Sunday, July 24, 2011

Final Thought on the Harry Potter Series

On today’s show I reviewed all the Harry Potter films, from The Sorcerer's Stone to The Deathly Hallows. Although individual films have their flaws, this series is impressive enough and (perhaps more importantly) beloved by so many, that it has earned a place next to Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Star Trek among the most enduring film series' of all time. It is safe to say that years from now these films and the books that inspired them will be shared by parents with their children, who are likely to be just as enthusiastic about this series as those who first read them, and that multi-generational appeal speaks to the effectiveness of the stories and the characters of Harry Potter.

Even though we live in a time when the American film market is flooded with science fiction and fantasy films, the Harry Potter films are unique because of their commitment to story. Re-screening and reviewing all the films in anticipation of the final installment was a surprisingly emotional experience in the same way that watching a student graduate from high school or college tugs at the heart strings. Yes, these stories feature characters who fly on broomsticks and use wands to cast magical spells, but those who dismiss the stories on those grounds are being facile. The story of Harry Potter and his friends is really a story about growing up, losing innocence, and facing fears and the films dealt with that (especially in The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix) much better than a lot of supposedly serious, Oscar baiting issue pictures.

Ultimately, the most important lesson to take from the series is this: the Harry Potter films were big Hollywood blockbusters that made lots of money. And yet, these were movies about stories, characters, and ideas. The Harry Potter films had something to say and mostly said it intelligently and with great artistry. In the end, this series is one of the best examples of why fantasy is a legitimate film making and storytelling form and it proves that big budget mainstream films can do more than just sell toys.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Harry Potter on Sounds of Cinema

On July 24th, tune in for a special Harry Potter edition of Sounds of Cinema. During the course of the show I will take a look at the entire Harry Potter film series and include excerpts for the scores.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Controversial Films 2011

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema was the annual Independence Day program in which I celebrate free speech by taking a look at banned, censored, and controversial films. Note that this is not intended to be a complete list of controversial films, just a selection of noteworthy pictures that have rattled the cage. For more, see the links at the bottom and last year's blog post on controversial cinema.

Dir. John Schlesinger

Midnight Cowboy was released in 1969, when the MPAA ratings system had just been imposed, and the film was given an X-rating, meaning that no one under the age of 17 could see it. Midnight Cowboy became the first and only X-rated film to win an Oscar for Best Picture although years later that rating was reduced to an R. The reasons for that reduction appear to be business related. When the adult entertainment industry adopted the XXX rating for their own films, the hardcore rating and the MPAA’s X-rating became indistinguishable in the mind of the public. Many theaters, especially national chains, cannot or will not show X-rated films and many newspapers and television stations will not carry advertising for them. The fact that Midnight Cowboy’s rating was changed from an X to an R without any changes to the film’s content was a sign of the arbitrary nature of the ratings process, a charge that has bedeviled the MPAA’s ratings board ever since.

Dir. Tinto Brass

Caligula is one of those films in which the story of its production is as twisted as the film itself. An unfamiliar viewer might assume that Caligula is fashioned as a classic Hollywood historical epic like Ben-Hur or Spartacus and in a way that isn’t far off. Its sets and design do show a comparable level of scope and production value, the screenplay was written by esteemed author Gore Vidal, and the picture stars an impressive cast including Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, and Helen Mirren. But behind the camera was producer Bob Guccione, who was also the owner and publisher of Penthouse magazine. Guccione funded the film on the condition that it include footage of hardcore pornography. Some of the actors insist that they had no idea that the hardcore scenes were going to be included and Vidal sued to have his name taken off the picture.

Caligula was savaged by critics on its release, with Variety magazine calling it a “moral holocaust.” That over the top assessment isn’t far off. The film is a messy amalgamation of Cleopatra and Behind the Green Door. Much of the hardcore footage was obviously shot separately and does not match when it is intercut with the other footage. The R-rated cut isn’t much better as a lot of the cinematography and blocking are clumsy and many scenes don’t cut together in any kind of intelligible way. However, there is a legacy to Caligula that is important. Caligula was an attempt to merge pornography with mainstream cinema, which in more recent years has become increasingly common with films like Pirates, The Brown Bunny, and Antichrist. And the film’s ambitions of a very violent and sexually charged historical epic later came to successful fruition on HBO’s dramatic series Rome.

Dir. Lars von Trier

Director Lars von Trier has cultivated a public image as one of the premier provocateur filmmakers which is actually kind of extraordinary considering the extent to which shock and controversy are used to sell cinema and other media. But the difference between von Trier and many other intentionally incendiary filmmakers is that von Trier’s filmmaking skill is extraordinary and his films aspire to big ideas. Antichrist deals with grief, guilt, and misogyny in the story of a couple mourning the death of their son. When the couple retreats to a cabin, their grief manifests itself sexually and violently, as the couple turns on each other.

