Sunday, July 27, 2014

Film Reviews: July 27, 2014

Here is a summary of the reviews from today's show:

The Purge: Anarchy does not live up to the potential of its premise and it suffers from a lot of fundamental story problems. The movie is acceptable as an action picture with a social edge to it but most of what’s here has been done before and done better in other movies.

Happy Christmas is well acted but it has nothing at its center holding it together. The film is poorly conceived and executed and it comes across vacuous and self-indulgent. 

Sex Tape attempts to mix raunchy comedy with a relationship-centered story but the filmmakers aren’t successful with either element. The movie isn’t raunchy enough and its concept is poorly executed.

McCanick may be remembered for Cory Monteith’s last performance but there is much more to this movie than that. This is an absorbing and extremely well made story of crime and punishment that features a terrifically intense performance by David Morse. 

Full text can be found in the Sounds of Cinema review archive.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

More Great Sequels

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema featured a look at great sequels such as Aliens, Before Midnight, The Dark Knight, The Godfather II, The Empire Strikes Back, and Bride of Frankenstein. Here is a look at some other great sequels that didn't make it into the show.

Back to the Future Part II (1989)
Dir. Robert Zemeckis

When Back to the Future opened in theaters in 1985 it had the ending that everyone is familiar with but it did not have the text announcing “To be continued …” This was added to the home video release in anticipation of a pair of sequels, which were shot simultaneously and released in 1989 and 1990. Of the sequels, the second film was more daring. Back to the Future Part II was darker than its predecessor and featured a lot of great in-jokes. Most impressively, the filmmakers sent their heroes into the events of the original film and the way they reconstructed the events of the previous volume and weaved the two movies together is remarkable filmmaking.

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
Dir. Paul Greengrass

The Jason Bourne films redefined the action genre for the 21st Century and the series reached its organic end with 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum. The first two installments in the series were distinguished by smart storytelling and fast paced action filmmaking that successfully updated Cold War era spy thrillers and integrated modern technology and post 9/11 paranoia. The Bourne Ultimatum did this and more, delivering an emotionally resonant story with sophisticated characters that went well beyond what viewers expect from this kind of picture. The Bourne series would see an entertaining but unnecessary fourth installment but neither star Matt Damon nor director Paul Greengrass would return.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Dir. George A. Romero

It’s odd to think of a zombie movie as being beloved but that’s exactly the case with George A. Romero’s sequel to his seminal Night of the Living Dead. Jettisoning the black and white newsreel look of Night, the 1978 sequel was filmed in color and mixed the 1970s color pallet with generous amounts of gore. The violence of Dawn the Dead earned the movie an X rating but the filmmakers intentionally attempted to desensitize the audience, turning the movie into a social satire. The main cast of Dawn take refuge in a shopping mall and find the consumerist palace is as much a prison as it is a shelter. In 2004 Dawn of the Dead was remade by Zach Snyder with all of the gore but half of the brains of Romeo’s original.

Evil Dead 2 (1987)
Dir. Sam Raimi

The original Evil Dead was a cult hit but when director Sam Raimi and crew returned to the series they did not so much make a sequel as they did remake the original movie. Ordinarily that would be obnoxious but Evil Dead 2 is superior to its predecessor in every way. The sequel benefits from a slightly higher budget and more adept filmmaking skills behind the camera but it is especially distinguished by its sense of fun. The movie delivered shocks and laughs in equal measure and Evil Dead 2 is one the best horror-comedy hybrids ever made.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Dir. Alfonso Cuarón

The first two entries in the Harry Potter film series (The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets) were acceptable but not exceptional in any way. These films had a largely uninspired approach and didn’t capture the imagination that had made J.K. Rowling’s books so popular. Things changed with the third chapter, The Prisoner of Azkaban. Alfonso Cuarón took over directing duties from Chris Columbus and he introduced a visual flair and a sense of danger to the series.  The film also benefitted from better source material and this entry introduced more complexity to the Harry Potter universe, setting the tone for the rest of the series.

