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Pre-Code Hollywood

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Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930–1934 by Thomas Doherty

This book has an interesting, counter-intuitive premise. For some context,  the traditional argument is that the US film industry’s “Hays Code” stifled creativity and constrained artists from 1934 to 1968. Under the code happy endings were mandated. Evil had to be punished. Homosexuality could not appear on screen. Absolutely no nudity was shown. As the book states, cracks began to show in 1950, and those got larger until the code’s demise in 1968. Generally, this Catholic moralist oversight is viewed as even worse than today’s interference by studio executives. Professor Thomas Doherty has studied 1930s films extensively, so when he characterizes the 1930-1934 period, when the code existed, but had no teeth, as descending into immorality and accepting of nudity, he sees a lack of subtlety and a failure by the producers of American cinema to provide appropriate content to their audience.

Note that I used the singular, audience. Therein lies my initial disagreement with Doherty. While he acknowledges the heterogenous nature of moviegoers, he considers the medium to be akin to radio. When we change the station it all has to abide by the FCC and all be appropriate (until 11 PM) for listeners of all ages. And within those constraints we have talk radio, country music, pop music, classic rock, etc… Just as American cinema had, and has, many genres. Yet Doherty views the whole Golden Age of Hollywood (1934-1950) as a product of the Code. Moreover that, much like our age, American society and its government faced new challenges that questioned the very validity or our culture. The Great Depression exposed Rugged Individualism as a sham and the films of that era reflecting the growing dissatisfaction with it.

The traditional American historical narrative teaches us that FDR and the New Deal started the recovery that World War II completed. Perhaps on a moral and emotional level Doherty’s theory has some value. He argues that having Catholics come in protect the morality and content of Hollywood held our union together, or at least played a positive role in doing so. I do not know if Thomas Doherty was raised Catholic, but I was not. So when I read about Catholics coming in and intimidating Jewish businessmen, my knee jerk is not to assume the bullying Catholics are morally superior. Particularly in the United States where liberty is held so high. Especially in a time period where Jewish writers and artists were relegated to comic books. Thus the censorship of a few Catholics, whose morals required the exclusion of homosexuals, without even bothering to explicitly state that, offends me.1 The magnificent Fantasia would have been the same, with or without the Code. Citizen Kane got Orson Welles blacklisted in Hollywood, while RKO soon went out of business. I cannot imagine that the Code had any positive impact on that great film. The Long Goodbye was better than its original, The Big Sleep, showing at least in one instance how the post-code 1970s can create art without those constraints. To be fair, having no rules and no restrictions can lead to self-indulgence. It would be disingenuous to have my experience with films and literature created under Communism and to disregard the role that rules played in much of those films. Pushing the envelope and being creative in ways to get the same message across without tipping off the censors, has created some great art and let artists show off a skill that no rules would not have allowed them to show.

Where Doherty’s argument really bothers me is the synthesis between American-Catholic moral superiority and the fear of children receiving adult entertainment or learning alternative values. The MPAA is incredibly flawed. Honestly, TV channels do a better job of self-labeling than the MPAA does with their rating system. This is the system that prohibits male genitalia as much as it fears female enjoyment of sex. The system that permits cartoonish violence over the more realistic. Pixar movies do a good job of creating films that work on multiple levels, that provide moral guidance as well as enjoyment. No set of rules can make every movie as good as their movies. And no set of moral guidelines can get it right all by itself. If it had been 1930s Jews bullying Catholics with their morals I would have as much of a problem with the end result as I did with the Hays Code. When a coach hinders their players, yet those players succeed in spite of them, you do not laud the coach. Sports history is replete with people who fought against progress, yet had the talent to overcome unhelpful coaching. Some people needs rules, if only to rebel against them, and others manage to succeed regardless. Doherty tries to credit the bad coach with the team’s success.

Doherty also offers that this era impacted the American cinematic history very little. The basis for this is two-fold. First, film historians go back and look for earlier and earlier works to highlight as seminal to the filmmakers who followed them. The Code rendered these earlier films almost irrelevant. It was as if film was reborn. He may have been right, in the short run, but I doubt it. Take 1931 as an example year. How many of these have you heard of: FrankensteinMDraculaCity LightsDr. Jekyll and Mr. HydeThe Public Enemy and Little Caesar?  The impact of those films are still felt today. What I have taken from this is that Doherty is a very talented writer who wants film to play a role in saving society. While I am not convinced he certainly made me consider his counterintuitive theses.

 

1 Note, that if it had been a few ultra Orthodox Jews whose morals prevailed in 1930, the moralizing would not have been okay, particularly not towards homosexuals. It would have been even less accepting of pre-marital sex. But there is no Jewish crusade or Jewish Inquisition, only Crusaders who killed Jews and Spanish Catholics who tortured and killed Jews. That context matters.

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2016 Fall TV Preview: Monday

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As a public service I am going to provide this preview of the upcoming slate of mostly terrible upcoming tv shows. May it help you avoid watching some bad tv.

Man With a Plan (CBS) — Fans of Matt LeBlanc might be excited to see him returning to the live studio audience with multiple cameras format that “Friends” had. I see these as signs of doom. Comedy has evolved over the past 20 years, as it always does. Nostalgia works better when you do not go back. Not that I blame LeBlanc for taking a well-paying job.
Verdict: I will not give this show a chance, and neither will America. It goes a full year, because LeBlanc’s name has value to it.

Kevin Can Wait (CBS) — Kevin James is back on TV playing public fictional Kevin James again. I mean, if it works for Tim Allen, why not?
Verdict: Because it will be terribly unfunny. Canned laughter will float this by and it sticks around for at least two years.

Lucifer (Fox) — This is apparently not a new show. That is quite a sweet spot to be successful enough to get renewed, but not successful enough for me to remember hearing of you.
Verdict: No clue. Why ruin the surprise after so long?

Timeless (NBC) — [Overheard at NBC] Okay, so “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” is pretty successful. And Peggy Carter was moderately successful, but did not get enough viewers. Hmm. Maybe the problem was just having a darling, badass female main character? Let’s give her a rakish white guy and a less cool than you would expect black guy. But what to have them do? Eh, “Quantum Leap” was on for years, let’s do that again.
Verdict: This show looks very expensive, so it will need real high ratings to be financially viable. NBC does not get really high ratings. One season only.

Mary + Jane (MTV) — *Tries to remember the last time MTV had a good show* … ahh! Jackass!
Verdict: Awful. But MTV airs stuff for years, so expect 3 seasons.

conviction-cast-poster-abc

Conviction (ABC) — Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter) plays a former-president’s daughter, well, I mean, the president is a former president, she is still his daughter… In any event, this has a very cheesy premise—she is blackmailed into joining a special government legal unit. But it has promise. Wrongful convictions might be a hot news topic now, but they are genuinely an important issue in our country. Plus, Atwell is a wonderful actress.
Verdict: This sounds promising and has a cheesy hook, so I say it lasts for years and years. Just kidding, Atwell is not a big enough star for this to work, canceled by February. But I can hope!

 

The 100 Greatest Films of the 21st Century — BBC Culture

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Once every so often facebook has a trending event that I care about. Because of the reaction the top three films garnered, hell probably just the reaction to the top film (Mulholland Drive), this a trending worthy topic. My gut reaction was to defend this choice, because it is generally an underrated film. Well if you want to know what I have decided, you will have to read (or skip) to the end.

100. Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016) — Haven’t seen it and never heard of it [hereafter HSI & NHOI].
100. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000) — Great music, but not a great film. Disagree, overrated.
100. Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010) — HSI. Supposedly great. IMDb considers it a mini-series.
99. The Gleaners and I (Agnès Varda, 2000) — HSI & NHOI.
98. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002) — HSI & NHOI.
97. White Material (Claire Denis, 2009) — HSI & NHOI.
96. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, 2003) — Strongly agree. I would rank this with Old School.
95. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012) — Strongly disagree, overrated. Wes Anderson’s second worst film.
94. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) — Disagree, underrated.  Probably the best vampire film since Dracula. Yes, that Dracula (1931). I still have not seen the American remake with Chloe Grace Moretz, yet.
93. Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007) — Strongly disagree, overrated. It is a cute movie and I now eat ratatouille despite disliking over half of the ingredients in isolation.
92. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007) —Disagree, underrated. An out of time elegiac western.
91. The Secret in Their Eyes (Juan José Campanella, 2009) — Strongly disagree, underrated, except when considered against other foreign language films and then having it be three better than Let the Right One In makes perfect sense. I still have not seen the American remake with Ejiofor and Roberts, yet.
90. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002) — Agree. Its star has an excellent surname.
89. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008) —HSI & NHOI.
88. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015) — HSI. And yes I am embarrassed to admit that.
87. Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) — Disagree, overrated. Yes, Audrey Tautou is a dream and I think A Very Long Engagement is a better Jean-Pierre Jeunet film. I suppose someone else might claim they prefer his Alien: Resurrection, because film appreciation is subjective.
86. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002) — HSI & NHOI. And this stars Julianne Moore, so it is odd that I thought this was an Algerian WWII film.
85. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, 2009) — Agree. The best film set in a French prison that I have ever seen, and I include whatever Pink Panther movie that Clouseau gets himself sent to jail in.
84. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013) — Agree. But it should not be above A Prophet.
83. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001) — Agree. Fitting that it should be adjacent to Her.
82. A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2009) — Agree. My review for this is from 2010 so it is about 30 words long.
81. Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011) — HSI. Fassbender + McQueen. I do not know any male friends who have seen this movie.
80. The Return (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2003) — Disagree, underrated. In fact, if I watched this again I bet I would rate it even higher than X2: X-Men United. That said, I did rate it higher than Return of the King, so I am not totally blinded by nerdom.
79. Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000) — Disagree, overrated. I almost strongly disagree because this fine film is generally overrated, but Jason Lee is wonderful in it.
78. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013) — Disagree, overrated. The Departed is overrated too, but at least it is still pretty much great. This is possibly even more self-indulgent than Almost Famous. No, I take it back, that is nigh impossible.
77. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007) — HSI. Mathieu Amalric is the paraplegic main character, and he also played a Bond villain.
76. Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003) — HSI. I do not watch von Trier’s movies because he sounds like an abusive jerk and I do not wish to support that kind of directing. And I just happen to have not seen any of his movies.
75. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014) — HSI. I have not seen it but I want to.
74. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012) — HSI. I wish I could unsee James Franco with grills.
73. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004) — HSI. I have not seen any part of this trilogy.
72. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013) — HSI & NHOI. I am sensing a pattern that favors the self-indulgent filmmakers. Still, his Broken Flowers is my favorite Bill Murray film. Seriously.
71. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012) — HSI & NHOI.
70. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012) — HSI. In fact I forgot that this movie existed.
69. Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015) — HSI.
68. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001) — Agree. Not Anderson’s best work, but appropriately located between Moonrise Kingdom and his best film. To avoid spoiling the list I will put the name into Russian, Отель Гранд Будапешт.
67. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008) — Disagree, underrated. One of the seven times of the past 45 Academy Awards to have my choice for best film actually win.
66. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (Kim Ki-duk, 2003) — Agree. An eye-opening Korean film for me. It reminds me of beauty, tranquility and sadness.
65. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009) — HSI.
64. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013) — HSI & NHOI.
63. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, 2011) — HSI.
62. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009) — Disagree, overrated. I like this movie. It has some really great tension in it. But it is far from great.
61. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013) — HSI. I need to see this, especially since I find Scarlett Johansson such a fantastic actress.
60. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006) — HSI & NHOI.
59. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005) — Agree. One of the finest moments of film for the burgeoning 21st Century came in a scene where the protagonist’s son stands up to his bully. *Crowd goes wild* And then keeps punching. *Some people stop cheering* And punching. *Awkward silence ensues* Cronenberg gave the audience what it thought it wanted and taught an important lesson about art, pop cultures, and schadenfreude. If I had not seen this at Doc Films (UChicago) I wonder if I could have fully appreciated that scene and this film as a whole.
58. Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembène, 2004) — HSI & NHOI.
57. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012) — HSI. The whole alleged glamorizing of torture was a major turnoff for me. It is not that I get squeamish, which I do, but that I know how susceptible I am to persuasive storytelling and how much I hate when things get awkward. I will root for detainees to crack and for the investigators to do anything they can. And I do not want to do that.
56. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr, director; Ágnes Hranitzky, co-director, 2000) — HSI & NHOI.
55. Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski, 2013) — HSI. I meant to catch this one too since it played locally.
54. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011) — HSI & NHOI.
53. Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001) — Strongly disagree, overrated. There are a couple excellent songs on the soundtrack.
52. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004) — HSI & NHOI.
51. Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) — Strongly agree. A five star movie that was only #3 on my Best of 2010 list.
50. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015) — HSI & NHOI.
49. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, 2014) — HSI.
48. Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015) — HSI. Was advised just yesterday to avoid this film.
47. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014) — HSI. Recognize the director’s name? He did The Return.
46. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010) — HSI. Recognize the director’s name? He did #98, which I also have not seen.
45. Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013) — HSI.
44. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013) — Strongly agree. Earlier I said only 7 Oscar Best Pictures winners lined up for me since 1970. That is because I did not watch this until 2015 and it does not appear on my Best of list. But was it better than Captain Phillips? This list appears to think so as that film does not even appear on it.
43. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011) — HSI. See above. I did used to love Kirsten Dunst though.
42. Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012) — HSI.
41. Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015) — Strongly disagree, overrated. Read my review to learn why. Or do not bother since it will probably make you mad because you love it so much. It is better than Minions though.
40. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005) — HSI.
39. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005) — Disagree, overrated. This is a good movie and it looks beautiful. Malick’s The Thin Red Line could have had this spot, except it came out in 1998. Remember The Thin Red Line? It was the WWII film with an amazing ensemble cast that you did not go see because you had just seen Saving Private Ryan.
38. City of God (Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002) — Agree. Best Brazilian film off all-time. Unless you include Rio. Then your opinion is invalid.
37. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010) — HSI & NHOI.
36. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014) — HSI & NHOI.
35. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000) — Disagree, underrated. I thought I would be out of underrateds by #35, but I think that is what I have to say. I have it as my 10th best film of the 00s and the best of 2000. The ending brings tears to my eyes every time I watch.
34. Son of Saul (László Nemes, 2015) — HSI & NHOI. Sounds intense. I know when I watch it I will become filled with rage.
33. The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) — Strongly agree. I am listening to the sound track right now! Has Hanz Zimmer ever done a better job than on this soundtrack? Has Christian Bale ever done a better job of acting? Yeah, I suppose he is even better in Rescue Dawn. Sure 2008 was a weak year for movies and according to this movielog Dark Knight was a better movie than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But as time has passed I not only feel that Dark Knight should not be considered the best film of the 00s (according to IMDb in 2011 and still in 2016), but that it should probably be right where this list has it.
32. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006) — Strongly agree. Continued analysis from Dark Knight and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: this was #9 on my best of the 00s, just ahead of #10 Crouching Tiger and behind #6 Dark Knight, but actually is better than Dark Knight. Maybe I should revisit my best of the 00s? Maybe add Wet Hot American Summer in there somewhere.
31. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011) — HSI.
30. Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003) — Agree. This is the lowest spot I would agree with for the most famous Korean film of all-time. It is a great litmus test for what disgusts different people. Rest assured, if you watch it, you will be disgusted by something in this pinnacle of the Korean revenge genre. The only revenge film I can think of on its level is the highly polarizing Irreversible.
29. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008) — Disagree, overrated. A very good movie that has a great look to it and an important message.
28. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002) — HSI. I had clearly heard of this film, but a movie about people talking while their loved ones are in comas sounds underwhelming. I have found some of Almodóvar’s other movies to be pretty good.
27. The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010) — Strongly disagree, overrated. This is an average film for Fincher. At least the list is correct about his upcoming entry. Also, the soundtrack for this was overrated as well.
26. 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002) — HSI. I have heard nothing but amazing things about this.
25. Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) — Disagree, overrated. This is a great movie and belongs at the start of this list. In fact, just switch it with Inception and wonder at how far Nolan has come as a director. It does showcase how amazing Guy Pearce is as an actor though.
24. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012) — HSI. I just never seem to watch PTA’s films.
23. Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005) — Strongly disagree, overrated. I put this movie on par with The Social Network. That said, this is an international collection of opinions and Caché had a very foreign style to its suspense (French family receiving invasive recordings of them).
22. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003) — Disagree, overrated. I fell in love with this movie and saw Scarlett Johansson as a woman for the first time (she was great as a teen in Ghost World). This was also an interesting version of the world weary Bill Murray. This is the highest rated movie directed by a woman on this list.
21. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014) — Strongly agree. Wes Anderson is a great director and this is his finest film. Birdman beat it for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, which is interesting since Birdman did not make this list. I think that is very telling regarding the Academy’s self-adoration of film and demonization of critics. It is worth noting that Alejandro G. Iñárritu has no films on this list, despite several Oscars and a few more nominations. And Sr. Iñárritu is not an American.
20. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008) — HSI. And I have been to Schenectady, NY dozens of times in my life.
19. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015) — HSI. I bet I will love it.
18. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009) — HSI & NHOI.
17. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Del Toro, 2006) — Agree. 2006 was an odd year for cinema. The Departed won for Best Picture, even though it was seen as Martin Scorsese’s lifetime achievement award. In fact, the Hong Kong original version Infernal Affairs, is generally considered a better movie (I like the Hollywood ending better). That said, 2006 was an amazing year, and has been appropriately represented with this film and The Lives of Others. I do not cry at the end, but I always come close. The Lives of Others actually got a couple of tears. But the shocking one missing is perhaps too American of a film to be appreciated, or simply has been avoided as “too soon” when it came out—United 93. That is 111 minutes of spellbinding suspense with about 40 minutes of tears coming out. It is not a tear jerker and it does not make me sob, but it is just such a powerful experience that my body needs a physical manifestation to the overwhelming emotion.
16. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012) — HSI.
15. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007) — HSI.
14. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)— HSI & NHOI.
13. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006) — Strongly disagree, overrated. Best remembered for an extremely long single shot. If such a feat impresses you, then watch Russian Ark, which is filmed in one continuous shot. It takes place at the Hermitage and includes time travel. The action is better in Children of Men, though.
12. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007) — Strongly Agree. The story fit his strengths to a tee. To a T? I have never seen the expression written down.
11. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)  — HSI. I do love Oscar Isaac though.
10. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007) — Disagree, overrated. I put this at 6th best of 2007, so that would not leave room for much else if I did not think this was overrated. A fine tale though with good acting.
9. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011) — Agree. A powerful, challenging and insightful look into divorce in Iran.
8. Yi Yi: A One and a Two (Edward Yang, 2000) — HSI.
7. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011) — Strongly disagree. If New World was a stretch to make the list, then this is a leap of faith.
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004) — Disagree, overrated. This is a masterful film and while it is not perfect, it certainly belongs on this list. Just not better than #30.
5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) — HSI. I know, I’m a bad person.
4. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001) — HSI. A really, really bad person.
3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) — Strongly disagree, overrated. Good performances derailed by bad music and an unintentionally humorous ending, remember the milkshake which Daniel Plainview drinks up?
2. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000) — Agree. Wong Kar-Wai is an amazing director and everything just fits together. Having Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung as his stars worked perfectly.
1. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001) — Disagree, overrated. In my opinion this is David Lynch’s finest film. I saw this in a theater with fools who did not appreciate it, and thus exposed themselves by laughing and cracking jokes simply because Lynch was too complicated for them on a Friday night.  While I do not agree that it is the best film of the past 16 years, it is great and deserves more attention than it has garnered in the past.

Final tallies:

Never heard of it (and have not seen it): 20/103
Have not seen it: 54/102
Have seen: 48 – 47%
Strongly disagreed: 12/48 – 25%
Disagreed: 15/48 (total disagrees 27/48 – 56%)
Agreed: 13/48 (total agrees 21/48 – 44%)
Strongly agreed: 8/48 – 17%
Overrated: 21/48
Underrated: 6/48

Thus the median film is one I have not seen, but if I have I disagreed with its position and thought it was overrated. Taking underrated movies into account (even excluding movies like Mulholland Drive and Eternal Sunshine that absolutely deserve to be on the list despite receiving disagree/overrated) my median film does deserve to be on the list. Having never compared numbers like this before, I do not know if I find this list to be accurate or not, but I am starting to think so. It certainly does have a lot of wonderful films, and tells me that there are more recent films that I need to watch.

The Best Batman

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Everybody loves Batman. If asked, most people would probably not trust an ultra-wealthy vigilante with sadistic tendencies who spies on people. But if Batman asked you help him, you know you would. Herein I will address the cinematic Batmen only. This means that Frank Miller’s Batman versus Scott Snyder’s Batman and Kelley Jones’ Batman1 versus Neal Adams’ Batman will not be addressed here. Someone else probably made those lists and once I finish writing this I will probably try to find them.

 

BRUCE WAYNE/BATMAN (l) Michael Keaton in Batman; Val Kilmer in Batman Forever; George Clooney in Batman & Robin; Christian Bale in The Dark Knight

BRUCE WAYNE/BATMAN
(l) Adam West in Batman: The Movie; Michael Keaton in Batman; Val Kilmer in Batman Forever; George Clooney in Batman & Robin; Christian Bale in The Dark Knight.

Chronologically:

Adam West (1966-1968) – This was my first Batman so it is hard to be overly critical of the version of a character that made me fall in love with said character. As an actor, West’s performances were amazing. He never let the absurdity of the scripts crack the crucial veneer of the caped crusader’s crime-fighting career. By playing it so seriously and so whole-heartedly, children bought in and parents loved to watch it with them. Still, as far as Batmen go, he was extremely lame, like a more physical Jeff Goldblum character from the 90s.

Michael Keaton (1989-1992) – Michael Keaton’s Batman sometimes felt less like Batman than Adam West’s did. Revisiting the movies his Bruce Wayne was a very good character, but his Batman was kind of a schmuck. Planes with machine guns mowing down a crowded Gotham street seems like something people trying to kill Indiana Jones might have second thoughts about. And they were nazis. Plus, Batman gets upstaged by his villains in both movies. He lacked the detective skills that help make Batman a well rounded borderline sadistic sociopath.

Joker and Batman fighting in Batman: Mask of The Phantasm, © WB 1993.

Joker and Batman fighting in Batman: Mask of The Phantasm, © WB 1993.

Kevin Conroy (1992-present) – The voice actor behind the Batman from “Batman: The Animated Series” and the resulting movies, such as Mask of the Phantasm. After Adam West got me to fall in love with the character, Conroy shaped my conception of the ‘true’ Batman. Thus I am biased towards Conroy and want to put him at #1. His Batman looked amazing. He looked tough, yet human. Solved crimes as well as used violence. He had the style of Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne and Tim Burton’s Gotham, but with good storytelling, character development, and a fully formed reality. This Batman taught lessons like Adam West’s, but in a less ridiculous fashion.

Val Kilmer (1995) – Physically he was the first to fit the description of a Batman. His fighting skills were good and he improved the deep Keaton voice. His Bruce Wayne was less convincing, but almost no points deducted for that. He did lack some of the brutality helpful to the role of Batman. Also, Robin stole his batmobile. Maybe he should get credit for hiring a 25 year-old instead of a young teen, though. It may fly in the face of tradition, but seems much more reasonable than a 13 year-old fighting crime.

George Clooney (1997) – Bat nipples + Joel Schumacher = the incorrect assumption that Batman & Robin had killed comic book movies stone cold dead.2

Christian Bale (2005–2010) – Oh Dark Knight Rises…how many points does Bale lose for quitting his crusade against crime? Even with that flawed premise, he does make a great Batman. His Batman had the right balance of fun and rage. While he is not the darkest Dark Knight, he does show the most fascism (in Dark Knight). He also cracks some jokes, which show how his Batman is not really as far from Val Kilmer’s, as it might have seemed. Lastly, I liked the Batman voice,3 despite the parodies it engendered.

THE LEGO MOVIE. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. © 2014.

THE LEGO MOVIE. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. © 2014.

Will Arnett (2014) – I love Will Arnett and I love Batman. I do not love Will Arnett as Batman. He has a low voice which helps, but he mostly sucks in The Lego Movie. But the movie was pretty good, unlike Batman & Robin.

Ben Affleck (2016) – I know that if I pick Affleck as my number one Batman that it will elicit an angry response from most readers. My biggest complaint with Affleck’s older Batman is that I do not have enough Batman to work with, since he has not had an entire film’s worth of Batman-ing under his belt. Still, he convincingly plays a Batman who has been through years and years of a crusade. He beats Superman down. Like, more so than even in The Dark Knight Returns. The difference is that Dark Knight, in that graphic novel, has an endgame more elegant than killing Superman.4  Some people do not like how Batman could kill or be tricked, but he has done both in his long history—including in Dark Knight Rises.

Ben Affleck as Batman, calling out Superman in the aptly titled Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, © WB 2016.

Ben Affleck as Batman, calling out Superman in the aptly titled Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, © WB 2016.

Rankings:

8. George Clooney
7. Will Arnett
6. Michael Keaton
5. Adam West
4. Val Kilmer
3. Ben Affleck
2. Kevin Conroy
1. Christian Bale

 

1 I wrote Kelley Moench first, which is amusing because the writer/artist team was Dave Moench and Kelley Jones.
2 June 20, 1997 Batman & Robin is released. August 21, 1998 Blade is released. So assuming Blade took only 8 months to make, give or take 3 months, comic book movies were “dead” for at most 9 months. 
3 I also loved Tom Hardy’s Bane voice. Although not casting a Latino for the role was close-minded of Christopher Nolan, since the character is South American and the only Latino/a I can recall from the trilogy was Det. Ramirez.
4 People generally use the term “graphic novel” to mean respected comic books. It has been wildly overused. Comic books are light and thin. Trade paperbacks are softcover collections of comic books. Hardcovers are trade paperbacks, but with a hardcover. Graphic novels initially meant a hardcover/trade paperback that contained new material, thus skipping the comic book phase. It has been expanded to include works that are initially released as comic books, but meant to be read together. Thus a mini-series can qualify, but a story arch in an on-going series would be less likely to meet that criterion. Anything more than that, would be uncivilized. 

Spy Hard & The Crap Barrier

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Marty (Ernest Borgnine).

Marty (Ernest Borgnine).

Marty has a runtime of 90 minutes. Do you know Marty? The 1955 Academy Award winner for Best Picture starring Ernest Borgnine as a butcher who falls in love with Betsy Blair. Yeah, I have not seen it either, but I know someone who did that said it was a sweet movie. In any event, it is the shortest film to win Best Picture in academy history. That fittingly sets the bar at how short a movie can, or should, be. According to Kevin Smith, the ideal length for a comedy is 97 minutes. 8 of his 11 movies come within 7 minutes of that goal. All but 1 (Dogma) come within 10 minutes of it. Whether or not you like him as a director, the man clearly has skills as an editor and can put together coherent stories with good comedic timing and appropriate doses of comedy. I do not know if 97 is a magic number, but what I do know is that movies that come in under 90 minutes tend to be crappy.

Now there are exceptions to the rule. Smith’s Red State was only 88 minutes, but so was Jon Avnet’s 88 MinutesRed State was pretty good, while 88 Minutes was definitely not. And Jon Avnet can direct well, in fact he directed Fried Green Tomatoes. FGT comes in at 130 minutes. This is probably because FGT had lots of good acting and interesting dialogue from which to choose, unlike 88 Minutes which could not even cobble together 90 minutes. Therein lies the premise of my theory—short movies are short because they do not have even good stuff to reach 90 minutes. There is no corresponding converse of this, where long movies are necessarily good ones. The Transformers movies have all been over 142 minutes, with the latest, and probably crappiest, clocking in at 2 hours 43 minutes. Each one of those could have been a less bad 88 minute movie than it was at full length, if only because it would have wasted less of the viewer’s time in telling its incoherent, poorly designed plot with terrible and occasionally offensive dialogue.

Another exception to this is the phenomenal comedy Office Space, which is 89 minutes long. That is truly a great movie and can be forgiven for coming up a minute short. It also highlights that this 90 minute “crap barrier” is a warning sign, not a determining factor. Just like when movies have the cast and crew tell me how good the movie is, instead of just showing a trailer. Does that mean that they could not splice together even 90 seconds of enticing material? Maybe, but I have yet to see a movie that was advertised in that manner that did not suck. Maybe The BFG will be good because Steven Spielberg directed it and he has two Academy Awards and only directs one not good movie each decade, which is amazing. The runtime may be correlated to the quality, but it does not cause a movie to be a good or bad.

Leslie Nielsen in Spy Hard, © Hollywood Pics. 1996.

Leslie Nielsen in Spy Hard, © Hollywood Pics. 1996.

I wanted a vehicle to discuss my long held theory, and then I saw Spy Hard available on Netflix. Netflix listed the runtime at 81 minutes…a solid 9 under the crap barrier. Now I watched the movie on VHS in the 1990s, but as a 14 year old, so I might have been too mature to appreciate it. Maybe twenty years later I would like it better. While watching I made a list of all the times I laughed out loud, and here is that list:

  1. In a nightclub a man wearing a shirt that says “I ♥ to party” gets a knife thrown into the heart symbol, and says “Why…” with a pained and confused look on his face.1

Okay that is the entire list. That said, thinking back to the scene made me smile and I started to laugh again. I have another list though, this comprises of all the other parts of the film that have any merit:

  1. “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Spy Hard theme song and video. Is it one of his best songs? No, but the parody of the classic Bond imagery is done well and the lyrics are solid.

Yup, that was it. The plot serves merely as a vehicle to move from unfunny parody to unfunny parody. James Bond was clearly pitched as the idea, but the movie takes aim at dozens of popular films from the late 80s and early 90s. In no particular order, they go after SpeedIn the Line of FireSister Act AND Nuns on the Run2Mission: Impossible, Cliffhanger, “The A-Team”, True Lies, E.T., Rambo, Jurassic ParkPulp Fiction, and Home Alone. None of which was funny. Literally everything about this movie was bad, with the exception of I Love to Party and the theme song. It makes Dracula: Dead and Loving It look like the original (almost 5 star) Naked Gun. Directed by Rick Friedberg in his sole feature film outing, the story stars Leslie Nielsen playing Leslie Nielsen AKA Dick Steele, Agent WD-40. Did reading Agent WD-40 make you laugh? If so, then you should watch this movie and then please never vote in an election again. Or drive a car. You might hear someone fart on the sidewalk, crack up, roll into the intersection, and cause a collision. Just stay home and enjoy more movies. I recommend the ones that are under 90 minutes.

1 Proofreading this post I started to laugh again remembering the scene. Unfortunately no clip or screenshot exists because no-one cared enough to make that happen.
2 I had to add this to IMDb because it has somehow been overlooked! It stars Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane. I remember it being very amusing when I saw it as a kid. Although it is only 89 minutes…

Under Appreciated Supporting Actors III

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What qualifies an actor as underrated? I hope this explains it—Paul Giamatti. There was a time, at around Almost Famous, when he was underrated, but now he is considered one of the best character actors ever, right? So that’s not underrated! And he went from being a supporting actor to a leading actor in 2004 with American Splendor. So he ditched both qualifications of being an under appreciated supporting actor.1

MaryMaceachran

Kelly Macdonald as Mary Maceachran, stuck in the rain outside of Lady Constance Trentham’s car in Gosford Park, © 2001 Universal Studios.

Sometimes an actor or actress comes along who the world knows will be great. In The Princess Bride they “introduc[ed]” Robin Wright, and they were right to have done so. The same came be said for Kelly Macdonald. She gets the “introducing” credit in Trainspotting. The way she played what in American slang is known as “jailbait” was riveting. You could not blame Ewan McGregor’s Renton for being overpowered by her young alpha female Diane. She immediately showed acting range by then portraying–four years later–Mary, the best maid Dame Maggie Smith ever had—no offense, Downton denizens. Macdonald’s great Scottish accent continued to come in handy, particularly when voicing Princess Merida in BraveBut she can do a fine American accent too, just watch her play Josh Brolin’s wife in the Academy Award winning No Country for Old Men. Her amazing credits continue from Anna Karenina, Harry Potter2, through Tristram Shandy, Finding Neverland, Elizabeth and the BBC’s State of Play. But this is not intended as an essay solely about how wonderful Macdonald is.

Captain Dudley's men in L.A. Confidential (Michael McCleery & Arana), © 1997 Warner Bros.

Captain Dudley’s men in L.A. Confidential (Michael McCleery & Arana), © 1997 Warner Bros.

Macdonald had a wonderfully expressive, yet subtle face. Our next actor, Tomas Arana, has mostly been called upon to express stoicism throughout his roles. Under that stoicism burns something. It can be indignation, fear, or hatred. He has probably been cast so many times, that when you spot him, you know his character is a man who will do whatever it takes to get the job done. He elicits fear that his slender 6′ frame should not generate. Yet he has stood up to a Roman Emperor (Quintus, Chief Praetorian – Gladiator), sabotaged a nuclear submarine in a suicide mission (cook’s assistant/KGB agent Loginov – The Hunt for Red October), tried to reason with the mad, violent Ronan the Accuser (Kree Ambassador – Guardians of the Galaxy), fought the Nazis (Ben Zion Gulkowitz – Defiance), tried to have Jason Bourne captured (Deputy Director Marshall – Bourne Supremacy), fought against good acting (the JVCD Derailed, not the Jennifer Aniston one), enforced corrupt LA police plans (Det. Bruening – LA Confidential), tried to kill Wyatt Earp (Frank Stillwell – Tombstone), valiantly tried to save a later season episode of Miami Vice as a hitman, and firstly rose from the dead as Lazarus in The Last Temptation of Christ.

Seaman Jones (Courtney B. Vance) and his captain, Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn) on board the US Dallas, The Hunt For Red October, © 1990 Paramount.

Seaman Jones (Courtney B. Vance) and his captain, Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn) on board the US Dallas, The Hunt For Red October, © 1990 Paramount.

Keeping in the realm of cool supporting performances in The Hunt for Red October, Scott Glenn’s Captain Bart Mancuso has to do everything, fortunately, he is Scott Glenn. He plays the serious submarine captain, he plays the annoyed you made us stop following the target you want us to find to come pick you up type, he gets in a few deadpan jokes, and he eventually learns to trust his lifelong foes. His most recent role was appearing as “Stick” on “Daredevil.” I recognized him by his hands and his voice…and he was speaking a Chinese language at the time! That said, his worst performance/roll was in the underseen and underappreciated Sucker Punch. He shows up to spout fortune cookie wisdom in the fantasy sequences, and again as the bus driver who takes Baby Doll to freedom. If he could not make those lines sound good, then no one could have, not even Irrfan Khan, not even Benedict Cumberbatch. For a good movie in which he is given a good role, check out Training Day. As Roger, he has an easy rapport with Denzel Washington, and manages to have dignity as he tries to weasel his way out of a death he is mostly incredulous of.

Crowe & Zurer as Superman's birth parents in Warner Bros. Man of Steel, © 2013.

Crowe & Zurer as Superman’s birth parents in Warner Bros. Man of Steel, © 2013.

Glenn only has one appearance so far on “Daredevil”, whereas our next actress, Ayelet Zurer, has nine. Does that mean she is nine times the actor that Scott Glenn is? I do not think so, but she has certainly kept a lower profile than Glenn has—in my view at least. I was surprised to recognize her while rewatching Man of Steel as Jor-El’s (Russell Crowe’s) wife Lara Lor-Van. She has a nobility in that role, a nobility that also appears in Vanessa on “Daredevil”. As an Israeli she did an excellent job of seeming like an Israeli in Munich, as Eric Bana’s wife. Her realism lent credibility to his. Munich is a great movie, while Angels and Demons is not, however, she did every bit as good of a job as Audrey Tautou did in the female lead next to Robert Landgon–Tom Hanks–in this European mystery adventure role.

Lindsay Duncan as Servilia on Rome.

Lindsay Duncan as Servilia on Rome.

Angels and Demons took place in Vatican City, inside Rome. Another work set in Rome was HBO’s appropriately named show “Rome”. On “Rome” Lindsay Duncan’s Servilia manages to make you, at times, pity her, loathe her, be wary of her3, and fearful for her. She has several career highlights on TV, “Rome” being just one of them. She was on an episode of “Sherlock” where she solicits Sherlock’s aid in the return of compromising documents. She gets to be fun, and light, and potentially a murderer on “Poirot” with the “Murder on the Blue Train”. Her husband is 20 years her junior, but they seem evenly matched because of her vitality. In a much more dour role, she plays Lady Elizabeth Longford on the excellent made for TV movie Longford. If you long to see her in something on the big screen she certainly provides gold in Birdman as The Critic. She pours all of her bitterness and bile into one character—an imperfectly conceived straw man who gets Michael Keaton’s and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fury unleashed upon her. If her performance had been only fractionally less excellent then the most important scene falls flat. González Iñárritu receives at least one fewer Oscar. Or maybe he receives none at all. All of that resting on the shoulders of the eighth billed actor!

It was so hard to find a shot of her from the movie. The Internet pretty much failed me.

Inara Serra (Baccarin) in Serenity, © 2005 Universal.

As infrequently as I have thought of the above two actresses, I have frequently thought of Morena Baccarin. She was enchanting as Inara on “Firefly”, and wonderful again reprising that role in the film adaptation, Serenity. I felt bad not watching shows like “V” when she played a short-haired alien leader. In the trifecta of Spy, Deadpool, and “Homeland”, she plays the wife of a traitorous soldier, the girlfriend of an assassin, and a traitorous CIA Agent. Someone get this woman a role playing a nice woman who spends time with nice people!

Bill Murray & Stephen Tobolowsky as Ned Ryerson, in Groundhog Day, © 1993 Sony Pics.

Bill Murray & Stephen Tobolowsky as Ned Ryerson, in Groundhog Day, © 1993 Sony Pics.

Stephen Tobolowsky has had a 40 year career without ever getting a leading role. He has 243 acting credits on IMDb! To pick and choose from that long of a career is challenging, so instead I will list his performances that instantly come to mind: Groundhog Day, “Deadwood”, and Sneakers. He uses his eyeglasses in a way that makes it seem impossible for anyone else to have tackled these parts. Every time he touches them out of frustration, fear, arousal, etc…he conveys so much about who his character is, even when given only a scene or two in a movie.

Eater's of the Dead is my favorite Michael Crichton book.

Olga (Maria Bonnevie) tends to Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan (Antonio Banderas), in The 13th Warrior, © 1999 Touchstone.

Now I am going off the board with an actress whom I have never recognized, but who has impressed me in the three things I have seen her in. This past year I went to Seattle’s International Film Festival (SIFF) and the first movie I saw was A Second Chance. Therein Maria Bonnevie stole the show as a mother whose baby dies one night, and whose detective husband replaces said baby. There is something off about her and I could not take my eyes off her in any scene. Also, back in her twenties she had two good performances in 13th Warrior, and Insomnia.4

The Nihilists in The Big Lebowski (Torsten Voges, Stormare & Flea). © Universal Studios, 1998.

