Sunday, July 1, 2018

Controversial Films 2018

Independence Day 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.

Peeping Tom (1960)
Dir. Michael Powell

Released the same year as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the movie Peeping Tom was a horror picture about a disturbed photographer who is obsessed with the look of women in a state of fear and records himself killing his victims with a spike that protracts from his camera tripod. If ever a movie was ahead of its time, Peeping Tom was it. The killer is a scopophiliac—he has an erotic obsession with visual images—and the movie dealt frankly and with some degree of sophistication regarding the relationship between lust and looking and the way cinema can objectify and commoditize its subject, especially women’s bodies. The use of first person camera work set an important precedent that would come to fruition decades later with the advent of the found footage genre. Peeping Tom also offered a sympathetic portrait of a serial killer, with actor Carl Boehm playing the part as a tragic monster whose murderous obsessions were the result of childhood abuse.

Upon its release in 1960, Peeping Tom was deemed in poor taste and the film was slammed by critics and ignored by the public. With a career that included Stairway to Heaven, The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, director Michael Powell had been considered an esteemed filmmaker but the violently negative reaction to Peeping Tom virtually destroyed his career. In the late 1970s Michael Powell’s work enjoyed renewed interest by filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. In an interview with film critic Mark Kermode, Scorsese said that Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and Federico Fellini’s collectively said everything there was to say about filmmaking. At one point Scorsese even considered mounting a remake of Peeping Tom but after screening it he concluded there was no way to top Powell’s film. Although it’s not as widely seen as it should be, Peeping Tom is now regarded as a masterpiece.

Irreversible (2002)
Dir. Gasper Noe

Irreversible was one of the early films of provocateur filmmaker Gasper Noe. The story occurs in a single evening. A woman, her boyfriend, and another male companion go out for a night on the town. She goes off on her own and gets sexually assaulted by a random criminal. When the men learned what’s happened they track down the assailant and beat him to death. The story of Irreversible is a run of the mill rape-revenge plot but the movie is distinguished by its style and brutality. Irreversible uses innovative camera movement and dramatic lighting and features an electronic soundtrack that is at times deliberately nauseating. The story is told in reverse, starting with the act of revenge, and then moving backwards from the assault through the events preceding it. The violence of Irreversible is extreme especially the sexual assault sequence which plays out in a single sustained shot that lasts for about nine minutes.

Irreversible received severely deviating opinions. When the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, about 250 viewers walked out, mostly during the rape scene. Those who remained to the end of the screening gave the film a five minute standing ovation. Critics were rarely ambivalent about the movie. Those who hated it accused Irrevesible of being gratuitous, misogynistic, and homophobic, often pointing to the strange choice of making the rapist a gay man.  David Edelstein suggested that “Irreversible might be the most homophobic movie ever made” and called the violence pornographic. Those who praised Irreversible pointed to its technical accomplishments but also to its unconventional narrative structure. Roger Ebert wrote that “ordinary chronology would lead us down a seductive narrative path toward a shocking, exploitative payoff. By placing the ugliness at the beginning, Gaspar Noe forces us to think seriously about the sexual violence involved.”

Irreversible was initially banned in New Zealand. The ban was later overturned to allow theatrical screenings although not without some protest from New Zealanders who thought the film should remain unavailable. Irreversible remained banned on home video in that country.

Ivan the Terrible (1944/1958)
Dir. Sergei Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein was one of the most important filmmakers in the history of Russian cinema. He created several works that were important to the Bolshevik Revolution, namely 1925’s Battleship Potemkin. His work was revolutionary in its politics but also in its style and Eisenstein was a master of using camera angles and editing in a way that stirred the viewer’s emotions and communicated ideas without spelling them out on the screen. Russian leader Joseph Stalin commissioned Eisenstein to make a biopic of Ivan the Terrible. Stalin likened himself to Ivan and envisioned the Tsar as a national hero would inspire unity among Russian citizens.