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

The first three Indiana Jones films are classics but none of the sequels were ever quite able to capture the magic of Raiders of the Lost Ark. However, the third film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, came the closest and it recalled the qualities that worked best about Raiders while introducing new material that distinguished this entry. The action set pieces of Last Crusade held up with most anything in earlier Indiana Jones adventures but this film also had a lighter touch and benefitted from a lot of humor. The stroke of genius in this film was the casting of Sean Connery as Indiana’s father and the banter between father and son gave the movie an emotional center that is unlike anything else in the series.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
Dir. Jeremiah S. Chechik

National Lampoon’s Vacation series is erratic with some installments very good and others terrible but Christmas Vacation is the best of the series. This film is most consistently funny and it features several memorable set pieces and quotable lines of dialogue. The movie also picks up on the idiosyncrasies of the suburban Christmas season, giving its satire the added impact of being true. The combination of the film’s humor and truthfulness has resulted in Christmas Vacation becoming a regular staple of holiday movie marathons.

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

The original A Nightmare on Elm Street was released in 1984 by New Line Cinema and the small studio, which had previously been distributing movies to college campuses, suddenly found itself in ownership of a valuable property. Wes Craven, who had written and directed the original film, passed on A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge but after that sequel was a creative disappointment he returned to the series to co-write and co-produce the third installment. Directing duties were assumed by Chuck Russell and the script was rewritten by Frank Darabont, who would go on to make The Shawshank Redemption. Dream Warriors pushed the concept of the Nightmare on Elm Street series to a new level and featured visuals and characterization that went far beyond the horror and fantasy pictures of the time. The movie also transformed Freddy Krueger into a cultural icon, giving him much more personality while retaining the evil that made him such a potent villain.

The Road Warrior: Mad Max 2 (1981)
Dir. George Miller

The Road Warrior is one of the essential entries in the post-apocalyptic film genre. Officially, the film is a sequel to 1979’s Mad Max but it stands on its own and repeats some of the basic elements of the original film and does them better. Despite being a low budget production it has held up over the years and has become an extremely influential film. Virtually every post-apocalyptic movie to come since has drawn on the plot, set pieces, and costume and set design of The Road Warrior. The film also introduced American audiences to star Mel Gibson.

Rocky Balboa (2006)
Dir. Sylvester Stallone

Sylvester Stallone returned to the Rocky series sixteen years after the previous installment. The franchise had begun as a realistically scaled drama but as the movies became more successful and the Rocky character became a cultural icon, the films became cartoonish. Stallone attempted to redirect the series back to its roots with 1990's Rocky V but with mixed results. In 2006 Stallone tried again and made the best Rocky film since the original. Rocky Balboa had everything that had made the franchise popular but it was tempered by vulnerability and melancholy that restored humanity to the character and to the series.

Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Dir. Nicholas Meyer

Released in 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture had been a critical and a commercial success but it was perceived as a letdown. After the fast paced filmmaking of Star Wars, the cerebral nature of Star Trek: The Motion Picture seemed outdated. For The Wrath of Khan, the filmmakers returned to the fun that had made the original Star Trek television program such a success. The story repurposed a villain from the show and this film was essentially a naval battle in space given dramatic depth by a much more human approach to the material. The contrast between the first two Star Trek films is most visible in the sequence in which the USS Enterprise leaves space dock. The Wrath of Khan reused much of the footage from The Motion Picture but sped it up and accomplished the same illusion in literally half the screen time. The new approach was a success and Wrath of Khan is now considered the best entry in the Star Trek film series.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Dir. James Cameron

James Cameron earned the attention of film critics and audiences with 1984’s The Terminator, which told the story of a machine sent back through time to kill the mother of mankind’s future savior. After Aliens and The Abyss, Cameron turned out a sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. This film was a bigger production than its predecessor and featured groundbreaking special effects but the most effective innovations of T2 were in its story. The film reversed the role of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg, reprogramming him to be the protector of a young boy and eventually growing from a killing machine and into an emotional and sentient being.

