Sunday, October 22, 2017

Tobe Hooper and George A. Romero Retrospective

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema continued the month-long Halloween theme with a look at the careers of Tobe Hooper and George A. Romero. Both filmmakers passed away earlier this year, leaving behind an impressive and influential body of work.

Tobe Hooper
Tobe Hooper was born in Austin, Texas in 1943. Hooper got his start in motion pictures as a documentary filmmaker and among his early works was a PBS documentary about the music trio Peter, Paul and Mary. His feature film directorial debut was 1969’s Eggshells, an experimental drama about the counter culture of the late 1960s. Hooper would primarily be known for his work in the horror genre and his movies were intelligent but also dream-like. The filmmaker frequently tapped into the madness, sexuality, and violence of the unconscious mind in stories that were modern day fairytales.

Hooper arrived on the filmmaking scene with 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Now hailed as one of the great horror titles in American cinema, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre established Hooper as a horror director and he worked in the genre for the rest of his career. Although his filmography is wildly uneven, Hooper helmed several of the great horror pictures of the 1970s and 80s including Poltergeist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. He also did notable work in television such as the miniseries Salem’s Lot and episodes of Tales from the Crypt and Masters of Horror. Hooper passed away on August 26, 2017.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
There are a handful of movies, especially in the horror genre, that have acquired a reputation that is bigger than the movie itself. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of those rare films that lives up to the hype. What is extraordinary about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is obfuscated by its simplicity. The story is archetypal. A group of young people wander around the back roads of America and are picked off by a killer until only one remains. But The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is distinct from so many other slasher films because of its execution. Shot on Super 16mm film in the heat of the Texas summer, Chainsaw has a raw and visceral feel. The movie also uses unusual sound effects and an experimental music score and it is shot and edited in a way that creates a sensation of disorientation and madness.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre introduced the world to Leatherface, a brutal but strangely child-like killer who wears a mask of human flesh. Leatherface was the first of the masked killers in the slasher genre and as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre grew into a Hollywood franchise the character became a cultural icon and one of the most recognizable horror villains.

Since its release in 1974, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has grown to become one of the best regarded and most influential titles in the horror genre. For Tobe Hooper, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was both a blessing and a curse. Most filmmakers work their entire career without making a movie with the impact and longevity of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Hooper was able to work for the rest of his life on the reputation of his sophomore directorial feature. But like many horror directors, Hooper was boxed into the genre and achieving such success so early on created an impossible standard that he never overcame.

Salem’s Lot (1979)
Television of the 1970s gave birth to the network miniseries event. Important titles from the decade include Roots, Holocaust, Sybil and Salem’s Lot, which premiered on CBS in 1979. Based on the novel by Stephen King, Salem’s Lot tells the story of a small New England town invaded by vampires. In those days, actors and especially filmmakers who were working in television aspired to get into feature films and it was unthinkable that a successful director would go to the small screen. In that respect, Salem’s Lot was ahead of its time. Tobe Hooper brought the skill and sensibility of a feature film to a television production and the movie is still a frightening and ambitious piece of work. Salem’s Lot was also influential in the way it merged classic gothic horror with contemporary America and it was the perfect fusion of old and new. In the ensuing decades, Stephen King’s literary work would be the basis of a lot of made-for-television features and much of that is due to the success of Salem’s Lot.

Poltergeist (1982)
Poltergeist was Tobe Hooper’s most Hollywood production. It had (for its time) a lavish budget, well-known actors, and cutting edge special effects. The themes of the movie were right up Tobe Hooper’s alley; there is a through-line that connects the cannibalistic family of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the neo-gothic vampires of Salem’s Lot, and the suburban haunting of Poltergeist. And at some level the movie also reflects the edgier themes of Hooper’s movies in the way it suggests that the affluence of suburbia is literally built upon the dead. Poltergeist is probably the most influential supernatural horror picture of its day. Its impact can be seen in The Conjuring series and the Insidious films.

Poltergeist was Tobe Hooper’s most financially successful movie but his contributions to it were disputed throughout the rest of his career. Poltergeist was officially directed by Tobe Hooper but the film was dogged by rumors that it was actually directed by Steven Spielberg. And Poltergiest has an undeniable Spielbergian stamp. Some of that is due to the talents involved. Poltergeist was written by Spielberg who was also the executive producer. The movie was made through Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment company and the crew included several of Spielberg’s regular collaborators including producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, assistant director Pat Kehoe, and editor Michael Kahn. It’s no wonder that the movie looks like a Spielberg film; it was made in his factory using his workers. According to some of the cast and crew, Spielberg directed Poltergeist through Hooper, instructing him as to how to execute the set pieces. Friends and allies of Hooper have disputed this, arguing that Spielberg may have made suggestions but directorial decisions were ultimately made by Hooper and he therefore deserves the credit for the film’s success.

Cannon Films (1985 - 1986)
Following the success of Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper entered into a three-picture deal with Cannon Films. Led by the colorful personalities and questionable business practices of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Cannon Films produced an impressively broad catalogue of movies in just a few years, mostly in the horror, sci-fi, and action genres. Hooper’s first film for Cannon was 1985’s Lifeforce. Based on the novel The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson and scripted by Alien writer Dan O’Bannon, Lifeforce is part vampire movie, part alien invasion, part erotica, part contagion story and collectively it is full-tilt bonkers. The movie isn’t very good and it didn’t find a theatrical audience but Lifeforce has developed a cult following. Hooper’s next project was 1986’s Invaders from Mars. A remake of the 1953 movie, Invaders from Mars was a family-friendly romp steeped in nostalgia for the drive-in movies of the post-war era. Invaders from Mars was also a failure at the box office but in the wake of Hooper’s death several writers praised the movie as an underappreciated cult classic.

