One of the most enduring children’s tales of the 20th century was written in a single afternoon in 1936. Author Munro Leaf says it only took “25 minutes on a rainy Saturday” to pen The Story of Ferdinand, which he planned as a make-work project for his friend, illustrator Robert Lawson.
This weekend John Cena, Kate McKinnon and Bobby Canavale lend their voices to the animated Ferdinand.
The story about a big bull with an even bigger heart has been popular with readers for generations. In 1938 Life magazine raved, “Ferdinand is the greatest juvenile classic since Winnie the Pooh” and urged adults to “buy the book largely for their own pleasure and amusement.”
The success of the book took people by surprise, including Leaf’s widow who told Publisher’s Weekly, “What happened with Ferdinand is still a mystery. After Christmas, sales increased every week, and within 13 months, eight editions had been published. Ferdinand appeared as a giant balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; a Ferdinand song made the hit parade; and in December of 1938, The Story of Ferdinand nudged Gone with the Wind off the top of the bestseller lists.”
The book has never gone out of print and has been translated into more than 60 foreign languages, including a Latin version called Ferdinandus Taurus. Luminaries like H. G. Wells, Gandhi and Franklin Roosevelt approved of the book’s story of a bull that prefers smelling flowers to bullfighting and it was the only American children’s book available in Stalin-era Poland, but it wasn’t universally loved.
Released nine months before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, supporters of Francisco Franco thought it promoted dangerous pacifist ideas. As a result it was banned in Spain and remained so until 1975. Others suggested the book promoted fascism, anarchism and communism. The Cleveland Plain Dealer even ranted that the book was “corrupting the youth of America.” The New York Times, however, rejected the political metaphors, praising the book’s message of being true to oneself.
Adolf Hitler called it “degenerate democratic propaganda” and ordered all copies burned. In reaction, at the end of the Second World War, 30,000 copies were rushed into print and distributed to Germany’s children as a symbol of peace.
Walt Disney loved the story and commissioned a short film, Ferdinand the Bull, in 1938. In addition to producing the movie, Disney supplied the voice of Ferdinand’s mother and was the model for the Matador character. The short was a big hit, winning the Oscar for Best Short Subject. The film is particularly popular in Sweden where it has aired every Christmas Eve since 1959 as a segment on the annual Disney show Donald Duck and His Friends Wish You a Merry Christmas. In 1982 the Christmas tradition was broken when Ferdinand the Bull was replaced with The Ugly Duckling on the annual broadcast. The switch caused collective national Yuletide outrage and Ferdinand was returned to the show the next year where he has remained ever since.
No one is exactly sure why Ferdinand has had such a long-lasting impact, although one scholar suggests it’s because it crosses gender lines, offering up a character that appeals to boys and girls.
Set in Cold War-era Baltimore, The Shape of Water sees Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a woman rendered mute by childhood abuse. A cleaner in a military laboratory and storage facility, she communicates through sign language with co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and best friend and neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). When a mysterious Gill Man, held captive in a giant water-filled iron lung, is brought in the cleaners are told to keep their distance.
Elisa, however, bonds with the beast. After hours, when everyone else has gone home, she stays behind, playing music for the creature, performing dance moves learned from old movies and feeding him her special hard-boiled eggs. They click. She relates to him being unable to speak. “He doesn’t know what I lack,” she signs to Giles. “He sees me for what I am. As I am. He’s happy to see me.” He responds to her gentle nature.
His captors feel differently. They see him — “The Asset” they call him — as a case study, ripe for vivisection so they can discover how he can breathe on land and underwater. Everyone except for Elisa, it seems, wants The Asset dead.
When Elisa discovers a hard-nosed coiled-ball-of-rage named Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) is torturing the beast, she hatches a catch-and-release plan. Steal the creature, hide him until the next rainstorm fills a nearby canal and set him free.
The tale of intrigue takes a romantic turn when Elisa begins to regard The Asset as more man than monster.
The Shape of Water is a dreamy slice of pure cinema. Director Guillermo del Toro uses the stark Cold War backdrop as a canvas to draw warm and vivid portraits of his characters. Elisa and Giles are an unconventional family, outsiders in a world that values conformity.
