Spielberg By Numbers – The Sugarland Express

I’ve wanted to do some sort of tribute to my favorite director for a while, so I figured why not! It’s a chance to marathon all of Steven Spielberg’s works in chronological order. I do have a few of these “By Numbers” series going, and don’t worry, they will continue. Once Coco comes out, I’ll do Cars 3 and that film together in the next “Pixar By Numbers.” And Spiderman: Homecoming will be the next “Marvel By Numbers” entry once I get around to seeing it when it comes out on blu-ray.

But moving on!

So, why Spielberg, you ask? Because his career has spanned fifty years and he’s still generating buzz. He’s constantly trying new things, leaping between genres in ways that few others directors would dare. He’s perpetually relevant, and even those films that were huge disappointments when they first aired have found a steady fanbase in later years. He’s optimistic, but isn’t going to pretend that the world isn’t cruel and horrifying sometimes.

I’m going to watch each film in chronological order, staring with The Sugarland Express and ending…well, for now, I’ll end at The BFG, but there’s two more upcoming. I won’t be reviewing his short films (sorry Amblin’, you’re awesome, though! This also means Spielberg’s entry for Twilight Zone: The Movie won’t be included) or his TV films (though you should check out Duel if you can find it because it’s really good).

The five categories I’ve chosen are Writing, Acting, Visual Style, Music (which will basically end up being a review of most of John Williams’ catalogue), and Genre. Each will be graded out of 10.

Let’s get this started with his first theatrical film!

The Sugarland Express (1974)

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Plot: (based on a true story) A husband and wife hijack a police car in a desperate attempt to get their song back from his foster home, leading the Texas police on a long winding chase that becomes a media sensation in which crowds of people gather to see them.

Seen it before?: No, sadly. But I really enjoyed it!

Writing (8): For as wacky as the situation escalated to be, I felt like the dialogue was really natural. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the in-car dialogue was improvised. It moved with a sort of chaotic randomness that I really liked. Also, I LOVED the old couple whose car gets stolen in the beginning. The line, “Aw, shit, our car’s stole” killed me. And then later when we see them standing by the side of the road and she’s angrily grumbling at her husband. It’s just perfect.

The plot in general moved at a nice pace with only a few draggy sections. To be honest, I think some sections could have been cut or shortened, and there were some transitions between sections that were confusing. But the overall arc was really satisfying. This script won the award for Best Screenplay  at Cannes, so that’s something.

Acting (7): Goldie Hawn’s character was incredibly realized and layered. She’s naive, emotional, and smart at some times and not at others. She’s completely convincing as a desperate mother who doesn’t understand anything except how much she wants her child back while being clueless at how unfit a mother she would be at that stage in her life. She gets a perfect ten from me.

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I also really liked Michael Sacks’ Patrolman Maxwell Slide, the young police officer who ends up becoming a sort of ally to the Poplins by the end. He starts out a bit flat but finds a greater depth as the story progresses.

And kudos to Ben Johnson as Captain Tanner who wants to get through this without anyone being killed. His decision to go back on his word is played with a lot of subtlety.

Visual Style (7): This film captures the chaos of the chase, but at times, it gets too chaotic. There are many moments, especially when police cars begin getting destroyed by the dozens in every other scene, where you’re not sure which car you’re supposed to be watching. With that said, the scenes of hundreds upon hundreds of police cars pointlessly joining the chase do a great job of showing how ridiculous the situation becomes. I also like the final shot of Slide silhouetted against the Rio Grande as Tanner finally removes his handcuffs.

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Music (5): This was the first collaboration between John Williams and Spielberg, which is amazing. The main theme itself is OK, but it’s pretty spare and doesn’t linger with you much. The best musical moments involved characters singing in the car.

Genre (8): Dramedy is hard to do. In many cases, audiences will have a hard time “getting” what the director or writer intended because they went in expecting one thing. I wasn’t expecting it to be as funny as it was, which was a pleasant delight, but the shifts in tone from the lighthearted fantasy that these people could actually succeed to the sad reality that things are NOT going to turn out well works really well. There are scenes where nothing particularly meaningful happens, except you’re on the edge of your seat because you’re just waiting for a police sniper to take them out when they’re not expecting it. I also like the audience’s growing unease when they realize that of course they’ll never get their son back, and they’re never going to have a happy life together. There’s a moment near the end where Jean is deliriously happy and you’re happy for her…until you realize that this can’t last. It’s really effective.

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Overall Thoughts: I really enjoyed this one. Great mix of funny and tragic and a fabulous performance from Goldie Hawn.

Total Score: 35/50

Next week, we’re going to be looking at Jaws! See you then!

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Cinema – Episode 11: On Prequels and Reboots

Welcome back!

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Take a seat, why dontcha!

On Prequels and Reboots: 2000-2010

FADE IN:

INT. DAY. AN ATTIC.

