Thursday, September 16, 2010

As Yom Kippur approaches, it's time to forgive some infamous sins of cinema.

Yom Kippur starts this Saturday. As one of the two highest-of-high holy days in the Jewish religion, Yom Kippur basically involves asking forgiveness for the past transgressions against God over the previous year. But arguably as important is Erev Yom Kippur, which is the day before the high holy day, which involves asking the actual people you've transgressed against for atonement. In that spirit, let us take a few moments to finally let go of a few alleged transgressions in recent cinema history. Don't do it for them, do it for yourself.

Kevin Costner
Alleged Sin: Beating out Martin Scorsese at the 1990 Academy Awards

For nearly twenty years, critics and film nerds have been condemning Kevin Costner for having the gall to 'deny' Martin Scorsese the Best Director Oscar that theoretically should have been his for Goodfellas. As a result, a once beloved film, one that revived the western as an occasionally viable film genre, is now looked upon with ridicule and scorn. Never-mind that Kevin Costner directed a critically-acclaimed smash hit. Never-mind that he somehow directed a three-hour revisionist western that managed to gross $494 million worldwide. Never-mind that this allegedly 'politically-correct' fable contains brutal violence and native-American characters that are neither savage (Graham Greene's nuanced and humorous performance still holds up) or noble (at one point they shoot down an unarmed and surrendering enemy tribesman). The film's initial quality has been surpassed by the 'Scorsese was robbed!' bandwagon.

Why we should let it go:
Because it's been twenty years. Let's not pretend that had The Godfather part III not been considered a disappointment, then Francis Ford Coppola probably would have won instead for finishing off his classic trilogy on a high note. Third of all, Dances With Wolves remains an exceptional motion picture. It's a thoughtful epic, a mournful drama, and a sterling action film. As for Costner's post Wolves output, we got twenty years of tricks (The Postman, The Bodyguard, 3000 Miles to Graceland) as well as some glorious treats (JFK, A Perfect World, Tin Cup, Open Range, The Upside of Anger), and everything in between (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Wyatt Earp, Waterworld, Swing Vote).

Scorsese's Goodfellas ended a post-Raging Bull slump that saw him taking an unknown Tim Burton's sloppy seconds (Burton was originally going to direct After Hours, but he passed out of respect for Scorsese). Cape Fear, Age of Innocence, Bringing Out the Dead, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, and Shutter Island. All either critical and/or box office smashes. Marty's doing just fine, and he finally won that Oscar sixteen years later. It's time to admit that Dances With Wolves was a pretty terrific film back in 1990.

Joel Schumacher
Alleged Sin: Wrecking the 1990s Batman franchise.
We all know the story. After parents cried foul over the violence and kinkiness of Batman Returns, Tim Burton left the franchise and Batman Forever was directed by Joel Schumacher, then a guy most famous for directing Falling Down, Saint Elmo's Fire and The Lost Boys. Schumacher gave us Batman Forever, a somewhat campy and neon-colored Batman adventure that felt awkwardly crossed the 1970s Darknight Detective days with the 1950s gee-whiz era. As a stand-alone film, it works pretty well, balancing out the bad (Tommy Lee Jones's terrible turn as Two-Face, moments where the Batmobile drives up the wall of a building) with the good (Jim Carrey's scary/funny turn as the Riddler, the strong chemistry between Chris O'Donnell and Michael Gough). The film was a smash hit and audience favorite, so Schumacher followed it up two years later with Batman & Robin. That's when everything went to hell.

Under strict studio orders to make a toy-friendly picture, Schumacher plunged completely into camp, giving us a Batman picture not based on the 1960s TV show, but one lodged firmly in the late 50s/early 1960s nadir. Buried beneath a solid story of Bruce Wayne coming to terms with becoming a surrogate father as his own (Alfred) lay near death stood a thousand miles of cheese: Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze ice-puns, Uma Thurman's sexy but grating May West impression, Alicia Silverstone's halfhearted attempt at playing a feminist Batgirl, George Clooney's overly cheerful Batman, etc. The film crashed and burned after opening weekend, Clooney fell on the sword, and the Batman series was dead for eight long years.

Why we should let it go: First of all, had Clooney not floundered so badly, he might not have made the defining choice to act for art, forgoing big paydays and instead making artier, more personal pictures that have made him one of the most interesting movie stars of his generation. Sure we get an occasional The Perfect Storm and Ocean's 11, but Clooney's filmography is filled with the likes of Out of Sight, Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, Michael Clayton, Confessions of A Dangerous Mind, and Up in the Air. Second of all, the audience rejection of such an overtly fan-unfriendly adaptation of a comic book property gave notice to studios that the next wave of comic book films should at least try to appeal to the hardcore fans.

Had Batman & Robin been just a little bit better and been a little less of a financial failure (it grossed $238 million, but at a cost of $200 million), then maybe we wouldn't have gotten the wave of reverent comic book adaptations (X-Men, Spider-Man, etc) that jump-started the 2000s. Most importantly, had Joel Schumacher not killed the Batman franchise, Chris Nolan never would have had the chance to bring it back to life in its current glorious form. Let's face it, without Batman & Robin, there would never have been a Batman Begins. For that alone, we owe Schumacher just our forgiveness, but our thanks.

George Lucas
Alleged Sin: Wrecking the Star Wars franchise with the prequel trilogy
There was no more anticipated film in modern history than Star Wars: Episode One: The Phantom Menace. Released nineteen years after Return of the Jedi, the first chapter in a three-part prequel saga was the verifiable holy grail of film nerds everywhere. Then, on May 19th, 1999, it was released. And the fans, the hardcore fans who worshiped the original trilogy as children, cried foul. It was too juvenile, it was too concerned with galactic politics, Jake Lloyd was kinda terrible as Anakin Skywalker, and the film lacked a Han Solo type character, a roguish prick to balance out the solemnity of the whole affair. They complained that Natalie Portman's Queen Amidala was too regal and not enough like Princess Lea (ie - 17-year old Portman just wasn't sexy enough). And that Jar Jar Binks character as an unholy creation of adolescent pandering, a jabbering, farting, doo-doo joke making monstrosity, right? Despite cries of treason from the nerds, regular audiences ironically liked it just fine, powering the film to a $431 million domestic gross and $924 million worldwide, making the film the second-highest grossing film in history behind Titanic at that point. While the next two films in the trilogy tried to make amends (there was less Jar-Jar, more action, and more hard violence), The Phantom Menace is considered the original sin in the eyes of film nerds everywhere.

Why we should let it go: Because it's been eleven years. Because bitterness is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. Because your kids will think that Jar Jar Binks is pretty funny, they won't mind a badly-directed Jake Lloyd, and they'll enjoy the youth-skewed adventure of The Phantom Menace, and that will give you the excuse to show them the rest of the films. Because your kids may very well discover Star Wars through the dynamite Clone Wars TV show currently on Cartoon Network. Because you weren't eight years old when The Phantom Menace came out. You were in your late teens if not significantly older. The Star Wars trilogy was never intended to be judged as adult entertainment. That The Empire Strikes Back was so somber, character-driven, and mythical may very well have been an accident, giving dramatic weight and pathos to what was supposed to be a series of outer-space adventures. At heart, the original Star Wars trilogy was an homage to Flash Gordon, done up with state of the art effects with some political substance thrown in for good measure (Palatine = Nixon and Ewoks = Vietnamese). Because I still see kids on the playground playing their own Star Wars adventures. I'm pretty sure they don't complain about Jar Jar and debate whether or not George Lucas raped their childhoods.

Because, here's a dirty little secret: the prequel trilogy IS more adult than the original trilogy. The first three films were a classic hero's journey, complete with good guys who wear white and bad guys who wear black. Save for the inner conflict of Darth Vader in the last act of Return of the Jedi, there was little-to-no moral ambiguity and the series ended up a relatively happy note. But the prequel trilogy muddied up the waters, giving us Jedi who arguably do more harm than good (the tipping point is Mace Windu's attempt to murder a defeated Palpatine at a critical moment), a galactic senate that willingly gives up its power out of fear and deprives its citizens of liberty in the process, and a dashing hero who is revealed to be a murderous loose cannon even before he actually goes over to the Dark Side (massacring sand-people is not the Jedi way). If Palpatine is now supposed to be Dick Cheney or George W. Bush, then the Jedi is us, the patriotic opposition who stood on the sidelines and knew damn well what was going on but did little to stop it until it was too late. Yes, Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith have their issues, but at the end of the day, they have the courage to point the finger straight back at us, the theoretically good people who sat by while evil triumphed.

Scott Mendelson


Jihad Punk 77 said...

lol... good post. Dances with Wolves is actually a quite decent film, although Ive never seen Goodfellas. the bashing bandwagon is boring. I see a similar disdain for TITANIC, which (in my opinion) also a very good movie.

the Star Wars prequel trilogy was more mature. Revenge of the Sith is dark, depressing and damn good.

but I will never "forgive" Hollywood for how bad the Batman franchise in the 1990s were.

Rick said...

Interesting... i've never seen dances with wolves, so i'll leave that one alone.

Everything you said about the after effects of Batman and Robin are true, but any argument about that movie (good or ill)is centered on one thing, it's fucking terrible. That being said, i'll let it go, if by "let it go" we understand that it is never to be mentioned unless absolutly neccassary.

As for Star Wars, telling Vader's story required a deeper grasp of characterization and drama that Lucas just doesn't have. I lament the failings of the prequel trilogy instead of hate it, and that kindof disappointment is hard to let go

Anonymous said...

I know I should but I just can't let Batman and Robin or Phantom Menace go.
Menace's sins are legion, but the thing that always bothered me most is that Lucas claimed back in the early 80s that he had written the treatment for episodes 1-3. There is no way.
I agree that the culmination of the implosion of the bat franchise is that the keys were handed to Nolan. However, due to the 10 year hiatus we missed 2-3 Bat films. Would they have been terrible? Perhaps, but it would have been interesting. Remeber the Howard Stern as Scarecrow rumours?

Scott Mendelson said...

Lucas said several years ago that 80% of the prequel story that he wanted to tell was in Revenge of the Sith, so by default Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones have a lot of padding.

I do remember the 'Batman Triumphant' rumors. Stern as Scarecrow, Jenny McCarthy as Harley Quinn, and a promise to go darker, complete with a prologue that killed off Robin and Batgirl. I give those as much validity as the Batman II rumors that promised that Nicholson's Joker would come back from the dead and team up with Riddler (Robin Williams), Penguin (Danny DeVito), and Catwoman (Cher or Madonna).


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