal-Mart World: The World’s Biggest Corporation in the Global Economy. Ed. Stanley D. Brunn. Routledge, 2006.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Controversial Films on Sounds of Cinema

Sounds of Cinema's annual look at controversial films will air on Sunday, July 2nd.

Sounds of Cinema has made a tradition of using Independence Day weekend to celebrate freedom of speech by looking at movies that were censored, banned, or were otherwise controversial.  The 2016 edition of this program will feature all new material so even if you've tuned in for past broadcasts don't miss this episode.

Sounds of Cinema can be heard at 9am on 89. 5 KQAL FM in Winona, MN and at 11:00am on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, MN. If you are outside the broadcast area you can still hear the show via live streaming from each station's website.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Does Lucasfilm Have a Management Problem?

Last week news broke that Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired from the upcoming Star Wars spinoff movie and director Ron Howard had been hired as a replacement. The termination was unusual, as the Han Solo movie had been in production since February. Allegedly, Lord and Miller conflicted with Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who had writing credits on The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and The Force Awakens. As seen in their 21 Jump Street films and The LEGO Movie, Lord and Miller have a light, funny, and whimsical style that was not in keeping with the established tone of the Star Wars film series.
The firing of Lord and Miller is the latest in a series of tumultuous relationships between Lucasfilm and its directors. Josh Trank had originally been hired to direct a Star Wars film but he was fired after posting Tweets that disparaged 20th Century Fox following the disastrous reboot of Fantastic Four. The making of Rogue One was also subject to behind the scenes drama. The movie was taken away from filmmaker Gareth Edwards (although he retained director credit) and the movie underwent a massive reshoot that retooled the picture under the supervision of Tony Gilroy.

What’s happening at Lucasfilm parallels similar stories coming out of Marvel, both of which are owned by Disney. Edgar Wright left Ant-Man after years of development because Marvel insisted that Wright (who is one of the most interesting filmmakers working in Hollywood today) suppress his distinct cinematic style. Before that, Patty Jenkins (who helmed Wonder Woman for DC) quit Thor: The Dark World because she could not make the movie she wanted. Similar drama played out behind the scenes of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Iron Man 2. In fact, the first half of Jon Favreau’s Chef plays like a confessional about his experience making the Iron Man sequel.

Collaborative ventures always involve some conflict but what we are seeing at Lucasfilm, Marvel, and elsewhere is a shift in creative power prompted by the financial realities of the movie business. As studios become ever more invested in long term franchises in which each installment costs hundreds of millions of dollars to make and its success or failure has consequences for the continued viability of the series, it becomes difficult or impossible to allow filmmakers to innovate. Instead, people like Kathleen Kennedy at Lucasfilm and Kevin Feige at Marvel are most interested in establishing, maintaining and protecting the identity of their brands. That makes sense but it comes at the cost of suppressing creativity and innovation.

This begs the question: why hire filmmakers like Phil Lord and Chris Miller who have a distinct directorial voice? In an excellent piece at Variety, Peter Debruge provides an explanation:
On paper, Lord and Miller’s irreverent sensibility seemed like a perfect match for Han Solo, the franchise’s most sardonic character. One has to assume that it was precisely that take Kathy Kennedy and the Star Wars producers wanted when they hired the duo. But this is where modern critics, columnists and the fan community at large fail to understand a fundamental change that is happening at the blockbuster level in Hollywood: These directors are not being chosen to put their personal stamp on these movies. They are being hired to do the opposite, to suppress their identity and act grateful while the producers make all the key creative decisions.

Want to know why [Colin] Trevorrow was picked to direct Jurassic World when his only previous credit was a nifty little sci-fi indie called Safety Not Guaranteed? It’s because he plays well with others, willing to follow exec producer Steven Spielberg’s lead when necessary. Going in to the assignment, Trevorrow had no experience directing complicated action sequences or overseeing massive-budget special effects. He didn’t need it, because those aspects of the movie were delegated to seasoned heads of department, while Trevorrow focused on what he does best: handling the interpersonal chemistry between the lead characters.
Franchise filmmaking is moving toward a management structure that is more like dramatic television shows. On The Sopranos or Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, the producer or showrunner oversees the creative and narrative direction of the series. Directors of individual episodes may have their own input but they are primarily hired as journeymen, a skilled craftsman who will complete a project devised by someone else. And television is thriving under this organizational style so clearly it can work.
In the case of Star Wars, it’s worth noting that the producer-led power structure is exactly how films were made under George Lucas. The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were officially directed by Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand, respectively, but Lucas devised the story and exerted creative control over the productions. Kershner and Marquand were hired to work with the actors, which Lucas famously had little interest in doing.