Your HOST is going through stacks of old books desperately looking for new material while his friends talk about how they really wish there would be another Spiderman origin story.

~~~

This was not a great decade for the industry. There were some huge successes, but overall, a failing economy in America (and in the global sphere) led to audiences refusing to go to the movies, unless it was something they knew they’d like. Throw in the horrible tragedy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the war that followed, and you have people turning to superheroes and familiar action heroes the way Depression-Era viewers flocked to frilly escapist musicals.

It was a decade of stagnation. Some directors continued to innovate, but the public retreated to an ever-shrinking bubble of what they were willing to go out and see. Throw in the rise of streaming TV/movie services near the end of the decade, echoing the competition TV gave movies in the 50’s and 60’s, and you’ve got an unstable and Protean film landscape.

Nevertheless, you’ve got some fun stuff here.

CGI was still going strong, of course, and had advanced to the point where motion capture, a technique that turns physical performances into computer generated performances, added greater realism to the film landscape. Robert Zemeckis and James Cameron, whom we’ve met before, brought this technology to its greatest heights, but it was Peter Jackson who pioneered the technique.

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“Smile, Legolas. This is going on our Christmas cards.”

The Lord of the Rings trilogy has long been fantasy’s greatest and most treasured work, but previous film adaptations were either low budget or animated. Peter Jackson’s sweeping film adaptation, which everyone expected to be a soulless remake in a sea of remakes, was a hit with audiences and critics. The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) combined as much practical elements as was, well, practical, and blended them with CGI environments and characters to bring Tolkien’s Middle Earth to life. Fellowship was the second-highest grossing film of the year, behind Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (which I’ll get to in a bit), and was nominated for thirteen Oscars, winning four.

The next film, The Two Towers (2002), introduced the world to what motion capture technology was capable of when it brought the tortured character of Gollum (played by Andy Serkis) to life. Towers was nominated for six Oscars and won two.

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Gollum is sad that he didn’t get an Oscar.

The final film, Return of the King (2003), did the best of the bunch, winning all eleven Oscars for which it was nominated, including a rare Best Picture. win, which fantasy films had never managed before. Return still holds the record for biggest Oscar sweep.

Motion capture became the IT thing to do. Peter Jackson expanded it for his 2005 adaptation of King Kong wherein Andy Serkis donned the motion capture suit and brought the titular giant ape to life. The film is technically impressive, featuring some jaw-dropping action scenes, but sadly a bland cast (except for Serkis, of course) kept the film from making as big a splash as it could. It had a lot of potential, though. The scene with the T-Rexes is AMAZING.

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Round 1: fight!

Robert Zemeckis, who’s always been a technical innovator, got in on the motion capture trend for three animated films. The Polar Express (2004) took computer generated animation beyond what even Pixar had managed up until that point (and Pixar was doing great at the time) and brought more nuance to its characters by basing their movements directly on the physical performances of the actors who all wore performance capture rigs. Tom Hanks, the unquestionable star of the film, plays six distinct characters.

Zemeckis’ next film was an animated adaptation of Beowulf (2007) that used performance capture to create a gritty brutal world that was absolutely NOTHING like the shiny gorgeousness of The Polar Express. I don’t think audiences and critics really got this one, which does take quite a bit of license with the original story, linking the dragon in the third part directly to the events with Grendel and his mother in the first two sections as opposed to it just being a separate challenge to overcome. I really REALLY like the visual style of this film, and the actors are all amazing, but the pacing is a bit slow and I always find myself falling asleep near the third act. One of these days I need to watch the whole thing because it really features some of the best animation of the decade.

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That’s not something you want to wake up to in the morning…

His last film of the decade returned to the feel of The Polar Express, which had made a bigger splash with audiences than Beowulf. A Christmas Carol (2009) again used motion capture to translate Jim Carrey’s multiple performances (he played Scrooge and all three of the Christmas ghosts) onto the screen. This one’s really good, but it’s faithfulness to the original story’s dark tone (especially the third ghost) made it a bit too scary for young children and some critics (but what do critics know, anyways?).

Jackson and Zemeckis both expanded the limits of animated characters by allowing actors to physically create their character’s performance instead of just being a voice in a soundstage. Disney had done a form of this in its early days where they would have actors in costume act out certain scenes and then the animators would copy those actions on the page. In some cases, they could even rotoscope animated drawings directly over physical performances to give them greater realism, but with motion capture, CGI characters could get the Academy of Arts and Sciences to begin questioning whether or not acting awards could be given to actors who brought a character to life via motion capture (I still think Andy Serkis deserves about twenty Oscars for Gollum).

But motion capture reached its peak with Avatar (2009). While the performances of the actual actors were less impressive than in Lord of the Rings or The Polar Express in terms of their stylistic uniqueness, James Cameron’s ability to create nearly photorealistic CGI characters via performance capture is incredible. After Titanic, he began working on this, but the technology didn’t exist yet. It took a decade or so for Cameron to invent and adapt the technology necessary to bring his vision to life. His work paid off. Avatar is still the highest-grossing film of all time. Its story is familiar and its plot is pretty slight, but it’s such a COOL world to muck about in that audiences flocked to it repeatedly. This film also heralded the resurgence of 3D film. It had been creeping back a few years prior, but Avatar was a film that BEGGED to be seen in 3D.

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“You mean, other movies have had the same plot as ours?!”

After Avatar, many films were upconverted to 3D with uneven success, and then a slew of films were re-released in 3D to capitalize on the trend, again with mixed success. The Lion King and Jurassic Park were AMAZING in 3D, so I guess I’m happy for silly trends. 3D films are still around, but they’re not really the must-see thing. They drive box office profits up but I don’t think they’re going to change theater-going until the technology can be made more practical.

But anyway.

Avatar was an oddball because it was an original story (ish. I mean it was basically a Pocahontas/Dances with Wolves mashup) but the biggest hits of the decade were all remakes, sequels, or reboots.

The Star wars prequels, of course, were a game-changing part of the decade, making huge technical leaps while sparking debates and criticism about how those technical achievements were overshadowing the spirit of the franchise itself. Interestingly enough, Attack of the Clones (2002) was the first film shot entirely with digital instead of physical film. It’s funny that so much of the criticism leveled against the films were for an over-use of CGI since Avatar would later prove that it wasn’t CGI that bothered people. Realizing that cherished franchises, which were being brought out the woodwork throughout the decade, would never be able to have the same specific aesthetic that they had in the seventies and eighties bothered a lot of people. CGI-heavy films like King Kong could be big hits because their source material was far enough away that updated effects seemed necessary (after all, the original King Kong was a combination of dude-in-a-suit and claymation) but when it came to more recent franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, the idea of mucking about with them and either telling more of the story or getting into backstory made people really nervous.

Things changed in the second half of the decade when the “gritty reboot” came into fashion. The origin for this, can actually be traced back to the television reboot of Battlestar Galactica in 2004. It took a campy TV show from the seventies and turned it into a dark brooding drama that got a lot of people hooked. The next year, the Batman franchise restarted with Christopher Nolan’s incredible Batman Begins which abandoned all of the series’ campy and fantasy elements and created a relateable commentary on the economic collapse of the Recession that turned Batman from an idealized billionaire fighting crime into a champion for people fighting poverty and corruption.

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“Don’t call it the batmobile! That’s lame! It’s “The Tumbler” now.”

Next up, the long-running James Bond franchise started everything from square one with Casino Royale, a brutal action thriller which abandoned the gadgets and catchphrases of its campier past and re-embraced the grittier realism of earlier films like From Russia with Love. It was a big it with fans and critics and introduced Daniel Craig to the world as a 007 learning that he can’t trust anyone except himself. The series continued to drift back into more fun territory in later years, but during this time in history, this is the James Bond people wanted.

After that, Star Trek was rebooted in film form in 2009 with a new roster of actors taking on the iconic roles of the series 1960’s origins. Despite criticisms (many of them spot on) that the film completely abandoned the spirit of Trek in favor of crowd-pleasing action, the film brought the franchise back into the public eye since the cancellation of prequel series Enterprise in 2004.

This is also the decade of the superhero. In the 90’s, superhero films fizzled out with Batman and Robin, but in 2000, X-Men, directed by Bryan Singer and starring Hugh Jackman in his first Hollywood role, proved that superhero films could be a thing again.

In 2002, Spider-Man, directed by Sam Raimi and starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, gained acceptance and appreciation. Fans loved it, critics loved it (it won two Oscars in technical categories), and it set off a chain reaction that’s still unwinding today.

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Strike a pose!

 

Ang Lee’s more cerebral Jekyll & Hyde-style Hulk (2003) wasn’t as big a hit, but it did signal what was possible with superhero films. The Spider-Man franchise continued strong with Spider-Man 2 in 2004 (we won’t talk about Spider-Man 3), and gave studios the confidence to start another massive franchise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, beginning with Iron Man in 2008. The Avengers concept was a big gamble, with multiple film franchises all connecting together into a larger franchise that shared continuity with all of them, but the gamble paid off. Marvel’s success led to their being bought by Disney who oversaw distribution of their films.

It’s easy to get distracted by all the massive franchises that dominated this decade. Harry Potter, Star Wars, Batman, X-Men, Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, and others sort of ate up all the media buzz, and it took other films a lot to break through.

One that bears mentioning is Brokeback Mountain (2005), a film that wrestled its way into the front of the line by sheer controversy. It’s central tragic love story would not have caused such a ruckus had it not been between two men. Not only that, but they were stereotypically masculine fellas, which freaked everyone out. Directed by Ang Lee and starring Jake Gyllenhall and Heath Ledger, the film was nominated for eight Oscars, winning three (though why it lost Best Picture to Crash is beyond me). It’s funny, today, the film, when brought up in conversation, STILL evokes uncomfortable mutterings about “that gay cowboy movie” even though gay marriage is now legal in the United States and LGBTQ visibility in media is increasing with each year. This movie made America so violently uncomfortable that it will probably be another ten years before folks can more openly appreciate what a good movie it is.

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That horse doesn’t care that those two gents love each other. Be like that horse.

Another big hit during this decade was Gladiator (2000), Ridley Scott’s Roman epic starring Rusell Crowe. Big budget historical epics didn’t generate quite the same buzz as they had in the 90’s, but this one snagged a Best Picture win as well as four other Oscars. The Big Historical Epic would fall out of fashion after this, but Russell Crowe would enjoy a run of amazing success after this, getting nominated for another Oscar the following year with A Beautiful Mind in 2001.

There’s a LOT more I could talk about in this decade, but I HAVE to mention Lee Daniels’ incredible career during this decade, producing the Oscar-winning Monster’s Ball and directing the heart-rendingly powerful Precious (2009) which got six Oscar nominations. Incredibly, this is the first Best Picture nominee to be directed by an African-American filmmaker. Geoffery Fletcher’s script won one for Best Adapted Screenplay (making him the first African-American to win in that category), and actress/singer Mo’Nique won best Supporting Actress for her terrifying portrayal of an abusive mother, receiving a standing ovation when she stepped up to accept the award.

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This movie is pretty intense, but worth watching.

And that brings us to the end of Cinema. Looking to the future, the current decade is basically repeating everything the 2000s did. I hope something comes along soon that shakes everything up. If this blog is still going in 2020, I’ll definitely do another episode.

You are all amazing.

 

Sources:

Dirks, Tim. “Film History of the 2000’s”

IMDb.com

Cinema – Episode 10: The Computer Generated Invasion

And welcome back!

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I, uh…I don’t know that dance…

The Computer Generated Invasion: 1990-2000

FADE IN:

INT. A LIVING ROOM. DAY.

Everything looks nice. Your HOST is sitting on the couch, when suddenly a huge CGI DINOSAUR smashes through the roof, joined by a gargantuan ALIEN SPACESHIP. He gets up, naturally, and runs out the door.

