Film School in a Box – Movie Special Editions and Why They Matter to Film Collectors and Fans

I’ve often written on this blog about the first couple phase of a film’s life, namely the creation phase of a movie and also the presentation phase.  But there’s one other phase of a movie’s life that I haven’t explored as much and that the final phase; home entertainment.  Sure, streaming has been discussed much lately and that falls under the umbrella of home entertainment, but what I want to talk about here is the unique culture that has arisen around the market of physical media, and how that has evolved over the years.  Movie aficionados like myself have our preferred ways of consuming entertainment, and it often is reflected in the ways that we also collect movies once they are available to purchase.  Home video started off as a niche market to begin with, but over time grew into one of the largest segments of film distribution within the industry.  Now with the rise of streaming, the home entertainment market has changed once again and it has in many ways diminished physical media as an essential part of the life cycle of movies.  But, that doesn’t mean that physical media has disappeared all together.  Instead, the home video market has shifted more into a specialty mode, with physical media carrying more of a prestige than it once did, and as a result, a higher value as well.  But what makes physical media stand out when compared to what someone might find on Netflix or Amazon for instance?  What makes buying a movie take on more of a value than either renting or streaming it?  In many cases, it not the movie itself that matters, but the way that it is packaged and presented that gives it more value in the physical media market.  Movie collections often become just as beloved a part of someone’s personal belongings than anything else.  In many ways, it’s something that connects us closer to the movies than any other form of media consumption that is offered up by Hollywood.

For me personally, my journey as a film buff has been largely tied to the way that I collect movies.  It goes all the way back to my childhood even.  Instead of asking for video games or sports equipment as gifts from my parents like my siblings would on birthdays and Christmas, I always wanted movies on video tape to add to my growing collection.  I grew up in the 80’s, when VHS cassettes were coming into their own as the primary form of physical media for home entertainment.  And the company that took advantage the most out of this growing market in the 1980’s was Walt Disney Pictures, which naturally I was the target audience for.  I remember receiving Lady and the Tramp (1955) as my first movie on video tape when I was 5 years old, and it left an immediate impact on me.  In the years after, Disney began releasing their back catalog of titles, and even began using their new Home Video label to bring their brand new classic films, like The Little Mermaid (1989), to a home audience.  As I collected more movies, I began to self teach myself about the history of the Disney company, and how every movie had a canonical place within the timeline of the studio.   This was largely due to the fact that every box labeled the movies in the chronological order that they fit within the Disney canon.  By the time I had reached high school, I had every Disney movie on VHS cassette, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) all the way up to Hercules (1997), which marked 35 movies in total.  But, what started as a childhood collection for me extended beyond just wanting to have each one of those movies as a part of my collection.  In retrospect, I see those movies as the key to helping me deep dive into the history of film itself, through the lens of one studio.  By knowing everything there is to know about the body of work of a single studio, it allowed me to see the incredible mark that cinema leaves in general, and it sparked my interest to explore beyond just what Disney ended up making and look at the history of film as a whole.

Apart from the entertainment value that I would get from the movies I owned, I also have realized over the years how much the aesthetic of physical media matters as well.  In many cases, a well packaged movie plays just as important a role in selling a movie as anything else.  One of the things that I liked best about the Disney movie collection on VHS was the way that they were packaged.  For the most part throughout the history of VHS cassettes, the majority of movies that were released by the major studios packaged their films in flimsy, cardboard sleeves with artwork printed on the front, back and spines.  Disney, however, opted to package their films inside insulated, plastic clam shells, which to a young collector like me made them feel a little bit more special than the other movies for sale.  And when I had them all on my shelf at home, they often looked to me like books in a library, with each title specially designed to stand out.  Aesthetics mean a lot to collectors no matter what the item may be, and the best producers of home video packages were well aware of how each of their title would look in the consumer’s home.  By the end of the VHS era, box sets had become a niche market that had come into it’s own, with movie fans willing to pay the extra little bit to have a movie on their shelf that not only was important to them, but could even stand out as a work of art on it’s own.  One other thing that I always found interesting in that era, which in turn also helped me to expand my interest in film, was the aura of the double cassette boxes.  These were usually made for movies that were so long, that they had to be split up into two cassettes, which to me made them feel even more special.  In that time, it was movies like The Ten Commmandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Dances With Wolves (1990), Braveheart (1995) and Titanic (1997) that were given this treatment, and the fascination that I had with movies that were too big for one tape became a big part of what pushed me into exploring beyond just what I knew about films from Disney.  If movies weren’t packaged the way they were like they had been in the VHS era, I wonder if I would’ve still gone down the road of film fandom that I ultimately did.

Things did change in the turn of the millennium, when VHS gave way to a new form of home entertainment; DVD.  Instead of cassette film, DVD’s encoded movies onto compact discs, thereby opening the world of cinema up to the digital age.  The same technology had been used for years prior on the laser discs, but DVDs were more economical to make and own and fit much easier on a bookshelf.  The picture quality also put VHS to shame, which of course led to a significant downturn for VHS production.  But what may have been the most significant contribution of the DVD era was the implementation of bonus features as part of the package.  Another carryover of the laser disc format, bonus features reached a new level of popularity with the rise of DVD.  Ranging from making of material to alternate audio tracks and even alternate cuts of the movie, DVD bonus features really raised the overall value of the movie that a person was purchasing.  And often the success level of a movie on DVD could be determined by the amount of bonus features that it offered as a part of the set.  This also led to the first instances of people buying a movie in a new format that they already owned in another.  I certainly am guilty of that many times over now.  I have probably purchased the movie The Lion King (1994) five times now across four different formats; VHS, DVD, Blu-ray (twice), and now 4K.  And why is that?  For me, whenever a new special edition of a movie is released on home video, I weigh my choice of purchasing on whether it offers anything more that the other editions did not have.  A lot of films don’t do this, and usually I’ll find that I make one lifetime purchase with said films when they become available.  But there are certain offers on new re-issues that I can’t pass up and I’ll pay that money again, even though I have owned the movie before.  Disney, the clever marketers that they are, have their so-called “Disney Vault” release plan, where their movies stay in circulation for a short time, then go back into the “vault” and out of distribution, thereby driving more demand for the film, which they’ll then re-release again in a big new, specialty package.  Sure it’s market manipulation, but it works, and it’s gotten me every time.

But there is one thing that I as a consumer really found myself valuing with the introduction of bonus features on the DVD format, and that was the in depth making of material that were found on certain special editions.  Not only did they spark my interest as a film history buff, but they even inspired me to want to work in the world of filmmaking itself.  Perhaps no other film release on the DVD format left a bigger impact on me as an aspiring filmmaker than the Extended Editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Filmmaker Peter Jackson did the extraordinary thing of having cameras roll behind the scenes the entire time while he was putting together his epic film trilogy.  He invited behind the scenes documentarian Michael Pellerin to document every level of production, from the script phase to the final picture lock, and the whole complete wealth of material ends up eclipsing the movies themselves in length.  In keeping with the Tolkein theme, the collection of documentaries that Pellerin and his team compiled together are known as the Appendices on the special edition, and many film collectors will tell you that the entire package feels like having a film school master class in a box.  Peter Jackson would continue to pull back the curtain and reveal all the tricks of the trade in his follow up movies King Kong (2005) and The Hobbit trilogy in what he described as Production Diaries, and it could be said that an entire generation of filmmakers were inspired solely because of the documentaries on these DVD sets.  Even aesthetically they were pleasing to the eye, emulating volumes of books much like the ones the movies were based on.  Peter Jackson and Michael Pellerin certainly didn’t invent the DVD bonus feature, but they raised the bar high for the decade that followed, and as a result, the DVD era saw a flourishing of in depth making of material as a necessary element in home entertainment.

But, for many home video collectors, quality can sometimes be valued over quantity when it comes to all the bells and whistles.  One label in particular has made it their mission statement to deliver movies as a prestige product above everything else, and it’s one that I’ve talked about so much on this site that I devote an entire series to them; the Criterion Collection.  Criterion not only puts a great amount of work into presenting the movie itself in the highest possible quality, but it makes the package you buy it in just as much of a prize in itself.  The Criterion Collection caters to the film collector specifically, with the aesthetic of the box art given it’s own special consideration, knowing full well that the person who is buying a title in their collection likely owns a few more of their titles as well, so they’ve got to make it feel worthy of the label.  Each Criterion title maintains that aesthetic integrity from the box art all the way to the disc menu, and that’s part of the appeal of the Collection to most film aficionados.  There is a prestige to their presentation that you don’t find from most other publishers.  This includes a booklet found beside the discs that includes scholarly essays that gives the consumer a richer view of the movie that they have just purchased.  The bonus features from Criterion, many of them made in house, also illustrate the “quality over quantity” idea behind prestige entertainment.  Special Editions straight from the studio often package as many EPK materials as they can onto the disc and believe that it fulfills the criteria of a “special edition.”  But Criterion opts to in depth analysis into a film’s making and it’s themes on a larger sense.  Often, the total number of features may be less than the studio label, but the quality will be much more enriching.  When a movie receives the Criterion treatment, it’s seen as a badge of honor, and that is what has helped to make Criterion a valuable brand in the home distribution market.  And that special level of prestige is likewise what makes it less embarrassing for film nerds like me having to rebuy a movie that we already own.

But, like a lot of other aspects about the film industry, home video collecting is changing in the wake of the rise of streaming.  Indeed, home video sales have plummeted over the last decade since the heydays in the 2000’s.  And that’s in large part due to streaming taking over so much of what was the backbone of the home entertainment business.  Home video rental houses, like Blockbuster, are pretty much extinct now, and movies are readily accessible to buy, rent, and stream digitally from the comfort of home.  In the aftermath of the end of the rental market, and the declining sales of disc based media, we are starting to see how little of a market movie collecting really is.  When people were buying up movies by the dozens from their local video store, it was because there was no other option available for movie ownership.  Now that streaming has made it easier to access movies from the safety of home, more and more people are drifting to the option that is far more convenient and adds less clutter to their book shelves.  What’s left are the die hard movie collectors that want to have that physical movie to hold in their hands, and it’s a market that is likely going to grow smaller in the years to come.  As a result, the physical media market is changing to appeal to the niche market once again.  Movie studios are keeping their inventories lower on new releases due to the smaller demand, and in the process, the movies themselves are becoming a more elusive commodity.  Labels like Criterion are still thriving, because they’ve always operated this way, but the major studio labels are having to rethink what they should invest in when it comes to physical media.  Extra special editions, like those that include not just the movies , but special collectibles as well are becoming more prevalent, but also at the same time, more rare and expensive.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy even put out an $800 special edition set that included the Hobbit movies, all packaged in special leather bound boxes and stacked on a special, hand carved wooden shelf.  It’s a high price for a movie set that most people already have, but for what it is offering, it becomes less about the movies themselves and more about the exclusiveness of the package itself.  It may seem outlandish, but it could also mean the future of physical media in the long run.

It’s hard to know at this moment what physical media in home entertainment will look like a decade from now, but there is no doubt that the market is changing.  We may not see the likes of the incredible Lord of the Rings Extended Editions box sets again, but I also believe that very few people are ever going to through their original copies away either.  There’s just something to be said about a complete, aesthetically pleasing special edition package of a beloved movie that holds a special place in the hearts of film lovers.  It may be the end of a movie’s life cycle, but it’s also the phase that connects a movie to it’s fan more than any other.  When you hold the movie in your hands, it means a whole lot more to you; it’s yours to watch forever.  The Criterion Collection understands this, and they cater to what their audience wants by making each film feel special.  They have even remarkably convinced streamers of this as well, as Criterion has become the physical media home for films from Netflix, like Roma (2018), Marriage Story (2019) and The Irishman (2019).  If Netflix can be convinced to put their high profile, exclusive movies on physical media, then there is still hope.  I for one am an undeterred film collector, still buying some of the same movies over and over again.  I’m particularly a completionist with Disney movies, having own each canonical film on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray, with 4K well on the way next.  And yes, they are all organized in chronological order, just like I did with my VHS tapes back when I was a child, because that’s who I am.  Even still, if a movie catches my eye in the sadly shrinking video sections at Target and Best Buy, I will make it a part of my collection that is now numbering in the hundreds.  I consume digital media as well without complaint, but a part of me will always desire a hard copy above all else.  It may be long past it’s glory days of filled to the brim special editions, but physical media has found a devoted fanbase that continues to support it, and it’s one that I hope continues to hold these movies up to a high standard, with quality standing above all else.

Top Ten Movies of 2020

How do we sum up what will undoubtedly be the most chaotic year of our generation.  Apart from all the chaos, one thing that will mark the year that was 2020 was the impact that it had on cinema.  Movie theaters faced near extinction as their doors remained shut and streaming took an even stronger foothold.  And with all that upheaval, the platter of releases that were supposed to mark the previous year all of a sudden were un-moored and moved to the next year, leaving the movie landscape of 2020 pretty barren.  So, when contemplating what would make up a top ten list of the movies of 2020, a critic like me is finding the end result to be a little different than I would have expected from the outset of last year.  For one thing, I had to rely upon streaming a lot more to be able to watch enough movies this year to compile a strong enough list of the year’s best films.  And even with streaming access, I still didn’t watch a number of films that are being touted as Awards season favorites, like Nomadland (2020), Minari (2020), and One Night in Miami (2020), before the end of the year.  So, my top ten list for the year would have probably looked a lot different under other circumstances, especially if there was no pandemic that uprooted so many movies out of their place on the calendar.  Even still, I’m holding to my guideline that only movies that I saw within the year 2020 will be on this list, so the latecomers that will likely big big awards winners will have to wait until my 2021 list to be recognized.  And, one other thing you’ll notice is that streaming movies mostly dominate this years list, though there are a couple that I did also catch in theaters when I was able to.  If there is anything this year taught me is that even when presented with a more convenient streaming at home option, I will still venture out and watch movies on a big screen first, because it’s just my preferred way of first experiencing a new film, even when that option is more difficult.

Before I dive into the list itself, I do want to spotlight the movies that I did enjoy over the year that just missed my top ten.  In no particular order: Emma, Onward, First Cow, Greyhound, Hamilton, Bill & Ted Face the Music, The Personal History of David Copperfield, David Byrne’s American Utopia, Ammonite, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Soul, and Wonder Woman 1984. So, with that out of the way, let me now count down my choices for the top 10 best movies of 2020.

10.

PALM SPRINGS

Directed by Max Barbakow

It’s strange to see the Groundhog Day (1993) scenario become it’s own subgenre over the years, but that’s something that has surprisingly emerged over the last three decades.  Whether it’s used in an action film like Edge of Tomorrow (2014) or a horror comedy like Happy Death Day (2017), the premise of living the same day over and over again in an endless loop has proven to be surprisingly malleable.  It’s also a hard plot to get right too, because it requires a lot of plot mechanics to make it work and a lot of faith in the audience to keep up with it all.  Many writers have tried to do this and have failed.  Believe me, I’ve tried to write this kind of script myself.  Palm Springs is another example of the formula done right, and it’s mainly because it puts all the focus on the characters themselves.  The actual reason why the time loop is happening is just a formality, but the movie also surprisingly gives us a clear explanation of how it works too, and it’s not even far fetched.  But what I especially like is that unlike other films of it’s kind, it doesn’t focus on one individual’s struggle to break the loop, but rather it shows multiple perspectives.   One character, played by Andy Samberg (who I’m just as surprised made my best list this year as I was that Adam Sandler made last year’s) has been in the loop a long time and has resigned himself to it, while the other character, played by Cristin Milioti has only just arrived.  Through their shared circumstance, they form a bond and also allow their interactions to shape how they’re going to deal with their predicament, and it makes for a really endearing story.  It’s also very funny, and uses it’s time loop device to great comedic effect, much in the same way that Groundhog Day did too.  In a bleak year such as 2020, Palm Springs was a refreshing bit of sunshine brought to us courtesy of Hulu.

9.

SOUND OF METAL

Directed by Darius Marder

Moving over to Amazon now, we have this fascinating indie drama that brings the audience into the headspace of a man suddenly confronted with a disorder that will forever shape the rest of his life.  Riz Ahmed (Rogue One, Venom) plays a heavy metal drummer named Ruben who suddenly loses his hearing while in the middle of a multi-city tour with his rock singer girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke).  With his sudden deafness, he has to enter rehabilitation that will enable him to adjust to a new way of living, but his own self-destructive tendencies make it much harder for him to cope.  It’s a really fascinating character study which Riz Ahmed does a spectacular job of portraying.  His role may run into criticism because he’s another able bodied performer playing someone with a disability, but there is nothing that feels false about his portrayal here, and he is after all playing someone who is newly disabled and trying to readjust.  The rest of the movie’s cast does include real life deaf actors, and its a great bit of exposure for these performers who are often not allowed the opportunity.  But what’s especially brilliant about this movie is the incredible sound mixing, which does simulate exactly what a deaf, or near deaf person’s sense of hearing would be like, and just the emptiness it creates, especially for someone whose life is constantly in the world of sound.  If you listen to this movie through headphones, as I did, you would almost feel the alarming sensation that you’ve lost your hearing as well, and it is illuminating.  Like the best movies that tackle the overcoming of disabilities, this movie treats the condition with the utmost serious and removes the stigma that has often unfairly marginalized people with this condition.  And best of all, it makes us the audience care more about those with the condition itself by putting us in the headspace of one who’s living through his disability and what the world indeed sounds like when all the noise is gone.

