The Oscar Project
This week’s movie category was a Movie Based on or Turned Into a Television Series and while there are plenty out there to choose from, I decided to give a little old 90s movie a shot.
The Avengers was a film I remember wanting to see when it first came out. As I mentioned in my previous post, I thoroughly enjoyed Sean Connery’s performance in The Rock, having not seen much of his Bond work up to that point. I’m also not afraid to admit that I was a teenage boy at the time, and the trailer and poster for the film featured Uma Thurman quite prominently, dressed in a very tight fitting catsuit. This was right on the heels of her portrayal of Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin, so the creators were playing on that familiarity.
Now, while Thurman remains lovely to this day, I was less interested in her outfit choices for the film, but a bit surprised to find the aforementioned catsuit only appears in the final 10-15 minutes of the film. Marketing leads us astray once again.
The sad thing about the film is that if you just looked at the cast, you’d thing it was a top-notch production. Beyond Fiennes, Thurman, and Connery, there are appearances by Jim Broadbent as Mother and Fiona Shaw as Father, the leaders of the spy agency as well as an early film appearance from Eddie Izzard as de Wynter’s henchman Bailey. His only line in the film (“Oh, fuck!”) comes near the end and is probably one of the few moments I actually laughed out loud. In terms of the rest of the dialogue, get ready for tons of eyeroll inducing double entendres and clichés that have not aged well in the 25 years since the film debuted. Even with the all-star cast, they were not able to save these lines from sounding utterly ridiculous throughout. I did however enjoy the preunion (my new word as the opposite of a reunion) of Broadbent, Shaw, and Fiennes in the film who would all appear in various Harry Potter films a few years later.
I wrote extensively on last week’s film, The Birth of a Nation, despite only rating it a 3 out of 10. This film falls into the same category but without the benefit of cinematic innovation. There is literally nothing to recommend in this film, and it probably could have rated lower, but I feel that would be a disservice to the tremendous names in the cast. If you really want an Avengers fix, check out the television series which is available on Amazon Prime or just skip this movie by that title and watch Marvel’s The Avengers. Despite any failings of the Marvel films, they are infinitely better than this movie.
We’ve made it through three months of the 52 week challenge this year, and I know I have seen some great (and not so great) movies that I might not have seen otherwise. I hope you are doing the same and filling in some gaps on your film resume.
This week, we turn our attention to television. No, we’re not picking a TV series to watch in its entirety this week. Our category for week 13 is a film that is Based on or Turned Into a TV Series. As usual, you have plenty to pick from, and as usual you have plenty of movies to pick from. I found a list on Wikipedia of films based on television programs, and a list of TV shows based on films, so you can go either way. With all the new shows on streaming services in the last decade, I’m sure you can find a movie that interests you to fill either of these categories.
My Selection-The Avengers
I remember seeing the trailers for this film in high school and thinking it looked amazing. For whatever reason I never got around to seeing it. I had seen Sean Connery in The Rock and more recently Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin the previous year and I knew so this piqued my teenage interest in many ways.
After a bit of a disappointing weekend for Shazam! Fury of the Gods, another franchise film is hoping to keep things rolling at the box office this weekend
John Wick: Chapter 4
That's right, one of our favorite actors is back in cinemas this weekend with the fourth installment of this action franchise. I have to say it's sad that Lance Reddick, one of the stalwarts of the franchise, isn't around to see the release of this latest film after he sadly passed away just last week.
This time around, Wick (Reeves) is running from an ever increasing bounty on his head, while fighting against the High Table on a global scale, seeking out powerful players from New York and Paris to Berlin and Japan.
The cast continues to shine with names like Donnie Yen, Bill Skarsgård, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Halle Berry, and Anjelica Houston attached to this iteration.
John Wick isn't the only thing you'll find at theaters this weekend. There are several limited releases along with at least one special event this week.
There is no good way to say it really, but this week was a tough one for the challenge. The category this week was a Controversial Film, so it should be something that creates some discussion and hopefully you found something that made you think about the world. If you need to review the list I provided earlier in the week, check out the preview post from this past Sunday.
Now, on to the film I choose this week.
The Birth of a Nation is the oldest film I’ve watched so far this year, and if my current plan holds, the oldest film I will watch for the challenge in 2023. It’s the oldest film by far that I’ve watched in some time, excepting some of the very early experimental films made by the Lumiere Brothers and Thomas Edison in the early days of film.
But what is The Birth of a Nation and why is it so controversial?
The film is based on a novel by Thomas Dixon Jr. called The Clansman. You can probably guess at the content based on that title, but I’ll outline it at the high level. The film is split into two parts, the first taking place during the American Civil War. Two families, the abolitionist Stonemans from the North and the “Old South” Camerons, are intertwined in a manner a bit reminiscent of the Capulets and Montagues, with sons from each family falling in love with daughters from the other. Sons from both families are killed in the war and while young Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) leads a charge in his final battle, he is wounded and captured, leading to the announcement that he will be hanged. Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish), whom he was in love with, finds him and helps set up a meeting with President Lincoln to ask for a pardon for Ben.
The film famously depicts the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865 and feels like a scene placed in the film to add a bit of publicity to the story. It’s certainly not required for the rest of the events of the film, and actually serves as a bit of a distraction from the events before and after. That said, it does close off the first half of the film.
That second half is where the real controversial parts show up. As the story moves to the Reconstruction Era, the Stonemans move to South Carolina to observe the Reconstruction policies being implemented and of course run into the Camerons again. Stoneman bring along his protégé, Silas Lynch, who is described as a mulatto and Lynch is elected lieutenant governor with strong support from the black community. An overwhelmingly black state legislature is depicted with extremely racial stereotypes which I won’t outline here. You might think that is enough to rate as controversy, but you’d be very wrong.
Ben Cameron comes back into the picture here as he establishes the Ku Klux Klan as a way to fight back against the sudden power the blacks have received in the state. Elsie leaves Ben as a result, and in one of the more famous sequences of the film, Cameron’s little sister Flora (Mae Marsh) goes exploring in the woods only to be accosted by a local freedman named Gus (Walter Long in blackface). She ends up leaping off a ledge to her death and when Ben sees this with Gus fleeing the scene, he rounds up his Klan friends who help him capture and lynch Gus.
This action prompts Lieutenant Governor Lynch to crack down on the Klansmen. The ending of the film devolves into several battles between these various factions, with some combination of the Stonemans and Camerons stuck in the middle. Ultimately Lynch is captured and the Klansmen emerge victorious celebrating through town leading to a new election, now defended by the Klan which will not allow any blacks to vote.
There is a title card right near the end of the film that longs for a time when war will no longer be a scourge on the land, but it can live in peace and harmony, an odd sentiment from a film entirely about the ravages of war, even those that stay behind when the official fighting has stopped.
Now, there is plenty to unpack there and I don’t have time here to fully do so, but if you’re interested, there have been plenty of words already written about this film throughout the last 108 years. What I will say about it is that while I understand its place in cinema history, there is too much going against the film to really recommend it to anyone other than an extremely niche audience of civil war buffs and hardcore cinephiles.
So, let’s start with the things this film got right. It is rightly praised for introducing a number of innovations in the use of film technology to tell a story. Keep in mind that when the film was made, motion pictures as an art form had only been around for about 20 years. Yes, there were animated images before 1895, but the first true projected images as we know them today hadn’t been around that long. Director D. W. Griffith used this film to pioneer techniques such as tracking shots, using close-ups and fadeouts, and even the carefully staged battles sequences like we see in war films like Saving Private Ryan, 1917, or the recent All Quiet on the Western Front. There is a tremendous amount of editing throughout with the action cutting between scenes in different locations, often telling multiple stories at the same time. I’m not sure if it was part of the original film, but the version I watched also had different color gradations in the film depending on where a given scene was taking place or who was in the scene. Internal shots were often yellowish with nighttime shots tinted blue or green and battle scenes highlighted by a red tint.
This is all to say that many of the moviemaking techniques we take for granted today, didn’t exist before Griffith used them in this film. For that, we owe a great deal to this film, despite all its flaws.
Unfortunately, those flaws are many. Some are simply a result of when the film was made while others can only be chalked up to Griffith’s choices and the source material that he used for the film. Chief among these is the general treatment of blacks in the film. While there are some black actors used in certain sequences, the majority of the black characters are portrayed by white actors in blackface. While it might seem shocking to audiences today, this practice was still commonly in use in films through the 1920s and can famously be seen in the first “talkie”, The Jazz Singer, where actor Al Jolson performs on stage in blackface. The use of this practice is especially galling given the fact that some of the background black characters are black actors, but the one that feature in the plot are all white actors in blackface. Even the mixed-race Lynch is clearly a white actor with almost no effort to make him look otherwise.
Beyond the blackface element, there is of course the inclusion of Ku Klux Klan which led to an increase in Klan activity following the release of the film. According to my brief research on this, the Klan was largely defunct by 1872 and as such lay dormant until The Birth of a Nation burst on the scene. The fact that this film is largely credited with the rebirth of the Klan, serves as multiple demerits against it.
The two items discussed above are reason enough to downgrade this film, even in light of the technical advances it made, but if we go back to those advances, even some things there detracted from the overall film. First, looking back at the editing techniques that were pioneered, including cross-cutting between multiple locations to tell several storylines at once. While it was revolutionary at the time, I honestly don’t think it was executed particularly well. Perhaps that is due to the fact that it was the first time anyone was trying this approach, but it often feels like Griffith had this brilliant new idea of how to tell a story and ended up overusing it in this film.
Another major negative point for the film is the overall length. At well over three hours, this is a lot of film to sit through and I can’t help thinking that 90% of the sequences could be half as long as they are. The battle scenes are impressive for the time in which they were created, but they drag on. The famous scene of Gus chasing Flora through the woods lasts well over 20 minutes, something that could have been covered in half that time with more intentional shot selection.
The last major mark against the film, for me at least, is the cast of characters. Not the acting itself mind you. While it is overacted throughout, that is the fault of it being a silent film, not of the actors themselves. What I’m talking about is the sheer size of the cast in terms of who we need to pay attention to. Even with the list of cast members right at the beginning of the film, there is easily two pages of characters, none of which we’ve met at that point. The two families are so similar in their makeup, that it’s hard to tell them apart. Combine that with the fact that we can only see them visually and never hear their voices, the Stonemans and Camerons blend into one giant mass of a family. Again, this may be intentional, but it made my viewing confusing.
I’ve gone on longer about this film than any other I’ve watched for this challenge, but given how long it is and the long history the film has, I thought it worthwhile. As I mentioned above, I can’t really recommend this film to anyone outside a few select groups, but if you are someone interested in the early history of cinema, consider watching select parts of this film. The entire 193 minutes is not for everyone, but you can learn quite a bit about early film techniques from The Birth of a Nation.
It feels a bit weird to say I’ve been looking forward to this week for a while, because it’s possibly the most difficult category on the calendar for the year. Not that it’s difficult to pick a movie, because there are plenty out there in the Controversial Film category, but difficult in that most of these movies are tough ones to watch for whatever reason. That’s what makes them controversial after all.
If you need help finding a movie for this week, check out this list from TimeOut that cover their 50 most controversial movies ever made.
My Selection-Birth of a Nation
This is one of those films that you learn about in just about any class on film. It is probably one of the earliest controversial films, releasing from director D. W. Griffith in 1915. If you’ve never heard of The Birth of a Nation, just know that it takes place during the American Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction Era and is based on a novel called The Clansman. Your assumptions about the film based on that knowledge are probably correct.
The Oscars are over, and the movie world can take a little bit of a breather, but there are still a few big releases yet to come in the month of March, including this weekend's wide release
Shazam! Fury of the Gods
Following up on the first film from 2019, Zachary Levi is back as the adult version of Shazam, aka Billy Batson.
This time around, Billy and his friends face off against three daughters of Atlas played by Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu, and Rachel Zegler.
Djimon Hounsou returns as well as the Shazam franchise tries to pick up the pieces after a lackluster performance from Black Adam last fall.
While there are still a bunch of big movies in theaters from the last month (Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Creed III, Scream VI, and Cocaine Bear), there is still space in some multiplexes to screen smaller titles like these below:
I have to apologize for being a little late with this week’s recap post. For anyone playing along at home, the Oscars were this past Sunday night so that was taking most of my attention. Fortunately, I had been able to get my viewing of this week’s film (Network) a little early so I’m only behind on doing this write-up.
As a reminder, the category this week was a Best Original Screenplay Winner. The assumption I made was that this was a winner at the Oscars, as there are other screenplay awards. If you’re still looking for a film to pick for this week, check this link of the Best Original Screenplay Winners from the Oscars.
Now, on to my thoughts about Network. This film is not for everyone. There is a certain sense of humor required to “get” a film like Network, and thankfully I have that sense of humor. As you’ll know if you’ve been following along with my challenge this year, all the films I’m watching are first time watches for me and Network was no exception. I have heard about and read about this film for years, and never made the time to sit down and watch it.
Things continue with Beale doing the news, eventually leading to his “mad as hell” tirade, before he is given a new show of his own where the mad as hell catchphrase becomes the mantra of Beale and his audience. Christensen begins a romance with Beale’s former boss Max Schumacher (William Holden) whose marriage suffers as a result. Schumacher is released from his duties at the station in favor of Christensen who continues pressing Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) for support. Ultimately, the ratings of Beale’s new show never see sustained success and the leadership decides once again to remove him from the air, permanently.
This is obviously a simplified overview of the plot of a film that has many moving pieces. There are elements of racial and class politics as undertones and a subplot of Schumacher’s affair with Christensen and how that destroys his family. After the initial action to set the plot in motion, Beale himself becomes almost like a background prop, something to be moved around from one place to another to advance the action. Indeed, Beale almost acts as an animal at times, and is thus treated as if he were nothing more than an animal. And **SPOILER ALERT** just like a dairy cow who has stopped giving milk, when Beale runs dry, he is shot down and killed live on air, giving one last bump in the ratings.
The film was obviously well received at the time. It did win four Academy Awards (from nine nominations) at the 49th Academy Awards including Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Finch), Best Actress (Dunaway), and Best Supporting Actress (Beatrice Straight as Schumacher’s wife). I can completely understand why it won for screenplay, as the script gives each member of an all-star cast at least one chance to shine. They all get monologues throughout the film, not least of which is Finch’s performance in the famous “mad as hell” scene. The only acting nominees from the film that did not win were for Ned Beatty as the UBS owner Arthur Jensen and for Holden who was nominated alongside Finch in the Best Actor category. I can understand Beatty not winning because while his monologue is just as impressive as the rest, it’s really his only major scene, while the rest of the winners appear throughout the film.
This is one of those films that I’ve always wanted to make time for and while it’s clearly not intended for all audiences, I think it’s absolutely fantastic. I can see why it appears on a number of top 100 lists of films including AFI’s 100 Greatest American Movies of all Time. If you haven’t seen this one before, do yourself a favor, watch it, and then get up, go to the window and yell “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this any more.”
I realized late that I never posted this preview for week 11, even though I've already moved on to week 12.
If you are circling back on this, check out Wikipedia for the list of Best Original Screenplay winners.
I feel like I’ve written this a few times already this year with other films in this challenge, but I’m pretty mad at myself for waiting so long to watch my film this week for the Family-Friendly Movie category. I went through the list from PureWow.com that I posted earlier this week and found that I’d seen the majority of them, but was able to land on Akeelah and the Bee as my pick for this week, and so happy I finally saw it.
Now, a little background before I get too far into this post. Before last year, I don’t think I’d seen Keke Palmer in any films. I may have heard her voice in one of the Ice Age films she was in, but besides that, I didn’t have any reference for her as an actor. That said, since August of last year, I’ve seen four films with her in leading roles. Two of those are her most recent roles as the voice of Izzy Hawthorne in the Pixar film Lightyear and as Emerald “Em” Haywood in Jordan Peele’s Nope. But I would argue that her better (and more impactful) roles were from early in her career, namely Cleaner and this week’s film, Akeelah and the Bee.
When I was picking the film for this week and saw Akeelah and the Bee on that list, I immediately jumped at it, and Palmer’s presence was one of the deciding factors. But the fact that I also got to see Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne reuniting on screen after first appearing together in What’s Love Got to Do With It? sealed the deal.
Now you might think that with names like Fishburne and Bassett in the film, Palmer’s performance would get pushed aside, but just as she held her own in scenes with Jackson in Cleaner, she is equally up to the task of commanding the screen with Bassett, Fishburne, or at times both stars. She is comfortable playing off these adults with tons of experience and the other kids in the film and that’s what I love about seeing her in these early films of her career.
I’ve gone on too long about Palmer without touching on the story, so here it goes. Akeelah (Palmer) is an 11-year-old girl living in Los Angeles. She is incredibly bright and gets teased for being smart. When a teacher suggests she enters the school spelling bee, she is initially resistant, but does enter, winning handily. Dr. Larabee (Fishburne) is at the bee and begins quizzing her on even more difficult words after she wins, which she mainly spells correctly before being tripped up.
As Akeelah moves on to the local and regional spelling bees enroute to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Larabee agrees to help her study and rise to the challenge. We meet several other contestants along the way that will be both friends and competitors. Akeelah must also push back against her own family including her mother (Bassett) who doesn’t understand why she loves the spelling bee and her brother who appears to be falling in with some unsavory characters in their neighborhood.
This is where the film had to make a choice, and I applaud the direction it went. In one version of this film, Akeelah’s brother becomes a victim of gang or drug related violence and adds yet another thing she must overcome to achieve her goals. But the version we see here shows even he is able to come around, not only helping her study as the national bee approaches, but even being encouraged to do so by his tough guy friends. There is a wonderful montage near the end of the film with Akeelah getting quizzed on words by the local grocer, her school friends, and even her brother and his buddies. The entire neighborhood is invested in the success of this girl in a similar way that people often rally behind superstar athletes that spring out of poverty. The difference here is that intelligence and knowledge are the vehicle, not just strength or athletic prowess.
Now, that’s not to say that films showing someone coming up in sports like this are bad. I’m simply saying that it’s refreshing to see education be the center of an uplift story because we don’t get to see that as much. Of course, there are a few problems with the film, chief of which is the treatment of Akeelah’s main rival in the bee, Dylan (Sean Michael Afable). Dylan is of Asian descent and while the film tries to breakdown racial stereotypes when it comes to African Americans (only able to rise up through sports, not education like we see here) Dylan’s character does fall into some traditional stereotypes related to how he is treated by his father. Dylan’s father comes across as a strict and domineering figure, intent on pushing Dylan to win the spelling bee, devoting every waking hour to this pursuit regardless of whether Dylan really wants it. That said, I appreciate how the end of the film handles this and shows that Dylan isn’t a bad kid. **MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD** In fact, when the competition comes down to the final between the two of them, Akeelah sees how much the competition means to Dylan’s father and purposely misspells a word to give him a chance to win, not just the competition, but his father’s approval. Dylan immediately misspells the same word, telling Akeelah that if he wins, he wants it to be on true merit and they both agree to give their all the rest of the way.
I’m so glad I’ve been on a bit of a run of great films the last few weeks with The Dirty Dozen, Parasite, and now this film. They are all different in their own way, and this was a great palette cleanser after those two previous films with tougher subject matter. I’m also glad I got to see some tremendous work from Bassett and Fishburne who are both wonderful in their roles here.
After spending some time starring in dramas like Marriage Story, The Last Duel, House of Gucci, and White Noise, Adam driver returns to science fiction with 65, the latest effort from the writers of A Quiet Place.
Driver stars as Mills, the pilot of a spaceship that crash lands on an unidentified planet. He is able to find only one other survivor of the crash, Koa, played by Ariana Greenblatt (Avengers: Infinity War, The One and Only Ivan). They struggle to survive on the new planet, which turns out to be prehistoric Earth, populated by the original dinosaurs, not ones re-created from frozen DNA.
I only just heard about this film from director Bobby Farrelly, half of the famous Farrelly Brothers (Dumb and Dumber, There's Something About Mary). This film brings Woody Harrelson into the role of Marcus, a former minor-league basketball coach who finds himself in legal trouble, derailing his opportunity to coach in the NBA.
As part of his community service, coach Marcus must take over a team of players with intellectual disabilities who aim to try out for a spot in the Special Olympics.
Hot on the heels of last year's Scream reboot, this film got greenlit and written in a hurry. Series regular Neve Campbell will not be included in this iteration, but Courtney Cox, Hayden Panettiere, and Melissa Barrera all return from previous films in the series. Also joining the cast this time around is Jenna Ortega, star of the hit Netflix series Wednesday.
The Scream franchise takes a trip out of the quiet suburbs in this film, with Ghostface terrorizing folks in New York City now, hoping that this change in scenery will rejuvenate the series.
There have been a ton of big releases since Quantumania that will be demanding theaters, but that isn't stopping studios from releasing other smaller films. Check your local showtimes for these releases:
I'm just a film buff who wants to watch great movies. Where else to find the best, than the list of those nominated by the Academy each year?