Zelda is a feisty and funny presence — “I can handle pee,” she says, mop in hand cleaning up one of The Asset’s messes. “I can handle poo. But blood? That does something awful to me.” — while the creature is an empathic being with soulful eyes who glows with blue light when he is happy.
The combination of characters and del Toro’s flights of fancy is not only a love letter to the movies — Giles and Elisa live above a movie theatre, watch old musicals on TV and there’s even an Old Hollywood fantasy sequence inside the story — but a Valentine to why we fell in love with the movies in the first place. It’s a feast for the eyes and the heart.
At the centre of it all are Hawkins and Doug Jones as The Asset. Both, one nakedly emotional, the other hidden away under layers of makeup, wouldn’t be out of place in a silent movie. The fantasy elements of the story swirl around but Hawkins’ delicate but steely presence (aided by Jenkins’ heartfelt and occasionally heartbreaking loyalty) grounds the story in reality. Jones, though covered in scales and gills, uses his physicality to project the character’s power and vulnerability.
In the story’s thriller section, Shannon provides a villain whose gangrenous fingers are a metaphor for the rot in his soul. In the actor’s hands, Strickland is as cold as the blood that runs through the creature’s veins.
Wound tightly together these elements combine to form a beautiful creature-feature ripe with romance, thrills and, above all, empathy for all.
The Disaster Artist details a filmmaker whose artistic ambitions outweigh his talent. Tommy Wiseau, the writer, director, producer and star of The Room, is the title character, a man who miraculously and unwittingly turns disaster into triumph.
The key to telling the story of the making of the worst film ever is not recreating The Room beat for beat — it’s actually about treating Wiseau as a person and not an object of fun. He’s an outrageous character and James Franco commits to it 100 per cent. From the marble-mouthed speech pattern that’s part Valley Girl and part Beaker from The Muppets, to the wild clothes and stringy hair, he’s equal parts creepy and lovable. But underneath his bravado are real human frailties. Depending on your point of view, he’s either delusional or aspirational, but in Franco’s hands he’s also never less than memorable.
Wiseau is undeniably a terrible filmmaker and actor. The Room is an incomprehensible mess, a movie so misguided it starts off bad, gets worse and keeps going, through sheer force of will to become enjoyable. It’s a film so awful audiences can’t take their eyes off it, like a car crash.
In that sense Wiseau reminds me of Ed D. Wood Jr., another filmmaker whose name has been synonymous with failure and ridicule. The 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards singled out Wood’s movie Plan 9 from Outer Space in the Worst Movie Ever Made category while also hanging the title of Worst Director around his neck.
To be sure Mr. Wood was no Cecil B. DeMille, but he doesn’t deserve the critical sneers levelled at his work. Certainly movies like Glen or Glenda and Jail Bait were restricted by their über-low budgets and appear hopelessly amateurish, littered by ridiculous special effects and melodramatic acting, but they are entertaining and isn’t that what it’s all about? Many directors have spent a lot more money and not come close to delivering the same kind of giddy fun that The Sinister Urge pulsates with.
Take Michael Bay for instance. His movies make loads of money at the box office, but never fail to put me to sleep. Visually his films are spectacular feasts for the eyes. The former commercial director has a knack for making everything look shiny but having great taste doesn’t make a great film director any more than great taste makes a Snickers bar a gourmet meal.
To my mind the difference between awful auteurs Wiseau and Wood and Hollywood hit-maker Bay is simple. Wiseau and Wood’s films are inexpertly but lovingly made by someone desperate to share their vision. Bay’s big glitzy movies feel like cynical money grabs more concerned with the bottom line than personal expression. I’m quite sure that if Bay had to undergo the trials and tribulations Wood had to suffer to get his movies made he would run to the hills, or maybe just back to his big house in the Hollywood Hills.
The Disaster Artist is a love letter to the movies and how they are the stuff dreams are made of. As for the success of Wiseau’s dream? It’s like what Adam Scott says about The Room in one of the film’s celebrity testimonials, “Who watches the best picture from a decade ago? But people are still watching The Room.”