Hooper’s final movie for Cannon was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. In the twelve years since the release of the original film, the slasher genre had peaked and was now in decline. Hooper wrote and directed the follow up but he jettisoned the nihilistic terror of the original film in favor of the campy and self-aware black comedy of titles like Return of the Living Dead and Evil Dead II. The result was a Grand Guignol farce that was also an early deconstruction of its genre. The sequel took a deliberately cartoonish approach which was not appreciated by critics or by fans of the original movie. But taken for what it is rather than what viewers thought it should be, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is an extremely entertaining picture that combines slasher movie thrills with a madcap sense of humor. It’s a flawed film but its originality, comedy, and energy have made it a cult favorite and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is one of the best horror sequels.

Assorted TV Work
After The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Tobe Hooper’s film career largely declined. He continued to direct feature films and made a few interesting pictures such as The Mangler, based upon a short story by Stephen King, and 2013’s Djinn, which was a ghost story set in the United Arab Emirates. However, the best work of Tobe Hooper’s later career was done for television mostly on horror anthology programs. He directed an episode of the Steven Spielberg produced series Amazing Stories and HBO’s Tales from the Crypt as well as two episodes of Night Visions. Hooper also directed the pilot episode of Freddy’s Nightmares, a television spinoff of the Nightmare on Elm Street film series, which told the backstory of Freddy Krueger. Among Hooper’s most successful television work was on Masters of Horror, an anthology series which recruited such well respected directors as Takashi Miike, John Landis, John Carpenter, and Dario Argento. Since Master of Horror was broadcast on premium cable, the show was able to include some outrageous content and Hooper’s episodes certainly delivered on that.

In 2014 Tobe Hooper sat down with Mick Garris for an wide ranging interview:

George Romero
Filmmaker George A. Romero was born in The Bronx in 1940. After a brief stint attending Carnegie-Mellon University, Romero and some of his friends founded the Image Ten production company in Pittsburgh which primarily made commercials. Romero and company pooled their money and resources to make 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, which became a landmark piece of American film and gave birth to the zombie genre. For nearly five decades, Romeo continued to write, produce, and direct additional zombie films as well as titles like The Crazies, Creepshow, and Knightriders. He passed away on July 16, 2017.

Several qualities distinguished George Romero’s movies. One was the scale and skill of his filmmaking. Romero was able to get a lot of production value into low budget movies and he was very savvy about making his films look more expensive than they were. There is also a playful quality to his work. Romero’s films possess a strange contrast between the filmmaker’s evident sense of humor and a dark and at times pessimistic view of society. That’s indicative of another quality of Romero’s films – their political subtext. Romero used the horror genre, and especially his zombie films, to comment upon the political and cultural zeitgeist.

George Romero is best known as the godfather of the zombie movie and those films are certainly at the core of his filmography. But he made a lot of other terrific and very interesting movies that are worth revisiting.

The First Living Dead Trilogy (1968 - 1985)
George Romero made two zombie trilogies. The first one spread across three decades: 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, and 1985’s Day of the Dead. Because of the passage of time between installments and due to complexities regarding the copyrights over the films, each installment was its own independent entity with its own continuity and characters.

The original Night of the Living Dead was a seminal movie for George Romero, for the horror genre, and for American filmmaking in general. Film writer Ben Hervey observes that Night of the Living Dead was a fusion of a couple of inspirations. One was the post war monster movies that played in drive-in theaters of the 1950 and 60s. The other was the political and social upheaval of the late 1960s including the civil rights movement and protests against the war in Vietnam. The imagery from those sources coalesced in Night of the Living Dead and the content of the movie reflected this as a diverse group of people fight among themselves while besieged by a growing horde of cannibalistic zombies. The movie is a product of American instability at that time and Night of the Living Dead is as essential to its era as Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider.

American culture had changed significantly by 1978 when Romeo made Dawn of the Dead and so the filmmaker’s approach changed with it. Updating the movie to accommodate the consumer culture that was taking hold at the time, Romero moved the setting of a zombie siege from an abandoned farmhouse to a shopping mall, which was a new feature of the American landscape in the late 1970s. The first portion of Dawn of the Dead is a straight up horror picture but it gradually becomes a satire. The movie is a bloody romp that sent up consumerism and its excesses were deliberately numbing. It’s rare for a sequel to outdo its progenitor but Dawn became the most popular of Romero’s films and it was just as influential as the 1968 film. Virtually every cinematic zombie apocalypse to come later can be traced back to this movie.

Romero waited until the middle of the next decade to make Day of the Dead. A far darker and more pessimistic film than Dawn of the Dead, Romero’s third zombie picture took place in a military bunker in which soldiers and scientists have formed a tenuous alliance. A reflection of the Reagan era, Day of the Dead is about the way in which the culture had become militarized and it is a far more cynical movie than Romero's other zombie pictures. It’s telling that the most sympathetic character of Day of the Dead is Bub, a zombie that one of the scientists is trying to domesticate through Pavlovian conditioning. The movie wasn’t as successful as Night or Dawn but time has been kind to Day of the Dead and it has undergone a reevaluation. Incidentally, Romero said that Day was his favorite of the first three Living Dead films.

