Tuesday, November 22, 2011


JER: It is probably safe to say that all film lovers, at any level of dedication to the art, goes through various stages. Sometimes you can stay stuck in a groove of watching love stories or action films. Other times it may be your personal film festival on an actor or actress of choice… as we go into the core of real cinema lovers, we start looking at more specific genres like classics, or epic films of the 1950’s. The more deranged, I included, enjoys staying on a film studios’ favorite releases, music composer…even a director of photography… and even a very specific film director.

I know this will be a controversial subject to my ‘counterpoint’ partner, Johnny Chazz, but I feel that one director in particular deserves recognition for a huge body of work but whose name is seldom spoken of. Ladies and Gentlemen, you know his films; I now introduce you to director Joe Johnston.

Director Joe Johnston

I dubbed Johnston as ‘the director who can’ for a number of reasons. He is the film maker who went up against 1989’s explosive release of Tim Burton’s BATMAN with his own debut film of Disney’s HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS and pulled off a very impressive box office take despite the comic frenzy of caped- crusader fans! Johnston breathed new life into a possible dying franchise when he was hand- selected by Steven Spielberg to helm JURASSIC PARK III. Finally, he was the man who threw his own hat into the ring during the ‘Comic Book Year of 2011’ when he submitted CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER and went up against the likes of other superhero/ action movies like THE GREEN HORNET, THOR and THE GREEN LANTERN and still grossed a whopping 178 million dollars worldwide.

Not a bad track record for a man who isn’t a household name! Let’s start from the beginning…

Born Joseph Eggleston Johnston III on May 13th, 1950 in Austin, Texas, he was a towering man that stood 6’ 1 ½ “ (1.87 m) and expressed an interest in film early on in his life. During the time he attended Cal State- Long Beach in California, he answered an ad belonging to George Lucas, who was seeking employees at the time. He was brought on board and worked as a storyboard artist for Lucas and was responsible for the final designs for STAR WARS’ characters Yoda and Boba Fett. Lucas encouraged Johnston to attend USC, his alma- mater. He accepted in 1984 and Lucas paid his tuitions and kept him on the payroll as a part- time employee.     

While working for Lucas under  his special- effects company: Industrial Light & Magic, Johnston would go on fine- tuning his skills to win him an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK in 1981. The award was shared with Richard Edlund (GHOSTBUSTERS), Kit West (STARGATE) and Bruce Nicolson (ARMAGEDDON). Being around the company of such talented directors like Spielberg and Lucas only led him to his directorial debut with HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS.

The summer of 1989 belonged to the highly- anticipated BATMAN starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. At the time, pre- merchandise sales prior to the film’s release was so astounding that it rivaled the days of STAR WARS sales during the late 70’s- early 80’s. No studio dared go up against the box- office predictability foreseen on its opening weekend and beyond… no other film would stand a chance… or would it? The Walt Disney studios budgeted an estimated 18 million dollars and released HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS, a family/ adventure/ comedy about an average ‘nutty professor’ who created a miniaturizing laser machine that accidentally shrinks his children. Despite BATMAN’s earnings that summer, HONEY brought in a gross of approximately 131 million dollars. Soon thereafter, Hollywood was taking notice of Johnston and awaited as to what he had in- store for his next feature.

Disney’s very prestigious project, THE ROCKETEER, was given to Johnston to direct after the success of HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS. The studios’ expectations were that it would be a potential franchise and spawn merchandise sales and sequels to follow. The story opens in 1938 and centers around a jet pack created by Howard Hughes. Meant to modernize the US military, the pack is stolen and chased after… eventually ending up in the hands of an airfield stuntman. Curiously, the pack is worn during a stunt show and audiences are wowed and amazed by the acts performed… the news makes its way back to the villains who want the pack for potential Nazi use to win over America and beyond.  It would seem as if THE ROCKETEER had all the right elements: it was a family- friendly Disney film, the storyline was based off a comic book taking place in Los Angeles, CA before the outbreak of World War II and it had heroic do-gooders and evil Nazi baddies. Unfortunately, the studios financial expectations were not met during its theatrical run. After its release in 1991, however, the film eventually picked up an audience over the years and celebrated its 20th Anniversary in 2011 with a special theatrical presentation at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood and a new digital presentation release on blu- ray.
Enjoy the original trailer of THE ROCKETEER!

1994 would still have Johnston dabbling in the genre family- friendly world with his next release, THE PAGEMASTER, a combination of live action sequences taking the story into an animated world of literature enchantment. The film starred child actor Macaulay Culkin, best known for his role as little Kevin in HOME ALONE. 20th Century Fox was hoping that Culkin’s success with his earlier films, combined with Johnston’s track record at Disney, would bring in revenue for the film…it did not. The film’s gross was actually under what the budget was. The film would eventually compensate in foreign release and video sales.