Eisenstein set about making his film as a three-part epic. Although the script was subject to Soviet approval and certain sequences were required to be cut, Eisenstein mostly completed the first part as he intended. Ivan the Terrible Part I dramatized the sixteenth century Tsar’s rise to power and it portrayed Ivan as a strong, decisive, and cunning leader. When it was released in 1945, Ivan the Terrible Part I was a hit with Stalin and Eisenstein was awarded the Stalin prize, the highest honor an artist could receive in the Soviet Union. Eisenstein set about making the next episode. Ivan the Terrible Part II was quite different from the first installment. It culminated with Ivan as a mad and unscrupulous leader who destroyed anyone and anything that got in his way. Stalin was livid and Ivan the Terrible Part II was banned in Russia until 1958. Production of the third film was never completed. 

Eisenstein participated in the Bolshevik Revolution that had deposed the Russian monarchy and transformed the country into the Soviet Union. He volunteered for the Red Army and later used his filmmaking skills to create important pieces of communist propaganda. But by the time the revolution was over and Stalin had assumed control of the country, Eisenstein was disillusioned. Instead of an egalitarian utopia, Soviet Russia under Stalin was a totalitarian nightmare in which the communist leaders were just as exploitative as their predecessors. Ivan the Terrible reflects this. The story begins as a tale of national pride and degrades into the story of a man willing to destroy everything to hold onto power. At a time when political dissenters, or those suspected of dissent, were routinely executed by the state, Eisenstein’s decision to make Ivan the Terrible the way that he did was extraordinarily bold. Shortly after completing Part II, Eisenstein died of a heart attack.

The Death of Stalin (2018)
Dir. Armando Iannucci

The Death of Stalin is a 2018 British satire taking place in the Soviet Union after the death of leader Joseph Stalin. The movie comically dramatizes the power struggle following the Russian leader’s death. The Death of Stalin achieved nearly universal acclaim from critics but it was not so well received in Russia. The Ministry of Culture initially granted The Death of Stalin a screening license but the license was revoked two days before the film was to open, effectively banning the movie. Pavel Pozhigailo, a member of the Ministry of Culture’s advisory council, called The Death of Stalin “blasphemous” and said it was “insulting our national symbols.” Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky said the revocation of the film’s screening license was not censorship but an attempt to draw “moral boundaries.” Director Armando Iannucci surmised that the ban may have been motivated by the Russian elections which would occur shortly after the film’s planned release date. Despite the ban, some Russian cinema owners screened The Death of Stalin anyway and it played to packed auditoriums. Those theaters were raided by authorities.

The revocation of The Death of Stalin’s screening license was the first event of its kind in Russia since the fall of communism. The Russian constitution technically bans the state from censorship. However, the Russian government has a virtual monopoly on most media outlets in the country and observers feared that The Death of Stalin controversy was a sign of increasing government control over the cinema.

Strangely, the ban on The Death of Stalin may be linked to controversy over the Russian release of Paddington 2 earlier in 2018. Many of Russia’s domestic films are funded by the government, especially patriotic stories about Russian history and culture, and Paddington 2 was scheduled to open the same weekend as the Russian productions Scythian and Going Vertical. At the last minute, the Russian Ministry of Culture postponed the release Paddington 2. This caused an uproar among cinema owners and moviegoers who were looking forward to seeing the family-friendly movie. Buckling to pressure, the ministry restored Paddington 2’s release date. The cancelation of The Death of Stalin may have been an attempt to appease Russian leaders in Moscow and to avoid any more embarrassment for the ministry.

Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971)
Dir. Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi

Filmmakers Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi invented the “mondo” or shockumentary genre with 1962’s Mondo Cane. The movie was an international travelogue that showcased the exotic, weird, scandalous, and violent aspects of nature and world culture. The movie was a hit but it was plagued by charges of exploitation and dishonesty. Throughout the 1960s, Jacopetti and Prosperi continued to make mondo films with each project more scandalous than the last. The filmmakers took umbrage at accusations of racism following the release of 1966’s Africa Addio. In an effort to disprove that they were racist, Jacopetti and Prosperi next created 1971’s Goodbye Uncle Tom. The movie combined documentary and feature filmmaking in a recreation of the slave trade of the pre-Civil War American south.