This puts an interesting wrinkle on the hiring of Ron Howard to complete the Han Solo movie. Howard has admitted to turning down the offer to direct the Star Wars prequels, saying that his 1988 feature Willow was his “least personal” film, as he was expected to execute Lucas’ vision in the same way Kershner and Marquand did for Empire and Jedi. Why he said no to the prequels but yes to the spinoff clearly is not an artistic decision on Howard’s part. Howard is a self-described Star Wars fan and making a film in the series may be less daunting since the bar was lowered by The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. It could also be that Howard needs a hit which a Star Wars film is almost assured to be. Rush and Frost/Nixon were terrific but they didn’t make money and Howard hasn’t had a smash since 2006’s The Da Vinci Code.
Although the producer-based power structure has been successful in television, it does not bode well for Star Wars or for Hollywood filmmaking in general. Vince Gilligan and David Chase are creative people whose primary job is telling stories. These show runners were part of the writing staff and they directed episodes. Kathleen Kennedy and others of the Hollywood executive class are not creative people. They don’t write, act, or direct. They are primarily skilled at making deals and managing budgets and schedules. They are necessary for the machinery of Hollywood but their skill sets are not interchangeable with those of creatives.

A few years ago, David Cronenberg caused a minor dustup when he suggested that comic book films were not art. At that time, Cronenberg’s comments were taken as a slam against Christopher Nolan but he was really criticizing the studio power structure. He said:
Anybody who works in the studio system has got twenty studio people sitting on his head at every moment, and they have no respect, and there's no…it doesn't matter how successful you've been. And obviously Nolan has been very successful. He's got a lot of power, relatively speaking. But he doesn't really have power.
Hollywood moviemaking is a synthesis of art and industrial production. But without the artistry these movies just become fast food. I’m not suggesting that the studios should give filmmakers hundreds of millions of dollars and carte blanche to do whatever they want. Good management requires supervision but it also requires trust. At present it appears that Lucasfilm and others have too much of the former and not enough of the latter.

The firing of Lord and Miller, the displacement of Gareth Edwards, and the many creative fallouts at Marvel point to a corporate culture within Disney and its subsidiaries that is hostile to creativity and innovation. And if you think Pixar is going to save them, remember that the animation studio just released Cars 3, following Finding Dory, with The Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4 on the way. But Disney is not alone. The whole studio system is enraptured by tent pole filmmaking and franchise building whether it is Harry Potter and the DC Extended Universe at Warner Bros., Transformers and Star Trek at Paramount, the Fast and the Furious and the Dark Universe at Universal, or Planet of the Apes and X-Men at Fox.

It may seem strange raising alarm about a company and a franchise that has had two billion dollar movies in as many years. My primary concern here is of artistry and entertainment not commerce. The Force Awakens and Rogue One were acceptable fan service but little else. If Lucasfilm remains stuck in its own nostalgia, retelling the same stories of the same characters in the same style, that’s inevitably going to lead to a creative dead end. And although they are making money now, how long will fans keep shelling out ten dollars for a movie ticket or twenty dollars for a Blu-ray disc of the same old thing? Innovation is risky but it is also the only way to keep Star Wars vital and fresh, inspire the next generation of filmmakers and fans, and create the basis for future remakes.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Movies for Father's Day

Here are a few movie suggestions for Father's Day.

Big Fish (2003)
Dir. Tim Burton

One of the best films of director Tim Burton, a son investigates the fanciful tales of his father while the older man struggles with his health. This is a more complex and mature film than the usual Burton fare.

Father of the Bride (1950/1991)
Dir. Vincente Minnelli / Charles Shyer

The original version of Father of the Bride, starring Spencer Tracy, was released in 1950. A well received remake starring Steve Martin was issued in 1991. Both films tell the story of the emotional and financial woes of a father whose daughter is getting married.

Field of Dreams (1989)
Dir. Phil Alden Robinson

An example of a movie apparently about one thing and later revealing itself as about something else, Field of Dreams tells the story of an Iowa farmer (Kevin Costner) who hears voices telling him to build a baseball diamond in a corn field.

Finding Nemo (2003)
Dir. Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich

A Pixar film about Marlin, a widowed clown fish whose only son is captured by an aquarium hobbyist. Marlin sets out with a forgetful blue tang to find his son. A sequel, Finding Dory, was released in 2016.

