Sunday, December 1, 2019

Movies of 1989

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema featured a look back at the movies of 1989 with special guests Andy and Ben Wardinski. Here is a recap of some of the titles discussed on the show.

The biggest box office hit of 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman was the film that began the contemporary comic book film. With the exception of the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films, most comic book pictures made to this point were campy, low budget affairs that appealed to a niche audience. Batman is also distinct in the way it is at once an 80s film and yet feels timeless in part because of the 1940s-esqe production design.

Field of Dreams
Field of Dreams was the second title in Kevin Costner’s triptych of baseball movies (the other two being Bull Durham and For the Love of the Game). Of those three, Field of Dreams has had the most enduring impact. The actual field continues to draw tourists and the phrase “If you build it, they will come” continues to be a pop culture reference. But Field of Dreams isn’t so much about baseball as it is about healing the generational divisions between Baby Boomers and their parents.

Major League
Another baseball movie of 1989, Major League is a crass comedy starring Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Rene Russo, and Wesley Snipes. The movie is especially memorable to Milwaukee Brewers fans of the 1980s because portions of the film were shot at the now demolished County Stadium.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child
Horror of the 1980s was dominated by slasher movies and the biggest of these were A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Friday the 13th. Although they have kept going in other forms, these franchises hit the end of the line in 1989. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, Halloween 5, and Friday the 13th: Part VIII all failed at the box office. The Dream Child is easily the best of these three. It’s an uneven film that inserts too many silly moments but it has unique production design, an interesting premise, and a strong cast.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
The third Indy movie is generally considered the best sequel in the series (although Andy and Ben made a strong case for Temple of Doom which is admittedly a better action picture). The strongest element of Last Crusade is its characters led by Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones and Sean Connery as his father. Alison Doody is also notably in the role of villainous archeologist Elsa Schneider, the most complex love interest in the series. The good humor and nuanced characterizations give Last Crusade the most emotional gravitas of the series.

Weird Al Yankovic made a movie in 1989 about an aimless dreamer who turns around a failing independent television station with a variety of wacky programs. The movie was a box office disappointment in 1989 but it has accrued a dedicated cult audience. Despite the fact that the movie is nestled in the pop culture of 1989 (the meaning of the title is probably lost on viewers born after 1995) UHF still plays because of its zany and good hearted sense of humor.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was the most financially successful entry in the series’ original run of films. It was followed by 1989’s The Final Frontier, a project that began with an ambitious premise but was handicapped by budget woes and script re-writes. It is (arguably) not the worst Star Trek film but The Final Frontier has dramatic highs and lows and a whiplash of different tones.

The Abyss
James Cameron’s first aquatic adventure (if we ignore Piranha II: The Spawning) has its fans and the movie has some groundbreaking special effects but the story is a mess. The Abyss suffers from an excess of plot. It begins with a submarine crashing in the deep sea and then the rescue team becomes stranded themselves. And then the narrative forks off into a bunch of tangents with nuclear weapons, nervous breakdowns, and aliens; Thomas Pope named The Abyss one of the worst scripts in film history in his book Good Scripts, Bad Scripts. There are a couple of versions of The Abyss. The 145 minute theatrical cut is faster paced but it doesn’t make any sense. The 171 minute director’s cut makes sense but it meanders.

Back to the Future Part II
One of the bolder sequels in the sci-fi genre, Back the Future Part II travels into the future and then back into the events of the first movie. The film is impressive in the way it layers the new film on top of the original and it makes bold choices.

Dead Poet’s Society
Robin Williams’ acting career can be bifurcated between his comic and dramatic performances although he is best known for comedy, Williams’ dramatic outings were much more consistent and he gives one of his best performances in Dead Poets Society. A favorite of high school English teachers everywhere, Dead Poets Society is interesting to look at thirty years later as humanities departments find themselves undergoing some of the same pressures dramatized in this film.

Driving Miss Daisy
Driving Miss Daisy won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1989. The movie concerns an elderly Jewish woman who befriends her African American chauffer. This film is especially interesting to consider in 2019 since the year’s Best Picture winner was a Green Book, film whose scenario plays as a race flipped retread of Driving Miss Daisy. What’s more, Driving Miss Daisy was favored by the Academy over Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and in 2019 Green Book competed alongside movies like Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, BlacKkKlansman, and The Hate U Give. The implicit lesson is that Hollywood, or at least the Academy, hasn’t moved forward in regard to racial representation in the last thirty years.

Ghostbusters II
Ghostbusters II is an unfairly maligned sequel. The 1989 follow up is not as tight as its predecessor and it has some hokey moments. Between the release of Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II, the franchise was adapted into a cartoon, pivoting the audience toward children complete with tie-in merchandise. For the second film, the edge of the first film was removed so that it would appeal to the family audience. Nevertheless, Ghostbusters II plays as an entertaining film in its own right.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
The third and probably the most popular title of the Vacation series, Christmas Vacation was written by John Hughes and it captured what Hughes did best – satirizing the absurdity of suburban life. Christmas Vacation is endlessly quotable. Everyone is at their best here, namely Chevy Chase as the patriarch of the Griswold family and Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie, but unlike the other Vacation films the rest of the cast are also given things to do.

One of the early directorial efforts by Ron Howard, Parenthood is not neatly pegged into a single genre. The movie mixes comedy and drama in a story of suburban life. The movie has a terrific cast including Steve Martin, Mary Steenburgen, Dianne Wiest, Jason Robards, Martha Plimpton, and Rick Moranis as well as very young Keanu Reeves, and Joaquin Phoenix (credited here as Leaf Phoenix). Parenthood was adapted into a television series in 1990 and again in 2010.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Movies of 1989 on Sounds of Cinema

The Sounds of Cinema episode airing December 1, 2019 will feature special guests Andy and Ben Wardinski and they'll talk movies of 1989 with Nathan including Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Field of Dreams, and UHF.

Sounds of Cinema airs Sunday morning at 9am on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, MN and at 11am on 89.5 KMSU FM in Mankato, MN. Tune in over the air, at each station's website, and on your mobile device.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Family-Friendly Frights

Watching scary movies is a central part of many people’s Halloween festivities but it can be hard for families or those who wouldn’t ordinarily watch scary movies to find something appropriate so today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema looked at family friendly frights.

Monster House (2006)
Dir. Gil Kenan

Produced by Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, Monster House is a haunted house story presented through motion capture animation. Three teenagers discover that the decrepit home in their neighborhood contains a supernatural secret. Monster House was consistent with movies like The Monster Squad and The Goonies but it was also surprisingly smart and emotionally affecting.

Corpse Bride (2005)
Dir. Tim Burton and Mike Johnson

Tim Burton has been involved with several animated features that make for good Halloween viewing. The Nightmare Before Christmas was directed by Henry Selick with Burton producing and writing the story. Burton also adapted his short film “Frankenweenie” into a feature length movie and co-directed Corpse Bride with Mike Johnson. Corpse Bride was a comedy of errors about a living groom who gets involved with an undead bride and it had a fun soundtrack by regular Burton collaborator Danny Elfman.

Hocus Pocus (1993)
Dir. Kenny Ortega

Hocus Pocus was a family friendly Halloween adventure about three seventeenth century witches who are transported to contemporary Salem, Massachusetts where they pursue a group of children. The original story by Mick Garris and David Kirschner was quite dark but the material was lightened when it was acquired by Disney. When the movie was released in 1993, Hocus Pocus was a box office disappointment but the film has since become a very popular title especially among viewers who grew up in the 1990s and 2000s.

The Harry Potter Series (2001 - 2011)

The Harry Potter series is a story of a boy coming of age in a fantastical world of witches and magic. J.K. Rowling’s stories caught the imagination of readers the world over and were adapted into a very successful film series that mostly preserved the book’s sense of wonder. While not horror stories, the Harry Potter films are appropriately frightening with supernatural creatures and magical villains. But what really endures about Harry Potter is the way the character and his friends recognize that there is evil in the world and choose to confront it.