X-2: X-Men United (2003)
Dir. Bryan Singer

The first X-Men film was a well-received but fairly average comic book adventure. When it came time to do the sequel, the filmmakers made something far more interesting. Released amid the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, X-2 had a subversive political edge and its characters possessed a complexity that was far different from the black and white moral conflicts of most superhero films. Director Bryan Singer would return to the series in 2014 for X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Controversial Films 2014

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema was the annual Independence Day program in which I celebrate freedom of speech by taking a look at banned, censored, and controversial films. Note that this is not intended to be a complete list of controversial titles, just a selection of noteworthy pictures that have rattled the cage. 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.

The Warriors (1979)
Dir. Walter Hill

The Warriors tells the story of gang members who are framed for murder and must travel to safety across enemy turf. This film was based on a novel by Sol Yurick, who allegedly wrote the book as a rebuttal to the romanticized view of street gangs in the 1961 musical West Side Story and based the characters and events on his experience as a New York City welfare department worker. Despite the serious tone of the original material, the film version of The Warriors is more like a comic book adventure with the gangs dressed in outrageous outfits and engaging in over-the-top violence. The approach led to the filmmakers being accused of glamorizing gang life. This accusation was partly due to the film’s poster which featured the tagline, “These are the armies of the night. They are 100,000 strong. They outnumber the cops five to one. They could run New York City." The gang connection to The Warriors was amplified by real life violence. When The Warriors opened in theaters in 1979 its first weekend box office figures were very strong. However, the film attracted gang members to the screenings and violence erupted between rival groups; vandalism and murders were linked to several showings. When word of the gang violence got out, distributor Paramount panicked and decided to pull the movie from theaters. The Warriors would later find an audience on home video and midnight screenings and it is now considered a cult classic.

In 2005 director Walter Hill revisited The Warriors and created a director’s cut version that added a new introduction and inserted freeze frame shots and other comic book-like touches. Reportedly, there was a planned tie-in video game released by Rock Star Games, also responsible for the Grand Theft Auto series, and the company prompted Hill to alter the movie for the sake of cross promotion. The revision of The Warriors upset fans of the theatrical version and only the director’s cut is available on home video.

The Wild Bunch (1969)
Dir. Sam Peckinpah

The Wild Bunch was directed by Sam Peckinpah, who has come to be regarded as one of the great filmmakers, and his work focused on masculinity and the American West. Making most of his films in the 1960s and 70s, Peckinpah’s movies were anachronistic. By that time the western genre, and most of what it represented, was no longer considered viable and Peckinpah’s films reflect that, especially The Wild Bunch. This film tells the story of a group of outlaws seeking their last big score. That premise was nothing new but The Wild Bunch added details that made this film an elegy to the genre and to the myth of the West. The story is set at the beginning of the twentieth century in which the American West has begun to disappear and its cast of  outlaws gradually realize that their time has passed.

The Wild Bunch proved controversial for its violence. The movie features a body count of 145 deaths, with most of those casualties in the brutal and bloody shootout that ends the movie. A preview audience in Kansas City was outraged by the violence of The Wild Bunch, with some viewers storming out of the auditorium in protest. When The Wild Bunch was released critics were divided, with some calling it a masterpiece and others regarding the film as pornographically violent. The Motion Picture Association of America initially gave The Wild Bunch an X-rating and the film was cut to achieve an R. In 1994, the same year that Natural Born Killers and Pulp Fiction were released and when images of violence were much more commonplace in American cinema, Warner Brothers decided to rerelease The Wild Bunch and restored ten minutes of footage to the movie. The film was resubmitted to the MPAA and to the surprise of virtually everyone involved the film was given an NC-17 rating and so the movie was again trimmed. Currently available versions of The Wild Bunch present the film in its 145 minute entirety.

Lolita (1962/1998)
Dir. Stanley Kubrick/Adrian Lyne

Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita tells the story of a love affair between a middle aged man and a twelve year old girl. The book had been published in 1955 and had been banned in several countries; Lolita was not published in the United States in its complete form until 1958. Even today Lolita is considered a controversial book and adapting it to the silver screen is delicate business but in 1962, when director Stanley Kubrick released his version, making this film was virtually unthinkable. At that time all Hollywood films had to adhere to the Production Code in which profanity, nudity, and the inference of sexual perversion were forbidden and imagery that explicitly or implicitly suggested sexual relations—even between consenting adults—was frowned upon. Under the Production Code Administration, films that didn’t get the PCA’s seal of approval did not play in mainstream theaters, thus dooming their box office prospects.

