Sunday, June 3, 2018

Great Movies with Chaotic Productions

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema took a look at great movies with disastrous productions. In most cases, chaos behind the scenes does not bode well for the resulting motion picture but in some cases it is cause for innovation or the filmmaking challenges present their own creative opportunities. What follows are the films discussed on today’s show as well as a few additional titles.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Dir. Victor Fleming

The Wizard of Oz was an ambitious production in its day and the project was a complicated undertaking made even more so due to changes in the cast and crew. Some of the changes were due to norms of the film industry at that time. In 1939, directors were not stars or auteurs. They were employees of the studio who were hired to execute the studio’s vision and could be reassigned at any time. But even allowing for that, The Wizard of Oz had a chaotic shoot. Filming began with Richard Maplethorp but the director was replaced by George Cukor who didn’t actually shoot anything but did reconfigure the look and style of the film. Directorial duties on The Wizard of Oz then passed to Victor Fleming who oversaw the bulk of principal photography and is credited on the film. Fleming left The Wizard of Oz to work on Gone with the Wind, which was having its own problems, and the Kansas scenes were directed by King Vidor. There were change ups in the cast as well. Buddy Epsen was cast as the Tin Man but had to leave the project when he had an allergic reaction to the makeup meaning that Epsen’s scenes had to be reshot. Margaret Hamilton was severely burned by fire on the set during her smoky exit from Munchkinland and her stand in was later injured while filming the flight scenes. For its time, The Wizard of Oz was extremely expensive and did not recoup its budget in its original release. It was only after The Wizard of Oz was shown on television and in later revival screenings that it became the beloved film that it is today.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Dir. Tobe Hooper

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a low budget horror film that became a seminal title in American cinema. But while it was being made many of the people involved never thought The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would ever see the light of day. The production suffered financial problems and it was made by a mostly inexperienced cast and crew in the grueling heat of the Texas summer. The production problems came to a head in the climactic dinner scene which was the product of a now legendary twenty-six hour shoot. The house did not have air conditioning and temperatures on the set rose to over 100 degrees. The set was decorated with actual meat and dead animals acquired from a shelter and they started to spoil under the hot production lights. Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface, had only one set of his costume and so it was never cleaned for fear of losing it. According to Hansen, he smelled so badly that it made other people sick to be around him. But the difficulty of the shoot came through on screen and made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as visceral and intense as it is. The making of the film is well catalogued in the documentary Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Shocking Truth and in Hansen’s memoir Texas Chainsaw Confidential.

Jaws (1975)
Dir. Steven Spielberg

Jaws is one of many films to have production go awry due to filming on the ocean. The challenges of shooting at sea include dealing with weather and shifting tides as well as coping with sea sickness and civilian boaters passing through the background. All of that was exacerbated by the mechanical shark which barely worked. Jaws had been rushed into production and the shark was never tested in salt water before it was shipped across the country for filming on Martha’s Vineyard. The salt water caused the shark’s skin to disintegrate and the volatility of the ocean brutalized the mechanics. The production schedule on Jaws tripled as did the budget and director Steven Spielberg feared he would be fired off the movie. But when Jaws opened it became the biggest box office success of its day and Jaws is now regarded as one of the best films Hollywood has ever produced. The making of Jaws was documented in Carl Gottlieb's book The Jaws Log.

Star Wars (1977)
Since passing to Disney, Star Wars has had a rocky relationship with its directors. Lucasfilm parted ways with two filmmakers before production of their movies even got underway. Colin Trevorrow was originally announced as the director of Episode IX but was let go after the critical excoriation of The Book of Henry and Josh Trank was fired from an unnamed Star Wars spinoff after the release of his disastrous Fantastic Four reboot. The first spinoff title, Rogue One, was essentially taken away from Gareth Edwards and significantly reshot and reshaped in post-production by Tony Gilroy. And then there is Solo. This film was actually in the middle of shooting when co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired off the movie and replaced by Ron Howard.

Chaos behind the scenes is not that unusual on a Star Wars film. The classic trilogy was very difficult to make and the original Star Wars had an especially tumultuous production. At that time, science fiction and fantasy films were not a big box office draw and some executives at 20th Century Fox opposed the making of the movie. Star Wars was budgeted at about $8 million but delays and overruns put the final cost at $11 million. Special effects company Industrial Light and Magic had trouble achieving the realistic look that Lucas wanted and blew through half of their budget without producing a single usable shot. The movie went through massive bouts of reediting with Lucas firing the original editor and replacing him with Paul Hirsch, Richard Chew his then-wife Marcia Lucas. Star Wars was originally scheduled for release in December 1976 but the lagging production resulted in delaying the opening until May 1977.

