Social Distance – 10 Years of The Social Network and Telling Only Half of the Story of Facebook

If there is a story to tell about the past decade, the 2010’s, it would likely be the rise of social media and networking that injected itself into nearly every aspect of our culture.  Though the 2000’s marked the beginning of social media, it wasn’t until the following decade that we saw the global influence that this new technology would have.  What started as a great way to socialize online and reconnect with long time friends as well as make new ones, evolved into something much more consuming of our everyday lives; and in many ways it became both overwhelming and frightening.  By the mid 2010’s, it almost had come to the point that if you did not have a social media presence, than you pretty much didn’t exist, as social profiles started to become more of a factor in job applications and self promotion.  In addition, because social media keeps a record of everything that you post onto their selective feeds and becomes public record, it has influenced the way that we present ourselves, and either has brought out a false self portrait that is not reflective of who we really are, or has drawn out our inner worst instincts in order to gain more attention.  And then there are the ethical issues with how we put our trust in the companies that run these social media platforms, and how they may be mismanaging all the data that we provide to them in order to use their service.  That particular aspect of social media in particular has emerged as the most troubling part of the story in the last few years, as we are slowly realizing that social media has eroded many of the things that we once guarded as sacred in our society; in particular, our privacy, which we seemed to have gladly given over in order to have a more prominent appearance online.  Honestly, we are all guilty of creating the monster that has emerged in the last decade.  I too recognize that I am guilty of doing much of the same things that I just complained about in this paragraph.  The question is, how do we go about recognizing the problems that we create in order to better use these tools for a better future.

It’s interesting to note that at the beginning of the decade, we viewed the emergence of social media in a much different way.  Back then, social media platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook were seen as this revolutionary democratization of of media, allowing any average citizen to have a voice that could reach millions.  For the early 2000’s, these platforms were viewed as a net positive for society at large;  everyone now had the means to make their voices heard and it was beginning to shake down the foundations of the closed in barriers of old media.  What is also curious about the way that we viewed social media at the turn of the last decade was that the troubling aspects were not with the platforms themselves, but rather with the people who were making the big money off of it.  And it wasn’t the motives that bothered people, it was the fact that these new tycoons of social media were so young and inexperienced themselves.  That was the basis for the book “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich.  In his 2009 non-fiction title, Mezrich examined the rise of Facebook, and the conflicts that arose in it’s early days among it’s founders.  What was so intriguing about Mezrich’s study of hubris and greed within the rise of Silicon Valley start-ups like Facebook was how all this flourishing of brilliance, breakthroughs and back-stabbings occurred with characters who were barely out of school.  In particular, the story became about how founder Mark Zuckerberg built his empire in his 20’s, and did so by pushing aside his closest friend, Eduardo Saverin.  In a titanic rift that normally would’ve taken decades to manifest in Fortune 500 companies, we were seeing a fresh faced billionaire under the age of 30 playing hardball in order to secure his own place at the top of the pyramid, destroying every other close attachment that he had built in order to get there.  It was a ripped from the headlines rise to glory with almost Shakespearean levels of hubris and tragedy, and naturally it captured the imagination of Hollywood as well.

The book was optioned almost immediately by Sony before it was published, and work began right away on what the industry would dub “The Facebook Movie.”  Initially it was thought to have been a cash grab to capitalize on the Facebook craze of the late 2000’s, but as we soon learned, it was going to be a much deeper film than that.  Aaron Sorkin, coming off of his award winning run as the show runner of The West Wing, was given the task of adapting Mezrich’s book, which would turn out to be the ideal match.  If there is anything that Sorkin is a genius at, it’s writing a electric argument between two characters.  The bridge burning rows between Zuckerberg and his many friends turned enemies in the book gave Sorkin plenty of opportunity to indulge in what he does best as a writer.  At the same time, Sorkin put a lot of work into examining the almost enigmatic character of Zuckerberg himself.  Zuckerberg was, and remains, fairly reclusive; appearing publicly in heavily managed events or the occasional awkward government inquiry on Capitol Hill.   In order to find the character, Sorkin wisely crafted the story to where Zuckerberg is both the hero and the villain of his own tale.  The movie marvels at the genius that it took to take Facebook out of a demo run at Harvard University to becoming something that encompasses the everyday lives of nearly everyone on the planet.  And yet at the same time, we see how Zuckerberg’s manic devotion to his own work alienated him from everyone else, including some very vicious betrayals of friends and confidants.  That’s where the genius of Sorkin’s adaptation shines through.  Zuckerberg, within the screenplay, is a manic genius, but also a vicious animal, and as a result, he created one of the most fascinating screen characters of the last decade.

The key to The Social Network’s success also relied upon who would bring the story to life on screen.  Surprisingly, it fell into the lap of David Fincher, whose body of work would’ve told you that he might have been the wrong man for this kind of story.  Fincher’s style is all about flash and moving the camera around to places that it normally wouldn’t go, as he showed with Fight Club (1999), Panic Room (2002) and Zodiac (2007).  A quiet, moody character study was a bit out of character for him.  Though he did indeed tone down his style a bit and largely kept the camera still, Fincher managed to rise to the challenge nonetheless, and gave The Social Network a very polished presentation.  The subdued cinematography of Jeff Cronenweth really gives the movie it’s beautiful melancholic look, which also helps it to fit nicely alongside Fincher’s other films.  However, if there was one thing that mattered most in getting this movie adaptation right, it was in finding the right Zuckerberg.  Not only did you need to find a young actor who could capture all the complexities of the character, being both vulnerable and intimidating, but you also needed a young actor who could deliver those Sorkin monologues with all their balletic wordplay without fail.  Thankfully, they found their man in Jesse Eisenberg, whose motor mouth skills with complex dialogue made him a perfect match for the role.  It also helped that his sharp features and curly hair also made him a near Zuckerberg look-alike.  All that aside, when you see Eisenberg in action in the role, he shines, capturing every angle of Zuckerberg’s character perfectly; his smugness, his cold callous nihilism, his manic aversion to anything fitting out of place, it’s all there on screen.  And given that Fincher is known for his penchant for multiple takes for every scene, it’s a wonder how Eisenberg managed to keep that energy up, even when getting into Take #80 or more.

It’s fitting that a movie about something as revolutionary as the founding of Facebook would itself break down many barriers.  Fincher still managed to work in some ground-breaking visual effects into his movie; some of which you would’ve never realized were digitally enhanced at all.  Most famously, Fincher revolutionized the way a single actor can portray twin characters on screen at the same time.  Two of Zuckerberg’s biggest adversaries in the movie are the Winklevoss Twins; white collar, legacy students of Harvard that enlist Zuckerberg to initially develop the Facebook site based on their idea, only to see Zuckerberg take the idea and run with it himself.  Later on, the Winklevoss, or as Zuckerberg dismissively calls them “the Winklevi” take him to court, effectively turning them into antagonists within Zuckerberg’s story.  What is interesting is that the presence of the Winklevoss Twins on screen is one of the most seamless visual effects I have ever seen performed.  I initially thought that actor Armie Hammer did indeed have a twin brother, but it turns out for the entire roll, his head is digitally grafted onto actor Josh Pence’s body.  This effect allows for the two twin brother to have slightly different bodies, despite having identical faces, which helped Fincher avoid the copy and paste effect that normally arose from the old split screen technique of the past.  And the best part of the effect is that it doesn’t distract, apart from the fact that it might be too good, knowing now that there is only one Armie Hammer out there.  There are also plenty of other ingenious aspects of the movie, like the groundbreaking musical score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and also the career making performance from Andrew Garfield, as well as a career redefining one from pop artist Justin Timberlake.  It was a movie destined to leave a mark right away upon release.

Though a moderate success at the box office, The Social Network did make a mark in award season.  Sorkin would go on to win his first Oscar for his iconic screenplay, but the movie fell short in other categories, with Fincher, Eisenberg, and the movie itself all playing runner up to the more conventional Oscar bait film The King’s Speech (2010).  But despite that setback, The Social Network has grown in esteem over the decade since it’s release, no doubt bolstered by it’s continued relevance in the years after.  While the narrative told in the movie itself is it’s own perfectly encapsulated American story, we have sadly learned all too well that it’s not where Facebook’s notorious history ends.  I don’t think even Mezrich, Sorkin, or anyone else would’ve imagined just how much of a villain Mark Zuckerberg would turn out to be in the years since.  Though the movie shows us a flawed individual driven to succeed at all costs, it doesn’t quite capture the true callousness that Zuckerberg has since shown with regards to his attitudes towards the toll on humanity that his company has been responsible for.  Yes, Facebook has bridged many relationships, and has helped people to organize and socialize far better than we’ve seen in years past.  But, what has also gone unchecked under Zuckerberg’s watch has been the rise and spread of dangerous ideologies that have exploited the platform of Facebook for their own advantage.  Hate speech, misinformation, and just outright toxic attitudes have spread across social media in the year since The Social Network premiered, and it has very much re-contextualized the story of Mark Zuckerberg entirely.  He’s since changed from this punk revolutionary icon into a closed-minded, ivory tower dwelling digital baron, never caring about the damage that his product is actually doing to the world.  Sure, Twitter and YouTube also have their problem with the prevalence of hateful speech on their platform, but they at least acknowledge that a problem exists.  Zuckerberg, in his defiance, refuses to address any recognition that Facebook is being used for any dubious means at all.  For him, it doesn’t matter what speech is being used on Facebook; as long as people continue to use it, he’s content.

There’s also the issue of data mining that has become a new point of contention over Facebook.  Sure, again, Facebook is not alone in the mining and selling of data, but again, the fact that Zuckerberg is so involved in the underlying transactions within the company puts him in far more of a contentious spotlight with regards to how that data is used.  This became a particularly contentious point when it was revealed that Facebook had been selling user data to disgraced political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which was found to have used that data to spread political misinformation targeted at voters in order to effect political outcomes that favored their right-wing leaning clients.  It’s believed that Cambridge Analytica’s targeted Facebook postings influenced election outcomes including the Brexit vote in the UK as well as the 2016 presidential election that brought Donald Trump to power.  Politics aside, the actions of both Cambridge Analytica was a huge violation of campaign ethics laws and the uncovering of the scandal eventually led to it’s eventual dismantling in 2018.  Despite being found to be in contact with the disgraced firm, Mark Zuckerberg argued that there was nothing illegal about selling Facebook’s data to firms like this.  Indeed, to the letter of the law, he wasn’t wrong, but it still shows us how little regard Mark Zuckerberg has for the political process and for the need for his user base to have all the right information.  It’s interesting to see how much of this revelation of Zuckerberg’s character changes the perception that we see of the character within the film itself.  After witnessing Zuckerberg’s decline into becoming a political pariah that casually takes a blind eye to all the hateful things that his platform is used for, we now see The Social Network as an origin story for one of history’s most notorious villains, made before his true villainy even began.

You would think that 10 years of new information about Mark Zuckerberg would convince the people who made The Social Network to consider picking up where they left off, and you’d be right.  While Fincher has been fairly quiet about the matter, Aaron Sorkin has indeed expressed interest in writing a sequel to The Social Network, and may in fact be already working on such a thing, while he’s getting his other projects like the upcoming The Trial of the Chicago 7 completed.  And indeed, if a sequel to The Social Network does come together, it could indeed achieve Godfather levels of resonance.  The parallels would be adept; just like Michael Corleone, the first movie would be all about the rise of a deeply flawed individual into a seat of power, and Part II would be all about that character losing every last bit of his soul in the process of holding onto that power.  Essentially, as great as The Social Network is as a singular film, it honestly feels like the first part of an even greater story to tell.  And the scary thing is, the story of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook is still ongoing.  Who knows what other things may happen over the next ten years.  Is Zuckerberg finally going to face pressure to address the scandalous actions of his company; will he have a moment of clarity and decide to do what’s best for his customers; or is he going to continually put profit over the truth from here on out.  With an election season about to enter it’s final round in the months ahead, I worry that Facebook and Zuckerberg will only continue to devolve into the quagmire they become.   Even still, The Social Network is a profound document of American film-making, and one that still stands the test of time 10 years later, even after the crazy ten years that has changed the story completely.  You don’t make over 500 million friends without making a few enemies, and unlike Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network has only expanded it’s support rather than repelled it.

Hamilton: The Musical – Review

It’s the Fourth of July; the celebration of America’s founding that continues to be a unifying moment in time for Americans from all walks of life.  Traditionally we celebrate with parades, fireworks and outdoor activities and barbecues.  But, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has put a halt to most of our traditional celebratory events, as social distancing remains crucial to stopping the spread of the disease.  Couple this with a political climate that is at it’s most divisive that we’ve seen in quite a while, and many people are questioning if such a celebration is worth it in this time in our history.  Though it won’t stop people from spending modest 4th of July caterings with their small collective family and friends, cooking on a barbecue and launching a few fireworks, some of the bigger expressions of American patriotism are going to be noticeably muted this year.  That’s not to say there isn’t a lot still out there to help boost the patriotic spirit of the national holiday.  There are literally dozens of films and television specials devoted to celebrating the Spirit of America, and they all come in a canvas of different shades that reflects the diverse character that is America today.  Whether it’s with watching a gritty war film like Patton (1970) or Saving Private Ryan (1998), or an inspiring underdog story like Rocky (1976), or a passionate cry for justice like Selma (2014), you can find so many movies out there that shows us the soul of America, and it’s unique place in the world.  Even musical theater can grant us that special feeling of patriotic pride with the stories that it tells in song about the progress of America.  Much of the great American songbook takes it’s selections from the Broadway stage, including from shows that make it a point to tell the story of America itself.  The show 1776 did exactly that in another divisive period of time like right now, with Vietnam and Watergate dominating discourse, and told a compelling story of America’s independence.  In this time of division, we need another musical to again lift up our patriotic spirit, and thankfully, that has finally come straight into our living rooms.

Hamilton: The Musical premiered on the Broadway stage in 2015 to overwhelming acclaim and record-breaking box office.  The brainchild of musical virtuoso Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton is the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton.  Miranda was inspired to write and produce the musical after reading a biography on the historical figure by historian and author Ron Chernow.  Within it, Miranda saw a story of an underdog immigrant who would go on to be one of the men who shaped America into what it is, a theme that resonated with the son of Puerto Rican-Americans who lived through their own immigrant experience.  What it compelling about Lin-Manuel’s adaptation is that he set out to tell the story of America’s founding with a cast and style of music that is reflective of America today.  Every role, with the exception of King George, is played by a person of color, which offers up a fascinating new perspective on figures enshrined in our history like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and of course Hamilton himself.  Miranda would fill the title role himself, and the score was filled with the same Hip Hop and R&B melodies that he used to great effect in his Tony-Award winning debut, In the Heights.  Hamilton far exceeded everyone’s expectations, and was heralded as an instant classic, winning everything from Tony’s, to Grammy’s, to even a Pulitzer.  Naturally Hollywood would come a calling, but Lin-Manuel has resisted bringing the production to the silver screen just yet, stating that he wants to show to live on the stage for while.  However, he did give in to having a filmed version of the stage show, helping to bring the show to the masses without paying an arm and a leg for the ticket price.  But, what comes as a major chock to everyone is who he granted the rights to over everyone else: The Walt Disney Company.

Hamilton: The Film remains pretty much in tact from how it was first performed on Broadway when it opened.  Lin-Manuel Miranda and most of the original cast had moved on after nearly a year of performing, but they returned for a week long engagement in late 2016 for the purpose of filming this specific version.  An extra special treat for everyone who lucked out in getting a ticket to those exclusive shows, but having the show be filmed as it’s meant to be seen (performed on a stage in front of an audience) also grants the filmed version a level of authenticity that can’t be replicated in a movie studio.  The play covers the defining years of Alexander Hamilton’s (Lin-Manuel Miranda) life.  We see him in his early years fresh out of school where he would meet several men who would leave an impact on his life; John Laurens (Anthony Ramos), Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan), Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), and most profoundly Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.).  They all join the war for independence, serving under the command of General George Washington (Chris Jackson), who helps lead them and the new nation to victory;  much to the consternation of pompous King George of England (Jonathan Groff).  In the middle of service, Hamilton meets the wealthy Schuyler Sisters; Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry), Eliza (Phillipa Soo), and Peggy (Jasmine Cephas Jones).  Though Angelica and Alexander develop a long standing bond, it’s ultimately Eliza who wins his heart and ends up wedding him.  After the Revolution, Washington is made President of the new nation and he asks Hamilton to join his cabinet.  However, Hamilton faces a new rivalry with Washington’s other cabinet secretaries, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (Diggs and Onaodowan again, respectively).  All the while, Aaron Burr continues to advance politically, becoming ever more resentful of Hamilton along the way.