Stanley Kubrick went about designing his adaptation of Lolita very carefully so that it would get past the censors. Nabokov had written the original draft of the screenplay but Kubrick and co-producer James B. Harris re-wrote it to make the script more discrete. Kubrick’s version of Lolita emphasized the humor of Nabokov’s novel, even if much of that humor is quite dark, and the lighter touch made the difficult material more accessible. The movie also relied on a lot of visual cues that suggested desire or sexuality rather than explicitly showing it. Professor Humbert, played by James Mason, was made to be more likable than he is in the novel and the age of the young woman was increased from twelve to fourteen years old with actress Sue Lyon cast for the title role in part because she had an older, more mature look. When it was released in 1962, Lolita was a critical and commercial success but years later Stanley Kubrick admitted that if he had realized how much he would have to compromise the original material he might not have made the film.

Lolita was remade by director Adrian Lyne with Jeremy Irons cast as Humbert and fifteen year old actress Dominique Swain as his love interest. Lyne, who had previously directed Fatal Attraction and 9½ Weeks, assumed greater latitude for his movie than Kubrick did and the 1998 version of Lolita was more explicit, closer to the plot of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, and emphasized the darkness of Humbert’s obsession. The 1998 remake of Lolita was made independently with plans to sell it to a major distributor for theatrical exhibition. That never happened. In 1996 the American government passed the Child Pornography Prevent Act which prohibited “any visual depiction . . . of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct.” The law would be struck down by the United States Supreme Court in 2002 for being overbroad but in 1998 distributors refused to take a chance on the remake of Lolita. The film played for one week in Los Angeles theaters, making the movie a near total financial loss, earning $1 million on a $62 million production budget. The film was screened on the Showtime cable network and shortly thereafter was released on home video. Blockbuster Video, which at that time had a virtual monopoly on the home rental market, refused to carry Lolita in its uncut form. One bit of consolation came from the National Board of Review which named Adrian Lyne’s Lolita one of the ten best pictures of 1998.

Pink Flamingos (1972)
Dir. John Waters

John Waters’ early movies were deliberate exercises in bad taste, intended to shock and disgust mainstream audiences, and Pink Flamingos remains Waters’ signature film. The story, such as it is, concerns two groups of people competing for the title of “Filthiest Person Alive” and their rivalry includes acts of murder, cannibalism, bestiality, incest, and coprophagia. The attempt to shock audiences worked and at the time of its release Variety magazine called Pink Flamingos, “one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made.” The movie was relegated to late night screenings at independent theaters, making it one of the first midnight movies. As revolting as it is, Pink Flamingos has become a cult favorite. Its continued success is partly to do with the dedicated audience that filmmaker John Waters has cultivated but it’s also due to the film’s authenticity. The picture was shot on the cheap and its kooky characters, outrageous pranks, sassy dialogue, anarchist politics, and bizarre visuals gave Pink Flamingos a genuinely countercultural feel. In some ways the sick joke of Pink Flamingos played out more effectively years later as John Waters became a more mainstream filmmaker and unsuspecting audiences came upon Pink Flamingos on home video thinking it was another “safe” movie like Cry-Baby and Hairspray. According to John Waters, that’s exactly what happened, with an unsuspecting family so offended by the movie that they contacted the police.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Dir. Tobe Hooper

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is now regarded as one of the great films of American cinema but at the time of its release that was not so. Loosely inspired by the crimes of Ed Gein, the film tells the story of a group of young people who travel into rural Texas and come upon a cannibalistic family, including the chainsaw wielding killer Leatherface, so named because he wears a mask of human skin. Despite its salacious title, director Tobe Hooper had initially hoped that Texas Chainsaw would get a PG rating from the Motion Picture Association of America and so he staged the violence in such a way that the gore was implied. In fact, more blood is seen in the PG-rated Jaws and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom than in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. However, the movie is so intense that viewers came away with the impression that they had seen more violence than was actually on the screen. The MPAA initially gave Texas Chainsaw an X rating and it was slightly cut to achieve an R. The film was banned in several countries around the world including England. James Furman, the Secretary of the British Board of Film Classification, attempted to find a way to edit the movie but he could not identify any specific images to cut because it was the film’s overwhelming tone that made it unacceptable. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was banned in the UK for twenty-five years and when it finally opened in British theaters in 1998 it played in multiplexes alongside the considerably bloodier Saving Private Ryan.