Sorcerer (1977)
Dir. William Friedkin

William Friedkin’s 1977 film Sorcerer was a remake of The Wages of Fear and told the story of Americans living abroad who are recruited to transport trucks full of unstable nitroglycerin through the South American jungle. The movie was shot on location in the Dominican Republic and the combination of Friedkin’s exacting filmmaking style and the challenges of the geography made the shoot a nightmare. Shortly into the film’s production, the original cinematographer was fired because Friedkin was unsatisfied with the rushes. In his memoir, Friedkin says that half the crew went to the hospital and or had to be sent home because of food poisoning, gangrene, or malaria. The major set piece of Sorcerer involved trucks crossing a suspension bridge over a river. The first bridge was built, taking three months and costing a million dollars, but the river dried up and a new million dollar bridge had to be built elsewhere only to have the second river evaporate as well. The crew improvised with wind machines and hoses and the result was a stunning sequence. Friedkin has called Sorcerer his favorite film. Unfortunately, reviewers at the time didn’t see it that way. Sorcerer was released to cinemas the same month as Star Wars and it died at the box office. Friedkin’s career never fully recovered. But in the years since, Sorcerer has been reevaluated and it is now regarded as one of the director’s best movies.

Superman: The Movie/Superman II (1978/1980/2006)
Dir. Richard Donner/Richard Lester

Superman: The Movie was the first great superhero movie. The original plan for Superman will sound familiar to today’s audiences. Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind envisioned a two part movie with the first half ending on a cliffhanger and both Superman movies were shot simultaneously under the direction of Richard Donner. But the project proved very complicated and the film went over schedule and over budget. As the production ran further behind, the decision was made to concentrate on completing the first film. The story was restructured and the first film came to a closed conclusion by using the ending intended for Superman II. The first film was released to rave reviews and huge box office but relations between the producers and the director soured and Richard Donner was fired from Superman II. Richard Lester was brought in to complete the sequel and he reshot a lot of footage in order to get the director credit. Twenty-six years later, Richard Donner, screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, and editor Michael Thau collaborated on a restoration of Donner’s version of Superman II

Apocalypse Now (1979)
Dir. Francis Ford Coppola

Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now was a war film set during America’s occupation of Vietnam. At the time the conflict was still a sensitive subject and studios were leery of sinking money into a film about it. Frances Ford Coppola, who was fresh off the success of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, took on the project with his usual bombast and financed Apocalypse Now with his own money. But principal photography proved more difficult than anyone imagined and the planned sixteen week shoot more than doubled as the production was besieged by inclement weather, creative challenges, personality conflicts, and budgetary problems. Harvey Keitel was originally cast in the lead role but he was let go and replaced by Martin Sheen who then suffered a heart attack in the middle of the shoot. The helicopters on loan from the Filipino government were periodically called away, sometimes in the middle of a shot, to fight the rebellion growing in another part of the country. Actor Marlon Brando showed up to the set overweight and without having read Heart of Darkness or memorizing any of his lines. After principal photography was finished, Coppola spent years editing the footage. Apocalypse Now was finally released in 1979 and it is now considered one of the great movies. The making of Apocalypse Now is featured in the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.

Brazil (1985)
Dir. Terry Gilliam

Brazil is a dystopian fantasy picture about a future in which bureaucracy has run amok. Controversy erupted between director Terry Gilliam and then head of Universal Pictures Sid Sheinberg. Gilliam completed the film, running 132 minutes, but Sheinberg deemed it too long and too confusing for audiences and blocked the picture from being released. When Gilliam refused to make changes, Universal attempted to take Brazil away from the director and created its own ninety-four minute cut, known as the “Love Conquers All” version. In an attempt to keep control of his film, Gilliam made the dispute public by taking out a full page ad in Variety magazine asking Sheinberg to release the film. Gilliam also set up clandestine screenings of Brazil on college campuses and the film was eventually screened for members of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, who later gave Brazil the Best Picture of the Year award, at which point Sheinberg gave up on trying to recut Brazil and released Gilliam’s version.More information can be found in Jack Mathews' book The Battle of Brazil.