~~~

Everyone looks back on the 90’s with great fondness, mostly because all of us who love the 90’s were kids during the decade and hadn’t yet realized that life is cruel. In movie land, this was a decade of transition. There were lots of REALLY great movies that came out during this decade, but it was also the decade where the blockbuster craze from the 70’s and 80’s was reaching increasingly goofy heights and sequels were beginning to become tiresome. The upside of that was that while action movies slipped into silly territory, sweeping epics and prestige films (especially historical dramas) rose to prominence again in a big way.

But first, we’ll have to talk about the rise of computer generated imagery (CGI) during this decade. CGI had its genesis in the 70’s with innovative 2D animation in movies such as Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973) and the early wireframe graphics used in the briefing near the end of A New Hope (1977), and then it became a practical tool in the 80’s with innovative films such as Tron (1982) and the Industrial Light and Magic animators who would later give birth to Pixar who made the fully CGI short film The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. in 1984. Last week, I also mentioned the water pseudopod from The Abyss that ILM made for James Cameron. This technology was expanded for Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991 to bring the liquid metal of the T-1000 to life.

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Don’t worry kids, the hot murderbot bounces right back from this injury!

Computer technologies reached a period of breakneck evolution in the 90’s, going from a few minutes of CGI in some films to the first full-length CGI animated film halfway through the decade to live action films with fully textured CGI environments at the end of the decade.

I’m going to start this whole thing with Jurassic Park (1993), my all time favorite movie ever. Steven Spielberg would take a different direction for much of the 90’s, but Jurassic Park was Spielberg at his action best, combining the tension of Jaws with the wonder and magic of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, all told primarily through the eyes of a child as in E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, one of Spielberg’s biggest hits of the 80s. Aside from being a CRAZY FUN movie, Jurassic Park was ahead of its time in terms of its use of CGI.

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*gapes in Spielbergian wonder*

There’s only about four minutes of computer generated dinosaurs in the whole movie (the rest are all practical robot effects), but they stand up against a lot of stuff that we see in the second half of the decade, even though the technology had evolved considerably by then. I’m always amused that, during Jurassic Park‘s pre-production, George Lucas’s folks were working on stop motion animation in the vein of Ray Harryhausen to render the dinosaurs because the studio wasn’t sure if CGI was doable or even practical. The screen tests of the stop motion dinosaurs are really good (remember, this was also the year The Nightmare Before Christmas came out) but when compared to the CGI creations ILM came up with, there’s no comparison. Those incredible dinosaurs still hold up today.

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Like, that STILL looks pretty flawless, you guys!

Alright, I’ll move on. I guess.

CGI was used by a number of the decade’s most innovative directors. I mentioned Robert Zemeckis last week, director of Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Romancing the Stone, but this was probably his best decade. After achieving moderate success with Death Becomes Her, a black comedy about dueling immortal zombie socialites (I LOOOVE this movie) that used CGI to great effect to render the various horrible injuries the two women inflict on one another, studios approached him to make one of the decades biggest hits, Forrest Gump. The CGI in this one is more subtle, inserting Tom Hanks (who won his second consecutive acting Oscar for his performance) into various historical events during the 1960s, and erasing the legs of Gary Sinese’s Liutenant Dan (who’s one of the greatest film characters ever). Forrest Gump won six Oscars and became the fourth highest grossing film of all time (for a bit at least).

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“Speech! Speech!”

The biggest success of the decade, however, goes to James Cameron’s Titanic, which was nominated for Fourteen Academy Awards and won eleven. It also became the highest grossing film of all time for a while until James Cameron outdid his own success in later decades. Titanic is notable not just for its teen-focused love story and Celine Dion mega-hit “My Heart Will Go On,” but for its extensive use of CGI to bring the horrific disaster to life in as historically accurate a manner as possible (though of course, creative license was taken with many of the historical characters). It’s shiny and melodramatic, but dammit if this movie doesn’t make me cry every time. Cameron knew what he was doing with this one.

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“I forgive you, even though there was totally enough room on that door.”

Another director I want to mention before I go on to the next section is David Fincher, who made his film debut in this decade with Alien 3 in 1992. The production was insanely troubled on this one, and the theatrical cut did not do well with audiences (though you should TOTALLY watch the reassembly cut that Fincher put together later on with lots of footage that was cut. It’s an entirely different and genuinely incredible film), but Fincher’s talent with atmospheric visuals and getting wonderful performances out of his actors won him a bit of studio clout.

He used this a few years later to make the thrillers  Se7en (1995) and The Game (1997), both of which were well-received by critics and did moderately well at the box office. Then, closing out the decade, he made Fight Club (1999) an incredible adaptation of the original novel by Chuck Palahniuk that the author was incredibly impressed with. Palahniuk even went so far as to say that he liked the movie (especially its ending) more than his own book. Fincher’s string of success continues to this day and he’s become another huge favorite of mine.

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Seriously one of cinema’s greatest final scenes.

This is also the decade where Quentin Tarantino caught the world’s notice. Reservoir Dogs (1992) was his debut(a film which critics adored), but it was Pulp Fiction (1994) that was his biggest hit of the decade. His dialogue-driven non-linear story won him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and established him as one of mainstream cinema’s most unique directors.

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This screencap is totally confusing out of context, so you need to see the movie and then discuss theories with me.