8.

TENET

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Truth be told, this movie is a lesser film from one of our current greatest filmmakers, and in another year, this probably might not have made my list at all.  But given this was 2020, and there was a significant lack of blockbuster sized entertainment this year, I do want to recognize Tenet for being the most impressively crafted movie of the year.  Christopher Nolan’s narrative for this film may have been on the convoluted side, but his ability to craft spectacular set pieces are still second to none.  In particular, the way he uses the Inversion gimmick  within the movie, where objects and even people move forwards and backwards through time in the same space, is done to incredible effect.  And like every other movie he’s made, Nolan takes pretty out there concepts and works them into a familiar genre.  Just like how Inception was essentially a heist movie that took place within people’s dreams, Tenet is a spy thriller with a time travel element thrown into the mix. It’s essentially Christopher Nolan’s take on a James Bond movie.  A lot of it may go a little too far over people’s heads, but for me I just enjoyed the ride and in a year like 2020, which took away so many blockbuster thrills that we normally get to enjoy on the big screen, I was just so happy to at least have this one.  It also proved to me the lengths that I would go to so that I could watch a movie like this.  I drove down to San Diego, California (120 miles from where I live) just because it was the closest location that had the movie playing in IMAX.  It may have been a bit too obsessive, but I’m still happy I made the trip because I feel like I would’ve missed out on the ideal experience if I hadn’t.  Watching this on a small TV screen just doesn’t cut it, and Tenet makes a strong case for there to be a return to big screen entertainment again once this pandemic is all over.  Some movies ae just made for the big screen, and though it was a risky gamble this year, I’m glad we were still given the chance to watch Tenet the way it was meant to be seen.

7.

THE INVISIBLE MAN

Directed by Leigh Whannell

This surprisingly effective reimaging of a horror icon had the briefest of theatrical runs early in the year before the pandemic shut down all theaters, and it’s a testament to how good it is that it stuck in my top ten for the year all the way to the end.  This chilling retelling of the H.G. Wells horror classic brings the concept into the 21st century with a clever reversal of perspective.  Instead of focusing on the titular monster himself, the movie actually tells the story through the perspective of one of his victims; in this case, his abused wife.  It’s a reimaging that puts the story firmly in the #MeToo era, and shows a frightening scenario where an abusive husband continues to torment his tortured wife through invisibility and she has a hard time proving that he’s really there and is not losing her mind.  The movie works spectacularly well because of Elizabeth Moss’ unnerving performance.  She perfectly captures a woman on the edge, burned by all the emotional scars of an abusive relationship and the terrified belief that she knows her husband is still stalking her despite not being able to see him.  The movie does a good job of building up that sense of dread around Moss’ character, and it feels exhilarating once she does manage to overcome the monster and gain the upper hand.  It’s a brilliant way to frame the struggle that many people go through when trying to overcome spousal abuse, where the victim is often too afraid to come out with the truth, or is seen as too crazy to be believed.  It’s also a brilliant deconstruction of the old Invisible Man narrative, taking the perspective away from identifying with the monster himself, and instead looking at how terrifying it would be to have a really psychotic individual using that kind of power.  Without question the year’s best and most chilling horror movie, and a brilliantly subtle new interpretation on an age old story from the revolutionary horror movie makers at Blumhouse.

6.

BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM

Directed by Jason Woliner

I definitely need to explain something about why I placed this movie here.  Initially in my review of the movie back in October, I gave this Borat sequel a mixed review, knocking a few points for not having the novelty of the original.  But, in retrospect, and after some subsequent re-watches, I may have indeed been a little too harsh on the film.  One thing that really has come into focus for me about the film is that out of all the movies that I have seen this year, if I were to pick one that captured the year that was 2020 in bottle completely, it would be this one.  Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is the definitive 2020 movie.  No other film captured the madness of this year better; whether it was the political turmoil, the widespread effects of the pandemic, or just the absolute lunacy of just the culture at large, it was all captured in this absolutely insane movie.  It is quite remarkable that 14 years after Sasha Baron Cohen turned his goofy little sketch character into a box office smash that he could even attempt to do it again, and deliver something just as hilariously wild.  While some of the stunts don’t quite land as hard as in the original, the movie more than makes up for it with a surprisingly touching narrative of Borat forming a stronger bond with his daughter Tutar, played by newcomer Maria Bakalova in a spectacular breakout role.  It’s their budding relationship that I really think elevates this movie above what it could have been, and makes it really one of the most uplifting movies of the year too, which itself is mind-boggling.  Sure this movie will be remembered for Cohen’s death-defying trolling of a far-right wing rally, or for that now infamous run-in with Rudy Giuliani, but I think the father/daughter storyline is what ultimately will help it soar far beyond it’s place within the madness of 2020.  Even still, it’s a hilarious dissection of the year that was, and miraculous and unexpected comeback for a comedy icon that we honestly didn’t know we needed at this time.

5.

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7

Directed by Aaron Sorkin

Speaking of politically relevant movies starring Sasha Baron Cohen, we had this exceptional dramatization of one of the most consequential political trials of the Vietnam Era.  Cohen plays the notoriously outspoken activist Abbie Hoffman, who along with 6 other co-defendants, was put on trial for inciting the destructive riots outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  The movie features an exceptional ensemble cast including Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Carroll Lynch, Frank Langella, and Yahya Abdul Mateen II alongside Cohen.  But, the real star of the movie is the exceptionally well written script from Aaron Sorkin.  His screenplay for Chicago 7 is right up there with his best work, and it was a long in the making project for him as well.  Written over the course of 13 years, with directors like Steven Spielberg at various points attached to it, it is probably the most polished and well-constructed of Sorkin’s screenplays.  And even with all those years he had to work on them, the fact that it finally made the light of day this year could not have been more fortuitous.  Sadly, The Trial of the Chicago 7 was a timely movie in this tumultuous year, and it reaffirmed the importance of free speech and the right to protest that are key to our survival as a republic, in addition to our faith in a fair justice system.  The movie also marks a strong step forward for Aaron Sorkin as a filmmaker, taking the role behind the camera for only the second time showing much more skill and confidence as a director as a result.  Sure, it’s fairly conventional as trial movies go, and it doesn’t break any new ground cinematically, but man does that screenplay sing beautifully and the cast delivers their performances with an astounding amount of authenticity.   And in a year where we are all trying to collectively understand the right path for our nation, this movie offers a very engaging and sobering history lesson.

4.

WOLFWALKERS

Directed by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart

In a year that saw Pixar release not one but two movies, even with the turmoil of the pandemic, I too find it shocking that the acclaimed animation giant didn’t land on my top ten for the year, nor did they deliver my favorite animated movie of 2020 either.  Both Onward  and Soul are exceptionally well made and fun movies, don’t get me wrong, but both also felt a notch below what I believe are Pixar at their best, and thus they both missed my list.  What did make it here, however, was an animated movie that took me completely by surprise and left me thoroughly enchanted.  Wolfwalkers is the fourth film from Ireland based Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea) and it is their most ambitious and artistically rich movie to date.  Whenever you hear someone describe every frame as a painting, this is one of those movies that comes to mind.  Taking inspiration from both medieval Celtic design and English wood carvings, this movie is from beginning to end a painting come to life.  It has been a constant in-house defining style for Cartoon Saloon in past films, but here they take it to another level, almost competing with the likes of Disney Animation at the height of their hand drawn dominance.  The highly stylized animation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) comes instantly to mind, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the filmmakers took a bit of inspiration from it when making this.  In an era dominated by computer animation, it’s refreshing to see hand drawn animation still at work somewhere in the world, and done with some sense of ambition.  While Pixar spent the year playing par for the course, Cartoon Saloon swung for the stars, and delivered the most visually and narratively alive animated film of the year.

3.

MANK

Directed by David Fincher

This movie seems like it was made solely to appeal to deep rooted cinephiles like me.  An ode to old Hollywood, dramatizing the creative process that went into the making of what is largely considered to be the greatest movie ever made; Orson Welles Citizen Kane (1941).  And sure enough, it worked.  David Fincher’s movie is so heavily detailed in it’s reconstruction of the era that it takes place in, that even the way it’s presented evokes how movies looked back in the 1940’s.  The sound mix makes the movie feel like it’s being played in a large, cathedral like movie house complete with an omnipresent echo (ironic given that it’s a Netflix original).  And though it was shot digitally, it’s been given a grainy texture that evokes old black and white film from the era, complete with reel change markers on the corners of the screen.  If it weren’t for the use of four letter word profanity and contemporary movie stars in the cast, you would swear you were watching a long lost classic from Hollywood’s Golden Age.  But apart from Fincher’s technical wizardry behind the camera, he still manages to tell this richly layered character study of an unsung legend within the history of the industry; screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (played with gusto by Gary Oldman).  While showing this incredible whirlwind life journey of Mankiewicz (or Mank as he was often called) as he interacts with legendary power players like William Randolph Hearst, Irving Thalberg, and Louis B. Meyer, the movie also brilliantly captures the process a writer goes through in crafting a story that come from a personal place, even in exorcising his own demons as a result.  Through this we see what went into the crafting of the great American story and show that indeed Herman Mankiewicz was more of it’s author than anyone realized, with his own life being just as cinematic as anything else he could have written.

2.

DA 5 BLOODS

Directed by Spike Lee

Spike Lee is ever the troublemaker when it comes to bringing politics to the big screen, but he’s also someone with an unparalled command of the cinematic language as well, making his movies resonate regardless of it’s message and target audience.  With Da 5 Bloods, he finds a universal story about racial identity and the crippling effects of warfare in this incredible story about four Vietnam vets turned treasure hunters.  And it is perhaps his most compelling film since Malcolm X (1992).  With very subtle to overt homages to movies like Apocalypse Now (1979) and Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Lee has crafted one of the most compelling character studies of his career, as each of his central characters carry with them some burden put on them from their experience in the Vietnam War, with one in particular never really have been able to shake off the emotional wounds, even decades after the war ended.  Delroy Lindo delivers without a doubt my favorite performance of the year as a deeply unnerved Nam vet named Paul, a MAGA hat wearing hot head who grinds against the other members of his team like flint over a pile of wood.  While some other movies might judge a character like him harshly, Lee surprisingly gives him a great deal of depth, perfectly encapsulating how some people never leave the battlefield and how it often clouds the rest of their life.  The movie also features a touching supporting performance from the late Chadwick Boseman as a fallen soldier that brought the titular 5 Bloods together.  The beloved actors untimely passing shortly after this film’s release now brings a whole new resonance to his performance here, and along with the acclaimed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, it was a great swan song year for Chadwick as he sadly left us too soon.  And just on a technical level, this is Spike Lee in his prime, making the most of his already definable style, but done so with ambition that had been missing in a lot of his more recent work.  Along with 2018’s Blackkklansman, it’s nice to see Spike Lee getting back to making ambitious, but still revolutionary movies again, and Da 5 Bloods is absolutely him at his very best.

And finally, the best movie of 2020 is…

1.

KAJILLIONAIRE

Directed by Miranda July

Yeah, I know this is a strange choice to make, but, for me this was the most satisfying cinematic experience that I had all year, and I’ll tell you why.  One thing is that I managed to watch this on a big screen during a brief window when movie theaters were open in the LA metro area, which was definitely a bonus.  But more importantly, in a year that was such a sour pill to swallow for so many people this year, Miranda July’s sweet story of adversity was like a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.  Truthfully, there is a bit of buried relevance to what this year was like within the narrative of Kajillionaire that I was not expecting, and I’m sure that Miranda July probably never intended it that way either, but it was still hard to miss.  It’s about a socially stunted young woman named Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) who is dragged around by her scam artist parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) to basically scab off of other people in order to make a living, until an outsider named Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) comes into her life and shows her a different way.  A narrative about freeing oneself from the influence of grifters and con artists and finding renewed purpose in life; gee, I wonder why this resonated in 2020.  Regardless of what meaning I projected onto it, it’s still a beautifully crafted movie with a lot of heart and it just was so refreshing to see something positive for once in this very dark year.  Evan Rachel Wood does a great job of balancing the character of Old Dolio, doing a good job of making her feel real and not a cartoonish creation.  And Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger do a magnificent job of portraying two of the worst parents in cinema history.  Miranda July can sometimes be too aloof as a storyteller, but Kajillionaire is without a doubt her most assured and universally appealing movie to date, and it’s twist and turns are some of the most clever plotting that I’ve seen from a movie this year.  We definitely needed a movie like this in 2020, and hopefully it gets discovered by a wider audience in the years to come.  For this critic, it was the sweet, soothing treat that I sorely was needing in this foul, disgusting year, and I’m grateful that I even got to experience it on a big screen as well.

Of course, there was a lot of bad to go along with the good in 2020, and that’s a bit of an understatement.  Even watching mostly from home I was not immune to being exposed to some bad movies this year.  So, in addition to my best of the year, I also have my Bottom 5 worst movies of the year.

5.   THE TAX COLLECTOR – When disgraced, self-destructive actor Shia LaBeouf is the only good thing in your movie, that’s not a good sign.  This convoluted, Scarface (1983) wannabe is full of tired drug cartel movie clichés and features one of the least charismatic protagonists I’ve ever seen in one of these kinds of movies.  Another low point for the once promising director David Ayer.

4.  DOLITTLE – Robert Downey Jr.’s first foray outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe sadly landed with a thud.  I could sense that Downey meant well from the outset in getting this movie made, but somewhere down the line, whether it was questionable creative choices or studio interference, something went horribly wrong.  The animal animation is horrible, the celebrity voices just don’t fit the animal characters they play, the story is dumb, Downey’s Welsh accent makes him hard to understand, and it all just makes the movie too dumb even for toddlers that it’s aiming for as it’s audience.  C’mon Iron Man, you can do a lot better.

3.  ARTEMIS FOWL – First in what I’ll be calling the Good Directors Gone Bad of 2020 part of this list.  Kenneth Branagh is usually a brilliant film director who can work in genres as varied as Comic Book (Thor) or Mystery Thriller (Murder on the Orient Express).  Here however he struggled to launch a franchise based on a popular set of young adult fantasy adventure novels, and what resulted is an undercooked Harry Potter wannabe.  This is probably the laziest film to ever come from the acclaimed filmmaker, who sadly didn’t have Death on the Nile to help cleanse the palette at the end of this year, with that movie moving to 2021.  Thankfully, the movie was quickly buried on it’s subdued release on Disney+, where it was likely spared from a disaster at the box office.  Hopefully Branagh can put this embarrassment behind him and get back to making movies that are better suited for his talent.

2. HILLBILLY ELEGY – Another disastrous turn for an otherwise celebrated filmmaker, Hillbilly Elegy is a new low point for the usually reliable Ron Howard.  Based on the best selling memoir by author J.D. Vance, the movie feels creepily exploitive in the way it portrays it’s lower class characters, in what some critics have called “Poverty Porn.”  It’s the kind of movie that looks attractive as potential Oscar Bait, with actors in a sense uglifying themselves in an attempt to get Awards recognition.  This movie doesn’t have a compelling enough story to pull that off, and instead feels cheap and manipulative.  It’s especially disappointing that it wastes great actors like Amy Adams and Glenn Close in roles that are far beneath their talents.  Movies can be made about the struggles of poor, on the fringe Americans that society has largely forgotten, but this movie definitely adds nothing of worth, and instead just feels like a thirsty plea for Awards season recognition.

And the worst movie of 2020 is…

1. ROALD DAHL’S THE WITCHES – This updated version of author Roald Dahl’s beloved classic novel is not only bad, it is bafflingly bad.  Considering that this is from Robert Zemekis, the man behind Back to the Future (1985), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and Forrest Gump (1994) is shocking, because it is such an amateurish and disturbingly ill-conceived film.  The original 1990 film based on the book featured some incredible puppetry and visual effects from Jim Henson Studios, but this movie not only entirely relies upon an over abundance of CGI, but some of that CGI is used to create some really disturbing imagery.  You thought the cat skin transformation in last year’s Cats (2019) was bad, just wait until you see Anne Hathaway’s transformation into the Grand High Witch in this movie.  It really is the most nightmarish thing I’ve seen in any movie in a long time.  And this is supposed to be a movie geared towards kids.  Without a doubt the most disastrous movie of all of 2020, and that’s saying a lot.  Not even worth watch for free on HBO Max.