Jacopetti and Prosperi stated that the intent of Goodbye Uncle Tom was to lay bare the reality of racism and they may have been earnest about that. But even giving the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt, it’s hard to imagine a picture more tone deaf than this. Shot in Haiti under the hospitality of dictator Papa Doc Duvalier, Goodbye Uncle Tom was a lurid and often sleazy film that appeared to take relish in recreating the dehumanizing conditions of slavery. Film critic Roger Ebert called Goodbye Uncle Tom “the most disgusting, contemptuous insult to decency ever to masquerade as a documentary” and observed that “most of the blacks in the film are apparently Africans forced by poverty and need to do these things for a few days' pitiful wages.” In the documentary The Godfathers of Mondo, Jacopetti and Prosperi defend the film but concede that they didn’t contextualize the images.

The ending of Goodbye Uncle Tom leaps forward through time to 1970s America. In this sequence a Black Nationalist reads William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner and then murders a white family. The scenes were considered too incendiary for audiences of 1971, who were still reeling from race riots and other civil unrest, and the footage was cut from the American release. The full version of Goodbye Uncle Tom was recently shown at some film festivals and as Jan Yamato points out “In the era of the Black Lives Matter movement . . . [the film] feels not so much dated and incendiary, but provocatively current.”

The New York Ripper (1982)
Dir. Lucio Fulci

In the United Kingdom film distribution is managed by the British Board of Film Classification and movies have to be certified by the board in order to play in British cinemas. The BBFC may require cuts to remove material that is considered obscene or harmful and the board has the power to reject a movie outright. The advent of home video in the early 1980s subverted the BBFC and allowed filmmakers to get their work to the public in its original form. Reports by some unscrupulous journalists linking these unregulated movies to violent crimes as well as the petitions of moral watchdog groups coalesced into a moral panic known as the “Video Nasties” scare. The Director of Public Prosecutions' office compiled a list of movies that were to be seized and distributors could be fined or imprisoned for peddling obscene material.

Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci was known for making shocking horror films and several of his titles were named to the Video Nasties list. In 1982 Fulci released The New York Ripper, a serial killer picture that was among Fulci’s most brutal films. The picture was considered all the more scandalous in the UK because of the recent conviction of serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, popularly known as “The Yorkshire Ripper.” When The New York Ripper was submitted for classification, the screeners were split as to whether it should be granted a license or not. BBFC director James Furman was concerned that if the board approved the film and law enforcement subsequently named The New York Ripper to the Video Nasties list the BBFC would be seen as aiding and abetting an obscene work. In the interest of protecting the BBFC, Furman shipped their copy of The New York Ripper back to the original copyright holder in Italy and advised the British distributor to do the same. Over time this developed into an urban legend that The New York Ripper was so offensive that the BBFC had every print of the movie deported from the country under the escort of an armed guard. This of course made for great advertising copy to promote the film.

The New York Ripper was finally released in the UK in 2001 with 22 seconds of footage removed. The movie was recut for different territories and so different editions of the movie on DVD and Blu-ray have different versions.

An Open Secret (2015)
Dir Amy Berg

In recent years there have been several documentaries dealing with sexual abuse and institutional corruption. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God documented sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, The Hunting Ground covered rape culture on college campuses, and The Invisible War dealt with the issue in the United States’ military. One of the most contentious of these abuse documentaries was An Open Secret. The film dealt with sexual abuse in the entertainment industry and claimed to expose a pedophilia ring that reached the highest levels of Hollywood power.

An Open Secret had a difficult time finding an audience. The movie was directed by Amy Berg, who received an Oscar nomination for the 2007 documentary Deliver Us from Evil which dealt with sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Despite being helmed by an esteemed documentarian working in a familiar subject, most major film festivals rejected An Open Secret and distributors refused to buy it. The film’s executive producer Matthew Valentinas said that festival curators would usually be very interested in booking the documentary “but then someone on the business side would step in, and all of a sudden there was no longer interest.”

The reluctance to associate with An Open Secret may have been rooted in concerns of upsetting the Hollywood power structure but matters weren’t helped by a scandal involving one of the film’s interviewees. Among the several victims profiled in An Open Secret was Michael Egan who had filed a lawsuit accusing director Bryan Singer and others of sexually abusing underage boys. Egan’s lawsuit was withdrawn and his attorneys admitted that the sex abuse claims were “untrue and provably false” and paid a seven-figure settlement. Egan was subsequently sentenced to a two-year prison term for an unrelated fraud case. Even though the stories of the other sexual assault victims in An Open Secret are supported by evidence and criminal convictions, the film’s affiliation with Michael Egan may have been enough to frighten off any distributors.