Return to Oz (1985)
Dir. Walter Murch

The idea of making a sequel to 1939’s The Wizard of Oz seems quite natural now with the success of Wicked and Oz the Great and Powerful but in 1985 that wasn’t the case and Walter Murch’s Return to Oz had an uphill battle to find an audience. Adapted from L. Frank Baum’s stories, Return to Oz was much darker than the 1939 film. Its story was bleaker, its production design less cheery, and some of the puppet characters were creepy. Return to Oz failed in its initial release but it has gathered a cult audience since then.

The Universal Monsters

Holidays are a good time to introduce young people to classic movies and Halloween is a good opportunity to revisit the classic Universal Monster films. These pictures were thought to be terrifying at the time of their initial release but now they are quite accessible, often about as scary as Disney films, and with their short running times they fit within the attention spans of young viewers. Of the Universal Monsters, the Frankenstein pictures are generally regarded as superior and children seem to find the Monster, as played by Boris Karloff in the first three movies, very empathetic.

Poltergeist (1982)
Dir. Tobe Hooper

Poltergeist is officially rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America and the film is indeed within the boundaries of that rating. It doesn’t contain any bloody violence nor does it include sexuality or course language beyond what would be expected in a PG film. But Poltergeist’s rating belies the film’s intensity. Directed by Tobe Hooper and produced by Steven Spielberg, Poltergeist is quite frightening with some fantastic set pieces and a nightmarish climax. As a PG rated film made before the advent of PG-13, Poltergeist is an interesting artifact of what was considered family-oriented material a few decades ago.

The Sixth Sense (1999)
Dir. M. Night Shyamalan
The Sixth Sense was the breakout film for M. Night Shyamalan. The movie is well within the framework of its PG-13 rating but what is surprising about this film is the way it deals with the supernatural. A lot of stories about ghosts assume that the spirits are malevolent, reflecting our own fears of death. The Sixth Sense plays on our expectations and actually ends on an optimistic note, making it spooky but also hopeful. (1:30)

The Addams Family (1991 and 2019)
Dir. Barry Sonnenfeld / Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon

The Addams Family has been around since 1938 when the characters first appeared in Charles Addams’ cartoons. Since then the Addams Family has starred in television sitcoms and feature films. The 1991 live action movie has terrific energy and a great cast. A sequel, Addams Family Values, followed in 1993. The family returned to the screen in a 2019 animated film. Both big screen versions of The Addams Family have their own virtues and they are witty and intelligent and ought to appeal to both children and their parents.

The Monster Squad (1987)
Dir. Fred Dekker

The Monster Squad is an unusual piece of 1980s fantasy entertainment. Dracula leads a werewolf, a mummy, a fish-man, and Frankenstein’s monster into a suburban town in pursuit of a magical amulet and it’s up to a group of monster movie obsessed kids to stop them.This film that was almost certainly an inspiration Stranger Things but the retro appeal of the movie is somewhat ironic given that The Monster Squad was itself nostalgic for the classic Universal monster movies of the 1930s and 40s.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

KMSU Fall Pledge Drive

89.7 KMSU FM "The Maverick" is currently holding its fall pledge drive. If you listen to Sounds of Cinema from this station or simply believe in independent media, 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 station's website.

This pledge drive has a $25,000 fundraising goal. The money primarily goes to KMSU's overhead expenses. Most of the local programs, including Sounds of Cinema, are produced by volunteers. Your pledges go directly to keeping the station on the air so that all of us can keep sharing our passions with you.

KMSU offers a variety of extraordinary and unique programming that is valuable to the community. The station allows local businesses, artists, and community organizations exposure they would not get otherwise. It is a truly independent voice in this community. Our playlists are not dictated from corporate offices nor are our views and opinions restrained by marketing departments and partisan talking points. Whatever goes over the air is the result of the dedication, effort, and passions of the station’s staff and volunteers. That feature is increasingly unique in broadcasting and KMSU represents something that the community ought to be proud of.

If you listen to KMSU and enjoy its content, please help to ensure that the station continues to broadcast its unique blend of programming. The reality is that radio—like everything else—costs money. Every piece of media that you hear, watch, or read costs somebody something to make into a tangible and accessible reality. Don’t kid yourself; music and movies and radio programs do not magically appear out of nowhere. They are the result of time and effort and investment. That’s where you come in. As consumers and citizens, we express what we want by the way we spend our hard-earned dollars. Every day we vote with our wallets whether it is at the market, at the local movie theater, or through a public radio pledge drive. And just like the goods of your favorite store, your support will determine whether or not KMSU’s product continues to exist.

It's also important to remember that pledge drives are about more than money. Space and funding are at a premium across higher education. Your pledge to KMSU demonstrates that the station is valued by the community and that helps justify the station's continued existence.

Also, keep in mind that KMSU is a part of the Association of Minnesota Public Educational Radio Stations. This is a separate organization from Minnesota Public Radio and MPR's fundraising dollars  do not go to KMSU.

On Sunday, October 27th, 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, October 20, 2019

'Alien' and Manson Family Retrospective on Sounds of Cinema

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema was a special retrospective show. The first half of the show took a look back at the original Alien and discussed the themes and legacy of the movie. The second half examined films about the Manson Family and the way their crimes have been represented in documentaries and dramatizations.

The commentary from today's show is now available on the Sounds of Cinema website, including content that did not make it into the show.

Find the Alien commentary here and the Manson Family commentary here

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Dark Comic Book Movies

The comic book genre has become a major success for Hollywood, especially Marvel, but some of these comics have inspired dark tales of madness and violence and supernatural evil. Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema continued this month's Halloween theme with a look at movies adapted from dark comic books.

Tales from the Crypt
Tales from the Crypt was a comic book series published by EC Comics between 1950 and 1955. The comic was very popular and featured lurid stories of murder and supernatural terror presented by a ghoulish host known as the Crypt-Keeper. Despite its popularity, Tales from the Crypt was canceled following public outcry over concerns about juvenile delinquency which culminated in a US Senate subcommittee hearing in 1954 in which EC Comics publisher William Gaines was grilled by lawmakers for allegedly corrupting children. But Tales from the Crypt made an impression on some of its young readers, namely Stephen King and George A. Romero who paid tribute to the comics in their 1982 collaboration Creepshow. Tales from the Crypt was adapted into a 1972 feature film and later into an HBO television series that ran for seven seasons. The show inspired a pair of feature films: Demon Knight and Bordello of Blood.

Ghost Rider
Ghost Rider refers to several Marvel comic book characters who become fire breathing skull headed motorcyclists and who use their infernal powers to fight the forces of evil. A pair of Ghost Rider films were released by Columbia Pictures and starred Nicolas Cage. The film rights to Ghost Rider have since lapsed and reverted back to Marvel. More recently the character appeared in the television show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..

Sin City
Sin City was a series of neo-noir comics created by Frank Miller and published by Dark Horse Comics. Miller was one of several comic storytellers pushing the format into darker and more violent places in the late 1980s and early 90s. Sin City was an urban crime story full of seedy characters and the tone of the comic recalled the gangster movies of the 1940s. The comic was adapted into two motion pictures directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez which used the drawings as a guide and employed a formalistic style that simulated the qualities of the comic book page. 

John Constanine was a character featured in several DC comic series, namely Hellblazer. The character is a warlock and occult detective who is cynical and yet tries to do the right thing. He proved to be a popular character and Hellblazer was the most successful title in DC’s Vertigo imprint. Constantine was played by Keanu Reeves in a 2005 film. It was a modest success at the time but Constantine has grown in popularity since then with fans responding to the movie’s humor. Director Francis Lawrence and star Keanu Reeves have discussed the possibility of a sequel over the years although nothing has ever materialized. The character has recently appeared on television first as the star of a short lived NBC series and later as a supporting character in CW’s Arrowverse shows where Constantine is played by Matt Ryan.