So, there you have all my choices for the best and worst of 2020.  Overall, given the limitations that I faced in accessing any amount of movies this year, I still managed to see enough good films to fill out the list.  Again, had the year gone differently, my list would have likely been a lot different, but that’s out of my control.  I do wish that some of those other highly touted end of the year movies had been more widely available; especially Nomadland, as that one is cleaning up with the year end awards so far.  But, despite how the year as a whole went, I’m surprised how little it actually affected my viewing habits.  I still chose to see movies first on the big screen wherever I was available to, and though it has been inconvenient, I still am happy that I managed to be able to do it at all.  Drive-In’s have been a lifesaver for me as a fan of cinema, and for someone who up until this year had never been to a Drive-In movie before, I have since turned into a Drive-In veteran, watching more than a dozen films that way over the last year.  Even some of the exclusive movies from major streamers like Netflix, Amazon and Apple TV were given the Drive-In treatment here in the LA metro area, and yes I paid extra money for what I could’ve seen for no extra charge on my streaming accounts.  I am still a dedicated fan of the cinematic experience and probably always will be.  My hope is that we begin to see the theatrical industry start to get back on it’s feet in 2021.  It may be years before it gets back to normal, but once the theater doors begin to open up once again, I’ll happily be one of the first to venture back and show my support.  With the vaccine starting to circulate, and the pandemic’s worst days hopefully behind us, my hope is that we as a society once again see the value in the communal experience of watching a movie together.  It’s the thing that I’m most looking forward to in the new year, and my hope is that everyone else feels the same way too.  We’ve had to compromise a lot in the last year, but my hope is that we come out of it resilient and are able to embrace the things that we love and have missed the most, and hopefully movies the way they are meant to be seen is one of those cherished things that we will fight to preserve in the years ahead.

The Movies of Early 2021 (Hopefully)

Well, we did it everyone.  We made it to the year 2021.  After suffering through what will no doubt be described for a long time as one of the worst years in history, we are hopeful that the following year will be significantly better.  Of course, the changing of the calendar alone doesn’t mean much overall.  The dark cloud of 2020 is going to be hanging around us for some time still, and we are likely going to be seeing a lot more problems extend into the first couple of months of this year.  But, a light at the end of the tunnel is before us, with a new administration set to take office in the coming weeks and a vaccine starting to disperse out to the population.  It will take time, but we are beginning to take steps in the right direction.  One area that is still stuck in limbo however is the future of movie theaters in the United States.  Only a year after hitting all time highs in 2019, the theatrical industry spent most of 2020 on life support, with it’s future uncertain given the rising competition from streaming, which had a landmark year.  The recently signed into law stimulus bill will indeed provide help to independent movie theaters across the country, but the big chains which make up the dominant number of screens are still going to face a grim outlook in 2021.  AMC, the largest chain, has stated that their reserves of cash are going to run out sometime this month, making bankruptcy almost imminent.  And if AMC can’t pull itself out, it could cause a ripple effect across the entire theatrical industry as a result.  We may be seeing the after effects of 2020 play out for many years when it comes to Hollywood and it’s relationship with the theatrical market.  As of right now, it’s still uncertain if any of it will return back to normal.  And this is reflected in the wait and see position that the industry is taking with their planned releases over the next year.

As I’ve done for most of this year, I will be foregoing my usual breakdown of the upcoming movies in any given season, based on the “must sees” and the “ones to skip”, and instead just spotlight the important movies that have the best shot of getting released this year.  Unlike my last couple seasonal previews, which sadly never panned out like they were supposed to, I am going to instead focus on the movies that I believe are going to have the best shot of being released over the next few months, mostly through Winter and Spring.  A lot of these are still tentative dates that could shift once again like everything else from 2020, but there are a couple that are indeed set in stone thanks to convenient and still controversial hybrid releases in both theaters and streaming.  It remains to be seen if any of that will work, and it may also all depend on the state of the theatrical industry moving ahead through the rest of the year.  In any case, let’s take a look at the hopefully and finally set in stone movie releases of early 2021.

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON (MARCH 5)

Let’s begin with one movie that will for certain meet it’s intended release date.  Disney’s latest animated feature was originally intended for a November 2020 premiere, but the decision was made early enough in the reshuffling of movies to give Raya and the Last Dragon a safe haven in Spring of 2021.  The move wasn’t that far off from where it had been, and it is coming out in the month of March, which has been beneficial to Disney films in the past (2016’s Zootopia for example).  Not only that, but it also allowed time for Disney’s new experimental release plans to play out, and help them learn what works and what doesn’t.  What we’re going to see from Raya is the first wide release from Walt Disney Pictures in movie theaters since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.  But, it will be part of a hybrid release similar to what Warner Brothers announced for all their 2021 films in a now notorious decision.  While Warner Brothers received pushback from it’s wide ranging decision, the announcement of Raya’s release was largely accepted, mainly because it’s the only one that Disney planned this for (so far).  It will be premiering on Disney+ the same day as theaters, in what looks like the same Premiere Access feature that they used for Mulan (2020).  It’s unclear if it’s an extra premium cost in addition to the subscription price, but the beneficial thing is that it does give more options to Disney to get their movie seen just in case the pandemic still hasn’t subsided.  And hopefully it works out not just in Disney’s favor, but also for the movie theaters playing it as well.  This looks like a nice big animated epic that would ideally play on a large screen, and the Southeast Asian setting looks unique and colorful.  I like that the Asian influence behind this movie is also reflected in it’s creative team, with a script from the writer of the hit Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and a cast that includes Star Wars’ Kelly Marie Tran and comedian Awkwafina.  Given Disney’s track record, it will hopefully be an early boost that the theatrical industry needs.

NO TIME TO DIE (APRIL 2)

Poor old 007.  One of the first inclinations of the severity of the year we were about to face happened when MGM and Sony suddenly pulled their hotly anticipated new Bond sequel off of the calendar.  It was the first domino to fall and set the standard for the 2020 theatrical year, where no major blockbuster managed to land it’s intended release.  No Time to Die, the 25th film in the long running James Bond franchise, is a significant film for the series in that it’s the first to be directed by an American (True Detective’s Cary Joji Fukunaga) and also the final franchise film starring Daniel Craig as 007 (his fifth overall).  The fact that we’ve seen been left to wait longer for the chance to see this turning point movie in this beloved franchise has only increased the anticipation of fans tenfold.  Unfortunately for MGM, they don’t have the financial stability to launch their own streaming service the same way that Warner Brothers and Disney has, so they’ve been left with the unfortunate position of having to wait for theaters to return back to normal in order to maximize box office returns that will offset the $200 million-plus budget they spent on this movie, or try to sell it off to another streamer at an astronomical price.  Since the former is not looking like a sure thing any time soon, MGM  did attempt to sell off their movie to Netflix for half a billion late last year.  Netflix of course scoffed and it’s unlikely that anyone else is going to match the same price.  Tentatively, we’re looking at an April release in theaters, which could again shift given the state of the market a few months from now.  MGM may even put their entire studio on the market again, with the hopes of another studio conglomerate with a foothold in streaming taking them in.  In all likelihood, I’d say we may be looking at another long wait for this next adventure for James Bond, which is a shame because it’s the kind of high adventure entertainment that we sorely need right now.

THE KING’S MAN (MARCH 12)

Another 2020 orphan, this film saw just as many delays as James Bond did las year.  The big difference is, being a 20th Century Pictures property, it has the benefit of being part of the Disney Company’s slate of releases, and has the benefit of a fall back plan with streaming, in case things don’t go well over these next couple months.  That being said, Disney and the former house of “Fox” are still committing to that early March release.  Perhaps it’s because that even though this is a franchise that has seen success in the past, it’s also one that has lowered expectations due to a lackluster performance in it’s last entry.  This new film seems to be something of a soft reboot of the franchise, still taking the spy thriller tropes and dressing it up in a high class gentlemen-ly  world, only this time it’s set in the distant past (World War I from the looks of it) with a completely new set of characters.  Director Matthew Vaughn is still behind the camera, but stars Colin Firth and Taron Edgerton are out, and it remains uncertain if the franchise can survive following this new tract.  Hopefully, a reboot is just what this franchise needs, after the bloated sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) left many disappointed.  This one acts as an origin story of some kind, but it may also just be the launching point of where the series may go from here out.  It is nice to see actor Ralph Fiennes in a more heroic role after usually finding himself playing the heavy in most films.  And it will be neat to see this group of well-dressed super agents going up against historical figures such as Kaiser Wilhelm, Mata Hari, and Rasputin to name a few.  Whether or not Disney and 20th Century can stick to the March release date is uncertain, because as of now there are only plans for this to be in theaters.  If that option remains unavailable, they at least have more of a softer landing than James Bond does in finally getting released, whether it is later in the year, or on any of Disney’s streaming platforms.

JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (FEBRUARY 12)

Though Wonder Woman 1984 was the first movie put out by Warner Brothers under their year long plan to release all their movies under the hybrid model, Judas and the Black Messiah may be the movie that tests the long term effects of this plan the most.  Originally set for an end of the year Awards season release, this likely Oscars bait film was moved off the calendar before being given this hybrid release in February, still making it eligible due to this year’s extended Awards deadline.  We knew that Wonder Woman would do very well in both formats, but it will be interesting to see what audiences choose with this movie.  Oscar films usually never light up the box office in their opening weekends, but instead they build success over time with word of mouth.  With this movie premiering on both HBO Max and in theaters the same day, it may indicate a shift in the release patterns for movies like this in the future.  Will movies get more buzz from playing on the small screen, or is it the big screen that will ultimately measure it’s success.  There’s no doubt that regardless of how the movie performs, it will still get Oscars attention.  If it wins any awards, it may even bring more eyes to the movie in general.  But, given the way it’s released, it might change the way these kinds of movies find an audience forever.  Gone will be those long tail success stories of those “little movies that could” which become a success over a protracted period of time.  In any case, it’s an exciting looking movie that definitely speaks to our time right now, and will certainly feature some monumental performances from actors Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield.  And the story of a mole planted by the FBI to spy on the activities of the Black Panther Party will no doubt spur some much needed conversation about the politics of race in America.  My hope is that the hybrid release of this movie doesn’t diminish the theatrical market that movies like this have thrived in before.  Movies like this especially are ones that should be experienced communally in a theater and not just alone in your living room watching the TV.

TOM AND JERRY (FEBRUARY 26)

Here we have another movie releasing under the hybrid plan from Warner Brothers.  But unlike Wonder Woman or Judas and the Black Messiah, this is movie where I don’t think the audience will be as evenly split over the different options.  My guess is that this movie is going to only succeed through one way or the other.  It may fail completely at the theatrical box office, but could do well on HBO Max instead, relieving audiences of the embarrassment of paying for a ticket.  On the other hand, it may be the kind of movie that justifies parents taking their children out of the home and to the theater, as the family options have been pretty scarce theatrically over the last year.  In either case, this movie is going to be yet another test for the hybrid model, but more in the case of seeing if a movie can sink or swim in this new world.  As a childless adult, I can tell you that my inclination is that this will be one to pass on, and it can be easy for me to just ignore it, or catch it on streaming if I’m ghoulishly curious.  But, for families that want something new to show their kids, this movie is certainly the kind of thing that will appeal to them, and maybe even convince them to go out to the theaters again.  It will be interesting to see how well it performs on both ends of it’s premiere.  I highly doubt this movie will be the one that saves cinemas in the end, but hey, I also underestimated Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) and that proved to be one of the year’s few box office hits.  The movie in general looks pretty bad, though I do appreciate that the animators of the titular duo are trying to emulate the style of the original cartoons.  It just feels wrong that they have to coexist with a live action world ala Roger Rabbit style.  I could be wrong about this movie, but I’m pretty certain that this will appeal solely to little children and almost nobody else.

A QUIET PLACE PART II (APRIL 23)

Another one of the early victims of the pandemic’s swift decimation of the theatrical industry, A Quiet Place II finds itself in a much different position to assert itself than it did a year ago.  This sequel to the surprise hit original finds actor John Krasinski returning to the director’s chair but not into his lead role from the first film, which given what happened in the movie makes sense (spoiler).  His real life spouse Emily Blunt returns with a more central lead role this time, continuing on in this horror narrative of survivors trying to live in a world inhabited by hearing sensitive monsters.  It will be interesting to see if the movie can repeat the success that the original enjoyed.  It is far more likely to do so in a critical sense, but, A Quiet Place Part II may also surprise at the box office as well.  As we’ve observed during these pandemic months, while the overall box office has remained very minimal due to the social distancing restrictions, one of the bright spots in the market has been movies from the horror genre.  Horror movies like Universal and Blumhouse’s Freaky (2020) were generally the top grossers at the box office, and they generated small but not terrible returns, which is pretty incredible given what movie theaters have been going through.  Given it’s late Spring release, which could be after a long down turn in virus infections due to the vaccine rollout, and a continued loosening of restrictions in the process, A Quiet Place Part II could be primely positioned to be the first box office hit of the year, and maybe even strong enough to save theaters in general.  It’s hard to say if this may happen, but horror movies have a great theatrical track record, and it just might be enough to make the movie a success.  Though the wait has been long, it might actually be fortuitous for A Quiet Place Part II in the end.

So, there you have my outlook on the movies that are going to roll out, hopefully, in this early part of 2021.  Some are certainly going to be released no matter what, like Raya and the Last Dragon as well as the handful of Warner Brothers titles, but others like No Time to Die and The King’s Man may unfortunately find themselves uprooted again.  The one good thing is that the pandemic that caused all the mayhem throughout 2020 is thankfully going to subside the further we head into 2021.  Hopefully, the movie theaters can bounce back too, but it will no doubt take time.  The last pandemic of this scale that we faced as a culture happened when movies were still in their infancy, and movie theaters were as big of an industry as they were back  then.  This was as close to an apocalyptic scenario for the movie theater industry as anything they have ever faced.  Not even the advent of television brought movie theaters to the brink like this, because even through all the competition before, movie theaters have never had to close their doors on this kind of scale.  The pandemic relief bill will certainly help the small chains and independent movie houses survive (which is great), but the large chains are still going to struggle for a while, and it may be the case that we’re going to see a much more diminished theatrical market for the next several years and maybe even forever.  It will certainly cause us to reconsider what a blockbuster hit will be in the future, as we may never hit the heights of say an Avengers: Endgame (2019) ever again.  None of the movies I mentioned are likely to be the movie that saves theaters, but some could do well enough to at least prove once again their value.  The year has only begun, and we still have a lot to learn about what the future holds, but hopefully the start of 2021 will at least give us a few things to be excited about and hopeful for as we begin to inch back to normal once again.

Wonder Woman 1984 – Review

I get the feeling that we’re going to be giving movies that came out in the year of 2020 a special distinction in the years to come.  Given the upheaval that happened in the industry this year due to the pandemic, the fact that any movie got released this year (especially those on the big screen) is kind of miraculous in itself.  We saw an unprecedented number of movies move off of their release dates this year due to the sudden closure of movie theaters across the country, and for the big multi-million dollar franchise films, it became increasingly difficult to find a safe place to land.  Given the current landscape of the theatrical industry, we are unlikely to have a blockbuster sized hit on the same level that we saw over the last decade.  The lackluster box office performance of Tenet (2020) proved that back in September.  And given that studios have been spending so much on the budgets for these movies, expecting billions in box office returns to justify their investment, it’s leading to a reckoning within the industry that I think many of them were not expecting to confront so soon.  We saw some of that play out this past few weeks with Warner Brothers controversial choice to release their entire 2021 slate of movies on streaming at the same time as theaters.  This angered many within both the production and theatrical side of the business, seeing it as a clear threat to the long term future of the big screen experience.  No doubt, the ramifications of the move are going to effect the way that Hollywood does business for the next decade, with streaming taking on a heavier role in distribution, and if the end of the year is any indication, we may see the first real sign of what the future will look like.  This weekend, two of the major studios have used this Christmas weekend to try out the different modes of streaming distribution that have come about because of the pandemic.  One is Disney releasing their brand new and highly anticipated Pixar film, Soul (2020), on Disney+ with no extra surcharge to subscribers, while the other is DC’s new super hero blockbuster Wonder Woman 1984 (2020), releasing in a hybrid premiere in theaters and on WarnerMedia’s HBO Max streaming platform.

Wonder Woman 1984 was perhaps one of the most difficult movies to find a new home for in this pandemic year.  Originally slated for a June release, the movie moved twice into October and then finally to it’s Christmas Day premiere.  Many were even speculating if it could even meet that mark, given the fact that the pandemic is reaching an all time high during the Holidays.  In the end, Warner Brothers still made Christmas the final landing spot for their eagerly awaited sequel, which was probably very much needed, as their 2021 calendar was already crowded and pushing Wonder Woman back any further would have complicated things even more.  The unfortunate reality of the pandemic lasting far longer than anyone hoped is that even putting the movie out on the usually reliable Christmas season didn’t guarantee box office big enough to offset the cost of the movie’s production.  So, the decision was made to give the film the hybrid release on both streaming and in theaters, with parent company AT&T hoping that the increase in subscribers on HBO Max could help make up for the expected lower theatrical returns.  Director Patty Jenkins, returning from her celebrated helming of the original Wonder Woman (2017), had long held out that she preferred a theatrical run for her movie, but given that such a move is impossible on a large scale right now, she reluctantly approved the hybrid release for the movie in the end.  However, she did so as a promise from Warner Brothers that it was a temporary measure given the climate of the market at the moment.  She didn’t know that Warner Brothers would take Wonder Woman 1984’s release model and apply it to all future film premieres moving forward.  Naturally, this did not sit well with Patty and she added her voice to all the other aggrieved filmmakers affected by Warner’s rash decision.  Regardless, depending on what’s available to customers across the country, we now are able to watch Wonder Woman 1984.  The question remains, does it retain the wonder of the original or did it lose it’s spark too quickly.