The other big trend of the decade was epic prestige films, which frequently swept the Awards ceremonies of the decade. After Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg turned his focus to history and made Schindler’s List (1993), Amistad (1997), and Saving Private Ryan (1998). They earned a collective twelve Oscars (seven for Schindler’s List and five for Saving Private Ryan) after being nominated for twenty seven Academy Awards total (12, 4, and 11 respectively).

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This movie is pretty gripping

Other directors picked up on this trend pretty quickly. Though Mel Gibson had won moderate critical respect for his directorial debut The Man Without a Face in 1993, it was Braveheart (1995) a historical epic that told the story of Scottish hero William Wallace, that was his biggest hit of the decade, winning five Oscars including one for Best Director.

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“HRAAAAUUUUGHHHH!”

Up-and coming director Ron Howard, who had achieved great success in the 80’s with Splash (1984) and Cocoon (1985), got into the historical epic trend with Far and Away (1992), a Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman vehicle which followed Irish immigrants trying to make it in America, and Apollo 13 (1995), the true story of three astronauts trying to get home after a failed moon landing attempt. If you’re going to watch these, watch Braveheart first and feel horrible about how awful the British were to the Scottish people in the 13th century, and then watch Apollo 13 so you can feel inspired about how awesome humans can be when they work together. Both are pretty spectacular.

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Everyone who says NASA is dumb needs to watch this movie.

Let’s see, what else…?

Oh, this was also the decade for a few new studios. We get Dreamworks, the brainchild of Steven Spielberg and Jeffery Katzenberg (a former Disney executive). Amistad, which I mentioned earlier, is actually their second film. We also get Pixar showing up this year. Their first CGI animated film, Toy Story (1995) was a massive success and won a special Oscar for its technical achievement in animation. Pixar was distributed by Disney and then later on purchased outright by them, and went on to make quite possibly one of the longest strings of successes in animation history.

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“Woody! It’s an Academy Award!”

While we’re talking about animation, I should also mention that Disney went through their Renaissance during this decade, releasing such enduring classics as Beauty and the Beast (1991) and the Lion King (1994) which reinvigorated the studio after the uneven weirdness they experienced in the 80’s. The new animation style which characterized this decade was notable for its blending of CGI and hand-drawn animation, which gave greater depth and texture to both characters and environments.

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IT’S JUST SO ROMANTIC, YOU GUYS!

There’s a LOT more to talk about, but seriously, this could be a book in and of itself. I haven’t mentioned Independence Day (1996) yet, but that one was another record-breaker, winning big at the box office and wowing audiences (both with their depiction of the blowing up of the White House and of the President’s amazing speech, which seems a bit contradictory, but OK).

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*epic music*

Shakespeare in Love (1998) was another big winner with both critics and audiences, grabbing a handful of Oscars and making tons of money. It’s a fun one because I’ve had two literature professors tell me they love it for its historical accuracy, and then two others which hated it because it was so inaccurate, so I don’t know what to believe. It’s good, I guess. Oh, and of course, The Matrix came along in 1999 and twisted CGI to its limits in cool ways.

Also, James Bond experienced a brief resurgence with Goldeneye (1995), introducing Pierce Brosnan as 007, and he did awesome. My personal favorite is Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) which features Michelle Yeoh as the most awesome Bond girl ever. She kicks so much ass and never lets anyone treat her like an object. You go, girl!

Anyways, that’s it for this week! next week, we’re going to look at the odd transition of the 2000s and the awesomeness that happens.

Take care!

 

Sources

De Semlyen, Phil. “A History of CGI in The Movies”

Dirks, Tim. Filmsite.org

And, of course, IMDb.com

 

 

Cinema – Episode 9: The Age of Action Heroes

Welcome back!

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Hell yeah!!

The Age of Action Heroes: 1980-1990

 

FADE IN:

Your HOST is dodging a hail of bullets and explosions, his grimy shirt in dramatic tatters as he races to meet you, all while giant spaceships loom in the sky and an imposing ancient temple rises out of the jungle ahead.

~~~

The 80’s were amazing, basically. The new trends in film that the 70’s established just kept going as studios realized that the “blockbuster” was where profits were at. This is also where huge franchises started coming out of the woodwork, buoyed by endless parades of sequels that tried to wring as much money out of a franchise as humanly possible. Some of these were great and others were less great. I think I can sleep pretty well at night knowing that I’ve never seen any of the sequels to Jaws, for example.

But despite some boring missteps, this is also the age of REALLY good sequels. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg both kept up really good momentum in this decade, Lucas as a writer and Spielberg as a director. Star Wars returned to screens with The Empire Strikes Back (1980) with Lucas staying on as the creative force behind the film, while he left the directing to Irvin Kershner, who shook up the feel of the Star Wars universe just enough to keep it interesting with his greater focus on comedy, character, and darkness.

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Look at all that caring and friendship right there!

After that, Richard Marquand directed Return of the Jedi in 1983 (originally titled Revenge of the Jedi before Lucas decided that Return was better in keeping with the whole Jedi philosophy) and brought the series to a satisfying conclusion. Fan fervor for the Star Wars universe would continue unabated for decades as the story was continued in an ongoing series of novels in the nineties onward, culminating in the prequel trilogy, an animated spin-off TV show, another animated series, and then a sequel trilogy that is still playing out. It was the big franchise success and fan enthusiasm of the 80’s that made this whole thing possible.

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Best scene in the whole movie.

The 80’s also gave us the Lucas/Spielberg amazingness that is Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) which was followed up by a prequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), and a sequel, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Based on adventure serials of the 1930’s, the Indiana Jones series not only catapulted Harrison Ford to superstardom (a track he was already traveling after the success of Star Wars), but created one of the original action heroes which defined the 1980s.

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I feel like people need to be reminded periodically how hot Indy is.

The Action Hero (with capital letters) of the 80’s is something that has been difficult to recapture in later decades. Sure, we have action franchises nowadays, but the larger-than-life action heroes of the 80’s stand in a sort of hulking pantheon of sweat-streaked iconography that wouldn’t work in any decade except the 80’s (though some have tried). They include the likes of Chuck Norris, Geena Davis, Mel Gibson (in the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon franchises), Kurt Russell (who teamed up with Sylvester Stallone for Tango and Cash in 1989, which is one of the greatest cop movies of all time, and also one of the most unintentionally homoerotic), Sigourney Weaver, and Jean-Claude Van Damme.

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Every Mad Max film is basically a completely separate film, but we don’t care.

Bruce Willis gets his own paragraph because I have to mention John McClane from 1988’s Die Hard. It’s important. Bruce Willis sort of accidentally became an action hero, which cracks me up. He wasn’t the first choice for Die Hard, but he worked so well, that the rest is history. What I love about the character is that he’s both human and superhuman. Bruce Willis convincingly plays McClane as a normal dude with flaws and hangups. You can picture him watching TV on his couch with a beer just as easily as you can him taking out thieves working to defraud a major corporation. But on the other side of the character’s down-to-earth humanity, the script gives him an almost superhuman pain tolerance and a few gallons of blood more than most people. So, he’s both relate-able and an impossible icon of unrealistic masculinity, which is probably what masculinity is anyways, when you think about it. But don’t let that change the fact that Die Hard is AMAZING and you should watch it.

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Like, I’ve never crawled through ducts angrily muttering to myself, but I can still relate, you know?

Other iconic action heroes from the decade include two of Sylvester Stallone’s creations. Rocky was edging from its Oscar-winning origins in the 70’s into lighter cheeseir fare with Rocky III (1982) and Rocky IV (1985) in which, as one article says, Rocky is out to “basically win the Cold War.” But then we also get John Rambo who first appeared in 1982’s First Blood, in which a troubled Vietnam vet saves a small town from a corrupt police force. The character was so popular that we got two more sequels in the 80’s, Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Rambo III (1988).

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Shirts? Never heard of ’em.

This is also the decade when Christopher Reeve’s Superman went from incredible with Superman II in 1980 to suuuuuper goofy with Superman III (1983) and IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). Comic book movies weren’t really a thing before Richard Donner’s Superman in the late 70’s, so I can see why studios didn’t really understand what sort of tone they should have, but Superman II (especially Richard Donner’s director’s cut) is pretty wonderful, and it set the stage for Tim Burton to come along and make Batman in 1989, which was a MASSIVE success and made sure everyone knew that comic book movies were totally a thing that could still be profitable.

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They said Michael Keaton couldn’t be an action star. Now look at me!

For our next action star (I won’t say hero since he’s technically a villain), I want to mention director James Cameron, who rises out of the world of special effects and blows everyone away with his crowd-pleasing films in the 80’s. The Terminator (1984) re-introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger to the world as an action star, launching him off on over a decade of further success in film.

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I’ll be…wait, I don’t say that in this movie… DIE!!!

Cameron then went on to direct Aliens (1986), the sequel to Ridley Scott’s film from the late 70’s. Though different in tone from the original (Aliens is a kick-ass action romp while Alien is a tense atmospheric horror film), it impressed the pants of off everyone in the crew who reacted pretty negatively to Cameron as a cheap substitute for Scott initially. Aliens is now regarded as equally as good as the original by many, having been nominated for multiple Oscars and winning two.

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Ripley is, of course, the coolest action hero on my list.

Cameron then pioneered the fledgling computer generated imagery technology available at the time in his 1989 film The Abyss which featured a completely computer generated water being that would not have been possible even three years prior. Cameron, like George Lucas, has always been in the camp of, “If the technology doesn’t exist, create it from scratch,” which he would use again in later decades with Avatar, which took a decade to make.

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This is advanced stuff, you guys. Movies were still using stop motion animation at this point.

Another director of note in this decade is Robert Zemeckis. His name isn’t as well known, but everyone knows his films. His early career–including a partnership with Spielberg for 1941, a comedy that failed to impress audiences–earned him a negative reputation until Michael Douglas hired him to direct Romancing the Stone in 1984, an UTTERLY DELIGHTFUL film about a romance novelist who’s sister gets kidnapped in South America and her quest to get her back, aided by an adventurer/rogue/hunk who is basically the physical embodiment of her faceless hero from her novels. the film (which everyone expected to fail) was such a success that Zemeckis was able to pursue his real passion project, which he had been trying to get made for years: Back to the Future (1985).

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Name a more iconic duo. I’ll wait.

That film was such a huge success that Zemeckis (who, like Cameron and Lucas, was an incredible innovator of film technology) went on to direct the zany animation mash-up Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) for Disney which featured not only Disney and Warner Brothers characters in the same film, but combined animated characters in real world settings in a convincing and dynamic way that previous live-action/animation mashups like Mary Poppins had never been able to accomplish.

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Awwww!

After that, Zemeckis became a Hollywood hero. Back to the Future got two sequels (which were filmed back-to-back) released in 1989 and 1991 respectively), and his success hit several high points in future decades which we’ll talk about next time.

There’s a LOT more I could talk about in this decade, such as John Carpenter’s amazing The Thing (1982), a sci-fi horror masterpiece which is BETTER than the original it was based off of.

I could also mention John Hughes incredibly influential teen movies such as Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), which remain nostalgic bastions of teenage memories for many (except for me because in the 80’s, I was a small child with a love of sci-fi and animated films).

I’d also like to give a shout out to Don Bluth, the former Disney animator who went out and made films which were, in many ways, BETTER than the Disney films being made at the time. An American Tail (1986) and The Land Before Time (1988), both produced by Steven Spielberg and the latter executive produced by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, are some of the best animated films of the 80’s. It wouldn’t be until a studio changeover at Disney inaugurated a new era with The Little Mermaid in 1989 that they took the top spot again.

Also, in the James Bond series, this era saw Roger Moore say goodbye and hand things over to Timothy Dalton who is legitimately the absolute best on-screen portrayal of the character ever (in my opinion) but he suffered from shaky scripts and uneven acting, which made his two films less than stellar (though 1989’s License to Kill is pretty good).

I could go on. This is a fun decade. But I must say goodbye for now. Next week, we’re looking at the 1990’s!

See you then!

 

Sources

Dirks, Tim. Filmsite.org

Goldberg, Matt. “Rocky Movies ranked from Worst to Best”

The Internet Movie Database

 

Cinema – Episode 8: Birth of the Blockbuster

And I’m back!

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Don’t go out there!

Birth of the Blockbuster: 1970-1980

FADE IN:

EXT. DAY. A LINE OUTSIDE A CROWDED THEATER.

Your HOST approaches you, hoping to cut into the long line by pretending to be your friend, but you’re weirded out because you’ve never seen him before, so you shove him away and he has to go to the end of the line, but he’s still pretty excited because he’s been waiting for this movie to come out for MONTHS.

~~~

The seventies are a decade of transition. Following the odd change in audience tastes (and the comfy lure of home television sets, which by this point were almost all color), the film industry would have to do something different to get people back into the theaters. The first half of the seventies was an odd in-between stage as studios sought to rework film to better suit the tastes of audiences who had grown harder to please. Game-changing films of the sixties like Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate (both from 1967) with their graphic violence and cynicism (respectively) prompted a reworking of the rating system in 1968 as Hollywood censors grew more relaxed. The Code and Rating Administration took a very different approach than the Production Code Administration which it replaced. Rather than dictate what could and could not be shown in a film while it was in production, they would let the filmmaker show them the completed film and then they would decide what rating to assign it as a warning to parents. It gave directors and writers more freedom and allowed them to self-censor based on what audience they were aiming for. It also allowed directors to push the envelope, which would lead to more revisions in later decades.

The directors who brought the seventies out of the lingering confusion of the sixties and into a new golden era of mega-popular films are collectively known as “The Movie Brats.” They are Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg. Each of them took popular genres such as the gangster flick, the sci-fi adventure, the urban thriller, the monster movie and other worn tropes that had grown somewhat stale throughout the fifties and sixties, and reinvigorated them to such an extent that they felt completely new and fresh and exciting.

Excitement was a big part of this new blockbuster era. In the past, films became successes primarily through word-of-mouth and written reviews. But in the television era, advertising was much easier. The practice in years past was to release films a bit at a time so that they would trickle down from bigger cities to smaller areas and then from more expensive theaters to cheaper theaters. If one lived in a smaller urban area, one would have to wait for some time for a movie to reach them. And by then, the buzz would have died down as it had already become old hat in the larger cities.

But in the seventies, studios began releasing films simultaneously in as many theaters as possible, so people in smaller cities could see films at the same time as those in the big cities. On top of that, multiplex theaters with multiple auditoriums began showing up in which multiple audiences could view the same film simultaneously. By using television and advertisement, studios could now create so-called event films that were highly anticipated everywhere at once. The Movie Brats were the first to really cash in on this new marketing strategy.