Joker is an origin story of Batman's nemesis. Although the story took place in Gotham and the Wayne family figures into the story, Joker mostly eschewed anything related to comic books. Instead, this film flipped the script on the Batman franchise. Where most Batman films takes place at the top (Wayne Manor, city hall) looking down, Joker takes place in the gutter looking up. The movie reinvisioned The Joker as a troubled performance artist whose mental breakdown is hastened by society's indiference and a consequence of austerity.

The Crow
Originally created by James O’Barr, The Crow doesn’t actually refer to a character but a concept. O’Barr envisioned stories of the murdered dead returning from the grave to seek revenge while under the guidance of a bird. The comics included multiple characters settling scores. The Crow was first adapted into a feature film in 1994 and it remains one of the best comic book films. Sadly, the production of that film was marked by a series of disasters, culminating with actor Brandon Lee killed in an on-set accident. But The Crow was a success and was very popular in the goth and alternative scene of the time. The movie was followed by four sequels—each with a different protagonist—as well as a television series.

Hellboy is a superhero created by Mike Mignola in the 1990s. The character is a demon raised from infancy by human beings and enlisted to defend humanity from the forces of darkness. Hellboy was adapted to cinema twice. The character first appeared on screen in a 2004 movie and its sequel directed by Guillermo del Toro and starring Ron Pearlman. Hellboy was adapted again in a film released earlier this year and directed by Neil Marshall and starring David Harbor.

Blade was a Marvel character originally appearing in The Tomb of Dracula comic in 1973. The character was a half-vampire-half-human who had the powers of the undead but without their vulnerability to sunlight and Blade hunts vampires with a variety of edged weapons. Wesley Snipes starred in a trilogy of Blade films released in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The first two were quite well received and Blade II is one of the better comic book sequels. The character later went to television and it was recently announced that Blade will be played by Mahershala Ali in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The Punisher
The Punisher is a Marvel character who first appeared in an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man in 1974. The Punisher is a prototypical vigilante and a much darker character than is usually found in Marvel comics. The Punisher first appeared on film in a 1989 movie starring Dolph Lundgren that was also the first R-rated comic book movie. The character was rebooted in a 2004 picture starring Thomas Jane and again in 2008 with Ray Stevenson taking over the role. More recently, the rights to The Punisher reverted back to Marvel and the character appeared in Netflix’s Daredevil series before starring in his own show played by Jon Bernthal.

Spawn began as a comic book created by Todd McFarlane in the 1990s. McFarlane had a background working on Marvel’s Spider-Man comics but with Spawn McFarlane deliberately created a character and a story that was intended for a mature audience. Throughout the 1990s Spawn became one of the hottest titles in the comic book industry and McFarlane shrewdly managed the property, authorizing spinoffs and collectibles. Between 1997 and 1999 McFarlane produced an animated television series for HBO as well as a live action feature film released in 1997. The live action movie wasn't so well recieved and it hasn't aged especially well but the HBO show remains an impressive piece of work.

30 Days of Night
30 Days of Night was a comic book miniseries written by Steve Niles and illustrated by Ben Templesmith. Set in Alaska, 30 Days of Night was a horror story about vampires besieging a rural town located so far north that the sun disappears for a whole month during the winter. The comic was a success and inspired several sequels. A film adaptation directed David Slade and starring Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, and Danny Huston was released in 2007. A direct-to-video sequel followed and two prequel series were produced for the short-lived streaming service FEARnet.

From Hell
From Hell was a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell that speculated on the identity and motives of Jack the Ripper. The story elaborates upon a conspiracy theory that the murders were intended to conceal the existence of an illegitimate royal baby. A film adaptation directed by the Hughes Brothers and starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham was released in 2001. The film version of From Hell was a success but Alan Moore expressed his dissatisfaction with it as he has with other adaptions of his work such as Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Horror Movies of the 2010s

Today’s show kicks off a month-long Halloween theme on Sounds of Cinema. 2019 concludes this decade and one of the extraordinary phenomena in movies these past ten years has been an exceptional crop of horror titles. Horror is presently enjoying a moment in quality and quantity that the genre hasn’t seen since the 1970s and 80s. This program will highlight some of the trends in the genre and some of the outstanding titles of the 2010s. 

The End of Body Horror and Found Footage
The horror films of the early 2010s continued and resolved the themes that had dominated the genre in the previous decade. Horror works in cycles and starting in the mid-2000s the genre had been devoted to extreme body horror and torture movies following the success of Saw and Hostel. This came to an end in 2010 but filmmakers seemingly saved the strangest and most excessive titles for last, chief among them A Serbian Film, which easily ranks among the most disturbing movies ever made. Also released that year were Saw 3-D, The Human Centipede and the remake of I Spit on Your Grave. These films, but especially A Serbian Film, took the torture subgenre to its ultimate conclusion.

The other horror trend that traced back to the previous decade and concluded in the 2010s was found footage. Like body horror, the found footage format is still with us but there was a glut of these films following the blockbuster success of Paranormal Activity. A lot of these movies were awful but a few stood out and used the found footage gimmick effectively such as Paranormal Activity 3, The Sacrament, Creep, The Bay, and Unfriended.

Remakes and New Horror Franchises
Remakes are a staple of Hollywood’s release slate. For better or worse, the horror genre led the way and in the 2000s virtually every major property of the 1970s and 80s was remade. This continued into the 2010s but the remakes of this decade were exceptional or at least innovative. The remakes of Maniac, Child’s Play, Evil Dead, Fright Night, and Suspiria paid homage to the original films while offering new visions and fresh takes.

While some of the old standbys were remade, horror filmmakers of the 2010s also created new franchises. The biggest of these was The Conjuring. Two titular installments have been released so far but The Conjuring created its own cinematic universe through spinoff films like The Curse of La Llorona and the Annabelle series. While the spinoffs weren’t very good they did make money and pointed a new way forward for sequelization. The Conjuring was overseen by James Wan who also supervised the Insidious films, another popular supernatural franchise of the 2010s which featured some of the same actors as The Conjuring. The Purge was also successfully franchised. Starting from a modest debut film, The Purge had success with progressively better sequels and a keen feel for the political zeitgeist. The Purge has now moved to television.

The Influence of John Carpenter
One of the major influences on horror filmmakers of the 2010s was the work of John Carpenter. The filmmaker had been prolific throughout the 1970s and 80s with such varied titles as The Fog, Big Trouble in Little China, and Starman. Carpenter’s last directorial feature was 2010’s The Ward after which he turned to music and released a few albums. However, Carpenter’s filmography influenced many filmmakers of the 2010s. The Purge series echoed Escape From New York and Assault on Precinct 13, The Hateful Eight and It Chapter Two contained obvious homages to The Thing, and It Follows channeled the original Halloween. Carpenter served as a producer on the 2018 Halloween sequel and he co-wrote the music with Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies.

Fan Documentaries
One of the curious outgrowths adjacent to the horror genre throughout the 2010s has been the advent of independent, fan driven documentaries about popular film franchises. These were distinctly different from the studio-produced featurettes usually found on DVDs. The documentaries were feature length examinations that catalogued the behind-the-scenes stories and the legacies of these films. Because they were made outside the studio and usually long after the productions had wrapped, these filmmakers were free to be honest and address the flaws or disappointments of these moves as well as dig into the details that fans obsess over. The two best examples of these documentaries were Never Sleep Again and Crystal Lake Memories which recorded the making of the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th series, respectively. These documentaries were extraordinary not only in their depth but also in their production values, humor, and creative visuals. Also notable were 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene and the Return of the Living Dead documentary More Brains as well as Room 237 about the various interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and the Jaws documentary The Shark is Still Working.