Filled with extremely graphic and esoteric imagery, Antichrist caused an uproar when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. Several people fainted during the screening due to the film’s violence and the Cannes Ecumenical Jury, which hands out prizes to films that celebrate humanist and spiritual values, gave Antichrist an anti-award on the accusation that the film was misogynist. But the film ended up getting nominated for the Palme d'Or award and Charlotte Gainsbourg won the Cannes best actress award. When it was released, Antichrist polarized critics. Christopher Kelly of the Dallas Morning News called the film “an unrelenting orgy of graphic sex, violence and cynicism that also manages to be wildly pretentious.” But at Empire Online, Kim Newman wrote, “Antichrist delivers enough beauty, terror and wonder to qualify as the strangest and most original horror movie of the year.”

Dir. Michael Moore

Michael Moore made a splash with his first documentary film Roger and Me but he became a household name after the release of Bowling for Columbine. The documentary is often referred to as an anti-gun picture, but that isn’t really accurate. Instead, Moore uses the 1999 Columbine High School shooting and the media frenzy around it as a prism through which to examine America’s disproportionally high murder rate and make broad connections between the tragedy in Littleton, Colorado and American foreign policy.

Bowling for Columbine was hailed by critics but it was attacked, especially by conservatives, with accusations that Moore distorted his facts through selective editing and ambush interviews. However, the most controversial bit of Bowling for Columbine is not in the film. When Moore won the 2003 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, he gave a scathing speech in which he called out President George W. Bush and protested the invasion of Iraq. It was the most provocative Oscar speech since Marlon Brando refused his award for The Godfather and it effectively set in motion the publicity for Moore’s next film, Fahrenheit 9/11.

BRAZIL (1985)
Dir. Terry Gilliam

Brazil is a dystopian fantasy picture about a future in which bureaucracy has run amok. There is nothing actually offensive in the picture but 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 the film 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. This did little to improve his relationship with Sheinberg but it did make critics and the public curious about Brazil and cast the narrative in the press of an independent artist struggling against an oppressive studio system. The final stroke came when Gilliam began setting up clandestine screenings of the film on college campuses, which he wasn’t supposed to do. Brazil was eventually screened for the Los Angeles film critics, who awarded it the Best Picture of the Year award, at which point Sheinberg gave up on trying to recut it and released Gilliam’s version. Later critical judgments of Brazil were mixed. The LA film critics were accused of siding with Gilliam on his dispute with the studio and ignoring the actual shortcomings of the film. In retrospect, Brazil is an interesting but flawed take on government, bureaucracy, and identity but the controversy around it is fittingly consistent with its themes.

Dir. Wes Craven

Last House on the Left was the first directorial feature for Wes Craven, who went on to direct genre classics like The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream. A loose adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, Last House on the Left tells the story of two teenage girls who are tortured and killed by a group of criminals. The killers inadvertently take shelter at the home of one of the victims and when the parents discover what has happened they take bloody revenge.

Last House on the Left is a very nasty and difficult film. Even now, the torture and murder of the young women is still very difficult to watch but in 1972 very few films had ever portrayed violence this way and Last House caused a huge sensation. Allegedly, irate viewers at one screening attempted to break into the projection booth to destroy the film. At the time of the film’s release it was primarily shown in independent theatres and cinema owners made their own edits to the print, excising some of the grislier bits. When the film was being a restored, a complete print could not be found and various copies of Last House on the Left had to be spliced together in order to produce a complete version.

Dir. Johnathan Demme

Although The Silence of the Lambs was a critical and commercial success, the film angered the gay, lesbian, and transgender community. It was argued that the film’s serial killer, Buffalo Bill, was a continuation of the violent and predatory stereotypes of the GLBT community that Hollywood had relied upon over the years. Actor Ted Levine, who played Buffalo Bill, has disputed that. In the documentary “Inside the Labyrinth” on The Silence of the Lambs DVD, Levine argues that the character was a homophobic heterosexual whose identity was malformed due to childhood abuse. This reasoning is echoed in the film by several of the characters who point out that there is no link between transsexualism and violence. However, GLBT organizations held protests at theaters showing Silence of the Lambs and at the Oscar ceremony where the film won Best Picture. Perhaps as a result of this reaction to the film, director Jonathan Demme’s next project was the AIDS drama Philadelphia.

Dir. Harve Foster & Wilfred Jackson

Song of the South was Disney’s adaptation of Joel Chandler Harris’ “Uncle Remus” stories. Taking place in Georgia during the Reconstruction-era, Uncle Remus (James Baskett) tells folk tales to young Johnny (Bobby Driscoll) to impart important life lessons to the boy.

Originally released in 1946, Song of the South was considered offensive for its white-washing of the Jim Crow era and for its reliance upon racial stereotypes. With each rerelease, the film’s treatment of race became increasingly anachronistic and after a brief theatrical release in 1986 Disney announced that it had retired the picture and had no plans to rerelease it in theaters or home video. Disney’s decision to withhold Song of the South makes sense from a marketing standpoint and from a cultural sensitivity perspective as well.