The Crazies (1973)
George Romero made more than just zombie films. In between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, Romero wrote and directed two movies that rank among his best work. 1973’s The Crazies was the story of a viral outbreak in a rural community. The infected people become murderously insane and government forces attempt to quarantine the disease but only make matters worse. The Crazies is the most baldly political film of Romero’s career and it references a number of popular images of its day, namely the murder of anti-war protesters at Kent State University and the famous image of a Buddhist monk immolating himself. As a work of its era, The Crazies captured the sensation of society coming apart—perhaps even better than Night of the Living Dead—and it was early evidence that Romero was a filmmaker with a distinct voice and a recognizable style. Echoes of The Crazies can be found in subsequent Hollywood movies such as 28 Days Later and Outbreak and a remake was released in 2010.

Martin (1978)
One of George Romero’s most unusual films was 1978’s Martin. This was a vampire film unlike any other. The title character, played by John Amplas, is a vampire who is the exact opposite of the suave and powerful Draculas played by Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. Martin is a shy and awkward man of slight build who doesn’t actually want to hurt anybody but who is driven to murder by his need to feed on human blood. The movie does away with all the superstitions of vampire mythology; in this story vampirism is a genetic disorder and so the character walks around in the daylight and is immune to garlic or crucifixes. He struggles with his sexuality while also suffering humiliation and discrimination from his cousin who sees him as a demonic being. That makes Martin one of the first movies to not only make the vampire the central character but also to make him sympathetic. So much of the vampire fiction that came later, from Interview with the Vampire to Twilight, owes a debt to this movie.

Knightriders (1981)
Between Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, George Romero made one of his few non-horror pictures with 1981’s Knightriders. This movie takes place among a medieval reenactment troupe who ride motorcycles rather than horses. But everything they do is quite serious and life within the company is ruled by a specific knightly code. The king of the troupe, played by Ed Harris, tries to preserve a dying way of life and the company’s internal struggles and rivalries are exacerbated by the intrusion of big business and commercial interests. Knightriders was one of Romero’s most personal films. He was an outsider in the movie business and even when he penetrated the mainstream Romero struggled to maintain the integrity of his work. Knightriders visualizes the tension between independence and commercialism and in some respects it is a eulogy for the last remnants of the countercultural idealism of the 1960s and 70s. It’s a unique and fascinating movie and one that Romero counted as among his favorites.

Creepshow (1981)
George Romero had a regular staff of collaborators that he repeatedly cast as actors or hired on the crew. One of the most important of these relationships was with special effects artist Tom Savini. He was a rock star in the horror genre during the 1980s renaissance in makeup effects. His work on Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead was very inventive and Savini would work on several other Romero movies as a makeup artist as well as an actor and a stuntman. Savini’s work on Romero’s films, as well as his contributions to Maniac, Friday the 13th, The Prowler, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 set new standards for realism in gore.

Another of George Romero’s key working relationships was with writer Stephen King. There were initial plans for Romero to direct an adaptation of King’s book The Stand. When that didn’t materialize, Romero and King exploited a mutual love of the EC horror comics which were popular in the 1950s before they were snuffed out by moral crusaders. 1981’s Creepshow was an anthology film written by King and directed by Romero that was a tribute to those horror comics. It had the same tone, mixing bloody horror with a sense of humor, and Creepshow included some animation in the transitional sequences. It also attracted a high caliber cast including Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook, Leslie Nielsen, E.G. Marshall, and Ted Danson. The movie is a lot of fun, perhaps the most fun of any title in Romero or King’s filmographies. A sequel was released in 1987, directed by Michael Gornick with a script by Stephen King and George Romero. The making of the original Creepshow has recently been archived in the documentary Just Desserts: The Making of Creepshow.

The Second Living Dead Trilogy (2004 - 2009)
At the start of the new century, the living dead invaded virtually all forms of media as seen on television with The Walking Dead, books like World War Z, and movies such as the Resident Evil series and the remake of Dawn of the Dead. George Romero returned to the genre with a new trilogy: 2004’s Land of the Dead, 2007’s Diary of the Dead, and 2009’s Survival of the Dead. Unlike the earlier films, the new movies were interconnected and featured recurring characters. Of the three, the best was Land of the Dead. The movie reiterated themes of the earlier zombie trilogy and reinterpreted them for the millennial audience. As in his earlier films, Romero also had a political point to make and Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead were explicitly post-September 11th cinema. Land was about the way the powerful and corrupt distract the masses with bread and circuses as society crumbles around them and Diary was a found-footage movie that connected the fragmentation of media with the crisis in authority and the loss of truth. Survival of the Dead was a bit different from any of Romero’s other zombie pictures and it gave the director a chance to make a western, a genre he had long enjoyed. Romero’s second zombie trilogy was nowhere near as good or as influential as his earlier Living Dead films but they do make an interesting bookend to his career.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Techno-Horror Movies

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema continued the month-long Halloween theme with a look at techno-horror movies. We tend to expect that technology will inherently improve our lives and bring about a better world. Of course, things don't always work out that way. Technology is only as good as the people using it and technological breakthroughs have the ability to reshape our lives for the worse. Here is a recap of the movies discussed on the show as well as some additional titles.

Altered States (1980)
Dir. Ken Russell

Directed by Ken Russell and written by Paddy Chayefsky, Altered States was an ambitious reworking of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In this film a scientist conducts experiments that plumb the depths of the unconscious mind and awaken primal instincts. As the experiments continue, the scientist regresses to a state of primitive man. Altered States is a mix of thoughtful science fiction and monster movie shlock that is very effective. Its premise could very easily have become silly but the performances are credible and the tone is managed well enough to keep the movie from flying off the rails.