Francis Ford Coppola got his start in the B-Movie industry before starting his own production company, American Zoetrope. His big break came when Paramount Pictures approached him to direct a big prestige film adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (1972). Now, at this point, the studio was still thinking in terms of older models, like in the fifties, because they hadn’t learned their lesson at all and still thought a prestige film could be successful, even though audiences didn’t care for them anymore. Coppola, not wanting to crash and burn the way other films like Cleopatra had, eschewed the overblown star model of decades past and cast only one big star (Marlon Brando) and filled the rest of his cast with unknowns, including up-and-comers like Al Pacino.

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You’re reading this in his voice, aren’t you?

Now, by this point, aside from exceptions like Bonnie and Clyde, the gangster genre had become boring to audiences, so Coppola fused tropes from that genre, such as heightened violence and tense dialogue scenes, with the more thoughtful sweep of a historical period piece with its multi-layered characters, it complex web of motivations, and its dynastic scope. It simultaneously shocked audiences with the cycles of crime in the world of the mob and took advantage of the so-called Godfather Effect in its portrayal of cultural pride among American minorities. Nothing is really black or white, good or bad. It’s all in individual character choices and their consequences.

Audiences LOVED this movie and it became, for a time, the highest grossing film of all time. It went on to spawn one of the greatest film sequels ever in 1974 and then…a not so great sequel…that we won’t discuss… But the point is, this was a VERY different kind of film and Hollywood was better off as a result.

Everyone knows George Lucas now as the sort of Grumpy Old Hollywood Grandpa who lost touch with reality, thanks in part to negative media reactions to the Star Wars prequels, which is a real shame because Lucas is one of the most influential filmmakers of the modern age and a personal hero of mine. After an experimental sci-fi dystopia, THX 1138 (1971), and a super-successful nostalgia trip, American Graffiti (1973), Lucas blew Hollywood into teeny tiny pieces with Star Wars (1977), the mega success of which cannot be underestimated. Not only was its reinvention of action-adventure sci-fi serials from the early days a huge hit with audiences who had been without sci-fi just long enough to start craving it again, but its marketing and merchandising mega-success (undertaken in part as a way to recoup financial losses during the film’s expensive and grueling production) clued studios in to just how PROFITABLE a film could be outside of the theater. I’ve gushed at length over how cool George Lucas is and how awesome Star Wars is in general so I won’t bore anyone with my fanboy-ing, but it’s safe to say that George Lucas changed film special effects by literally inventing whatever technologies he needed. Industrial Light and Magic remains the gold standard in film effects to this day (though Weta is giving them a run for their money), and the Star Wars series in general is still going strong with no plans to stop any time soon.

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Film books always talk about Star Wars accompanied by pictures of ships fighting or Darth Vader being menacing. I’m going to break with tradition with this picture of the best princess in the galaxy. Ever.

Martin Scorsese is the odd one out of the bunch in that his films garnered HUGE praise, but didn’t necessarily become box-office juggernauts, mostly because their dark themes and brutal violence kept them from becoming family favorites. Nevertheless, films like Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976), both of which made Robert De Niro a household name, impressed the pants off critics and remain classics among fans to this day. Scorsese’s aesthetic takes the claustrophobia and atmosphere of film noir and drags it into the modern era, replacing ominous shadows with clouds of poisonous-looking steam. His films are hyper-realistic, avoiding nostalgia, innocence, and any kind of epic scope. They’re tense, chaotic, visceral, and intensely real.

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In case you were thinking, “Oh, it couldn’t be THAT violent, now could it?”

The last member of this group is Steven Spielberg, my favorite director ever. His career is still going to this (and not in a winding down sort of way, since Bridge of Spies just won itself an Oscar and was nominated for six others, but we’ll talk about that later). Like Lucas, Spielberg’s story is very much that of the Hollywood wunderkind. He’d been making films since he was a kid, and after a string of successes with his first theatrical short film Amblin’ (1968), a few television pilots, and two made-for TV films, Duel (1971) and Something Evil (1972), he broke into the world of theatrical feature films with The Sugarland Express (1974).  This awesome movie about a family engaging in a highly publicized cross-country police chase while trying to retain custody of their child didn’t make much of a splash with audiences, though critics liked it. His BIG splash (pun fully intended) was Jaws (1975), which broke box-office records set by earlier huge hits like The Godfather and The Exorcist. Though Star Wars set the standard for tie-in merchandise in a big way, it was Jaws that did it first. In many ways, Jaws is considered the “First Blockbuster” because of how it was an event in and of itself, becoming such an integral part of American culture (everyone recognizes the main theme from John Williams’ Oscar-winning score, even if they haven’t seen the film) and of film lore in general.

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The shark: “I just want hugs! Is that too much to ask!”

His other huge success in this decade was Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), a poetic sci-fi film about alien contact that was nominated for eight Oscars and won one for its cinematography (it lost most of its other noms to Star Wars and Annie Hall). The film’s effects are still pretty mind-blowing today, especially the multi-colored UFO’s that buzz about, heralding the approach of the grand balletic mothership which makes its appearance above a secret government facility behind Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. It was a massive success at the time, but it failed to become quite the event that Star Wars did in terms of becoming a cultural icon. Nevertheless, it remains one of Spielberg’s quintessential films.

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So. Pretty.

Other game-changing films from the decade include Stanley Kubrick’s disturbing dystopian epic A Clockwork Orange (1971), which blends a vibrant circus-inspired color palette with the depraved actions of its hero and his violence-addicted droogs, all wrapped up in an experimental electro-classical score that has a tendency to get into one’s brain and cause all sorts of mayhem. It’s disturbing as hell, but it’s also an incredible film.

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This is literally the only screencap that doesn’t include boobs or giant ceramic dicks. I’m trying to keep this VAGUELY family friendly, you know.

Also, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), a noir-esque mystery-thriller which features one of Hollywood’s most revered scripts. It tells the story of a private investigator who gets involved in an investigation of a political plot to deprive land of water so as to lower it’s value so it can be bought cheaply. Throw in aliases galore, dark family secrets, and a bunch of misdirection and you get a smart, tightly crafted mystery that blew audiences away. It was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won one.

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There is SO MUCH going on in this scene. I love it.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), an adaptation of the Ken Kesey novel, was also the first film to win all of the top five Academy Awards, Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. It stars Jack Nicholson as Randle McMurphy, a recidivist criminal who disrupts the order of a mental institution, and Louise Fletcher as the imposing Nurse Ratched who gets into a battle of wills with McMurphy. The whole thing culminates in tragedy, but there’s enough hijinks and craziness to keep things fun…ish…

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Star Trek fans would recognize this amazing Oscar-winning actress from Deep Space Nine as the conniving Kai Winn.

I could go on about Rocky (1976) (which garnered Oscar noms for Sylvester Stallone twice as actor and writer), Fiddler on the Roof (1971) (which proved movie musicals weren’t completely dead), Alien (1979) (which took the new sci-fi craze in dark, beautifully atmospheric directions), and Superman (1978) (the film that brought superheros to the box office), but I’m running out of time and you have things to do.

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*heroic music plays*

TL:DR – the 1970s saved Hollywood and paved the way for literally everything we love (and sometimes hate) about the film industry in general. They were a good decade, and there are TONS of amazing films and directors I left out, so go read up on them on your own. Do it. Research is fun.

Thanks for reading. Next week, we’re going to the 80’s!