Taking place in between the World War I setting of the original Wonder Woman, and the events in which we see her take part in the Justice League (2017), Wonder Woman 1984 finds Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) aka Wonder Woman, living comfortably at home in the mortal world after leaving her Amazonian homeland behind.  She works at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. as a curator of antiquities, but in her spare time, she discreetly helps save citizens as the friendly neighborhood super hero.  One day, a mysterious artifact ends up in her office from Latin America, which immediately garners interest from Diana and her newest colleague, Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig).  The two soon find out that the stone, when held in their hand, has the power to grant wishes.  Barbara ends us using the wishing stone to make her more like Diana, both in beauty and in power.  Diana on the other hand sees her wish granted without every knowing how she made it in the first place.  She wished to see the boyfriend she lost in World War I, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) once again, and suddenly she bumps into a stranger who miraculously has all of Steve Trevor’s memories.  Though he is living in another man’s body, Steve appears to Diana as the man she remembered, and she realizes he dream wish has come true.  But, over time she learns that every wish granted has a price, and the more wishes made, the higher the cost.  That’s the dilemma that soon rises once a wannabe oil tycoon named Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) takes possession of the stone.  Soon he gains the power to grant wishes to millions of people across the world, which only makes him more powerful, and a serious threat to the stability of civilization.  Once Wonder Woman discovers the truth behind the stone’s magic, and the true cost of having wishes granted to everyone, she has to make the difficult choice of either keeping Steve Trevor in her life again, or sacrificing her happiness in order to save the world.  All the while, she has to contend with an even more dire threat as Barbara Minerva grows more powerful, ultimately becoming a foe by the name Cheetah, that stands between Diana and stopping Maxwell Lord.

When Patty Jenkins undertook the role of director for the big screen debut of Wonder Woman, it was marked with a lot of obstacles in her path.  Never before had a major studio given a project of this size to a female director before, let alone a Super Hero movie.  At the same time, Warner Brothers and DC were being widely criticized for making Super Hero films that were too dark and depressing, and were generally considered to be out of character for the comic book nature of their source material.  But thankfully, Patty Jenkins, who up until that point had only had one other theatrical film on her resume (2003’s Monster), not only excelled at delivering a big hit with Wonder Woman, she also broke new ground for female filmmakers everywhere.  She proved that yes, a woman can direct an action adventure, super hero movie just as well as a man, and her incredible work even made a sea change in tone and character for all the DC movies that followed.  The same exceeded expectations were also reflected in the performance of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.  Once an unknown actor/model in Hollywood, Gal took the opportunity given to her with the part and has become a full blown movie star as a result.  To many people, especially among younger fans, she has embodied the character of Wonder Woman completely and in many ways, she has put to shame many naysayers who thought casting her initially was a mistake.  Because the original Wonder Woman was such groundbreaking hit, a lot of pressure was put on both Jenkins and Gadot to do it all again.  There were two ways that they could have chosen to have gone; either delve into darker territory, reminiscent of the more dramatic moments of the first movie, or go more towards the sillier side of the character that is reminiscent of her comic book origins.  In my opinion, I’m quite glad that they chose the latter.  One of my worries for a sequel to Wonder Woman was that it would just repeat what we already saw before.  The first film was not without it’s lite moments, but it generally took a very serious approach to the character, putting her in a war time setting.  Wonder Woman 1984 thankfully is a departure that embraces a far more different tone that helps to set it apart.  And in that respect, I think it makes this the best possible sequel that we could have asked for.

I think for many, the change in tone might be off-putting to those used to the seriousness of the first Wonder Woman.  But I really don’t think that tone would have carried over from one film to another.  For one thing, the time period is very different, and I think that director Patty Jenkins wanted the movie to reflect that change.  Where the original was a gritty war film in the vein of Saving Private Ryan (1998) or 1917 (2019), Wonder Woman 1984 is very much grounded in the quirkiness of the 1980’s cultural zeitgeist.  In particular, I believe Jenkins is channeling inspiration from 80’s rom coms that had a supernatural twist like Mannequin (1987) or Weird Science (1986).  That tone would feel out of place for any other super hero story, but not Wonder Woman.  The character has always reflected a colorful flamboyance that ran alongside the harrowing action adventure within the comic books, and I think that this is what Jenkins wanted to bring in this second outing.  And, for the most part, I found myself enjoying some of that 80’s cheese sprinkled throughout the movie, because it really is something unique that I haven’t seen embraced in many other super hero films of this type.  The differences between the movies felt very reminiscent of the differences between the first Thor (2011) and Thor; Ragnarok (2017), where the series transitioned from serious to silly, without losing the core essence of the character.  Not that WW84 removes every super hero trope either.  There are still some incredible action set pieces throughout the movie too, including an incredible chase through the desert where it seemed like Patty Jenkins was drawing even more inspiration from other iconic 80’s movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and The Road Warrior (1982).  I think the fact that the movie clued it’s audience in to what kind of movie it would be very early on helped me to buy into the conceit of it’s tone right away and allowed me to enjoy the ride from then on.

I think another thing that helps the movie find it’s footing is the fact that Gal Gadot remains consistent from movie to movie.  We can still buy that this is the same heroine that walked into No Man’s Land and almost took down the opposing force single handedly, but it’s also believable that she has changed over the years as well.  Her Amazonian heritage prevents her from aging like the rest of humanity, but that same power also leaves her isolated.  She can’t reveal her true power to anyone, so she can’t make any long term friends.  That’s why her dilemma feels so conflicting in the film, because we want her to finally be happy and fulfilled, but we also know that in doing so it would prevent her from being the hero she must be.  Gal Gadot embodies every aspect of the character perfectly, from the shining heroic battles to the more personable, vulnerable moments.  There is an especially pleasing early sequence in a mall where Wonder Woman takes down a group of thieves, and Gal makes Wonder Woman look like she jumped right off the comic page in a glorious way.  It also helps that she has incredible chemistry with Chris Pine, whose return here is very welcome.  Some might find the way that he makes it back into the film to be a bit of a stretch, but given how on board I was for the cheesiness of this movie, I accepted it, and he brings a lot of extra charm to the movie.  One big surprise to me was Kristen Wiig in the role of Cheetah.  When I initially heard about her casting, I was worried, because all I could think about was the many oddball characters that she has played on Saturday Night Live and several other movies.  But, to my surprise, she actually holds her own in the movie, and brings a surprising amount of depth to the character and even a little menace at times, especially towards the end.  Pedro Pascal’s Maxwell Lord is a bit of mixed bag.  There are times when his performance is especially strong, particularly when the toll of granting wishes begins to physically affect him, but there are also moments when he goes a little too overboard.  He’s clearly a representation of Reagan era hucksters that dominated the media at that time, with elements of Gordon Gecko and Donald Trump sprinkled throughout.  But, other times, I was hoping for a little more of the subtlety that I’ve seen Pedro give in other roles like in The Mandalorian.

Honestly, if I were to find a flaw in the movie that holds it back from being among the best Super Hero movies of all time, it would be the fact that it’s trying to tell too much story all at once.  In particular, it does the same mistake that a lot of other movies like Batman Forever (1995) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) have made, in that it gives us one too many villains in a single movie.  Both Maxwell Lord and Cheetah are iconic adversaries of Wonder Woman from the comic books, and both could carry a movie on their own.  The fact that they have to share time within the same story in a way robs the impact of one from the other, especially in Cheetah’s case.  Now, Wonder Woman 1984 is a way better movie than the other examples that I just gave, but it still succumbs to the same fault when it comes to building up the villainous threat for the hero to face.  I would have much better preferred to have an entire movie devoted to Wonder Woman vs. Cheetah instead of a late third act showdown that we ultimately receive.  The film is also very long too, running almost 2 1/2 hours, and unlike the first movie, a lot of the movie is padded by filler.  A lot of it is still good character building moments, like a sweet montage of Diana showing Steve all the wonders of 1980’s America, but ultimately there could have been a good twenty minutes or so of the movie that could have been trimmed and nothing would’ve felt lost.  At the same time, I do feel that the movie ultimately holds together by the time it reaches it’s end, and it leads to a surprisingly uplifting finale that remains true to the character.  The biggest problem with the first Wonder Woman is that it lead up to a convoluted final act that felt out of character with the rest of the movie, especially falling short of that now iconic No Man’s Land sequence earlier in the movie.  WW84 thankfully doesn’t fall into that same lackluster ending, and overall it remains consistent.  Like the original, it has it’s pitfalls (maybe a little more than the first) but it still maintains a thoroughly enjoyable experience throughout.

One thing that really helped me enjoy the movie a bit more than I probably would’ve otherwise is that I managed to see it on a big screen.  Four walled theaters are still closed here in Southern California where I live, but the few Drive-Ins working in the area did have the movie screening, and I gladly drove myself well outside of town to take that opportunity.  I could’ve watched it at home on HBO Max, but for a movie like this, nothing less than a big screen experience would’ve sufficed for me, and it was well worth the effort.  Wonder Woman 1984 is a big screen movie, no doubt about it, and it’s unfortunate that it’s premiere comes at a time when going out to the movies is not so easy for everyone, and even dangerous for others.  I really wish I could’ve seen this on a big IMAX screen, but the Drive In I went to, the Mission Tiki in Montclair, CA, had a big enough screen to make me feel satisfied with what I was watching.  Wonder Woman 1984 succeeds more than anything else at being a fun romp with an epic sized budget behind it, and honestly after a year like the one that we had, it was just nice to experience a quirky popcorn film like this again.  My hope is that theatrical market will come back in some fashion, and that movies like this can be able to thrive once again.  Sadly, we are looking at a future where the hybrid release model is going to be more relied upon by the studios, and it may even be here to stay depending on how well Wonder Woman 1984 does.  We’ll see how that drama plays out into next year, but in the meantime, I applaud Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot for holding true with the entertainment potential of the Wonder Woman movies.  Wonder Woman 1984 certainly is no where near the greatest movie of this genre, and it may lack the initial legacy impact of the original, but it still is great entertainment that we desperately need in a time like this.  If you are able to, with all the safety protocols in place, I recommend seeing it on a big screen, but if you choose to stream it, that’s fine too.  We need a prosperous future for fun, audience pleasing movies, and if we give Wonder Woman 1984 a successful run on both ends, things could really indeed turn out to be wonderful at the movies again.

Rating: 8.5/10

The Concert Feature – The Story of Walt Disney’s Fantasia and it’s 80 Year Legacy

It is abundantly clear that Walt Disney had a strong interest in music.  Once he was able to bring synchronized sound to his Mickey Mouse shorts, he would continue to make music an integral part of every project he put together thereafter.  In addition to the popular Mickey Mouse shorts, Disney also created a separate series of cartoons centered completely around musical arrangements called the Silly Symphonies.  With a combination of established and original tunes, the Silly Symphony series not only became a popular collection of cartoons in their own right, but also a good testing ground for experimentation.  Walt Disney could do in the Silly Symphony shorts what he otherwise was unable to do with Mickey Mouse and Friends.  The experimental animation done throughout the Silly Symphony brand of the 1930’s paved the way for the kinds of advancements that would make it possible for Walt Disney and his crew to undertake the even more bold adventure of feature length animation.  In 1937, Disney released the fulfillment of all that hard work and ambition with his first ever feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and it became a box office phenomenon.  With the profits off of Snow White, Disney expanded his base of operations, moved his company to a bigger lot in Burbank, and quickly moved towards completing his second feature, Pinocchio (1940).  However, Walt still wanted to give due recognition to the mouse that started it all, as well as give the waning Silly Symphony series a refreshed new direction.  So, Walt and his team of animators decided to create one of the most ambitious Mickey Mouse shorts ever, set to a popular piece of classical music.  The story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was chosen because of the wildly popular orchestral piece by French composer Paul Dukas.  But, over time, the project proved to be too ambitious, as the short was going wildly over-budget and couldn’t continue being just a simple stand alone short anymore.  As a result, Walt Disney would head down the path of creating what would ultimately be the most experimental and unique film of his entire career.

The road to Fantasia (1940) becoming a reality would begin upon the crucial meeting between Walt Disney and famed orchestra conductor, Leopold Stokowski.  Stokowski was at that time one of the most highly respected figures in the world of music.  The English born conductor was famous for his striking presence in music halls around the world, orchestrating with his hands instead of a baton.  His rise in popularity led him to becoming not just the director of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, but the founder of many more across America and Europe.  He was especially popular in Hollywood because of his involvement in the creation of the iconic Hollywood Bowl, and it led to him even appearing as himself in multiple musical films.  Of course Walt Disney wanted Stokowski’s involvement in the orchestration of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and Stokowski was likewise interested in collaborating with Disney too.  Stokowski agreed to arrange a recording of his orchestra for Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but as meetings between the two artistic giants continued, it would become apparent that there was going to be a lot more to this arrangement.  Walt and Leopold began discussing other ideas for shorts based on classical music, and it eventually led to Stokowski coming up with the idea for what he dubbed a “Concert Feature.”  The movie would be like visiting one of Stokowski’s concerts at the Philadelphia Performing Arts Center, only the musical pieces would come alive on screen with the artistry of Disney’s team of animators.  It was a way of bringing the Symphony Orchestra concert experience to a mass audience through cinema, and the idea pleased both Disney and Stokowski equally.  It was decided that The Sorcerer’s Apprentice would now become a part of a larger program that would include multiple animated sequences set to classical music from some of the greatest composers in history.

Stokowski would work extensively on the project as the musical director, making the necessary edits needed to condense the lengthy pieces of music.  He also, alongside Disney, chose what would ultimately be the musical pieces that would make up the program.  In addition to Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the feature would also include the Toccata Fugue in D Minor from Johann Sabastian Bach, the Nutcracker Suite from Peter Tchaikovsky, The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky, The Pastoral (6th) Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven, the Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli, the Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky, and finally the Ave Maria by Franz Schubert.  Though all the pieces were well known in classical music circles, some may have been unfamiliar to a broader audience, and there needed to be context given to why they were bundled together in this feature.  So, Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski turned to another collaborator; popular music critic Deems Taylor.  Taylor was a contributing writer to publications like New York World and Musical America, and sometimes a composer in his own right, and he built a reputation both in print and on the radio for explaining the artistry and impact of classical music in a way that the “average joe” could comprehend.  His direct and personable communication style was ideal for shaping the program for Disney’s “Concert Feature,” and Disney granted Deems Taylor the opportunity to both write the introductions to each segment as well as appear as the on screen host.  Through Taylor’s guidance, the movie found it’s connective thread, thanks to him laying out the different blocks of music that each of the chosen pieces fell into.  In his intro, he plainly explains that music falls into three types; one that tells a definite story, another that isn’t specific but still paints a picture in one’s mind, and a third kind that is music that exists simply for it’s own sake.  And with those concepts in place, Disney’s team of artists and animators were able to flex their creative wings.

It’s interesting that the “Concert Feature” does not begin with the short that launched the project from the start, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.   Instead, it begins with a piece based on the third kind of music; the one of pure abstraction.  It makes sense that Bach’s Toccata Fugue opens the film, given that it’s music simply for it’s own sake.  Famous for it’s ominous opening segment, often used in silent horror films, Toccata Fugue introduces us to the orchestra itself, filmed in a daring surrealist way by soon to be legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe.  Soon the orchestra gives way to abstract, formless animation of shapes and colors set to the music that was unlike anything seen on film before.  Combined with that iconic silhouette of Stokowski conducting commandingly with his arms and his back to the camera, it is a bold start to the feature that follows.  What is even more surprising is that the second segment takes a piece of music that does tell a familiar story, The Nutcracker, but removes the narrative entirely.  Instead, the Nutcracker Suite uses the familiar melodies to showcase a symphony of nature, complete with dancing mushrooms, flowers, goldfish, and fairy sprites.  Disney could’ve easily have retold the famous Nutcracker story, but what they did instead was make this segment fall into the category of music that suggests something entirely different.  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a very definite story told through music follows, and it very much is as masterful as Disney intended it to be.  Mickey’s Sorcerer outfit is almost as universally recognized as his normal get-up, and the segment is without a doubt the most popular of the film all these years later.  The fourth segment is probably the most controversial inclusion of the film.  When Igor Stravinsky premiered his Rite of Spring ballet in Paris in 1914, it was so scandalous that it caused a riot.  Interesting enough, Stravinsky was the only composer still living during the making of this film.  Living in exile away from his native Russia post-Revolution, Stravinsky was now living in Beverly Hills, and Walt Disney did indeed welcome him to visit the studio.  Perhaps Stravinsky never anticipated that Disney would take his orchestrations to tribal dance and shape them into a chronicle of the evolution of life on Earth, all the way to the age of the Dinosaurs.  Stravinsky soured on the film over the years, though it’s been said that he was more upset by Stokowski’s edits than the artistry of Disney’s artists.  Even still, the inclusion of The Rite of Spring in the film is a bold choice, and one that is particularly heavy dramatically for animation, not shying away from gruesome onscreen death and violence.