The Quantity and the Quality of 2010s Horror
The horror of the 2010s really took off in about 2013. That year gave us Byzantium, Escape from Tomorrow, The Purge, Stoker, The Last Exorcism, and the remake of The Evil Dead. Throughout the rest of the decade came an incredible run of horror movies including Annihilation, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, The Babadook, Cam, Don’t Breathe, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Green Inferno, Hereditary, It, It Follows, Krampus, Life After Beth, Midsommar, Mother!, The Neon Demon, Only Lovers Left Alive, A Quiet Place, Raw, The Sacrament, Under the Shadow, Us, and The Witch among many others. These movies were varied with some reworking classic horror tropes like vampires and slashers but many others presenting original concepts. And it is in that way that the horror boom of the 2010s was distinct from the horror periods of the 1930s and 40s or the 1970s and 80s. The movies of the 1930s and 40s repurposed folklore and Victorian literature like Frankenstein and Dracula while the movies of the 1970s and 80s like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween centered upon slasher villains. The horror films of the 2010s were primarily about ambitious ideas presented in original scenarios.

This decade’s horror films were also characterized by cleverness and irreverence and a willingness to reinvent or lampoon horror tropes. Consider the zombie films The Girl with All the Gifts and Cooties or the psycho killer tales Creep and The Voices. There were also outright silly movies like What We Do in the Shadows and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil and politically loaded fare like Get Out and The Purge. We also got a lot of anthology films like The ABCs of Death and V/H/S and XX which allowed for experimentation and the horror of the 2010s was an especially fertile genre in which filmmakers were able to be both narratively and technically innovative.  The sum has been an extraordinarily rich period in horror filmmaking the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades.

The New Masters of Horror
Previous high points in the horror genre were driven by filmmakers who the press (and publicists) dubbed “masters of horror” such as John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, Dario Argento, Clive Barker, and George A. Romero. These names have been the standard bearers for the genre for about two generations of horror audiences. In the 2010s many of these filmmakers died or faded away and new horror filmmakers made their mark to become the new “masters of horror.” Among the most successful of these new horror masters was also one of the most unexpected: Jordan Peele. He was best known for comedy but with Get Out and Us Peele refashioned himself into one of the horror genre’s most interesting voices. Peele’s rise was assisted by Blumhouse, a production studio specializing in horror films, and its CEO Jason Blum has become one of the most important figures not only in horror but in American cinema at the moment. James Wan had established himself in the 2000s with Saw but his career really took off in the 2010s as he oversaw both the Conjuring and Insidious franchises. Elijah Wood is best known to audiences as an actor but Wood turned to producing through his production company SpectreVision whose credits included Mandy, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and Open Windows. Other filmmakers to emerge throughout this decade include Ti West, director of The House of the Devil and The Sacrament, John Krasinski of A Quiet Place, the Soska Sisters who co-directed American Mary, and Ari Aster had one of the most impressive directorial debuts of recent years with Hereditary which he followed with Midsommar. Whether these filmmakers are here to stay is yet to be seen but together they have reinvigorated the horror film and made the 2010s one of the most exciting periods in the history of the genre.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Sounds of Cinema October Programming 2019

It’s October and that means it is 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 6: Horror of the 2010s
2019 concludes this decade and one of the extraordinary phenomena in movies these past ten years has been an exceptional crop of horror titles. Horror is presently enjoying a moment in quality and quantity that the genre hasn’t seen since the 1970s. This program will highlight some of the horror films of the 2010s.

October 13: Dark Comic Book Films
With the release of Joker, now is a good time to revisit some of the darker comic book-to-movie adaptations including The Crow and Hellboy and Tales from the Crypt.

October 20: Alien and Manson Family Retrospective
This year is the fortieth anniversary of the release of Alien and the fiftieth anniversary of the Manson Family murders. Half of this episode will look back at the sci-fi horror classic and the other half will examine the way the Manson Family and their crimes were reflected in cinema.

October 27: Family Friendly Frights
Movie-going is an integral part of the Halloween season but for parents it can be difficult finding pictures that they can watch with their children. This episode will include a look at some family-friendly titles for Halloween. Note: 89.7 KMSU FM will air the pledge drive episode on October 27th.

October 31: Halloween Special
The annual Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special will provide the soundtrack for your All Hallows Eve with an hour-long mix of Halloween-related film music. The show will air the evening of Thursday, October 31 at 11pm.

Sounds of Cinema’s regular broadcast 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

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Movies of 1979

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema examined the films of 1979 with special guests Andy and Ben Wardinski. Here is a look at some of the films discussed on the show as well as a few additional titles.

Steven Spielberg's attempt to make a John Landis-style comedy was famously a disaster but 1941 was a turning point in Spielberg's career. For one, it connected Spielberg with Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis who would later write and direct the Spielberg produced Back to the Future. For another, 1941 was the third Spielberg film (following Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) to suffer major cost overruns. After the failure of this film, Spielberg became much more disciplined and followed 1941 with Raiders of the Lost Ark which was completed on time and on budget.

A classic and highly influential movie, Alien was a haunted house movie in space. The film combines the classic monster tropes of sci-fi films like It! The Terror from Beyond Space with the intensity of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film's influence is perhaps best observed in the xenomorph. The alien, from the artwork of H.R. Giger, inspired countless imitations.

Apocalypse Now
Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam War picture was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and tells the story of a soldier sent to assassinate an American colonel who has gone insane deep within the southeast Asian jungle. This was one of the first major Hollywood films about Vietnam and it remains one of the best. Three versions of the movie exist: the 1979 theatrical cut, the 2001 Redux version, and the 2019 Final Cut.

Being There
Peter Sellers gave one of his greatest performances in what would be his penultimate movie. Being There is about a simple minded gardener who inadvertently becomes an Washington DC insider and the movie has a wry, off center sense of humor.

The Concord . . . Airport '79
The last in the Airport thrillers that would later be parodied in 1980's Airplane!, The Concord is a goofy piece of spectacle that's worth viewing when you're in the mood for something campy.

The Jerk 
A classic Steve Martin comedy and one of several collaborations between Martin and filmmaker Carl Reiner. The movie is extremely quotable and consistently hilarious with Martin throwing himself into the role.

Kramer vs. Kramer 
Kramer vs. Kramer is a divorce drama starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep. Not only did it win the Academy Award for Best Picture but Kramer vs. Kramer was also the highest grossing picture of 1979. That's impossible to imagine happening today.

Monty Python's Life of Brian
The second feature film from British comedy troupe Monty Python was set in ancient Judea during the time of Christ. A common Jewish citizen is mistaken for the messiah. Life of Brian is the best Monty Python film and it has something to say about religion and faith while having a laugh. Although it received some push back at the time, Life of Brian has been embraced by religious and non-religious viewers alike which is a testament to the film's intelligence, humor, and goodheartedness.

James Bond in space. This film has become something of a punchline in 007 canon but it is a fun 70s action adventure.

The Muppet Movie
The first Muppet feature film assembles the original talents including Jim Henson and Frank Oz and it has a wacky and chaotic sense of humor that distinguished the 1970s Muppets from the contemporary films.

Norma Rae 
Sally Field starred in this true story of a textile worker who faced considerable odds in the effort to unionize her workplace. Field won an Academy Award for her performance.

Werner Herzog's remake of the classic silent film was a fascinatingly cerebral take on the vampire story. It's an existential vampire film that is unique in the genre.

Rocky II
One of the prime examples of the-same-but-different approach to Hollywood sequel making, Rocky II repeats a lot of the original movie. The plotting is somewhat strained and a few of the call backs to the first movie are forced but Rocky II benefits from a larger budget and the rematch between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed is terrific boxing action.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture
The first installment of the Star Trek film series earns its subtitle. As Andy commented on the show, Star Trek: The Motion Picture has the scope and grandeur that none of the other Star Trek films ever quite captured. The movie also has one of Jerry Goldsmith's best scores. There are two versions of Star Trek: The Motion Picture: the original theatrical cut and the "Director's Edition." Unfortunately, only the theatrical cut is currently available in high definition. 