Creature (1998)
Dir. Stuart Gillard

Novelist Peter Benchley recycled the formula he had pioneered so successful in Jaws in two other books: Beast and White Shark. The latter was about a genetically engineered shark-man that terrorizes a seaside community. White Shark was adapted into a television miniseries first broadcast on ABC in 1998. The story was significantly reworked for the miniseries and it was retitled Creature.

Deadly Friend (1986)
Dir. Wes Craven

Wes Craven had an up and down career, with horror classics like A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Hills Have Eyes offset by a few really terrible movies. But even Craven’s blunders were interesting, especially 1986’s Deadly Friend. A teenage boy loses his girlfriend in an accident and brings her back to life with robotic implants that turn her into a monster. Allegedly, Deadly Friend was written and shot to be a PG-rated thriller but Warner Bros. executives demanded changes in post-production that turned the movie into an R-rated horror picture.

Demon Seed (1977)
Dir. Donald Cammell

Demon Seed is based on the novel by Dean Koontz. Scientists create a supercomputer that has achieved consciousness and the computer infiltrates the home of the lead scientist and turns the automated conveniences of the house against the wife, played by Julie Christie. The wife is then held hostage in her own home. This isn’t a great movie but it is daring and ahead of its time. In the age of Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, the core idea of Demon Seed doesn’t seem that farfetched and the movie visualizes the way our electronics and consumer goods control our lives.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)
Dir. Kenneth Branagh

One of the most frequently adapted horror stories is Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, which has been in print since its publication in 1831. Frankenstein is the story of a scientist who stiches together a man out of body parts harvested from corpses and is then haunted by his creation. Most versions of Frankenstein have only passing resemblance to Shelley’s novel but Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 adaptation was very close to the source material and it is one of the better adaptations of the book.

The Island of Dr. Moreau

H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau was the story of a scientist who attempts to create new breeds of humanoid creatures through vivisection. The novel is a commentary on the bestial nature of humanity and the fragility of civilization and it is one of Wells’ most popular works. The Island of Dr. Moreau has been adapted to the screen several times. The best regarded version was 1932’s The Island of Lost Souls, starring Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, and Bela Lugosi. Also notable was the 1996 version starring Marlon Brando, David Thewlis, and Val Kilmer. The production was disastrous and so was the film and the making of it was recently recounted in the documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau.

Jurassic Park (1993)
Dir. Steven Spielberg

Michael Crichton made a career out of spinning tales of technology gone awry. Both a novelist and a filmmaker, Crichton wrote and directed 1973’s Westworld, about an Old West theme park that goes haywire. (Westworld has since been adapted into a television series on HBO.) Crichton repurposed the central idea of Westworld for his most successful project: Jurassic Park. In this story, dinosaurs are brought back to life through genetic engineering and, as in Westworld, the park’s automation eventually fails and puts everyone in peril. Steven Spielberg turned Jurassic Park into a 1993 movie and it became one of the highest grossing films of all time. It also broke new ground in special effects and Jurassic Park was one of the major advances in filmmaking’s transition to the digital age.

The Lawnmower Man (1992)
Dir. Brett Leonard

One of the earliest experiments with digital filmmaking was 1992’s The Lawnmower Man. The movie concerns a scientist whose virtual reality experiments turn a simpleminded groundskeeper into a genius. As his abilities grow, the titular character gradually becomes unstable and achieves god-like powers in cyberspace. The Lawnmower Man is very much a product of the early 1990s but few films have used digital technology as creatively or as boldly as it is employed here.

Re-Animator (1985)
Dir. Stuart Gordon

Based on a short story by H.P. Lovecraft, Re-Animator is a horror comedy in which a medical student concocts a serum that restores life to dead tissue. The movie is gruesome but also very funny. Jeffrey Combs turns in a terrific performance as Herbert West and the movie is a camp classic that is really entertaining.

Soylent Green (1973)
Dir. Richard Fleischer

In the 1960s and 70s, actor Charlton Heston starred in a number of movies about dystopian futures. In titles like Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man, Heston was cast as humanity’s last hope. Among Heston’s output in this period was 1973’s Soylent Green. In this film, Earth has been ravaged by overpopulation and industrialization and humanity subsists on a foodstuff that is manufactured by a powerful corporation. The movie has become a minor sci-fi classic, in large part because of its ending.

The Terminator (1984)
Dir. James Cameron

The original Terminator is as much a horror film as it is a science fiction and action picture. At its core, The Terminator is a slasher movie; an unstoppable killer hunts down a series of women until a sole survivor remains. Filmmaker James Cameron decorated that core idea with science fiction concepts and action movie set pieces and constructed a story about technology turning on the human race. The killer cyborg, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, became one of the most iconic characters in American film.

Unfriended (2015)
Dir. Leo Gabriadze

Wifi and social media technology have been the basis for a number of horror films of recent years such as One Missed Call, Friend Request, and Pulse. The problem with a lot of these movies is that they are geared toward the youth market but dramatize the fears of older audiences who don’t get what kids are doing with their new technology. One of the better examples of these social media-horror films was 2015’s Unfriended. The film consists of the screen activity of a group of teenage friends following the death of classmate and Unfriended successfully plays on the particulars of digital media and contemporary concerns about cyberbullying.

