Pensées #11: Christmas Challenge Week 2 (2019)

I don’t get sentimental about much. Movies are the exception and Christmas movies especially. I am very forgiving of Christmas films; very slow to judge harshly. The truth is that there are only a handful of great Christmas films. Most are mediocre but appeal to me on either nostalgia or a lightness that I enjoy come November and December. I feel like I’ve already seen every great Christmas movie and I’m not overly optimistic about any new releases coming our way this year. Last Christmas, for example, just released in America to middling reviews. I had hopes that it would be a charming Christmas rom-com but it seems to be another addition to that long list of simply passable holiday fare. What’s left for this upcoming season? Little Women has its Christmas moments and I’m definitely looking forward to it but I don’t know that I’d characterize it as a Christmas film. Then there’s Black Christmas. It looks entertaining, to be honest, but that’s not what Christmas is about. I have to hope that I’ll be surprised by something new this year.

#3: The Grinch

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2018, Directed by Scott Mosier, Yarrow Cheney

(6-Good Film)

Dr. Seuss’ wonderful stories have yet to translate to cinematic gold. There’ve been commercial hits, this version of The Grinch included, but none of them are great and I do think the potential is there for something exceptional. Nineteen years after Jim Carrey’s bizarre but interesting take on the green misanthrope, Benedict Cumberbatch takes over in a much sweeter, animated version. You likely know the story but in case you don’t, it features a hairy green creature, known as the Grinch, who lives life as an outcast in the jolly land of Whoville.  Christmas is the town’s favorite time of year but the Grinch hates Christmas and decides to do something about it. He pretends to be Santa Claus in order to steal everyone’s gifts and sabotage the holiday. The Jim Carrey led Grinch was pretty obnoxious and the Whos were materialistic and unlikable, although I think Carrey was a force of nature in the role. This Grinch is much more likable. It’s a pleasing, beautifully animated picture but suffers from a lack of real menace out of its title character. That’s disappointing. As a result, it’s not funny enough, his transformation not astounding enough, and this rendition of The Grinch ends up being pretty forgettable.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

Pensées #10: Christmas Challenge (2019)

I love Christmas and I love Christmas movies. Though there are only a handful of Christmas films that I consider great, binge-watching more than my share of Holiday flicks is my favorite way to anticipate December 25th. Last year, I attempted to watch 25 Christmas movies from the beginning of November to Christmas Day, and, despite a late push, I fell short by 4 films, eagerly awaiting this new holiday season in order to try again. Same mission: 55 days to watch 25 Christmas movies. This time, I am confident I will succeed. Like last year, I hope to have a good mix of classics like Elf, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, etc. with a host of new movies that I haven’t seen yet. Films like Holiday Affair, Joyeux Noel, and We’re No Angels are on the top of my yet-to-see list.  Netflix has really found a niche in lightweight holiday entertainment and a fair percentage of the movies I watched for the first time last year were on their streaming service. That will likely be the case this year as well. I got a quick start this year, watching both The Nightmare Before Christmas and Netflix’s latest Holiday in the Wild yesterday. That’s 2 down, 23 to go.

#1: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Image result for the nightmare before christmas1993, Directed by Henry Selick

(9-Great Film)

I opened with this film last year. Availability is partly the reason but it’s also obviously appropriate for both Halloween and Christmas. For people like me who like to start Christmas season entirely too early, the Nightmare Before Christmas is perfect for transitioning. It’s also just a wonderful movie. Technically stunning, if you’ve watched it enough times, you might find it interesting to really absorb the visuals frame by frame to consider what exactly the filmmakers had to do to achieve just that one shot. Then consider the seamless movement of the figures. Then the indelible soundtrack. Finally, the story. Jack Skeleton (voiced by Danny Elfman when singing and Chris Sarandon otherwise) reigns over Halloweentown, suffocated by his peers’ admiration and respect. He’s bored with his position in life. Having something close to a midlife crisis, he discovers a world outside Halloweentown which includes Christmastown, leaving Jack instantly smitten. Jack decides he wants to try his hand at being Santa which results in Christmas turmoil before he realizes to appreciate who he is and to be himself.

#2: Holiday in the Wild

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2019, Directed by Ernie Barbarash

(5-Okay Film)

This lowkey romantic drama stars Kristin Davis as Kate Conrad, devoted mother, and socialite wife to a successful businessman, Drew, who asks for a divorce not long after their son departs for college. Left reeling, Kate travels to Zambia where she meets the handsome Derek (Lowe), a local pilot, and the two fall for each other over the course of her extended holiday as she, a former veterinarian, connects with the wildlife, specifically an elephant she helps rescue. I would say the film is way more passionate about animals and wildlife than it is about Christmas. That’s not a criticism. It’s simply that Holiday in the Wild didn’t make much of an impression on me as a Christmas film. It’s a perfectly pleasant but unspectacular hour-an-a-half. About what you would expect. I did like how low maintenance it was, eschewing the trumped-up drama of most films of its ilk.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

Pensées #9: Troll 2 is the Worst

How often do people reach for superlatives? It was the best, the greatest, the most, etc. In many cases, it seems the easiest method to make a point. The same goes for the reverse hyperbole: the worst film of all-time. Whatever movie a person’s seen recently that wasn’t good gets described as the worst film of all-time. I’ve heard people say Titanic is, “the worst film of all-time.” It’s not. Even if you don’t like it, Titanic is nowhere near the worst film of all-time. I’ve seen a large number of very bad films. I’m just as curious about bad films as I am about good films. I try to watch one movie a week that’s said to be terrible. Plan 9 from Outer Space, The Room, Leonard Part 6, I’ve seen them. Because of this, I feel very confident in asserting that Troll 2 (1990) stands below them all. Troll 2 is the worst film of all-time.

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Unlike The Room, its closest rival, Troll 2 has a plot. The Room is a ponderous travesty. It’s profoundly terrible. You know how after watching a great movie, you can’t stop thinking about it? The Room is so bad, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Troll 2, on the other hand, has all the ingredients of a normal film- plot, structure, villains, a climax, a protagonist- but they’re all handled so poorly, the people involved are so talentless, that Troll 2 becomes special in its own way.

Directed by Italian filmmaker, Claudio Fragasso, the man behind Monster Dog with Alice Cooper, who supposedly had a very limited grasp of English, Troll 2 isn’t even a real sequel. Hoping to drift off of “the success” of 1986’s Troll (a film which itself sits at 26% on Rotten Tomatoes), producers decided to call this film about goblins, Troll 2, starring Michael Stephenson as a boy, named Joshua, dragged to the sinister town of Nilbog (Goblin spelled backwards). His parents don’t notice all the odd things going on in this town, nor does his sister, Holly. The only aid Joshua gets is from his dead grandfather, who comes back sporadically (never explained why he can’t just stay and help). Here are my three favorite scenes:

  1. The Dinner Scene- Devoid of logic, and therefore any suspense, this is a hilarious catastrophe of filmmaking. The ghost of Joshua’s grandfather tells him not to let his family eat the green food that they didn’t make, or else they’ll die. No explanation for why the grandfather can’t speak to the other members of the family. To help, he freezes everyone but Joshua for thirty seconds (no explanation for why he has this ability and why it only lasts thirty seconds). The face Joshua makes when seeing his family frozen is priceless. I can’t think of anything that’s made me laugh as hard, and you’ll see the characters that are supposed to be frozen blink. Then you have the fact that he wastes most of the “thirty seconds” (it’s clearly way longer than thirty seconds). At the scenes conclusion, we get a bit of acting from the father, and well…

2. Oh My God!-I’m not even going to try and explain this scene. It was already horrible, but Darren Ewing’s line reading is notorious. His underacting versus the other two actors just chewing up the scenery is a wonder to behold.

3. The Corn Scene-Seduction by corn. No one thinks of corn as erotic, and I doubt anyone ever will. In this scene, the Goblin witch seduces a dumb teen by rubbing corn against her leg, culminating with an excessive amount of popcorn when they start kissing. Inexplicable scene really. Honestly, can’t imagine what the filmmakers thought they were going for here, and I love that the actress playing the witch goes for Oscar gold. She really gives it her all.

Troll 2 is extremely funny and amassed a sizable cult following. The film’s star produced a successful documentary titled Best Worst Movie, dedicated to Troll 2. There are many movies made, designed to be inane like Sharknado or Piranha 3D, but they can’t compare, for me, to Troll 2 in which every actor and filmmaker gives their all, and it still sucks. Just like certain intangible things have to come together for a movie to be great, I think it takes a kind of magic for everything to go this wrong. Best worst movie, indeed.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

Pensées #8: People in Movies Don’t Know How to Drive

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 driver’s 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 example: 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 plenty 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 Tyrone Howard-

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

Image result for denzel washington 1990s

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.”

Image result for the great gatsby 2013

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).

Image result for shannon tweed

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-

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-