20: Omaha Beach

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

I’m blown away that Saving Private Ryan did not win the Academy Award for Best Picture in ’98, and shocked that it lost to Shakespeare in Love of all things, a cute film that doesn’t even begin to measure up to Spielberg’s World War II masterpiece. As I continue my list of favorite film scenes, I’m bringing up the Omaha Beach scene from the latter. It stands out as the best in the film, a technical tour de force to this day; a wholly realistic immersive sequence. The scene is really around forty minutes long, essentially the film’s opener if you discount the graveyard framing device (which I find unnecessary), and around a fourth of the entire film’s runtime. There are a few things I notice, when watching it, that strike me as brilliant filmmaking. First, Spielberg shoots in tight close-up or obscured wide shot for most of the beach sequence. You can never get a proper bearing for where anything or anyone is, and the tension that creates is exacerbated by Spielberg never showing the enemy. It’s just chaos and violence. There are a couple of other details that might be clichéd now, but were really fresh the first time I saw the film, and still work effectively. One is the water and blood hitting the camera. I’ve seen this a few times since, but I’m not sure I’d ever seen it before Saving Private Ryan. A nice touch that creates a kind of guerrilla filmmaking feel that belies the massive Hollywood studio undertaking that Saving Private Ryan actually is.  The other memorable detail is the slow-motion, sound distorted portion of the scene where Captain Miller is traumatized.  Truly just a crafty way to show the protagonist struggling with the overwhelming experience.

-Walter Howard-

25 Films for Christmas (2018)

Think of all the Christmas classics: It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Elf, White Christmas, A Christmas Story, Christmas Vacation, Jingle All the Way. Alright Jingle All the Way is not a classic, but I still end up seeing it every Winter. There’s a solid half-dozen Christmas films put out each year, but becoming a perennial holiday favorite is rare and elusive. What makes a Christmas movie endure? It’s a Wonderful Life quite famously wasn’t a hit in its own time, only achieving its towering status as an All-American Christmas masterpiece much later, through reruns on television. It takes a certain kind of magic that I’m not sure can really be qualified or broken down into anything tangible. Perhaps that could be something to ponder as I start my self-directed challenge. To the point: I plan on watching 25 Christmas movies over the next 55 days, and writing a review, as well as adding some personal details about how I watched it and my experience, for each one. Like most people, I have my Christmas favorites that I’ll likely mix in, but I would like to focus on ones I either haven’t seen or have only seen once. It’s my way of getting into the spirit of the holidays. Yes, it is a bit early, but I’ll need the extra time if I want to achieve this goal. Fifty five days gives me basically two per film and review, which I think is lofty enough to keep myself motivated, but also manageable. Here’s a short list of Christmas films I’ve made. These are ones I’m less acquainted with, if at all:

The Christmas Prince (2017)

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The Polar Express (2004)

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A Christmas Carol (2009)

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This Christmas (2007)

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Four Christmases (2008)

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Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

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The Muppets Christmas Carol (1992)

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Scrooged (1988)

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The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

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Meet Me in St Louis (1944)

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Any other suggestions? Watching these with my regularly slated lineup of films should put me over my goal of 25. It starts now.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

10 Films I Actually Haven’t Seen

I’ve seen most movies. I’ve withstood numerous questions challenging my expertise, and all manner of trivia. Whatever type of film you want to throw at me, I’ve probably seen it: Bollywood, Martial Arts, Horror, ’30s Screwball Comedy, Surfer films of the ’60s, Italian Giallos, Westerns, European prize winners, flat out horrible films, what-have-you. But, alas, I haven’t seen every movie, though it’s my nonviable dream to do so. And, at the end of the day, if I had seen every film, what would I have left to do with my life? In any case, once a year, I make a list of a 100 films I haven’t seen that I deem most crucial for me to watch. Here are 10 films off of that list that would surprise people who know me.