Videodrome (1983)
Dir. David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg’s movies obsess upon the relationship between individuals and society and the ways in which the most personal parts of our selves are molded by technology and ideology. In this picture, a television program director seeks out the edgiest material and finds it in an underground broadcast. Videodrome was a reaction to the advent of home video and cable television and it explores the way the medium could become a mechanism for remolding reality. One of Cronenberg’s most successful movies, Videodrome combines the visceral pleasures of a horror movie with the intellectual and artistic ambition of an art film.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

A Look at Feminist Horror Films

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema continued the month-long Halloween theme with a look at feminist horror movies. The horror genre has a reputation for being sexist and there certainly are titles which fit that bill. However, horror is one of the few genres that regularly features female leads and gender parity in its casting. These pictures also comment upon patriarchy, misogyny, and gender politics that other films take for granted.

The Seventh Victim (1943)
Dir Mark Robson

In the 1940s homosexuality was forbidden under the Production Code and sexuality and the occult were treaded upon very lightly. The Seventh Victim was, in its day, quite radical. According to Thomas Hobbs, the movie's "female characters control their own destinies, share intimate sexual relationships with one another, and aren't afraid to answer back to men."

She (1965)
Dir. Robert Day

Writer H. Rider Haggard’s book She: A History of Adventure has been adapted into a feature film at least seven times. She is the story of British adventurers who discover a lost city in Africa presided over by Queen Ayesha. The movie was adapted into a 1965 film by Hammer with Ursula Andress in the title role. Its success led Hammer to produce a series of films with female leads including Countess Dracula, Twins of Evil, The Vampire Lovers, and One Million Years B.C. It also appears that this movie had some influence on Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Carrie (1976)
Dir. Brian De Palma

When a movie is described as “feminist” it is often taken to mean stories about strong and assertive female characters. That’s certainly one formulation but it’s far too limiting to encompass all feminist stories. The title character of Stephen King’s Carrie is not an assertive character; she’s meek and docile but the film renders her with depth and compassion. In fact, nearly all of the major characters of this film are women, including the teenage bullies, the would-be heroic gym teacher, and Carrie’s psychotic mother, and the film offers a range of views of womanhood.

Friday the 13th Part II (1981)
Dir. Steve Miner

The slasher movies of the 1980s were frequently attacked by critics and women’s groups for, among other things, exploiting women in danger. According to the popular criticism, these movies specifically focused on the bloody deaths of women and punished female characters who had sex. While there were some films that did this, most slasher movies actually featured equal numbers of male and female victims and the link between sin and punishment was overstated by critics. Among the best examples of this was Friday the 13th Part II. Ginny, played by Amy Steel, was a smart and resourceful heroine who not only stood up to masked killer Jason Voorhees but also to the male camp staff. Ginny was also smart and educated and in the climax of the movie she uses her knowledge of child psychology to defeat Jason.

Ms. 45 (1981)
Dir. Abel Ferrara

Ms. 45 is a rape revenge movie about a mute woman who is sexually assaulted--twice in one day--and then stalks the streets of New York City, killing men Death Wish-style. Unlike some of the other vigilante films of the 1970s and 80s, Ms. 45 is uncertain about the morality of killing and this woman gradually loses her grip on sanity. At the time it was released, Ms. 45 was criticized for exploiting sexual assault but in the years since the movie has been reevaluated and it is now considered an important feminist work.

Aliens (1986)
Dir. James Cameron

One of the great characters in both science fiction and horror is Ellen Ripley from the Alien series, played by Sigourney Weaver. Ripley was a terrific heroine partly because she was tough and rose to the occasion but also because she retained vulnerable human qualities. It’s not a coincidence that the best film in the series also featured Ripley at her most compelling and most feminist. 1986’s Aliens presented the character as a survivor coping with post-traumatic stress and put Ripley on a trajectory of facing her fears and saving the day.

The Stepfather (1987)
Dir. Joseph Rubin

The Stepfather is one of the best and most subversive horror pictures of the 1980s. The title character of this film (played terrifically by Terry O'Quinn) is a twisted version of the suburban dad; he’s a man who bought into the idealized version of the nuclear family—and the ideology associated with it—and then is driven to murder when his expectations aren’t met. The violent disillusionment of the title character feels remarkably contemporary, much more so than the 2009 remake.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Dir. Jonathan Demme

1991’s The Silence of the Lambs remains one of the most popular horror stories and the movie is mostly associated with Dr. Hannibal Lecter, played brilliantly by Anthony Hopkins. However, The Silence of the Lambs is really about FBI trainee Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster. Every scene unfolds from her point of view and filmmaker Jonathan Demme is always conscientious of Clarice’s place in a man’s world.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
Dir. Fran Rubel Kuzui

Before it was a hit TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a 1992 movie starring Kristy Swanson, Donald Sutherland, and Paul Reubens. It was the first feature film project of Joss Whedon, who is credited as the writer. The film wasn’t very successful and probably would have been forgotten if not for the television series that ran from 1997 – 2003, guided by Whedon and starring Sarah Michelle Gellar. Since Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon has become one of the biggest names in Hollywood as well as a champion of placing women in lead roles.

The Craft (1996)
Dir. Andrew Fleming

Fantasy movies have a way of literalizing abstract ideas or making mundane everyday experiences new and exciting. 1996’s The Craft was a mix of fantasy and horror in which a group of high school girls dabble in magic. This is at heart a high school clique movie like Mean Girls but it smartly uses the fantasy to visualize young women coming of age and the power of adolescent angst. As the women realize their power they have to learn to take responsibility for it and one especially troubled member of the group is led into dark magic, which literalizes the rage and destructiveness that is inherent to adolescence.