The Warriors
The Warriors started as a serious and straightforward novel by Sol Yurick and it was turned into a fun, goofy, and high energy urban action movie by filmmaker Walter Hill. The director gave The Warriors a makeover in 2005, adding comic book touches like those in Sin City, and this is now the only version available.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Movies of 1979 on Sounds of Cinema

On Sunday, September 22, 2019, regular host Nathan Wardinski will be joined by his brothers, Andy and Ben, in a discussion of movies from 1979. This special retrospective episode will take a look at movies like Alien, Rocky II, Moonraker, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and more.

Sounds of Cinema airs Sunday morning at 9am on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, Minnesota and at 11am on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, Minnesota. The show can be heard over the air, online at each station's website, and on your mobile device using the TuneIn app.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Summer 2019 in Review

Labor Day concludes the summer season so before we transition into fall and winter, here’s a look back at the movies released from May through August. The summer is traditionally the time of year for populist entertainment and while Hollywood provided that it was an unusual season in a number of ways.

Disney’s Dominance
Disney’s tentpole releases dominated the summer box office to the exclusion of almost anything else. The top five grossing movies of the summer were all Disney-owned releases: Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Toy Story 4, Spider-Man: Far from Home, and Aladdin. The studio has done well for itself, setting a new box office record with over $7.6 billion earned so far this year and with more to come with the anticipated releases of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. But these films were plagued with a feeling déjà vu and most of Disney’s summer blockbusters were just average in their quality. The Spider-Man sequel was good but nothing we haven’t seen before while The Lion King and Aladdin were exactly what we’d seen before. Even Toy Story 4, which was quite good, had trouble justifying its existence. As David Erhlich said of The Lion King, Disney’s output in summer 2019 was “a well-rendered but creatively bankrupt self-portrait of a movie studio eating its own tail.”

The Shrinking Theatrical Market
Disney’s success appeared to come at the expense of nearly everyone else. The entertainment press regularly turned out pearl clutching analysis pieces that juxtaposed Disney’s market share largess against the failure of other studio franchise releases like Dark Phoenix, MiB: International, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. It’s worth noting that most of these movies just weren’t very good. The dominance of a single studio can and should worry anyone who cares about cinema and the long term health of the industry. But we also have to acknowledge that Disney’s success was at least assisted by the fact that their competition was pathetic.

More concerning was the box office underperformance of smaller movies. Many good midlevel budgeted movies ($40 - $70 million production budgets) just didn’t attract an audience. Booksmart suffered from a bad marketing scheme and a lousy release date. Long Shot was a good and smart movie with a bland title and its political themes might have been of little interest to an audience that is inundated with politics in every other medium. The remake of Child’s Play was released around the same time as Annabelle Comes Home and it might have been one killer doll too many. We can speculate why Late Night and Dora and the Lost City of Gold and Midsommar and The Angry Birds Movie 2 failed but whatever the cause, this trend points to an audience that is only interested in attending the theater for the biggest releases of familiar titles and brands. The theatrical marketplace cannot survive on tentpoles alone.

Musical Films
2019 has seen the release of a lot of musical movies and several titles debuted this summer. A few of these were documentaries including the Aretha Franklin concert film Amazing Grace. Also released this summer were Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, about the relationship between Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen, and Pavarotti, Ron Howard’s documentary about the legendary opera singer. Summer 2019 also featured several musical dramas. Rocketman was an impressive biopic of Elton John. Yesterday was high concept piece that paid tribute to the music of The Beatles while Born to Run dramatized the true story of a Pakistani immigrant living in the UK who was inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen.

An Impressive August
In a typical summer, Hollywood studios release their flagship titles in May through July, with the Memorial Day and Independence Day holidays being the peak periods. August has traditionally been designated as a dumping ground for low quality titles that studios don’t have faith in and the Labor Day holiday is typically a low turnout weekend. Summer 2019 played out a little differently. Several high profile May through July releases were underwhelming while August saw the release of Good Boys, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Blinded by the Light, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, The Peanut Butter Falcon, and Ready or Not and even Angel Has Fallen was better than expected. Not all of these films drew crowds but this was a better quality August crop than we usually get at the end of the summer.

Highlights of the Summer
Here are a few of the better movies released this summer:

The Art of Self Defense: An offbeat and terrifically crafted black comedy that both tapped into this particular moment but also transcended it with a story that is worthy of comparison to Fight Club and American Psycho.

Blinded By the Light: A surprisingly layered and complex jukebox musical that was a lot of fun. Blinded By the Light was a tribute to the music of Bruce Springsteen with a genuine appreciation for what The Boss had to say but it transcended mere fandom.

Booksmart: Every generation gets at least one last-crazy-night-in-high-school movie and Booksmart reimagined that story for the 2019 audience and populated it with likable and interesting characters.

Child’s Play: The remake of the 1980s slasher classic was much better than expected. It revisited the material and provided a fresh take while remaining germane to the original idea.

Crawl: This killer alligator movie was one of 2019’s most satisfying popcorn entertainments and one of Alexandre Aja’s most accessible films.

The Farewell: A nearly perfect movie. The filmmaking, the performances, and the storytelling coalesce in an extraordinarily satisfying story.

Good Boys: One of the best comedies of recent years and certainly the best comedy of summer 2019.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum: The John Wick series keeps topping itself and the third installment was an extraordinary action picture.

Long Shot: This movie got missed in its theatrical release but Long Shot was rare bird: a politically adept romantic comedy.

Midsommar: Continuing the present wave of impressive horror pictures, Midsommar might be too cerebral for the Conjuring crowd but it was a smart and expertly made film. A director’s cut was given a limited release at the end of the summer.

Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood: Quentin Tarantino’s ninth movie was his most self-indulgent (and that is really saying something) but it was a fun nostalgia trip to a bygone era.

The Peanut Butter Falcon: The feel-good movie of the summer, The Peanut Butter Falcon was a really likable film with notable performances by Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf.

Ready or Not: A shrewd mix of horror and comedy, Ready or Not was smart and well produced and had a wicked sense of humor.

Rocketman: This dramatization of the life and music of Elton John had extraordinary set pieces and a terrific cast including Taron Egerton in the lead role.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Movies of 1999

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema took a look back at the movies of 1999. That was a transformative year in American cinema with old directors fading away and new talents making their mark and many films were experimental, original, and exciting. Rather than examining a handful of titles, this show looked at some of the trends in cinema from that year. You can find the full commentary from the show here.

 Here is run down of some of the exceptional films from 1999. Keep in mind, all of these films were released in a single year.

American Pie - A group of teenage boys plot to lose their virginity on prom night. The picture was extraordinarily crude for its day but the picture was also very funny. American Pie echoed 1980s sex comedies like The Last American Virgin but it was better hearted than those films.

Angela's Ashes - Alan Parker directed a well-received adaptation of Frank McCourt’s memoir. It retained McCourt's humor and soulfulness and had a vivid feel for its time and place.

Any Given Sunday - Oliver Stone released the 1999 football drama Any Given Sunday and the movie concluded a prolific decade for the filmmaker.

Being John Malkovich - Directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman, Being John Malkovich had a wacky conceit: a puppeteer discovers a portal that puts travelers into the mind of actor John Malkovich.

The Blair Witch Project did not invent the found footage genre but the film did it very well and popularized the format and inspired a whole niche of imitators.

Bowfinger - This show business satire starring Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy was a very funny take on Hollywood with an independent filmmaker getting his movie made by any means necessary.

But I’m a Cheerleader was a satire in which a high school studen is sent to gay conversion therapy.

Boys Don’t Cry - Based on a real life incident, Hilary Swank plays a transgender man who navigates life in rural Nebraska. Director Kimberly Peirce should have had a bigger career following this film's success.

Cruel Intentions - Based on Choderlos de Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons, the film was a frankly sexual story of seduction and manipulation at a private prep school. Its satirical qualities are obvious now but they weren’t necessarily so evident to viewers of 1999.

Dick lampooned the Watergate scandal with the story of two dimwitted young women (Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams) who are hired to be Richard Nixon’s dog walkers and they eventually expose the thirty-seventh President’s misdeeds and lead to his resignation.