For a lot of people, having the chance to finally see the show in it’s entirety after so many years is a godsend, especially with it’s premiere falling on the 4th of July weekend where everyone is stuck at home.  During the show’s heyday, ticket prices would rise up into the hundreds and even thousands.  Not only that, but demand was so high, that waiting lists would stretch beyond a year for some people.  Even the touring version in select cities sold out well in advance, which just shows you how much of a cultural touchstone this musical was for many people.  Though many couldn’t get into the show, there was still the album that was made available around the same time, which gives the listener a piece of the experience as the entire show is sung through entirely.  And everyone, having watched the show or not, became familiar with it’s music.  Even still, demand remains high for watching the show as it’s intended to be seen, live on a stage, and I for one have tried to make that my own personal goal.  I struck out the first time that Hamilton came through Los Angeles on it’s first national tour in 2017.  Luckily, another tour quickly made it’s way back to So Cal, and I managed to snag a ticket for it, and at a reasonable price as well.  The musical was going to be staged at the legendary Pantages Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, right in the center of Tinseltown.  I made it my own personal mission to make my first exposure to this musical phenomenon as a live theater experience.  I never listened to the soundtrack, and I refrained from watching even the briefest of video teases.  I wanted to experience the play without any preconceived expectations and just let the show speak for itself in it’s intended venue.  Unfortunately, those plans did not pan out.  The Pantages closed its doors mere days before the show’s run was about to begin in accordance with social distancing guidelines.  Since my ticket was only a week or two later, it didn’t take long for that to get cancelled as well, for which I did receive a full refund.  So, when I learned that the show would be made available to watch on Disney+ this weekend, it came as a mixed blessing.  Yes, I could finally see the show in it’s entirety, but at the same time, I wouldn’t be getting that intimate live experience either.  Even still, I had to give it a watch to finally understand what all the hype has been about.

Believe me, this show comes with extremely high expectations, and a part of me worried that it may not live up to the hype that I’ve been hearing about for the last 5 years.  But, after now having watched Hamilton for the first time, I can definitely say that the hype is indeed justified.  No matter what format it’s presented in, on the stage or on the screen, Hamilton is a masterwork.  For one thing, it appeals greatly to my interest in History.  I always admire the way that filmmakers and stage directors can bring historical events to life and make us feel like we are witnessing them in action.  With Hamilton, the thing that struck me was just how incredibly well they are able to convey this epic story of the American Revolution and it’s founding fathers, with such a minimalist set.  There are no extravagant backdrops or flat-board set pieces that the actors interact with.  All that we see is a single wood scaffolding across the stage on which all the moments of the show are staged within.  Following the Brechtian style of minimalist theater, the lack of a literal set puts more emphasis on the performances, and through the actors, we are given the full breadth of the story.  I even admired how the show doesn’t even use a curtain to hide the stage between Acts or before and after the show.  It’s all up to the actors, the costume department, and the incredible lighting to deliver a sense of the story’s epic scope.  To the filmed version’s credit, it captures this craftsmanship perfectly, and gives the viewer at home a good sense of what they would see if this show was performed live in front of them.  Indeed, given that Lin-Manuel Miranda supervised this filmed version himself, he was granted the creative freedom to recreate the stage show nearly as complete as he possibly could.  Considering it went to Disney, however, he did have to make a compromise to bring it to a PG-13 rating.  As he put it himself, he literally gave Disney two F’s, as the four letter word can only be used once to retain that more family friendly rating.

Also, it’s interesting that Disney of all people won out in landing Hamilton.  In a way it does make sense; Lin-Manuel has had a strong working relationship with the studio since the premiere of Hamilton, having written songs for the movie Moana (2016), as well as performing a lead role in Mary Poppins Returns (2018).  He also has a yet to be fully detailed animated film in the works with the studio which he supposedly has a chief creative investment in.  So I guess it only made sense for him to give his blockbuster musical a home at Disney as well.  Originally, the musical was to screen in theaters nationwide this fall in a limited engagement, but with the pandemic changing everyone’s plans, Disney instead opted to move the premiere of Hamilton to Disney+, with a special 4th of July weekend launch.  It’s a shame that the theatrical experience had to be lost too, but even still, putting it on their streaming platform works to both build hype for the show as well as for Disney+ in general.  Really, for right now, it is the only venue on which the show can be seen, as Broadway has shut it’s doors for the remainder of the year, which the Pantages in Hollywood is likely going to follow in suit.  What I will say about watching the show for the first time in this way is that it hasn’t deterred me from wanting to see it staged live.  Sure, I have lost my chance of experiencing it for the first time as it was meant to be seen, but this comes as a fine alternative.  In fact, now I have something to contrast with once I do see the show live finally.  It’s kind of like how watching the movie version of something like Les Miserables or The Sound of Music differs greatly from how it’s performed on stage.  Sure those are movies, and Hamilton is a film of a stage performance, which is different.  But, you don’t see edits or crane shots on a stage.  Witnessing it in that respect may offer a different experience entirely once I finally attend a performance.

As far as the show itself as it appears on film, the experience is exhilarating.  You come in close to the actors in a way that you certainly wouldn’t get in the theater; even if you were sitting in the front row.  The subtleties that the actors work out in their performances really come through in their close-ups, and you have to marvel at just how much work they put into their facial gestures that probably wouldn’t register to all those people sitting up in the nosebleed sections of the theater.  Lin-Manuel of course is stellar as Hamilton himself, balancing all the complexities of this extremely complex man.  You have to wonder where he found the energy to write, orchestrate, and craft a performance all at the same time during the production of this musical.  Many of the other actors excel as well, especially the ones playing dual roles.  Daveed Diggs really shines in a Tony winning performance as both Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson.  His flamboyant Jefferson may even be the highlight of the entire show.  I was also impressed with Phillipa Soo’s soulful portrayal of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, whose own story shines through in the narrative, giving her a historical spotlight that up until now has largely passed her by.  And of course the music is every bit as perfect as you’d expect.  It’s one thing to listen to it, but it’s another to see how it’s performed by the actors onstage.  The music is playful, heartbreaking, inspirational, and passionate, but above all else, it is daring.  You would’ve thought that telling the story of America’s founding with hip hop and rap was possibly sacrilege, but in the hands of a skilled artist like Lin-Maunel, it’s a perfect match.  The cabinet debates are perfectly re-framed as rap battles between Hamilton and Jefferson, and it brings new life to the actual arguments that these great thinkers who built our nation put forth.  Whatever creative spark Lin-Manuel received when reading from Chernow’s book proved to be a stroke of genius captured in a bottle.  A hip hop musical about the most unlikely of founding fathers for this nation; it was a match made in heaven.

What is great now is that Hamilton is no longer an experience exclusive to the super rich or the super lucky; it belongs to anyone with access to a $7/month Disney+ subscription, where they can enjoy it for as many times as they desire.  For less than the value of the currency that Hamilton’s face currently is enshrined ($10 bill), the musical Hamilton is now available to be seen by literally millions across the globe.  And this film version also gives us the treat of seeing the show with it’s original complete cast.  Many of the performers have since moved on from the show; some following in Lin-Manuel’s footsteps and making it out to Hollywood to pursue a film career.  With this filmed version, their iconic performances will be forever enshrined.  I do give Disney a lot of credit for pursuing this for their platform, even with it’s more adult themed subject matter and language.  Even with some of the edits they made, the show remains around 99% in tact, and given the more family-friendly rating, it actually helps to make this more palatable for younger audiences.  We may even see this filmed version of the play shown in classrooms in the years ahead.  For right now, with the 4th celebrations being scaled down so much to keep families close to home this holiday, this premiere of the musical couldn’t be more welcome.  Hopefully, watching this show again may become a new tradition for many Americans.  I was really happy to have not been disappointed now that I’ve gotten my first taste of the musical itself.  I get all the hype now, and recognize that it was all very much justified.  I still wish that I had been able to see the show live in person first earlier this year, but that’s a choice that was completely out of my hands once the pandemic spiraled out of control.  I hope to revisit Hamilton again soon; both live and on the small screen.  For anyone with a Disney+ account right now, don’t miss your shot and watch it right now.  Happy Fourth everyone, and stay safe and healthy.

Rating: 8.5/10

Tinseltown Throwdown – Outbreak vs. Contagion

The 2020 pandemic almost at times feels like we are living through a movie in real time.  Acts of heroism and selflessness within our hospital walls; families suddenly stricken with the hardship of loosing their financial security; dysfunction at the highest levels of our governing bodies.  If it all weren’t so tragically real, this day and age would make for a harrowing thriller.  And I have no doubt that once Hollywood does eventually land on it’s feet after this is all over, we will see multiple dramatic recreations of this period of time.  In many ways, real life has eclipsed fiction with it’s unpredictability.  But, in the past, we have seen Hollywood take a shot at dramatizing the possible effects of what a worldwide pandemic may be like.  The only problem is audiences up until now had no interest in movies centered around medical crises.  Most global pandemics don’t quite have the grisly sort of fatality that’ll intrigue audiences, as many of them are slow, possibly less lethal diseases.  So, for many pandemic movies, the filmmakers usually spice things up by adding something else to the mix, like a plague of zombies.  This is evident in things like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) or Will Smith’s I am Legend (2007).  Usually it’s a story about science run amok or about the fragility of human civilization, but as we can see, the disease alone has not been the thing that has interested filmmakers about pandemics, but rather the fallout that comes after.  What is rare in Hollywood is a movie that actually takes a good serious look at the actual steps taken towards combating an out of control viral outbreak.  Given how COVID-19 has taken over pretty much every part of our lives this year, it’s interesting to look at some of the few movies that actually have dramatized what a response to a pandemic would look like, and in some cases it’s interesting to see just how close and how far some of them actually came to showing what would actually happen.

The last time a global pandemic raged through the human population with such a ferocity as COVID-19 has, cinema was still in it’s infancy.  Whatever little documentation we have of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic has been the historical basis on which we have drawn from for most of our understanding of viral outbreaks.  COVID-19, like the 1918 Flu, is a respiratory disease with a very high transmission rate, but up to now has been thankfully less lethal; helped greatly by the lessons we learned from the last outbreak and the advances in medicine we’ve made since then.  But because Hollywood didn’t yet exist during the 1918 pandemic, there is little to no film documentation that chronicled the horrors of that plague.  So, Hollywood has had to rely heavily on past tense information or just use their imagination.  Now, there are two different ways that a Hollywood movie can dramatize a pandemic on screen; either remain very true to the scientific realities of a pandemic, or just make a whole lot of it up to punch up the drama.  Two of the most noteworthy pandemic movies represent both of these examples.  One is the movie Outbreak (1995) from director Wolfgang Petersen, and the other is Contagion (2011) from director Steven Soderbergh.  The former takes the pandemic concept far less seriously and uses it as a backdrop for your typical Hollywood action movie set pieces.  The latter delivers a deadly (no pun intended) serious dramatization of each step of a global pandemic.  Each has it’s set goals, and having watched both of them in the middle of an actual pandemic does offer some interesting insight into the different ways to tackle the same subject from differing angles.  The question isn’t does one more accurately depict a pandemic better than the other, because there is no question that the more scientifically sound Contagion comes out on top.  What is more intriguing when analyzing both movies is whether or not they do their job well in actually turning a pandemic story into a compelling piece of cinema on their own.

“Why can’t they invent a shot that keeps time from passing?”

First of all, you’ve got to look at the time periods in which the movies were made in order to see how they viewed what a threat of a pandemic would actually look like.  The movie Outbreak came out in the middle of the 1990’s, which was both a time of relative good health on the medical front globally, but also one where new emerging diseases sparked periodic anxiety.  Take for instance the emergence of Ebola in sub-Saharan Africa in the mid-90’s.  This devastating disease really worried a lot of people across the world, because of the high level of suffering the infected endured before succumbing to the bug.  Thankfully, it was found out that Ebola outbreaks could be easily isolated because of it’s low transferable rate, or as the World Health Organization (WHO) calls it the R0 value.  But still, the world took notice and wondered what would happen if the disease made it’s way over here.  At the same time, the world was also dealing with the fallout of another devastating pandemic that sadly went unchecked for years; the AIDS pandemic.  Because LGBTQ were scapegoated for much of the spread of the sexually transmitted HIV virus that caused AIDS, the treatment of this particular pandemic was sadly never given the right amount of containment, and it ended up ravaging it’s way through the oppressed queer community.  In the mid-90’s, Hollywood was finally acknowledging the devastating reality of an unchecked pandemic like AIDS, especially after losing some of their own to the disease, and the need to take pandemics more seriously became much more paramount as a result.  For the movie Outbreak, they use the examples of these notorious pandemics as the basis for their own.  It starts from Sub-Saharan Africa like Ebola, and it’s transmission through human contact is similar as well.  It’s origination from primates takes it’s inspiration from the HIV virus, but that’s where the comparisons end.  From there, we see Hollywood’ imagination go wild, and it’s not exactly true to science from that point on.

“Go without a mask.  You’ll see better.”

Contagion on the other hand almost plays out like a handbook from the Center for Disease Control (CDC).  Truly, upon watching this movie in the last week or so, I was struck by just how on the nose it was with regards to showing the moment by moment happenings of a global pandemic crises.  Made almost 9 years before the COVID-19 outbreak, Contagion is eerily prophetic.  It’s a respiratory disease that spreads rapidly, originated in China, causes a devastating impact on the global economy, and it exposes the fractures within our disease response system.  The one major difference is that COVID-19 is far less lethal than the one in the movie, which ends up killing in the millions within a two month span.  As bad as COVID-19 is, it’s global death rate remains low, and some countries have managed to successfully irradiate it altogether; sadly America is not one of them.  Contagion’s disease really shows us a worst case scenario and it is refreshing to see a movie where the science is focused on so intently.  The movie shows a well researched analysis of how a pandemic response would play out, both when it’s running effectively and when it is not.  At the time of the movie’s making, the most noteworthy pandemics we had known in the new century were the short lived ones like SARS, the Bird Flu, and the Swine Flu.  The H1N1 Swine Flu in particular served as a dramatic inspiration for Contagion, because it was the one freshest in everyone’s mind.  The 2009 outbreak led to the most widespread roll-out of Disease Control protocols in a long time, though it stopped short of extreme measures like social distancing and stay at home orders.  Contagion examines what would happen when that next step was needed, and sadly, reality and fiction would collide in less than a decade.

One of the biggest differences between the movies is no doubt the style of film-making.  Wolfgang Petersen has built a career making big, bombastic action films.  From his groundbreaking war pic Das Boot (1981), to his gritty natural disaster epic The Perfect Storm (2000), to the sword and sandals extravaganza Troy (2004); he is a director that likes to make his movies big and loud.  Unfortunately, pandemics don’t offer a lot of action, because it’s just doctors in PPE trying to keep people alive in hospitals.  So, for Outbreak, he pushes the science to the background and instead adds a lot of melodrama to the story.  The movie turns into a conspiracy thriller halfway through, with the military brass wanting to flex it’s muscles in response to the outbreak of this deadly disease.  It’s a very 90’s movie, where there is a lot of posturing and virtue-signalling from the movie stars playing doctors.  Dustin Hoffman’s lead character does some pretty reckless actions in order to diffuse the warmongering actions of Donald Sutherland’s General at Arms, and it makes the movie less about teaching it’s audience about the real threats of a pandemic, and more about a good guy vs. bad guy showdown.  Subtle, this movie is not.  Sutherland’s general even chooses to use a nuclear option to eradicate the disease; which would’ve seemed far fetched in the Clinton years, but maybe not so much during this current Trump administration.  Soderbergh’s approach, by contrast is extremely stripped back.  There are no explosions, no virtue-signalling, and very little melodrama.  The multitasking filmmaker basically treats the movie like a docudrama, showing every moment with the utmost sincerity towards the subject.  It’s refreshingly informative, but perhaps a little too dry as well.  Say what you will about Petersen’s bombastic style; it’s often entertaining.  Depending on what you’re looking for, something sober or something explosive, each movie offers it’s unique take on the issue of viral pandemics.