After an intermission, the only one in any Disney movie, the orchestra returns to the screen and Deems Taylor introduces the audience to a “special member” of the crew; the Soundtrack.  The Soundtrack is personified as a simple line across the screen that comes to animated life synchronized to the accompanied music of different instruments.  It’s quite an achievement on the animators part that they manage to put personality in something as simple as a soundtrack line, but it does present the audience with an identifiable representation of an instrument used by studio orchestras that help them stay synchronized when recording for a film.  From there, the movie continues with two segments that suggest stories that the animation team freely adapted.  First off, they take Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, which was inspired by the splendor of Bavarian countryside, and instead expand it into a portrayal of Greek mythological creatures frolicking in the shadow of Mount Olympus.  After that, the animators take the Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours ballet from the opera La Giaconda, and supplant the dancers with wild animals such as hippos, ostriches, elephants, and alligators.  These two segments are the ones closest to the traditional Disney formula, and as a result, the most overtly comical, especially Dance of the Hours.  If you ever wanted to see a hippo in a tutu, the animators certainly deliver on that promise.  These more light-hearted segments help to comfort the audience before the film reaches it’s very profound finale.  The closing of the film combines two pieces of music that are the antithesis of each other, representing what Deems Taylor states is a clash between the profane and the sacred.  It begins with Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, another favorite of silent horror, and we are introduced to one of Disney’s most iconic evil characters in their entire library; the demon god Chernabog.  Animated by legendary artist Vladimir “Bill” Tytla, Chernabog is a tour de force creation, representing some of the most profound character animation ever.  The segment also features some of the most disturbing and macabre artwork ever in a animated feature, let alone a Disney one.  How Walt Disney was able to get away with something this unapologetically dark and foreboding in that time is a mystery, and the segment continues to be popular to this day, especially around Halloween.  After the madness of Bald Mountain, the movie concludes with a soulful rendition of Ave Maria, with an incredible showcase of Disney’s most valued device, the multiplane camera, giving stunning depth to the artwork in the segment.

To say that Walt Disney’s plans for Fantasia were ambitious would be an understatement.  Not only was he pushing the studio on an artistic level, but he was also experimenting on the music front as well.  Walt wanted to recreate the music hall experience as much as he could for the big screen, and that called for inventing an entirely new kind of soundtrack.  The Disney Studio technicians invented what they called Fantasound, which was a forerunner to stereo surround sound that we all know today.  It is amazing to think that long before 5.1 surround sound would become the norm in sound mixing for every film made by Hollywood, the Disney studio had already invented it just for this one film alone.  The only problem was that Fantasound was expensive, and required movie theaters to install new equipment just to run the film to it’s full potential.  As a result, Walt Disney opted to premiere Fantasia as a Roadshow, premiering the movie in select markets that could support his Fantasound experience before he could present a monoaural version in smaller markets later.  But, even with a finished film, Walt was no where near done.  His plan was to have Fantasia be continuously renewed every year, swapping one segment out for a new one in a continuous chain.  Fantasia would be a movie without end that would continuously refresh itself year after year.  And indeed, he wasted no time, putting new segments quickly into production.  These included segments based on Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries for instance.  Walt even began collaborating with artist Salvador Dali on a segment called Destino, which would have centered around Dali’s surrealist style.  However, real life put the breaks on Walt’s ambitious plans.  The outbreak of World War II cut off the crucial European market, and Walt’s expensive Roadshow presentation was not able to recover it’s cost.  With only an adaptation of Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune complete, Disney had to permanently shelve his Fantasia plans in order to salvage the studio after the double whammy hit of disappointing box office returns for both Pinocchio and Fantasia.  A year later, America would enter the war and Walt Disney would open his studio up to produce propaganda pictures for the war effort; a drastic move that Walt might have avoided had he been on stronger financial footing.

After the War, Walt Disney decided to give Fantasia another chance, however with much less fanfare than he had previously planned.   A 1946 re-release removed the surround sound track in favor of a standard mono recording.  It also shredded most of Deems Taylor’s introductions down to the bare minimum. It was certainly a shell of it’s former self, but thankfully for Walt Disney, the re-release was a success, and helped to keep the movie in the public eye.  Walt never again tried to attempt another film like Fantasia again, and refrained from re-booting his plans for more segments through the rest of his life.  Subsequent re-releases over the years helped to build Fantasia’s reputation and it developed a strong following.  A 50th anniversary re-release in 1990 proved to be a pivotal one, because it restore the five channel surround sound of the audio tracks, as well as helped to clean up the image that was definitely showing it’s age at this point.  There was also the controversial removal of centaurs from the Pastoral Symphony sequence that were deemed offensive black stereotypes.  This 50th anniversary was both popular in theaters and on a special home video release.  But, it was a restoration of the 1946 version.  One of the most ardent champions for Fantasia at the Disney studio at the time was Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney, who was now the head of Animation.  Roy took it upon himself to fulfill Walt’s dream by creating a fresh continuation of Fantasia in a new sequel called Fantasia Continued.  But, at the same time, Roy desperately wanted to find the original 1940 version of the film and see if it could be restored.  Thankfully, the Disney Archives were able to find and restore the original film elements of the 1940 version.  Unfortunately, the 5 track audio was not in a complete form, as only the musical tracks survived.  So, the restoration team made the tough decision to dub over Deems Taylor’s complete narration with a soundalike (in this case, veteran voice actor Corey Burton).  Even still, Roy was able to have a complete version of Walt’s original Fantasia ready to premiere to the public alongside his brand new Fantasia sequel.

Fantasia 2000, as it would later be called, launched off as the first movie of the new millennium, premiering on January 1, 2000.  And like Walt’s original, the movie’s premiere plan was perhaps a little too ambitious for it’s time.  Instead of a wide theatrical release, Fantasia 2000 would instead play exclusively on IMAX screens across the world for six months; a first for a major studio release.  Keep in mind, this was years before The Dark Knight would popularize IMAX as a filmmaking tool for Hollywood releases, so IMAX screens were few and far between, and were often used more for nature documentaries.  So, Fantasia 2000, like it’s predecessor, would also be hailed as an artistic achievement that unnecessarily was hampered by a limited theatrical release.  But, also like Fantasia, it would continue to build a strong reputation over time and now on it’s own 20th anniversary, it is recognized as a classic in it’s own right.  But, it is the original that still stands tall as a icon in film history.  There is honestly no other movie like it, other than it’s long in the making sequel.  It’s a perfect blending of two great artforms, elevating the potential of each other.  The classic music pieces chosen for the film underscore some of the most imaginative imagery ever captured in animation, and the movie likewise helped to keep these particular classical pieces popular in the public consciousness, even through the changing musical landscape of the 20th century.  Fantasia even changed the way that we experience music in a visual medium.  You can see it’s influence in the way that music videos try to match the tempo of the music to the visuals, or in the way that some movies will sometimes edit to music cues.  The short that started it all, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, is also today an integral part of the Disney Company’s iconography, with the Sorcerer’s hat found in even the architectural framework of key Disney properties like the Animation building on the Burbank Lot, and at the Disneyland Hotel.  After two groundbreaking but still narratively familiar feature films to start off his legacy in Hollywood, it is quite remarkable that Walt Disney would undertake something as experimental and unique with his third feature.  Thanks to a pivotal meeting with the likes of Stokowski, Walt Disney not only changed the concept of what could be considered a film with his “Concert Feature,” but he also changed the way we experience music as well.  Fantasia truly is a monumental film in the history of cinema, and though it faced an uphill climb beyond it’s original release, with technology finally catching up to it’s ambitious vision, we now see it today 80 years later as the game-changing experience that Walt Disney had always wanted it to be.

Worst Streaming Service? – Warner Brothers, Nolan, and the Fallout of the HBO Max Gambit

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the same holds true for a period of great upheaval like the one that we are experiencing now.  The long term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are still unknown, but for the moment, it has had devastating effects on the worldwide economy.  No where has that been more apparent than within the film industry.  With production ground to a halt for many months and theatrical exhibition pretty much on life support, TInseltown has pretty much spent the entire year of 2020 reassessing it’s priorities, in addition to having to quickly shift to new economic norms.  The pandemic also came at a crucial junction within the shifting industry itself, as this was also the year that several new streaming services were launching their platforms to enormous fanfare.  We knew for a long time that streaming was going to emerge as a rapidly growing new arm of distribution for the entertainment industry in the years ahead.  What I’m sure that no one expected at the start of this year was that streaming would become the sole outlet for the major studios to premiere their new and expensive content after the majority of theatrical venues were forced to close their doors.  It was fortuitous for the big Hollywood studios that their streaming platforms were launching in the middle of this worldwide catastrophe, but at the same time, they never anticipated it to be their sole lifeline either.  Indeed, streaming was never the planned destination for movies that were meant to gross over a billion dollars worldwide.  But, given the state of the theatrical industry going into next year, we may have to reconsider what we deem as a blockbuster, because business as normal may be impossible for a long time if ever.

So, Hollywood is at a crossroads right now.  Either patiently wait for the theatrical industry to sort itself out and hold out their big properties until they are able to safely recoup their investment, or go all in on streaming.  For the theatrical industry, they are deeply worried that Hollywood is going to choose the latter.  The largest chain in the North American market, the largest theatrical market in the world, is AMC, and their financial situation is the most dire of all.  With only enough cash to see them remain solvent into January of next year, AMC may be forced to declare bankruptcy within the next month or so, significantly hampering any chance of the theatrical market returning to normal business within the foreseeable future.  Before this point, AMC had already cut deals that they otherwise would not have in other circumstances with the major studios in order to cut the theatrical window shorter.  Their landmark deal with Universal, which reduced the theatrical exclusive window down to a mere three weeks, already uprooted decades old norms about the dynamics of power between Hollywood and the theaters.  The even older Paramount statute, which barred studio ownership of movie theaters is also being lapsed as a way of possibly opening the window for studios investing more in the future of the theatrical market.  As we can see, even before the pandemic has reached it’s end or even it’s zenith, the theater industry is already forever changed, and the uncertainty that brings to a film industry that has relied heavily on box office dollars is going to lead to a lot more changes.  Right now, a streaming service with a monthly subscriber base just seems more like a surer bet for some people, but that is also dependent on how well the services are able to sign up and secure new subscribers.  In addition to making their big, publicized launches in the year 2020, most of these streaming services are also making their big push to convince people that their content is worthy of the monthly fee to access it, and that has led to a lot of dramatic re-shuffling of distribution.  And of course change is not accomplished without some resistance.

Which brings us to the controversial move made this past week by Warner Brothers and their parent company AT&T to move their entire catalog of new films slated for 2021 to a hybrid theatrical and streaming option.  This means that every movie released by the studio next year will premiere both in theaters and on Warner Media’s streaming service, HBO Max, at the same exact time, with the streaming option being at no extra charge on top on the subscription price.  The hybrid model is nothing new, but up until now it has only been used on a movie to movie basis.  The fact that Warner Brother went out of their way to state that all their movies in the next year would be following this model, regardless of the conditions of the market and the pandemic, is what gave pause to the film industry this week, and raised an alarm amongst the theater chains.  AMC CEO Adam Aron blasted the news, saying that Warner Media was “sacrificing box office profitability in order to subsidize their streaming platform” and that he “wouldn’t allow them to do so at their (AMC’s) expense,” according to a statement to The Hollywood Reporter.  What is alarming many, in addition to AMC, is that Warner Media seemed to make this decision unilaterally, without consultation, and that it seems to be a brazen way of just generating more attention to their HBO Max platform.  Originally, Warner Brothers did make a free-standing agreement with the movie theaters to try such a release model with Wonder Woman 1984, which is slated for a Christmas 2020 release after two prior delays.  AMC and others gladly accepted the terms, because they believed it to be a special case and it would allow them to have a blockbuster level movie that could help drive up business for them in a difficult time.  As the pandemic subsides, and the restrictions loosen, then the theaters and the studios could return back to the old model.  But it seems that Warner Brothers used this opportunity to take the precedent of this deal, and apply it to everything else on their plate for the foreseeable future.  And to the theater industry, this is not only seen as a betrayal, but a possible threat to their very survival if other movie studios follow suit.

The movie theaters do have industry insiders that are championing their side in the fight.  Chief among them this past week has been celebrated director Christopher Nolan, who has long been a passionate advocate of the theatrical experience.  And Nolan’s injunction into this argument is a fascinating one to watch because for the past couple decades, his home base has been the Warner Brothers studio, which has had a hand in producing all his movies from Insomnia (2002) to this year’s Tenet (2020).  Nolan did not parse words, saying in an NPR interview that “the economics are unsound,” and in a separate statement to the Hollywood Reporter, he even went on to say the most damning statement yet, saying, “Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service.”  That final few words, “worst streaming service,” went especially viral in the days after, because it really spelled out the bad blood that has developed between Warner Brothers and their “Golden Boy” director.  Warner Brothers and AT&T have spent the better part of the year trying to promote their expensive new streaming platform, and here was their most celebrated filmmaker publicly trashing it.  Warner Brothers fired back, stating that the underperformance at the box office for Tenet is what prompted the economic decision to invest more in streaming; a situation that Nolan bared some responsibility for putting them in with his insistence on a theatrical run.  No doubt about it, the creative partnership between Christopher Nolan and Warner Brothers might be forever frayed, and who knows if Nolan will continue on with them after his contract is up.  Some certainly have criticized Nolan’s statements as self-serving in a pandemic affected climate, labeling him as putting his own self-interest over the health and safety of theater patrons.  There are arguments that filmmaker vanity could be behind why Nolan has come at Warner Brothers so hard, but the case grows stronger against the studio when he is not the only aggrieved party.

Denis Villeneuve, whose upcoming sci-fi epic Dune (2021) is also affected by the HBO Max decision, backed up what Christopher Nolan said, even going so far as to attack parent company AT&T for what he sees as brazen corporate meddling.  Speaking to Variety, Villeneuve said of AT&T, “hijacked one of the most respectable and important studios in film history.”  Further support has come from filmmakers all across the spectrum of the industry, all stating that AT&T and Warner Brother’s choice of diminishing box office in favor of boosting streaming subscriptions was an unfair move driven by economics and not by creative choices.  Warner Media would argue, as they have in response to Christopher Nolan’s remarks, that the situation has left them with no other alternative, as the likelihood of a return to normal box office appears to be impossible.  The dire situation that the big theater chains find themselves in seems to back up the Warner Media claim, as there will likely be a diminished number of theaters open throughout most of next year, and it will likely never bounce back.  For Warner Brothers, they see themselves adjusting to a new market reality, where their movies can still reach the largest possible audience, without having to deal with disappointing box office returns from a diminished market.  But the filmmakers point out that HBO Max is in no position to supplant theaters so soon.  Nolan’s sharp critique of HBO Max as the “Worst Streaming Service,” does bear some fruit, at least in it’s first year.  If it weren’t for the catastrophic collapse of Quibi to make it look good by comparison, HBO Max would have had the most disastrous launch of any of the new streaming services this year.  Paralyzed by terrible marketing, a confusing user interface, lack of buzzworthy original content, and an unusually high starting subscription price, there have been a number of problems that have dragged HBO Max down, and now it’s supposed to carry the weight of the studio going forward.  This is why a lot of filmmakers are not happy with the decision by AT&T and Warner Brothers to go all in at the expense of the theatrical market.

Another major complaint is that it also violates already existing labor contracts as well.  This was the point made by the most clout worthy critic of the move made by Warner Media regarding streaming; the Director’s Guild of America.  Their concern is over how the move from theatrical to streaming will affect the pre-existing contracts of not only those within it’s union, but with all the technicians and crew men and woman working on the sets of productions at the studio.  They claim that Warner Brothers acted unilaterally in making this decision, without consulting the unions and the talent involved, whose compensation may be affected by the shift to the hybrid model.  For a lot of contracts in Hollywood, particularly for directors and actors, residual compensation is dependent on box office performance.  There is a separate contractual compensation once a movie goes to streaming, but it’s worked out as a fixed amount upfront.  Numerous contracts have had to be reassessed because of the pandemic this year, but it’s been done on a movie to movie basis.  Where the issue hits on this HBO Max situation is that because of the hybrid model of theatrical and streaming at the same time is that it appears Warner Brothers is intentionally diminishing the potential for higher than expected box office grosses, thereby also diminishing the residual compensation they must also honor on the contracts.  And the DGA is looking at this as an abuse of pre-existing contracts to ensure more money on the studio side and less of the talent side.  No doubt there will be lawsuits filed over the issue, with arguments made over what is owed to the the people involved in the making of these movies, making sure that they are getting their due compensation, even with the emergency actions in response to the pandemic.  But, if it can be proven that AT&T and Warner Media made this change with the intention of diminishing residuals based on box office in violation of these contracts, then Warner Brothers could seriously be facing a significant blow to their reputation within the industry.

One of the biggest concerns on the part of filmmakers and the unions and agencies that are representing them is that Warner Brothers’ unilateral action is going to make other studios follow suit, including studios with a much stronger footing in the streaming world.   A year after it’s November 2019 launch, it’s abundantly clear that the strongest challenger to the Netflix dominance in the streaming market is Disney+, reaching an unheard of first year subscriber base of 83 million in one year.  That’s why, immediately on the heels of HBO Max’s industry shaking news, a lot of eyes were on Disney’s Investor Day announcements on December 10, 2020.  Disney has been indicating with their corporate shuffling that there would be a renewed shift towards more interest in Disney+.  The only question was, would they abandon theaters in the process.  Though a lot of huge announcements were made, the majority of the news was about the ongoing and limited series slated for Disney+.  As far as feature films, a few announcements of Disney+ exclusives were detailed, but for some of the biggest brands (Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar), there was no stated announcement of a hybrid theatrical/streaming release plan.  The only movie that is receiving the treatment that they announced in the presentation is Disney Animation’s Raya and the Last Dragon (2021), scheduled for early March.  Considering that the release date is so near, it makes sense to have it available for both options, similar to what Wonder Woman 1984 is doing.  But, for the next big Disney release, Marvel’s Black Widow (2021), they announced nothing other a theatrical release, which I’m sure was a welcome sign for the theater industry.  Plans could indeed change, but it appears that Disney, a clear industry leader, is in no hurry to abandon theaters just yet.   Still, the worry is that as long as the theaters continue to struggle, the more the studios will feel inclined to lean more heavily on streaming as a preferred mode of distribution.  And what Warner Brothers’ move has shown is that such a pivot will likely meet a good deal of resistance from within the industry itself.