Dogma - The Catholic League organized a campaign against Dogma but this film was no mere act of provocation. Kevin Smith’s work is so well loved because he mixes humor with sincerity and Dogma was genuinely interested in matters of faith and theology.

Drop Dead Gorgeous was a pseudo-documentary about a Midwest beauty pageant gone awry. Drop Dead Gorgeous was not well received at the time but it has developed a cult following.

EdTV - Reality television was just getting started in 1999 and EdTV was ahead of the curve with its story of an everyman who is followed twenty-four hours a day by a camera crew.

eXistenZ - David Cronenberg has long been fascinated by the intersection of technology and the human body and the director’s 1999 film was about characters stuck in a virtual reality program. eXistenZ was well reviewed but it was released less than a month after The Matrix and got lost.

Election - Adapted from Tom Perrotta’s novel, Election was whip smart and wickedly funny but it also had the unusual feature of shifting points of view which allowed it a level of nuance that satires rarely achieve.

Fight Club - A seminal film of a generation, Fight Club was exciting and subversive and brutal and funny. The movie has gained popularity since 1999 for both the right and the wrong reasons, with some of its biggest fans completely misunderstanding the film's message.

Galaxy Quest - This sci-fi satire starred Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and Alan Rickman and has developed a cult following worthy of the films and television shows that inspired it.

The Green Mile - Frank Darabont followed up The Shawshank Redemption with this underappreciated Stephen King adaptation.

The Hurricane - Norman Jewison helmed The Hurricane which was the final high note in a directorial career that included In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof, and Moonstruck.

The Insider -Michael Mann made one his best films in 1999 with this true story of a whistle blower who exposes big tobacco.

Magnolia - Paul Thomas Anderson's follow up to Boogie Nights was an ensemble piece that wove together the stories of various characters living in Los Angeles. This film makes especially effective use of Tom Cruise's talents.

Man on the Moon - Milos Forman helmed the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon starring Jim Carrey. The movie was a financial disappointment but time has been kind to Man on the Moon. It’s an intelligent and playful movie and Carrey’s performance is a career high.

The Matrix - One of the sleeper hits of 1999, The Matrix’s fast-paced filmmaking, counter cultural ideas, and hip style pointed to the future, at least in the short term.

Office Space - Originally a box office failure in 1999, Office Space became a popular title due to its repeated showings on Comedy Central in the 2000s. It is also a highl quotable comedy from Mike Judge and it foreshadowed his HBO series Silicon Valley.

Ravenous balanced horror with black comedy in a story of cannibalism on the American frontier.

The Sixth Sense - M. Night Shyamalan was dubbed "The Next Spielberg" by Newsweek magazine following the release of this film. Things didn't quite work out that way but The Sixth Sense remains an impressive piece of work.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut was as smart was it was lewd. American culture of the 1990s was preoccupied with the impact of media on children and South Park contorted that moral panic into a violent and vulgar and hysterical farce.

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace - The biggest box office hit of 1999 came across creaky and anachronistic but two decades on the first Star Wars prequel has an undeniable legacy evidenced by the remake of The Lion King and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Three Kings - David O. Russell's war film took place during the first Gulf War as a group of American soliders find a stash of gold.

Titus - This adaptation of Titus Andronicus was one of the most bizarre Shakespeare adaptations ever. The movie is severely stylized with outrageous costumes, unusual cinematography and production design, a soundtrack that includes different genres of music, and a wild performance by Anthony Hopkins.

Varsity Blues - This R-rated story of high school football players coping with the pressures of their Texas community punched a hole in the mythology of high school football glory. It makes an interesting double feature with The Virgin Suicides.

The Virgin Suicides - Sofia Coppola’s directorial debut was an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides novel was a quietly distressing story of sexual repression.

Monday, August 5, 2019

1999 Retrospective on Sounds of Cinema

The episode airing Sunday, August 11, 2019 will break from Sounds of Cinema's usual format for a special retrospective of movies from the year 1999. That was a transformative year in American cinema with old directors fading away and new talents making their mark and many films were experimental, original, and exciting. Rather than examining a handful of movies, this episode will look at some of the trends of 1999 and feature a cross section of film music from that year.

Sounds of Cinema airs Sundays at 9am on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, Minnesota and at 11am on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, Minnesota. The show can be heard over the air, online at each station's website, and live streaming with the Tune In app.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Controversial Films 2019

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.

The Man With the Golden Arm (1955)
Dir. Otto Preminger

The Man with the Golden Arm was adapted from Nelson Algren’s 1949 novel which was the first winner of the National Book Award. The film version tells the story of a drug addicted backroom card game dealer who is released from prison and relapses into drug abuse. At the time The Man with the Golden Arm was produced, all Hollywood studio films were required to adhere to Motion Picture Association of America’s repressive Production Code which explicitly forbade depictions of drug abuse. Films that did not achieve a seal of approval from the Production Code Administration did not play in theaters and filmmakers sought the administration’s approval through all stages of production. Producer Bob Roberts first attempted to adapt The Man with the Golden Arm in the early 1950s but the filmmaker was unable to come up with a script that satisfied the censors. According to the AFI, Production Code Administration director Joseph Breen said that the story was “unacceptable under the provisions of the Production Code” and Roberts was warned that a film version of The Man with the Golden Arm would be condemned by the Legion of Decency, the U.S. Treasury Department, and the Bureau of Narcotics as well as “state and municipal censor boards.” Roberts’ version never went forward.

Filmmaker Otto Preminger got the rights to The Man with the Golden Arm and began working on adapting it for United Artists with Frank Sinatra cast in the lead role. Preminger had recently achieved success with The Moon is Blue and Carmen Jones. Those films had their own fights with the PCA and Preminger knew how to use controversy to his advantage. Preminger wanted to use The Man with the Golden Arm to address drug addiction, which had never before been the subject of a major Hollywood picture. His film somewhat softened the material from Algren’s novel so the story was not quite as hopeless but it was still far more blunt than any other film at the time. The narcotic in Preminger’s movie is never named. In the book it’s morphine but in the film the drug appears to be heroin.

Leadership at the PCA office had since changed and it was now lead by Geoffrey Shurlock. The new PCA director was bound to enforce the code as written but, according to Jerold Simmons, Shurlock felt the Code’s absolute ban of the depiction of narcotics was outdated and unrealistic and he was interested in helping Otto Preminger get The Man with the Golden Arm produced as a way of amending the Code. The film went into production without a PCA approved script but with the expectation that Shurlock would help reform the Code when The Man with the Golden Arm came up for consideration. However, Harry Anslinger, the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, publically expressed his opposition to The Man with the Golden Arm and especially the Hollywood ending that made the story more hopeful. When the film came before the PCA, the board of directors of the MPAA slammed United Artists for the studio’s perceived undermining of the Code and denied The Man with the Golden Arm a seal of approval.

United Artists stood by Otto Preminger’s film and released it without the PCA seal for which the MPAA fined United Artists $25,000. The studio resigned from the MPAA although United Artists would rejoin the organization a few years later. The Legion of Decency awarded The Man with the Golden Arm a “B” rating which meant that the film was “morally objectionable in part for all” but this was the first time that the Legion did not give a “condemned” rating to a film not passed by the PCA. That break between the PCA and the Legion was a significant blow to the stature of the Code and theaters that might have otherwise passed on a non-PCA approved title booked the movie. This further diluted the authority of the Code. Local censors in Maryland, Georgia, and Wisconsin threatened to censor the film but the uncut version of The Man with the Golden Arm played everywhere except Spain where it was banned. The film did impressive business at the box office probably due in no small part to the publicity over the controversy.

As a post-script, after the critical and box office success of The Man with the Golden Arm the PCA amended the Code to allow for depictions of drug use. The movie was resubmitted for approval in 1961 so that it could play for television broadcast. The movie passed without any cuts.