Johnston had a formula he had been working with within his first years as a director: family films that combined action and comedy, but could still be special- effects driven. He tested that theory once again in 1995 with the release of JUMANJI starring Robin Williams… the theory would prove to be very effective and lucrative for Tri- Star Pictures. Grossing over 260 million worldwide, the adventure film focused on a curious board game centered on the mysteries of a jungle- type safari… whatever happens as you role the dice, would happen to you in real life! The film also incorporated some new advances in computer generated imagery (CGI) by making many jungle creatures come to life. Effects would include Williams coming face to face with a lion and a runaway parade of monkeys, rhinos, zebras and others run down an intersection of town! By today’s standards, the effects may come across a bit crude and underdeveloped, but it was a strong step ahead in the world of visual effects for its time.

Johnston with actor Jake Gyllenhaal
After a few years of rest and focusing further on a variety of different directions Johnston could take to challenge himself, 1999 would allow him to flex- out into the world of dramatic tellings minus the visual effects with OCTOBER SKY. Based on a true story about a small mining town within the 1950’s, a coal miner’s son expresses interest in the stars when in October 1957, Sputnik goes into orbit. Although it was the departure Johnston was hoping for as well as favorable reviews from critics, the box office didn’t see the figures racing into space…

Moving into a new decade and century hoped to provide new projects and new directions for Johnston. 2001 would kick- off the new decade with the highly anticipated JURASSIC PARK III, adding another chapter in the very popular series. Steven Spielberg, director of the first two film of the series, decided to step down and act as Executive Producer. Grossing over 366 million dollars worldwide, the film proved to be a hit with thrill- seeking audiences and for Universal Studios. Taking yet another step forward in the advancement of visual effects, the film made improvements on its dinosaurs’ appearances as well as provide new prehistoric foes to fear!
A behind-the-scenes look at JURASSIC PARK III!

HIDALGO, released in 2004, would tell the heart- warming tale of a down- on- his- luck cowboy living in 1890 and the travels he made with his horse to Arabia to compete in a wild and dangerous desert race. The film was produced by Disney’s sister company, Touchtone Pictures and presented a great mixture of wild west adventure blended with a scoop of humor and family- friendly fun. Its opening was a misguided March date and suffered box office receipts due to what clearly would have presented itself as a Summer or Winter film instead.

DelToro as THE WOLFMAN (2010)
Universal Studios called upon Johnston again…and he answered. Having just successfully given JURRASSIC PARK III to Universal, the studio was looking forward to breathe new life into one of its classic monster films, to which Universal was greatly known for during the 1920’s and 30’s. THE WOLFMAN (2010) would bring many elements into the spotlight: Anthony Hopkins and Benecio Del Toro were casted as father and son with deep and dark secrets, the film would call upon creature and make- up special effects artist Rick Baker who won an Academy Award for his on- the – screen transformations of man into wolf for AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981). Baker had always wanted to be a part of a remake of the original 1941 version with Lon Chaney Jr. as an upright wolf man that walks on two, not four, legs. Baker would go on to win another Academy Award for bringing that vision to the screen 29 years later. The story stayed classic by taking place in 1891 within the European countryside and was penned with dramatic overtones and not relying on humorous antidotes to amuse the storyline. The film had suffered a number of production flaws including a change in release date originally set for October 2009 (what would have been an ideal Halloween box office hit) was pushed back to February of 2010.

In looking back at Joe Johnston’s directorial career at this point in time, there are a few things that define his body of work; it is clearly obvious that he loves family films (THE WOLFMAN is the only “R- rated” film he has directed), his films are ladled with visual effects and his stories are usually family- friendly. It would almost be fitting to see Johnston take it to the next level as he has with his following film?

As mentioned earlier in the premise of my blog, 2011 was one filled with many entries into the adaption of comic book stories into films. It is also my opinion that many of them horribly failed as well... all, but one. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER would play along to a string of tie- in stories, each of them introducing a new super hero into what will forge an alliance as THE AVENGERS (projected release date is May 2012). This is a large project for Marvel Comics and its film studio… but I am getting ahead of myself. Originally, director Jon Favreau was chosen to direct, but he opted for the IRONMAN series instead. Johnston, however, was selected for his period films (THE ROCKETEER and OCTOBER SKY) since the premise of the story takes place in 1941. Chris Evans (‘The Flame’ in FANTASTIC FOUR) stars as Steve Rogers, a military reject who will do anything to fight for his country. Recognized for his good ol’ American attitude, Rogers serves as a government guinea pig to produce ‘elite and strong soldiers’ to fight and eventually win World War II. No longer the scrawny Rogers, he is to become and be known as Captain America.
See the exciting trailer for CAPTAIN AMERICA!