The Crow (1994)
Dir. Alex Proyas

The production of the 1994 comic book movie The Crow was beset by problems. Several crew members were injured including a carpenter who was electrocuted and burned by a scissor lift and a stuntman who fell through a roof. At one point a grip truck caught fire and a hurricane destroyed several of the sets. All this preceded the death of star Brandon Lee. With just a couple of weeks of principal photography remaining, a fragment of a blank round was left in the barrel of a gun and when it was fired Lee was killed. After the production went through a shutdown period, the filmmakers finished The Crow through a combination of body doubles and what was then cutting edge technology in which existing footage of Lee was composited into other shots. The Crow prefigured the dark and gritty comic book films that came later and it is now considered a cult classic.

Titanic (1997)
Dir. James Cameron

Titanic was another aquatic film with a difficult production. It was the most expensive film in Hollywood history to that point at a cost of over $200 million in 1997. Part of the film’s enormous cost was dedicated to a full scale replica of the RMS Titanic. Construction of the sets ran behind, delaying the film. Shooting in the water presented its own challenges and some of the crew and cast got ill due to spending long periods of time in cold water. James Cameron is known for his demanding directorial style. As tensions increased on the set, someone laced lobster chowder with PCP and sent more than fifty people to the hospital. Titanic was originally scheduled to open in the summer of 1997 but the special effects were not complete and caused the release to be delayed until December. Reports of endless production and escalating costs resulted in a lot of negative press and both critics and studio executives braced for disaster. But when Titanic finally opened it was the biggest hit of all time, staying at number one at the box office for fifteen weeks and then continued to play in theaters for months. It was also a critical success and won eleven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director.

American History X (1998)
Dir. Tony Kaye

American History X was the story of a reformed white supremacist starring Edward Norton in one of his early roles and directed by Tony Kaye who at that time was an up and coming filmmaker. Norton and Kaye had different views of what American History X ought to be and Norton’s performance was not to Kaye’s liking. The relationship between Norton, Kaye and New Line Cinema broke down during post production. Norton and the studio executives gave Kaye notes on how to alter the film. Kaye would have none of it and New Line took American History X away from the director and banned him from the editing process. Kaye responded by filing a lawsuit against New Line Cinema and when that didn’t work he attempted to take his name off the picture but was unable to do so. Kaye then began trash talking American History X to anyone who would listen including journalists and advertisers and film festivals. In the end, the studio released its version of American History X and the movie was a hit with critics and audiences. Edward Norton earned an Oscar nomination for his performance. Kaye’s campaign against Norton and New Line Cinema all but destroyed his career and in 2002 Kaye wrote a lengthy mea culpa in which he expressed regret for his behavior.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

KMSU Spring Pledge Drive

89.7 KMSU FM "The Maverick" is currently holding its spring pledge drive. If you listen to Sounds of Cinema from this station or simply believe in independent radio, please consider making a financial contribution. You can make a pledge by calling 507-389-5678 or 1-800-456-7810. You can also make a pledge online at the the station's website.

This pledge drive has a fundraising goal of $30,000 this spring. The money primarily goes to maintaining KMSU equipment so that we can keep the station and its diverse slate of programs on the air.

If you listen to KMSU and enjoy its content, please help to ensure that the station continues to broadcast its unique blend of programming. In stressful and uncertain economic times we all have to take extra care in how we spend our money. But it is also important to remember that we demonstrate what we value by where and how we spend our money. Consider the impact KMSU's programs have on the community. Many of the programs, especially those that are locally produced, provide a very important service to the listenership and to the Mankato area as a whole.

It's also important to remember that pledges are not just about money. Space and funding are at a premium across higher education. When you make a pledge to KMSU you demonstrate that the station is valued by the community and that helps justify the station's continued existence.

On Sunday, April 22nd, those listening to Sounds of Cinema from KMSU will hear a special pledge drive episode. Those listening from 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona will hear the regularly scheduled program.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Interview with Paul Talbot

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema featured an interview with Paul Talbot, author of Bronson's Loose! The Making of the Death Wish Films and Bronson's Loose Again! On the Set with Charles Bronson. In this interview, Talbot discusses the Death Wish franchise and the legacy of the series.