The Brown Bunny (2003)
Dir. Vincent Gallo

The Brown Bunny is an arthouse film written and directed by Vincent Gallo. The story is a road trip narrative about a motorcyclist, played by Gallo, who travels across the country and reminisces about his relationship with a former girlfriend, played by Chloe Sevigny. The movie was infamous for a scene in which Sevigny’s character performs an unstimulated sex act. When the movie was released, a promotional billboard depicting the sex scene was posted on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. Some locals complained about the advert but Gallo defended the imagery, saying that it was no more provocative than the Calvin Klein and Gucci ads that frequented billboards in the same area. The billboard was removed after just a few days despite the ad space being purchased for a month.

An early cut of The Brown Bunny, running 119 minutes, premiered at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. The movie had a disastrous reception. The Cannes audience, which is known for being vocal during screenings, booed and jeered the film or simply walked out. Critics assembled by Screen International gave The Brown Bunny the lowest rating in the history of their annual voting. One of The Brown Bunny’s most vocal critics was Roger Ebert who proclaimed it to be “the worst film in the history of the festival.”  Gallo responded by calling Ebert a "fat pig with the physique of a slave trader” to which Ebert said, "Someday I will be thin, but Vincent Gallo will always be the director of The Brown Bunny." However, between the Cannes screening and the film’s official release, Gallo re-edited the film and removed twenty-six minutes of footage (although the sex scene remained.). Ebert reviewed the ninety-three minute cut and awarded it three stars saying that Gallo had “transformed” The Brown Bunny and that the “film's form and purpose now emerge from the miasma of the original cut.” Fifteen years after the Cannes screening, Gallo made it known that he still hadn’t let go of Ebert’s original criticism of The Brown Bunny, insisting that Ebert had sabotaged the movie’s reputation.

American History X (1999)
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 because of Directors Guild rules. 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. 

American History X has had a strange afterlife that puts Tony Kaye’s fight for the movie in a new light. The story is unequivocally anti-racist. However, some white supremacists read the film as actually endorsing their beliefs. Film critic Lindsay Ellis made this point, noting how the imagery of American History X, and especially of Edward Norton’s character, contravenes the message of the narrative. The dramatic black and white images (which strangely echo the fascist aesthetic of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia) make Norton’s character look powerful and even heroic. Among those making that point is Kaye himself, who told The Hollywood Reporter, “the way the movie was edited . . . lionized a neo-Nazi. It's saying: 'You can do this heinous stuff, show a movie star's smile and it's all OK.'” Kaye says he is still petitioning to create a director’s cut of American History X.

Dogma (1999)
Dir. Kevin Smith

Filmmaker Kevin Smith’s body of work is distinguished by its combination of glib and foul mouthed humor combined with sincerity. Movies like Clerks and Chasing Amy and Zack and Miri Make a Porno are full of colorful characters who are generally quite likable but whose stories deal with authentic human experiences like love, middle aged discontent, and parenthood. Smith’s 1999 movie Dogma applied the filmmaker’s style to faith and in particular Catholicism. Smith came from a Catholic background and he channeled his experiences and feelings about religion into the film.

Dogma was the story of two angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) who had been deposed from heaven centuries ago but discover a loophole in Catholic theology that will allow them to return. If they accomplish this, the angels will subvert God’s will and inadvertently undo all existence. A counselor at an abortion clinic (Linda Fiorentino) is recruited to stop them and along the way she encounters supernatural characters who make this disillusioned Catholic reconsider her own complex feelings about faith.

Religious-themed movies are actually quite popular with a certain movie going crowd but only if the film fits within certain parameters. Dogma did not fit in that box. It was earnest about matters of faith but Dogma was also irreverent toward religious authority and had plenty of silly, vulgar, and scatological humor. A copy of the script was acquired by the Catholic League, a lay organization (not affiliated with the Catholic Church) that purports to defend the Catholics from bigotry. The Catholic League launched a campaign against Dogma, publishing a booklet about the movie that was circulated to dioceses across America. The protest against Dogma gained traction and Kevin Smith was inundated with 300,000 pieces of hate mail and death threats and he was escorted by body guards to the film’s screening at the Cannes Film Festival. Smith expressed exasperation with the controversy as no one protesting the film had actually seen it. 

Dogma was produced by Miramax, which at that time was owned by Disney. The Catholic League took particular aim at Disney whose executives were uncomfortable being associated with the film and its tenor. The decision was made to sell Dogma’s distribution rights to Lionsgate, which at the time was an up-and-coming studio. According to Kevin Smith, the Catholic League lost interest in Dogma once Disney was unassociated with the film. Dogma was still released and protesters did show up at theaters. One demonstration was held in Eatontown, New Jersey at Kevin Smith’s local cinema. Smith decided to crash the protest and picketed the movie alongside local Catholic demonstrators. 1500 protesters were anticipated but the total headcount was estimated at about fifteen. 

Ms. 45(1981)
Dir. Abel Ferrera

In the 1970s and 80s a whole subgenre of rape-revenge movies emerged including titles such as House on the Edge of the Park, Death Wish, and I Spit on Your Grave. The reasons for the influx of these films at that particular time are complicated and a matter of debate. Cinema of the 1970s had been liberated from the restrictions of the Production Code and filmmakers reveled in the new freedoms, exploring the limits of sexuality and violence on screen. This occurred against a background of liberalized attitudes toward sexuality, second wave feminism that had raised awareness of violence against women, and rising crime rates in America’s major cities. However, the rape-revenge genre was generally ill-received. Many of these films were regard to be in bad taste while others were accused of exploiting imagery of women being brutalized. And in some cases, such as the Death Wish sequels, those criticisms were valid.

Ms. 45 is the story of a mute young woman who is sexually assaulted twice in the same day. She gets herself a handgun and begins shooting would-be attackers. But as her vigilante activities continue, this woman’s grip on sanity continues to slip and she becomes less and less discerning as to whether the men in her sights intended any harm. Directed by New York filmmaker Abel Ferrera with significant contributions by lead actress Zoë Tamerlis, Ms. 45 was more complex than the average rape-revenge flick. The movie was made with style and intelligence and Ms. 45 combined brutal intensity with a nuanced understanding of violence and trauma.  The sexual assaults of the movie are part of a larger web of harassment and misogyny that lead this woman to vigilantism and eventually madness. 

Like many rape-revenge films from the late 1970s and early 80s, Ms. 45 ran into trouble with the censors. The film was banned in Finland, Norway, Sweden, and New Zealand and it fell afoul of the video nasties panic in the United Kingdom. Various distributors in different territories recut the film to appease local censors and it wasn’t until 2013 that a definitive cut of Ms. 45 was widely available.  In recent years Ms. 45 has enjoyed a critical reappraisal. It’s now regarded as a feminist piece, one that is worth rediscovering in the #metoo era. 

Crash (1996)
Dir. David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg’s 1996 film Crash (not to be confused with Paul Haggis’ 2004 film of the same name) was adapted from J.G. Ballard’s book. The story follows several people in a fictional subculture where automobile collisions are a source of sexual arousal. The intent of the movie was to dramatize the link between desire and risk as well as technology’s place in human sexuality. Crash is unusual and uncomfortable to view, particularly for the way in which it combines violence with sexuality. However, the violence was confined to auto collisions. As the British Board of Film Classification observed, the “sexual content of the film was unremarkable in classification terms and the violence was no stronger than could be found in many other features (comprising car crashes rather than one-on-one personal violence).”

When Crash premiered at the Cannes Film Festival it divided audiences. Roger Ebert gave the film a three-and-a-half star review and Martin Scorsese named Crash one of the ten best movies of the 1990s whereas Nigel Reynolds called it “morally vacuous, nasty, violent and little more than an excuse to string together one scene after another of sexual intercourse.” British newspapers the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard launched a campaign against Crash when it opened in UK theaters, demanding that the film be banned. BBFC examiners determined that the movie did not violate the UK’s obscenity laws and Crash was released uncut to UK theaters with an18 certificate. According to the BBFC, this outraged the Daily Mail and Evening Standard who resorted to “publishing the photographs and personal details of the BBFC's examiners and ridiculing them as unrepresentative 'liberals' who had refused to ban an offensive and dangerous film.”