American Sniper                                                 2014

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Why haven’t I seen this yet? I ask myself this question. Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring an Oscar nominated Bradley Cooper, American Sniper was a massive hit, making over $500 million world-wide. My first thought was, “it must have come out while you were in bootcamp.” Looking at its release date, I can see that’s clearly not the case. I was in college when it came out, and had plenty of time to stop by the local theater. I really don’t remember why I missed this film in theaters, and since then, I’ve just gone by, pretending I’ve seen it when talking to friends or family. Enough is enough. Time to watch it. It’s not even that I’m not interested. Who knows?

Armageddon                                   1998

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I haven’t seen Armageddon, because it looks like a bad film. I haven’t enjoyed a single Michael Bay movie I’ve watched, and, despite the dozens of bad films I find amusing, his movies don’t even provide a basic camp level of entertainment. They’re big, long, loud, and dumb, but it’s important to me not to judge a film before I’ve seen it. I may have already written Armageddon off in my mind, but it’s time I give it its fair chance. People seemed to like it (not critics, critics aren’t people). It made $550 million.

The Babadook                2014

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Here’s a film I started, really enjoyed, but was then cut off from. External circumstances. This Australian horror film received rave reviews upon release. A rare horror flick directed by a woman, apparently a promising new talent, Jennifer Kent, The Babadook is really my kind of movie. It’s been on Netflix for quite some time now, so my excuses are moot. Watch it! I’m sure by the time I sit down to watch it on Netflix, it will be gone.

The Blair Witch Project                        1999

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Not all that interested in this one. Seems a bit gimmicky, and I missed the moment. It was a colossal hit in 1999, a unique point in movie history, better remembered for its innovative marketing campaign than for its product. It was one of the earliest pictures to make use of the internet in terms of advertising. Is the movie itself good? I’m really the only opinion I trust, so I’ll just have to watch and see for myself.

A Clockwork Orange                             1971

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Both film and novel, I’ve started and stopped A Clockwork Orange a half dozen times now. Both film and novel are seated at the top of my to-do list. As for the film, directed by the great Stanley Kubrick, I know it’s going to be a rough watch, but at some point, I need to suck it up, and push through.

District 9                                     2009

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Using an alien invasion as an allegory for apartheid in South Africa, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 hit in a big way. It earned back 7 times its budget, and received 4 Oscar nominations including Best Picture. I don’t know what’s keeping me from seeing this. In truth, there are certain films that I have an irrational indifference to, and District 9 is one.

Paranormal Activity                  2007

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I missed this supernatural found footage film, and by the time I looked up again, there were already like 5 of them, watering down the whole product, making me not care. Still, I’ve heard it was legitimately scary, and well-made, so I’ll give it a shot.

The Seventh Seal                  1957

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I’ve seen a dozen Ingmar Bergman movies; a couple I love, some I hate, most I found boring. I haven’t seen his most famous work (at least internationally) which is The Seventh Seal starring Max Von Sydow as Death incarnate. A film buff needs to see this film. It’s as simple as that.

The Ten Commandments              1956

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This 4 hour epic rendition of Moses’ story is one of the biggest hits of all-time. I’ve seen bits and pieces, but have never sat down on Easter and watched it from start to finish like so many people.

Tokyo Story                                       1953

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Again, a true film buff has seen Tokyo Story. I have the means (I’ve owned a copy for some time now), and it’s just a matter of watching it. I guess I hear the film described as leisurely paced or languid and I get intimidated.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

What If? 5 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 for 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 afterwards 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, than 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 effected 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. Here’s Tarintino on what could have been:

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-

 

 

 

 

5 Films of October (2018)

October. The month of Halloween. The month of Halloween movies. And, this year, the month of the Halloween reboot. Perhaps my favorite month of the year. October 2018 looks stacked. One exciting film being released after another, but, I hate to be purely optimistic. That’s why I’m going to Jekyll and Hide the five films I’m most intrigued by this month; play devil’s advocate with myself. Here goes:

October 5

A Star is Born

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Directed by Bradley Cooper           Starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga

Walter: 95% on Rotten Tomatoes would seem to suggest that director and star, Bradley Cooper, has pulled it off; it being a remake of an oft told story. All eyes will likely be on Lady Gaga, getting her first real star vehicle. She’s talented, Cooper’s a strong actor. That should be enough to sell A Star is Born 2018.

Tyrone: I’ve seen enough bad movies directed by actors to last me a lifetime. I don’t discourage their ambition to try and branch out, but, more often than not, the film turns into a vanity project. Bradley Cooper has given himself a plum role as an alcoholic with a country accent. Accents+sickness=Oscar Bait. The best version of A Star is Born is the 1954 musical starring Judy Garland and James Mason. That film knew to give Garland the spotlight. Will Cooper allow Lady Gaga to shine?

Venom

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Directed by Ruben Fleischer          Starring Tom Hardy

Walter: Hardy is an exciting actor. He’s never really had a starring role in a huge mainstream movie. With Venom, hopefully he brings something interesting to the somewhat obscure anti-hero.

Tyrone: Hardy’s mainstream attempts as the lead suck. Venom is a dumb character, and the fan base for this Marvel creation isn’t big enough to justify the blockbuster treatment. The trailer did little to change my mind. I don’t recall the context (it doesn’t matter), but Tom Hardy as Venom actually utters the line, “like a turd in the wind.” I don’t know anyone who’s happy  about the PG-13 rating. I’m predicting a box office bomb and critical failure. I’m also predicting that I won’t know what Hardy is saying.

October 12

First Man

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Directed by Damien Chazelle    Starring Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy

Walter: An immersive look at Neil Armstrong’s quest to be the first man on the moon. Another critical favorite and a sure-fire bet for later Oscar consideration. Chazelle’s first two films were Whiplash and La La Land. That’s a good track record.

Tyrone: La La Land was overrated, and I’m not that interested in space travel. I thought Gravity was boring

Bad Times at El Royale

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Directed by Drew Goddard        Starring Jeff Bridges and Chris Hemsworth

Walter: The trailer is a knockout. Seven strangers with secrets clash in a secluded hotel. Directed by Drew Goddard, who gave us the insane Cabin in the Woods. I love a good mystery.

Tyrone: This looks extremely similar to Tarantino’s Hateful Eight.

October 19

Halloween

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Directed by David Gordon Green       Starring Jamie Lee Curtis

Walter: Great slashers are few and far between. The original Halloween is one of the very best, and so, I couldn’t be more amped up for this reboot. Jamie Lee Curtis is back, and all the lame Halloween sequels (I don’t consider Season of the Witch a Halloween movie) are forgotten.

Tyrone: I don’t have any negative expectations with this film. I have huge expectations, and the only risk is it not measuring up.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

 

 

Sex in Film isn’t Interesting

Here comes an article from the old cantankerous man in me: 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).

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.

-Walter Howard-

People Don’t Know How to Drive on Film

Still, after 90 plus years of cinema, actors remain unconvincing behind the wheel. They barely watch the road, or they turn the wheel incessantly, or they talk over their shoulders which would sprain any actual drivers neck. I can forgive classic Hollywood bad movie driving. The actors would climb in a car set in front of a screen that projected their surroundings later. One xample: To Catch a Thief (1955)

Keep in mind, this is by Alfred Hitchcock, one of cinema’s great masters. Keep in mind also, I’m not pointing to the old fashioned special effects, which are still rather effective. I’m looking at Grace Kelly’s simulation of driving. She, at least, keeps her eyes on the road convincingly, but she’s turning the wheel every other beat, which has become the standard for fake film driving. Why? Are actors afraid that if they don’t turn the wheel enough, we won’t buy into the illusion? Nobody turns the wheel that much when driving.

The thing is fake driving on film is still pretty bad more often than not. It’s not juts an old fashioned thing. Sixty years later, you still have these examples of poor driving:

No, it’s not that dire. It’s just amazing to me that director’s don’t point this out. It’s become a pet peeve of mine. Any time there’s driving in a film, I’m watching the technique.

-Walter Howard-