American Psycho (2000)
Dir. Mary Harron

Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho was one of the most controversial books of the 1990s. The novel, which focuses on the life of a psychotic Wall Street executive, featured lurid passages of violence, particularly against women, and American Psycho was a target of protest. However, Ellis intended the book as a feminist piece; it was a send up of the emptiness, materialism, and chauvinism of upper class society pushed to satirical extremes. American Psycho was adapted into a motion picture directed by Mary Harron and co-written by Guinevere Turner with Christian Bale cast in the lead role. In their hands, the violence was slightly toned down while the sardonic tone was turned up and the film version of American Psycho made plain the book’s satirical intentions. Looked at now, it is a striking (and often funny) indictment of what’s popularly called “toxic masculinity.”

Monster (2003)
Dir. Patty Jenkins

Monster was the true story of Aileen Wuornos, a sex worker who murdered several men. Wuornos lived a horrific life of homelessness and abuse and writer/director Patty Jenkins approached the story with an appropriate level of compassion. Wuornos is played by Charlize Theron in what remains the most extraordinary performance of Theron’s career and she is paired with an equally impressive Christina Ricci as Wuornos’ girlfriend.

The Descent (2005)
Dir Neil Marshall

Neil Marshall’s 2005 movie The Descent follows a group of women on a spelunking adventure. While exploring a series of caves they become trapped and then are preyed upon by subterranean monsters. The creature-feature aspects of The Descent are good and scary but the most intense moments of this movie are the claustrophobic cave set pieces. The Descent also has some impressive character work and the filmmakers do an impressive job characterizing these women and suggesting some depth in their relationships.

Death Proof (2007)
Dir. Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino’s half of the 2007 double feature Grindhouse was a play on slasher films with knives swapped out in favor of muscle cars. A group of women are stalked by a deranged stuntman who deliberately crashes his cars for a sexual thrill. The movie plays on the sex and gender politics of slasher film as well as some of the facets of the rape-revenge genre. This was Tarantino’s first step in using movies to comment upon the politics of different film genres, which he would progressively do better in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained.

Hostel: Part II (2007)
Dir. Eli Roth

Eli Roth’s follow up to his hit 2005 splatter movie was the rare sequel that surpassed the original. The Hostel series is about an organized crime syndicate that abducts tourists and sells them to bidders who pay large sums of money to torture and kill the victims. Hostel: Part II's considerable gore belied the fact that this was a smart movie which drew connections between the gender politics of horror movies and the real life sources (and economic incentives) of misogynistic violence.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Suspiria and Eraserhead Retrospective

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema featured a look back at Dario Argento's Suspiria and David Lynch's Eraserhead. The program featured a couple of interviews and you can listen to the full discussions in the embedded files below.

Interview with Donald May Jr.
Donald May Jr. is the President of Synapse Films, a DVD and Blu-Ray label that restores and releases sci-fi, horror, cult, and erotic films. Synapse Films will release a restored version of Suspiria later this year and in this interview May discusses the legacy and technical qualities of Suspiria, the process of preparing the film for release, and the status of the home video market. You can find out more about Synapse Films online at

Interview with Kenneth George Godwin 
Kenneth George Godwin is the author of the e-books The David Lynch Files. In this interview Godwin discusses Eraserhead and David Lynch's career. More about Godwin and his work can be found online at

You can find other Sounds of Cinema interviews here.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Sounds of Cinema October Programming 2017

October is just about here and that means it’s time for a month of Halloween-related programming on Sounds of Cinema. Each episode this month will take a look at a particular theme or set of films and feature music to match. Here is a preview of what’s to come:

October 1: Suspiria and Eraserhead Retrospective 
This episode will take a look back at two pictures from 1977 on their fortieth anniversary: Dario Argento's Suspiria and David Lynch's Eraserhead. The show will include interviews with Donald May Jr., President of Synapse Films, and Kenneth George Godwin, author of The David Lynch Files.

October 8: Feminist Horror 
The horror genre has a bad rap for its portrayal of women. Sometimes that's deserved but horror is one of the few genres that regularly features gender parity in its casting and features heroic female leads. This episode will consider a few examples of horror films with feminist bona fides.

October 15: Techno-Horror 
Technology is supposed to make life better but it sometimes it goes very wrong. From Frankenstein to Demon Seed to Jurassic Park, horror films have explored our anxieties about technology.

October 22: George A. Romero & Tobe Hooper Retrospective 
In the past year we lost two of the great horror directors: George A. Romero and Tobe Hooper. Romero was best known as the architect of the zombie genre but he was was a much more diverse filmmaker than that. Hooper created some of the most memorable horror films of the 1970s and 80s including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Salem's Lot, and Poltergeist.

October 29: Reboots and Remakes/Pledge Drive
On October 29th, KMSU and KQAL will air different programs.

89.5 KQAL FM: For better or worse, reboots and remakes are a cornerstone of Hollywood's release slate and the horror genre paved the way with Dawn of the Dead and Halloween. This episode will look at the horror remakes that equaled or eclipsed their predecessors.

89.7 KMSU FM: The station will be in the midst of its fall pledge drive.  Sounds of Cinema will feature the pledge drive program. 