Christopher Nolan’s words against HBO Max were certainly harsh, but he’s not a solitary voice screaming into the void.  A lot of industry players certainly know that streaming is a part of the future going forward, but they are feeling like they are being dragged by the collar into accepting the new normal without their say.  Warner Brothers, or more appropriately parent company AT&T, made a choice clearly driven by economics and didn’t consult anyone else within the film industry.  For filmmakers, unions, and production companies that partner with the major studios, it feels to them like a power grab that diminishes their say in the creative process.  AT&T, who bought the Warner Media library fairly recently, has probably never had to deal with talent and production in this way before, and their lack of experience in the matter was apparent in their hasty decision.  They’re a telecom giant trying to branch out in the business of entertainment, and they believed that the film industry would gel just as well into their longstanding corporate structure.  But, as we saw with this rushed decision, the film industry is not ready yet to fully conform.  It goes beyond those filmmakers who are insistent on their art being shown on the biggest screen possible.  Certainly films like Dune or Godzilla vs. Kong and Matrix 4 (also 2021) are movies that demand a big screen showing, but they are not the only ones with skin in the game.  Mid-level and micro budget films made under the Warner Media umbrella also are affected by the move, and they are making their voices heard as well.  So, is it all Warner Media using the pandemic as an excuse to shift priorities and reduce expenses on pre-existing contracts, or is it a necessary change to boost their struggling streaming service and position itself in a new normal post-pandemic.  It’s strange that a company built on communications would be so terrible at communicating to it’s own pool of talent.  There is room for improvement on HBO Max, but doing so at the expense of relationships with the theatrical market could lead to a variety of problems to Warner Media’s long term prospects going forward.  We’ll see if these plans stick in the long run, but for right now, many different parties believe that this is a shot across the bow to change the industry for good and leave movie theaters in the dust behind them.  And there is far more support to honor the way things were before than what they could be based on what a spreadsheet might say.  More than anything, whether it’s based out of the home or out at a movie theater, make it worthwhile for the audience themselves to give their money willingly to be entertained.  That way you can going from being the worst service, to the best.

The Director’s Chair – David Fincher

Some film directors launch right out of film school and become major players almost immediately, while some take years and even decades to just make that one movie that will define them.  And then there are the journeyman filmmakers; the ones who don’t immediately make their mark, but instead mature within the system until they rise to the top and become established artists.  These kinds of filmmakers develop from simple means, but they often are the ones who in the end have the most consistently successful bodies of work.  Spielberg, for example, started out this way, beginning as an intern on the Universal Studio lot until he was given a contract to direct television episodes at the studio.  Eventually that led to feature films and of course a legendary directorial career followed.  There are other paths that rising filmmakers have take to establish themselves as an artist before Hollywood came calling.  A lot of the most prolific filmmakers of our time began their journeys directing projects like commercials and music videos.  Though these kinds of projects may seem small in comparison to what Hollywood rolls out, they are nevertheless great incubators for future filmmaking talent, because they allow for wannabe directors to develop a style and technique that they otherwise wouldn’t be allowed to try within the studio run machine.  One such film director who managed to climb his way into the industry through music video and commercial production was David Fincher, whose style of filmmaking has made him a standout over the last 30 years.  Known for his fluid camera work and often shadowy atmosphere, Fincher has become one of the most sought after directors in Hollywood, and he has managed to get to this point while still maintaining an uncompromised vision as a director.

Born in Colorado, Fincher spent most of his developing years living in between California and Oregon.  His father Jack, a successful writer for publications such as Life Magazine, helped to give David a privilaged upbringing, including sharing a neighborhood with a future all star filmmaker like George Lucas.  That early connection would prove to be fortuitous, as right out of school, Fincher would begin work as a camera operator for his local Medford, Oregon news studio.  That job eventually led him back to Marin County, where he became an effects camera assistant at the newly formed Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), a company owned by former neighbor Lucas.  After his time at ILM, Fincher co-founded his own production outfit called Propaganda Films, which specialized in commercial and music videos.  Along with Fincher, Propaganda became a successful launching ground for a variety of future filmmakers, like Michael Bay, Spike Jonze, Gore Verbinski, Antoine Fuqua, and Zach Snyder to name a few.  For Fincher, he managed to carve out a successful run of music videos for artists as varied as Michael Jackson, George Michaels, Aerosmith, and Billy Idol.  It was his work with Madonna on videos for the songs “Vogue” and “Express Yourself” that particularly caught the eye of the executives at 20th Century Fox.  There, they offered Fincher his first chance at directing a feature; the third film in the Alien franchise, Alien3 (1992).  However, the experience proved to be a disaster for the first time feature director, with the studio constantly interfering, to the point where Fincher once demanded to have his name taken off the movie.  But,  Alien3 led to his next project, Seven (1995) which satisfied his filmmaking interests much better, and it continued into a prosperous and influential body of work ever since.  The following is an examination of all the traits within Fincher’s filmography that has made him a standout in Hollywood, and one of the most influential filmmakers of his generation.

1.

THE IMPOSSIBLE CAMERA SHOT

If there’s anything about a David Fincher movie that immediately stands out, it’s the way that he uses he uses the camera to basically go anywhere.  It’s that kind of shot in a movie where the camera appears to move freely, through impossible places with movement that can’t be accomplished practically without the aid of CGI.  It’s like in a movie where you see the point of view of the camera move through a tiny space like a keyhole, or up and down through different floors of a building.  This has been commonly termed within the industry as the “Fincher Shot.”  And though David Fincher has popularized this kind of technique, it’s actually something that only marks a small period in his career.  What is consistent about David Fincher’s style of shot composition is that he does rely on a steady, locked down camera.  Only in his early films like Seven and The Game (1997) do you see use of handheld photography, and even then it’s kept to a minimum.  But starting with his next film, Fight Club (1999), we finally see him begin to play around with what can be done with Computer Animation.  In Fight Club, we see some amazing photography, accomplished with the aid of frequent collaborator DP Jeff Cronenweth, where the camera just flat out defies the laws of physics.  This includes a journey through the microscopic space of Edward Norton’s sweat glands during the opening credits as well as a death defying plunge off a skyscraper and down through the street level into the underground parking garage, all in one shot.  Fight Club’s  Impossible Shot style would become highly influential in the years ahead, and Fincher would continue using it in his follow-up films Panic Room (2004) and Zodiac (2007).  But, surprisingly, in the last decade, Fincher has abandoned this style in favor of more steady shots in The Social Network (2010) and Gone Girl (2014).  Even still, anytime a movie attempts a similar style of shot, it’ll still bear his name, even if he has abandoned it himself.

2.

SHADOWY AND COLD ATMOSPHERE

Another aspect to the style of David Fincher films is the way he portrays the atmosphere.  In many ways, this was something that really carried over from his days in commercials and music videos.  Fincher loves to light his movies dark, and make extra use of shadow and high contrast to influence the atmosphere of his scene.  You can see that clearly in many of his movies, which seem to constantly be taking place mostly at night for some reason.  But not only does he like using shadows and darkness to create atmosphere in his story, he also drenches his movies in a cold, chilling effect as well.  The color timing of his movies always seem to favor a grading that evokes cool temperature.  This is especially ironic for a movie like Zodiac, which takes place in sunny California, but features an atmosphere as chilling as the subject matter of the story itself.  It’s a trait that you can find in almost all of his movies, where everything, including warm interiors take on this weathered, almost haunted quality.  It’s especially amplified when his movies are set in specifically cold places.  You can just feel the damp coldness of the snow covered Harvard campus in The Social Network, or the sub zero emptiness of the Swedish countryside in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011).  He hasn’t always evoked this in all his movies though.  The fairy tale like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) featured a decidedly warmer atmosphere, reflective of it’s deep south setting and it’s more romanticized story.  But it’s a rare stand out for a filmmaker with an eye more for the shadowy side of the world.  And indeed, if the fluid, unbound camera movement defined most of Fincher’s earlier work, it’s the dark and cold atmosphere that clearly defines him as a filmmaker in his more recent films.

3.

MASCULINITY UNDER A MICROSCOPE

Aside from his stylistic vision on film, Fincher also has consistent themes that have defined many of his films overall.  Chief among them is the exploration of masculinity within his movies.  In particular, he takes a look at the psychology of men in his movies; what makes them tick, what drives them to accomplish certain feats, and of course what ultimately make many men succumb to their own demons.  This is a thread that weaves pretty much through all of his movies, but certainly in some more than others.  This is particularly true with Fight Club, which is absolutely a deconstruction of the absolute limits of unchecked masculinity.  The film’s narrator, played by Edward Norton, is so emasculated by his life trying to be a functional citizen in society, that eventually he begins to crack and (spoilers) forms an entirely new persona in the form of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt).  Durden, the manifestation of all of the narrator’s subconscious id, becomes that idealized male role model that the narrator wishes he was, not realizing that Tyler is still him.  Fight Club is the most obvious exploration of masculinity in Fincher’s filmography, but it’s likewise explored in his other movies too.  We see it in the clash between egos in The Social Network, or in the forensic exploration of what drives a serial killer in Zodiac.  And in each of his movies, with one notable exception, there is an idealized feminine presence that either resists the toxic masculinity of the male characters, or forces a reckoning that drives them to reexamine their ways.  This includes Marla from Fight Club, Daisy from Benjamin Button, Erica Albright from Social Network, or Lisebeth Salander from Dragon Tattoo.  Benjamin Button in fact takes the interesting turn of examining male development in reverse, which offers an entirely different angle to the theme in Fincher’s movies.  From Seven and up to the recent Mank (2020), David Fincher’s movies has always been fascinated by the effect of Masculinity, good and bad, on his character’s development, and how the conflicts that develop from it provide the fuel for most of his movies.

4.

THE UNRESOLVED ENDING

One other theme that David Fincher likes to include in his movies is the denial of a conventional ending.  Fincher’s movies often leave us on either a tragic note, or an open-ended one, and rarely does it leave the viewer with the riding off into the sunset kind of resolution.  Fincher’s not against happy endings per say, but he seems to find it more satisfactory to leave the audience on a note that in real life, there are no easy answers that a pat ending could resolve.  No movie better exemplifies this than Seven, which completely subverts expectations on it’s way to one tragic finale.  We believe that the two detectives investigating the string of Seven Deadly Sin murders, played by Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, are going to catch up to the killer and bring him to justice.  But then the killer, John Doe (Kevin Spacey) suddenly turns himself in and your expectations are completely flipped.  What happens next is a complete reversal of the murder mystery trope; Pitt kills John Doe and both he and Freeman’s characters live to the end.  But, there is no victory, because John Doe got what he wanted and the Detective’s life is forever ruined.  That’s the kind of sour note that Fincher can perfectly orchestrate into a satisfactory ending.  We are denied the expected ending and are instead treated to something that while subversive still feels naturally earned within each particular story.  And that’s something that carries through his other films.  In Zodiac, the mystery remains unsolved to the end, despite some promising leads.  In Social Network, Zuckerberg is left alone and isolated, despite being the founder of a website meant to bring people together.  And Gone Girl brings it’s story right back to where it began, only with a chilling new context.  Never once does it feel like Fincher is cheating his audience out of a resolution, because he perfectly balances it out with compelling narratives that naturally should leave it’s audience jolted and asking many more questions.

5.

THE DEVIL NEXT DOOR

One other common trait of Fincher’s movies is the way that he explores the darker side of humanity that lies just under the surface.  This is quite literally the case in Fight Club, as Tyler Durden becomes the living embodiment of the protagonist’s worst subconscious impulses.  But Fincher also explores how even ordinary every day people around us can be capable of committing evil acts.  No one in The Social Network is inherently evil, but greed has motivated the characters in the film to backstab and destroy the lives of each other.  Fincher also likes exploring the idea of truly monstrous characters that on the surface appear to be completely normal.  In Seven, John Doe comes out of nowhere and is the least likely of suspects.  His name literally is the moniker given by crime scene investigators for individuals who remain “unknown.”  The Zodiac Killer haunts the collective imagination of suburbia, and yet despite some likely suspects, we never know for sure who he really is, and David Fincher makes sure that mystery remains to the very end.  But perhaps the most profound exploration of this kind of character can be found in the persona of Amy Dunne from Gone Girl.  Played to perfection by Rosamund Pike, Amy appears on the surface to be an everyday suburban housewife who has fallen victim to her suspicious philandering husband (played by Ben Affleck).  But, as we learn through the course of the movie, she has a diabolical side to her that has enabled her to fake her own death and blame it on her husband.  Not only that, she’s willing to commit murder and self harm just to maintain further control over her “narrative.”  I think what interests Fincher the most with these characters is just exploring the depths people will go to achieve their goals, as sinister as they may be.  More than anything, there seems to be a rebellious nature to exploring the underbelly of society in his films, because it allows him to pull the curtain back on what are ultimately false assertions about how human beings are supposed to act within society, and how life is never like what we often see in the movies.

From the way he shoots his movies to the different themes that he likes to explore within his narratives, David Fincher has carved out a very respectable place within cinema history.  What is particularly interesting about him as an artist is that he is not one to rest on his laurels.  Even when we believe we’ve figured his style out, he begins to reinvent himself and creates a whole different technique to his filmmaking.  That’s certainly the case with his newest film releasing on Netflix this weekend, Mank, which tells the story of famed Citizen Kane (1941) screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.  Mank is completely different visually from anything else Fincher has made up to now, deliberately aping a throwback style reminiscent of movies of the 1940’s in which the movie is set, and yet at the same time it feels like a natural move for the prolific filmmaker to undertake.  One thing that also has defined his career is the variety of movies he has made.  He rarely uses the same screenwriters on each of his movies, allowing for each film to have it’s own voice, and that’s allowed him to work with some amazing writers like Aaron Sorkin (Social Network), Eric Roth (Benjamin Button), Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), and now even his own late father Jack Fincher (Mank).  And even though he has largely abandoned it in recent years, the “Fincher Shot” is still widely used on various films and it still bears his name.  There’s no doubt that David Fincher will continue to be a productive and inspirational filmmaker for years to come, and his versatility and inventiveness almost certainly reflects what he learned the most in his early years in commercials and music videos; the constant drive to keep experimenting.  With every new movie, we see him try something new, and that’s what has kept his movies remain fresh and exciting all these years later.  And if Mank is any indication, we are going to be treated to a whole new batch of interesting and new things from the director.

Turkey Day Cinema – Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Finding the Perfect Thanksgiving Movie

The fall season brings a festive atmosphere to our culture at large, and it is something reflected also in the movies that we watch this time of year.  This is no doubt due to the fact that two of the most cinematic holidays are found in this final home stretch of the calendar year.  They are of course, Christmas and Halloween.  No other holidays lend themselves better to the cinematic language, with the numerous traditions, folklore, and iconography that each holiday represents.  Though Christmas has long been present in the history of film, even going back to the silent era, Halloween has more recently asserted itself on the big screen, with horror films becoming a major driver of the holiday tradition.  There’s even movies that bridge the two, like Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and campy horror films with a Christmas twist like Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) and Krampus (2015).  But, with these two holidays becoming the dynamic forces they are in our culture, there’s one thing that sadly gets overlooked in the process and that’s the holiday that falls in between.  Thanksgiving Day is a cherished tradition in American culture, commemorating the first successful harvest of the pilgrims that settled the Plymouth colony in 1620; a founding moment in American history.  And though it still observed with importance to this day, one cannot overlook the fact that it’s impact on the culture is somewhat diminished, possibly due to the fact that the Christmas season continues to expand further out now, to the point that it begins the moment Halloween ends.  Thanksgiving is now just a thin layer of cream inside the cookie that is the Halloween/Christmas super holiday.  And there is a reason why that may be; there just aren’t that many noteworthy Thanksgiving movies.

There are movies that have Thanksgiving Day moments in them, but you can rarely point out a movie that specific evokes the meaning of the holiday itself.  One thing that may be the problem is that Thanksgiving and Christmas share so many traditions, that they often become interchangeable.  Both holidays center around the gathering of family and also around the tradition of feasting.  Turkey dinners are often central to both holidays, or at least they have been with my own family.  And they are both holidays defined by a warm, welcome setting within a period of cold weather.  Really, the biggest difference is that Thanksgiving is all about the food, while Christmas is all about the presents.  But because of the many different similarities, most movies that center around family gatherings and feasting often associate more with the Christmas holiday, just because it’s the more celebrated of the two.  And most of the time, a movie that does feature a Thanksgiving feast of some kind just ends up getting lumped in with the Christmas season, or has no connection to the holiday at all in the long run.  So, is Thanksgiving just by default an un-cinematic holiday.  What I think has become the issue is that very few filmmakers have ever actually tackled the idea of the Thanksgiving holiday as a theme for their movie in general.  We all know the traditions of Thanksgiving, but is there a movie that actually clearly represents the way we feel during the holiday, in the same way that Christmas and Halloween do.  It may not have the iconography of it’s bigger brothers, nor the same kind of lore, but what Thanksgiving does have is a very definable sense of humanity at it’s core, the thing that we want to bring out of ourselves as we congregate together in order to have a merry feast.  That’s something that can lend itself to cinematic treatment, and one movie in particular captures that sense of what the holiday is all about.