Controversy also swirled behind the scenes regarding the film’s financing and box office. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was produced by two companies: MAB and Vortex, the latter of which was owned by director Tobe Hooper and screenwriter Kim Henkel, and the companies agreed to split the box office profits equally. In order to get the picture made, many of the cast and crew agreed to defer their compensation until the movie was sold to a distributor, at which point they would earn a percentage of Vortex’s profits. However, some of the participants in the movie later said that they were misled, thinking that they would get a percentage of the film’s total profits instead of a cut of Vortex’s fifty-percent stake. Things got uglier when the film was in post-production. The filmmakers ran out of money and so Hooper and Henkel sold off more of Vortex’s share of the movie to raise additional funds, further diluting the value of the cast and crew’s points. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was then sold to Bryanston Distributing with the filmmakers expecting to share in the box office profits. When Texas Chainsaw was released in 1974 it earned about $30 million, which was a tremendous amount of money at that time, but it’s difficult to say if that figure is correct. As it turned out, Bryanston was a mafia-affiliated company and manipulated its books so it’s unknown how much Texas Chainsaw actually earned in its theatrical run. Lawsuits were filed and Bryanston declared bankruptcy. Eventually Vortex was awarded just $400,000 for their share of the profits. As a result, virtually no one involved in the making of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre made any money from it.

Maniac (1980/2013)
Dir. William Lustig/Franck Khalfoun

In the 1980s the horror genre was focused on movies about psychotic killers. Some of these films, like Friday the 13th and My Bloody Valentine, had a fantastic quality that made the movies cinematic campfire tales. Other psycho-killer movies took a more realistic approach. At this time, violent crime in major cities was seemingly out of control and newspaper headlines of the 1980s were awash with stories of serial killers and murderous madmen. This context gave birth to a number of movies about urban blight such as Taxi Driver and Death Wish but it also resulted in a batch of horror films about killers stalking the streets such as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and The New York Ripper. The most notorious of these was 1980’s Maniac, directed by William Lustig. The film starred the late Joe Spinell as a serial killer hunting women on the streets of New York, taking their scalps and displaying them on mannequins in his apartment. This film was extremely graphic and featured groundbreaking special effects by renowned makeup artist Tom Savini. The nihilistic tone and gruesome effects earned Maniac a spot on Stanley Wiater’s infamous list of the thirteen most disturbing films of all time.

Maniac was distributed by Analysis Film Releasing, a company that had generally handled art films, and according to director William Lustig they had the business relationships to get the film into major movie theaters and put it in the public eye. Maniac’s advertising campaign featured a lurid poster and video monitors playing a loop of violent highlights from the picture were set up on the street outside theaters. Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel condemned this technique and the film itself, and claimed that he walked out of the screening after thirty minutes. Other critics followed suit, calling Maniac a vile and irresponsible piece of trash, and some newspapers refused to run advertisements for it. The extreme violence of Maniac also drew the attention of feminist groups like the National Organization for Women who called the film misogynistic and held demonstrations outside of theaters showing it. As is typical, the efforts to suppress the film only made it more interesting to the public and for a low budget horror picture Maniac did quite well and even gained a cult following.

A remake of Maniac, produced by William Lustig and starring Elijah Wood, was released in 2013. The remake repeated the basic premise of the original but brought a new stylistic approach to the material. Virtually the entire film is shot from the point of view of the killer. That allowed the filmmakers a chance to employ some interesting cinematic effects by putting the audience in the headspace of a disturbed killer, but it’s also unnerving because the first-person perspective closes some of the distance between the acts of violence and the spectator. The remake of Maniac wasn’t quite as controversial as the original but it did face censorship and the first person point-of-view caused the picture to be banned in New Zealand.