October 30/31: Halloween Special
Airing on Monday, October 30th at 11pm on 89.5 KQAL FM and then again on Tuesday, October 31 at 10pm on 89.7 KMSU FM, the Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special will provide the soundtrack for your All Hallows Eve with an hour-long mix of Halloween-related film music.
Sounds of Cinema can be heard every Sunday morning on the following stations:
  • 9am on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, MN and online at
  • 11am on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, MN and online at

Thursday, September 28, 2017

What to Make of 'Mother!'

Before it leaves theaters, I want to weigh in on Darren Aronofsky’s film Mother! I’m not so interested in explaining or exploring the film’s allegory and what it means. There is plenty in the movie that is provocative and fascinating (you can find my review of the film here) but for the moment the actual content of Mother! takes a backseat to the implications of its disastrous theatrical release. This film clarified where American cinema and its audience are at this moment and the results aren’t good.

First, we have to acknowledge that Mother!’s release was a failure. As of this writing, the movie has made just over $14 million domestically. That’s not even enough to cover its modest production budget of $30 million. The movie did fairly well at Rotten Tomatoes (68% fresh) but CinemaScore, which polls opening night audience reactions, gave the movie an F.

Why did a generally well-reviewed movie from one of today’s most interesting directors land so badly? I would argue that a film’s theatrical success is not really determined by reviews or by the quality of the movie. Instead, the box office is really a referendum on the marketing campaign. Paramount sold Mother! as a horror picture. It has horrific elements but this was not a movie for the audience that showed up for It and Annabelle: Creation and they probably felt tricked. The wrong crowd was drawn to the theater and they hated it.

Another problem was the release strategy. Many commentators have praised Paramount for opening the movie wide like a blockbuster title. (Mother! played in over 2000 theaters in its first weekend.) While I am happy to see a major Hollywood studio put out such an interesting and daring movie, the wide release was a mistake. Wide releases are fine for mainstream movies or franchise films that have a proven brand name. Mother! was anything but that.

Because of the closing gap between theatrical and home video release dates (and the ever present threat of piracy) there is increasing pressure to get the movie out to the public as quickly as possible. As it is, most releases make about a third of their theatrical gross in the first weekend and make the majority of the total theatrical gross in the first few weeks. Titles are typically gone from cinemas soon after that.

This “open wide” strategy (or “hit-and-run” if you prefer) has become the norm for studio releases over the last three decades. And as Hollywood studios continue to give up on medium budget films in favor of big movies with multi-million dollar production costs they end up treating everything like a franchise title. With Mother!, Paramount tried to put a circular peg into a square hole and it didn’t fit.

Mother! should have been a platform release, which is to say that it opens in a few theaters at a time and gradually expands. That is no guarantee of box office success but it is a much slower release process and—critically for a movie like Mother!—it allows the picture to find its audience. There is a contingent of people who really like this movie, myself among them, but Mother! didn’t reach those people first. Instead, Paramount courted the Friday night audience with a movie that wasn’t made for them.

This brings me to the viewers. It’s easy for me to be cynical here and sound like a snobby critic so I’ll try my best not to.

The mainstream Friday night audience doesn’t come to the theater looking for a challenging cinematic experience. They are interested in entertainment, not art, and that is fine. But it’s hard to be a movie fan and be anything other than discouraged when something special like Mother! gets released and audiences don’t respond. The movie requires effort by the viewer to engage with its visuals and parse out their meaning. I don’t think today’s mainstream audiences are willing to do that. This is partly due to what viewers have been acclimated to expect. Almost all mainstream movies are literal. There isn’t a lot of experimentation with form and style in Hollywood releases or even in the independent film market. I have to speculate that if Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange or David Lynch’s Eraserhead were released today they would probably get an F rating at CinemaScore.

Mother!’s failure is all the more boggling because the internet is full of consumers complaining that Hollywood doesn’t have any new ideas. Numerous articles were written in the past four months explaining the depressed summer box office with “franchise fatigue.” Meanwhile, the top grossing movies released so far this year are almost entirely sequels or spinoffs as are the titles presently dominating the box office. But when something really creative and original comes along like Mother! (or something good but not based on a major property like Detroit or Wind River or Logan Lucky) the audience stays home. Remember that when you see the trailer for the next sequel, reboot, or remake. Hollywood isn’t the one hostile to creativity. We are.

The final insult to Mother!’s theatrical release came from  its writer and director Darren Aronofsky and lead actress Jennifer Lawrence. The movie is an allegory and Aronofsky and Lawrence decided that the prudent thing would be to explain the symbolism in their press interviews. This is a disastrous decision. The whole point of making an allegory is to let the audience figure it out. I recently spoke to writer Kenneth George Godwin and on the subject of symbols and allegory he said, “To just tell people what [the film is] trying to say, I think [the audience is] going to say, ‘Well, that’s just claptrap and who cares.’ Whereas if you leave it unexplained, then the person can experience the film for themselves.” Godwin is exactly right and that’s precisely what’s happened. Explaining the meaning takes the mystery out of the movie and makes it easy to dismiss as pretentious. As long as the meaning remains open to interpretation, the work inspires the audience to keep talking about it and find things in it that the author may not have intended. This is what sustains great works of art. That necessarily means that the filmmaker loses some control over his or her creation as it goes out into the world. Ironically, I would argue that this is central to what Mother! is about, much more so than Aronofsky’s intended ecological message.