John Hughes’ Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) is widely considered by many to be the quintessential Thanksgiving movie, and that’s probably because it dramatizes and mocks one of the most universal aspects of the holiday that everyone can identify with; the anxiety of travelling.  After a decade of working with teenage angst as a central theme of his work, Hughes pivoted to this more adult centered comedy, showing the follies of two men who must band together in order to arrive home in time for Thanksgiving.  We all have dealt with making plans for Thanksgiving travel, and for many, it becomes a burden, especially if you’re travelling companion is less than ideal.  But, it’s all about getting to that special destination of a hearty meal with the ones you love that drive us to endure the pressures of holiday travel, and that’s ultimately what’s at the heart of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.  Hughes perfectly crafts a screwball comedy around every possible thing that could go wrong during a trip back home for the Thanksgiving holiday, something that is hilariously personified in the character of Neal Page, played by Steve Martin at the top of his game.  What makes Martin’s performance in the movie so hilarious is the slow burn way that he grows more and more frustrated by all the roadblocks thrown his way; igniting a fuse in his normally mild mannered demeanor that eventually leads to some amazing eruptions, including a famous “f-bomb” laden tirade with the rental car service.  And his rigid everyman character is balanced perfectly as well by the jovial persona of Del Griffith, played by a pitch perfect John Candy in what may have been his best role.  These polar opposites are forced through circumstances to having to travel together, and at certain points share accommodations, and while it does lead to hilarious situations of misfortune, ultimately the two bond over the course of the movie.  And this leads to a finale that may be one of the most touching, humane moments ever put on film, which really understates what it means to give thanks.  And as a result, people have found this to be the movie that defines the meaning of Thanksgiving better than any other out there.

John Hughes was himself a native of the area of the United States we commonly know as the “Rust Belt.”  Born in Michigan, but raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, Hughes was deeply influenced by this region of the country, and has used it as the setting for most of his films; especially Chicago.  And one thing that really defines the Mid-Western states that make up the Rust Belt are the very cold, frigid fall and winter seasons; conditions that make travelling home for the holidays a bit more perilous.  No doubt that’s what was on his mind when he wrote Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, because it’s a situation that he probably had encountered during his upbringing.  Of course, most of it is played for laughs, but the fact that so many obstacles are put in the characters way as they try to inch their way closer to home is something that wouldn’t be too foreign to many Midwesterners.  Airport delays and closures are a common reality for many travelers out East, as they receive heavier amounts of snow and sleet in the winter.  It’s certainly different than my holiday travel experiences here on the West coast, which usually were conflict free going back and forth between Oregon and California, both of which have milder winters.  Hughes is also familiar with the common sight of cheap motels becoming a last option, or suddenly being stranded in Podunk towns in the middle of nowhere.  Also being a busy filmmaker, he would’ve known about the stress of having to deal with the time crunch of important meetings in New York City, and having to make it back to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving.  Though it’s all screwball insanity most of the time, there is a definitive relatability found in this movie that no doubt came from Hughes own experiences.  We understand how important Thanksgiving means as a festivity, because it’s clear how important it was for John Hughes.  Through his characters, we see how someone would risk health and sanity just to be there for their family on this important Holiday.

So, why is it that only Planes, Trains, and Automobiles seems to have become so identified with the holiday of Thanksgiving.  I believe that most other movies that use Thanksgiving as a part of their narrative, only do so with a passing glance.  Indeed, one thing that I often see used as a barometer for judging a movie as a Thanksgiving film is the presence of a big feast at the heart of the movie, centered around family and friends gathering together to celebrate together.  Some of the movies that usually get lumped into this camp, especially if you do a Google search, are movies like Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983) or Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).  Sure, these are movies about family and friends coming together to feast and celebrate, but in neither case does Thanksgiving play a role in the narrative.  They are just movies that evoke the holiday spirit of Thanksgiving, but what we see could just as well be part of a Christmas celebration.  This is why it’s so hard to define a Thanksgiving movie so definitively, because it shares so much in common with Christmas, and it certainly doesn’t have the same weight as the latter.  Of course, neither movie I mentioned even states that it’s taking place on either holiday.  The Big Chill in fact is about a gathering of friends who are brought back together after the death of someone close to each of them, and it just so happens to have a memorable dinner scene at it’s center, along with an iconic oldies soundtrack.  It seems counterproductive to label every movie that has a festive dinner at it’s center as a Thanksgiving movie, because it just spreads that label to a whole variety of movies that have nothing to do with Thanksgiving.  Certainly the sharing of a meal with loved ones is a popular centerpiece for most movies, but there’s nothing to tie those moments to Thanksgiving specifically.  It’s just that a lot of filmmakers like using food as a common bridge to bring people together within a story.

What is interesting is the fact that very few movies actually dramatize the core historical basis for the Thanksgiving holiday itself.  The legend behind the holiday is that the pilgrims who sailed to the New World aboard the Mayflower celebrated their first ever successful harvest in the Plymouth colony by inviting the Native Americans who aided them through the harsh winter to a feast in a sign of unity that would come to define the new nation that would spring up in the years to come.  I think that why the legend of the First Thanksgiving has rarely been given a big screen treatment is because it’s been widely recognized over the years that the story is based on a myth.  Though the pilgrims were aided by the native tribes in the harsh first winter of the Plymouth colony, the history between the settlers and the natives was anything but peaceful ever since.  Years of conflict followed, and the Native Americans were pushed out of their ancestral land as more colonists began expanding their reach.  So, if there was a first Thanksgiving, it might not have been as harmonious as the legend tells us.  It also doesn’t work as a founding legend of America, as Plymouth was nowhere near the first colony in the New World, as Jamestown in Virginia was already a bustling port for fourteen years before the pilgrims arrived.  As the mystique of the Thanksgiving myth has worn off over time, the focus has become more centered on the unity of family in modern days, and that’s what more movies focus on now with regards to the holiday.  That hasn’t stopped Hollywood however with trying to tie Native American narratives the holiday season.  I see some places label movies like Pocahontas (1995), The New World (2005), and Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale (1994) as Thanksgiving movies, even though they carry no connection with the holiday or with the legend behind the Mayflower landing at Plymouth rock.  It’s just a misguided attempt to sharpen the Native American connection to the holiday, which I think many modern day native tribes would take offense to.

The one other metric that I have seen people use to define what they see as a Thanksgiving movie, and that’s atmosphere.  It in a way goes back to what John Hughes captured in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and that’s the feeling of what the holiday season feels like.  It’s the contrast of the warmth of the household where the family has gathered together to feast against the frigid cold of the world outside.  This is something that has become the case for what many are recently claiming as the newest entry into the argument for the definitive Thanksgiving movie; Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019).  Upon it’s fortuitous Thanksgiving weekend release last year, Knives Out certainly as all the hallmarks of what we could identify as a movie centered around the holiday, and that mostly has to do with the atmosphere.  The movie definitely takes place in the frigid late autumn months, in a manor house settled in the mist covered Appalachian Mountains, where a large family of eccentrics have gathered together for a celebration.  But, even though Knives Out certainly looks like a Thanksgiving movie, it’s hard to place that label on it.  The festivity is actually a birthday celebration for the wealthy patriarch of the central Thrombey family (played by Christopher Plummer) before he is found murdered the following morning.  From that point, it becomes an Agatha Christie style whodunit, with Daniel Craig hamming it up hilariously as the central sleuth on the case, Benoit Blanc.  As you can see, though it evokes the atmosphere, there is little about the movie that actually connects with Thanksgiving.  If we were going by the atmosphere alone, there are so many movies that could honestly be mischaracterized as a Thanksgiving movie.  A lot of movies use the gloomy, late fall atmosphere to give flavor to their movie, sometimes to evoke darker themes.  This is typical in something as dreary as Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997) or Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  Again, very little connection to Thanksgiving, though the former does take place during a Thanksgiving weekend.  It’s just another sign that it’s very hard to pin down exactly what a Thanksgiving movie should represent.

And honestly, I wish more movies did take on Thanksgiving as a central point of it’s story.  The gathering of family and friends for the holiday is ripe for dramatization, and there are so many interesting narratives that can rise from that.  But, so far, the one and only movie that is unmistakably tied to this often overlooked holiday is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and thankfully it’s a movie that reflects all the great things that makes the holiday stand out.  It perfectly captures the pressure of trying to make it back to family on time, the simple joys of a hearty meal, and the deep contrast of the warmth of the home against the coldness of the outdoors.  Though I believe John Hughes intention was to make a slap-sticky road comedy, but it came from a universal understanding drawn from his own upbringing that we can all recognize in our own experiences of celebrating Thanksgiving.  Hughes brought his familiarity of the insanity we all go through every year preparing for this one holiday, and perfectly encapsulated it in this single adventure.  Whether it’s by planes, trains or automobiles, or all of the above, we will find a way to get together and share this special day with our loved ones, even if it drives us to the edge.  But what is special about Hughes’ story is that by the end, the journey actually makes us more humane and humble, and we see that in the bond that Steve Martin and John Candy’s characters build.  What started out with the “between the pillows” mishap builds to Martin inviting Candy to his home to celebrate Thanksgiving together, especially after learning that it’s the only celebration he’ll have that year.  It’s that humanity that really, above all else, creates the ideal of what Thanksgiving should be, and cements Planes, Trains, and Automobiles as the definitive Thanksgiving storyline.  Hopefully, more filmmakers find a way to center their stories in that same kind of ideal when it comes to the holiday.  Thanksgiving certainly has only a fraction of the same kind of attention that the holidays on either side of it get, but at least it can boast of one beloved movie that does in fact find the true meaning of what Thanksgiving is all about.

Wolfwalkers – Review

What are some of the benefits that may come from the shift to online streaming as the dominant form of content distribution in the film industry?  The pandemic year of 2020 has given Hollywood a reckoning with where it’s future will lie.  There is no doubt that the closure of theaters has put streaming into a more central role, though it’s still too early to say if that is sustainable.  Even still, it has given the industry itself pause as to what it needs to do to return to a sense of normalcy, and it probably involves changing their way of thinking about what kind of movies that need to be made and what is the best way to bring those movies to a wide audience.  That’s something that the world of streaming has shown us, even before the pandemic hit.  The last decade saw a glut of big budget blockbuster movies dominating the screens, and while these movies were successful in bringing people out of their homes and into a theater, it also lead to a significant lack of variety in the kinds of movies that were being made.  Meanwhile, the kinds of movies that used to be found regularly on the big screen, but had over time disappeared (rom coms, screwball comedies, intimate thrillers), but were now suddenly thriving on places like Netflix and Amazon Prime.  With big budget movies left waiting due to the pandemic, it’s these often forgotten movies that are having their day in the sun right now thanks to streaming, and it’s making the studios reconsider suddenly where their priorities are.  In many ways, part of the story of 2020 is the revival of these often neglected sub genres, which are helping to fill the void left by the absence of the silver screen.  And this includes a renewed appreciation for things that have often been treated as not commercially viable enough anymore, like animated movies that are sticking to traditional hand drawn styles instead of jumping on the CGI bandwagon.

One of the areas that streaming has thankfully been able to do is give more creative freedom to independent producers who operate outside of the shadow of Hollywood.  After all, places like Netflix and Amazon want to distinguish themselves from the “big five” Hollywood studios, so they are eagerly seeking out production companies that are themselves unique and original.  This has been especially fortuitous for animation companies, especially those who are not working with computer animation, which has been the dominant format in the last 20 years.  One such studio that has carved out it’s own niche has been the Kilkenny, Ireland based studio Cartoon Saloon.  The studio, co-founded by animators Tomm Moore, Paul Young, and Nora Twomey, began as a small animation farm outfit that provided services for clients such as Nickelodeon, The Disney Channel, and the BBC for various cartoon series on the networks.  But in the late 2000’s, Cartoon Saloon decided to expand their reach as a production company by embarking on their first full length feature.  What they planned to do was to create movies with a distinctive Irish character to them, drawn from the national folklore and ancient Celtic mythology, helping to put their country on the map cinematically in the field of animation. Their first film was The Secret of Kells (2009), a fictionalized telling of the creation of the legendary Book of Kells; an illuminated manuscript printing of the Bible that is one of Ireland’s most sacred national treasures.  The film was a modest success, and it led to more well received animated features, including Song of the Sea (2014) and The Breadwinner (2017).  Though not yet achieving the same kind of success as big studios like Disney and Dreamworks yet, each of their three movies so far have been Oscar nominated for Best Animated feature, and Cartoon has been affectionately dubbed by many in the film and animation industry as the Studio Ghibli of Ireland.  Now, with the aid of a streaming giant backer (Apple in this case), Cartoon Saloon is releasing what may be their most ambitious feature yet, and one that may hopefully propel them further into the mainstream; their epic scale adventure, Wolfwalkers (2020).

In the late 17th century, the town of Kilkenny has been put under the thumb of the occupying army of English invaders.  The Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) has squashed all rebellion in the area, and means to tame the resistant Irish population to bend to his rule.  He does so by stoking fear amongst the citizens of Kilkenny of a dangerous pack of wolves that live on the outskirts of the town, and that only he and his army are the ones that can protect the village.  He enlists his chief wolf hunter, Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) to set traps around the town.  Goodfellowe is loyal to his master’s commands, but he also has to balance being a devoted father to his restless daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) who desperately wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a fearless wolf hunter herself.  Despite her father’s demands to stay home, Robyn sneaks out of the town and follow after him.  She carelessly ends up being caught in one of her father’s traps, and soon encounters a young wolf cub who helps her out of the trap.  Robyn, confused by the nature of this unusual wolf cub, ends up following after her and discovers a secret den where there is a human mother and daughter sleeping.  It turns out, the wolf cub is actually the little girl named Mebh (Eva Whittaker) who can assume a wolf form while she is asleep.  She helps Robyn return safely to her village, while also convincing her that the wolves are not a threat and are merely just trying to survive the loss of their forest due to the expansion of the Lord Protector’s plans for more farming.  Robyn returns to her home and hopes to convince her father of what she discovered, but her father doesn’t believe the story.  Meanwhile, while having to serve as a scullery maid in the Lord Protector’s manor, she makes the horrifying discovery that the Lord is holding Mebh’s mother Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy) captive.  What follows is an attempt by the two girls to free the captive wolf mother, which leads to many magical twists and turns, which ends up defining what it really means to be a Wolfwalker.

You can see very clearly that this is a movie deeply infused with an Irish identity.  Not only does it touch upon Irish folklore and myth with the idea of the Wolfwalkers themselves, but it also draws upon real Irish history, with the conquest of the Ireland under the brutal tyranny of Oliver Cromwell as it’s backdrop.  But the pleasing thing is that you don’t have to be a scholar in Irish society and tradition in order to have a good time watching this movie, because it is just an all around triumph of storytelling.  The movie, directed by studio founder Tomm Moore and Cartoon Saloon newcomer Ross Stewart (who came from an equally beloved independent animation studio called Laika), definitely feels like a big step forward for the burgeoning studio.  Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and The Breadwinner were all modest productions, despite featuring some truly breathtaking and imaginative imagery.  Wolfwalkers strives to be bigger and grander in every way, in both scale and story, and it definitely succeeds at that.  To me, this movie had the feel of Disney at their height in the Renaissance period, minus the musical numbers.  Though the main characters are still an intimate and uncrowded number, they are surrounded by a supporting cast of thousands and a much larger canvas overall.  The settings of this movie, from the town of Kilkenny to the enchanted forest dwelling of the wolves just feels grander than anything we’ve seen from Cartoon Saloon before, and yet it still maintains their very distinct style.  Director Tomm Moore has said in interviews that Wolfwalkers is their attempt to do everything they could do but haven’t been able to so far due to either budget restraints or it not servicing the story.  With Apple’s deep pockets helping to back them this time, they are finally able to make a movie with more ambition to it, but with the same kind of care and detail that they devoted to their more modest films.

One thing that will really take your breath away while watching the movie is just the stunning beauty of the film all around.  This is definitely one of those “every frame is a painting” kind of movies, reminiscent of films like Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959).  Cartoon Saloon has worked with this very Celtic inspired motif through many of their films before, but they turn it up to 11 with Wolfwalkers.  Pretty much every single scene features a new creative idea that you didn’t expect, and it keeps you captivated from beginning to the end.  At the same time, it doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the movie either, as the story is still able to find it’s way.  I was amazed just how well the visuals of the movie doesn’t distract from the story-telling, but rather elevates it, in the way that the best animated movies do.  In many ways, this is something that has been lacking in animation for a while, as Computer Animation has in many way homogenized the industry.  While there are still many good CGI animated movies out there, the sheer dominance of the format has unfortunately made so many of the movies look the same; to the point where you can’t tell one studio’s style from the other.  The same cannot be said about hand drawn animation.  Every studio has their unique in-house style, even if some try to copycat the likes of Disney.  This is also true of international animation, with Japan defining it’s identity through their creation of the Anime style.  That’s what’s so pleasing about what Cartoon Saloon is doing.  Their animation style is all their own, and it is unapologetically Irish.  I especially love the lushness of the woods, which intertwines and loops around in a way that evokes Celtic design in a very strong way.  The rigidness of Kilkenny in the movie also has it’s own story-book like feel; something that only hand drawn animation can capture.  It is possible to make Computer Animation capture this same feel, as Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (2018) brilliantly illustrated, but what Wolfwalkers really exposes is the fact that very few animated movies today really take full advantage of what the medium is capable of because of all that homogeny, and that it is essential for movies like it to remind us of what we are missing.