You can find an archive of other Sounds of Cinema interviews here.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Movies that the Oscars Missed 2018

The Academy Awards will broadcast Sunday night. As in most years, there are number of films released in 2017 that did not get the attention that they deserved or were shut out of awards contention. Here are a few of those:

The Florida Project
My pick for the best movie of 2017, The Florida Project is a drama about people living in a cheap Orlando motel outside of Walt Disney World. The film was profound, honest, and subversive and was a portrait of American life that so much of our mainstream media diet obfuscates. Willem Dafoe has been repeatedly nominated for his performance (and rightly so) but newcomers Bria Vinaite and Brooklynn Prince should have been recognized as well.

Darren Aronofsky’s film Mother! was one of the most contentious releases of last year. Whatever we might make of the film’s meanings, it was a disappoint to see Mother! passed over even in the technical awards. The film had extraordinary use of sound and some astonishing visuals and seamless editing.

In the current political climate, Kathryn Bigelow’s movie should have been one of the most talked about releases of 2017. Instead it died at the box office and was ignored by the Hollywood awards circuit. It may be that Detroit was just too much--too grueling, too authentic, and too challenging--for the audience to accept at this time. Look for Detroit to gain a renewed appreciation in a few years time.

Wind River
Taylor Sherridan’s directorial debut was  another title that ought to have resonated with the current political climate but got lost in the shuffle. The movie was a police procedural involving sexual assault and complex characters.

The Beguiled 
Sofia Coppola's adaptation of Thomas Cullinan's novel was exactly the kind of movie that Oscar voters love but for some reason Hollywood forgot about it by the time awards season arrived. The Beguiled had a terrific cast including Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, and Colin Farrell and some exceptional cinematography and production design.

Good Time 
Good Time was probably too gritty and not commercial enough for the bland highbrow tastes of the Academy. But Good Time was one of the best movies of 2017. Robert Pattinson was terrific, New York City has never looked quite like this, and the electronic soundtrack by OneohTrix Point Never was one of the most effective music scores of the year.

Catfight doesn't suggest itself as Oscar material but this black comedy was one of the better and more provocative movies of 2017. Underneath its slap happy veneer, Catfight is a political metaphor for our time.

Ingrid Goes West
The tastes of the Hollywood award establishment, especially the Academy Awards, skew older and stories about the younger generation are usually dismissed. Ingrid Goes West was a black comedy for the millennial generation that featured a terrific cast including Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, and O'Shea Jackson Jr.

One of the best movies of 2017 that nobody saw, Novitiate is a drama about nuns entering the convent at the time of Vatican II. The entire cast of this movie is great, especially Melissa Leo and Margaret Qualley. It's a movie about spirituality and carnality that takes both of those cravings seriously.

This film was primarily a showcase for Harry Dean Stanton and he is terrific as a ninety year old atheist confronting his mortality. As heavy as that sounds, Lucky is actually quite funny.

Strange Weather
Another 2017 title that passed under the radar, Strange Weather features a great performance by Holly Hunter as a woman investigating her son's suicide.

Comic book movies aren’t usually recognized by the Academy but Hugh Jackman really should have been nominated for his final performance as Wolverine. And if Patrick Stewart had given the same performance in a mainstream drama he would have been considered a shoo in for award nominations.

War for the Planet of the Apes 
War for the Planet of the Apes earned a well deserved visual effects nomination at this year's Oscars but it should have been taken a little more seriously by the Hollywood awards circuit. In particular, War should have been recognized for Michael Giacchino's music which was one of the best film scores of last year.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

What Does 'Black Panther' Mean?

Having reviewed Black Panther, I want to comment on the way the movie has been discussed by film critics and by cultural commentators in general. Black Panther has achieved an impressive 97% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and deservedly so – the movie is quite good. But the conversation about Black Panther has gone beyond praising its cinematic craft to proclamations that the movie represents some kind of rubicon that will change Hollywood and American culture.

The past few weeks have seen the publication of numerous articles emphasizing Black Panther’s cultural significance and framing the movie as a game changer. Black Panther has become one of the most Tweeted–about films and, as Carvel Wallace explains in New York Magazine, African American social media turned the release of the movie into a cultural event. Black Panther has been seized upon by political activists who have used screenings as voter registration drives and fundraisers for community organizations.