However, Song of the South is a technically and historically significant piece of filmmaking. It mixes live action with hand-drawn animation almost two decades before Mary Poppins and the film won a pair of Oscars including Best Original Song for “Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah,” which is now the theme song to the Splash Mountain ride at Disneyland. Indicative of the problems of this film was the honorary acting Oscar given to James Baskett. At this time segregation was still very much a part of everyday life in America, and the Academy Awards were no exception, hence the “honorary,” separate-but-equal acting award given to Baskett. (The “official” Best Actor Oscar was given to Ronald Colman for A Double Life.)

Despite the controversy, Song of the South is an important film both for American cinema and for our nation’s racial history. Disney’s public relations aside, the censorship of Song of the South raises two key questions: First, what, if anything, is gained by removing the film from circulation? And second, why has this film been withdrawn but Gone With the Wind is considered beloved and untouchable?

Dr. Melvin Van Peebles

Melvin Van Peebles wrote, directed, and stared in this film about an African American man who witnesses an act of police brutality, kills the police officers involved, and then goes on the run from the law. The film opens with a dedication to "all the Brothers and Sisters who have had enough of the Man" and the picture is intended to provoke a revolutionary consciousness in the viewer. This aspect was seized upon by the Black Panthers who used it as a recruiting film but Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was also criticized for reinforcing negative stereotypes and encouraging militancy. But most controversial was a prologue sequence in which a juvenile Sweetback, played by the underage son of the director, engaged in a simulated sex scene.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is an important film. It was a box office triumph not only for African American cinema but for independent filmmakers of any background. The film kicked off the blaxploitation trend of the 1970s that included pictures like Shaft, Foxy Brown, and Super Fly and the band Earth, Wind & Fire, who provided the soundtrack, went on to major mainstream success. However, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is difficult to watch.  It was made on the cheap by people who didn’t entirely know what they were doing, which gives it a gritty authenticity but the plot, cinematography, and editing make the film nearly incomprehensible and it has not aged very gracefully. The film was a product of a specific place and time and the meanings and significance of the film are hard to grasp now. Like Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, this is a film whose primary value now is as a cinematic artifact.

Dir. Moustapha Akkad

The Message tells the story Mohammad and the rise of Islam, culminating in the Prophet and his followers securing Mecca as a Muslim holy site. Telling a cinematic story about Mohammad is uniquely difficult because Islam forbids depictions of the prophet and his immediate family. The filmmakers solved this by telling the story through Mohammad's uncle Hamza (Anthony Quinn) and his adopted son Zayd (Damien Thomas). At other moments, Mohammad’s presence is insinuated off screen or represented in the first person as through Mohammad were the camera. In addition, the script was written and revised to meet the approval of Islamic religious leaders.

Despite the attempt to respect the beliefs and traditions of Islam, misinformed word spread that the film was going to depict Mohammad on screen and commit other offenses against the religion. While it was in production, filming had to be relocated several times due to threats and protests. Eventually the film was sponsored by Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi and Libyan soldiers were used as extras in the film.

At the time of its original release, The Message was banned from some Middle-Eastern countries because religious leaders didn't like the idea of the story of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad as a motion picture. And in March 1977 three buildings and over 100 people were held hostage in Washington, D.C. by a group of Muslim gunmen, who demanded, among other things, that The Message be banned from U.S. theaters for being sacrilegious. Although the film was not banned, theaters did pull the film and future screenings were limited due to fears of further violence.

Dir. Martin Scorsese

Adapted from the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ is a hypothetical story about Jesus Christ in which he is tempted with the option of not having to die on the cross. The story depicts Christ as a passionate man who has desires but has to abstain from indulging them in order to fulfill his calling. The book had been highly controversial, with Kazantzakis nearly excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church.

With backing by Paramount, Martin Scorsese began production on the film Last Temptation of Christ in 1983 with a large budget. But when word spread among Christian conservatives that Scorsese was making the film, Paramount and prominent theater chains were swamped with complaints and the film was canceled while in production. Scorsese took the project to Universal and in 1987 he completed the film on a much smaller budget. Last Temptation of Christ was made and released in spite of an unprecedented level of protest that hasn’t been seen at any film since. After its theatrical release, the film was not available at major retailers like Wal-Mart or rental chains like Blockbuster.

Dir. Terry Jones

Monty Python consistently made religion a target of their features and skits, but the film Life of Brian, which satires the Gospels through a man who is mistaken to be the Messiah, faced protests and was censored in Britain. The film was banned by several town councils and organizations, and an effort was made to re-rate it so that audiences would be limited. Life of Brian was also banned for periods of time in Ireland, Norway, and Italy. Catholic groups condemned the film and suggested it was a sin to view it.

Defending the film, Monty Python member Michael Palin has said that the film is not blasphemous, as it does not lampoon actual religious figures, but it is heretical because it does criticize the use and abuse of religious authority by various groups.