 

Sources

Sklar, Robert. A World History of Film.

IMDb.com

Cinema – Episode 7: The War With Television

And welcome back!

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The War With Television: 1960-1970

FADE IN:

INT. A HOUSE. NIGHT.

Your HOST jumps into the room wearing a fun hat, but you don’t notice because you’re watching TV. After increasing attempts to get you to get up, he gives in and starts watching TV with you.

~~~

The sixties were an amazing decade for music, art, and novels. They were politically tense and often explosive with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the ongoing Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movement finding their loudest voice yet. This decade was so amazing for pretty much everything…

…except for movies.

Don’t get we wrong, we’re going to look at some amazing films this week, but the entire film industry in general (at least in America) sort of had a really blah ten years as television kicked theatrical films’ collective ass. This is the decade in which the grand movie palaces closed down, replaced with cheaper theaters. Hollywood began to decline with many studios selling huge tracts of land to condo development. To keep things afloat, studios started auctioning off memorabilia and offering studio tours. This is when Dorothy’s famed ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz were auctioned off. This is also when the Hollywood Walk of Fame came into being, in an attempt to draw more tourists to the area.

The days of massive budget epics were scaled back as audiences grew tired of them. The best example of this is the Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra (1963) which was, up until that time, the most expensive movie ever made. It was also a colossal trainwreck, failing to impress audiences and nearly bankrupting Twentieth Century Fox in the process. It was the huge success of The Sound of Music (1965) as well as the legendary World War II epic The Longest Day (1963) that saved Fox from collapsing entirely.

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Audiences cared more for the off-screen romance of Taylor and Burton than they did for the movie itself

Studios turned to distributing foreign films much more to cut costs, which brings me to two names who I really should have mentioned in earlier posts: Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman. Both legendary directors had decades-spanning careers and so therefore could have been mentioned multiple times before, but they are entirely too amazing to be glossed over.

Kurosawa caught the attention of folks outside Japan with Rashomon (1950), a brilliant look at the bendiness of truth in which four different people give different accounts of a murder and a rape and the listener (a priest) has to figure out where the truth lies. His two most well-known films are probably Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961) which were remade as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964) respectively, but he was also a master at adapting Shakespeare in new and brilliant ways as in Throne of Blood (1957), which is one of the greatest Macbeth adaptations ever made, and Ran (1985) which brings new life into King Lear.

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“Tell me, why are American films so boring this decade?”

Not only was he known for collaborating very closely with the other crewmembers, especially the composers and the cinematographers, but his films displayed a visual style that was so brilliant at conveying mood that a great deal of later directors adapted his techniques in their own films. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (whom we’ll meet next week) call him “The Master” for good reason. Kurosawa’s themes of the cycles of violence and the integrity of heroes put into insurmountable situations resonate so strongly with audiences no matter what generation they’re from, it’s a wonder his films are more well known.

Next we’ll jump from Japan to Sweden. Bergman’s films are probably not as universally accessible as Kurosawa’s, but his trippy visuals and profound meditations on HUGE issues allowed him to turn film into a true art form that went beyond mere entertainment. His most well-known is probably The Seventh Seal (1957) in which a man plays a game of chess with Death and ponders his importance in a brutal medieval landscape ravaged by war and plague. It’s SO GOOD.

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This isn’t awkward at all…

Persona (1966) is another super good one in which a woman cares for a mute actress in a lonely cottage and begins to see herself as the mute girl when she begins telling her all her deepest secrets. In the process, she loses her grip on her own sense of self. Through a Glass Darkly (1961) is another underappreciated gem in which a schizophrenic woman hallucinates that god is a giant spider who has taken an interest in her. Before you laugh, know that this film won an Academy Award. It’s crazy good. Total, Bergman won three Oscars, six Golden Globes, and a boatload of others.

Those weren’t huge digressions since we did deal with 60’s films, but we’ll move on to those films that were able to drag people’s attention away from their TV sets.

In England, this is when we see the so-called “Kitchen Sink” films show up. Their style was gritty and emotionally volatile. Films such as The Caretaker (1963), This Sporting Life (1963), and Billy Liar (1963) often featured young men who rejected societal expectations and struck out on their own, living on the fringes of “polite” society. Frank portrayals of drugs, violence, and sex gave these films a very different feel from the glossy sweeping American films from the 50’s.

Other countries got in on American studio’s willingness to release or re-release foreign films and we got films like Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in 1960 and Jean-Luc Godard’s captivating A Bout de Souffle (released in America as Breathless ) in 1960, kicking off the French New Wave trend of films.

This also introduced British filmmaker Stanley Kubrick to American audiences. His first American production was Spartacus (1960), but it wasn’t REALLY his film since star Kirk Douglas fired the first director and Kubrick was brought into finish it. His next few films were each completely different from one another, showing Kubrick’s staggering range.

Lolita (1962) is a super uncomfortable but crazy clever reimagining of the original Nabokov novel about a creepy guy in love with a young girl (*shudder*). I mean, it’s a good movie, and it’s as much a satire of the original novel as it is an exploration of its themes, but still. Ew.

Anyway.

Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is a hysterically funny satire of Cold War tensions featuring legendary funnyman Peter Sellers in three separate roles including the bland American president and the insane German mad scientist who ends up accidentally (or on purpose?) blowing everything up.

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Is this the face of a crazy man?? I mean…actually yeah…

After that, we get one of my all-time favorite movies, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), one of the most poetic and visually hypnotic science-fiction films ever made. He collaborated with sci-fi legend Arthur C. Clarke who went on to write a novelization (which, to be honest, explains everything the movie doesn’t need to explain). Clarke would go on to write several sequels to the original, all of which are pretty fantastic (though my favorite is 2010: Odyssey 2).

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Only Kubrick could make walking through a corridor the most captivating thing ever

In contrast to the high art of films by directors such as Kubrick and Bergman, we also got a CRAZY FUN series of films show up in this decade that continues to this day. It may very well be the most successful foreign film franchise ever (and no, I’m not talking about Godzilla, sadly). I’m speaking of course, of James Bond who made the leap from Ian Fleming’s novels to the big screen with Dr. No (1964), From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), You Only Live Twice (1967), and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). All but the last featured Sean Connery as the title spy (he’s seriously the best Bond ever). Russia and Thunderball are my favorites, but seriously, they’re all amazing.

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This man needs no introduction

This is also when Ray Harryhausen gave us his best stuff ever (thus far) with Jason and the Argonauts (1963) which features a super cool skeleton fight, Talos (the greatest of Harryhausen’s creations, in my humble opinion), and Honor Blackman as the sassiest and most amazing goddess ever.

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“You kids get off my lawn!”

He also provided the dinosaurs for Hammer Films’ One Million Years B.C. (1966), which nobody remembers except that it featured Raquel Welch running around in a fur bikini.

I could also talk about the Academy Awards drama between Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady (both 1964), but I’m running out of time. Suffice it to say, Julie Andrews is the queen of everything and she totally deserved to take that Oscar from Audrey Hepburn. Andrews deserved to take her stage role to film with My Fair Lady (she literally originated that role), but she was replaced. So she went to Disney, starred in her own film, and got herself an Oscar anyways (in literally her first theatrical film role). In that same decade, Andrews starred in The Sound of Music and proved she was literally incredible (though she’d never admit that because she’s perfect) because that’s just how she does things.

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She only pretends to be down to earth. Julie Andrews could literally rule the world if she wanted.

I really like Julie Andrews, you guys.

Let’s see, what else before I wrap this up. Oh, the Beatles made four films, Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) scared everyone silly, The Planet of the Apes (1968) starring Charlton Heston kicked off an incredible film franchise, Spaghetti Westerns proved that the genre wasn’t going away any time soon, and Disney kept afloat with a number of cost-saving techniques that led to some wonderful animation styles such as in One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) which turned out to be the highest-grossing film of the year.

OK, OK, that’s it. I’m done. I could go on, but you’d all get bored and start throwing things at me.

This has been fun, so I will see you next week when we look at the 1970s!

Sources

Criterion.com

Filmsite.org

Imdb.com

Cinema – Episode 6: Landscapes and Horizons

Welcome Back!

13

*epic music*

Landscapes and Horizons: 1950-1960

FADE IN:

EXT. DAY. AN ENDLESS BEACH.

Your HOST waves to you from a grassy hill while the camera zooms out, taking in the sweeping panorama of the seascape in the background.