The Godfather (1974) 
Dir. Francis Ford Coppola

The gangster movie classic is really the story of a family business--as well as the family identity--and its passage from one generation to the next.

He Named Me Malala (2015)
Dir. Davis Guggenheim

A documentary about Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai and her father Ziauddin. Malala was shot in the head by Taliban militants for attending school. She survived the attack and became an international voice in support of women's rights. 

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Dir. Steven Spielberg

The third Indiana Jones film is the best sequel in the series. Key to the movie's success is the father-son relationship between Henry and Indiana, played by Sean Connery and Harrison Ford.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012)
Dir. Derek Cianfrance

The Place Beyond the Pines is an ambitious and inter-generational story of two families intertwined by crime and moral compromise with an emphasis on the relationships between fathers and sons.

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Dir. Gabriele Muccino

Real life father and son Will and Jaden Smith play Christopher Gardener and his son. Gardener was living on the streets with his son and they struggled to put their lives back together.

The Stepfather (1987)
Dir. Robert Mulligan

Terry O'Quinn stars in the title role as a psychopath who is determined to have the perfect family. When he is inevitably disappointed, O'Quinn's character murders his family, changes his identity, and stars over again. The Stepfather is one of the most subversive and underappreciated horror pictures of the Reagan era.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Movies for Memorial Day

In observance of Memorial Day, here are some viewing suggestions.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Dir. William Wyler

Three World War II veterans return home and have trouble adjusting to civilian life. Each man faces a personal crisis and struggles to pick up his relationships. In many respects, The Best Years of Our Lives was ahead of its time with its nuanced take on the lasting effects of war.

Patton (1970)
Dir. Franklin J. Schaffner

Patton was a biographical picture about General George Patton, focusing on his campaigns in North Africa and Europe during World War II. Patton was a colorful and controversial figure and the film explores his complicated legacy with intelligence and nuance. The movie opens with a speech that has become one of the most iconic moments in American film.

Apocalypse Now (1979)
Dir. Francis Ford Coppola

Adapted from Joseph Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now tells the story of Captain Willard, a soldier who is sent on a classified mission to assassinate a US army colonel who has gone insane deep within the south east Asian jungle. In the course of his journey, Willard confronts his own doubts about the war and the film descends into the roots of human violence.

Top Gun (1986)
Dir. Tony Scott

One of the most popular military films—both among the general movie-going public and among military recruiters—was 1986’s Top Gun. One of the essential titles of the 1980s, Top Gun was a huge hit that established Tom Cruise as a movie star. This story of elite fighter pilots was also extraordinarily successful as a recruitment film and many young filmgoers enlisted in the United States Air Force following its release.

Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Dir. Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick is not necessarily renowned for his humor but if you are tuned into Kubrick’s mordant sense of the absurd, Full Metal Jacket is one of the funniest war films ever made. Set in the Vietnam era, the first half of the movie takes place at the Parris Island Marine Corp training camp and the second half occurs amid the 1968 Tet Offensive. Kubrick’s vision of humanity is sardonic and bleak and Full Metal Jacket makes an interesting companion piece to Dr. Strangelove.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Dir. Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film Saving Private Ryan was widely praised at the time of its release for the opening sequence that re-creates the D-Day invasion at Normandy. This movie redefined the visual style of the war film and the gritty handheld cinematography and the intense violence of the D-Day scene have been frequently imitated.

The Thin Red Line (1998)
Dir. Terrence Malick

Released the same year as Saving Private Ryan, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line was an adaptation of James Jones’ novel. Malick’s movies are less stories and more cinematic poems and The Thin Red Line is a mediation on combat, meaning, and mortality set during the Guadalcanal campaign of World War II. The Thin Red Line got lost in the hoopla over Saving Private Ryan but it’s a beautifully made movie.

Black Hawk Down (2001)
Dir. Ridley Scott

Following the lead of Saving Private Ryan, Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down applied the same gritty style to a dramatic retelling of the 1993 firefight between American soldiers and Somalian militants. The movie is an intense and bloody affair and at the time of its release it was controversial with detractors arguing that it dehumanized Somalians and simplified a complex situation.

Restrepo (2010)
Dir. Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington

One of the finest films about the Afghanistan conflict and modern combat, Restrepo is a documentary that was filmed among the soldiers of Second Platoon, Battle Company during their fifteen-month deployment in the Korengal Valley. The movie brings the viewer into the daily life of soldiers in the field while also documenting the strategy of that time.