BOBA FETT: The Movie???
 At present time, it would seem as if Joe Johnston has no future projects in the works. Talks in mid 2011 had him negotiating a possible re-working of the JURASSIC PARK franchise that would take the action out of the island, but it seems as if the story has been shelved. Another rumor is a possible BOBA FETT film, fittingly so considering Johnston’s designs on the STAR WARS character. No official confirmation is available.

JOHNNY CHAZZ: Jer mentions that this week's blog will be a controversial subject to his ‘counterpoint’ partner - me of course. He is right.

Although Joe Johnston is certainly not what we would refer to as a poor director, his career and life-work ("Honey, I Shrunk the Kids"; "Jurassic Park 3", "Jumanji", "The Wolfman", "Captain America" and "The Rocketeer") it is really a challenge to place this director anywhere near the upper echelon of directors today and yesteryear.

"Psst... Hey, JC...bring it, bitch!"
 It is fairly easy to make a small list of directors that I feel are vastly overrated. These would likely include, but of course not be limited to the likes of Robert Zemekis, Ed Wood (lol), Tyler Perry, Michael Bay and more. Still, I am sure that there is a flip-side with some of our readers considering my praise of Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick, Fellini and Godard to be a bit ridiculous.

Now, we must understand that any director is capable of and will eventually make a "flop", but doing it on a consistent basis is hard to do - and it becomes even more difficult to give any acclaim to a director with that kind of track record.

Jer presents us with the career and films of Joe Johnston this week, so let's take a closer look at his filmography and attach 'picture points' to each:

"Honey I Shrunk The Kids" (1989): A family-oriented movie that people seemed to enjoy and was a big hit that year which I found extremely surprising to this day. Rick Moranis is dull and far too much of a goofball to watch and is completely over the top. To add, so many of the effects and sets just look plain fake and cheap. I think you have to be a kid or at least a kid at heart to even begin to accept a movie of this caliber. Pass ~ * Picture Points: 3/10

"The Rocketeer" (1991): This film bombed when it was released and rightfully so, unless you are a hardcore fan of this genre, which I am not. This comic book themed movie has a throw-back feel to it with a cast that was actually fairly decent. My primary concern with the movie was the whole "Nazi" thing that seemed to be extremely overwhelming during the film and especially towards the end. It's not hard, therefore, to see why this movie flat out flopped -and it wasn't just the Nazi thing. What is so bizarre is that the film deals with a time period that likely escapes so many audience members: Classic Hollywood, Al Capone, Howard Hughes and more. Thus, the film seems to work on some levels and is intriguing in parts - especially with the classic feel, but the Sci-Fi aspect of it simply makes it a bit too fantastic......ridiculous that it. **Picture Points: 4.5/10

"Jumanji" (1995): This is perhaps my favorite movie from Joe Johnston. As one of Robin Williams' top performances, this certainly is not - but the movie did hold my interest. To be honest, I actually thought the effects in the film as well as the score were entertaining enough for me to stick around and watch. Believe it or not, I re-watched "Jumanji" the other night and it seems to stand the test of time with its' clever imagination and decent story-line. *** Picture Points: 6/10
The original trailer for JUMANJI!

"Jurassic Park III" (2001): This series simply got worse as it moved along and the original wasn't exactly something to write home about. A decent cast, really, with Laura Dern, Sam Neil and William H.Macy, but “Jurassic Park III” was really bland and what is even more disappointing is that the cast really did not perform that well in the movie. The director must take some blame for that - and he does.

As for the movie itself, we saw the same old action and the same creepy and scary-looking dinosaurs that we were subjected to years prior. Everybody in the movie does the same thing that they did in the original - they run around like animals to try to escape from the island and free themselves from the terror. Simply put, there is nothing original about "Jurassic III" and I have no quarrels about labeling it a complete waste of time. *** Picture Points 3/10.

"The Wolfman" (2010): Here is a movie that everyone raved about prior to its release....and yet - another stark disappointment. Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins were an intriguing pairing here, but were the elements that make a good film there? Once again we plainly see in this movie that both character and plot / story development takes a backseat to special effects and make-up. Additionally, the concept of the Wolfman as a creature never really interested me - so I label the entire concept as boring. How cool it was however that Geraldine Chaplin makes an appearance in the film - but my, oh my, is she in the wrong place......mercy. Remember “Dr. Zhivago”, “Peppermint Frappe” and “Talk to Her”? What was she doing in this film? No clue really. *** Picture Points: 3.5/10
The trailer for THE WOLFMAN- Winner: Best Make-Up Effects!