~~~

This is one of my all-time favorite decades in terms of film history. After the introspective 40’s, cinema found its optimism again, but it was a more mature optimism filled with plenty of hardship and just as many sweeping triumphs. Plus, we get some of the COOLEST movies of all time ever which were made cooler by the face that screens (and film) got WIIIIIIIIIIDER and movies got BIGGER. The epic, which had its start super early, came back in a big way. Also, the musical returned with a fierce vengeance (which is pretty swell, in my book) thanks to some HUGE legendary names.

Noir would stick around through the decade, such as in Billy Wilder’s iconic Sunset Boulevard (1950).

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She’s nuts, by the way.

The tension and atmosphere of the genre would also influence Alfred Hitchcock whose career had no intention of slowing down any time soon. This decade gave us Strangers on a Train (1951), Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958)–which recently ousted Citizen Kane as the greatest film ever made–and North By Northwest (1959). For someone whose career has been going strong since the 20’s, this is crazy impressive. We won’t see another director with this kind of staying power again until we get to the 1970s.

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Vertigo is totally weird, but crazy good.

Also, in the lower-budget end of things, sci fi edged out horror as the prevailing genre thanks, in part, to the Space Race, culminating in Russia’s awesome launch of Sputnik I in 1957. We get some super awesome films in this genre such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956). The latter featured legendary creature animator/innovator Ray Harryhausen who really started turning people’s heads in this decade.

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My favorite part of this movie is where the accidental recording of the saucer’s ooeeooee noise doesn’t pickup any of the conversation going on at the time it was recorded.

The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), another huge Harryhausen picture also capitalized on the super popular monster movie genre which exploded into being in this decade. The king of all monsters, of course, is Godzilla, and he first shows up as Gojira in 1954 and messes Japan up something fierce, but then he becomes a sort of hero and ends up saving Japan from a bevy of increasingly dangerous foes (the coolest, of course, is Mothra, who’s awesome). Godzilla’s the best ever and if you don’t love him, you’re wrong.

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“Raaaaaaawr!”

Not really.

Anyways, the other super cool part of this decade is the introduction of SWEEPING PANORAMAS! CinemaScope is cool because it uses different lenses and bigger film to capture a wider image. It was a rocky process and different studios tried out different technologies (some that worked, others that didn’t) but it was clear audiences responded positively. Part of the reason why this was such a success was that TV was now a thing and was pulling people away from theaters, so CinemaScope (and color, which became much more common in this decade) brought people back to theaters with spectacular visuals they couldn’t get at home. Theaters briefly experimented with 3-D (such as with The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)), but the fad didn’t stick around. CinemaScope, on the other hand, became more than a fad. It became an expectation.

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So. Pretty.

Films like The Ten Commandments (1956), The Searchers (1956), and Ben Hur (1959) used the sweeping scope to its full effect, bringing massive landscapes and huge sets to life. This is also the time when Rodgers and Hammerstein brought their musicals to film starting with the Oscar-winning Oklahoma (1955) which was the first 70 mm widescreen film (technically, State Fair (1945) was their first movie musical, but Oklahoma was the gamechanger). They followed it up with Carousel and The King and I from 1956 and South Pacific in 1958. Aside from becoming hugely popular, these films changed how musicals, and films in general, looked and felt.

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I will never be that graceful. Ever.

It wasn’t just R&H who rode the musical’s meteoric return to form. This is also when we got, among others, Annie Get Your Gun (1950), An American in Paris (1951), which features a MASSIVE ballet sequence at the film’s climax, Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Kiss me Kate (1953), and the controversial Guys and Dolls (1955)–which featured an inexplicably singing Marlon Brando. Musicals were bigger than ever, but with more of a soul than the frothy confections of the 1930’s. Decades after this would try (and sometimes succeed, such as The Sound of Music and West Side Story in the 60’s) to outdo the grand musicals of this decade, but they wouldn’t quiiiiiite make it since musicals would sort of fall out of favor with most audiences at the end of the decade (but like they won’t ever go away completely).

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Yes, Gene Kelly, whatever it is, I’ll do it.

This was also the decade when Disney would return to form with Cinderella (1950), which was a huge success and featured a new abstract art style for its backgrounds. Alice in Wonderland (1951)–the best version of Alice in my humble opinion–was a triumph of visual art, but wasn’t appreciated by initial audiences. Peter Pan (1953), on the other hand, was a success both with audiences and critics, as was Lady and the Tramp (1955), the first Disney film released in CinemaScope.

At the end of the decade, Sleeping Beauty (1959) was a HUGELY ambitious work of visual art that pushed the limits of what animated backdrops could be, thanks to the highly detailed paintings of artist Eyvind Earle whose work was showcased with massive 70mm Technorama film. The artwork is gorgeous, but the film was so expensive to make that it nearly ruined Disney. Throw in a lukewarm audience reaction and bland critical reception, and the Disney fairy tale would fade away for the next three decades until the Disney Renaissance would bring princesses back. Sleeping Beauty has since been recognized for its ambitious art style and has become one of Disney’s greatest films.

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You could frame every shot and hang it on your wall.

Outside of animated films, Disney branched off into live-action films in the 40’s (often featuring a mix of animation and live-action), but their releases in the 50’s including Treasure Island (1950) and the AMAZING 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), are still considered classics in their own right.

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Peter Lorre’s great, of course, but James Mason and Kirk Douglas are entirely too hot to appear in the same shot together. i can’t handle it.

Another thing that happened in this decade was the rise of teens as film demographics. B movies catered to the teen crowd, as did cult favorites featuring rebellious youngsters such as the iconic James Dean vehicle Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The monster movie craze also hit the teen market with films such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) starring Michael Landon, and The Blob (1958) starring Steve McQueen.

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It’s super sad James Dean wasn’t with us longer.

Overall, this was a SPECTACULAR decade. Screens, film, and audience demographics expanded to massive heights and movies weren’t the same since. Television tried to take over, but it instead found its own immovable place in culture alongside movies (though film would end up fighting TV pretty severely in the next decade).

And with that, I will bid you adieu until next week when we look at the 60’s!

Sources:

Dirks, Tim. Film History of the 1950s

Flaxman, George A. A Brief History of Cinemascope.

NASA. Sputnik and the Dawn of the Space Age.

and The Ray Harryhausen Creature List

Along with IMDb, of course.