War Machine (2017)
Dir. David Michod

Playing as a mashup of the feature film Patton and the television show Veep, this film is a sometimes absurd take on the war in Afghanistan. Based on the book The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan by Michael Hastings, War Machine is a fictionalized tale of the commanding general and his frustrated efforts to win the war.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The 'Star Wars' Revolution

Today is the fortieth anniversary of the release of the original Star Wars and so it seems like an appropriate time to revisit a series of commentaries that I wrote to coincide with the release of The Force Awakens. Here is the piece most directly relevant to the original film:

The Star Wars Revolution
Star Wars has been such a dominating presence in cinema for the last thirty-eight years that it is difficult to imagine American movies and pop culture without it. But it’s worth understanding where Star Wars came from to fully understand what it has become.

The original Star Wars was released in the midst of the New Hollywood movement, which remains the greatest period of American film. Spanning from the late 1960s until the early 1980s, the New Hollywood movement gave rise to filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin, and Stanley Kubrick who made movies like The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Annie Hall, Coming Home, The French Connection, and A Clockwork Orange. These movies upended filmmaking conventions, redrew the boundaries of censorship, told stories of moral complexity, and dealt with difficult subject matter.

Two things happened at this time that made the New Hollywood movement possible. The first was the destabilization of American society. Watergate, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, and insurgent social movements like second wave feminism and gay liberation shook up American society. At the same time the American film industry was going through its own structural change. The major studios were in financial trouble and the old standards of musicals and historical epics were no longer making bank. The studios went from standalone companies to divisions of much larger conglomerates. The new corporate owners didn’t know much about movies but they were interested in reaching the youth market and so they turned to young filmmakers. Under the old Hollywood studio system the average feature film director was in his mid-forties but now twenty year olds were given license to make what they wanted in the hope that it would regain the public’s interest in the movies. These young filmmakers produced motion pictures that reflected their own view of the world.

It’s in this environment that Star Wars was made and the movie was in its own way revolutionary. Writer and director George Lucas was operating within the studio system while alienated from it. He and his contemporaries were among the first graduates of film schools and Lucas saw himself as an outsider who would make experimental movies. His first two features, THX-1138 and American Graffiti, didn’t resemble traditional narrative filmmaking and Warner Bros. and Universal reedited them before release, angering Lucas and prompting him to assert more control over his films and properties. Star Wars was more conventionally narrative than those pictures but it was even more experimental in its style and technique. The rapid editing and technological innovations revealed new methods of producing visual effects and ultimately new ways of making movies altogether.

The story of Star Wars was also revolutionary or perhaps more accurately it was counter-revolutionary. The film spoke to the youth of the time as it depicted a galactic civil war in which young people figuratively (and later literally) rebelled against their fathers. But Star Wars rejected the ambiguity of the New Hollywood movement in favor of the optimism and moral absolutism of an earlier era. The youth of the 1970s saw their struggles against the establishment in the Rebel assault on the Death Star but their parents would have recognized Darth Vader’s headgear as a synthesis of the Nazi helmet and the SS Totenkopf symbol, giving the conflict a different point of reference. This mix of mainstream and revolutionary elements is a large part of what made Star Wars a hit and made it both a part of and apart from the New Hollywood movement.

Star Wars is also a revolutionary film in the way that it altered the trajectory of the film industry. The enormous box office of Star Wars recalibrated Hollywood’s barometer of financial success and so the picture is often credited—or blamed—with ending the New Hollywood era. But that’s not altogether true. Like any business owner, the executives running Hollywood studios were always interested in making products that would generate the most revenue. By the late 1970s the audience was exhausted with downbeat stories and the success of Jaws and Rocky had already begun to shift Hollywood’s tone. Following Star Wars, the subsequent box office failure of somber films like Sorcerer and Heaven’s Gate and the success of upbeat pictures like Grease and Superman: The Movie completed the redirection of the industry toward escapist fare.

It’s become a cliché to say that Star Wars changed the American film industry. But that is so often said because it’s true. Star Wars was as important a cinematic milestone as Citizen Kane and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and like Orson Welles' and Walt Disney’s movies, the style and techniques of George Lucas’ original space opera have been so embedded in mainstream films that contemporary audiences can’t see what was so special about them. We’ve been living in the era of Star Wars for nearly forty years and what began as a youthful cinematic rebellion has become an empire in its own right. Now that we are on the cusp of a new era of Star Wars films, it is time for audiences, critics, and filmmakers to reevaluate what that means.

For further commentary on the past, present, and future of Star Wars, click here.