"Captain America: First Avenger" (2011): I have not seen this movie yet, but something tells me to save the $10. Superhero films are done like burnt toast these days and there is no way that I could be dragged to this thing. To add: is it just me or does the cast look fairly lousy? Who in the world is Chris Evans and why should I even begin to care? It appears to me to be just another comic / pulp movie put together by Johnston, and although there is a bit of "buzz" out there, I am certain that I will not be listening. *** Picture Points: Undetermined, but duly anticipated.

I guess Joe Johnston has made a few dollars and maybe that is what he was after. When you are best known for the films listed above, something is terribly, terribly wrong. His association with Lucas and Spielberg had an obvious impact on the types of films he would go on to make - and that genre has become worn-out. His casting is somewhat respectable, but the focus on storyline and character development is virtually non-existent.
Johnston talks about BOBA FETT & making CAPT. AMERICA!

Jer dubs Johnston as ‘the director who can’. What does that mean? From my perspective, I guess he is the only director who can draw a red-line through his name come awards-night every year. I and so many other film lovers do not want to spend our time watching comic book movies - it is simply insulting. Johnston's movies present themselves at a level far, far below what is required from a quality director. The fact that he has no future projects in the works is in all actuality, a blessing. In sum, it is a far, far reach for me to find any justification as to why we offer any praise here on Cinema: Counterpoint to this director's career…

JER: Once again, JC, the boat has taken off and has left you waiving from the docks! I believe that not ALL films/ movies need to be in- depth or cerebral in order to get through the velvet ropes and make it to the party. There is a wide range of entertainment options…the key word is ‘entertain’, being ¾ of the word. I find that variety makes the world go round… within reason. As openly acceptable as I can be to films stretching the imagination…or tolerability levels to others, there are most definitely movies I would avoid and have a few choice words to share with those responsible for splattering them onto my sacred silver screen.

I think that your ‘Picture Points’ are too critical and laid upon too thick on films that are merely presented as ‘entertainment’ (there’s that word again) prospects and not ever intended as contenders for Academy Award nominations! It may be a word unfamiliar with some, but the key ingredient here is ‘fun’.

Johnston with cast the from THE WOLFMAN premiere
On an earlier phone call during the midst of our topic discussion, you accused me of blatantly selecting topics that would raise your eyebrows… the more recent being my recommendation of THE UNTOUCHABLES and my very- early Oscar predictions that you deemed controversial on the last page discussing our favorite film, THE ARTIST. This, of course, is not true…although, I would love to sprout horns and a pointed tail and wickedly laugh out my reply as, “YES!” I believe that Joe Johnston is a man who has contributed many imaginative offerings and I felt that it was high time that a little love be directed his way.

I have to contradict several statements made by you that were I derived as direct insults. Johnston is not overrated… he is unrecognized, thus the reason I dedicated this page to him. I would also throw any of his films as non- overrated… his films are recognized, but let’s not confuse the two statements. Secondly, your remark about ‘the focus on storyline and character development is virtually non-existent’ when referring to his films is false. If anything, he has been consistent with imaginative storylines with intriguing characters. I would also appreciate the fact that he takes his time selecting his projects then throw himself into something that would favor his technique and abilities.

With that mentioned, let’s let our readers tell it how they see it… what do you think? Is Johnny Chazz right in saying that his films aren’t worth mentioning or do you agree with me and believe that he deserves a little recognition? Comment, comment, comment all you like! We always look forward to them and all will be addressed and replied! Check us out next week as JOHNNY CHAZZ enlightens us with his views of the art with a unique topic… as always, we will SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY!
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  2. Hey Derek,

    I (JER) was up in your neck of the woods last weekend over by Arcadia!Anyways, tes, JOHNNY CHAZZ and I do have some very direct and indirect feelings that either match or clash! We are both passionate about our views and we do let them out!

    Thanks again for your comments!

  3. Johnstons' movies are pretty overated I think also. Critic Chaz gets kind of a bad rap here and he states basically what is true. If the best movie you ever made was something like Jumanji or Captain America then I also do not think the director is really that great. This is just an opinion. -Kyle

  4. Hi Kyle,

    More than anything CINEMA: COUNTERPOINT values the opinions of all! That was one of the reasons why we created the blog. Everyone is welcome to share their thoughts and ideas freely right here. I (JER) understand that Johnston isn't a Scorsese, Kubrick or Coppola... but there are some directors, in my opinion, that deserve a little recognition for the same reasons that their works aren't as noted as those mentioned.
    Thanks again!

  5. Hello,

    I remember Jumanji and some of these other films - liked a lot of them. Johnston made some decent movies. Maybe they were not the greatest, but some of them were pretty good.
    Regards, Jason from Akron, OHIO.

  6. Hi Jason and thank you for your comments...that is my whole point! Johnston makes fun movies as entertainment goes. They are not meant to be puzzling or brain- benders...just good clean fun.

    Thanks for chiming in!