When An Open Secret was finally seen it was well reviewed by critics but the film had a much harder time generating interest. When it opened in theaters in 2015, An Open Secret died at the box office. The movie never had a commercial video-on-demand release nor has it appeared on disc. Two years after its theatrical debut, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement, An Open Secret was posted on the video website Vimeo where the movie can be viewed in full, legally, for free.

Last Tango in Paris (1972)
Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci

Last Tango in Paris tells the story of a torrid affair between a young woman and an older man played by Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando. For its time—and even now—the movie was remarkably raw and explicit. Last Tango in Paris was released when the MPAA’s ratings system was relatively new and at that time the X rating did not have a pornographic stigma attached to it; the rating simply described movies that were intended for adult audiences. Last Tango in Paris was among the first mainstream films to get an X rating and go out to U.S. theaters intact rather than appeal or cut content to achieve an R, although it was cut for later re-releases. It was also the first film to be prosecuted under Britain's Obscene Publications Act although the filmmakers eventually won. The movie was also banned for a time in Nova Scotia, Portugal, and South Korea. Last Tango in Paris was also banned in Italy and director Bernardo Bertolucci was given a 4-month suspended prison sentence for obscenity. Despite the controversy, Last Tango in Paris was generally considered a respectable work of art house cinema and Brando and Bertolucci were nominated for Academy Awards.

In recent years, Last Tango in Paris found itself back in the news. The movie contains an infamous sex sequence popularly referred to as the “butter scene.” Maria Schneider said in a 2007 interview that fellow actor Marlon Brando and director Bernardo Bertolucci worked out what would happen in the scene behind her back. They then sprung the moment on Schneider and the actress said, “I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.” Schneider’s comments went mostly unremarked upon until 2016 when an archival interview with Bertolucci resurfaced in which the director confirmed that he and Brando had come up with the idea to use butter in the scene and deliberately did not tell Schneider so that she would feel humiliated and provide a genuine reaction. News of the behind the scenes skullduggery caused outrage. A number of high profile actors and filmmakers weighed in on the revelations including director Ava DuVernay who Tweeted “As a director, I can barely fathom this. As a woman, I am horrified, disgusted and enraged by it.” The revelations have led some critics to question the status of Last Tango in Paris as a classic.

The Message (1977)
Dir. Moustapha Akkad

The Message tells the story of the rise of Islam, culminating with the Prophet Mohammad and his followers securing Mecca as a Muslim holy site. The movie was made with admirable intentions. Filmmaker Moustapha Akkad, who was a Muslim, said that he saw the movie as an opportunity to build understanding between the West and the Islamic world. However, telling a cinematic story about Mohammad is uniquely difficult because some interpretations of Islam forbid visual depictions of the prophet and his immediate family. The filmmakers solved this by telling the story through Mohammad's uncle Hamza (Anthony Quinn) and his adopted son Zayd (Damien Thomas). At other moments, Mohammad’s presence is insinuated off screen or represented in the first person as through Mohammad were the camera. In addition, the script was revised to meet the approval of Islamic religious scholars.

Despite the attempt to respect the beliefs and traditions of Islam, misinformed word spread that The Message was going to depict Mohammad on screen and commit other offenses against the religion. The scholars who had initially backed The Message turned on it and called the movie sacrilege. The Message began filming in Morocco but shooting had to be relocated several times due to threats and protests. Eventually The Message was sponsored by Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi and Libyan soldiers were used as extras in the film.