“Godzilla, King Kong, Frankenstein all in one.”

One of the most interesting things that both movies do have in common besides the infectious diseases is that they both feature all-star casts.  Outbreak has the previously mentioned Hoffman and Sutherland, but all features the likes of Kevin Spacey, Rene Russo, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Morgan Freeman.  Not to be outdone, Contagion has Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cottilard, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, and Gwyneth Paltrow as patient zero.  It’s a stellar line up of Oscar caliber talent lined up on both sides, but the difference between them is in how they are used.  Outbreak unfortunately saddles it’s incredible cast with a laughable, illogical script.  Dustin Hoffman suffers the most, because he’s got to carry the dramatic weight of the plot on his shoulders, and it’s clear that he really is not all that into the performance.  The one nice thing about watching Outbreak today is that you do see Kevin Spacey get infected with the disease and he suffers to the point of bleeding out of his eyes,  Given what we know now about Spacey, this moment does have a nice cathartic undertone now.  The cast of Contagion are much better served by the script to their movie.  Contagion doesn’t waste time building character motivations, nor does it try to give any of them a self-aggrandizing savior moment.  The movie plops all these disparate characters into the situation of a pandemic out of control, and defines them by their actions in response.  The performances for the most part are muted, but that serves the purpose of the film perfectly.  Damon comes off very believable as a protective father trying to keep life for his beleaguered daughter as normal as possible .  Fishburne is very convincing as the overwhelmed CDC director.  The only downside for the cast in the movie is that there is perhaps too many of them.  The movie jumps from story-line to story-line so rapidly that few if any of the subplots ever feel fully fleshed out.  Marion Cottilard’s kidnapping subplot in fact seems to have been forgotten about for almost a third of the movie.  Even still, it does a good job of keeping the through-line of battling the disease the driving force, and every actor is committed to each role they play.

What I think really puts Contagion ahead is the fact that it gives us a more provocative look at society in general with regards to how we respond to something like a pandemic; something of which that has become more profound during this year.  Outbreak keeps things fairly small, so that it doesn’t have to delve too much into the moral grays of society.  For Outbreak, it’s a clear good vs. evil plot as the enlightened doctors face down the interference of ignorant military personnel.  That’s basic Screenwriting 101, but the true science behind disease control is that viruses hold no allegiance to ideology.  Everyone is at risk, and to turn the film into a clear cut battle of ideas, the disease must take a back seat.  Contagion does a much better job of showing that the frailty of civilized humanity is not a by product of a pandemic, but rather it exposes the cracks that are already there.  This is perfectly encapsulated in the character played by Jude Law, a renegade journalist that tries to use the pandemic crises to further his own career.  He uses his platform in the movie to tout an unproven drug treatment as a cure for the disease and secretly profits off the sale of the same drug.  Sound familiar.  Sure, the character exists as a means of giving the story something of a antagonist, but as we observe in the movie, his success only happens because of the desperate greed that society is driven towards in self-preservation.  By not educating ourselves and listening to science, we have made it easy for grifters like the one in this movie to get away with their shenanigans, and that’s a harsh indictment on all of us as a whole that this movie makes.  Even the “good guy” scientists in the movie are not beyond making selfish acts, like when the CDC director recklessly instructs his wife to leave one of the hot spot cities, which inevitably leaks to the public and causes the public to start panicking.  By not letting the audience off the hook, Soderbergh creates a far more resounding message in his movie, and given what has happened this year, it’s any wonder why we didn’t see this crises coming.

“We are fugitives of the law.  Idiocy is our only option.”

Neither movie is perfect, but Contagion is far more interesting to watch in our current pandemic ravaged world right now.  Outbreak comes from a more innocent time that viewed widespread pandemics as more fodder for science fiction.  And indeed, that has been the way Hollywood has treated the threat of pandemics on the big screen; as something far-fetched.  I’m honestly surprised that Contagion not only took the genre in a far more serious direction when it did, but did so with so much scientific insight that it nearly predicted the future.  We know the truth far too harshly now that pandemics are all too real.  It’s happening now, it’s happened before, and it will happen again.  Hopefully, the lesson of 2020 will prepare us for something worse in the future, but then again, I’m sure that they thought the same thing back in 1918.  Anyone looking for something light and escapist can look to Outbreak, with it’s cheesy quaintness.  It’s a product of it’s time, and while not even remotely worth seeing to inform yourself about the way pandemics work, it is ridiculous enough to show just how off the mark Hollywood can get sometimes in a hilarious way.  If anything, it’s far more offensive as a waste of a good cast rather than an affront to cinematic story-telling.  Contagion on the other hand is very informative and eerily true to life.  It’s not for anyone looking for an edge of your seat experience, but at the same time, you’ll be blown away by just how close it actually got to predicting the current predicament we are in now.  For anyone needing a clear cut explanation of how Disease Control works and how to do it properly, Contagion offers the best possible example that I think has ever been put on screen.  It’s provocative without being patronizing, and shows us exactly how our own actions have an effect on our ability to fight these kinds of devastating diseases.  In this regard, Contagion ultimately remains a very positive film even with the horrible tragedy at it’s center, because it shows science as a rescuing force in our world, something we should be spotlighting more often.  For the movie, misinformation is the real enemy of good health, and by sticking so close to the actual reality of disease science, we see a perfect visual playbook there to guide us through the right way to deal with a pandemic.  If only we had followed it from the beginning.

“Somewhere in the world, the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat.”

Minimal Pride – The Problem With Queerbaiting in Hollywood

For the longest time, it was dangerous to live an openly queer life in most of America.  Up until the 2003 Lawrence vs. Texas Supreme Court decision, many states across the country could still legally imprison homosexuals without cause other than just for being gay.  The last 20 years have thankfully seen a reversal of centuries old laws discriminating against the LGBTQ+ community, including the recent Supreme Court decision this week to stop workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual identity.  Though it is certainly a step in the right direction, there is still a lot of work to be done in order to move the country closer to making life better for it’s queer population.  It’s only been in the last few years that attitudes have changed for the better in rural parts of the country, which have long been hostile to LGBTQ people.  For the longest time, if you were a queer person who wanted to feel safe from discrimination and harassment, you often had to leave small town America behind and find a new life in the more tolerant cities.  Though most queer Americans still had to live a quiet, closeted life, even in the more progressive urban areas, there was less of a danger of losing one’s career and livelihood in the city, and over time, some cities not only managed to tolerate it’s queer citizenry, but would also eventually celebrate them.  One such community could be found in and around Hollywood.  For the longest time, one of the areas in which Queer people could find acceptance was in the field of entertainment, though this was also bound by some limits.  The representation of queer people in front of the camera took quite a while to catch up, but behind the camera, there was a flourishing of representation of Queer individuals in the entertainment industry.  In the long run, the acceptance of the LGBTQ population in various departments of the film industry allowed for many barriers to eventually come down for other parts of the economy, as there became a growing number of queer individuals that wielded economic power and, more importantly, now had a platform.

So, why with all this progress made in the last 20 years, along with a long-standing tolerance within the film industry for queer people, is queer representation still lagging behind.  There are more queer characters being brought into mainstream media, but it still feels like the industry is hedging it’s bets and merely tipping it’s toes slightly into the water.  This is more true with the big budget movies being made, as the greatest advances in queer representation on the big screen have been coming from the independent market.  You look at some of the most groundbreaking queer films made in the last decade, including the Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016), they were made outside of the Hollywood studio system rather than within it.  And why is that?  It’s not because there is a shortage of queer voices or queer themed stories.  I can tell you from my own experience as a screenwriter and as a past screenplay reader that there are plenty of scripts out there that are telling stories with a queer viewpoint.  The real reason that there hasn’t been progress made in queer representation on the big screen is because of economics.  Hollywood just isn’t investing in these kinds of movies because they don’t yet see a profit motive in it.  They aren’t exactly suppressing queer voices; it’s just that they don’t have the incentive yet to push them to the forefront.  Film-making may be art, but it’s also big business, and the primary objective is to always invest in the things that will generate the most profit.  An artistic statement becomes secondary.  Contrary to what far right fear-mongers will have you believe, the queer population isn’t trying to indoctrinate people into growing it’s numbers.  The LGBTQ population is still the same 10% of the total population that it has always been; it’s just now that more people within that 10% are living openly and declaring their identity without fear.  Though the LGBTQ community has gained it’s voice and pushed back against years of oppression, their impact on the box office still doesn’t have the impact to move the industry towards better representation.  But, that too is changing over time.

One thing that has gotten much better over the last decade is a greater groundswell of support of the LGBTQ community from those outside of it.  Allies of queer people are now demanding more representation on the big and small screen, and that has enabled a still marginalized group like the LGBTQ community to finally have a voice in their own representation that otherwise would’ve gone ignored.  This has taken a much stronger hold here in America, where the politics really have changed dramatically over a short amount of time.  Only 15 years ago, the support for the gay community was so vulnerable that nearly half of the population was willing to add a ban on same-sex marriage into the Constitution of the United States.  Now, taking a decidedly anti-gay stance can actually hurt your chances in getting elected; a complete reversal of where we were only a decade ago.  Attitudes change, and the Queer community has benefited from one of the swiftest reversals in American political discourse.  But, what’s stopping Hollywood from matching the changing attitudes of the American people.  It has less to do with domestic politics than it does with international politics.  Hollywood is an industry funded more and more by foreign investment.  The worldwide box office now eclipses that of the United States, with the biggest international market being found in China.  And let’s just say, the East isn’t quite as enlightened on the representation of queer people as the West has become.  In fact, China even outright bans films that have a openly stated queer point of view or an openly gay character.  The sad thing is, because they have a vested interest in the Chinese market, Hollywood has acquiesced to China’s demands and either censored their own films or failed to make any large investment into queer representation.  Here we see the fundamental problem behind Hollywood falling behind the rest of the country in accurately representing queer characters in the culture at large, but there is another problem that has arisen as the industry has tried to cover up their lack of support by attempting to appease both sides.

This problem in question is something called Queerbaiting.  What Queerbaiting represents is the industry touting it’s efforts towards expanding representation of queer people in film, while at the same time making the minimalist of efforts.  Studios have been adding gay characters in their movies, but they are often supporting characters that either are played for laughs or have such a minimal impact on the plot that they can easily be edited out for international release.  And yet, Hollywood will still make a big deal in Western press that they have made a historic decision to include a queer character in their movie, hoping to be celebrated for making a such a progressive move.  The only problem is, the LGBTQ community isn’t buying it.  The characters that Hollywood is touting as revolutionary are in fact the wrong kind of characters to be spotlighting as such.  I’m sad to say that the company that has been most guilty of this recently has been Disney, which itself has had such a strong reputation with supporting queer rights.  Long before same-sex marriage became legal across the land, Disney granted the same benefits to same-sex couples within their company way ahead of the rest of the industry.  But sadly, they have decided that they also want the credit for creating the first out characters in their movies, and their choices couldn’t be any more counter-productive.  In particular, they made a big deal about the character of LeFou from Beauty and the Beast (2017) was going to be portrayed as gay; a move that I don’t think they planned out very well.  The character of LeFou is a minor one in the story, is played mostly for laughs (bringing in a number of reductive stereotypes in movie that otherwise didn’t need them), and also his name also literally translates into “the Fool” in French.  It’s not exactly a progressive move at all when the queer character that you are proudly promoting is literally the bumbling, buffoonish sidekick of the villain.  And thankfully, the LGBTQ community rejected this gesture as pandering.

Hollywood has long injected queer subtext into characters within their movies; sometimes in a covertly brave manner, like in Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) or David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962).  But, for the most part, Hollywood has retained the hetero-normative status quo, particularly when it comes to the main protagonists of their movies.  But, the demands of the audience have changed, and it’s becoming less controversial to have a central character within the story be openly queer.  However, to maintain their status quo in the international market, Hollywood is still downplaying character’s sexual identity, while at the same time spotlighting progress being made where none really exists.  The subtext in the movies used to define a character as potentially being queer is now being touted by Hollywood as actual representation.  The only problem is subtext and actual text are totally different standards for true representation.  One of the most glaring examples of this can be found in the Harry Potter series.  After having finished publishing her final volume of the series, author J.K. Rowling revealed in an interview that the beloved character of Dumbledore was always gay.  The problem is, had she never said this publicly, you would not have been given any indication from either the books or the movies as to what Dumbledore’s sexuality was.  Within the text itself, not knowing is actually a good thing, because it doesn’t matter in the end; it’s not what defines Dumbledore as a person.  But because Rowling made a point of it in an interview, she cast a new light on the character.  Did she know all along that this was the case, or did she come up with it after the fact to win some points for representation.  Given Rowling’s rather controversial statements about trans people recently, she comes across as more of a person willing to change the text of her story in order to bring more attention to herself than anything.  That in itself is a terrible trivializing attitude towards a very real issue.  If you do care about queer representation, put it on the page or otherwise don’t do anything at all.  All it looks like in the end is that you’re using other people’s crusade to further your own agenda.

This kind of pandering is especially troublesome for queer people, because it continues to portray them as a sideshow for a hetero-normative society.  Queer people are not trying to shove their identity into anyone’s face; they just want to be sure that their face on screen is just given the same amount of dignity as any other group in society.  It’s not about meeting some kind of quota either.  Another unfortunate result of Hollywood’s queerbaiting is that they are putting gay characters into their projects like it’s an obligation, rather than a necessary move for the story.  One thing that I have particularly hated in recent television is the “token” queer character, because it’s another instance of paying lip service towards queer representation rather than actually making a difference.  It’s one of the reasons why I hold the unpopular position of hating the Emmy award winning show Mad Men, because it treated it’s queer characters as mere props to deliver a message, and then discarded them once they served their purpose.  The best queer representation on television is found in stories where the queer characters are woven into the tapestry of the show as a whole, and contribute so much more to their story other than just their sexual identity.  It’s shows like Shameless on Showtime, Modern Family on ABC, or even surprisingly Downton Abbey.  Gay audiences like to see themselves treated as more than window dressing when consuming media.  Television is thankfully following the leads of these more groundbreaking shows, but there still needs to be a lot more consideration towards how queer characters are used in the over-arching narrative of a story.

There is a danger of demanding too much of Hollywood to move towards queer representation.  This is not so much to do with how queer characters are represented, but rather by whom.  Some people pushing for queer representation also demand that the same representation be carried over into the roles being portrayed on screen.  In some cases it’s justified; queer actress Tessa Thompson for example is campaigning hard for her character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Valkyrie from the Thor franchise, to have a same-sex love interest in the next movie, something which the film’s director (Taika Waititi) and the studio (Marvel) appear to be open to.  But, demanding this across the board also limits the amount of queer themed stories that can be told.  Take for instance the controversy that arose when it was announced that Scarlett Johnansson was going to play a trans character in an upcoming movie.  Critics demanded that the role go to an actual trans actor instead of a cis gendered actress like Scarlett.  The only problem is, there isn’t a trans actor at the moment that has the box office pull that Scarlett Johansson has at the moment.  So, instead of having a movie with a trans protagonist at it’s center given a lot of attention with an A-list star attached to it, the movie is now likely to be made with a fraction of the budget and almost no widespread attention.  Yes, it’s ideal to have an actual trans person play the role, but given that we are not at a point where a trans actor has huge box office pull, is it really worth burying this kind of film right now.  The more important thing in my mind is to have many more films centered on queer protagonists, and it shouldn’t matter what the sexual orientation of the actors playing the roles are.  Look at all the most groundbreaking gay themed films of the last couple years; Moonlight, Call Me by Your Name (2017) and Love, Simon (2018), all films with gay protagonists played by straight actors.  If we invest in these movies now, no matter who is filling the roles, then we can change the attitudes of audiences faster and open the door in the future to having more queer performers reaching that lofty A-List box office pull.