The Help (2011)
Dir. Tate Taylor

The Help was an adaptation of the historical novel by Kathryn Stockett. Set in Mississippi during the civil rights era, a young white woman collects the stories of black domestic workers and eventually publishes them as a book. The movie was both a critical and a commercial success, earning over $200 million dollars at the domestic box office (against a production budget of $25 million) and was given four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.

However, not everyone was so happy about The Help. Historians and some critics balked at the movie’s ham-fisted portrayal of the Jim Crow era and its petty regard for racism. The Association of Black Women Historians released a statement criticizing the film that said, “The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.”

The popular success of The Help highlights the unspoken compact that exists between Hollywood filmmakers and mainstream audiences. Viewers have a desire to confront the legacy of racism but this topic is so sensitive that many Hollywood studios and the moviegoers they entertain are afraid to deal with it in a meaningful way. The filmmakers of The Help constructed a portrait of racism that offered the audience (especially white viewers) a safe and sanitized version of history that swapped lynching and rape for gossip and cat fights. This declawed the material and allowed the audience to feel moral superiority and experience an illusion of catharsis without the intellectual and emotional effort required to take full stock of the legacy of racism. In short, the reason The Help was problematic was the same reason that it was successful.

JFK (1991)
Dir. Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone’s career has been marked by controversy with the director taking on difficult subjects in a confrontational way as seen in movies like Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Natural Born Killers, and W. Among his most controversial and impactful films was 1991’s JFK. The film dramatized Jim Garrison’s investigation of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and argued that the Warren Commission’s official explanation was a cover up. More specifically, the movie makes the case that Kennedy’s plans to tolerate the Communist government in Cuba and to withdraw troops from Vietnam prompted a conspiracy involving organized crime, the CIA, and the military industrial complex to kill the president. The movie also suggests that Lee Harvey Oswald was a scapegoat and that the actual assassination involved multiple shooters.

Oliver Stone’s JFK became a target before it was even finished. An early draft of the screenplay was leaked and several mainstream news sources reviewed that script while the film was still in production. When JFK was released much of the controversy hinged on the degree to which Oliver Stone had mixed documentary and dramatic filmmaking. For example, scenes of the assassination intercut footage from the Zapruder film with a dramatic reenactment and sequences of Garrison hypothesizing were presented as fact within the diegesis of the film.

The debate over JFK largely played out between film critics, who generally gave it favorable reviews and admired its craftsmanship, and news reporters who accused Stone of playing fast and loose with the facts and violating principles of journalism. This was most evident in Newsweek magazine, which ran a cover story attacking the movie’s credibility while, in that same issue, film critic David Ansen gave the film a positive review and wrote, “My advice is: don't trust anyone who claims the movie is hogwash. And don't trust Stone either." According to Roger Ebert, former CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite criticized him for giving JFK a positive review; Cronkite regarding the film as “a mishmash of fabrications and paranoid fantasies.” New York Times journalist Bernard Weinraub argued that Warner Brothers had acted irresponsibly in agreeing to finance and distribute the movie. Never one to back down, Oliver Stone accused the mainstream press of being complicit in the cover up.

Perhaps fittingly, JFK attracted the attention of those operating on the shared boundary between politics and entertainment. President George H. W. Bush, who had previously been director of the CIA, called into Rush Limbaugh’s radio show to speak out against the film and reaffirm his belief in the Warren Commission’s report. JFK was also criticized by Jack Valenti, who was the head of the Motion Picture Association of America. This was unusual because the MPAA exists primarily to lobby on Hollywood’s behalf and protect the major studios and their films, with Valenti as their chief apologist. But Valenti had begun his career working in politics as an aide to President Lyndon Johnston, who the film implicates as being in on the conspiracy to murder Kennedy. Valenti wrote a seven-page statement denouncing JFK  and compared Oliver Stone to Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.