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

In 2018, Saudi Arabia lifted a decades-long ban on cinemas. The Message was the first Arabic feature to be shown in the country following a 4K restoration of the film overseen by Moustapha Akkad's son Malek. The screening was timed to coincide with the religious holiday of Eid-ul-Fitr. Following its Saudi Arabian debut, The Message is planned to screen throughout the Arabic region.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
Dir. J. Lee Thompson

The Planet of the Apes series was known for its political subtext. All of the pictures in the original series deal with race and class issues and over the course of the films the visibility of that subtext waxes and wanes. In the fourth picture, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the racial metaphors took a bolder and more violent turn. The story takes place in an authoritarian future in which humans have turned apes into slaves. Caesar, a chimpanzee who has acquired the power of speech, leads his fellow simians in a violent revolt. The riot scenes were staged and shot to deliberately recall news footage of the 1965 Watts Riots and the original cut of Conquest featured a lot of blood and gore. The film is climaxed by Caesar making a triumphant victory speech and in the original version the film ends on a militant call for revolution. When executives at 20th Century Fox screened the film they demanded changes so that it would secure a PG rating and retain the lucrative family audience. Among the changes, Caesar’s final speech was altered in post-production with actor Roddy McDowall recording some additional dialogue that ended the film on a more pacifistic note. The original version of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was restored for the Blu-ray edition.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)
Dir. Trey Parker

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is an adaptation of the Comedy Central television series. The program was groundbreaking, in part because of its vulgarity, but the crassness of the show was matched by intelligence and a sardonic take on pop culture and current events. All of that was carried over to the theatrical feature but South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker took advantage of the greater latitude afforded by cinema. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the South Park feature film contains 399 swear words, 128 offensive gestures, and 221 acts of violence inside of its 81-minute running time. It’s also a self-reflexive movie. The parents of the town are upset when their children see a raunchy comedy film and their efforts to censor it culminate with the United States going to war with Canada. The South Park film was released in 1999, the end of a decade in which the culture did a lot of handwringing about the effects of media on children, and the movie distilled that anxiety into a violent and vulgar and hysterical farce.

Stone and Parker had an adversarial relationship with the MPAA and, according to Entertainment Weekly, their fight for South Park's R-rating exposed the capricious nature of the ratings process. According to the filmmakers, South Park was original subtitled All Hell Breaks Loose. The MPAA objected to the use of the word “hell” even though there are plenty of other films with that word in the title. The filmmakers replaced the subtitle with Bigger, Longer & Uncut. The MPAA initially gave the title a pass but later recognized the double entendre and requested that the filmmakers change the subtitle again. However, Paramount had already printed the first reel of the movie and so the title remained. (The MPAA denies that this took place.) The movie itself went through several rounds of edits. The filmmakers submitted South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut to the MPAA and received an NC-17. Instead of cutting out offensive footage, Parker and Stone swapped out objectionable scenes with even lewder material and then resubmitted the movie. The ratings board again gave South Park an NC-17 and Parker and Stone again put more offensive material into the film. This went back and forth and after six screenings the MPAA apparently gave up and approved an R-rating.

  • Eisenstein and Stalin: When Art and Politics Clash. Films Media Group, 1999. Films for the Humanities and Sciences.
  • Behind the Planet of the Apes. Dir. Kevin Burns and  David Comtois. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 1998. DVD.
  • The Godfathers of Mondo. Dir. David Gregory. Blue Underground, 2003. DVD. 
  • “The History of Ivan.” Featurette on the Ivan the Terrible Criterion Collection DVD.
  • Most Controversial Films of All Time by Tim Dirks at AMC Filmsite
  • “A Very British Psycho.” Featurette on the Peeping Tom Criterion Collection DVD.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Great Movies with Chaotic Productions

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

The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Dir. Victor Fleming

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

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Dir. Tobe Hooper

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

Jaws (1975)
Dir. Steven Spielberg

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

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

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

Sorcerer (1977)
Dir. William Friedkin

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

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

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

Apocalypse Now (1979)
Dir. Francis Ford Coppola

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

Brazil (1985)
Dir. Terry Gilliam

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

The Crow (1994)
Dir. Alex Proyas

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

Titanic (1997)
Dir. James Cameron

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

American History X (1998)
Dir. Tony Kaye

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

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

KMSU Spring Pledge Drive

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Interview with Paul Talbot

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

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

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Movies that the Oscars Missed 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 25, 2018

What Does 'Black Panther' Mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 29, 2018

Best and Worst Films of 2017

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

Best Films of 2017
1. The Florida Project 

2. Get Out 

3. Mother! 

4. Call Me By Your Name 

5. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 

6. Logan

7. Detroit 

8. Baby Driver 

9. Good Time 

10. I, Tonya 

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

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Sounds of Cinema 2017 Wrap Up Coming January 28

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

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