The problem overall is that while Hollywood is touting their levels of progress with regards to queer representation, the actual reality of the matter tells a different story.  For right now, the progress seems to be more self serving to the industry than it is being beneficial to the queer population itself.  If you’re going to plaster that rainbow flag all over your logos and merchandise, you should back it up with some actual progressive actions.  Queer people in general love Hollywood, and have played a part in it’s industry throughout the years.  For all that loyalty, Hollywood should consider sticking it’s neck out more and actually challenge the status quo when it comes to representing queer people in media.  In terms of casting, the representation question can be much more fluid; I for one believe that straight actors can effectively still portray queer characters, just as long as the reverse can also be true.  Just look at that example from Beauty and the Beast, with sub-textually queer LeFou being portrayed by Josh Gad (who is straight) matched up with the aggressively heterosexual Gaston, played by Luke Evans (who’s an out and proud gay actor).  The actual sexual orientation of the actors factored little into the equation, and that’s how it should be; and it was the least of the movie’s problems.  The important thing is that we need more stories where a queer character is not treated as a prop, but rather as a fully fleshed out human being.  Just releasing a bit of publicity stating that an upcoming Star Wars movie is going to feature it’s first same sex kiss matters little when that moment ends up being a blink and you’ll miss it bit of pandering.  Hollywood should have the confidence that their properties can sustain themselves with queer representation included and not worry about how other parts of the world will react.  That includes removing subtext and actually make those hinted at characters genuinely realized as out and proud individuals; like Poe and Finn from the Star Wars franchise or Elsa from Frozen.  The fact that the studio that made those movies went out of their way to downplay their character’s potential queer story-lines is really disheartening.  It’s Pride Month, so why not show a little more pride Hollywood.

Da 5 Bloods – Review

We definitely are living in a strange time right now.  The pandemic has kept us stuck at home for months now, with movie theaters remaining shuttered.  There is a light at the end of that tunnel, with theaters starting to be reopened this month, albeit at a much lower capacity.  But in the meantime, people have been turning to streaming services for fresh entertainment as an alternative, and that’s driving more attention to movies and shows premiering on those platforms than they might have had otherwise.  While this is all happening, America is also in the middle of a profound call for justice, with protests happening across the nation in response to killings at the hands of law enforcement.  The confluence of both the pandemic and the nationwide social unrest has shaken up the country in a way that we haven’t seen in several generations.  The fact that both are going on at the same time is making a lot of people broaden their perceptions about society, and that is reflecting greatly on the culture itself right now.  Just this week, we saw the newly launched HBO Max service pull Gone With the Wind off of it’s platform in a temporary move meant to re-deliver the film with more consideration to it’s historical context.  This of course led to an uproar about censorship, but it also led to a reckoning with the film industry about what kind of responsibility they hold with regards to the depictions and representations of people of color that extend throughout it’s history.  As I said, it’s a time of great turbulence both in society as a whole, but also with regards to the movie industry itself, and the media that we currently consume.  Now, if only a movie were to be released today that both deals head on with the social issues of the day while also bringing more of an audience to streaming content.  It would certainly be the right movie for this particular moment.

Enter the one and only Spike Lee.  Lee has been one of cinema’s most consistent provocative voices over the last four decades.  Though he started off strong in his career with the now iconic one-two punch of Do the Right Thing (1989) and Malcolm X (1992), his movies in the years since have rarely reached that same lofty level.  His movies have either ranged from too mainstream (2006’s Inside Man) to too small to be recognized (2012’s Red Hook Summer).  But recently, Spike has seen something of a mid career resurgence.  This was due to a movie that clicked with audiences and also felt true to the director’s sensibilities that was apparent from his earliest work.  BlackKklansman (2018) was a real return to form for Spike Lee; provocative, biting, but also infused with a sense of humanity and a witty sense of humor.  It was Spike finding that fine line between making the movie that he wanted to make and having it match exactly what audiences wanted to see.  And the result gave him his biggest box office hit in decades, as well as his very first ever Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay.  Certainly with the wind in his sails after BlackKklansman, Spike was ready to take on another project that satisfied his artistic and political sensibilities.  And thankfully, he found that avenue in a creative partnership with Netflix.  Not only would he be adapting one of his earliest films, She’s Gotta Have It (1986) into a series for the streamer, but he got Netflix to also bankroll what may be one of his most ambitious films to date; a Vietnam War epic called Da 5 Bloods.  This new film couldn’t have premiered at a more opportune time for Lee and Netflix, with race relations becoming such a hot button issue these last few weeks and the pandemic bringing a larger audience to streaming content.  It’s a movie that I think is perfect to review right now, and also because I don’t want to write a whole review on the disaster that is Artemis Fowl on Disney+.  So, does Da 5 Bloods continue Spike Lee’s hot streak or is the director losing his touch again.

Da 5 Bloods could be considered a Vietnam War movie, but only in the sense of looking at the long term after effects of the prolonged conflict.  Most of the movie takes place in the present day, as the last surviving members of an all black unit of soldiers called Da Bloods are reunited in a return trip to Vietnam.  Da Bloods have returned to the now peaceful country under the pretense of a vacation, but their real purpose for the trip is to retrieve something they left behind 50 years prior; a stash of solid gold bricks they found in the wreckage of a down plane in the Vietnam jungle.  Now, much older and having been haunted by their experiences over the years, Da Bloods must retrace their steps through the jungle in order to find the treasure they left behind.  Those soldiers include Otis (Clarke Peters), the mild-mannered orchestrator of the mission who finds out he left more behind in Vietnam than he realized; Eddie (Norm Lewis), the semi-successful troop veteran who is bankrolling their trip; Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), the group’s fun loving party animal; and Paul (Delroy Lindo), the MAGA-hat wearing, ultra conservative hot head who left Nam a changed person.  Before they go on their mission, Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) shows up, having figured out what they are really up to.  In order to keep their mission a secret, the reluctantly have David accompany them, claiming an equal share.  As they make their way back to the gold, memories come flashing back to them about their years stuck in the jungle fighting in a war they never really believed in.  And many of their memories recall their beloved commander, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who made them all believe in themselves through hard times, and who they also had to leave behind in the jungle with the gold.  Once they find their treasure, and the remains of their commander, there is only one problem that remains, how do they make it back home in a country where the scars of war still run deep.

Da 5 Bloods is definitely not the kind of movie you’d expect right away.  Though it does show us glimpses of the Vietnam War in action throughout, it’s primarily about the aftermath of war and how some wounds never heal.  And in the hands of Spike Lee, it tackles even more far reaching issues with regards to race.  The movie was adapted by Spike Lee and his BlackKklansman collaborator Kevin Willmott from an earlier screenplay written by Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, and no doubt much of what was added to the script was a stronger examination of the racial factor within the story.  You can really feel the Spike Lee touch in this movie, and that in itself is what makes the movie work as well as it does.  To be honest, I for one believe Da 5 Bloods is one of Spike Lee’s best films ever; probably even the best he’s made since Malcolm X.  This movie is Spike working on all cylinders and it is magnificent.  It’s visually daring, it’s unapologetic in it’s messaging, and it is most importantly a compelling story of these diverse characters.  You can see his imprint all over the movie, whether it’s the way that he intercuts still photography into a scene, or the way he has his characters interact with each other in a shared humanity way, or with just the boldness of the way he frames and blocks his shots.  The movie starts out with a rundown of how both the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement were happening simultaneously in America, and how the two pivotal upheavals left their mark on black people who were fighting abroad.  This is a theme that Spike drives home throughout the movie, because we come to understand how each of these characters were shaped by the reality of fighting for a country that treated them as less than human and what in the long run they should be owed, both as people and as soldiers.

What I think is Spike Lee’s most interesting message in the film is the different ways that time has changed things since the war, and how some things never changed at all.  The men return to a Vietnam that is peaceful and serene, and welcoming to them despite all the killing they did there years before.  By contrast, it’s a country that seems to have moved on from the horrors of it’s past, while Da Bloods are living in a country where history keeps repeating itself; where black people are still struggling for equality despite some of the progress made.  The scars of the past are not right in front of them, but buried deep, like the land mines that still litter the land.  As Spike keeps reminding us throughout the movie, the split between what you owe your country and what the country owes you in return becomes this almost insurmountable divide.  Duty and Honor feels almost like making a pact with the devil.  And yet, through the memories that they share with each other about Stormin’ Norman, they keep their moral compass set towards staying true to their mission.  But, as Norman has become more distant as a memory, so is their bond to themselves.  The character of Paul in particular brings this theme out the most within the narrative.  I find it so interesting that Spike made Paul a Trump-supporting, ultra Patriot in his post Vietnam life.  That change seems so far removed from where the character should be, but it’s also a perfect encapsulation of how far gone he has been post-war.  He’s turned so self-destructive that he’ll back the least likely politician to listen to his grievances, showing how much faith he has lost in the entire system.  The other Bloods have in their own ways have found some semblance of peace, but Paul never left the War behind; his whole life has been centered around finding more and more conflicts.  And that is the tragic element that Spike Lee perfectly encapsulates in the profound story of these characters.

And speaking more about the character of Paul, I feel that he is going to be the thing that most people are going to take away from this movie.  He is one of the most fascinating characters that I’ve seen brought to the screen in recent years.  Certainly the way he is written by Spike Lee is a big part of what makes him so captivating, but it’s actor Delroy Lindo who really makes Paul shine as a character.  Lindo has been a consistently reliable character actor for decades, but has never up to now been granted anything close to a leading man part.  This is a fantastic, tour-de-force performance from the veteran actor and should earn him a whole lot more attention after this.  He at the very least should be on everyone’s short list for an Academy Award nomination next year (if we do have the Oscars next year, hopefully).  One of my absolute favorite parts of the movie is a monologue delivered by Lindo as he treks his way through the jungle brush, with his face right in the camera staring directly at us.  It’s a powerful moment, and is something that only Spike Lee as a director can pull off, with Delroy giving it his all.  Though he is the stand-out character, the remaining ensemble cast are no slouches either.  Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and Jonathan Majors all contribute stellar performances in the movie, and they are so believable as these characters, that you almost feel like they have indeed fight together in Vietnam.  It’s to Spike Lee’s credit that he didn’t go with A-List actors for these roles; any other studio might have pressured him to add Denzel Washington or Samuel L. Jackson to the roles.  The fact that these characters are played by relative unknowns is a great asset to the movie because it allows us to know the characters, and not be distracted by the fact that their played by a movie star.  The only blockbuster name in the movie is Chadwick Boseman, who works very well in his supporting role of Stormin’ Norman.  It might be jarring sometimes to see Black Panther in army fatigues, but whenever he’s on screen, he still commands his moments and gives you a good sense of why these old soldiers look back on their fallen comrade with such affection.

I also have to point out how artistically satisfying the movie is.  In an interesting move, Spike Lee lays around with aspect ratios in different parts of the film.  When we see Da Bloods first arriving in Vietnam and experiencing the contemporary changes that have happened since they were last there, the movie is framed cinematically in an anamorphic 2.40:1 aspect ratio.  When we see flashbacks to the combat days, the movie shifts to a restrictive 4:3 ratio, as well as a grainy 16 mm look.  And then, in the last half of the movie, where the men enter the jungle to find the gold, the movie changes to a opened-up 1.85:1 aspect ratio.  It’s an interesting artistic choice that I felt really helped to separate the different parts of the movie in an interesting way.  It seems like when he wants to use the wider aspect ratio, it’s in the scenes that feel more cinematic, like a mainstream Hollywood movie.  When it’s in the Academy standard 4:3, it’s to emulate the feel of actual wartime footage taken in the midst of the conflict.  And when he uses the 1.85 ratio, it’s to make the movie feel more gritty, with more handheld, documentary style photography.  Naturally, like most other Spike Lee movies, Da 5 Bloods is awash with color.  He makes great use of the actual Vietnam locations that he was allowed to shoot within, although most of the jungle scenes were done in neighboring Thailand, due to the fact that the Vietnamese countryside is still a hot zone of un-triggered landmines.  Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, working with Spike for the first time, really captures a serene beauty to the Southeast Asian locations.  The color of the movie especially makes this film feel like Spike returning to form as a visual story-teller because I can’t recall a movie of his that used color this vividly since Do the Right Thing.  Even though it’s a Netflix movie, which means that you won’t find it playing on a big screen anytime soon, or ever, it’s still a bold, epic experience that you should seek out the biggest screen you can find to fully appreciate.

If you are already a Netflix subscriber, there’s really no reason why you should be passing this one over.  It is a remarkably profound story about race, war, trauma, and friendship that seems like the best possible movie we should be watching in this moment.  It’s pointed in it’s social messaging, but never preachy.  Spike knows first and foremost that this is a story about people, and it’s their story that drives the narrative, and not the larger issues at play.  What the movie represents most is Spike Lee transforming into the director he was always meant to be, but rarely was given the opportunity to achieve it.  I don’t think that he’s going to be a director that will only occasionally knock one out of the park, but will now have every one of his movies become an event worth celebrating; finally achieving the due recognition that his peers like Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson always seem to receive.  He’s managed to deliver two masterpieces in a row with BlackKklansman and Da 5 Bloods, and I am eager to see what he has next in store.  The movie works so well not just as a reflection of one of the darkest conflicts in this country’s history, but also as a brilliant character study.  Delroy Lindo absolutely needs to remain in the conversation for an Oscar, and I’ll be very upset if he’s not given at least a nomination.  And for people right now looking for a film that examines the history of this country with regards to race, this movie will offer a valuable lesson on those who were tragically left behind in a war that should have brought them home honored for their service.  Even separated from this tumultuous moment in time, I think that this will be a movie well remembered in both Spike Lee’s larger body of work and as a compelling statement made within American cinema as a whole.  Bloods don’t die, they multiply.

Rating: 9/10

Fight the Power – The Long Road Towards Making Black Lives Matter in Hollywood

America as a nation has had to confront it’s deep rooted problems with racial inequality throughout it’s entire history.  The last century itself marked significant change with regards to racial issues, with the African-American community rising up and proclaiming their right to equality, against a long standing system designed to keep them out of power.  Though progress has been made over time, like Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act, the struggle for America’s Black population still continues to remain a harsh reality, and over time it heats up into a national reckoning.  This past week, the protests following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police became one of those flash-point moments in America, where the prejudice and subjugation on display could not be overlooked.  Massive protests and rioting in America is nothing new, but what made this one stand out was the sheer scale of it.  Every major city in America saw protests erupt, with marchers of all ages, race, creed and gender showing their solidarity with the Floyd family and the people holding the sadistic police force accountable in Minneapolis.  This was, far and away, the most widespread protesting that we’ve seen in over a generation.  Even nations across the world joined in.  And one hopes that it will lead to a lasting change in this country.  But, the sad reality is that we’ve already had this conversation many times, and it still keeps going.  The narrative of African-Americans being disproportionately discriminated against and abused by police forces is just as much a part of America as it’s founding and it refrains throughout it’s history.  The reason why these protests have become so widespread is not just about George Floyd alone, but about a whole history of oppression that both the black community and it’s allies just can not tolerate anymore.

It’s hard to know right now what effects these protests may have in the future, but the important thing right now is to be heard and to assess what responsibility we have with regards to how we respond to something as blatantly wrong as the killing of George Floyd.  I personally can only claim a deep sadness for what has happened on a level of basic human decency.  I’ve never had to suffer in the same way that most African-Americans have in this country.  I grew up in a pretty sheltered, white suburban upbringing where I thankfully was never taught to be racist towards people of color, but at the same time I was also never shown what issues in America were like from non-white cultural perspective.  In many ways, I had to seek out that information for myself, in order to broaden my mind past my own white perspective.  And usually, the place where I would find the most valuable lessons on race in America came from cinema.  Or at least, it’s what I thought was a valuable lesson.  Hollywood has long prided itself on being ahead of the curve on race relations, and has touted itself as the shining force pushing progressive values across the world.  And while there are positive actions taken by the Hollywood community to break down barriers for people of color, they are often in response to barriers that they themselves have long been responsible for.  As my perspective on cinema has grown more broad over time, I have realized more and more that a large part of why America has struggles with confronting the sins of it’s past is parallel to a similar attempt by the movie industry to paint itself in a more enlightened light while also sweeping it’s own dirty history of intolerance.  Like everything else, cinema is a reflection of the culture that creates it, and the long road of African-American representation in Hollywood more or less draws a direct correlation with the larger society as a whole, with perhaps more consequential connections that we’d like to know of.

Today, African-American representation on screen is certainly far better than it once was.  You’ll find a high number of major theatrical releases that feature a black actor as it’s headlining star; from Will Smith to Denzel Washington, from Eddie Murphy to Kevin Hart, from Octavia Spenser to Tiffany Haddish.  During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, the only headliner in Hollywood of color was Sidney Poitier, and he wasn’t paid anywhere close to the salary that today’s stars get, nor as much as his white contemporaries were at the time, which is it’s own crime.  The fact that Poitier’s indisputable screen presence as a Hollywood icon paved the way for all to follow is a positive sign of progress; but it was also too long in the making.  Poitier was only the first actor of color to be given the spotlight of leading man, but his rise to fame came on the shoulders of so many who were not as fortunate.  The sad reality is that for any African-American to find work in the movie industry, they had to often remain in the background and fill either one of two kinds of roles; a servant or a criminal.  This was not particularly due to the filmmakers being prejudiced themselves; though you could find a few who were.  It was largely because of of money.  Hollywood wanted their films to play well in all parts of the country, including the deeply segregated South, and that meant pandering to the largely white audiences’ expectations for the roles they believed blacks should play in society.  Hollywood could have stuck it’s neck out and defied the societal prejudices of the day by elevating a black performer to headliner status, but for too long they chose to stick with the status quo.  And you wonder why prejudice still permeates American culture today.

That’s why I don’t really buy the Hollywood narrative that they’ve been this force for good all throughout it’s history.  If anything, they’ve played a part in perpetuating stereotypes that continue to hurt black communities.   You look at some of the ugly racial coding used in Michael Bay’s Transformers movies and you’ll understand that Hollywood still has a problem with how it portrays non-white characters on screen.  Stereotypes are cheap shortcuts used by unfunny people to make themselves appear more edgy, and not an effective way to add shoe-horn “diversity” into the story.  And stereotyping extends all the way back to Hollywood’s earliest days.  One of the most unfortunate aspects of movie history is that most of the techniques that we use today in film-making were first used in 1915 to create what is essentially a propaganda piece for the Ku Klux Klan; D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.  Hailed as the first blockbuster by early film historians, Nation is an ugly reminder of the casual racism that has existed throughout American history, and also of how white Americans at the time viewed people of color.  The movie depicts African-Americans as sex-crazed monsters preying on white women, which was an irrational fear that motivated many white supremacists in America to restrict the rights of black people and, most tragically of all, murder them in cold blood for any reason.  This is a narrative that Birth of a Nation whole-heartedly embraces and promotes, and while Griffith’s revolutionary cinematic techniques propelled the art-form to another level, it also ingrained into America a portrait of itself that was blatantly false.  African-Americans have spent years trying to regain their dignity of human beings back from false impressions that have perpetuated throughout the culture, so when you see some Hollywood movies still trafficking in ugly stereotypes, it does call into question just how much progress they can claim to have been responsible for.

One thing that does sicken me is the fact that in order for Hollywood to adapt a message of racial tolerance, it’s got to come attached with a white perspective.  Racial tolerance is not a two way street.  One thing that Hollywood justifiably gets criticized for is the “white savior” trope that permeates so many films about racial injustice.  They are movies that usually tackles issues about racial injustice, but does so through the perspective of an enlightened white protagonist.  These “white saviors” are usually liberal minded white people who stick their neck out for the oppressed and are given the reward of friendship and approval from the people who are being oppressed, who usually just become window dressing for the white character’s noble crusade.  In other words, these are movies made to make white Hollywood liberals feel better about themselves.  Think Dances With Wolves (1990), Dangerous Minds (1995), or The Blind Side (2009), movies made to service the egos of vain white movie stars while at the same time paying only mouth service to the issues they are trying to raise.  They are just a plea for validation; the movies themselves actually achieve nothing in the long run with regards to changing the culture as a whole.  And that’s because they are movies that are made by white people, for white people.  African-American filmmakers will tell you that these kinds of movies offer up nothing to the conversation, and in many ways end up trivializing the struggle their communities go through.  That’s why so many people were upset with Green Book’s (2018) Best Picture win, because it was viewed as a step backward for racial progress, showing that the white perspective was more valued than their own.

But, even given the struggle that African-Americans have gone through in their representation in Hollywood, progress has happened, and it’s been from voices that refuse to be silenced.  One such voice is Spike Lee, whose prolific film career has been defined from a undeterred drive to shift the conversation of race in America.  Most of Spike Lee’s movies center around the African-American experience, particularly when it comes to fighting for civil rights.  But no more statement from the provocative filmmaker has ever been as loud and impactful as the one found in his 1989 film, Do The Right Thing.  Filmed on the tail end of the Reagan Administration and released in the early days of the Bush Administration, Lee captured a perfect snapshot of race relations in America through a profound story of one inner city neighborhood and the people who live there.  In one incredible 2 hour block of time, Lee was able to encapsulate the racial divide of America in a narrative that was refreshingly honest.  And most importantly, he didn’t pull any punches along the way.  He discusses issues like gentrification, dehumanization, radicalization, and ultimately police brutality and violence that sadly has far too often broken up and destroyed black communities across America.  The movie blew audiences away, and instantly made Lee a household name.  It also ushered in a new generation of black filmmakers like John Singleton and F. Gary Gray, who were able to tell stories of their communities their way.  But, most importantly, Do The Right Thing was the first time a movie became a success telling  the story of the black experience without the Hollywood filter to dilute the message.  It was often attacked as a call to arms for the black community, blamed irrationally for race riots in America like the ones in Los Angeles following the Rodney King beating.  But that’s not at all what Lee meant with his film.  The movie is about a community, and how it’s many different shades of people respond to an act of violence that violates their faith in the system.  He never once says that violence is the answer, but shows that it’s a symptom of a history of injustice.  Ultimately, Lee spells it out for us what should be done about the problem and it’s there in the title, “Do the Right Thing.”  And he doesn’t mean that just as a call for black people to stand up for themselves, but for people of all colors to recognize what the right course should be.

So, what more can Hollywood do to change the conversation about race.  For one thing, allowing more representation in all corners of the industry would help.  There are many people of color already working within the industry both in front and behind the camera, with many more on their way straight out of film school.  Even still, the opportunities given to them still fall well short of where they should be as represented as part of the industry as a whole.  Films centered on African-American issues still don’t get the backing from major studios in the way that they should, and this still stems from the antiquated notion that movies about black people don’t perform well at the box office.  I have no doubt that Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) dispelled that notion pretty effectively, as it eviscerated numerous box office records; an unprecedented move for a movie written, directed, and starring black people.  It’s like a long ignored demographic responded strongly to a movie that finally spoke to their own heritage and experience.  Funny how that happens.  It wouldn’t hurt major studios to look into elevating executives of color to higher positions, so that they may be better able to tap into this growing market and craft movies that better reflect the African-American experience.  For a lot of African-American icons within the industry, their success has not come out of the open doors that have welcomed them in, but rather in spite of those that have remained shut.  It shouldn’t be imperative on black filmmakers to change their attitudes in order to gain more access, but rather for Hollywood to rethink their own position with regards to racial issues, and determine whether or not it was wise for them to leave so much off the table while maintaining the status quo.  Tyler Perry, love him or hate him, has become a media mogul outside of the Hollywood system, and has managed to build his own empire close to home in Atlanta, Georgia, becoming a new ideal destination for up and coming filmmakers, and a welcoming space for productions like The Walking Dead and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Imagine if Hollywood had someone like that on their own home turf.

One hopes that the protests that we’ve seen over the course of this last week may in some way lead to a positive change.  What’s more important than wanting change is to actually make that change a reality.  It’s on all of us, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, middle eastern, everyone to hold the people in power accountable for any injustice we see in this world.  That also extends into the culture itself.  Hollywood wants to portray itself as a bastion for progressive ideas, but without action, that perception just ends up ringing hollow.  George Clooney, in a very smug self-congratulatory Oscar acceptance speech, proclaimed that he was proud to come from an industry that awarded Hattie McDaniel an Oscar for Gone With the Wind (1939) long before the Civil Rights Movement existed in America.  What he conveniently left out in that speech was that Ms.  McDaniel was forced to enter through the back kitchen door in order to attend the Awards ceremony, because the then owner of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles would not allow her to walk the red carpet at the front entrance with her co-stars.  One small gesture, no matter how historic, did not excuse a history of racial inequality that unfortunately existed in Hollywood for decades.  the way Hollywood perceives itself is in stark contrast with the way it maintained the racist status quo in America for so many years.  Things have improved, but it was a long march forward to get there, and there still is a lot of work still left unfinished.  I can’t claim to understand the full horror of racial intolerance that black people have endured in this country, but what I can do is listen and ask what I can do to help.  That’s what all of us should be doing; listening and not ignore the problems like we have so many times before.  We need to hold people accountable, and that includes the culture at large, Hollywood included.  They say they are for changing attitudes towards racial injustice; we should all demand for them to back up words with actions.  As Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  One hopes that this point of time is one of those bends in the right direction.

Top Ten Moments From the Marvel Cinematic Universe…So Far

A lot of people are passing their time during this pandemic by catching up on a lot of media that they’ve missed over the years, just because they didn’t have the time.  I too have spent a lot of my extra free time during this pandemic to watching movies and television, but instead of catching up, I have mostly been revisiting.  This whole month of May I went back and marathoned the entire 23 film run of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; starting with Iron Man from 2008 and ending with last year’s Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019).  That’s the first three phases of MCU, with Avengers: Endgame (2019) marked as a finale to some of the most important plot threads that have been building over the last decade.  I figured it was a good time to revisit all these movies, some of which I haven’t seen since they first premiered, since this month would have been the launch of Phase Four for Marvel with the new Black Widow film; until all those plans changed with the shutdown.  With the fate of the movie going experience in flux, Marvel had no choice but to postpone the launch of Black Widow to November, hoping that by then the pandemic will have subsided and theaters will be allowed to operate again.  So, this has led to a Summer without a Marvel movie to launch it into high gear.  The first week of May has for the last decade been the domain of Marvel, as it’s the first official week of the Summer movie season, and it’s allowed them to be the trend setters for all the other movies to live up to for the rest year; which is quite an enviable position to be in.  Given that vacancy for this year, I felt it was right to look back at what Marvel has given us so far, and in particular, I wanted to spotlight all the best moments that have come from the many different but still linked together movies.  These are all my personal choices, and there were some hard ones to leave out, but after going through all the Marvel movies over the last month, I feel like all these scenes I’m about to list are absolutely the best ones that have made Marvel the powerhouse that they are today.

10.

“DORMAMUU, I’VE COME TO BARGAIN.”

DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)

One pattern that I noticed while watching all the Marvel movies is the journey that each character takes in their own self discovery.  In particular, the movies become less about how each super hero gains their powers than about why each of them is worthy of having those powers in the first place.  That’s what Marvel seems to be the best at when telling their stories; finding the humanity in their heroes.  We see it in moments like skinny, frail Steve Rogers throwing himself on a dummy grenade when all his fellow soldiers ran for cover in the movie Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).  But sometimes those moments of character can be used to punctuate the fulfillment of an arc that has completely transformed a hero over the course of the movie.  Such an arc is found in Doctor Strange, where we see Dr. Steven Strange begin the movie as an arrogant master surgeon who takes delight in humiliating the lesser intelligence of his colleagues.  But over the course of the movie, he loses everything and then has his mind open to the possibility of a world where magic is real.  But it’s not until the end, after Strange has mastered many spells, that we see the point when he becomes a true hero.  To stop the coming of the Dark Dimension and it’s master, the all-powerful Dormamuu, to our own dimension, he throws himself at the mercy of the dark lord.  However, before doing so, he uses a spell to trap both him and Dormamuu in a never-ending time loop, in which Strange is endlessly killed and reborn to suffer the same fate again.  To break the spell, Dormamuu must agree to Strange’s bargain.  It’s in that self-sacrifice that we see Doctor Strange finally rise to the level of hero; going from someone acting in his self-interest to someone willing to be trapped in a spell of his own making for eternity so that everyone else can be safe.  There are many moments like this from Marvel, but none stand out as so clever, and distinctively “Strange” as this does.

9.

BATTLE OF THE STRONGEST AVENGERS

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

It is amazing just how different in tone the third film in the Thor franchise is from it’s predecessors.  Kenneth Branagh brought a operatic sense of grandeur to the first film, but Thor: The Dark World (2013) didn’t add much else afterwards; though I still think it’s a bit underrated.  Thor: Ragnarok is another animal altogether; silly, weird, and unapologetic about it.  Certainly giving the property over to comic filmmaker Taika Waititi helped to reinvent not just the world of Thor, but also the characters as well.  I think Marvel learned through the course of making their movies that Chris Hemsworth had a knack for comedy, and that it was better for the direction of the character to kinda lean into that a bit more in future.  That’s exactly what Thor: Ragnarok does, and surprisingly it becomes something you wouldn’t have expected a Thor movie to be; a buddy comedy.  That buddy, of course, being the Incredible Hulk.  The movie hits it’s zenith with the reunion of these two Avengers, when they are pitted together in a gladiatorial arena.  The sheer delight on Thor’s face when he sees his “friend from work” is still one of the best character moments in any Marvel movie, and a great indicator of the different tone that Marvel was setting out for with this franchise.  The ensuing battle is everything from thrilling, brutal, to laugh-out-loud funny.  It also features a hilarious moment when Loki (Tom Hiddleston) reacts to seeing his brother get Hulk Smashed in a hilarious call back to his own smashing from the finale of The Avengers (2012).  Add to this some wonderfully eccentric color commentary from Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster, and you get one of the most memorable, and comedic, confrontations in any Marvel Movie.

8.

CAPTAIN AMERICA IS WORTHY

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019)

One of the best things that Marvel has done over the course of their movies is build up little story threads that pay off in spectacular ways.  Some of these little nuggets of fan service even go on for many years and through several films, before they even get their final punchline.  One of the best journeys toward a payoff in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe has to be the one involving Thor’s Hammer, Mjolnir.  From the moment Odin (Anthony Hopkins) placed his spell on the hammer in the first Thor, making it so that only those with the purest of hearts are worthy to wield it, the rules had been made crystal clear to the audience.  It lead to a Sword in the Stone like arc to Thor’s story, where he had to prove his worthiness once again in order to resume his place as the God of Thunder.  The mystique of Mjolnir’s power would once again come up in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), playfully at first when Thor let’s all his Avenger friends take a crack at lifting the hammer at a party, and then more profoundly when the newly created Vision (Paul Bettany) manages to hand the hammer back to Thor without any struggle.  We even witness a death and rebirth of the hammer, first destroyed by Thor’s sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) in Ragnarok, and then recaptured in the past during the time heist in Endgame, showing that Thor was still worthy.  But, the truth apex of Mjolnir’s journey through all the films came when Captain America (Chris Evans) lifted the hammer himself in battle against Thanos (Josh Brolin).  All that journey through all those films, just to get to that glorious heroic moment.  When I saw this in the theater, the audience went nuts, and that’s because it was a reward to all of us who have followed along on that hammer’s arc through all the movies.  It’s one of the greatest payoffs in cinematic history, and a true testament to just how in command Marvel is at playing the long game with their movies.

7.

KING T’CHALLA VS. ERIK KILLMONGER

BLACK PANTHER (2018)

There are so many heavy themes throughout the only Marvel movie to date to ever receive a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  One of those themes that defines the whole movie is the response that an oppressed people must take when they have the means of making a difference.  In this case, the African nation of Wakanda has prospered with their advance technological skills, but have hidden it away from the world for fear of how it may be misused, or be exploited by outsiders.  All the while, the African continent was plagued by war, unrest and the horrors of the slave trade.  The movie’s antagonist, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), confronts the Wakandans with this reality, and challenges the Black Panther himself, King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), for the throne of the kingdom.  Tackling issues you don’t normally see addressed in the super hero genre was definitely something that elevated Black Panther above most other films in the MCU, and the movie most vividly gets it’s point across through the conflict between the opposing world views of it’s hero and it’s villain.  T’Challa wants to open his country to the world through peace and ingenuity, but Killmonger seeks to use the advanced weaponry of Wakanda for bloody revolution.  There are two key fights between these characters in the movie, but the first one carries more of an impact, because it shows us just how brutal Killmonger is as both a fighter and as a visionary.  Killmonger is often cited as Marvel’s most compelling villain to date because of the hardship and conviction that lines his character, and his duel with the heroic but still learning T’Challa drives the emotional impact of the movie even further, and leads to one of the most morally divided questions found in all of the MCU; what kinds of ideas of justice define us as either good or bad in this world?

6.

AVENGERS FIRST ASSEMBLED

MARVEL’S THE AVENGERS (2012)

This was the kind of movie that we had all wanted over the years, but were only now seeing finally realized.  A team up of the greatest super heroes, becoming a Super Team.  The Avengers, like their DC counterpart the Justice League, is made up of the elite group of super heroes with the own franchises and on-going stories brought together to face a threat that’s bigger than themselves individually.  What is amazing is the fact that at the time, Marvel was aiming to build their Avenger team without their A-list characters.  Spider-Man would have to wait until a Phase Three revival to make his MCU debut, and the X-Men are still waiting for their turn to join the story.  If you were to say 15 years ago that Marvel was going to build this epic Super Hero team up on the backs of characters who at that point hadn’t made their big screen debuts, you would have been seen as crazy.  Not only that, but the team was even going to include two barely known comic book characters like Black Widow and Hawkeye.  And yet, Marvel not only succeeded in making us care about this team, but did so with record-breaking success.  It all comes down to the philosophy that producer Kevin Feige and his team of filmmakers bring to each film; if you tell good stories, you’ll make people love the characters, no matter who they are.  And that’s what they did through the first five films in the MCU, all leading up to that first team up in The Avengers.  By that time, we had fallen in love with Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye, and were willing to see them save the world together.  The movie definitely hits it’s high point during the climatic Battle of New York, where we get the first of many hero poses of all the characters together.  When the Alan Silvestri theme crescendos and the camera spins a circle around the full team together, Marvel firmly cemented it’s place in cinematic history.

5.

THE AIRPORT BATTLE

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)

Going from an iconic moment where the Avengers first came together, we now look at the moment that drove them apart.  Civil War is a very crucial benchmark in the timeline of the MCU, because it took this amazing cohesive team and broke it apart, and in a way that almost seemed like it was avoidable.  Despite the many times the Avengers were able to save the world, they also had to deal with the fact that their actions led to significant collateral damage, and the need to deal with that reality leads to fractures within the team.  The great thing about the movie is that it doesn’t treat the different factions, with Captain America on one side and Iron Man on the other, as either 100% right or 100% wrong.  We the audience are supposed to understand both sides of the argument, and it makes the debate a whole lot more complex as a result.  Of course, it does lead to an epic sized confrontation, where both sides are brought to blows, and it is a spectacular one at that.  Not only does the movie do a good job of setting up the stakes between the differences of the already established characters, but it also manages to find time to introduce both Black Panther and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) to the MCU.  All the little character moments that ensue are delightfully interspersed fan service, like Hawkeye (Jeremy Rennar) and Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) friendly banter between blows, or Captain America and Spider-Man bragging about their New York roots.  The movie also isn’t afraid to bring the fight to a semi-tragic end when War Machine (Don Cheadle) falls from the sky and becomes paralyzed as a result.  This was a pivotal moment for the MCU as a whole, because it was showing us the consequences of the changing dynamics that these characters were facing in this new world that they were helping to shape.  In addition, it’s one helluva fight scene that’ll put any audience on the edge of their seat.

4.

PORTALS

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019)

This is where Marvel truly let it’s epic wings fly.  In a franchise known for pushing the stakes higher with every new film,  Marvel certainly knew that they needed to go big in this closing chapter to the on-going Infinity Saga that has defined the first three phases of the MCU.  And that they did.  The way this scene plays out is noting short of epic, in every sense of the word.  Captain America, bloody and beaten down, faces down Thanos’ massive army all by himself.  That is until he hears Sam Wilson, aka The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) in his earpiece, repeating the first words they ever exchanged in their long friendship; “On your left.”  And with that begins a truly uplifting couple of minutes play out where all of the Avengers come together, along with plenty of back-up, through portal rings created by Doctor Strange and his fellow sorcerers.  This is especially poignant as many of the characters that arrive were last seen turning to dust by Thanos in Infinity War  (more on that later).  What’s even more incredible is that before this moment, we already knew that all the characters had come back, but with Thanos’ arrival, the movie actually makes us forget about it for 10 minutes, just to make that reveal all the more surprising when it happens.  Alan Silvestri’s score is especially what makes this scene so memorable, and it’s probably one of the best pieces of music he’s ever written, which is saying a lot for the veteran composer.  For an Avengers movie that crosses the 3 hour mark, you need a climax that justifies that epic length, and Marvel went full Lord of the Rings here.  Buttoned perfectly with Captain America finally saying the words “Avengers Assemble” and you’ve got what might be the single most satisfying moment in the entire MCU.  And that’s even before the fighting starts.  With this scene, you really see where all of Marvel’s hard work at world-building and character development led to, and it feels 100% earned.

3.

THE DANCE OFF 

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)

If there was ever a movie in the MCU that hit a home run right off the bat, it would be Guardians of the Galaxy.  The James Gunn directed feature was definitely a different animal to what we had seen from Marvel up to that point.  More akin to a Sci-Fi adventure in the vein of Star Wars than a super hero movie, Guardians became an instant hit with fans from all across the spectrum; causal and die-hard comic book alike.  A large part of that has to be because of the cast of characters, who were not the typical types of heroes we were familiar with from comic book movies.  There’s Star Lord (Chris Pratt) , a pop culture driven space pirate always on the lookout to steal something valuable; Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the rogue daughter of Thanos; Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), an easily agitated rodent turned bounty hunter; Groot (Vin DIesel) his plant based best friend; and Drax (Dave Bautista) a ferocious killer who doesn’t understand metaphors.  These aren’t the kinds of people that you’d expect to be the saviors of a galaxy, and yet they rise to the occasion, and in the only way they possibly can; with Star Lord challenging the fearsome Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) to a Dance Off.  Of course, the ulterior motive is to distract Ronan, which does work, and it’s something that only the goofy Star Lord could’ve come up with in the moment.  But what follows is a harrowing moment when Star Lord takes hold of the Infinity Stone of Power, which nearly destroys him.  Only by combining strength with the friends that he’s made along the way is he able to contain the stone’s power and defeat Ronan.  It’s a powerful moment that really cements the bond of this team and makes their story legendary.  Never thought a Dance Off could save a galaxy, but for a Marvel movie, which prides itself on embracing it’s goofy side, it just makes perfect sense.

2.

I AM IRON MAN 

IRON MAN (2008)

To understand what set Marvel on it’s epic run of success over the last decade, you needn’t look further than the movie that started it all, Iron Man.  From the beginning, producer Kevin Feige knew there was a plan to expand the universe past just a singular character, only he didn’t quite know what would happen along the way.  For Marvel to have become a success right off the bat, they needed to make a statement right from the beginning.  And that moment comes from a very unlikely place.  What really has defined Marvel over the years is their incredibly apt ability to find the right actors for each role.  Every actor has been perfectly cast in the MCU, but for some of them, it took a bit of convincing to make it all happen.  No one faced an uphill set of expectations than Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr.  Downey’s career was all but washed up before Iron Man, having fallen from grace due to his drug habits and his time in prison.  But, director Jon Favreau tapped him to be his Tony Stark, because he knew that nobody else could have brought the character to life better than him.  And in doing so, both Downey and Favreau set the bar for what to expect from the rest of the MCU.  The actors playing the roles were not necessarily going to be the biggest names, but instead would be the best fit for who they were playing.  The original Iron Man also sets the tone perfectly with it’s final statement; with Tony Stark declaring to the world “I am Iron Man.”  With that, the MCU would rewrite the rules of the genre;  no more secret identities, no more aliases.  It’s not just a day job for these heroes; it’s who they are and they wear their heroism everyday proudly.  It’s easy to see that Tony’s final words before he defeats Thanos in Endgame are the same that he delivered in his famous coming out speech.  He is Iron Man and that’s what being a hero means.  For a Cinematic Universe that wanted to live up to it’s mythic status on the page, you couldn’t have asked for a better opening statement than the one found in it’s first film.

1.

THE SNAP

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018)

It’s strange to think that the most memorable moment from all the movies in the MCU just also happens to be it’s darkest.  Marvel’s movies for the most part have tended to have a lighter tone compared to most other films in it’s genre.  Infinity War is also a movie that contains plenty of moments of levity and uplifting heroism.  But in it’s closing minutes, all that goes away and it turns into an all out tragedy.  The mad titan Thanos has spent the whole movie finding the 6 Infinity Stones that he’s been searching for throughout all the previous MCU films.  Despite a last ditch effort by the Avengers to stop him, Thanos succeeds in his goal, collecting the last stone by removing it forcefully from Vision’s forehead.  Thor does make one heroic last move that buries his axe Stormbreaker into Thanos’ chest, mortally wounding him.  But, Thanos knows that Thor’s mercy was his biggest mistake, telling him “you should’ve gone for the head.”  And with that, Thanos uses the power of all 6 stones with the snap of his fingers.  The result ends up being one of the most shocking things ever put on film.  Suddenly, half of all life in the universe is wiped out, turning to ash before our eyes.  This includes many of our favorite heroes, like Black Panther and Spider-Man.  The cruel part about it is that the remaining heroes have to watch their friends and loved ones disappear before their eyes, with no way to help them.  Of course, it all would be reversed in Endgame, but this shocking note is what we had to live with for a year in between movies.  Not since The Empire Strikes Back (1980) has a major studio franchise left it’s audience with such a shocking cliffhanger.  It is quite simply the boldest cinematic choice made in the entire MCU.  Endgame’s triumphant finale wouldn’t have felt nearly as poignant had Infinity War not brought our heroes to their lowest point.  Watching this scene play out in the theater for the first time, I could hear genuine tears from the audience during this whole scene, and it was something I’ll never forget.  The reaction this movie got is a clear indication that Marvel did their job to perfection, because all of us cared so deeply about these characters, and watching them be taken away really hurt.  That is a sign of exceptional storytelling and what makes Marvel the best at what they do.

So, there you have my choices for the best moment from the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far.  It was fun re-watching all the movies again.  Most of my opinions on the movies haven’t really changed; I still don’t like Iron Man 3 (2013) by the way.  It’s also neat to see how everything culminated over the years.  Avengers: Endgame really is a perfect finale, because it does bring everything that had come before into context, including the much maligned Thor: The Dark World.  There are also many other little moments that stick out that really define the tone of the cinematic universe, like Thor hanging Mjolnir on a coat rack or, Doctor Strange’s assistant Wong listening to Beyonce on an Ipod, or Captain America keeping a checklist of things he needs to catch up on.  In the MCU, these heroes are characters first and icons second.  Marvel Studios set out to make us like these characters first before building these franchises around them and that has been the key to their success.  Also key has been the absolutely spot on casting choices.  Some people have had their careers made by becoming a part of the MCU, while others have had their careers redefined.  Even characters that are brought to life through visual effects like Groot, Rocket, Hulk and Thanos feel perfectly integrated into the world.  It’s going to be interesting to see where Marvel goes from here.  Are they going to be able to live up to the high bar set by the Infinity Saga, or could they even surpass it?  Unfortunately, we’re going to have to wait a bit longer to find out.  For now, it was a nice stroll down memory lane, and putting together this list really spotlighted all the things that I admire so much about Marvel.  So, hopefully we can make it through this pandemic together and stronger than before, and just remember; WE ARE GROOT.

The Director’s Chair – Christopher Nolan

There are many film directors out there that have, in one form of another, a following.  Whether it’s a full on fandom or just a casual ongoing interest, many film directors benefit from these followings as a way of generating interest for whatever project they have coming up in the pipeline.  Sometimes a filmmaker struggles to live up to those expectations, while others are able to build upon every success, eventually leading to a filmography that not only stands well alone in it’s parts, but also begins to be appreciated and studied as a complete body of work.  Often times, the most unique directorial careers exist outside the Hollywood system, working within more modest budgetary constraints which may limit their ambitions but will in turn retain their artistic integrity.  These usually are your auteurs like Terrence Malick or David Lynch, whose artistic expression is very much outside of the mainstream.  Though their movies have ambition and are true to their artistic senses, you can also see in many of their movies a very outsider imprint that’s telling of their limited budgets.  But, on the rare occasion, you’ll see a filmmaker with ambition and artistic integrity not only hit the mainstream, but somehow thrive within delivering movies that both succeed financially and are able to challenge their audiences.  It’s in that rarefied air that you find directors who not only have a following, but whose every new project carries an air of importance that instantly makes them an event in the eyes of audiences.  And one of those who has managed to get to that place recently is a director whose goal is to constantly push the limits of film-making with every new movie he undertakes.

British-American director Christopher Nolan has built up a reputation in Hollywood for making colossal, mind-bending epics.  His rise within the industry is nothing out of the ordinary.   Raised in the shadow of Hollywood while his father was a professor at UCLA, Nolan was well positioned to learn the tricks of the trade from an early age.  After attending film school back in his native London, he immediately went to work on his first feature, Following, a micro-budget thriller that would reveal much of the style and themes that he would further explore in future films; mainly those of obsession and overcoming demons, both internal and external.  Collaborating with his younger brother Jonathan, himself a burgeoning writer and filmmaker, his follow-up film, Memento (2000) would immediately gain him notoriety from the film industry, earning both him and Jonathan their first Oscar nominations.  That’s not bad for a second feature.  The non-linear story-telling of Memento itself would become one of the most influential inspirations to a whole new crop of filmmakers coming up in the early 2000’s, many of whom have held Nolan up as one of their icons.  But, to Christopher’s credit, he never got complacent based on that early success and it helped him to recognize great opportunities once they came his way.  Once Warner Brothers handed him the reigns of their Batman franchise, he proved to the world that it was not him selling out, but instead an opportunity to rewrite the superhero genre forever.  With every new movie, Nolan has wowed us making each film grander than the last, and has achieved a rarefied air of ambition mixed with artistic integrity that we haven’t seen the likes of since possibly that of Stanley Kubrick.  Like other profiles in this series, I’ll be looking at the different themes and continuing features that have made Christopher Nolan’s directorial career so distinct, and how they have manifested so impact-fully in his most noteworthy movies.

1.

BROKEN MEN

One of the most consistent tropes of Christopher Nolan’s filmography is that of stories centered around men who in some way or another are damaged or lost.  Sometimes it’s out of a dilemma of their own making, or it’s because of some deficiency that makes living a struggle.  But no matter what that obstacle is, it becomes the central driving force within the protagonist’s story in one of Nolan’s films.  His breakthrough feature, Memento, features one of the clearest examples of one of these broken characters.  Guy Pearce plays Leonard, a man who suffers from short term memory loss who literally has to mark up his own body in order to remember key information in order to solve a mystery.  In one of Nolan’s most ingenious narrative devices, he tells Leonard’s story in reverse, starting at the end and finishing at the beginning, putting us the audience in the same disoriented mindscape that the character is in.  Over the course of the film, we identify with that struggle, and how infuriating it is to come to terms with not only one’s place in the world, but also with ones self.  It’s a similar trope that Nolan would also explore through Bruce Wayne’s entire arc in the Dark Knight trilogy.  Through the three films, Christian Bale’s Wayne believes that by becoming the symbol of justice through Batman that he can inspire a reawakening in his beloved city of Gotham.  But, once he is morally tested by the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) and physically beaten down by Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) we see a further internal awakening in the character to confront the demons that he’s been trying to run away from his whole life.   In Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb from Inception (2010), we see his literal inner demons manifest as a murderous nightmare in the form of his departed wife.  It’s a theme that Nolan constantly mines to lesser and greater extents in all his movies and it’s probably the thing that sticks out the most as his defining signature trait as a storyteller.

2.

TIME

The other common trope of Christopher Nolan’s filmography apart from his troubled main characters is the way that he likes to play around with the concept of time.  Certainly the formatting of Memento showed Nolan’s interest in telling a story out of order, but even in his more linear films do we see the idea of time holding a special significance in his character’s stories.  The movie Inception introduced a very novel concept of how different levels of dreaming can stretch out the perception of time on the dreamer.  The deeper you go, the more time stretches out.  So for his characters, who are infiltrating a shared dreamscape, each new layer takes on a different timescale, and special measures are undertaken to ensure that everything can still line up on time at the different levels.  Creating these rules for his fictional world of dream heists in Inception are all fascinating enough, but Nolan has also shown interest in the way time works on a truly infinite, scientific scale as well.   With Interstellar (2014), Nolan explores the way that relative time acceleration can cause Matthew McConaughey’s astronaut to pass by decades worth of time on Earth after coming too close to the orbit of a black hole.  By the end, what ended up being a couple days for him was 75 years back on Earth, and he reunites with his daughter who has gone from a child to an old woman in the blink of an eye.  Nolan even explores the very limits of time, by having McConaughey’s Cooper enter a tesseract found in the singularity of a black hole, where time is irrelevant.  It’s in those two features where Nolan makes time an important factor as a part of the story, but even in some of his more grounded movies he uses time as an important story-telling tool.  Whether it’s the inter-cutting found in Dunkirk (2017) or the flashbacks in Batman Begins (2005), Nolan always seems to find interesting ways to use the passage of time as an element of his story.  It’s something that he’s also not through with exploring, as his next feature Tenet (2020) looks to put the concept front and center.

3.

ARCHITECTURE

One does have to wonder if Christopher Nolan hadn’t applied his intelligence to a career in film-making, he might have become an architect instead.  What you’ll notice very commonly in many of his movies is that Nolan loves to photograph buildings in his movies.  You can pull up so many stills of just the flyover shots of cityscapes in his movies, and those alone could fill up a spread in Architectural Digest.   But his interest in architecture doesn’t just stop at exteriors.  He puts just as much work into crafting unique looking interiors for his films as well.  There is something about his use of eye-catching architecture in his movies that relates to Nolan’s desire to ground his movies in a certain reality.  He’s always concerned about the authenticity of his worlds, and making the audience feel like they are a part of the scene, paying as close attention to the smallest details as possible.  And this can range from anything as spectacular as the Bat Cave in The Dark Knight, to something as intimate as Mark Rylance’s fishing boat in Dunkirk, to something as otherworldly as the spaceships of Interstellar.  At the same time, Nolan is also just as interested in manipulating architecture in unexpected ways.  Inception in particular shows Nolan pushing the limits of exterior and interior spaces to places that can never exist in the real world.  One of the most spectacular scenes in the movie involves just a simple hotel hallway, but through the manipulation of the dream world, it is literally flipped upside down.  And of course in true Nolan fashion, no CGI enhancement was used.  Taking a cue from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) rigged a fully furnished hallway to a gimble cylinder and spun the whole thing around with a camera locked into place.  Nolan did use CG to create a different spectacular moment of a city folding in on itself, but even this was done with an eye towards retaining an architectural integrity.  No matter how grounded or beyond the realm of physics Christopher Nolan’s architectural sights may be, they nevertheless make an impact in defining his visual style.

4.

IMAX

One thing that has certainly defined Christopher Nolan within the industry beyond the films that he makes is his passionate advocacy for both the theatrical experience and for the use of physical media in the film-making process.  Deeply opposed to even the thought of shooting with digital cameras, Nolan has committed himself to shooting all his movies on film stock.  For him it’s not just holding onto a sense of tradition in film-making; he genuinely believes that shooting on film brings out the best fidelity within the image, and there is plenty of evidence for that.  The kind of cinematography found in Nolan’s films would certainly not carry the same kind of atmosphere if they were shot digitally.  It also helps that Nolan always uses larger formats for his films.  One of the main reasons Christopher Nolan’s movies have become big events upon release is because his film stock of choice is 70 mm IMAX, the largest format in the whole market.  And he constructs every one of his movies around the use of this massive and expensive film stock.  It’s really remarkable how Nolan is able to construct his movies using IMAX cameras, because they are not easy to move around.  Collaborating with the greatest IMAX photographers in the business, Wally Pfister and Hoyte Van Hoytema, Nolan has managed to put the no-room-for-error IMAX lens in some of the most remarkable places.  And what he’s managed to shoot in the format has been some of cinema’s most spectacular moments ever; the flipping of Joker’s truck in The Dark Knight, the flyby of a black hole in Interstellar, Bane’s midair hijacking in The Dark Knight Rises‘ prologue, and the sinking ships of Dunkirk.  None of those scenes would have had the same impact on anything less than the IMAX frame.  And a brand new Nolan film demands to be seen on a big screen.  One hopes that the director’s reputation for showmanship on this level will be enough to bring audiences back to the theaters this summer with Tenet.  Regardless, I don’t think you’ll see Nolan abandon the IMAX format anytime soon.

5.

FAMILIAR FACES

One last thing you’ll easily notice about Nolan’s movies is that he does like to use actors more than once in his projects.  He’s managed to work with actors like Tom Hardy three times, Cillian Murphy five times, and Sir Michael Caine has been in everything he’s made since 2005’s Batman Begins (those wondering where the noticeably absent on screen actor was in Dunkirk need to listen for that familiar cockney accent coming from the comm-link radios directing the fighter pilots in the movie).  It’s not uncommon for a director to have a stable of go to actors for his movies, like Martin Scorsese and Alfred Hitchcock, but what I think makes Nolan’s use of his actors so unique is the versatility in which he uses them.  Just look at the different roles that Tom Hardy has played in his movies; from a suave dream forger in Inception, to the formidable supervillain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, to a RAF fighter pilot in Dunkirk.  The only thing those performances have in common is that in two of them, Hardy is required to wear a breather mask for most of the movie.  It is interesting that for the roles of his film’s protagonists, Nolan usually just works with that actor once; apart from Christian Bale’s three-peat as Batman.  Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey, Guy Pearce, Hugh Jackman and Al Pacino all delivered some of the best work of their career in a Nolan film, but they were also one and done with the director.  And it wasn’t because of any friction between Nolan and the actors; they all have nothing but great things to say about their experience.  It’s just that this is the way Nolan likes to work; he likes to return to familiar faces to fill out his supporting roles, but he prefers to have a clean slate when it comes to his main characters.  And I think that this has helped to make every new film of his feel so refreshing each time.  A new face among all the familiar ones means a chance for a bold new adventure.

There’s no doubt that Christopher Nolan has earned his spot near the top of the best working directors today.  The fact that he has made it his goal in life to push the medium of film further with every movie he makes has endeared him to cinephiles all over the world, including myself.  It’s so rare to see a filmmaker these days deliver such uncompromising vision on the big screen with the full backing of a major studio.  You can definitely see the influence of Kubrick on Christopher Nolan, himself being a unique voice who managed to maintain his artistic integrity within the studio system.  So many auteurs try to work on the outside the same way, but Nolan has managed to bend the studios towards his way of thinking, which is unheard of today in Hollywood.  Who else could’ve gotten a studio to invest in something as out-of-this-world as Inception and still see that movie not only click with audiences, but also generate a huge profit in the end.  One of the reasons why Nolan has gotten to the position that he’s in is because he recognized opportunities when they came his way and made the most of them.  When a studio offers you the reigns to a franchise, it may seem like a compromise that could threaten your artistic integrity in return for a bigger pay day.  But Christopher Nolan did not see it as a compromise, but rather an opportunity to make his own kind of super hero movie, and in turn he set the bar higher for the genre as a whole.  Had he said no to Batman, who knows if he would’ve ever gained the trust of any other studio and been able to create the spectacular films that he’s excelled at ever since.  Nolan’s career can be summed up by his good instincts and his drive to always keep moving forward with what the medium can do.  And the fact that his movies are absolute must sees in a movie theater could also make him the possible savior for a struggling industry in this current crisis that we are in right now. For me personally, I will never see a Nolan film on anything but the biggest screen possible for the first time, and my hope is that theaters will survive long enough to make that possible; for as long as Christopher Nolan continues to make more movies.

Scoob! – Review

It’s interesting how much change has been going on in Hollywood during a pandemic with regards to the way it’s able to roll out it’s new content.  With movie theaters remaining shuttered, at least up to now, Hollywood has had a revenue stream completely cut off, and it’s been leading them towards finding a different mode of distribution.  The streaming channels have provided one avenue, but it’s a area that hasn’t branched into the full market just yet as a sub-plant for the hole left behind by the closed theaters.  In the wake of the pandemic, some studios are trying out something different, which is Video On Demand rentals, where customers on video rental platforms like Amazon and Itunes can pay a full upfront price to rent or purchase the movie digitally.  Thus far, the studios have chosen to bypass the theaters altogether and opt for this VOD service instead to premiere a handful of new movies on.  This has caused great concern from the theater market, who see the move as a threat to their hopes of recovery after this pandemic.  AMC, the largest theater chain in the world and one of the hardest hit by the shutdown, even took action against Universal Studios for breaking from their distribution agreement by premiering Trolls World Tour (2020) on digital VOD without negotiating with them.  In retaliation, AMC is now banning all future Universal films from their theaters, with the Regal chain joining them in solidarity.  This spat between AMC and Universal however is not indicative of the industry as a whole.  Warner Brothers is likewise setting some of their movies for VOD distribution, but they took the extra measure of notifying the theater chains that this would be the case, and it’s helped to maintain their ongoing agreement in tact, which Warner will definitely need because they are the first ones up once the theaters reopen later this summer, with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and Wonder Woman 84 still scheduled for theatrical premieres.  But for now, they are in need of a boost on the VOD side, and they’re most hopeful bet this month is the animated film, Scoob!

The new movie is another in a long line of modern reboots of long-standing IP; in this case, the characters from Hanna Barbera’s Scooby Doo franchise.  Created by animation veterans William Hanna and Joseph Barbera during their successful run as producers of Saturday morning cartoons in the 60’s and 70’s, Scooby Doo, Where are You? was an instant hit with the “flower power” generation, and it’s success would continue to propel a further blossoming of new shows from the Hanna Barbera studios for decades.  The only thing is, how do you make a product of it’s time resonate so many years later.  For Hanna Barbera, the key to success was always in maintaining a connection to the audience through the characters.  Thought the times would change, Scoody and his gang would remain true to their cores.  Scooby the lovable, mischievous talking dog, Shaggy his ever devoted clumsy friend, Fred the headstrong leader of their mystery solving gang, Daphne the empathetic optimist who would always lift everyone’s spirits, and Velma, who let’s face it, was honestly always too smart to be running around with all these goofballs, and solved most of the mysteries almost single-handedly.  The formula would remain the same throughout most of Scooby’s history, with the rag tag group discovering a super natural mystery involving ghost, monsters, or extra-terrestrials, and eventually uncovering the hoax behind them, usually with an unmasking on the real perpetrator.  The Scooby Doo cartoons have often been imitated and parodied, but the franchise itself has nevertheless maintained it’s popularity and has seen many updates throughout the years.  This year, they have made the jump to computer animation with Warner Brothers new film titled Scoob!  The only question remains is whether it’s a Scooby do or a Scooby don’t.

The story shows us the Scooby gang at it’s very beginnings, with Scooby (voiced by Frank Welker) meeting a young Shaggy (Iain Armitage) on the sandy shores of Venice Beach.  The two become instantly inseparable.   On the following Halloween, they meet three other children, Fred (Pierce Gagnon), Daphne (McKenna Grace) and Velma (Ariana Greenblatt), and venture into a supposed haunted house where they solve their first real mystery.  When they grow older, they decide to make their mystery solving business legit, but their investor has reservations about where Scooby and Shaggy (Will Forte) fit in, seeing them as a liability.  With Scooby and Shaggy sidelined, the gang of Fred Jones (Zac Efron), Daphne Blake (Amanda Seyfried), and Velma Dinkley (Gina Rodriguez) must continue their work on their own.  Shaggy and Scooby meanwhile are attacked by a mysterious horde of killer robots.  The duo are almost captured until a mysterious ship intercepts them.  They soon learn that it’s the Falcon Fury, the home base of Shaggy’s favorite super hero, the Blue Falcon (Mark Wahlberg) and his robotic canine companion Dynomutt (Ken Jeong).  They inform Shaggy and Scooby that the robot army had been sent by a villain named Dick Dastardly (Jason Isaacs), who is hunting down giant skulls belonging to the hell hound Cerberus in hopes of opening the gates to the Underworld, and Scooby it turns out is the key.  Scooby agrees to help out Blue Falcon and his crew, but his growing partnership with Falcon begins to put a strain on his friendship with Shaggy, who begins to feel unwanted and forgotten.  With Dick Dastardly’s sinister plan quickly taking form, and Scooby’s gang becoming increasingly splintered apart, the question remains if Scooby alone can be the hero everyone is telling him he should be.

Like I said earlier, this is not the first time Scooby has gone through an update to the present day.  A couple of live action films were made in the early 2000’s, written by James Gunn of Guardians of the Galaxy fame, of all people.  And there have been numerous new series revivals and direct to video movies made over the years as well.  This new version does the same as a lot of other recent animated adaptations of long dormant franchises have done, like Illumination’s Dr. Suess films and the upcoming Spongebob Squarepants CGI movie.  In the hopes of remaining relevant to an audience raised on the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks Animation, Scooby inevitably was going to make the jump to 3D eventually, and that kind of transition certainly had the potential to work out.  Computer animation has certainly advanced to the point where you can create models of these characters that remain true to their original hand-drawn designs, and also still retain the Hanna Barbera style of simple, limited animation that made the original show so distinct.  There was never any doubt that a new Scooby Doo movie would look good in Computer Animation.  It’s just that, there needed to be care taken with the story in order to make it worth that effort.   Unfortunately, the movie falls well short in the story department.  There could have been two different directions that the filmmakers could have gone in updating Scooby Doo to the modern day; either making the story more sophisticated and reflective of our present day, or just throw in a lot of topical reference that will date the film horribly in a few years.  Unfortunately, Warner Brothers went with the latter and it really drags the movie down and in many ways kind of insults the legacy of the characters.

The thing that really stings is that the movie actually starts off strong, with the prologue showing the characters in their early years.  I actually thought the opening of this movie did a fine job of establishing the characters in a charming, heartfelt and quite funny way.  However, the movie quickly looses its footing once the characters grow into adults, and I think you can easily pinpoint the exact moment when the movie goes downhill, and that’s the moment an awkwardly shoehorned Simon Cowell cameo is thrown in.  From that moment on, the movie just becomes a steady stream of tired pop culture puns and break-neck pacing that gives the audience no time to settle.  I really wish that the remainder of the movie had maintained the easy-going pacing of the first 10 minutes or so.  I also think that the other big problem with the movie is that it completely abandons the Scooby Doo formula that has proven effective for over 50 years in favor of something that is more akin to a Marvel or DC superhero film.  And that just doesn’t fit with Scooby Doo.  There’s no mystery to uncover; we know who the bad guy is from the very beginning and there is no attempt at all to leave our heroes in the shadows.  We’ve honestly seen this story done a million times before and adding Scooby Doo to the mix gives us nothing new.  In fact, Scooby an the gang feel very out of place in this kind of story.  The lack of originality in the story is compounded even further by the tired use of pop culture references, which is basically animation’s emergency solution for covering-up the shortcomings of a lackluster script.  There are so many references thrown around to Netflix, Tinder, Hashtags, Harry Potter, and even dabbing.  And it doesn’t come off as funny; it just cries of desperation.  This is especially insulting for a movie adapting one of the more cleverly plotted series of it’s era.  It doesn’t help that one of the most notable marketing ploys used for the film was a cross promotion with the Tik Tok app, showing that the filmmakers was more interested in making this movie more pop culture savvy than narratively engaging.  Even the hip sounding abbreviated title Scoob! reeks of desperation.  Warner Brothers honestly shouldn’t have tried to reinvent the wheel on this one, because there is a reason why the formula for the show has been used for so many years; because it works, and abandoning it just takes away all the charm that it could have had.

The characters in the story particularly suffer because of this lack of identity.  I hate the fact that the filmmakers thought it would be a good idea to split up the Scooby gang, because breaking them apart just robs the movie of all the character dynamics that could have been used to drive the humor in the movie.  I’m sorry, but Fred, Daphne and Velma on their own is not a terribly exciting bunch.  For some reason, they made Fred dumber than he ever was on the show as a way to fill in some of that missing comic relief that would have normally come from Shaggy and Scooby.  The voice acting from Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried and Gina Rodriguez is passable, but the movie always drags a bit more when it returns to their story-line.  Shaggy and Scooby do work out a bit better in their characterizations.  Veteran voice actor takes on the role of Scooby fairly well, filling in for the late Don Messick, and it’s kind of special that he is a part of this film, given that his career actually started on the original animated series.  Welker was the original voice of Fred Jones on the series, and that gig has since blossomed into a 50 year career in voice acting.  He even occasionally returns to the role of Fred for various projects, but more recently he has been the go to guy for Scooby Doo, and it’s good that Warner Brothers still honors that.  Will Forte, while not quite hitting that Casey Kasem tenor in the role of Shaggy, still manages to do an adequate job.  I did also get a couple chuckles out of Mark Wahlberg’s “aw shucks” performance as the dim witted Blue Falcon.  But, I definitely have to say that the movie is stolen by Jason Isaac’s over-the-top performance as Dick Dastardly.  He breathes much needed life into this film every time he is on screen, and is by far the best part of the movie.  It’s almost like Jason Isaacs was the only actor aware that he was making a cartoon and he gives a full camp performance worthy of the medium.  It’s just too bad that nothing else within the movie rises to that level.

The animation itself is also a mixed bag.  While the characters of Scooby and Shaggy do look on model compared to their original designs, the same does not hold up for most of the other characters.  The movie gives this strange plastic feel to the human characters that makes their models feel a little off.  This is especially noticeable in a character like Fred, who is the most visually different of all the original series characters in this movie.  It’s in that weird, uncanny valley area where the characters are slightly exaggerated to fit within the colorful cartoony world, but also grounded in a more life-like physicality that just doesn’t mix well together.  The worst example of this occurs when we meet Blue Falcon’s forgettable assistant Dee Dee (voiced by Kiersey Clemons), with her life like physicality clashing with her plastic-like skin.  It’s like she’s a living action figure, and I have no doubt that there is a toy line model that bears the same striking resemblance to this character.  It’s only when the movie exaggerates the character models that they come to life.  Dick Dastardly, again, represents the best of this, as his distinctive look does leave an impression.  I do recognize that the movie does still retain a high quality look throughout.  It’s not animated poorly at all; it just suffer from some poor choices in character modeling.  I like that the animators did include some nods to the slapstick bits done in the Hanna Barbera style that we all remember from the shows.  And also, credit to the sound effects team for throwing in the original Hanna Barbera sound clips in certain moments as well, like the famous twinkle toes bit used in everything from Scooby Doo to The Flintstones.  It’s something to help please the long time Hanna Barbera fans who are looking for something that does honor the legacy of these characters, which sadly is not in abundance in this movie.

So, is Scoob! worth the $20 rental for home viewing.  Honestly, if you just want something to distract your kids for an hour and a half, you may find some use out of the movie, but for those who were hoping for a satisfying reboot of a beloved old franchise, I’d say save your money.  Scoob! is little more than a cash grab, hoping to revitalize a known intellectual property and cynically mine it for some easy cash based in it’s nostalgia value.  The biggest problem with the movie is that it seems to forget exactly what made Scooby Doo work so well as a franchise for so many years, and that’s the simple but effective formula that it’s maintained for 50 years.  It’s trying to be less of a Scooby Doo movie and more of a super hero movie, and it’s just dragging the Scooby gang along for the cliched, predictable ride.  Apart from an emotionally effective prologue and a entertaining villain, there really is nothing to make this movie stand out as a work of animation.  The only reason we are really talking about this movie at all is because of it’s unorthodox way of reaching audiences in the middle of this ongoing pandemic.  Trolls World Tour made headlines with it’s successful roll-out online, and Warner Brothers is hoping the same will happen with Scoob!  Releasing with this kind of notoriety will certainly garner more headlines for Scoob! than it otherwise might have had in a Summer season where it would’ve had to contend with another Pixar film.  But, believe me when I say that Scoob! is a forgettable waste of time that doesn’t nearly do justice to the long standing legacy of it’s characters.  It’s not going to be a game changer that will bring the theatrical market to it’s knees.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Warner Brothers never releases a movie this way again.  If you want a satisfying Scooby snack, just re-watch the original series again, or any of it’s adequate spin-offs.  Scoob! is nothing to wag a dog’s tail at.

Rating: 5/10

Quiet on the Set – How Much a Halt In Production Will Affect the Future of Hollywood

Right now, as stay at home orders extend deep into the late spring and likely further into the summer, we are finding ourselves relying more heavily on home viewing as our one and only avenue of entertainment.  The fate of movie theaters are in limbo, Broadway is facing a massive crisis, and sports have gone dark for the foreseeable future, possibly continuing on without live audiences.  But, there’s still television to tide us over, and the seemingly endless abundance of streaming material available.  But, for many viewers believing that Hollywood will ride this pandemic wave out unscathed thanks to on demand entertainment revenue, there is another lingering factor that may spell a much darker future for the industry.  While new entertainment options are continuing to premiere as planned on platforms like Netflix, it’s only because they had been worked on and completed before the outbreak occurred.  When the world economy shut down all non-essential activity, it also put all film production to a halt.  Everything from sound-stages on studio lots to on location production went completely dark in the hopes of slowing the spread of the COVID-19 virus.  And these productions continue to remain on hold, which does come at a cost.  Time lost in production usually leads to productions losing the favorable weather conditions that they needed for their shoot, or the brief window they could have had with a certain actor before they commit to another project.  And those are just the minimal problems related to a shut down.  There’s a whole human factor about all the crew members out of work right now that is especially going to hurt the industry going forward.  The question now is whether Hollywood can return back to normal after this shutdown, how  much longer they can withstand not being able to produce anything, and what options we may have to face in the aftermath of this pandemic.

You take away all the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood mystique and underneath you’ll find that it is an industry just like any other in the global economy.  All those names you see scroll by in the closing credits of a movie or television series belongs to a person who has a valuable purpose in creating the thing that you just watched.  Whether it’s constructing the set, setting up the lights, fabricating the costumes, building the props, filing the paperwork, running errands, loading the camera, supervising the script, catering the meals, or even in some cases putting out fires or causing them for the sake of the scene.  To the general public, these names in the credits are considered nobodies, but in reality, they are the lifeblood of the industry, and they are sadly the ones affected most by the shutdown.  They don’t earn the kind of money that movie stars or directors do, but they take pride in their work and can often benefit from more steady employment as their talents can be applied to a far higher variety of productions.  But with the shutdown happening right now, many of these same people have seen that market of available projects dry up.  The unions and guilds that work within Hollywood can only help so much in assisting out of work crew members, and the freelancers are left to fend for themselves even more.  They don’t have the cushy mansions and stockpiles of spendable cash that the Hollywood elite can live comfortably off of during these many weeks of isolation.  Many of them have been living paycheck to paycheck, and with the cost of living still high in Hollywood, many of them won’t be able to maintain their residency there.  So, as a result, the longer this shutdown continues, the more likely we’ll see many of the skilled labors leaving the business altogether, leading to a shortfall of available staff once production picks up again.

What will that mean for Hollywood?  Sure, productions can fill the same positions with newer faces once things begin to ramp up; but you’ll lose the experience and knowledge that seasoned professionals would’ve had.  There are a lot of crew members with specialty skills that only they are able to perform, particularly on the physical production side of things.  You put these skilled laborers out of work for an extended period of time, it may lead them to abandon their trade in favor of more stable work that doesn’t utilize the same creative aspect.  Like any other industry, there is an element of ageism in Hollywood that unfortunately causes many careers to end abruptly.  For many skilled laborers in Hollywood, a halt in production means a loss of that stability of allowing their work to speak for itself, and for many of them, it means an end to their value in the ever changing landscape in Hollywood.  Sure, the film industry needs to roll over their pool of talent in order to keep up with the changing advances in technology and standards within the workplace, but people who have spent decades refining their talents develop a skill set that can’t be easily replaced.  And when this pandemic does blow over, we will likely see many careers come to an end because the employees couldn’t withstand the storm and had to compromise in order to feed their families, or were sadly seen as expendable in order to preserve the bottom line of the studio.  It’s unfortunate, but sadly also can’t be helped either.  The studios can’t just bring production back to where it was before the pandemic, because that exposes their worker to a potential new outbreak, which itself would have even more economic consequences.  What we’ll likely see out of Hollywood in the aftermath of this is a much different character, of the new guard having to quickly take up the tools of the old guard.

While this is a devastating circumstance for the industry and the people who work within it, it is at the same time nothing new.   Hollywood has faced crises before that has significantly dwindled their resources and available staff.  And somehow, they always find a way to work around it.  During World War II, with a significant portion of our population enlisted and fighting oversees, Hollywood managed to press on by joining the war effort itself, making propaganda films funded by the War Department and promoting the sale of War Bonds in their theaters.  They also employed many women for the first time in roles typically filled by men as an effort to keep their staff  levels up to normal, a move that itself would have a profound effect on a female presence in Hollywood thereafter.  Subsequent conflicts oversees, and social unrest at home also didn’t deter the Hollywood machine either.  The only major disruptions that they faced came from strikes within their own industry.  The Screen Actors Guild, Writer’s Guild of America, and many other labor unions have all led to work stoppages within the industry as new market changes lead to more contentious negotiations between them and the studios.  The most disruptive such strike came in 2007, initiated by the Writer’s Guild and supported by all the other Unions in solidarity.  The strike lasted a full four months, which sounds like not that much time, but for a perpetually moving machine like Hollywood, it was a very costly disruption, costing billions of dollars and putting all those previously mentioned crew members in dire financial straits.  Even through this, the industry still found a way to keep moving, and that was through reality television, which began to dominate airtime because it allowed them studios to put people to work without the two biggest guilds involved, the SAG and the WGA.  Even still, movies were heavily affected, and many productions ended up being delayed or cancelled.  Until now, this has been the closest that Hollywood has come to a full shutdown.  The current climate in many ways dwarfs that of the 2007 strike, because at least that had a clear end point that could be worked towards.  How do we work around a contagion that we still don’t fully understand yet?

The uncertainty of this pandemic is the main concern of Hollywood right now.  We really don’t know when things are going to be back to normal again.  All we have to go on are charts that tell us how pandemics play out to give us a rough estimate about when infection rates will slow.  And so far, every study tells us that this is going to be a long process.  Major studios like Disney are already feeling the crunch of a deep recession affecting their future recovery.  The only thing the industry can do right now is to support each other in the midst of an uncertain future.  A lot of charitable funds have opened up in order to keep out of work technicians and staff financially afloat while the studios remain dark, but again, how long could this last?  For a lot of the industry, the need to return to work as soon as possible is becoming the only option they have left, even if it puts their own health at risk.   Like joining the war effort during WWII and relying on reality television to stay afloat during hard times, Hollywood is finding itself improvising once again, with many television shows filming from home, utilizing the video meeting app Zoom to keep people connected.  But, while this helps to fill airtime with new content, it doesn’t exactly replace what has come before either.  And it only works for weekly, non-scripted shows.  As we learned in the aftermath of the 2007 strike, there is a desire for scripted entertainment and that aspect of the industry will need to pick up immediately following the end of this shutdown.  And the clock is ticking for Hollywood to be able to do that without significant financial cost.  There is a lot about the business that is dependent upon new content releasing into the market over the course of the year, from marketing to merchandise to broadcasting rights and the subsequent ad revenue attached.  You slow all that down, it will affect more industries than just Hollywood alone.

So what options does Hollywood have right now?  While physical production is impossible during the pandemic, it is possible to have movies still work through development in order to be camera ready once the shutdown is lifted.  Writers for one thing see no difference to the way they normally work during this pandemic since they are able to work from home anyway, and the Zoom Meeting feature allows them to continue their writer’s room collaborations on a normal schedule.  In some instances, the shutdown has been a blessing in disguise for some troubled productions, as it buys them more time to fix underlying issues with their movies.  That has been the case over at Marvel, which saw the departure of their director for the Doctor Strange sequel and the assignment of a whole new one to take his place.  The shutdown now gives the new director, Sam Raimi in this case, much needed extra time to resolve issues in the production that would’ve been rushed had he had to deliver the film on it’s original May 2021 release date.  But, a lot of other film productions don’t have the luxury that Marvel has where they can just move their releases one step backwards.  For them, continuing to work still costs money and delays are costly.  Because of this, the need to make changes to their projects in development must be worth the effort.  The post production side can also function out of the home, as more and more people have available editing and visual effects programs installed on their home computers.  But, as productions continue to process their way through safe, isolated home environments, there comes another problem; the empty gaps in between when a movie will be ready to complete and when it will actually be ready to premiere.

The process of making a movie sometimes takes years, but we don’t notice that process so much, because there seems to be something new coming out every week.   But when every movie is put on hold all at once, it will create a ripple effect that will eventually catch up with the public.  Right now, there are still plenty of new shows and movies making their way to streaming channels, and that’s because they were all shot and edited many months earlier.  Eventually, Netflix and the like are going to run into the situation that they’ll have exhausted all their new content unless the shutdown ends pretty soon and they can ramp up production once again.  The 2007 strike shut things down for 4 months and it caused a noticeable disruption in the years that followed.  Imagine what would happen if this pandemic induced shutdown went on for possibly a year.  We wouldn’t start noticing it for a couple years, but eventually that lack of new content could not only affect the bottom line of the streaming channels, it could change the face of Hollywood forever as a result.  I believe that this is why the movie studios made the choice that they did to delay every theatrical release until the late summer and fall season, so that the industry can play a bit of catch-up once it’s able to.  It’s a costly choice, particularly for the theatrical market, but in the end it may be the only way for Hollywood to be able to survive what comes after.  If they don’t delay things now, they’ll either run out of new movies sooner, or rush everything into production which will hurt the quality of the output.  Strangely enough, the one aspect of the industry that won’t be affected by this is animation, which in every aspect of production can be worked on safely from home.  We may end up with a glut of animated movies in the long run because of this shutdown, depending on how long it lasts, because they are the only types of movies that can go on unencumbered.

There are some promising signs that tell us that things won’t turn out to be the worst case scenario.  Countries like New Zealand and the Czech Republic are already making the moves necessary to re-open their film-making industries, and may be ready to welcome back film crews from around the world in as little as a month from now.    Also, heavy hit areas, including New York and California (major epicenters of the film industry) are already seeing a decline in new cases and are making plans for a return to business under the guidance of the safety guidelines given by the CDC.   But it will still be a long process that will no doubt leave the industry changed for a long time.  The loss of skilled crew members who will see their careers in Hollywood come to an end itself will be a tragic outcome.  One would hope that there is enough goodwill extended out to them in order to keep them afloat and able to continue in the film business, but that’s dependent on the needs of the studios in the long run and by how long this shutdown may stretch out.  The ability for Hollywood to prolong their production schedules may also be a factor, as many promised upcoming projects may have to be sacrificed in order to either save capital or be dissolved in favor of something different.  There may be even the societal changes that could leave a lasting effect on the industry.  How comfortable will actors be with performing more intimate moments on screen in a era of social distancing.  A lot of new normals are going to be the case over the next few years, and it may change us as a culture permanently.  That in turn will extend down into the entertainment we consume, and Hollywood will be a different industry because of it.  For right now, the empty film sets that sit silently all across the world wait for a different kind of storm to blow through once this current deadly one forces us into isolation.  Hollywood is going to face a long road back to business as normal, and it may result in a Hollywood we no longer recognize.

This is….