Film critics were not immune to the excitement. Rohaan Naahar wrote that Black Panther “will be taught in school [and] debated among intellectuals.” Leonard Maltin gave the movie a mixed review but ultimately decided that his misgivings about Black Panther’s cinematic merits “may not be what matters.” One of the most hyperbolic reviews came from CineVue’s Zoe Margolis who proclaimed that “Black Panther is the film that will change everything. When you see it, you know that from here on in, everything will be different.”

There is something to the narrative around Black Panther. The movie takes place in Africa, a continent whose people have been ignored by Hollywood, is written and directed by black filmmakers and features a primarily black cast in a story in which black identity is central. And all of this happens in a tent pole studio film. But we should be cautious about proclaiming Black Panther as a defining moment for American culture or for Hollywood. Its impressive box office performance is encouraging but it’s just too early to know if this film actually represents that kind of change.

Recent history provides more than enough reason for skepticism. In 1998 the Marvel comic book Blade was adapted into a feature film starring Wesley Snipes. It was rated R and was released at a time when the box office for comic book features wasn’t quite what it is now. Regardless, Blade was a hit and the movie spawned two sequels (one that was very good and another that wasn’t) and a television series. The release of the original Blade was preceded by 1997’s Spawn, an adaptation of the popular comic book that also featured an African American actor in the lead role. Spawn was not the financial success that Blade was (nor was it as good) but Spawn was nevertheless a high profile release by a major studio headlined by an African American actor.

At the time of their releases, there was some mention of the fact that these movies were comic book adventures with black protagonists but neither Blade nor Spawn were regarded as game changers. And they weren’t. Hollywood’s representation of characters of color has remained more or less consistent in the two decades since Blade’s release. In the interim we got 2004’s Catwoman starring Halle Berry, a movie that the actress probably wishes we would forget. But Catwoman is worth mentioning because Berry made it after becoming the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. At the time her Oscar win was discussed in much the same way as the release of Black Panther: a historic game changer that would bend the course of Hollywood and open doors for other people of color. A decade and a half on, it’s clear that her win was not the sea change it was initially proclaimed to be, something Berry herself has admitted

There is a distinct difference between the culture that Spawn and Blade played to and the one that showed up for Black Panther. For one, the internet is a ubiquitous presence. With that comes the networking of social media but also the hyperbole and moral grandstanding that defines online discourse. Black Panther also comes at a time of greater awareness—and anxiety—about the status of people of color in American society and in particular their absence from a lot of mainstream entertainment. Those components, as well as the impatient pace of today’s world—sends many of us looking for validation and lead us to prematurely declare pop cultural events as more significant than they actually are. The same dynamic played out in 2017 with the release of Wonder Woman and in 2016 with the remake of Ghostbusters.

So where does that leave Black Panther? For the moment it is a well-made and financially successful movie. And, just as impressively, it is a major studio film with intelligent political themes in which the artistic voice of its makers was not steamrolled by the corporate filmmaking process. And the movie is a high profile success for the cast and crew of color. That is more than enough to celebrate. Whether Black Panther is more than that depends on whether or not other filmmakers and studios follow its lead. And whether Hollywood does that will depend, at least in part, on whether or not audiences continue to show up at the theater.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Best and Worst Films of 2017

Yesterday's episode of Sounds of Cinema revealed my picks of the ten best and worst films of 2017. You can find more, including rationales for each title and lists of honorable mentions and trends of 2017, here.

Best Films of 2017
1. The Florida Project 

2. Get Out 

3. Mother! 

4. Call Me By Your Name 

5. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 

6. Logan

7. Detroit 

8. Baby Driver 

9. Good Time 

10. I, Tonya 

  1. A Cure for Wellness 
  2. Baywatch 
  3. War on Everyone 
  4. CHIPS 
  5. I Do Until I Don’t 
  6. Home Again 
  7. The Only Living Boy in New York 
  8. Rings 
  9. A Quiet Passion 
  10. Transformers: The Last Knight 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Sounds of Cinema 2017 Wrap Up Coming January 28

The Sounds of Cinema episode for Sunday, January 28th will look back at the cinema of 2017 and count down my picks of the best and worst films of the past year. Sounds of Cinema airs every Sunday morning at 9am on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, Minnesota and at 11am on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, Minnesota. You can hear the show over the air and live streaming from each station's website.

Until then, here are the year end picks from other critics: