Pensées #8: Alternate Casting Choices

What if games are as futile and inane as trying to keep a body count in your head while watching Death Wish 3- you can’t change time-and yet, they’re fun. Recently, I’ve been imagining certain films, great films even, with different actors in key roles. How dramatically that changes the film is a case by case situation, but there’s no question it reshapes each one. What follows is my five favorite alternate casting choices. I left off films that were beyond redeeming, such as The Last Airbender, which suffered from poor casting, but even with solid casting, couldn’t be saved. Most of my picks are great films that I feel could be even greater with these surrogate actors. Here goes:

Will Smith in Django Unchained

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This was so close to happening. Tarantino wanted the superstar for the title role but was apparently turned down by Smith. Django Unchained was the best movie of that year, and Tarantino is one of the best filmmakers going, so I’m more upset about what Smith missed in his career than what Django Unchained lost. I’ve heard that Smith wanted Django to be the one to kill Candy (ultimately played by DiCaprio), and was pushing back on a number of plot points. Why fight a Tarantino script? It’s a shame since I really think Smith would have been fantastic in the role, as good as Jamie Foxx is. Smith has star power, and it would have been a bold move in his career. Instead, he did After Earth with his son, Jaden, trying to make him a star, and hasn’t fully recovered the box-office power he once had. You can’t stay on top without taking risks. Once you lose your power to surprise people, you lose your power. I really think Smith missed a huge opportunity.

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To be fair, he came out afterward and had this to say, “It was about the creative direction of the story. To me, it’s as perfect a story as you could ever want: a guy that learns how to kill to retrieve his wife that has been taken as a slave. That idea is perfect. And it was just that Quentin and I couldn’t see [eye to eye]. I wanted to make that movie so badly, but I felt the only way was, it had to be a love story, not a vengeance story. We can’t look at what happens in Paris [the terrorist attacks] and want to f— somebody up for that. Violence begets violence. I just couldn’t connect to violence being the answer. Love had to be the answer.” Alright, you can’t fault an actor for having principles, though I disagree with his assessment. If it really was all about principles, and disagreeing with the heart of the film, then that’s his prerogative.

Denzel Washington in Seven

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Here’s another example of a star actor who turned down a great role. Denzel Washington was David Fincher’s first choice for the role of young detective, David Mills (a role that finally went to a very good Brad Pitt). Not that it has affected Washington’s career much, if at all, but can you imagine him paired with Morgan Freeman, who was just incredible as Detective Somerset? The two had already worked together in the classic Civil War drama, Glory. Seven would have been among Denzel’s best films, and would have benefited from both actors’ gravitas and charisma.

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Denzel, himself, later commented that he passed on the role because he felt that it was “too dark and evil.” He says when he saw the finished product, he kicked himself. David Fincher wasn’t an established name at the time, having only directed one film, Aliens 3, which was, well…I can see it being difficult wanting to go out on a limb with that material with an unproven director.

Mel Gibson in Mad Max: Fury Road

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This choice is slightly different. Mel Gibson, to my knowledge, was never offered the Mad Max role that Tom Hardy played in Fury Road. It’s also different because Mel obviously originated the role in the landmark trilogy starting back in 1979. Mel Gibson is Mad Max, and no disrespect to Tom Hardy, who did an admirable job of putting on the shoes, but I don’t want to see anyone else in that role. I’ve heard talk about the reason for the switch being that Gibson was “too old,” for the role. I shake my head at that. I think old Mel Gibson could have been the best Mad Max yet. Picture the barren apocalyptic setting of the franchise. Picture all the death and destruction, and then picture an old, grizzled Gibson somehow surviving and outliving everyone and everything, even though he probably longs to die. That could have been incredible. Yes, Fury Road was great, and the best of 2015 already, but I truly believe it could have been better still. The real reason Gibson wasn’t hired, or likely considered, was that he was still in the doghouse for his boorish behavior several years prior.

Michelle Williams in The Great Gatsby

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Michelle Williams could be a great Daisy Buchanan. Carey Mulligan, who is an extraordinary actress, failed in my mind to make the requisite impression. Partly, I’m sure, the fault of the filmmakers, her Daisy gets lost in the shuffle, and becomes scenery. Leonardo DiCaprio and Joel Edgerton completely overpowered all of the other actors. Mulligan said about her performance, “I’m not sure if I kind of lost my way because I was intimidated by the scale of it. I think I might have been overawed by my experience and intimidated by the level of performances around me. It was how big it was and how visual it was. I definitely felt there were fleeting moments where I really found the character and then I felt like I lost her a little bit. I’ve never been wholly thrilled about my work in it.”

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Williams’ performance as Marilyn Monroe in the film, My Week with Marilyn, really suggested to me that she was capable of handling this iconic, fictional, woman as well. Daisy, aloof, vapid, superficial, among such weighty male roles is a very difficult challenge. Actors are taught to get to the root of a character’s motivation, to give them depth, but that’s contrary to how the role of Daisy needs to be played, and then, on top of that, it’s directed by Baz Lurhmann, so there’s music blaring, choreographed dance numbers all around. It’s easy to get lost in the maelstrom.

Robert Downey Jr. in Inherent Vice

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Robert Downey Jr. as Doc Sportello seems like a no-brainer to me. Sportello is a weed smoking, wise-cracking, counter-cultural private eye in early 1970s Los Angeles. Instead, Anderson reteamed with Joaquin Phoenix, 2 years after their sublime work together in The Master (2012). Phoenix mumbles his way through this 2 and 1/2 hour snooze fest. I didn’t like this film at all, and maybe I just missed the point completely, but I think Downey Jr. could have helped. He, at least, would have been intelligible and might have brought some wit to go with the film’s aimless style. Downey Jr. was considered for the role, but was shot down eventually for being “too old.” That’s kind of bizarre to me.

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-Walter Tyrone Howard-

Pensées #7: Sex in Film isn’t Interesting

Here comes an article from the old cantankerous man in me, but every other Hollywood R rated film has one: the obligatory sex scene. On average, it’ll last 5 seconds with an emphasis on the upper body accompanied by bedroom sounds. It’s not difficult to picture the behind the scenes mechanics of a Hollywood sex scene. Many actors have spoken about how awkward they can be. Setting aside the tedious details of how simulated sex scenes are done, attempting to look past any prudishness I have, I simply don’t think sex scenes are ever very good, and that’s not reserved for Hollywood. Perhaps there’s a bias that comes with being an American, but for me, as opposed to violence in film, sex scenes, in general, are not interesting cinematically. Sex scenes, simulated or unsimulated, are not romantic, they’re not sexy, they’re rarely realistic, and they’re always reduced to the same level (regardless of the acting or technical talent involved).

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I can think of one handful of exceptions, but the majority of sex scenes aren’t sexy. When I think of sexy or romantic scenes across film history, I think of Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps playing basketball together in Love and Basketball (2000), Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis sharing a passionate kiss at long last in Witness (1985), James Stewart and Donna Reed sharing a phone call in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson struggling over a soppy book in Remains of the Day (1993), Daniel Day-Lewis unbuttoning Michelle Pfeiffer’s gloves in The Age of Innocence (1993), just off the top of my head. These scenes all built up dramatic tension through writing, acting, staging, what-have-you. How many different ways can you stage a sex scene? What’s the last sex scene that was filmed in a way you hadn’t seen before? I don’t think it even matters, because my main grievance with sex scenes, and maybe this only applies to me, but they all work on the same level, and sure they’re appealing on a base level, but not on any level I respect. Have you ever watched a sex scene and been impressed or moved by the performances? I haven’t. It doesn’t matter if it was Oscar winner Cate Blanchett or Playboy Playmate Shannon Tweed, no one is watching the acting. No one is thinking about the movie. If there is nudity involved in a scene, no one is thinking period. Can anyone relate Little Finger’s back story (this is a Game of Thrones reference, so not a movie, but my point remains)?

Violence in cinema can serve any number of purposes. It can give a film weight (Unforgiven), setup suspense (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), provide dark humor (Pulp Fiction or Fargo). Violence can even be aesthetically beautiful (which I’m sure many object to) as in Jean-Louis Trintignant’s sacrifice in The Great Silence. Nine times out of ten, sex scenes are just there for me to ignore awkwardly with my family or friends.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

Little Women (1994, Directed by Gillian Armstrong) English 10

Starring Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst, Gabriel Byrne, Christian Bale, Trini Alvarado, Claire Danes, Eric Stoltz, Mary Wickes, Samantha Mathis

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(10-Masterpiece)

Consummate. Wonderful. Moving.

Adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic, and probably the best adaptation, though there’s been several. The story of Jo March (Ryder) and her sisters, Meg (Alvarado), Beth (Danes), and Amy (Dunst/Mathis) unfolds; their trials and moments of happiness detailed as the years pass. It’s simply a wonderful movie made from a wonderful book. We come to care for each distinct character, but especially the heroine, Jo. This adaptation boasts lavish visuals and a beautiful score. It also captures the joy and sadness of life’s constant passing as the March family perseveres.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(701)

Matinee (1993, Directed by Joe Dante) English 7

Starring John Goodman, Cathy Moriarty, Simon Fenton, Kellie Martin, Omri Katz, Robert Picardo

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(7-Very Good Film)

Amusing. Fun. Nostalgic.

