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-

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-

Pensées #5: Disney Making Waves

Remakes of classics don’t generally garner much excitement. Curiosity maybe, but think of films like The Truth About Charlie, The Manchurian Candidate (with Denzel), or the shot for shot remake of Psycho starring Vince Vaughn. Those aren’t horrible movies, but the consensus seemed to be, “Who cares?” or “What’s the point?” More successful remakes usually benefit from the original film being unfamiliar to a large number of people. How many people have seen every version of A Star is Born? What superstar diva you think of when I say, “A Star is Born” likely depends on your age, and my point is that Judy Garland’s greatness (in the 1954 version) didn’t affect most of Lady Gaga’s audience (for the newest version), because the majority of them haven’t seen the former. Disney doesn’t have this advantage. Most people across the world have seen Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Mulan, The Lion King, and so on. These movies are universal. I don’t believe any remake, regardless of what they do, can measure up to their animated origins. None of the remakes that have come out so far have even remotely altered my opinion on that, and yet, I’ve enjoyed the lot of them, and more important to Disney, with the exception of Dumbo and Alice Through the Looking Glass, they have made a massive amount of money at the box-office. I suppose it’s a credit to how beloved these stories are that people are willing, and excited even, to see them told again, with the surprise, freshness, and mystery gone.

To this point, the remakes have emphasized faithfulness to the source and that’s paid off. Over the past week or so, however, news of The Little Mermaid and Mulan has caused a stir, because absolute faithfulness is certainly gone from these two. I’ll start with The Little Mermaid because there’s very little known about it except for two interesting casting choices. Ursula, one of Disney’s best villains, will be played by Melissa McCarthy. McCarthy is a great actress but the reaction to her casting appeared mostly negative. It’s hard to gauge because Twitter is a fake-outrage machine, but my thoughts are that she’s not scary. She’s proven she can do great dramatic work, but can she be threatening? A lot of times, when an actor is miscast as a villain, they are forced to overact to make up for their lack of natural ability to be intimidating (see: Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor). We’ll see. To be fair, I doubted Heath Ledger and look how wrong I was. Bigger news was made when Halle Bailey (whom I’m unfamiliar with) was cast as Ariel. Halle Bailey looks like this:

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This is interesting. Is it a sign that the new Little Mermaid is willing to be different, or is it superficial? Do we want The Little Mermaid to be different? In any case, the filmmakers, I have no doubt, looked at a countless number of young actresses and found Bailey to be the best one for the job. I’m sure she’ll be great. I’m now very curious as to whether Prince Eric will be black. There has never been a black male love interest in any of these films. Not even in The Princess and the Frog. I expect the support for black Ariel to be strong and, provided that the rest of the film holds up, to lead to huge box-office returns.

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Almost coinciding with The Little Mermaid news, a trailer for next year’s Mulan remake released yesterday. The trailer showed off a live-action Mulan that appears vibrant, stirring, and well-crafted. There’s also a conspicuous lack of singing, romantic interest, and Mushu. Live-action Mulan is apparently going its own route and I’m slowly trying to get on board. I’ve complained about films like Beauty and the Beast being exactly the same as their source, so how can I complain now that one is daring to be different? I am skeptical though. Will Mulan be entertaining? It’s still a Disney movie. No Mushu or cricket leaves a huge hole for comic relief. No Li Shang likely means no romance. No musical numbers is just so disappointing since that music is great, and what they’re selling sounds a lot like pandering to China’s burgeoning movie theater market. What is this new Mulan? A gritty, serious PG war film? I’m not feeling that.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

Pensées #4: Oscar Voting

Since its inception, the Academy Awards have been about more than just the performance someone gave or the job someone did on some film that year. There are all kinds of external factors that decide who goes home with a trophy. When Humphrey Bogart won Best Actor in 1952, it wasn’t because his performance in The African Queen (as memorable as it is) was better than Marlon Brando’s in A Streetcar Named Desire. It was because Brando was the new kid on the block, and Bogart had paid his dues. He should have won three years earlier for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a film he wasn’t even nominated for. Career appreciation is a big factor pretty consistently at the Oscars. I think it will come into play again this year with Glenn Close finally winning. I haven’t seen her film yet, and for all I know, she gives the best performance of the year. She’s a fantastic actor. But even that being the case, you can’t tell me her career and six prior nominations with no win (a record for women) don’t come up at all in voting.