Crash nearly didn’t make it into US theaters at all. The movie was distributed by Fine Line Features which was owned by Ted Turner. According to Wired, Turner “was so personally disturbed by Crash that he tried to have it blocked” from playing in US theaters and “Turner only backed down ‘when a reporter called him on it’ during a public appearance.” In response, Crash actress Holly Hunter said “I think it's a very chilling arena for Ted Turner to be entering when he's speculating about what could be morally reprehensible for the American public." Crash did ultimately play in US theaters but most American moviegoers were unable to it. The theatrical version was rated NC-17 by the Motion Picture Association of America and most major theater chains will not book NC-17 movies. In its widest release, Crash played in just 339 theaters nationwide and it was a box office failure. Blockbuster Video, which had nearly a monopoly on the home video market in the late 1990s, refused to stock NC-17 films and David Cronenberg was contractually obligated to create an R-rated cut for the rental chain. This version was about ten minutes shorter than the NC-17 cut.

Years later, Paul Haggis wrote and directed an unrelated movie with the title Crash. That film was a major mainstream success and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. David Cronenberg was upset with the title of Haggis’ film and said so publicly, claiming that Haggis was disrespectful not only to the filmmaker but also to novelist J.G. Ballard and his book.

Song of the South (1946)
Dir. Harve Foster and Wilfred Jackson

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

Song of the South was considered offensive for its white-washing of the Jim Crow era and for its racial stereotypes. At the time of its release in 1946, the NAACP spoke out against Song of the South and protests were staged outside theaters showing the film. Disney did itself no favors when it held the premiere of Song of South in Atlanta which was segregated at the time and the film’s African American stars could not attend. With each rerelease, Song of the South became increasingly anachronistic and after a brief theatrical run in 1986 Disney announced that it had retired the picture and had no plans to rerelease it in theaters or on home video.

However, Song of the South is a technically and historically significant piece of filmmaking. It mixes live action with hand-drawn animation almost two decades before Mary Poppins and the film won a pair of Oscars including Best Original Song for “Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah,” which is now the theme song to the Splash Mountain ride at Disneyland. Furthermore, Song of the South is a cultural artifact. Its racist caricatures were unfortunate but not unusual in Disney films or in American entertainment as a whole and erasing that record creates cultural amnesia without actually addressing the sources and repercussions of those images. As Aramide A. Tinubu points out, “by refusing to address its own racist legacy (which extended well beyond the 1940s), Disney is only adding to the problem.”

Disney’s decision to withhold Song of the South remains in force and the company has doubled down on its efforts to clean up its history. The House of Mouse made clear that Song of the South will not appear on the Disney+ streaming service but also announced that the minstrel crows would be cut from the streaming version of 1941’s Dumbo and the casting couch joke from Toy Story 2 was removed from the most recent disc release.

Halloween II (1981)
Dir. Rick Rosenthal

In the early 1980s the horror genre was overtaken by the slasher film – stories of teenagers who are picked off by masked killers armed with edged weapons. These films were tremendously popular with audiences and were immensely profitable for Hollywood studios but slasher films also drew condemnation from media watchdog groups and film critics. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert used their syndicated television program to launch a campaign against Friday the 13th and parental groups successfully lobbied Tri-Star Pictures to pull Silent Night, Deadly Night from theaters. These detractors were given renewed ammunition by murders committed in 1982 by Richard Delmer Boyer in Fullerton, California. In the trial, Boyer claimed that he suffered from hallucinations brought on by viewing 1981’s Halloween II, which he had watched while under the influence of various substances. The film was an exhibit at the trial. Halloween II was screened for the jury and a psychiatrist compared scenes in the movie with Boyer's recollection of the killings. Boyer was found guilty and sentenced to death while the incident became known as the “Halloween II Murders.”

Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Dir. Sergei Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein was one of the most important filmmakers in the history of Russian cinema. 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. Eisenstein made a name for himself with 1925’s Battleship Potemkin. The movie dramatized the 1905 mutiny aboard a Russian warship which was one of the early events leading to the Russian Revolution that overthrew the Tsars and instated Communism.

This film didn’t simply come about out of Eisenstein’s sense of patriotism or personal politics. Battleship Potemkin was commissioned by the Soviet Union’s Central Committee to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the revolution and it was originally intended to be a sprawling project that covered the breadth of the revolution as it was experienced by various characters across Russia. When that proved impossible to achieve in the time allotted, Eisenstein focused on the events aboard the Potemkin and crafted a story that sits alongside Triumph of the Will and Why We Fight among the most effective pieces of political propaganda. But unlike Leni Riefenshal and Frank Capra’s documentaries, Battleship Potemkin was a drama and the movie succeeded in using the elements of cinematic storytelling to provoke viewers’ emotions and lead audiences toward the desired ideological conclusion.

The history Battleship Potemkin has been distinguished by censors trying to dampen the movie’s impact or ban it outright. The Russian film industry of the 1920s was ill equipped to distribute the film internationally and so Battleship Potemkin was sold to the German film company Prometheus. The sale included the rights to edit the film which was necessary to get Battleship Potemkin exhibited at all. According to Bruce Bennett, German military and law enforcement authorities were afraid Battleship Potemkin might encourage the spread of communism and wanted the movie banned. It did eventually screen in Germany but with significant edits. The censored Prometheus cut became the basis for the versions distributed throughout the world which were then further edited by other censors. French police burned copies of Battleship Potemkin and the movie was banned at various times in Finland, Italy, Sweden, and Portugal. The United Kingdom banned Battleship Potemkin until after the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and according to Tom Mathews the movie was banned in Pennsylvania for allegedly “[giving] American sailors a blueprint as to how to conduct a mutiny.”

After World War II, Battleship Potemkin was re-edited by Russian filmmakers working from the Prometheus cut. The intention was to create the definitive version but the resulting cut included significant omissions and changes to the intertitles and frame rate. This version was the least faithful edit of Battleship Potemkin but it was also the most widely circulated edition. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, film scholars searched the world’s film collections for missing material and in 2005, eighty years after its Russian premiere, Battleship Potemkin was finally screened as originally intended by Eisenstein.

The original score for Battleship Potemkin was composed by Edmund Meisel. However, this score was largely abandoned in subsequent edits and replaced with selections from the work of composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Meisel’s score was re-recorded for the 2005 restoration. However, Eisenstein allegedly wanted the score for Battleship Potemkin to be rewritten every twenty years to keep the film relevant to contemporary audiences and musicians have composed their own musical accompaniments. This includes a 2004 score by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys, a 2007 soundtrack by Del Rey & The Sun Kings with the Dresden Symphonic Orchestra, and a 2011 score by Michael Nyman.

The most famous scene in Battleship Potemkin is the “Odessa Steps” sequence in which Tsarist troops massacre a crowd of citizens celebrating the Potemkin mutiny. The Odessa Steps scene has been imitated and parodied in movies as diverse as The Godfather, Bananas, Brazil, and The Naked Gun 33⅓.

  • Bennett, Bruce. “A Revolution on Screen.” Liner notes to the Kino International Blu-ray release of Battleship Potemkin.
  • Barker, Martin, Jane Arthurs and Ramaswami Herindranath. “The Crash Controversy: Reviewing the Press.” The Cult Film Reader. Ed. Ernest Mathijs & Xavier Mendik. New York: Open University Press, 2008. Pages 456 – 74.
  • Evening With Kevin Smith, An. DVD. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2002.
  • Mathews, Tom. Censored: The Story of Film Censorship in Britain. Chatto & Windus: 2002.
  • Most Controversial Films of All Time by Tim Dirks at AMC Filmsite 
  • Simmons, Jerold. “Challenging the Production Code: The Man with the Golden Arm.” Journal of Popular Film and Television. 2005: Volume 33, Issue 1. Pages 39 – 48.