Set in Key West during the ’60s, a young Naval brat, Gene Loomis (Fenton) deals with a new school and new home at the height of the red scare. He escapes through B movies, and when he learns that his favorite director, Lawrence Woolsey (played by John Goodman), is coming to town to promote the new movie, Mant!, he’s determined to help. Terrific fun, nostalgia for some, I’m sure, and excellent time capsule for all. It’s a loving piece of cinema by a director (Dante) who built a career on monster movies himself (Gremlins, The Howling).

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(700)

Pensées #6:Faith-Based Films Aren’t Any Good

It isn’t the subject matter that holds me back from movies like I Can Only Imagine (2018), Fireproof (2008), War Room (2015),  God’s Not Dead (2014), God’s Not Dead 2 (2016), or God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness (2018). It isn’t a case of religious discussion making me feel awkward, I’m sure. I can handle it. Besides, making someone uncomfortable, believe it or not, can be in service of a superior film.  My problems with the newly popular genre of “faith-based movies” is that they aren’t any good.

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True, some are better than others; we’re starting to see talented actors attached to these small films. Many of them make an enormous profit: I Can Only Imagine made $85 million on a $7 million budget, for example. However, I’ve yet to see a movie that falls under the “faith-based” label that was interesting beyond replacing your end of the week sermon.

They are not challenging. Obviously, a sizable audience likes this. I don’t. I can look at the trailers for most in this genre, and tell you what’s going to happen, and what the moral will be. The resulting feeling is that of hearing a sermon. I don’t want sermons from film. I don’t think much of messages (whether they’re religious, political, social) in film. Themes are what give movies depth and what makes them last; themes, complexity, ambiguity. I look at literature, at some of my favorite novels, Silence by Shusaku Endo for example, and I would call this a faith-based novel. Catholic priests in the 17th century persecuted in Japan grow involved with underground worship, skirting the country’s strict laws against Christianity. The premise alone is intriguing, but Endo created a protagonist, Father Rodrigues, who was self-righteous and looked down on the native Japanese, so that the narrative has an extra-dimension of interest with Rodrigues’ personal arc, climaxing with his moment of shame, but resulting in his being humbled. Silence deals with themes of questioning God, feeling like God is being silent in your life, and forgiving those who’ve wronged you, but Rodrigues’ personal growth and these themes are understood through inference and a thoughtful examination of the text, not spelled out in some wrap-up to close the novel.

There have been recent films that aren’t often associated with the faith-based set, that are, in my opinion, stronger works. Calvary (2014), starring Brendan Gleeson as a priest in a small Irish town who’s told in confession that he will be murdered by the end of the week, deals with the tragedy of Catholic priests molesting children in a way that’s really powerful, funny, sad, and surprising. Maybe that’s the key word that’s missing from many faith-based flicks: surprising.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

I, the Jury (1953, Directed by Harry Essex) English 5

Starring Biff Elliot, Peggie Castle, Preston Foster, Margaret Sheridan

(5-Okay Film)

Standard. Forgettable. Confusing.

B-Movie all the way, adapting one of Mickey Spillane’s dime store novels into a decent enough but never special noir film. As far as I could tell, the classic protagonist, Mike Hammer (Elliot) wants revenge for the murder of an old friend which takes him through several hard to follow plot points. Like all Hammer stories, it’s impossible to keep up with the mass of characters and their individual motivations. Unlike Kiss Me Deadly (1955), the best Mike Hammer film, here the lack of coherence becomes grating after a while. Elliot does a passable job displaying the violence of Mike Hammer, but can’t capture the intelligence of the character. There are some cool stylistic things that make the movie passable as a means of entertainment, but it shouldn’t be at the top of any lists.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(699)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016, Directed by David Yates) English 6

Starring Eddie Redmayne,  Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Samantha Morton, Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp, Ezra Miller, Jon Voigt, Ron Perlman, Carmen Ejogo

(6-Good Film)

Entertining. Inferior. Uneven.

Prequel of sorts to the Goliath Harry Potter series of books and movies, this new venture from J.K Rowling follows Newt Scamander (Redmayne), a diffident magizooligist tasked with tracking down the magical creatures that have escaped from him in 1920s New York. Several subplots weave through this film, their significance gradually revealed. Along the journey, we meet Jacob Kowalski (Fogler), a non-magical baker, Tina (Waterston), a kind, but currently in disgrace former auror, and her sister, Queenie (Sudol).  It’s all done reasonably well, but lacks a strong villainous presence like we had with Voldemort, and the protagonists took a while to get going. Jacob and Queenie stood out more so than Scamander and Tina. The creatures should take top-billing.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(698)