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A new consideration has cropped up in recent years with the emergence of #Oscarssowhite. Look at the three years prior to that episode, that backlash, and the three years since. In the Best Supporting Actor category, Mahershal Ali will likely win this year, making that twice in three years. In the Best Supporting Actress category, if Regina king wins for If Beale Street Could Talk, that will be two black actresses in 3 years, with Viola Davis winning 2 years ago. I think this will help Spike Lee potentially pull off an upset, though lord knows he should have won this thirty years ago for Do the Right Thing.

I kind of want the Academy Awards to just reset and do away with the “they should have won already, so let’s make up for it now.” Attempt each year to recognize the best or most impactful job done in each category for that year. Get rid of all the external noise. Won’t happen, and no one will be upset if Glenn Close and Spike Lee win. They’ve been great for a long time.

I’m not smitten with any of the Best Picture nominees. If I could hand out the award, it would go to Hereditary, and most people would be put out because most people don’t enjoy gory horror films. That’s the best film of last year though as far as I can tell, but if I’m voting on what’s on the ballot, I’d vote BlackKklansmen. I’d vote Rami Malek for Best Actor for his incarnation of a music legend. Mahershala Ali for Best Supporting, though he likely doesn’t need my vote, and Spike Lee for Best Director. I’d vote Lady Gaga for Best Actress and leave Best Supporting Actress blank, having not seen The Favourite yet.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

Pensées #3: Oscar Nominations 2019

So it begins. Oscar nominations morning. Always a day of outrage for me. Always a few snubs. Always a few head-scratching nominations. This year is nothing new. I will say, since I’m basically indifferent to all of last year’s crop of films, I’m less upset and surprised than in recent years.

Best Picture

Black Panther


Bohemian Rhapsody

The Favourite

Green Book


A Star is Born


I’m surprised by the nominations for Bohemian Rhapsody and Vice, which received middling reviews. No one is surprised by Black Panther’s “historic nomination” after the Best Achievement in Popular Film idea fell through. Too much pressure on the Academy to nominate it. There was no choice. No, I don’t think it’s great, nor do I think it’s worthy of the nomination. Think about this: The Dark Knight, no nomination. Black Panther, nomination. That’s absurd. What’s the favorite to win among these films? Green Book seemed to carry some momentum, but then some trumped up controversy surfaced, perhaps hurting its chances. Is it really going to be cookie cutter Bohemian Rhapsody? I’d rather Roma become the first foreign language film to win.

Best Director

Happy to see Spike Lee finally get a nomination for Best Director. Unbelievable that he was snubbed for Do the Right Thing almost thirty years ago. That was my first thought in seeing these results. Second thought: I guess I need to see Cold War now. I didn’t here any experts predict Pawlikowski’s nomination, so that was definitely one of this year’s surprises. So too was McKay’s nomination. With the prominence of anti-Trump sentiment, it feels like politics have creeped into this year’s votes. It certainly looks like it’s Cuaron’s year for another win. The Oscars chose not to nominate Peter Farrelly, director of Green Book, most likely due to news of his flashing coworkers in the past. Is it too callous to say who cares? Not the most egregious of controversies, but enough to keep him off the list, apparently. No female nominees. Someone alert the whiners.

Best Actor

No surprises here. Oh wait, Willem? Love Willem Dafoe, but I’m shocked to see him here. If you wanted to nominate an arthouse performance, it should have been Ethan Hawke. I believe his was the best performance of the year. As for the five nominated, I’d put early money on Rami Malek.

Best Actress

I’d heard rumors, so the nomination for Aparicio isn’t out of nowhere, but I’m not very positive about it. Especially since Toni Collette was left off for her powerhouse turn in Hereditary. Predictable. The Academy just refuses to appreciate anything in the horror genre. Really, any genre. Genre films are the best films. Let’s put these five performances in a time capsule along with Collette’s and see which ones we’re still watching ten years from now. Congratulations to Glenn Close on nomination number 7, I believe the record for most nominations without a win. I’m thinking this is the year for her to take home a trophy.

Best Supporting Actor

I’m happy with this category. It’s consistently the most reliable, least upsetting every year. All fine performances (in my opinion, though my friend’s unhappy with Elliott’s nom), and Mahershala Ali should be a lock for the win. That’d be 2 in 3 years.

Best Supporting Actress

I’m not sold on either of the two nominations Roma received in the acting categories. Regina King appears to be the obvious choice here. That would make it six nominations with no wins for Amy Adams. On a side note, I hate when actors with leading role screen time get nominated in the supporting actor category. It’s ridiculous. Emma Stone is the latest. Think Rooney Mara for Carol, or Timothy Hutton for Ordinary People. If there’s no room for them in their right category, then don’t nominate them.

This year’s results seem more influenced by outside pressures than ever before. I’d go so far as to say the Academy is pandering. Something they should never do. Pandering is the opposite of prestige. I think they checked off all their little boxes besides female director.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

Pensées #2: The Oscars 2019

I’m not sure what to expect from the Oscars this year. We are 9 days away from nominations being announced and a mere month and a half away from the actual show. I’ve been wondering for a while when the producers would pick their new host, but now, through a basic google search, learn that this year’s Oscars will be without a host, and will simply have a series of presenters. That sounds awful, though it’s not without precedent apparently. Another basic google search reveals that the 1989 Academy Awards went on without a host. Looking at reviews of that ceremony doesn’t inspire confidence. Gregory Peck, Julie Andrews, Paul Newman, and Billy Wilder called it an embarrassment.

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*Overreaction warning:* The backlash Kevin Hart received and subsequent resignation from Oscar hosting duties is yet another example of ultra-toxic Twitter ruining the award ceremony. Twitter junkies, people who have no power whatsoever in reality, have found a malignant sense of power on social media, but it only works en masse, and it doesn’t mix well with reason. Why are you, the Academy, listening to them?

Kevin Hart shouldn’t have to apologize for bad jokes made several years ago, especially when he’s already apologized. Whether you’re a fan of his comedy or not, Hart has a considerable fan base, and he’s an entertainer. He’s capable of handling this enormous job, or, I guess, he was.

As only a moderate fan of Hart’s, the bigger issue to me is that I’m afraid we’ve seen the last of edgy comedians hosting the Oscars. Every comic worth his salt has a joke or two in their past that will get them disbarred by the Twitter PC authorities. If it’s true, as has been reported, that no one wanted to host the Oscars before the Hart blowup, then it’s doubly true now.

I’ve already shared my feelings on 2018 as a film year. In a word, weak. Naturally, the Oscar nominations in a week or so will reflect the lack of strong candidates mainly in the Best Picture category (there were many fine performances this year). Bohemian Rhapsody won the Golden Globe’s equivalent of Best Picture. That’s almost absurd. It’s an entertaining film, and I certainly won’t be upset about a Rami Malek victory, but the overall picture is lacking. Since the quality of candidates is down, how about some parity? A grand mystery: what will win this year’s Best Picture. Every year, we’re pretty sure what will win or we know it’s between two films. This year: How about shock and awe?

The Golden Globes granted some clarity in terms of award season favorites. I wouldn’t be upset if the Globe winners in the acting categories carry over into the Oscars. Malek and Ali’s performances I’ve seen, and would like to see rewarded. I haven’t seen Olivia Coleman’s performance in The Favourite or Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk, but those are two films I eagerly anticipate watching.

If Alfonso Cuarón wins his second Oscar this year, that would make it 5 times in the last 6 years that a Mexican director has won Best Director. Quite an impressive run made by three talented artists. A foreign film has never won Best Picture, but what if this was the year? I’d almost be disappointed since Roma is not a masterpiece in my estimation, and I wish something like Pan’s Labyrinth or Talk to Her took the honor.

Actors don’t seem to realize that the Oscars is a show, and as such, needs to be entertaining. I’m crossing my fingers for a sense of pace, some showbiz razzle-dazzle, and a limited amount of self -aggrandizing motivational speeches. Also, I might agree with an actor politically, but that doesn’t mean I want to hear about it in this setting.

RIP to the Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. You were a horrible idea, and I’m so glad that you will never see the light of day. What does achievement in popular film even mean? If they were going to go through with this award, instead of handing the winner a trophy, they should have them stand in front of the podium as a bucket of Nickelodeon slime flips over and spills its contents all over them. Has anyone said yet whether the other horrible idea (technical awards being handed out before broadcast) was scrapped also?

-Walter Tyrone Howard-