The Nihilists in The Big Lebowski (Torsten Voges, Stormare & Flea). © Universal Studios, 1998.

As I mention below, Bonnevie’s films have been unfairly criticized. On the other hand, Peter Stormare’s films have been criticized on an amazingly accurate level. Think about his crappy films: Bad Boys II, Armageddon, and Mercury Rising. All correctly mocked. Now think about his okay films: Minority Report, The Last Stand, The Brothers Grimm, and The Lost World: Jurassic Park. They elicit mixed feelings, yet each has at least one undeniably positive attribute. And lastly think about his great films: The Big Lebowski and Fargo. Those two are justifiably ranked in the pantheon of great films. I have mentioned before how I doubted that I had ever heard Stormare’s actual accent since every five people who read this probably conjure him using a different accent. Today I hear his Russian accent from on the Mir5 space station in Armageddon.

This lost to Braveheart? Come on!

Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite) threatened by McManus (Stephen Baldwin) & Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) in The Usual Suspects, 1995.

Another supporting actor with a variety of accents who was in The Lost World is Pete Postlethwaite. He is our last actor in this installment of Under Appreciated Supporting Actors. His passing shortly after the release of The Town made our loss the more poignant for having seen that he still had his acting chops. It is impressive how many films of his I had forgotten him from: Inception, The Constant Gardener, Amistad, Romeo + Juliet, and Dragonheart. As the only Englishman on this list he has done his nation justice by upholding the tradition of the versatile English character actor. Our collective corpus of communal culture would be less colorful if it lacked the corps of classically trained English actors, like Pete Postlethwaite.6

I hope you have enjoyed my most recent list and give one/some/all of these actors a chance. And try keep an eye on the supporting actors who may lack Daniel Craig’s stare and stature, but are crucial to their Bonds nonetheless.

 

1 According to me.
2 She plays the Grey Lady. Seriously, I had to look this up.
3 I tried to find an appropriate verb for parallel sentence structure, but failed. If you have one, let me know, so I can edit this post to make glorious benefit (to paraphrase Borat).
4 Since she is Swedish she was in the 1997 Swedish original version of Insomnia. It appears that A Second Chance and 13th Warrior are victims of unfairly harsh criticism. Regardless, she is great.
5 Mir, or Мир in cyrillic, means “world” and “peace”, which is a wonderful dual meaning, much better than Aloha/Shalom.
6 I’m sorry, but once it started I couldn’t stop myself.

Yeah, but…The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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Jumping right into it! There is lots and lots more from the book. For someone who loved the book it was great to get almost the full Beorn scene. Getting more of Mirkwood makes the mishaps of Thorin’s Company all the more meaningful and effective. Getting more Lake Town shows a clearer culture. Even more of Dol Guldur means we get to see Gandalf’s encounter with Thrain although it comes chronologically differently from the book. Thrain–Antony Sher–is great. Especially when he delivers a warning against the Dwarves reentering Erebor.  As with An Unexpected Journey, the effect of the extended edition is a universal improvement. Especially before they get to Lake Town, once there the quality plateaus at the theatrical release level (****). Still, Desolation was a better movie than Unexpected Journey and their extended editions hold true to this trend. One benefit to having a smaller screen is that any CGI that was less than 100% convincing looks flawless now. The stunning views look less impressive, but as an equalizer I like it. What a visually arresting film.

Thrain1

Thrain in Dol Guldur, 2013 WB, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

****½

It might be cheating to reference the special features, but they do a great job of making me realize just how much of the film my brain accepted as real. Even in shots where I identify things as impossible, there are artificial elements which fell into the “actually there” column in my brain. The same is true for scenes shot months apart and hundreds of miles distant.

While I touched on this in my original review, the special features explained why Peter Jackson strives for such ugliness in his villains. Well it does not address the problem, but based on what he says and his goals, I can deduce what was going on. Firstly, Peter Jackson likes “cool” things. This mindset comes from his favorite childhood memories and his desire to share those feelings with the world, especially with children. By itself that is a noble sentiment. Secondly, as a child he liked movies with dynamic camera movement and special effects. Those things seemed cool. Thus making movies seems cool so he makes movies and in making them he tries to include the aspects he liked. Thirdly, he started by making horror movies. In traditional cheap horror flicks it is cool to gross out the audience. Ugliness is one way that he can create that gross out. Fourth, he is a short Hobbit-ish man who acknowledges the beauty in elf types. Thus in The Hobbit Thorin Oakenshield and Kili look the least Dwarven. What this leaves us with is a world where the attractive people are all good and the grossest people are all bad. In his defense, not all good people are attractive—and not in the subversive way that a movie uses a less attractive friend merely to highlight how hot the lead is—so I do not think the dichotomy exists in Jackson’s mind. His goals and his method of “more is funnier/grosser” produce a world with the negative message that beautiful people are inherently superior, and that the ugly and deformed are inferior and evil. So I understand how he can create a Middle Earth where this negative message pervades, without meaning or knowing that it exists.

Yeah, but what about Bombur and Radgast!  They are unattractive and even a bit gross. Bombur has that monk’s balk spot and is super fat. He is always eating. But he is a good guy. And Radagast is one of the three (five whatever) wizards! But his face has caked on bird poop. And not just a little bit either. To that I say, but where is the handsome villain? Thranduil–Lee Pace–is quite handsome and he imprisons the dwarves, which is a bit villainous. But he is no spider or orc. No there may be progress in the unattractive heroes, but without a dashing Alan Rickman type, or Charlize Theron, the message still stinks.

 

 

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