JFK may not have definitively solved the mystery of the Kennedy assassination but it did reignite the debate over it and led to disclosure of previously withheld documents. As a result of public pressure following the release of JFK, the United States Congress passed the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 which established the U.S. Assassination Records Review Board. The board attempted to assemble all available government documents related to the assassination and prepare them for release to the public. Many documents were made available but thousands more remain unreleased.

The Path to 9/11 (2006)
Dir. David L. Cunningham

In the years following the 9/11 attack several films dramatized the events of September 11, 2001 and they were cause for debate, with commentators usually focusing on the films’ historical accuracy or whether it was “too soon” to make a motion picture of the tragedy. A frequent title on lists of the most controversial movies of all time is Paul Greengrass’ 2006 feature United 93, which recreated the events aboard the United Airlines flight that was overtaken by terrorists, retaken by the civilian passengers, and ultimately crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. When the trailer first appeared there was some minor outcry and a few theater owners decided to pull it. However, United 93 was not the first picture to dramatize the events of September 11th and Greengrass’ film was generally well received by critics and audiences, so its reputation as a controversial title is misleading.

Far more controversial was The Path to 9/11, a mini-series broadcast on the ABC television network in the fall of 2006. Running five hours and broadcast over two nights, The Path to 9/11 dramatized the failed efforts of the United States government to capture Osama bin Laden. After production was completed, the film was screened for executives at ABC and Disney and according to screenwriter Cyrus Nowrasteh everyone was ecstatic about the film with President of Disney-ABC Television Group Anne Sweeney calling The Path to 9/11the best thing they had ever produced. However, when a promotional screening was held for the National Press Club in Washington D.C. things started to fall apart. This press screening only featured the first half of the mini-series, which focused on the failures of the Clinton administration. This led to Democratic politicians and their allies taking to the airwaves to declare that that The Path to 9/11 was inaccurate, a political hatchet job on the Clinton legacy, and an early strike against Hillary Clinton who was preparing to run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. The filmmakers denied they had a partisan motivation and pointed out that the script was based upon the 9/11 Commission Report and had been vetted by Disney and ABC attorneys before it went into production. Nevertheless, the controversy continued with Democratic congressional representatives calling for The Path to 9/11 to be edited or pulled from ABC’s broadcast schedule. Bill Clinton himself publicly objected to the film and a group of Democratic senators sent a letter to Disney CEO Robert Iger threatening ABC’s broadcast licenses. As the controversy intensified, some of the members of the crew were targeted and publicly smeared and received hate mail and death threats. 

Disney and ABC required some minor edits to the mini-series but The Path to 9/11 did finally air on television in September 2006. The broadcast drew an impressive audience of about 25 million viewers and subsequently earned seven Emmy nominations. However, the film has since disappeared. Despite initial plans to make The Path to 9/11 an annual television event, it has never been rebroadcast and a planned DVD release was scrapped. Disney has made it clear that they have no interest in releasing the mini-series on home video despite protests by some of its shareholders. Given the Clinton family’s continued political ambitions it is unlikely that the film will be given an official release in the near future.

Submission: Part I (2004)
Dir. Theo Van Gogh

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia in 1969. When she was twenty-three, Hirsi Ali’s father arranged for her to wed a distant cousin and she objected, fleeing to the Netherlands and seeking asylum to avoid the marriage. While living in Europe she learned multiple languages, earned a degree in political science, and was active in social work, often assisting with immigration and domestic violence issues. Her education and experiences led Hirsi Ali to leave the Muslim faith and she became an outspoken critic of Islam, particularly of the way women are treated in Muslim cultures. Hirsi Ali became active in Dutch politics and she was elected to the country’s House of Representatives in 2003.

In 2004 Ayaan Hirsi Ali collaborated with filmmaker Theo van Gogh on a twelve-minute short film called “Submission: Part I.” Broadcast on Dutch television in August 2004, the film focused on the mistreatment of women in Islamic cultures. “Submission” consisted of visuals of women with Koranic quotes written on their bodies juxtaposed with narration of women recounting religiously inspired abuse. Reactions to “Submission” by professional media critics varied from enthusiastic to tepid but the film elicited a violent reaction from some Islamic activists. The rap group The Hague Connection produced a song that included threats against Hirsi Ali and in November 2004 director Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim activist who shot the filmmaker, slit his throat, and then stabbed him, pinning a letter to his body threatening Hirsi Ali. Van Gogh’s murder incited retaliatory fire bombings of mosques and Muslim schools. This was met by counterattacks against Christian churches.