So what are we to make of Mother!? Aronofsky made a bold and fascinating movie that is destined for cult status when it hits the VOD and disc markets. But for all its impressive visuals and big ideas, Mother!’s greatest revelation may be how crippled American movie-going has become. Maybe Hollywood studios don’t know how to sell a movie like this anymore and perhaps there’s no theatrical audience for it. If that’s the case, it’s a shame and it doesn’t bode well for the future of American cinema.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Summer 2017 in Review

Labor Day brings an end to the summer and to the summer movie season. Here is a review of some of the trends in American cinema since May.

Box Office Armageddon
A lot has been made of 2017’s box office which was the worst summer season in a quarter century. The popular explanation for the downturn is franchise fatigue and Hollywood’s overreliance on sequels. The problem with that explanation is that twelve of the top twenty-five grossing movies released so far in 2017 were sequels and that number climbs to fifteen if we count spin offs of existing franchises like Wonder Woman and The LEGO Batman Movie. Meanwhile, plenty of original films didn’t perform well at all such as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Logan Lucky. Even The Hitman’s Bodyguard, which has been the top earner for the last three weeks, has made less than $60 million.
It could be that the summer paradigm is over. Historically, summer was a dead season for movie attendance (especially in the early years of cinema before air conditioning was commonplace). Prior to the 1970s, the fall and winter holiday season was the most lucrative time for Hollywood and major releases opened at Christmastime. After the success of Jaws in 1975 and Star Wars in 1977, summer became synonymous with blockbuster spectacles and it has remained that way for the past four decades. However, we may be in a period where the calendar is shifting once again. The spring release of megahits like The Hunger Games in 2012, Captain America: The Winter Soldier in 2014, Furious 7 in 2015, The Jungle Book in 2016, and Beauty and the Beast in 2017 indicate that the blockbuster season is gradually moving from May-June-July to March-April-May. Indeed, five of the top ten grossing movies released so far this year opened in the spring.

The other shift is in television. Throughout the network era, the summer was a wasteland of reruns and the fall was prime TV season with new shows debuting and hit shows returning with new episodes. In the era of HBO and Netflix, new and popular television programs like last summer’s Stranger Things and this year’s The Defenders and Game of Thrones are coming throughout the year and television habits have unmoored from the traditional seasonal schedule.

There is also a more obvious answer: a lot of the big movies this summer just weren’t very good. Alien: Covenant, The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Rough Night, Baywatch, and Transformers: The Last Knight were lousy movies and their box office performance reflected this. Hollywood’s constant scapegoating of Rotten Tomatoes, a website that aggregates film reviews, is a tacit acknowledgement that these films weren’t good.

Superhero Films to the Rescue
Despite all the doom and gloom about the summer box office, one consistent performer was the superhero genre. Yes, the comic book marketplace is saturated and yes, many of these films are redundant with one another. But the fact is that several of the most successful and most entertaining movies of summer 2017 were superhero adaptations including Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man: Homecoming. In fact, it’s safe to say that 2017 offered the best crop of superhero movies since 2008.

Comedy Ain't Funny
The worst genre this summer—by some stretch—was comedy. This was the summer of The House, Rough Night, Baywatch, Snatched, and The Hitman’s Bodyguard. These movies were derivative, lazy, and not funny. Critics and audiences seemed to like Girls Trip but I wasn’t impressed.

You Probably Missed the Best Movies of the Summer
Although the superhero films dominated the summer box office, several impressive adult-oriented dramas were released this summer, some of which will be best-of-the-year-list contenders. The trouble is no one went to see them. The heavily publicized release of Detroit only generated $16 million domestically. Its box office failure is disappointing not only because it was a great movie but it was also in touch with this political and cultural moment. (Then again, that could be exactly why viewers skipped it.) Also underseen was the crime drama Wind River. This film wasn’t promoted as heavily as Detroit but it did have recognizable stars Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen. It’s discouraging to see these films fail at the box office, especially for those of us who want Hollywood to break up its bloated end of the year release slate.

On the lighter side, there were some other great films that didn’t quite find their audience. Atomic Blonde, an R-rated action film based on a graphic novel, was another good entry in the resurgence of practical action moviemaking. Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh returned with Logan Lucky, an Ocean’s 11-style heist movie that was a lot of fun. War for the Planet of the Apes was modestly successful but it wasn’t the hit that it should have been. And the best family movie of the summer was the underseen Captain Underpants: His First Epic Movie.

There were also some really good indie films released this summer. The most notable was The Big Sick, starring Kumail Nanjiani as himself in the story of how he met his wife Emily Gardner. Some other interesting titles include The Wall, A Ghost Story, Ingrid Goes West, Good Time, and The Beguiled. As independent features, many of these titles didn’t open outside of metropolitan areas but many of them should be available on disc or streaming services this fall.

In Summary
The box office failure of many big budget films was the dominant story in entertainment media this summer but it tended to obfuscate that there were at least as many good films as there were bad ones.

The Best Movies of the Summer
  • Atomic Blonde
  • Baby Driver
  • The Beguiled 
  • The Big Sick
  • Captain Underpants: His First Epic Movie
  • Detroit
  • Good Time
  • Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
  • Ingrid Goes West
  • Logan Lucky
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming
  • The Wall
  • War for the Planet of the Apes
  • Wind River
  • Wonder Woman

The Worst Movies of the Summer

  • Alien: Covenant
  • All Eyez on Me
  • Baywatch
  • The Dark Tower
  • The Emoji Movie
  • The Mummy
  • The Only Living Boy in New York
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
  • Rough Night
  • Snatched
  • Transformers: The Last Knight

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.