Hollywood is in a tizzy. Oscar magnet Harvey Weinstein has been kicked out of the Academy, Kevin Spacey’s performance in All the Money in the World, once heralded as a for-sure Oscar nod, has been edited out of the film, replaced in spirit and on-screen by Christopher Plummer. Louis CK’s movie I Love You Daddy will likely never see the light of day.
It’s the beginning of awards season. And while the Oscars, Golden Globes and others are meant to applaud the best of filmed entertainment, is a celebration even in order in a news cycle dominated by scandals, sexual predators and transgressions?
One writer suggested, “Instead of holding the Oscars, Hollywood should declare March 4, 2018, a day of atonement.” It’s not a bad idea but appropriate or not, award season will happen, because nobody likes celebrating Hollywood more than Hollywood itself. Are awards shows over the top? Yes. Is there an unnecessary amount of backslapping? Yes, of course there is.
History tells us the Oscars have only been postponed — never cancelled — three times, first because of record-breaking rainfall in Los Angeles, next in the aftermath of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and again following the 1981 assassination attempt on president Ronald Reagan. In each case, the ceremonies were rescheduled within days so don’t expect the Academy to suddenly take the moral high ground and cancel their big night.
Industry insiders point out that only a small percentage of industry folks have been accused of sexual harassment and assault. So in the spirit of keeping the flame of the creativity alive, why not hand out awards to the 99.99 per cent of the industry who haven’t been accused of sexual crimes or outed for engaging in misconduct?
With that in mind, here’s a look at some upcoming movies that deserve a look — and an award or two — in spite of the uneasy state of the industry.
In a tour-de-force performance, Darkest Hour stars Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in a movie that would make a great double bill with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Atonement director Joe Wright’s film is a spirited — and funnier than you’d imagine — retelling of the machinations behind the Second World War’s Operation Dynamo.
I, Tonya sees Tonya Harding as a rising star in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, until her future in the sport is thrown into doubt by her husband’s nefarious plan. There’s big Oscar buzz around Margot Robbie’s performance as Harding even though she didn’t know who Harding was when she took the role. “I think I was about four years old when the incident took place,” she said. “I was in Australia and totally unaware of the whole incident and the crazy controversy.”
With his latest, The Shape of Water, director Guillermo del Toro redefines the age-old maxim that beauty is not skin deep for a new generation and will likely earn an Academy Award nomination in the process. The film mixes and matches the best of Beauty and the Beast and Creature from the Black Lagoon in a story about love and appearances. It’s King Kong and Edward Scissorhands. It’s E.T. and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. After seeing the trailer, director Kevin Smith tweeted: “Seeing something as beautiful as this makes me feel stupid for ever calling myself a ‘Director.’”
Let’s face it, without the batsuit Bruce Wayne is just another billionaire playboy with some cool toys. With it, he’s the Caped Crusader, keeping Gotham and the world safe. The clothes make the man, or in this case, the superhero.
To play the Dark Knight in the new Justice League movie, Ben Affleck wore a variation on his Batman v Superman costume which was a variation on every batsuit that came before it.
Designed to conceal his identity and frighten criminals, the basic batsuit is usually blue-black or dark grey, emblazoned with the chest-mounted Batsymbol. Add to that a flowing cape, finned gloves and a utility belt with a variety of crime fighting gadgets. All batsuits are topped off with a cowl with ears that mimic a bat’s head.
Costume designer Michael Wilkinson says Affleck’s new look is, “a little more aggressive.” To pump up the suit’s armour, Wilkinson drew on Bruce Wayne’s history of studying martial arts in Japan, creating new gloves based on samurai designs. Inspired by the Wayne Tech esthetic, he also revamped the cowl, adding in new ways for Batman to communicate with his trusty manservant Alfred.
Like Rick Blaine’s fedora or Annie Hall’s wide trousers, long white shirts, vests and men’s ties, the suit is crucial to Batman’s brand but it’s not always a comfortable fit.
“The first time I ever put on the (suit) myself I thought, ‘Oh, Chris (Nolan) has to re-do the cast,’” says Christian Bale, who played the Caped Crusader in three movies, “because the claustrophobia was just unbelievable.”
The Batman Begins actor says he discovered a meditative process that eased the anxiety of feeling trapped inside the hulking suit and estimates that he spent a total of 21 months encased in Batman’s armour.
He claims the discomfort actually helped him play the brooding character because he was always in a foul mood when he had to don the suit.
“Batman, he’s this very, very dark, messed-up character,” said Bale. “I found when I put on the suit I went, ‘I just feel like a bloody idiot if I don’t use this as a means to (show) his true, monstrous self that he allows to come out in that moment.’”
When Affleck took over the role from Bale he says the Welsh actor gave him one important bit of advice. “He told me to make sure I got a zipper in the suit,” Affleck laughs, “which was valuable, practical advice as it turned out.”
Perhaps the most beloved actor to wear the batsuit was the late Adam West. For 120 episodes from 1966 to 1968, West was Batman on the most popular show on television. He called putting on the suit one of his most memorable moments on the show.
“One defining moment was when I first put on the costume for real and was about to leave my trailer on the stage and walk out in front of the crew and the press, and into the light,” he told me in a 2010 interview.
“I thought, ‘Oh Lord! Are they going to laugh? What’s going to happen here?’ Well, I walked across the stage as dignified as I could and there wasn’t a sound. People stood there in awe and I thought, ‘Yes, this will work.’”
This weekend the Orient Express pulls into the station, bringing with it murder and mayhem. Murder on the Orient Express features an all-star cast including Johnny Depp, Dame Judi Dench and Daisy Ridley. Directed by and co-starring Kenneth Branagh as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, the often-filmed mystery is based on the book of the same name by Agatha Christie first published in 1934.
The sensational story of a murder —13 strangers on the luxury train and an investigator’s race to solve the puzzle before the killer strikes again — is Christie’s best-known novel, but it is just one of 66 detective novels she penned in a career that spanned more than five decades.
“I think people have been pretty tough on her,” Branagh told The Guardian. “They’re suspicious of the volume of her output.”
It’s true that the author’s omnipresence on bookshelves, 20th century household-name status and massive popularity — over two billion copies of her books have been sold worldwide making her one of the bestselling authors ever — didn’t endear her to the literary elite, but Branagh sees her differently.
“Personally I admire the prolific nature of what she does … her ability to grab the audience’s attention is really striking,” he said. “The surface of what she writes has led people to dismiss her as a second-rater. But I think she is far more than that.”
Christie’s public persona was that of a button-down grandmother with a macabre imagination, but she led a remarkable life.
In an essay for Radio Times, Branagh writes, “This was a woman full of surprises.” He goes on to describe how the author became the first British female surfer to hang ten in Hawaii. “It was 1922,” he writes. “She was fully upright, scantily clad, and 32 years old.”
In her own words Christie says she wore a “wonderful, skimpy emerald green wool bathing dress, which was the joy of my life, and in which I thought I looked remarkably well!”
Another episode from her storied life feels like it could have been ripped out of the pages of one of her books. The year was 1926. Christie was on the verge of a divorce from her first husband when she vanished, leaving behind only her abandoned car, an expired driver’s licence and some clothes.
Already considered a national treasure, her mysterious disappearance was front-page news. Some thought it was a publicity stunt, others wondered if she was trying to frame her husband for murder.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, tried to solve the mystery with the help of a psychic. When Christie re-emerged 11 days later, after living under an assumed name in a small hotel, she offered no clues as to what had happened.
One popular theory suggests the Queen of Crime had fallen into a psychogenic trance. In the book The Finished Portrait, biographer Andrew Norman sites the adoption of a new personality and “failure to recognise herself in newspaper photographs” as signs that she was depressed and had fallen into a fugue state.
Christie never publicly commented on those missing days, not even in her official biography.
Now, 91 years later the mystery will likely never be solved. So much time has passed that not even Christie’s greatest creation, Murder On The Orient Express’s master detective Hercule Poirot, could get to the bottom of this mystery.
Depending on which side of the interdimensional divide you sit on, superhero movies are either the best thing to happen to Hollywood since the invention of buttered popcorn or the worst thing to happen to film since Steven Seagal.
Before we decide if The Hulk et al are ruining Hollywood, let’s define what a superhero movie is.
This weekend’s Thor: Ragnarok is most definitely a superhero film. It features characters with godlike abilities dedicated to protecting the public from archenemies.
Most superhero flicks — a genre David Fincher refers to as “spandex, blockbuster tentpoles” — whether they are comedic outer-space operas like Guardians Of The Galaxy or heist flicks like Ant-Man, are bound by straightforward morality and the idea that good always prevails over evil.
“It’s a very delicate time right now on Earth,” said Man Of Steel’s Michael Shannon, “and there’s a lot going on that is pretty frightening. It would be nice to believe or think that there was somebody that could protect us from that.”
Director James Wan adds, “All the good superheroes have some kind of social commentary about why they are who they are. It teaches values and so it’s a very important thing.”
The studios — with Marvel leading the charge — have raked in billions of dollars peddling bigger-than-life movies to fan boys and girls but are they self-defeating? Are Batman and Wolverine really ruining the movie business?
Oscar winner William Friedkin thinks so. “Films used to be rooted in gravity. They were about real people doing real things. Today cinema in America is all about Batman, Superman, Iron Man, Avengers, Hunger Games: all kinds of stuff that I have no interest in seeing at all.”
Marvel Cinematic Universe architect Kevin Feige, the man largely responsible for the influx of cinematic superheroes, disagrees. “If you look through the decades of people who’ve been accused of that — Star Wars ruined Hollywood, Steven Spielberg ruined Hollywood —I’ll be in that company any day of the week.”
That’s a flippant answer to a hotly debated and complicated question. At the heart of the discussion is the notion that bigger is always better. Does Hollywood’s love of bombast come at the expense of new ideas? Has the sheer scale of Avengers and Company movies made studios greedy, interested only in brands that will gross hundreds of millions. Why spend $5 million to gross $25 million, the theory goes, when you can spend $180 million on an established brand and make $1 billion?
Others worry that the episodic, homogenous nature of continuing superhero storylines aren’t challenging.
The truth is Wonder Woman and Friends haven’t sucked all the oxygen out of the room. The superhero bubble exists but the commercial and artistic success of movies like Get Out and Colossal balances out the equation. Superheroes may provide bang for the buck but smaller, original films are coming back into vogue.
The world of cinema is a big place. There’s room for both Thor: Ragnarok and The Florida Project. The fact we’re seeing a renaissance of small films playing alongside their risky bigger budget cousins like Dunkirk, signals studios walking back on their commitment to only making astronomically priced superhero movies.
So superheroes haven’t ruined Hollywood. They may be popular now but as Feige says, “As soon as there are a bunch of them that are terrible, that’s when it will end.”
In the movie Hitchcock, the master of suspense, played by Anthony Hopkins, says, “Audiences want to be shocked — they want something different.” He’s referring to the lurid horrors of his ground breaking 1960 film Psycho but he could have been talking about any number of frights available on screens this month.
Trends come and go but one thing is for sure, audiences will always line up to get scared at the movies. Whether it is the time loop terrors of Happy Death Day or the return of Jigsaw, the evil mastermind from the Saw series, there is no shortage of things that go bump in the night at the movies this Halloween.
But why do we pay to be scared? Isn’t that counterintuitive?
Scientists tell us that we like the rush of adrenalin that comes from watching Leatherface chase victims, chainsaw roaring.
That jolt of fear makes the heart race and releases a hormone called dopamine that’s also associated with pleasure. Science journalist Jeff Wise called the experience of extreme movie fear “the biological equivalent of opening the throttle.”
A Saturday matinee screening of Paranormal Activity was the first and only time I ever heard anyone actually scream in a theatre.
I don’t mean a quiet whimper followed by an embarrassed laugh or a frightened little squeal. No, I mean a full-on, open throated howl of terror. But the woman didn’t run from the theatre. She stayed and enjoyed the rest of the film, so she must have liked the cathartic release of tension the scream gave her.
Legendary filmmaker and showman William Castle took full advantage of the audience’s love of shocks.
The advertising campaign for Macabre, his 1958 schlockfest about a doctor’s daughter who’s been buried alive, boasted that every ticket purchaser would receive a $1,000 insurance policy against “death by fright” issued by Lloyds of London.
Those brave enough to make it through to the end credits were rewarded with a badge that read, “I’m no chicken. I saw Macabre.” The gimmicks worked, drawing thrill-seeking crowds who spent an astronomical $5 million (roughly $42,505,633.80 in today’s dollars) at the box office to see a movie that cost Castle a paltry $90,000 to produce.
Alfred Hitchcock knew how to scare the wits out of people. The shower scene in Psycho, for example, is a benchmark in cinematic fear. If he had any doubts about the effectiveness of that sequence they must have been put to bed when he received an angry letter from a father whose daughter stopped bathing after seeing the bathtub murder scene in Les Diaboliques and then, more distressingly, refused to shower after seeing Psycho.
Hitch’s response to the concerned dad? “Send her to the dry cleaners.”
The director was always quick with a line, but when it got down to the business of terrifying audiences he summed up the appeal of the scary movie in one brief sentence: “People like to be scared when they feel safe.”
But what scares the people who scare us?
Guillermo del Toro, director of Pan’s Labyrinth and the upcoming The Shape of Water, says, “I love monsters the way people worship holy images,” but it isn’t Frankenstein or Dracula that gives him the willies. “Politicians,” he said recently, “they’re the scariest thing there is right now.”
There was a time when serial killers ruled the movie theatres.
Movies like Kiss the Girls, Se7en and Silence of the Lambs were big hits and law enforcement types like Alex Cross and Clarice Starling were big draws. Now those stories have moved to the small screen and television shows like CSI and Criminal Minds track down the kinds of killers their big screen counterparts used to stalk.
This weekend serial killers return to the movies in the form of The Snowman, a Michael Fassbender film based on a novel by Jo Nesbø.
Fassbender plays Harry Hole, leader of an elite special victims unit charged with investigating a grisly murder on the first snow of winter. He believes it is the work of serial killer known as The Snowman.
Teaming with Katrine Bratt (Mission: Impossible’s Rebecca Ferguson) he is determined to catch the killer before the next snowfall.
Scott Bonn, criminology professor at Drew University, says audiences are drawn to serial killer movies in much the same way they are attracted to car accidents.
“The actions of a serial killer may be horrible to behold,” he wrote in the book Why We Love Serial Killers, “but much of the public simply cannot look away due to the spectacle.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines a serial killing as “a series of two or more murders, committed as separate events, usually, but not always, by one offender acting alone.”
Hollywood defines them by the box office they draw, and has never been shy about portraying serial killers or the police who track them down.
One of the first movies to take advantage of the fascination with serial killers was 1931’s M. Moon-faced actor Peter Lorre plays Hans Beckert, a serial killer who lures children with candy and companionship. “I can’t help myself,” he moans. “I haven’t any control over the evil that’s inside me! The fire! The voices! The torment!”
For a serial killer movie, M is remarkably free of graphic violence or bloodshed. That doesn’t mean it’s not harrowing. A scene in which the gnome-like Beckert lures a young girl with a balloon is spare — there’s virtually no dialogue — but it packs an emotional punch.
Just as important as the killer in the movies are the cops who bring the baddies to justice. In The Calling, Susan Sarandon creates a memorable serial killer hunter. She’s pill-popping Det. Hazel Micallef, a world-weary small town Canadian cop just a drunken whisper away from unemployment. The sleepy little town of Fort Dundas doesn’t offer up much in the way of major cases until a string of grisly murders — slit throats and organ removals — forces Micallef to dust off her detecting skills and track down a killer driven by fanatical religious fervour.
First time director Jason Stone ratchets the bleak atmosphere up to Creep Factor Five in this eerie character-driven mystery. There’s a little bit of Fargo in the mix, with some dark humor — “I just found the guy’s stomach!” — and disquieting imagery, but the real draw is watching the characters navigate through the film’s unsettled but strangely familiar world.
Bonn says movies like Psycho and Summer of Sam allow people to play armchair detective. “We may feel a bit guilty about indulging in them,” he writes, “(but) we simply cannot stop.”