Since the film was initially broadcast, “Submission” has been withdrawn from circulation by its producer, who feared further violence, although bootlegs are widely available online. Despite ongoing death threats, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has continued to speak out against religiously-based misogyny. In 2007 she published a memoir titled Infidel and in 2014 she produced the documentary Honor Diaries that, like “Submission,” critiques the status of women in Muslim cultures.

Innocence of Muslims (2012)
Dir. Alan Roberts

In 2012 a fourteen minute trailer for an unfinished film titled Innocence of Muslims appeared on the internet and was the cause for demonstrations across the Islamic world. The clip, which was allegedly intended to promote an unfinished feature film, depicted the prophet Muhammad as a fraud, a murderer, and a pedophile. The clip was uploaded to the internet and later shown on Egyptian television. In response, angry crowds gathered to protest the film in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Indonesia and demonstrations were held outside United States embassies in Egypt, Greece, Tunisia, and Sudan, among others. Several of these demonstrations became violent. In Yemen four protestors were killed, in Niger protesters stormed and ransacked a Catholic cathedral, in Lebanon Western fast food restaurants were burned, and in Libya the American ambassador and three others were killed in an attack prompted by the online video.

The reaction to Innocence of Muslims is a useful prism through which to understand the complicated relationship between the West and other parts of the world. To most non-Muslim Western viewers, the trailer for Innocence of Muslims is laughably absurd. The acting is awful and the production values don’t even compare to those of a public access television program. In fact, Innocence of Muslims was directed by a filmmaker associated with soft core pornography and some of the actors claimed that their lines had been dubbed over, turning what was supposed to be an Arabian adventure movie into a ham-fisted attempt at religious provocation. For most non-Muslim Western viewers, Innocence of Muslims was the kind of video clip that they would view once and forget, indistinguishable from webcam rants and cat videos. But for Muslim viewers the clip of Innocence of Muslims was deeply offensive. Islam generally forbids any image of the prophet Muhammad but Innocence of Muslims depicted the founder of their religion as a fraud, a philanderer, and a child molester.

The angry reaction not only toward the film but toward the United States government also highlighted another angle of the complicated relationship between the West and other parts of the world. America is unique in that its Constitution actually forbids the government from censoring the press, even in cases of hate speech. Across much of the rest of the world, including Western allies like Britain and Germany, the government controls the media and has mechanisms in place to ban a film outright. For cultures that have lived and continue to live under dictatorial conditions (the situation throughout much of the Muslim world) the very concept of an uncensored marketplace of ideas where even broadly offensive material is able to freely circulate is difficult to grasp. And so as Americans balked at images of mass protests and of their consulates being assaulted by angry mobs, it was equally confusing for non-Western viewers to understand how the American government could let the production of Innocence of Muslims go forward in the first place. In that respect, the Innocence of Muslims debacle is an illustration of the ways cultures talk past one another. As MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow observed, "Beyond all the chest-thumping by politicians right now about standing up for the right of free speech in the face of these protests, the fact is that . . . nobody is denying American free speech rights. But that's not enough. What we ought to be wanting them to get right is not just defending free speech but explaining it in a way that makes sense to the world."


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Controversial Films on Sounds of Cinema

Independence Day is approaching and that means it is time for Sounds of Cinema's annual episode on controversial films. The show airing July 6th will celebrate freedom of speech with a look at movies that have been censored, banned, or were otherwise controversial. Like previous episodes, the films selected will include movies of past and present, ranging from the familiar to the obscure, as well as a few pictures you may never have realized were controversial in the first place. And even if you tuned in last year, be sure to listen to the 2014 edition as it will include all new material.

Be sure to check this blog on Sunday morning for additional commentary, online videos, and links to sources on controversial cinema. Until then, here are links to posts from previous controversial film specials: