I was seven years old when Nicktoons premiered on Nickelodeon in 1991.
The children’s cable network had mostly aired syndicated shows from other networks and was now launching its cutting edge original Saturday morning cartoons with three new shows: “Doug,” “Rugrats” and — the edgy rebellious one — “The Ren & Stimpy Show.”
I watched in anticipation for the new shows and enjoyed all three, but I was enthralled by “Ren & Stimpy.” It was like nothing else I had ever seen in a cartoon, not even “The Simpsons,” which premiered a few years prior.
It was beautifully (and disgustingly) animated with detailed close-up shots and exaggerated emotional expression that displayed madness on the screen. There was sexual innuendo, shocking violence and boiling rage. It wasn’t meant for kids, but it aired in the middle of the day on a network aimed at young children.
A new documentary, “Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story,” chronicles the rise and fall of the controversial cartoon. Directors Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood premiered their movie as part of the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020, a few months before COVID-19 put a halt to in-person film festivals.
For the most part, they tell a pretty standard story of how the cartoon got made and what made it so popular and controversial. Talking head celebrities like Bobby Lee and Jack Black heap praise on “Ren & Stimpy” creator John Kricfalusi for being an eccentric genius who pushed boundaries. The first 30 minutes of the documentary is full of glowing compliments and goes into great detail about what made the show so revolutionary. They interview animators, studio executives and obsessive fans. The usual documentary format.
I haven’t revisited this beloved cartoon in many years, but during the first part of this documentary, I was overflowing with nostalgia and a desire to rewatch this show. As they kept showing controversial clips that slipped through Nickelodeon’s censors, I kept thinking to myself: “How did they get away with this?”
But the troubled artist John K (as he’s called) is — predictably — exposed as a man who’s dealing with some serious mental health issues. He’s described as berating his staff with profanity and slurs. He fights with network executives, telling them to “Go f— yourself.” He refuses to meet deadlines, costing the network millions and leading to delays in episode air dates. He’s finally kicked off the show after submitting an episode in which an abusive dog trainer named George Liquor — based on John K’s actual father — is beaten mercilessly with a boat oar.
Some animators play off John K’s attitude by calling it self sabotage. Others play off his abusive behavior to his staff by calling it “being a perfectionist.”
But something darker seems to be at play.
And then the documentary takes a turn.
I was unaware of the accusations leveled at John K in 2018. I don’t know if I should even call them accusations since he freely admits it in the documentary, but he was never convicted in a court of law.
In summation, John K began writing letters back and forth with a 14-year-old female fan of “Ren & Stimpy” in 1995. He was 30 at the time. He basically was grooming her and then had her move in with him when she was 16. He admits to the sexual relationship and animators admit in the documentary that everyone knew. The victim speaks openly in the movie, saying that he wouldn’t let her leave the house and she still has nightmares about him. The documentary filmmakers question John K firmly but he gives a very weak apology without saying he did anything wrong. He basically says he’s sorry if she feels like she was hurt.
The woman tries to reconcile the art that is “Ren & Stimpy” with the artist that created it, saying: “I understand you need pain to make great art, but that doesn’t mean you need to inflict pain.”
So this is when the documentary sort of makes me angry.
What John K did was criminal (the statute of limitations have passed) and it feels weird that I just watched an hour of people heaping praise on him.
Yes, the cartoon itself was quite genius, but the movie clumsily tries to reconcile the fact that the show has been somewhat tarnished by the reputation of its creator.
There’s a big debate about whether you can still enjoy a piece of art that was created by (or includes) a reprehensible person. Can you still watch “The Cosby Show” or movies that feature Kevin Spacey? Where do you draw the line? Can you separate the art from the artist?
The documentary gives maybe three minutes to these questions and it’s a shame. It almost feels as if the documentary was deep into production when the 2018 Buzzfeed article came out that exposed John K. It’s quite possible that’s what happened, but these two directors should have used that as an opportunity to give more weight to this important subject. I’m not saying you can’t still explore the greatness that was “The Ren & Stimpy Show” but you can’t just tack these sexual assault incidents on at the end.
Furthermore, the documentary never even touches the fact that John K was alleged to have child pornography on his computer.
The smiling talking heads of Bobby Lee and Jack Black never come back on screen to say how these revelations have altered their nostalgia. Again, maybe they were interviewed before it all came out.
In the end, “Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story” is a fascinating look at a controversial show and its controversial creator. I was never bored watching it, but I felt like I needed a shower after the credits rolled. The title of this documentary is very misleading.
In 2001, the satire Web site The Onion ran an article titled, “Alex Winter keeps bugging Keanu Reeves about third ‘Bill & Ted’ movie.”
It was a funny joke at the time because Reeves just jumped into superstardom with “The Matrix” franchise. Many years later, Reeves would solidify his box office status with the acclaimed “John Wick” action series. It’s already been announced that Reeves will reprise both roles in a fourth “Matrix’ movie and a fourth (and fifth) “John Wick” installment.
Meanwhile, Alex Winter has spent the years directing lesser known documentaries and episodes of television series. Not the same stardom.
So it seemed that Reeves was throwing his buddy a bone by agreeing to appear in a third “Bill & Ted” movie. Another reason to love Keanu.
Turns out, the movie was actually worth making. A smart screenplay coupled with top-notch direction from Dean Parisot (who did cult classic “Galaxy Quest”) make this years later sequel much funnier than it ought to be. It’s not a comedy classic that will reel in those that weren’t fans of the first two movies, but it’s not the disaster that “Jay & Silent Bob Reboot” was.
“Bill & Ted Face the Music” includes references to both 1989’s “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and 1991’s “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.” The eponymous duo is much older and still haven’t written the great song that will unite the world, align the planet and create universal peace. Their moment in the sun as a famous 90s rock band has faded and now they’re playing weddings. Their wives — princess they picked up in the 1400s while time traveling in the first movie — are getting fed up with them. The only people who still look up to Bill & Ted are their daughters, played by Samara Weaving (“The Babysitter”) and Brigette Lundy-Payne. Their offspring look and talk like their dads but they seem to know a lot more about music and they are apparently more intelligent too.
Just like the first movie, there are trips back in time to pick up historical figures and just like the first sequel there’s a trip to the afterlife, complete with a very funny cameo by William Sadler reprising his role as Death (he has some of the funniest lines in this movie).
Anthony Carrigan, known as mobster NoHo Hank in the HBO series “Barry,” plays a futuristic robot sent to kill “Bill & Ted” and he steals most scenes he’s in, constantly reminding people in an emotionally insecure way that his real name is Dennis Caleb McCoy.
Reeves gives an admirable performance but Winter actually seems to be better at delivering humorous lines. He needs it more.
Although their voices have changed in the 30-plus years (much deeper and gravelly), the chemistry between the two stars is still there and this new addition is actually quite fun. It’s fast paced and full of silly scenes like the two sequels to “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” but obviously with more Sci-Fi.
In the end, this sweet hearted goofball comedy doesn’t rely on gross-out humor, shocking jokes or political references to be relevant. It’s message about the power of music to unite all people is actually needed right now and it’s quite refreshing. It would be great if we all followed the message from Bill and Ted: “Be excellent to one another and party on, dudes!”
Sometimes people can change the world without becoming incredibly famous.
In the musical “Hamilton,” there are a ton of references to the fact that Alexander Hamilton shaped the U.S. government into what it is today but many everyday people — before the musical came out — didn’t know him as well as Thomas Jefferson or George Washington.
Nowadays, Nikola Tesla is known by more people than he used to be. But he’s known mostly for his name being used on Elon Musk’s car company or the fact that David Bowie played a fictionalized version of him in “The Prestige.”
Most people can’t tell you what Tesla is famous for.
Some would say he “invented electricity” but that’s not entirely accurate.
Most of what I know about this historical figure came from the movie “The Current War,” which I watched a few months ago. Nicolas Hoult played Tesla in a supporting role in a film that really focused on Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, two titans who were battling in the 1800s to see who could have their form of electricity (direct current or alternating current) become commonplace and dominate the market.
You know, Tesla worked briefly for Edison at his company. Edison is who we learned about in second grade. Edison became rich form his inventions. Tesla struggled for money for most of his life and even was a ditch digger for a brief period of time.
Director Michael Almereyda tells much of the same story as “The Current War,” in his film “Tesla,” but with the lesser known inventor as the central figure. He teams up with Ethan Hawke as Tesla and Kyle MacLachlan as Edison, two actors he previously worked with in his superb retelling of “Hamlet” in 2000.
Almereyda tells his story in an unconventional way, having it narrated by Tesla’s love interest, the daughter of banker J.P. Morgan. She breaks the fourth wall, telling us about the Google results of Tesla versus Edison and often it feels like a high school documentary lots of historical explanation. It really gets odd toward the “climax” of the film (or as close as you can get in this movie) when Hawke sings a karaoke version of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears, dressed up as Tesla. It’s poignant but it’s also quite strange.
I’m not sure Almereyda’s film succeeded 100 percent. I kind of loved this movie and yet I kind of hated it. It takes risks and it made me think, but its meandering plot with its strict adherence to historical accuracy felt more like reading a textbook than watching a grand feature.
If you love history, this one might be for you. And there is a central theme: that Tesla’s pursuit of brilliance and world-changing inventions might have completely occurred during his lifetime, but the work he did let to further breakthroughs that changed the world. He died penniless, but not forgotten.
I know movie theaters are closed right now, but this is a film that’s better watched at home and probably by yourself. You don’t want to glance over at your yawning partner who is bored to tears by your rental choice.
The film lacks a real electric charge but you can see the tiny sparks in Hawke’s performance. I mildly enjoyed this film, but I preferred “The Current War.”
In many older films, there were heroes and there were villains. There wasn’t much room for nuance.
Nowadays, the same can be said for the way politicians are depicted in the news.
One channel portrays Donald Trump as a hero and Joe Biden as a villain. Flip to another news channel and the perspectives are flipped. We’re working in extremes and we’re working in absolutes.
Where do you weigh the good and the bad? Where do the scales tip? Can a bad person can end up doing good things, even if they’re doing them for the wrong reasons?
In the early 1930s, one of the most divisive figures was Huey Long, who served as governor and senator of Louisiana. He was the original populist. He was a brilliant attorney and gifted orator and he became known for fighting against corporate greed. He spoke out against white supremacy and advocated for a wealth tax and wealth redistribution.
Many loved him, but he was also hated. He was impeached for abuses of power, including misusing state funds and corruption. But the most serious charge was conspiracy to commit murder. One of Long’s bodyguards claimed in an affidavit that an intoxicated Long had told him to kill a state representative and “leave him in the ditch where nobody will know how or when he got there.” Long allegedly promised him a full pardon.
Long was acquitted by the Louisiana Senate but the impeachment proceedings were so heated that there was a literal brawl on the floor of the state legislature. Some used brass knuckles and Long’s brother even bit someone.
Long was eventually killed and the assassin was never identified.
OK, that was a lengthy wind-up, but it leads us to the movie I’m featuring: “All the King’s Men,” a 1949 movie that won Best Picture at the Oscars.
Long’s story was the direct inspiration for the Pulitzer Prize winning novel that was turned into this feature film three years later.
Little known character actor Broderick Crawford plays Willy Stark, an honest man running for county treasurer somewhere in the South. The state and political parties are never specified. Stark is uneducated but bright and he takes on the establishment in the form of county commissioners who want to give their cronies the contract to build a new schoolhouse. The schoolhouse collapses with children inside due to cheap construction. Stark is seen as a prophetic hero, a man of the people.
Stark is later recruited to run for governor, but the naive man — now going to night school to become an attorney — is just an unwitting patsy. They only recruited him to split the “redneck vote” and give their preferred candidate an assured win. When he discovers, he vows to run again in four years, “But this time I know how to win,” he says.
He runs a populist campaign for governor, calling himself a “hick” and is elected easily. He vows to build a big hospital and provide people with free healthcare. All seems to be going well until cracks start to form. He begins cheating on his wife and berating his staff. He admits to making deals with corporate interests in order to advance his political agenda.
“I’ll make a deal with the devil if it will help me carry out my program,” Stark says. “But believe me, there are no strings attached to those deals. Do you know what good comes out of?…Out of bad. That’s what good comes out of. Because you can’t make it out of anything else. You didn’t know that, did you?”
Later on, his attorney general, a former judge, refuses to cut a deal for corrupt politicians that Stark needs on his side.
Stark tells him: “You know, Judge, dirt’s a funny thing. Some of it rubs off on everybody.”
When the judge resigns, Stark enlists the help of a bright-eyed journalist Jack Burden who wrote about his campaign. He had previously hired this writer for his staff with promises of changing the world but now he’s got him digging up dirt about the judge.
“Jack, there’s something on everybody,” Stark says. “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption.”
In the end, Stark is impeached but acquitted. As he’s leaving the statehouse to a crowd of cheering supporters, he’s shot and killed. He’s assassinated by Burden, the very man who once looked up to Stark.
In a news reel, a narrator says that, “For those who say that Willie Stark is a man of destiny, there are others who claim that he is a man of evil, a man who cares neither for the people or the state, but only for his own personal power and ambition. Obviously, these ambitions go far beyond the boundaries of the state. Just how far, only time will tell. Meanwhile, he is here, and from the looks of things, he is here to stay. Willie Stark – Messiah or Dictator?”
Viewers will obviously see parallels between Willy Stark and modern day politicians. A good person starts off wanting to do good things but over time starts giving into the system and “playing the game.” At some point personal ambition starts to overshadow their original goals. Even when they push through good legislation, they end up getting their hands dirty, saying “the ends will justify the means.”
Frank Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s character in the Netflix series, “House of Cards,” obviously is one recent example. Neither 100 percent good nor 100 percent evil, but sharp and cunning. And just like any Shakespearean tragic hero, their ego and ambition leads to their downfall.
“All the King’s Men” isn’t the first noir film to win Best Picture. “Casablanca” did that. And it isn’t the first award-nominated feature about an egotistical ambitious magnate who loses his way. “Citizen Kane,” released eight years prior, obviously influenced “All the King’s Men,” both in style and substance.
“All the King’s Men” is applauded for its screenplay, but the cast mostly improvised many scenes. The original running time was four hours and the director and editor trimmed it to a 109-minute movie by taking many scenes and turning into short snippets with transitions and using montages to show the passage of time. These editing tricks — not used much at the time — came out of necessity but made for a more powerful film.
Crawford won Best Actor at the Oscars, beating John Wayne, who originally turned down the role of Stark because he was reluctant to play a morally questionable character.
“All the King’s Men” is not one of the greatest films ever made but it’s worthy of recognition for its place in movie history. It shed some light on political corruption in the 1940s, which many people felt was un-American to to do at the time.
Its dark ending does not present any hope. And unfortunately modern politics often don’t either. If good men end up becoming corrupt over time, maybe that’s an argument for term limits. As Winston Churchill once said: “After a time, civil servants tend to become no longer servants and no longer civil.”
Some films grow in reputation over time. They’re ahead of their time in many ways and directors begin to be influenced by a work and audiences revisit it over the years and an appreciation grows.
And in some cases, the message of the movie becomes even more relevant as current events unfold throughout the years.
In the case of “Children of Men,” a 2006 dystopian thriller written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, it’s now regarded as one of the best movies ever made.
Cuarón is now a two-time Oscar winner for Best Director for “Gravity” in 2013 and “Roma” in 2018. He shares the honor with George Stevens and Ang Lee of being the only directors to have won Best Director twice without ever directing a Best Picture winner. Cuarón also has been nominated in six different Oscar categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay), an honor he shares with Walt Disney and George Clooney.
He’s directed only eight films between 1991 and 2018. Six of them received Oscar nominations (and interesting enough only two are in his native Spanish).
He’s a damn good director and “Children of Men” might be his best movie.
Quick plot summary: It stars Clive Owen as a former political activist who now drinks his days away at a job he hates. The film open with TV news announcing the death of the youngest person alive (18 years old). It’s been that long since humankind has stopped having babies due to unexplained infertility and the lack of children — and the lack of a future — has taken away hope. Society has crumbled in many major cities. Armed militias roam the streets and refugees try to come to London but are criminalized as illegal immigrants and thrown into literal cages. Owen is asked by a former girlfriend (played by the always marvelous Julianne Moore) to help escort a woman on an important trip. Little does he know that she’s pregnant. And terrorist groups want to take her baby.
Owen is an underrated actor. He’s always got this smarminess to him where he’s not 100 percent trustworthy (as seen in the underrated film “Closer”). He was once considered to replace Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, along with Ewan McGregor and Jude Law. Eric Bana was eventually selected but it fell through and his “Munich” co-star Daniel Craig took the role.
Michael Caine has a small but memorable part as a lovable pothead. Caine is always excellent and along with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep he’s the only actor/actress to receive Oscar nominations in five straight decades (all three have won multiple awards).
There are also cameos from the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor and Charlie Hunnam but neither have big parts or are particularly memorable.
Technically, “Children of Men” is a marvel. Some of the shots are nearly impossible to pull off and yet the camera moves in a way that doesn’t bring attention to itself.
The biggest feat is the use of single-shot sequences for many scenes, which sparked concerns for the studio due to the time and cost. The movie doesn’t have a lot of special effects but cost $75 million to make (it broke even at the box office basically when you include domestic and international). One single shot which involves Owen’s character searching a building while under attack took 14 days to prepare for and five hours between takes. During one take, blood spattered onto the lens and the cinematographer convinced Cuarón to leave it in, adding to the documentary feel of parts of the movie.
The car crash scene was also incredibly difficult to shoot because of where the camera moves during the single shot. With today’s drones, it’s possible they could have done it differently.
There’s some splicing together of shots to make multiple shots appear to be one using computer technology but the effects weren’t as advanced as they are today. During “1917,” I didn’t want to give Sam Mendes too much credit for his single-shot movie considering how much of it was edited in post production.
In “Children of Men,” the single shot scenes (it’s only in sequences not the entire movie) makes you feel like you’re there but you almost don’t realize it’s being used. Unlike “Birdman” (a single-shot Best Picture winner from Cuarón’s close friend Alejandro González Iñárritu), the camerawork isn’t showy. It advances the story but never becomes gimmicky.
When Owen was running through the staircase avoiding being killed, it reminded me of “The Raid: Redemption” almost.
“Children of Men” also might be the most hopeless of the dystopian sci-fi movies I’ve seen (a genre I enjoy a lot).
In modern teen films like “Divergent” or “The Hunger Games,” we see action and spectacle front and center instead of drab colors and hopelessness.
In films like “Blade Runner,” “Escape from New York,” “The Warriors,” or “Logan’s Run” (all four I love), the viewer becomes enamored with the futuristic backdrop, the unique production design and the interesting costumes instead of wallowing in the bleak surroundings.
Probably the best comparison to “Children of Men” is “A Clockwork Orange” but that’s a movie that didn’t have the grand scale or cityscape surroundings of “Children of Men.”
In many ways, “Children of Men” is the anti-sci fi film. There are some very, very subtle futuristic elements such as a news stand with newspapers that change on their own using CGI effects, but you don’t see a fascination with technology or future-predicting like in films such as “Minority Report,” “I, Robot” or “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.”
Instead, “Children of Men” focuses on realism and you see long shots of damaged streetscapes that look like the bombarded scenes in “Full Metal Jacket.” There’s a sense of despair looking at the roads unmatched by any other movie. There are other dystopian films like “The Road,” “28 Days Later,” and “I am Legend” (all three have some sort of zombie-ish element) where the streets look barren and hopeless. But the streets of “Children of Men” aren’t empty. They’re bustling full of people and yet every person seems to have dread on their face.
It’s a very religious film. When Clive Owen is surprised by the pregnancy and asks who the father is, she jokes that she’s a virgin and his face almost believes it. Her birth is eventually in a barn, which is pretty obvious. Although much of the other religious symbolism is much more subtle.
The title, according to director/writer Alfonso Cuarón, is based on Psalm 90: “You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!’ For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.”
The movie closes with the final line from T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem “The Wasteland”: “Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.” Shanti means peace in sanskrit.
“Shanti” is also a common beginning and ending to all Hindu prayers.
The movie itself is all about hope. When the soldiers and rebels, all fighting with one another, finally see the baby, they all stop and stare. The birth of a child gives them hope and pause. Children give us hope. It’s that simple.
The ending features Owen, the young woman and the baby on a boat fleeing to freedom and safety in the form of a boat called Tomorrow. Owen dies on the boat and the mother and daughter float away and the audience doesn’t know what eventually happens to them as the credits roll, featuring the sounds of children laughing and playing.
Cuarón encourages viewers to come to their own conclusions.
“We wanted the end to be a glimpse of a possibility of hope, for the audience to invest their own sense of hope into that ending,” he said. “So if you’re a hopeful person you’ll see a lot of hope, and if you’re a bleak person you’ll see a complete hopelessness at the end.”
Personally, I interpret the sounds of laughter as a sign that society is rebuilt.
Obviously many have pointed out the political parallels in “Children of Men,” especially the idea of illegal immigrants being kept in chain-link cages.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been this sense of dread and hopelessness among many. There’s an uneasy feeling in today’s society which I saw in “Children of Men.” Terrorist attacks. People dying. Buildings being burned down. Lockdowns. Strict government actions.
The movie isn’t just getting more relevant but it’s growing in appreciation.
In 2016 it was voted 13th among 100 films considered the best of the 21st century by 117 film critics from around the world, according to a feature on BBC.com.
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone ranked it number two on his list of best films of the 2000s, saying: “After repeated viewings, I know Children of Men is indisputably great … No movie this decade was more redolent of sorrowful beauty and exhilarating action.”
It’s a film you have to watch more than once I think. It sticks with you and repeated viewings improve the experience.
In the end, I think it works because it’s a movie that uses symbolism over narrative to evoke feelings in the viewer. Some movies make us think but the best movies make us feel something.
Special Agent Clarice Starling about Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter
There are so many movies where we end up rooting for the “bad guy.” Whether it’s The Joker, Loki or Michael Myers, you just can’t help it.
Almost every list of best movie villains ranks Hannibal Lecter in the top five.
The American Film Institute ranked him as the number one movie villain of all time. Better than Dracula, Darth Vader, Voldemort or the Wicked Witch of the West. That’s high praise.
He’s charming, super-intelligent, a good cook and most of the people he ends up killing (and eating) were rude people. He famously says that whenever possible it’s best to eat the rude. “Free range rude,” is what he calls it.
I’m a big fan of Hannibal Lecter as a character. I’ve watched all five movies featuring this character at least once and I’ve seen the three with Anthony Hopkins multiple times each. I’ve read all of the novels by Thomas Harris featuring this character and I’ve watched the Bryan Fuller TV series “Hannibal,” which premiered in 2013 and aired for three seasons.
You can binge watch this show now on Netflix and “The Silence of the Lambs” can be streamed for free if you have either Netflix or Amazon Prime.
With a STARZ subscription you can watch 2001 film “Hannibal” or the 2002 movie “Red Dragon.” You’d have to pay to rent 1986 movie “Manhunter” or the 2007 movie “Hannibal Rising.”
So after reading all of the books and watching all of the movies and the TV show episodes, which on-screen version is the best?
I’ve got my ranking here for you. Who do you think is the best Hannibal Lecter?
6. Hannibal Rising (2007 movie)
“Rudeness is an epidemic.”
Following the box office success of “Hannibal” ($351,692,268 worldwide) and “Red Dragon” ($209,196,298), film producer Dino De Laurentiis (who owned the cinematic rights to the Lecter character) told author Thomas Harris that he was making another Lecter movie with or without the author’s involvement. The story was to be about Lecter’s childhood and development into a serial killer because in the early to mid-2000s, it was all the rage to do prequels and origin stories. In 2004, movie theaters saw “Exorcist: The Beginning,” another prequel to an Oscar-nominated horror film. Of course, De Laurentiis should have heeded the warning of that Exorcist prequel bomb. “Hannibal Rising” imploded at the box office, earning only $82 million worldwide and $27 million in the United States, the lowest earning movie in the franchise.
Harris agreed to write the movie’s screenplay and while he was at it he threw together a novel as well. It feels like he’s mailing it in. Maybe that’s because De Laurentiis already told him what the story was going to be, basing the idea for a sequel on passages from the novel “Hannibal,” in which Lecter flashes back to his past and his sister Mischa.
Growing up in Lithuania, the movie details how Lecter’s parents are killed by Nazis in 1933 and later his younger sister is killed and then eaten by Nazi sympathizers who have deserted their military post and are running low on supplies. Hannibal grows up with vengeance on his mind and he eventually hunts down and kills the men responsible for his sister’s death, but he grows a taste for murder and human flesh himself.
It’s a terrible concept for prequel. Not only is the end result boring, but it goes against what has been known about the character in “Red Dragon” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” Lecter tells Clarice Starling that he mocks murderers with sob stories and child abuse in their background. “Nothing made me happen. I happened,” he said. Harris tried to add this backstory to make the cannibalistic killer more likable or sympathetic, but he was already likable. We didn’t need the explanation. The mystery was great.
I think it’s more interesting to say that Lecter’s super intelligence and high tastes led his curiosity to take him to cannibalism. To add this not-very-subtle origin about his sister being cannibalized takes away from the mystique about the character. I understand that there was a desire for more movies, but I think there were two better options: do a prequel that instead focused on Lecter in the Baltimore social scene, going to the opera, killing victims and throwing dinner parties (basically what Fuller did in the TV series) or instead do a sequel. The movie and novel “Hannibal” left it open for another entry. In 2002, Hopkins said there was a screenplay written for a sequel where Starling would eventually kill Lecter.
French actor Gaspard Ulliel, who was very good in “A Very Long Engagement” opposite Audrey Tautou, gives an admirable performance in “Hannibal Rising” but lacks any charisma. He feels like a foreign version of a young “Dexter” rather than a younger version of Anthony Hopkins.
Flawed but promising
5. Manhunter (1986 movie)
“Did you really feel depressed after you shot Mr. Garrett Jacob Hobbes to death? l think you probably did. But it wasn’t the act that got to you. Didn’t you feel so bad, because killing him felt so good? And why shouldn’t it feel good? lt must feel good to God. He does it all the time. God’s terrific! He dropped a church roof on 34 of his worshippers in Texas last Wednesday night, just as they were groveling through a hymn to his majesty. Don’t you think that felt good?”
When Michael Mann (who later would achieve fame with movies like “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Heat,” “The Insider,” “Ali,” and “Collateral.”) released this 1986 adaptation, the movie critics and box office were lukewarm. If there was never another Hannibal Lecter movie, then this stylized 80s detective flick would have faded from everyone’s memory.
Critics didn’t hate this movie and some gave it good reviews but producer Dino De Laurentiis was broke at the time and actually couldn’t afford to produce enough prints to get the movie shown in many places.
It’s not a terrible movie. It has a lot of unfulfilled potential. Most of the lines in the script are lifted directly from the novel “Red Dragon,” which might be Harris’s strongest book. William Peterson, who would later become known for the TV show “CSI,” gives a decent portrayal of Special Agent Will Graham. The movie briefly mentions Will’s ability to think like a killer and how that gift became a curse and ended up with him in a psychiatric hospital.
Brian Cox gives an above average performance as Lecter. You might know this actor from such movies as “Troy,” “Braveheart,” “The Bourne Supremacy,” “Rob Roy” and “Super Troopers.” He’s currently on the HBO show “Succession,” and my two favorite film roles of him are playing the villain in the second X-Men movie and his brief speech in “Adaptation.” Interestingly enough, when Cox played Lecter in “Manhunter” (misspelled in the screenplay and closed captioning as Lektor), Anthony Hopkins was playing King Lear with the Royal Shakespeare Company. When Hopkins took over the role, Cox was playing King Lear himself.
Cox does an admirable job but he plays the character as an evil genius but not a suave, seductive, charismatic one. His character doesn’t make eye contact and seems lost in his own brain as he talks. He’s very vain. Cox said he based that vanity off of rich kids at private schools, which is an odd inspiration. He’s given only a few scenes, which is true to the first two novels, but steals every scene. Hopkins would get more screen time than Cox in the next movie but still has the record for Best Actor winner with the least amount of time on screen (Hopkins only had a little over 16 minutes on screen but still was considered a lead role.)
Some consider “Manhunter” to be the second-best Lecter movie behind “The Silence of the Lambs.” I can see that.
It certainly has developed a cult following but Peterson just isn’t as good at playing Will Graham as Edward Norton (only serviceable) and Hugh Dancy (amazing). The 1980s music really dates the movie and some acting in this film is certainly better than others. The Francis Dolarhyde story is a bit rushed too and they leave out some of the best aspects of that character from the novel. In the end, it feels like it could have been an amazing movie if Michael Mann had a little more experience/clout, which he would later gain.
One interesting thing is TV shows like “CSI” really owe their origin to movies like “Manhunter” and the novel it’s based on. Harris was really one of the first authors to give an accurate portrayal of the Behavioral Sciences division of the FBI, which now has been detailed in the Netflix original series “Mindhunter.” These real life FBI agents actually pioneered the science of “thinking like a killer” and coming up with a profile, even interviewing the world’s most famous murderers for research purposes. The characters of Will Graham and Jack Crawford (the latter criminally underdeveloped in the movies but finally given his due in the TV show) are supposed to be based on the agents featured in “Mindhunter.”
Fun if you keep your expectations low.
4. Hannibal (2001 film)
“As your mother tells you, and my mother certainly told me, it is important always to try new things.”
The sequel to “The Silence of the Lambs” was a big deal at the time and there was huge anticipation. Before the novel was finished there was motion on the movie production and everyone was wondering: Who would come back? Could you make a sequel without Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins or director Jonathan Demme (all Oscar winners for the previous movie)?
Turn out, they only got one of the three. Hopkins came back, but Julianne Moore fills in as Clarice Starling and she does a pretty good job (she’d win her own Oscar for “Still Alice” in 2014). Instead of Demme they got Ridley Scott, who’s directed some of the best movies of the past 30-plus years (“Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Thelma & Louise,” “Black Hawk Down,” “The Martian.”) He had just directed the Best Picture winner “Gladiator” the year prior to “Hannibal” coming out (Scott still has never won an Oscar of his own and he wasn’t a producer on “Gladiator.”).
“Hannibal” the movie differs from the book in many ways, but neither one is perfect. The movie cuts down the storyline that describes the relationship between Mason Verger and his sister and Verger himself isn’t as developed in the film. Barney, the orderly who befriends Lecter, is given a larger role in the book. There are also some passages in the book that I enjoyed that are left out of the movie understandably. The book describes how Starling hunts for Lecter by tracking high-end purchases around the globe because they know he loves fine wine, good food, fast cars and beautiful art. His taste is his weakness in the book. There are also extensive passages about Lecter’s mind and how he can create whole worlds inside his mind. He can create rooms inside his mind where he stores memories to be accessed like a library.
The novel and the movie attempt to make Lecter the hero instead of the villain by making him hunted by a truly gruesome and unlikable character in Mason Verger, a deformed, wealthy pedophile who is obsessed with vengeance.
By making Lecter the prey instead of the predator, they’ve removed much of what we liked about the character.
We also miss out on the interactions between Starling and Lecter. Those conversations at the mental institute were the highlight of “The Silence of the Lambs.” Two great actors going head-to-head like Federer taking on Nadal. It’s thrilling to watch.
And my biggest complaint is that we’ve taken too much of the mystery out of Lecter as a character. He actually had a greater effect in smaller doses.
Brian Cox explained it best by saying, “I blame Thomas Harris for this. Harris fell in love with Hannibal Lecter, and undid him, in a way. He undid his dramatic power, because that comes from what you don’t know about him. If you give away all his secrets, there’s nothing to discover about the character, and you know too much about his potential danger. I felt that was Harris and Ridley Scott as well, later on. Basically, it was the script – it became slightly ludicrous. It was all within the bounds of reality, and it was scary because of that, and I think that was a shame.”
In the end, Lecter almost becomes a Universal Monster like Dracula, Frankenstein or The Wolfman.
That’s not to say that “Hannibal” is a terrible movie. All of the acting is top notch. The directing is great. There are some memorable scenes such as the visual of Ray Liotta’s brain being scooped out or the sounds of pigs squealing as Lecter dangles above his doom.
But it feels more like fan service than an actual worthy successor.
3. Red Dragon (2002 film)
“You stink of fear under that cheap lotion. You stink of fear Will, but you’re not a coward. You fear me, but still you came here. You fear this shy boy, yet still you seek him out. Don’t you understand, Will? You caught me because we’re very much alike. Without our imaginations, we’d be like all those other poor… dullards. Fear… is the price of our instrument. But I can help you bear it.”
Brett Ratner is not my favorite director. He’s been accused of rape by many actresses. Others claim creepy behavior. There’s enough there that people accept that it’s probably true. Beyond his personality, his movies just aren’t very good. His best film is probably “Rush Hour,” a fun buddy copy movie without any visual style.
With “Red Dragon,” he was tasked with directing the third Anthony Hopkins Hannibal Lecter movie. This is similar to when he was tasked with directing the third X-Men movie when director Bryan Singer (another creep) dropped out. In both cases, he’s a “director for hire” and critics weren’t too kind to him.
Fortunately, the style in “Red Dragon” was already established by the previous Anthony Hopkins entries and Ratner just needed to follow the formula. Not much he can mess up. To use a cooking analogy (which Lecter himself would appreciate), you have the ingredients, so just follow the recipe.
Ralph Fiennes gives a fantastic supporting performance as killer Francis Dolarhyde and breathes life and sympathy into this multifaceted character.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives a brief but near-perfect appearance as unethical tabloid journalist Freddy Lounds.
There are a more than a few memorable scenes in “Red Dragon.” I still recall Fiennes saying “Can you see?!” as he shows slides to Hoffman tied to a chair.
Honestly, this movie doesn’t get its due.
The Dollarhyde case is well done. “Red Dragon” also recaptures some magic from ‘The Silence of the Lambs” with the back and forth between Lecter and his investigator, something missing from the previous 2001 film.
The biggest downsides: Edward Norton, who admittedly is a great actor as seen in “American History X,” “Fight Club,” “Primal Fear” and “Birdman,” doesn’t seem to capture Graham. He plays him straight forward as a man who is protective of his family and can “think like Lecter” an other killers, but doesn’t really “feel their emotions.” They don’t explore that side of him enough.
The movie is also packed with so much plot and case details that it moves really quickly. There’s no time to live in the moments at all.
And my biggest gripe with both “Manhunter” and “Red Dragon” is that Lecter really isn’t that helpful when it comes to catching the killer and he actually works against their efforts. There was no good reason that Graham needed to consult with Lecter, unlike in “The Silence of the Lambs,” where Lecter had an evidential connection to the case (and Starling didn’t know this but he had met the killer before).
“Red Dragon” adds extra scenes featuring Lecter that are not in the book or are just mentioned briefly, like how Graham caught Lecter. Hopkins’s face is the entirety of the movie poster but the book and the movie aren’t really about him.
Probably the most distracting part of this movie is that it’s supposed to be a prequel to “The Silence of the Lambs” but Hopkins has aged quite a bit in about 10 years time between movies. I understand that today’s CGI de-aging wasn’t around yet (as seen in “The Irishman”) but they could have used makeup or something to make Hopkins look younger. At least give him a full head of black hair.
The Best Versions
2. Hannibal TV series
“Before we begin, I must warn you… nothing here is vegetarian.”
When Bryan Fuller, creator of TV series like “Dead Like Me” and “Pushing Daisies,” said he wanted to create a new adaptation based on the Harris novels, some had hesitation. Who could capture the character of Hannibal Lecter like Anthony Hopkins? Shouldn’t this show be on HBO or Showtime since it’ll be so violent? (It aired on NBC).
Mads Mikkelson, a Danish actor best known at the time for his roles in “Casino Royale” and “The Hunt,” signed on to play the lead but he didn’t want to imitate Hopkins or Cox. Instead, he imagined the character almost like Lucifer, a demon who manipulates human beings into doing what he wants. Something not of this world who observes humans and is fascinated by them. Someone pulling the strings.
Fuller varies considerably from the novels but it was never meant to be a straight adaptation. Plot and characters are changed considerably but in a way he gets to the heart of the story better than almost any other versions. It’s all about psychological manipulation and the co-dependence between Lecter and the FBI agents who consult with him. Fuller focuses on the best part of “The Silence of Lambs”: the idea that you don’t really know who is the interviewer and who is the subject. Is this an FBI interview or a psychological examination?
Mikkelson might be the best Hannibal Lecter and that’s saying something when compared to an Oscar winner like Hopkins.
There are a few flaws with Hopkins’ performance. The accent is all wrong. Lecter is from Lithuania and Hopkins has a weird accent that is hard to place, almost as if Lecter has tried to hide his native accent and adopt a generic New England rich socialite way of speaking. While Lecter is a chameleon who does hide much about himself, why would he feel shame in his accent? He mocks Agent Starling for being a country rube and makes fun of her voice but hides his accent? Also, physically Mikkelson resembles the Lecter from the novel more than Hopkins does. Lecter is young, tall, slender and strong. Mikkelson was actually a gymnast and a dancer before he became an actor. He has the right build. Of course, neither looks exactly like Harris described Lecter. In the novels, he is said to have a widow’s peak, maroon eyes and an extra finger on one his hands. When Lecter is a fugitive in “Hannibal” he gets surgery on one of his hands to hide his identity and the medical records are used to catch him.
Hugh Dancy plays Will Graham as a brilliant man who can imagine himself as the killer – something described in the novel and briefly mentioned in the movies – but Fuller shoots these scenes in a beautiful way. You see inside Graham’s mind as he is now in place of the killer, re-enacting the crimes.
Graham starts to have vivid dreams of each killing and the line between reality and his mind starts to get blurred. The dreamlike nature of this TV show actually becomes confusing for viewers at times and I admit it’s a great TV show to put on if you’re trying to sleep, not because it’s boring but because of the relaxing music and dreamlike imagery. Yes, falling asleep to Hannibal Lecter. I kid you not.
The relationship between Lecter and Graham is engrossing in the show. Lecter becomes obsessed with Graham and is fascinated with his mind. Lecter tries to manipulate Graham into turning him into a killer and their relationship almost has sexual tension, similar to Starling/Lecter. Graham even asks if Lecter is in love with him, but it’s not explored in those literal terms.
The best part of Fuller’s adaptation is they finally develop Jack Crawford into an interesting character. He’s a throwaway in the movies but actor Laurence Fishburne gives one of his best career performances in this role.
“Hannibal” isn’t an easy show to watch. The plot gets confusing and sometimes goes in directions that don’t always make sense. It gets a little pretentious and full of itself at times. But the performances of Mikkelson, Dancy and Fishburne make it a show not only worth watching but rewatching.
1. The Silence of the Lambs
“I’m having an old friend for dinner.”
This is one of three movies to have one the “big five” awards at the Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Actress. The other two winners are “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “It Happened One Night.”
It’s a fantastic movie and what I think makes it so great is this constant tension and sense of dread/suspense that lingers over the entire movie. The music, tone and pace are perfect.
When it comes to thrillers, it ranks among the all-time classics.
Here’s the interesting thing: You know how I kept going on about how producer Dino De Laurentiis kept ruining the character of Hannibal Lecter by demanding more movies? Well, he wasn’t involved with “The Silence of Lambs” and did not get an Oscar or any movie.
Yes, he was so disappointed with the box office of “Manhunter” that he let Orion Pictures use the character of Hannibal Lecter for free for “The Silence of the Lambs” and did not buy the rights to the book. When it was a huge hit, he, of course, paid $10 million for the film rights to the book “Hannibal.”
Gene Hackman actually owned the film rights to the novel “The Silence of the Lambs” and was going to play Jack Crawford but he backed out when he thought it was too violent.
Names like Michelle Pfeiffer, Meg Ryan and Laura Dern were considered for Starling before Foster got he role. Names such as Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, Derek Jacobi and Daniel Day Lewis were considered for Lecter.
Ted Tally wrote a great script and it’s the best screenplay for a Lecter movie. It’s full of amazing quotes.
Demme created an iconic film that’s smart, scary and psychological. It is so rewatchable and like a good wine that Lecter might enjoy it gets better over time.
Stanley Kubrick, the enigmatic filmmaker from the Bronx, is my favorite director of all time.
There are other directors I like, including Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Billy Wilder, Ridley Scott, Elia Kazan, Christopher Nolan, Francis Ford Coppola and others.
But what makes Kubrick stand out are three things:
His versatility. Every movie of his is unique and he worked in so many genres. Sci-Fi. War movies. Horror. Period-piece drama. Political satire. Sexual thriller. (He even almost directed a Western once. Marlon Brando contacted Kubrick, asking him to direct an adaptation of a western novel. Brando ended up directing it himself, becoming “One-Eyed Jacks.”) The only other director with as much variety on their resume is Spielberg, but he’s had a few misses.
His lack of flops. He directed 13 feature films between 1953 and 1999 and the lowest ranking on Rotten Tomatoes is 75 percent for “Eyes Wide Shut.” Four of those 13 movies made the American Film Institute’s top 100 movies of all time. In my opinion, he never made a single bad movie. I might like some better than others, but each one contains a nugget of genius. This isn’t true for every great director. Coppola directed “Jack,” a comedy in which Robin Williams plays a kid who ages fast, an embarrassing flop. Spielberg has critical flops like “1941” and “The Terminal” and others like “Hook,” “War of the Worlds” and “Ready Player One” aren’t universally loved.
His perfectionism. Whether it was the lighting for his shots or a prop in the background, Kubrick paid attention to every detail in his movies. His movies were not quick to shoot as a result. “Eyes Wide Shut” took 14 months to film and he’s famous for doing hundreds of takes of the same scene over and over again to get it just right. While none of his movies are completely perfect, they all seem to have a strong passion behind them. Nothing is mailed in ever. He’s not a “director for hire” who dispassionately makes movies to get a paycheck. Kubrick liked to tell his family, “You either care about something or you don’t.” To him, caring isn’t a halfway thing. It’s 100 percent.
So I’ve watched every feature-length film directed by Kubrick and I’ve arranged the list according to my personal preference. I didn’t include “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” since he did not direct that movie.
13 — Fear and Desire
Kubrick was only 25 years when he let his father mortgage his home in order to finance his 62-minute feature debut which cost about $50,000 to make. The entire film crew only consisted of 15 people. The movie itself, an anti-war film about a fictional war, isn’t amazing on its own but there are elements of Kubrick’s style that you could see even in his first movie. The use of close-ups and lighting. Kubrick was a professional photographer for Look Magazine and you can see his ability to put great images up on a screen. The acting and story could use some work, but you could see the potential.
12 — Killer’s Kiss
In Kubrick’s second film, he focuses on a boxer who gets tangled with a crime boss who has his claws around a ballerina he’s in love with. Scorsese said he was influenced by “Killer’s Kiss” when shooting “Raging Bull.” The shadows and lighting are exceptional. This one is also short, only 67 minutes long. Kubrick had to borrow $40,000 from his uncle to make this movie and it didn’t recoup its budget but it impressed some film producers who helped him make his next movie, “The Killing.”
11 — The Killing
His third feature, this is Kubrick’s first great film. A film noir heist film, this is the first Kubrick movie with a strong plot and acting. Quentin Tarantino said he was inspired by this movie when he made “Reservoir Dogs.” Sterling Hayden, who would work with Kubrick again on “Dr. Strangelove,” stars as a con man who enlists a corrupt cop and a cashier to help him rob a race track. It unfurls similar to “The Sting” or “Ocean’s Eleven” with everything conceivably going off as well as planned, but jealousies and mistrust start to put a knot into the proceedings. Finally, an ironic twist visualized by cash floating away in the wind shows how life doesn’t turn out how you plan. At the end, Hayden’s character has the last line of the movie: “What does it matter?” In this film, we really start to see Kubrick’s cynical view of humankind. The standout in my mind was the dynamic between the teller and his wife. He tells her about the heist in hopes that getting the money will help his wife finally love him. She belittles him constantly but when she hears about the money, she’s quiet. Instead she runs to her lover-on-the-side and hatches a plan to rob her husband and his cohorts after the job is done. This is also the beginning of Kubrick’s biggest criticism as a director: he never creates strong likable female characters. Indeed, his movies are mostly focused on men and the few lead women, such as Shelly Duvall’s Mrs. Torrance in “The Shining,” aren’t particularly likable. Probably his best female representation on the big screen was Nicole Kidman’s character in “Eyes Wide Shut.”
10 — Eyes Wide Shut
This movie is unfairly maligned. Critics said they were disappointed, having waited more than a decade for a new Kubrick movie to end up with this confusing, ambiguous, dream-like story. This is the third Kubrick movie to be create controversy and be censored, following “Lolita” and “A Clockwork Orange.” In the case of “Eyes Wide Shut,” the controversy might have overshadowed the final product. Kubrick worked on filming for 14 months and died a week after a private screening of the finished film. He was satisfied with his work and passed away quietly. The whole idea of this movie is about the strength of marriages. Infidelity and doubt chipping away at the foundations. So it makes sense that a married couple in real life took the lead roles in Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. The problem is that Kidman is a much better actor than Cruise. He’s fine. It’s actually one of his better performances, but you never see anything deeper in his face. Maybe that’s because his character is meant to be guarded, detached and emotionless, similar to Ryan O’Neal’s character in “Barry Lyndon,” but this strong facade put up by Cruise’s character leads us to a familiar criticism of this actor: He’s always just playing Tom Cruise in his movies. Cruise’s acting is one flaw in “Eyes Wide Shut” and the other problem is that narratively the movie loses steam after the infamous night at the mansion. The film climaxes too soon and the viewer wishes there was more exploration of that world. We want answers or at the very least we want to see Cruise’s character return to the mansion. I understand why he doesn’t. It adds to the feeling that it’s all just a dream and the mystery is key. But it’s not very satisfying for the viewer. Despite any missteps, there are some strong scenes in this movie. The costumes are award-worthy and as usual Kubrick incorporates music masterfully. There’s music by Hungarian composer György Ligeti incorporated into the famous mask-orgy scene that beautifully creates the tension. Interesting enough, people seem to think that Ligeti wrote music for Kubrick but his pieces were always created independent of Kubrick and later used in his movies, such as this one and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In addition, Shostakovich’s Waltz No. 2 creates that playful vibe at the beginning of the movie which is later contrasted with the dark scenes full of danger and mystery. This is the only Kubrick movie that seems reminiscent of another director. Certainly you can see shades of David Lynch (“Blue Velvet,” “Mulholland Drive,” “Twin Peaks”) in the dream-like sexual fantasy. Kubrick was actually a fan of Lynch and showed “Eraserhead” to his crew while filming “The Shining.” But I doubt Kubrick is copying Lynch.
9 — Barry Lyndon
This 1975 period-piece drama earned more Oscars than any other Kubrick work and earned nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. Commercially, the film was a flop. Audiences found it to be overly long, dull and emotionless. Some critics compared it to a beautiful book of artwork. It’s big and gorgeous and you love to have it sit on your coffee table, but you don’t actually read it. Kubrick had long wanted to make a movie about French emperor Napoleon but unfortunately another Napoleon movie called “Waterloo” came out and as a result the financing for his picture dried up. Kubrick had done quite a bit of research on the wars between France and England and wanted to incorporate that into some film, which is why this became a nice fit for him. Ryan O’Neal was a star at the time, coming off of “Love Story” and “Paper Moon.” He was loved by critics and audiences in the 1970s, but his emotionless performance leaves much to be desired. I understand that’s the way the character was meant to be — a detached social climber — but you don’t feel you get to know him in the three-hour slog. The movie itself has seen its reputation increase over the years and some consider it to be a classic or among his best works. While I might not love this movie, I respect it. The cinematography might be among the best in movie history. Seriously, it’s that good. It looks like a living painting and many of the scenes were modeled after famous pieces of artwork. This is because of Kubrick’s innovation in using special NASA cameras and altering them in order to be able to shoot scenes with natural lighting, including scenes with just candlelight. That wasn’t possible before this movie. The beautiful natural-light cinematography in “The Revenant” owes considerable credit to “Barry Lyndon.” While it’s in the bottom half of Kubrick’s work in my personal opinion, parts of it are a masterpiece. It’s not a failure by any means. After the tepid commercial response, Kubrick decided to film a sure-fire hit for his next movie and adapted Stephen King’s popular novel “The Shining” to a huge box office.
8 — Spartacus
This was the movie that made Kubrick a household name among everyday people. Kirk Douglas wanted to produce a big gladiator movie. Douglas himself was a Christian and wanted to parallel the persecution of slaves with the stories of the Old Testament, but screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (made famous to today’s audiences by Bryan Cranston’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of him) decided to instead make parallels to McCarthyism. Douglas was the star but he was also the producer, so he was the big boss. After a week of filming, he was unhappy with the director so he fired him and brought aboard Kubrick who had just worked with Douglas on “Paths of Glory.” Kubrick was only 30 years old and never made a movie with the budget of “Spartacus” so it was a big challenge. It cost $12 million to make, which is like $100 million for a movie today. “Ben-Hur” came out the year before “Spartacus” which stole some of its thunder, but it’s a great movie. Kubrick creates a beautiful-looking war epic with action scenes that still hold up 60 years later. The dialogue is clever and there are great performances from some of the greatest actors of all time: Sir Lawrence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis and Peter Ustinov. Ustinov steals every scene he’s in and he ended up winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Kubrick had a tough task in making this movie. He jumped in after production had started and he did not have creative control. He had to navigate competing big personalities/egos in Douglas/Trumbo/Olivier/Laughton. Many of the actors did not like one another and Trumbo and Douglas argued on the script. Despite all of that, he made a movie that holds up to this day and includes one of the most iconic scenes in all of movies when each slave stands up and says, “I am Spartacus!” (a scene that has been parodied or homaged many times). One interesting thing I picked up on that I’m sure many missed was the hidden sexuality in “Spartacus.” There’s a scene in which Olivier’s character is in a hot tub with a male slave who is bathing him and Olivier talks about how he likes “both oysters and snails” in an obvious metaphor for bisexuality. It makes sense in context of ancient Rome, but I wonder if 1960 audiences picked up on that. “Spartacus” gave Kubrick the clout to make the movies he wanted to make. In the future, he focused on more nuanced characters rather than flawless ones like the hero of “Spartacus.” His movies in the future tended to be more cynical and he had absolute creative control.
7 — Lolita
Immediately after “Spartacus,” Kubrick decided to adapt the controversial novel by Vladimir Nabokov, which deals with a man sexually obsessed with a 14-year-old girl. A movie that amounts to essentially depicting pedophilia? That would be controversial in 2020, let alone 1962 when it was made. Kubrick faced a lot of censorship so he had to cut most of the overt romantic references. For example, he has a scene in which James Mason’s character is making love to his landlord but looks over at the picture on the nightstand of her 14-year-old daughter Lolita. Religious groups demanded that the number of glances had to be limited. Kubrick himself said he would never have made this movie if he knew how much censorship he would have faced. But the controversy made the movie a huge commercial hit and established Kubrick as a director who liked to push the envelope. Mason gives a deliciously creepy performance and Shelley Winters excels as the jealous man-crazy mother of Lolita who ends up marrying Mason’s character. The real standout is Peter Sellers, who ad-libs many of his lines and plays multiple characters, which obviously inspired Kubrick to cast him in his very next feature: “Dr. Strangelove.” It also was the first time that Kubrick was teamed with an excellent actor who knew how to improvise, something that he tried to replicate in each of his movies. He found those brilliant improvisational actors again with Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” and R. Lee Ermey in “Full Metal Jacket.” “Lolita” starts to drag in its second half and the ending is ruined by the “in medias res” beginning but there’s amazing acting and a clever screenplay that pushed the limits. It’s David Lynch’s favorite Kubrick movie and although you might feel dirty after watching “Lolita” and need a shower, it’s a powerful work that sticks with you.
6 — Full Metal Jacket
Kubrick decided he wanted to make a war movie. His friends told him he already made war movies in “Paths of Glory” and “Dr. Strangelove.” He replied those were anti-war movies and he wanted to show the beautiful chaos of war without any political commentary. He worked on adapting a novel for years but when “Full Metal Jacket” finally came out in 1987, other Vietnam War Movies had already come out: “Platoon,” “The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now.” The first two won Best Picture at the Oscars and the third should have beaten “Kramer vs. Kramer.” The year before “Full Metal Jacket” came out is when “Platoon” was released so it’s possible that audiences had Vietnam War war movie fatigue. Despite all of that “Full Metal Jacket” is brilliant and surpasses, in my mind, all of those movies except “Apocalypse Now.” It’s bleak and cynical and beautifully shot and realistic. Everything you want in a Kubrick movie. The biggest problem with “Full Metal Jacket” is it feels like two movies. The first half is a masterpiece. You see Vincent D’Onofrio take abuse from a drill sergeant played by R. Lee Ermey (he should have won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role, in which he wrote most of his own lines). The ending of the first half is poignant and shocking and so it’s a letdown when the movie transitions into a typical exploration of war featuring a military journalist played by Matthew Modine, a mediocre actor with no charisma. The second half is very episodic and there are scenes that are brilliant but a lot of it feels like DVD extras with deleted scenes inserted between great ones. The ending is brilliant and you’ll have The Mickey Mouse Club theme song stuck in your head. And you’ll marvel at the wartime scenes shot at “magic hour” with the lighting just perfect and flames flickering in the background. Something so horrible (war) never looked so beautiful. Years later, Kubrick wanted to make a Holocaust movie — not a true war movie — called “The Aryan Papers” but when he saw “Schindler’s List” he scrapped those plans. Again, Kubrick worked too slowly. “Full Metal Jacket” is a work of genius but it’s not without its flaws which keeps it out of the top 5 best Kubrick movies ever.
5 — Paths of Glory
It might be somewhat controversial that I’m putting Kubrick’s fourth feature — made in his twenties — as one of his best movies, but it’s so very underrated. Many people haven’t seen this black and white World War I movie about a French solider who defies his general when sent on a mindless suicide mission that was ordered only to satisfy the general’s ego. His troops stay in their trenches and the general decides to have a court-martial and sentence a few representatives of all of the troops to death. Kirk Douglass plays a colonel who defends the men in the kangaroo court trial and it’s truly a smart commentary on the absurdity of war and the insecure world leaders who decide if people live or die. There’s humor that we’ll see again in “Dr. Strangelove”, witty dialogue and great use of shadows in the cinematography. It’s hard to watch the scenes of soldiers walking through the trenches and not think it looks just like “1917” (another WWI movie that obviously is inspired by this film). The ending is haunting in its beauty and Kubrick himself ended up marrying the actress who played the German singer at the end. They remained married until his death. Interesting side note: The French weren’t happy with this portrayal of cowardice and the movie was not available in French until 1975, 18 years after its release. “Paths of Glory” might have been overshadowed by the bigger budget (and better made) war film “The Bridge on the River Kwai” that came out the same year. “Paths of Glory” might not reach that height but it’s a smart anti-war film that really impresses considering its small budget and young director.
4 — A Clockwork Orange
Something extraordinary happened when Kubrick adapted Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel (which many thought would be unadaptable due to the made-up slang), the extreme violence in this film was shocking. And when similar attacks took place in England, Kubrick asked that the movie be pulled from theaters. It was a huge box office hit and so the studio lost a lot of money. No other director would have enough influence to get their movie pulled in the middle of a theatrical run. And the fact that he did it shows that he does feel responsibility for his work’s influence on others. “A Clockwork Orange” is a shocking film. It’s depiction of “ultra-violence” and breaking into homes of innocent people definitely makes audiences uncomfortable. It’s contrasted with music by Beethoven, a favorite of the protagonist Alex (played by Malcolm McDowell) who called it, “the Ludwig Van.” It’s full of Kubrick-esque imagery. Close ups. Intricate costumes. Unique backgrounds, colors and props. It’s very stylistic. It’s influenced several modern horror films like Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” or “The Purge” series. The second half of the movie is the most interesting to me. I am fascinated by Kubrick’s commentary on reforming criminals and the psychology of morals. The scene where Alex is brainwashed with his eyes forced open has been parodied many times and there’s some dark humor in “A Clockwork Orange” as well. Kubrick eventually makes you care and root for this despicable protagonist by the end of the movie. Kubrick’s first two movies used narration in a somewhat lazy fashion (although that was common in film noir movies of that day). In “A Clockwork Orange” the narration is effective in letting you inside the brain of this sociopath. Kubrick uses a wide-angle lense to distort images in a way that makes the whole thing feel like it’s happening inside the brain of Alex. Some said this movie was dangerous but that’s because it’s so intriguing and effective. The movie received an X rating upon release and it still pushes the envelope nearly 50 years later.
3 — Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Kubrick’s first masterpiece doesn’t neatly fit into a genre. It’s a dark comedy and a political satire, but it’s not the most hilarious movie ever made. It’s not sentimental or dramatic. It’s just smart and biting. And it shows the ridiculousness of war contrasted with a pie fight of all scenes. Peter Sellers gives one of the best performances in movie history, playing three very different roles. George C. Scott also shines. So many political satires owe their pedigree to “Dr. Strangelove,” even the comical way in which the situation room was designed. I can’t watch the TV show “Veep” without thinking of this movie. It’s beautifully shot in black and white with sharp contrast and shadows. The scene of Slim Pickens riding the bomb is one of the most iconic in movie history. It’s full of amazing memorable quotes like: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” The amazing (and scary thing) about this movie is how close to reality it actually is. It’s a farce, but military journalists say that it actually was a chaotic mess back then.
2 — The Shining
I haven’t been shy about declaring that “The Shining” is one of my favorite movies of all time. Kubrick creates one of the most iconic settings in movie history in the Overlook Hotel. It’s a large, empty, expansive building but it also feels small and claustrophobic and filled with doom and terror. A lot of times it’s a cliche to say the setting is a character in and of itself but in this case it’s really true. Every detail stands out. I can see that carpet print in my head when I close my eyes. And Kubrick truly explores the space with a revolutionary use of the new SteadiCam technology, which had only been used on three other films prior to “The Shining.” He uses it to glide seamlessly between spaces with a ghost-like effect, most notable with Danny Torrance rides his tricycle through the halls. Production was difficult on “The Shining” as it is with most Kubrick films. There were hundreds of takes and Kubrick was so cruel to Shelley Duvall (who legitimately is a bad actress) that her hair started to fall out. Kubrick was creeping into David O. Russell territory with his mistreatment of her, but I like to think it was actually similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s process on “The Birds.” He terrorized the actress to get the frightened performance out of her. Jack Nicholson was easier to work with and he ended up throwing away his scripts because they would change all of the time. He ended up ad-libbing, which Kubrick loved and the famous line, “Here’s Johnny!” wasn’t in the script. Kubrick’s interest all started when he was immersed in Stephen King’s 1977 novel and decided to adapt it. Kubrick liked to base his movies on books so he had a source material to work from and then he liked to “improve upon it.” Generally the books he picked weren’t bestsellers. But “The Shining” was different. It had a following. And as a result some people — including King himself — weren’t happy with the major changes he made from the book. King even decided to make the movie himself many years later as a made-for-TV miniseries starring Steven Weber (a step down from Jack Nicholson). King felt that Kubrick missed the point of the book. And maybe he did. King’s book is about how alcoholism can destroy a family and in the book the ghosts in the Overlook Hotel are literally real. Kubrick’s movie is about the evil that lurks inside all men and how that can be awakened (whether by alcoholism or cabin fever). The ghosts in his movie are open to interpretation. Are they real or are they part of Jack Torrance’s madness? One interesting thing to note is every time Jack sees a ghost there’s a mirror or reflective surface nearby, which shows he’s looking into his own soul. King thought that Nicholson was wrong for the part since he just played a mad man in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” King believed they should cast an ordinary nice guy so the descent into madness and the transformation is more pronounced. I love the book and I love the movie, but they’re different animals. The movie is great because it’s so ambiguous, although that lack of clarity confounded and angered critics immediately after its release. It was even nominated for two Razzies. Kubrick and actress Shelley Duvall both received nominations. No Oscar nominations came. Despite being released the same weekend as “The Empire Strikes Back,” the movie went out to make a lot of money for the studio. Although Kubrick liked to have film production stretch on for more than a year with so many takes, he had a skeleton crew and so daily costs were lower. Forty years later, film buffs are still analyzing what “The Shining” is all about. Some have crazy theories that it’s about how Kubrick faked the moon landing. (I kid you not. Someone made a whole documentary about it.) Some think it’s about the massacre of the Native Americans. Some think it’s about World War II. Again, I think it’s more about the evil inside all people and what it takes to awaken that. Is it supernatural forces or psychological? It’s up to the viewer to decide. Besides perhaps “2001: A Space Odyssey,” it’s the Kubrick film that can be analyzed most. There are so many clues to pick up on. What does the photograph at the end of the movie mean? Some have theorized that it means that Jack Torrance has been absorbed by the hotel, but Kubrick himself said it means some version of him has been reincarnated, which harkens back to Jack’s conversation with Grady about how he’s “always been the caretaker.” Every time I watch this movie I pick up on something new that I had not noticed before. That’s the mark of a great movie.
1 — 2001: A Space Odyssey
How much would we appreciate La Gioconda today if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: “This lady is smiling slightly because she has rotten teeth” — or “because she’s hiding a secret from her lover”? It would shut off the viewer’s appreciation and shackle him to a reality other than his own. I don’t want that to happen to 2001. — Stanley Kubrick, Playboy interview 1968
This is in my top 10 films ever made. It connects with you visually and musically and I believe it makes you feel a truth rather than know one. The ambiguity of the movie is what divides people. It’s vague and nonverbal. There are long stretches without any dialogue or narration. It doesn’t explain itself. But I think when you are tackling a subject like the vastness of outer space, the existence of aliens and man’s connection to God and the Universe, ambiguity and mystery are not only understandable but required. This movie would not have worked if it explained itself. In essence, I believe the film is about evolution both physically and spiritually. In the novel that accompanied the movie (which differs from the screenplay, so I wouldn’t say it’s a complete skeleton key to deciphering the movie’s code), it’s explained that the monolith is an alien tool that helps lesser beings evolve onto a higher plane. That’s why it’s seen at the dawn of man and that’s why it’s seen at the end before the Star Child emerges and brings the viewer to a new form of Heaven. Hal 9000, the artificial intelligence captain, is a perfect example of the next form of evolution beyond human life, into a robotic form. The Star Gate sequence, in which the character travels into a colorful dimension (they used slit-scan photography to achieve this effect) visualizes for the viewer what it would feel like to move on into a higher plane of existence. The movie itself was a technical breakthrough and Kubrick earned his only Oscar win ever for this film for its special effects. Similar to Hitchcock, Kubrick didn’t earn the Academy Awards he deserved (Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director five times, but never won. The Academy did give him the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, but that’s technically not an Oscar). “2001: A Space Odyssey” made a ton of money at the box office ($60 million then, or $400 million if you adjust for inflation). Without its box office success, who knows if “Star Wars” would have been made. It certainly did change movies. The special effects in “2001: A Space Odyssey” actually do hold up today. The rotating centrifuge used to film zero-gravity is ingenious and the models used to film outer space look fantastic on film. I can watch this movie again and again and interpret it different ways. And it’s fitting that the final line of the movie is: “Its origin and purpose still a total mystery.” That kind of sums of many of Kubrick’s movies … in a good way.
Recently I decided to try to catch up and see all of the Best Picture winners at the Academy Awards that I had never seen before.
I decided at first to narrow the mission to just winners since 1950 since some of the older movies are harder to find, even with streaming services. Although, as I near the end of that goal, I’ve decided I might try to watch all of the them if possible. I’ll still try to knock out the post-1950s ones first since I only have a few left but I’ve already started on a few earlier pictures.
I had a strong start to my mission, having seen 44 out of the 70 Best Picture winners going back to 1950 and I had not missed a winner going back until 1997.
I recently watched six Best Picture winners from the ceremonies of 1967, 1964, 1958, 1957, 1952 and 1947.
I only have 7 left to watch post-1950 (“The English Patient,” “Ben-Hur,” “Gigi, “My Fair Lady,” “All The Kings Men,” “The Greatest Show on Eart” and “All About Eve” and 15 to watch going back to 1929 (basically everything except the ones I’ve seen: “Casablanca,” “The Lost Weekend,” “Gone With the Wind,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “You Can’t Take it With You” and “It Happened One Night.”).
Without further ado, here’s three more entries to cross off my list.
THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)
I was interested in watching this movie after I saw its inclusion in the American Film Institute’s top 100 movies of all time and honestly I had never even heard of this movie. It’s directed by Wiliam Wyler, who might be the most underrated director in movie history. Recently, many of my Facebook friends were posting about their favorite directors ever and Wyler did not make anyone’s list. But here are the numbers. He has been nominated for Best Director at the Oscars a record 12 times, winning three times. Only Frank Capra has three Best Director wins and John Ford has four wins. He’s the only person to have directed three Best Picture winners. He directed “Ben-Hur,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” and “Mrs. Miniver.” He directed 13 movies that were nominated for Best Picture, another record. And — and this record is interesting — he directed more actors/actresses to Oscar-nominated and Oscar winning performances than anyone else. His casts earned 36 acting nominations and 14 wins, both are records. In “The Best Years of Our Lives,” he tackles a subject that was taboo in 1946, shortly after World War II ended (the Japanese formally surrendered on September 2, 1945): what happens to the military when they come home? Sure, the soldiers get parades but the emotional baggage that they take home wasn’t really explored back then. In this movie, he explores the stories of three very different veterans who return from WWII. One man married his girlfriend (that he wasn’t dating for very long) right before he went off to war, a practice that was quite common in order to ensure the women would get war widow benefits if he died. When he returns home, he barely knows his wife and the quick marriage isn’t as strong as he’d expect and he finds himself attracted to another woman. His wife loves the idea of bragging to her friends about her war hero husband but she’s frustrated that he can’t find a high-paying job when he returns home. He’s now working at the same grocery store from before he left, only now he’s an underling to his former assistant. Another older veteran returns to the bank where he once worked, only now he’s asked to deny loans to veterans who ask for money. The bank wants to use his military background as a sensitive way to politely turn down the loan requests and he doesn’t feel comfortable doing that. On top of things, his children are now all grown up and he’s having trouble sleeping due to PTSD from the war. And finally, another solider comes home disabled. He’s lost both hands and now has hooks in place. He’s played by Harold Russell, who became one of only two non-professional actors to win an Academy Award for acting. He was an actual veteran who came home from the war and Wyler decided to cast him in the movie. After his Oscar win (he actually won an Honorary Oscar for bravery that same night) he had trouble getting other acting roles and ended up selling his statuette at an auction. His character feels depressed about his hooks and is reluctant to marry his longtime sweetheart, even though she doesn’t care about his disability. There are some beautifully poignant scenes involving his characters. There’s one scene where children are peaking at him through a window and he shouts, “Did you come here to see the freak?!” He tries to open the door to yell at them and show them his hooks but he can’t twist the door knob so he smashes both hooks through the window, saying, “Here! Now you can see them!” There’s also a sad scene where he explains to his fiancee the process he has to go through in order to get dressed or undressed every day. I was pretty blown away by this movie. Every character is nuanced and realistic and the film beautifully illustrates how some casualties of war actually come home. I highly recommend this one. It did beat one other amazing movie to win Best Picture: “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I’d probably rank “It’s a Wonderful Life” higher on my list of best movies of all time, but “The Best Years of Our Lives” is still a worthy choice for Best Picture that year.
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951)
Vincente Minnelli, father to Liza Minnelli and one-time husband to Judy Garland, had the distinction of directing two Best Picture winner: “Gigi” and “An American in Paris.” The latter is probably one of the most famous musical movies of all time is often lumped in with “Singin’ In the Rain” another musical movie starring Gene Kelly that won Best Picture. I had never seen this movie before but I’ve had it on my list for a while. Despite never seeing this one, I have a personal connection to this movie. My wife and I had our wedding reception inside The Palladium in Carmel and the room in which we ate and danced there’s a giant poster on the wall for this movie. Michael Feinstein, famed singer and artistic director for The Palladium, had the original billboard-sized poster as part of his personal collection (he’s an expert in the Great American Songbook) and he donated it as a decoration for the building. The movie itself utilizes several existing songs by George Gershwin but brings them to live with new arrangements and thrilling dance numbers. Yes, it’s Gene Kelly so there’s a lot of tap dancing. The movie is filled with bright technicolor hues and the set pieces — obviously filmed at a sound stage and not actually in Paris — are full of color and character. It’s almost like a dreamlike vision of Paris rather than a realistic authentic portrayal. If you’ve seen the movie “La La Land” then you’ll see that it borrows heavily from “An American in Paris,” from the lighting and colors to the dance numbers. It straight up steals from it at times. The highlight of the movie is a 17-minute dance number that is incredibly impressive but does grow a little tedious after the 10-minute mark. You can have too much of a good thing and it’s like watching a 30-minute battle/fight scene in an action movie. It’s great but you can only be on the edge of your seat for so long. “An American in Paris” is a feast for the eyes and it hold up in many ways. But it’s an interesting contrast to its chief competition for Best Picture that year, which was “A Streetcar Named Desire.” You couldn’t find two more opposite movies. “A Streetcar Named Desire” was directed by auteur Elia Kazan and was based on a play. There’s no showy cinematography and it’s filmed in black and white. It boasted nominees in all four acting categories, winning three. Marlon Brando lost to Humphrey Bogart in “The African Queen” for Best Actor, but that seems to have been a “make-up Oscar” for Bogey since he had never won before and was getting up in years. Bogart died five years later. “A Streetcar Named Desire” was a tour-de-force for acting while “An American in Paris” received no acting nominations. “An American in Paris” is beautifully shot in bright color while “A Streetcar Named Desire” is drab and simple. Two very different movies. The plot of “An American in Paris” is pretty simple and it kind of just ends without really resolving anything. My wife was frustrated with the idea that Gene Kelly’s character snubbed the older rich lady, who was actually quite nice, for a very young girl he meets at a club. She didn’t think that reflected well on his character. I’d tend to agree. The connection between the two leads is mostly for their dancing, not their acting. I don’t know which movie I prefer: “A Streetcar Named Desire” or “An American in Paris” but they’re both great. There are images and scenes in “An American in Paris” that I’ll remember for a long time. The shot of him picking up the bright red rose and standing up is iconic to me.
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956)
Finally, we end with a little bit of a dud. “Around the World in 80 Days” is not a bad movie. It’s funny. It’s fast-paced. It’s well shot and has colorful costumes and fun action scenes. It’s just not an Oscar-worthy movie. It feels like the old Disney family movies in the 1950s and 1960s. Nothing wrong with those, but just empty fun, not really award worthy. It’s often referred to as the worst Best Picture winner ever. That’s not really fair. Maybe it doesn’t fit with the idea of what a Best Picture winner should be, but it’s still a well-crafted fun movie that I enjoyed. Other films that have that pedigree of “heaviness” or “gravitas” are sometimes just not enjoyable. I’m thinking of “Tom Jones” or “Out of Africa.” “Around the World in 80 Days” is dumb fun. It’s not a technical marvel. It’s not groundbreaking. But it’s enjoyable. It’s the 1950s equivalent of “The Hunger Games” winning Best Picture. The biggest flaw in “Around the World in 80 Days” is it’s length. It’s three hours long which is OK for an epic like “Lawrence of Arabia.” It feels excessive for a silly comedy. The opening intro about Jules Verne seemed unnecessary and as I understand it that was cut when the movie was broadcast on TV. I didn’t really care about any of the side characters and I didn’t pay much attention to the plot because it didn’t seem to matter. The entire movie is a vehicle to explore different international settings and basically show the cultural stereotype of each country. It’s not offensive but it definitely paints in broad strokes. David Niven stars as British adventurer Phileas Fogg but he’s overshadowed by Cantinflas who plays his assistant Passepartout. Cantinflas, the one-named stage name for hispanic actor Mario Moreno, is often called “Charlie Chaplin of Mexico” and he received top-billing in some countries when promoting this film. Indeed, he steals the show in this light-hearted travel film and is the source of most of the humor. Is there another movie that should have won Best Picture instead? You could make an argument for “The Ten Commandments,” “The King and I” or “Giant.” The last one would have been my choice, having earned a Best Director Oscar for George Stevens (who previously won for “A Place in the Sun” and was also nominated later on for “The Diary of Anne Frank.”)
Recently I decided to try to catch up and see all of the Best Picture winners at the Academy Awards that I had never seen before.
I decided at first to narrow the mission to just winners since 1950 since some of the older movies are harder to find, even with streaming services. Although, as I near the end of that goal, I’ve decided I might try to watch all of the them, if possible. I’ll still try to knock out the post-1950s ones first since I only have a few left but I’ve already started on a few earlier pictures.
I had a strong start to my mission, having seen 44 out of the 70 Best Picture winners going back to 1950 and I had not missed a winner going back until 1997.
I recently watched six Best Picture winners from the ceremonies of 1967, 1964, 1958, 1957, 1952 and 1947.
I only have 7 left to watch post-1950 (“The English Patient,” “Ben-Hur,” “Gigi, “My Fair Lady,” “All The Kings Men,” “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “All About Eve” and 15 to watch going back to 1929 (basically everything except the ones I’ve seen: “Casablanca,” “The Lost Weekend,” “Gone With the Wind,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “You Can’t Take it With You” and “It Happened One Night.”).
Without further ado, here’s three more entries to cross off my list.
A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966)
This didn’t look like a film that would interest me. A dry period-piece about religion and royalty. No battle scenes and the star actor is someone I’ve never heard of. But “A Man for All Seasons” really does hold up with great performances from Paul Scofield, Orson Welles, John Hurt and Robert Shaw. It tells the story of Sir Thomas More, a 16th-century Lord Chancellor who refused both to sign a letter asking Pope Clement VII to annul Henry VIII’s marriage so he could marry his mistress Anne Boleyn and have a son. He also wouldn’t take an oath and declare the king the head of the newly created Church of England (a move he made when the Vatican wouldn’t annul his marriage).
Sir Thomas More is a man of principle and everybody pleads with him to just give in and take the oath, sign the papers and “go along to get along.” He sticks with his morals and principles, even though it leads to a tragic ending for him. It kind of reminded me of “The Crucible” in that vein. I love seeing stories about characters with strong moral compasses and this one is filled with quotable lines to use in any situation in which you might doubt yourself.
One of my favorite lines that More says is: “When statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their own public duties they lead their country by a short route to chaos.” There’s a lot of truth in that.
I also loved a line he says after he finds out he’s betrayed by a young colleague who now was appointed to a prime position in Wales.
“It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but for Wales?” he exclaims.
Scofield deserved his Best Actor Oscar and I can see why this film took the top prize. Although you could make an argument for two other Best Picture nominated films that year: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which was nominated in all four acting categories and won two, and “Alfie,” a Michael Caine-starring vehicle that I absolutely adore (even if it drags toward the end.).
TOM JONES (1963)
So this might be my least favorite Best Picture winner I’ve ever seen. There are other winners that are just undeserving compared to the movies they beat, such as “Shakespeare in Love” beating “Saving Private Ryan” or “Crash” beating “Brokeback Mountain” or “Green Book” over “A Star is Born.” But those winners are still good movies that I enjoy. I didn’t enjoy “Tom Jones” and while other Best Picture winners like “Out of Africa” or “Chariots of Fire” might have been slow and kind of boring, I felt “Tom Jones” was just soul-crushingly pretentious.
I have no problem with period piece movies. I just praised “A Man for All Seasons.” I’m OK with slow-burn movies that linger in silence. I loved the long patient scenes in “Lawrence of Arabia.” But “Tom Jones” doesn’t seem worth the pay off. It’s billed as a comedy. I did not laugh.
I really, really wanted to like this movie. I think Albert Finney is a great actor and “Tom Jones” is one of the lesser known Best Picture winners, so there was a desire in me to like this film. I like telling people about a great movie that most haven’t seen or have overlooked. But this one is tough.
If you look on Rotten Tomatoes, critics loved this movie, making it 86 percent fresh. Audiences aren’t as kind, only giving it a 58 percent score. Every review written in the last 20 years looking back on this picture admits that it hasn’t aged well.
It’s a bawdy sex comedy with British humor that perhaps doesn’t translate well to American audiences. Although, I like Monty Python and Benny Hill and Fawlty Towers. I keep trying to find a reason that I should like this movie that others love.
I know the humor is subtle, but it’s so subtle, I’m not even sure it’s there. It’s like putting only the tiniest dash of salt on a dish and then being surprised when someone calls it bland tasting.
I felt like I was dumb for not enjoying this movie but whatever: It’s as bland as his name.
I think Fellini’s “8 1/2” should have won, although it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture (only Best Director). You can also make an argument that “Cleopatra,” “How the West Was Won” or “Hud” would have been more deserving winners.
THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957)
A nice palate cleanser after that suspense-less period piece, this is a film that I immediately loved.
William Holden is becoming one of my favorite actors of all time. I’ve always loved “Sunset Boulevard” and I rewatched it recently and loved it even more. The same can be said for “Network” which I also rewatched. Both of those films are top 100 of all time for me. I recently checked out his Western film “The Wild Bunch” and while I didn’t love it as much as critics (they ranked it in the American Film Institute’s top 100 movies ever) I appreciated Holden’s performance.
This movie is masterfully directed by David Lean, who would win Best Director and would later direct another Best Picture winner in “Lawrence of Arabia.”
It’s a big beautiful war movie about prisoners of war in a Japanese labor camp that are being forced to construct a bridge. Alec Guinness, best known as Obi Wan Kenobi, gives a fantastic performance as Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, a man who follows the rules to a fault, even if it isn’t in the best interest of his soldiers. He resists escape and instead begins to take pride in building the bridge for his captors, saying that decades from now people will see the bridge and know it was built by British soldiers. The Japanese commandant, Colonel Saito, is a man who is so insecure that he can’t figure out how to build the bridge that he resents the soldiers for their success. And Holden plays Lieutenant Commander Shears, an American who is reluctant to help and seems to really only care about his own personal safety. There’s no real hero in this piece.
I loved it because of its moral complexity. It asks difficult questions and doesn’t give easy answers. Even the final line of “Madness,” can be interpreted many ways. It would be overly simplified to say this film is just about “the violence of war.”
I recently watched Spike Lee’s masterpiece “Do the Right Thing” and what I love about that movie is that it’s hard to tell which character did the right thing. Every character has good points and bad points. It’s the same with “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” So much to analyze and deconstruct.
And yet it’s not just a psychological drama. There’s action. There’s suspense. There are big epic set pieces. It’s a long movie that never drags. That’s not an easy feat.
One of my colleagues said it’s the number one movie of all time. I wouldn’t go so far, especially since I just watched it for the first time. But I already know this film will earn a spot in my top 100 movies ever made.
When COVID-19 hit and movie theaters shut down, studios had to make a decision about what to do with movies that were scheduled for summer release. Disney decided to push back several of their theatrical releases including “Black Widow” and “Soul.”
They did announce that one large-budget movie — costing $125 million to make — would be not be released in theaters and instead would come straight to their streaming platform Disney+. Studio acted like they were being gracious by releasing “Artemis Foul” online to stream, especially considering the new service has been light on new, exclusive, original content. “The Mandalorian” is great but the rest of the original content on the site is quickly thrown together reality-based shows and docu-series.
Turns out Disney wasn’t doing us a favor by releasing “Artemis Fowl” on their streaming service. They were dumping a stinker to avoid the embarrassment of a box office dud. Even if there were no virus to harm movie theater sales, “Artemis Fowl” is a disaster of a franchise starter. A joyless CGI-spectacle that crams an entire sci-fi/fantasy novel into 90 minutes, leaving us with a very confusing plot and characters we just don’t care about.
It would be a cliche “dad joke” to say in jest that: “‘Artemis Fowl’ is truly fowl” but this movie is so bad that it deserves such an unoriginal insult. A lazy insult for a lazy movie.
“Artemis Fowl” is based on a 2001 young adult novel by an Irish author and was immediately optioned to become a film series, likely another “Harry Potter” but with a mix of sci-fi and fantasy. It tells the story of a 12-year-old criminal mastermind who kidnaps a fairy.
The movie was in production hell and kept changing writers and directors. Eventually Kenneth Branagh, the acclaimed Shakespearean actor/director took a stab at it, following up his other big CGI productions such as “Thor” and “Cinderella.” (He’s much better at Shakespeare, by the way).
Now I haven’t read the books (I was a senior in high school when this came out) but apparently this film version is not very faithful, turning Artemis Fowl from a criminal mastermind to just a really smart kid who wants to save his dad. They removed any anti-hero element in this adaptation. Colin Ferrell plays his father and apparently he was just added in reshoots and they completely changed the plot.
I don’t like to criticize child actors but Ferdia Shaw doesn’t come off as promising, but it’s not really his fault given the awful screenplay. Josh Gad, more of a veteran of Disney fare such as “Frozen” and the “Beauty and the Beast” live action remake, does a better job at elevating a weak script and provides some mild comedic relief (although he’s not in it enough). Judi Dench looks like David Bowie with a strange hairstyle in the movie.
The story itself is pretty nonsensical and they try to help you follow along with endless exposition and characters repeating things that were just said. It’s as if the focus group told people they found the story confusing so they just added bad writing.
I think the real problem with the plot is that the movie is only an hour and a half long and that might seem merciful for such a bad movie, but perhaps a few extra minutes to build the world and flesh out the characters would have helped. Maybe. I’m not sure, but it’s possible.
Here’s the thing: I didn’t have to drive a pack of kids to the movie theater and pay an insane amount of money to sit through this stinker. I watched it at home while I did other things. My investment is low and so the bar was set pretty low. But even then I really can’t say I enjoyed watching this one. If it’s just to entertain the kids for 90 minutes, you can put on a much better that you all can enjoy (try “Onward”). If you’re just putting on background noise while you organize your sock drawer, then just watch that episode of “The Office” for the umpteenth time. If you were a huge fan of the books, my guess you’ll be disappointed. It’s not the worst movie ever made but just one you don’t need to waste your time watching.
Who knows. Maybe “Artemis Fowl” will follow the path of “The Golden Compass,” “Lemony Snicket” or “Percy Jackson” and earn a streaming-platform reboot in the form of a TV series rather than a movie (“Percy Jackson” series was announced for Disney+ after the two failed film adaptations).
In the end, “Artemis Fowl” joins a long list of failed YA-novel adaptations that were trying to be the next “Harry Potter” or “Hunger Games” or “The Hobbit.” It joins the likes of the three I already mentioned, along with “Ender’s Game,” “Mortal Instruments” and “Beautiful Creatures.” Even the franchises of “Divergent” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” started to lose their appeal in later entries.
There are nine books to mine material from and so this is a movie yearning for a sequel. But to do that would truly be fowl (sorry).