One of the things that I think really helps to carry the movie through is the wonderful cast of colorful characters in the film.  Robyn Goodfellowe certainly follows in a long line of strong independent female heroines in animated movies, but the animators and voice actress Honor Kneafsey do a great job of making her more than one note.  She is a character that actually goes through a lot of growth in the movie, both naturally and supernaturally.  She also manages to balance well off the performance of Eva Whittaker as Mebh, who is just as wild and unpredictable as her character should be.  I especially like the design of the character Mebh, whose billowing red hair becomes almost a character in her own right.  She also has these wild looking, massive eyes that really connects her to her Wolf persona.  Whether she’s in fur or in human skin, she is easily identifiable.  The characters also make a really good balance between being cartoonishly funny and heartbreakingly sincere, which is a real testament to the talents of the animators.  I also like the way they portray the stoicism of Bill Goodfellowe, making him strong but also sympathetic, helping to define the divisions and the connections that he shares with his daughter.  Certainly animating to Sean Bean’s voice can’t be easy, due to his often understated acting style, but they make it work.  I was also especially pleased that this is an animated movie with a very strong villain at it’s center.  The Lord Protector, though not specifically stated to be based on Oliver Cromwell, certainly borrows many visual connections to the notorious dictator, and like most animated villains, he is visualized as dark and shadowy.  He’s a nice throwback to the classic Disney villains of the Renaissance period, specifically reminding me of Frollo from Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), and actor Simon McBurney does a great job of bringing effective menace to the character.

I should point out that Wolfwalkers only invokes the same feeling that we get from the classic Disney animated films, and is not just a copycat.  This is an animated movie that really carves out it’s own identity.  What worked for Disney so well during it’s Renaissance period was the fact that they were embracing what they were capable of in their medium and using it to tell stories that appealed to a wide audience.  But, at the same time, they too began to fall back on playing it safe and making each movie just like the one before it.  This has been true of an industry that over time has favored marketability over artistry.  The era of Computer Animation has held a firm grip on what kinds of animated movies get greenlit, because for the most part, they are the ones that can reliably bring people back to the theaters week in and week out.  Disney tried to revive hand drawn animation briefly with The Princess and the Frog (2009), but it’s modest returns were not enough to turn the tide.  The 2020 pandemic may however be the thing that gives the studios pause.  We are already seeing a variety of different animated films popping up on Netflix, mostly as acquired assets though a few other have been spear-headed by the streamer directly.  Cartoon Saloon’s next film in fact, My Father’s Dragon (2021) will be a Netflix exclusive.  Disney has also been forced by the conditions of the pandemic to premiere their new Pixar film, Soul (2020) exclusively on their streaming platform Disney+.  We are seeing playing out right now a real test of what the future of animation will be like.  Can computer animation survive without the movie theaters, or will more independent fare like Wolfwalkers become more of what we see in the years ahead.  Certainly, the fact that everyone is tuning in to streaming platforms instead of going out to the movies is putting a spotlight on movies like Wolfwalkers that it otherwise wouldn’t have had, and that may be something that really ends up being a game changer in the end.  AppleTV+ certainly isn’t in the realm of Netflix, Amazon, or even Disney+ yet, but with a quality must see film like Wolfwalkers made exclusively for it, it certainly will draw more positive attention their way.

Regardless of how we are able to watch it, I strongly recommend that you check out Wolfwalkers if you can.  Thus far, it is the best animated movie that I have seen this year, and that includes a film released in the Spring from Pixar (Onward).  Just the fact that it shows that there is still life in the medium of hand drawn animation, and that the market has been desperately lacking such a movie within the mainstream for a long time,  is enough to make any of you interested in seeing it.  It has the ambition and grandeur of Disney at their best, while at the same time maintaining it’s distinctive Irish character.  Cartoon Saloon has a bright future ahead of it if they continue to make movies of this caliber.  Though all of their movies thus far have been exceptional, this one takes it to the next level and really shows what they are capable of.  I highly expect that they are going to be 4-4 in Oscar nominations when Awards season kicks into gear next spring, and they may have their best case yet for taking home Oscar gold finally.  Right now the movie is having a limited theatrical run in the United States, which may be even more limited now because of the increased lock downs across the country that are re-shutting down many movie theaters.  If it’s important for you to see something like this on the big screen, I highly recommend it, but with the caveat that you should only go if you can do so safely.  I lucked out in seeing it at a local Drive-In, so there’s that option if available.  Starting December 11, it will then be available for AppleTV+ subscribers, as well as available to buy exclusively on iTunes.  Like all the best animated movies, it is perfect for audiences of all ages, although I do commend the filmmakers for not shying away from darker themes, which really serves the movie well and earn it a PG rating.  Time will tell if these are the kinds of movie that change animation in this period of flux.  Will Wolfwalkers create a new Renaissance of hand drawn animation, or is it just a fleeting but nevertheless worthwhile reminder of what animation used to be like?

Rating: 9/10

Kingdom Come – How The Emperor’s New Groove Went From Nearly Cancelled to Cult Hit Over 20 Years

It is hard to keep a streak of success running non-stop in the film industry.  As I discussed in may critique of Disney’s Chicken Little (2005) last week, you often see once mighty power players within the business like Disney Animation come crashing back to Earth unexpectedly, even at points where it seemed like the sky is the limit.  In fact, it really is something that more often than not happens very frequently in the field of animation.  Because an animated movie takes so long to produce (on average about 4-5 years), it becomes extremely hard to course correct once the market has shifted all of a sudden, and what seemed like a sure thing at the start of production might end up being out of sync upon completion.  That was certainly the dilemma that Disney Animation faced at the turn of the millennium in the year 2000.  What started out as a massive era of growth and success under the Disney Renaissance, with massive hits like Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994) all building on top of each other, began to wane by the end of the decade, with lower box office returns not being able to offset the growing costs.  Disney in many ways became too successful too quickly, and were unable to sustain the empire that they had manage to build up.  And with the growing competition from new rival Dreamworks, and the market being led more towards Computer Animation thanks to their partnership with Pixar, Disney quickly had to rethink their priorities.  This would involve making the hard choice of having to either halt, revise or completely scrap movies already long in development in order to reorganize for the coming years ahead.  This was the condition that encircled what was to be the next big Disney epic that was follow in the line of the past Renaissance era classics; the South American set Kingdom of the Sun.

Kingdom of the Sun began development in 1994, right off the heels of The Lion King’s record shattering success.  Like the other movies given the greenlight during the decade, Kingdom was developed to spotlight a different cultural texture that had not yet been explored in animation, much like what The Lion King did for Africa, and what the upcoming Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998) were going to do for Native American and Chinese cultures respectively.  Kingdom of the Sun was to be set in ancient Incan society, with much of the animation taking inspiration from various Paleo-American influences.  But, despite the cultural influence, the story that Disney was planning to tell, was not all that unfamiliar to American audiences.  The plot was in fact going to be a reimagining of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper.  There have been many versions of this story told over the years, and in fact Disney had done one themselves only 5 years prior; a half-hour short starring Mickey Mouse that was played in front of The Rescuers Down Under (1990) in theaters.  This version in Kingdom of the Sun would, however, involve a magical twist, with an evil sorceress named Yzma switching the Emperor with his llama herder lookalike, and having the Emperor be turned into a llama himself, so that no one would recognize him.  It of course wouldn’t be a Disney movie if there wasn’t magic involved somehow in the plot.  What became a major selling point for the production was the aspect of it’s South American setting.  Disney sent it’s team of artists to places like Macchu Picchu and the Incan capital of Kuzco to study the architecture and art of this lost society, and have it inform the look of the movie.  The movie moved along at full steam ahead, with voice actors like David Spade, Owen Wilson, Eartha Kitt, and Harvey Fierstein all lined up to play the leads, and a team of Disney’s top animators all working hard to bring the movie to life.  However, as the returns for Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) and Hercules (1997) all disappointed at the box office, the Disney executives began to scrutinize the still in development projects a bit harder, and the hard truth became apparent; Kingdom of the Sun was just not working.

A major part of the problem was the fact that there was insurmountable division in the role of the directors.  Roger Allers, who had previously helmed The Lion King alongside co-director Rob Minkoff, had begun Kingdom of the Sun as his own pet project, initially going solo in the director’s chair.  But, as mounting costs and slow production began to plague the film, Disney executives enlisted another director to take some of the burden of Allers shoulders and also a bit more humor into the movie.  Mark Dindal, a one-time effects animator who left Disney briefly to direct the movie Cats Don’t Dance (1997) at Warner Brothers, brought a more Looney Tunes-esque sensibility to his style of directing animation, and it was apparent very quickly that this clashed with Allers more epic grandeur sense of direction.  Pairing up directors on a project had long been a norm in Animation, with most of the Disney Renaissance classics being made by the iconic teams of John Musker and Ron Clements (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin) and Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale (Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame).  Allers of course had worked well with Rob Minkoff on Lion King, but Minkoff had already left Disney at this point to direct the live action Stuart Little (1999), and Mark Dindal was just not the same kind of collaborator.  And not only that, but Disney was now threatening to tighten up the budget even more and demand more changes.  So, amidst insurmountable creative differences, Allers left the production, with rough animation almost 70% complete and finished animation almost at 20%.  There was no doubt about it, Disney had already poured a lot of money and resources into a movie that was not working and had just lost it’s primary driving force.  So this was the crossroads point; either move ahead and complete the movie, or cut the losses and cancel the whole thing.

Strangely enough, Mark Dindal, who came into the project late in development, was adamant about salvaging this troubled film.  He also received back up from the film’s producer Randy Fullmer.  Together they appealed Disney for a stay of execution so that they could rework the movie into something they could finish on time and on budget.  Disney, who were initially inclined to scrapping the film, were swayed by Dindal and Fullmer’s appeal, but on this one condition; that they have their new pitch ready in only 6 weeks.  That’s an extremely short amount of time to create a new story from scratch, no matter what medium of film you work in, and the two poor filmmakers had to make it happen in the notoriously slow moving process that is animation.  But, Dindal and Fullmer spent those next few weeks going through the remains of Kingdom of the Sun to find anything that they could to salvage.  Gone was the Prince and the Pauper storyline and the more epic scale grandeur of the setting.  Most of the cast of characters were either scrapped or reworked, with only the David Spade’s Emperor and Earth Kitt’s Yzma making the cut intact.  Perhaps the most painful revision made to the movie was the removal of the musical numbers written by famed recording artist Sting.  Sting was the next in line of pop artists like Elton John and Phil Collins who was going to have his chance to orchestrate a full musical score for a Disney movie.  In fact, he was so excited to work on the film, that he had his romantic partner Trudie Styler document his creative process for an upcoming documentary to coincide with the movie’s release.  Unfortunately, in the midst of the film’s shake-up, all but two of the songs Sting wrote were scrapped, leaving him decidedly upset.  Sting obliged with his contractual duties through the rest of the film’s production, but ever since, he’s remained at arms length with anything Disney related.  It was hard, difficult surgery, but Dindal and Fullmer managed to get their pitch completed in a record amount of time, and to everyone’s surprise, Disney granted them the chance to finish the film.

Perhaps the biggest reason why Disney decided to move forward was because Mark Dindal and Randy Fullmer pitched them a film that was very much streamlined.  Instead of a grandiose, epic musical, this new film would be much more of a screwball comedy, in line with Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges.  Normally this would have been off brand for Disney, but given that it came at a time of belt-tightening at the studio, the production benefitted from a different set of priorities, especially after $50 million had already been spent.  So, where to go after that.  Given that the movie was taking a more screwball approach to the comedy, it meant that they needed to put more emphasis on the characters themselves, making them the driving force of the movie’s humor.  The once epic movie cast was dwindled down to just a main cast of four.  The Emperor, now named Kuzco, was reworked to better reflect the persona of the actor playing him; comedian David Spade.  Spade had survived the culling of the original film, retaining his role intact, but this new direction in a way was better suited for his talents.  Spade’s career has largely been shaped around performing as a smarmy, take no prisoners social observer, often with biting put downs of famous targets.  He’s played this kind of self-absorbed character in various Saturday Night Live sketches and in movies, and it matched the persona they needed for the Emperor Kuzco perfectly.  Though the filmmakers leaned more into Spade’s persona for the character, they completely overhauled the film’s other lead into something completely different.  The poor llama herder, Pacha, was changed from Kuzco’s lookalike to a middle aged, broad shouldered man who is saddled with having to save the smug, selfish ruler once Kuzco is transformed into a llama (another carry over from the original film).  Owen Wilson was dropped out and replaced with John Goodman, whose gruff, wholesome delivery honestly balances off of Spade’s snark much better than Wilson’s performance would’ve.

The character least impacted by the change in the movie was the villain Yzma.  Though her machinations changed a bit throughout the reorganization, there was little change to her as an asset to the movie, and her character design also remained constant throughout.  Earth Kitt was saddened that she didn’t get her chance to sing in the finished film, with her Sting written villain song “Snuff out the Light” being one of the notable highlights in scrapped soundtrack.  However, the more comical take on the film revealed something unexpected about Ms. Kitt’s talents, which is her surprising knack for comedy.  Yzma is easily one of the funniest villains Disney ever written, and Eartha Kitt holds her own even in a cast of comedy heavy weights.  The way she delivers hilariously dry lines like, “It’s called a cruel irony, like my dependence on you,” just shows you how masterfully she is able to balance salty menace with complete absurdity.  It’s hard to know how much more impactful her performance might have been had the movie not changed, but she nevertheless made Yzma a worthy addition to the rogues gallery of iconic Disney villains.  But what also worked well to the movie’s advantage, and honestly what possibly saved the movie as a whole, was the creation of an entirely new character named Kronk.  Initially, in Kingdom of the Sun, no such villain sidekick existed.  But, during an audition for a throwaway guardsman character, the filmmakers came across a small time character actor named Patrick Warburton, who at that time was best known for a recurring role as Elaine’s dim-witted boyfriend on Seinfeld.  Warburton’s hilarious vocal performance delighted the filmmakers so much that they crafted this new character just for him, and it made a huge difference for the film.  Warburton’s Kronk steals every moment he is on screen, whether he’s delighting in his culinary talents, conversing with squirrels, or consulting his “shoulder angel,” he’s hilariously on point, and the movie is far funnier because of it.  The cool thing is, the was Patrick Warburton’s first ever role in animation, and in the 20 years since, he’s become one of the most sought after voice actors in the business, no doubt as a result of his stand out work here.

Throughout all the changes, it became clear that what Director Mark Dindal and Producer Randy Fullmer were working on was no longer the movie that it started out as, and this became apparent to everyone in Hollywood the moment the movie changed it’s name.  Kingdom of the Sun unexpectedly was retitled The Emperor’s New Groove just a mere year left until it’s release.  People were puzzled by this, because it was extremely off brand for Disney to give their movies a pun-filled title.  Kingdom of the Sun invoked grandeur in the same way that The Lion King and The Hunchback of Notre Dame had before.  The Emperor’s New Groove sounded like a joke.  Indeed, it looked like Disney had lost it’s mind at this point, and the outlook for the movie was not good.  It was shoved off to mid-December, as opposed to the traditional mid-June or Thanksgiving weekends that had benefitted Disney in the past.  In a way, it almost looked like Disney was trying to bury the movie, believing it would turn into a major embarrassment like The Black Cauldron (1985).  Initially, it looked like that would be the case.  It opened to mild box office, grossing $10 million opening weekend, which was a quarter of what Tarzan (1999) had made in it’s opening a year prior.  But, the movie managed to stick around through the holiday season, not dropping out of the top ten for nearly two months, and in the end, it earned a respectable $95 million domestic.  It’s still low box office, but not an embarrassment either.  However, The Emperor’s New Groove‘s released was fortuitously timed for a different kind of market that would help it even more.  In late 2000 and early 2001, Disney released their first batch of releases in the new home video format known as DVD.  Along with some established classics, The Emperor’s New Groove was released as part of this new format, and was the newest film in the library as well, piquing interest among Disney fans who might have missed the movie the first time in theaters.  To Disney’s surprise, Groove not only sold well, it became their top seller in the DVD market in it’s first year, ranking higher than classics like Pinocchio (1940) and Dumbo (1941).  And the movie would continue to perform strong several year later.  To everyone’s surprise, The Emperor’s New Groove became an underground hit.

No where else in the Disney canon will you find another movie that had a more unexpected outcome.  The Emperor’s New Groove went from six weeks of near cancellation to becoming a cult favorite that endures to this day.  There are a surprisingly large amount of people who even consider Groove to be among their favorite Disney movies overall, and some even put it at the top.  I can’t say for sure what it is about the movie that connected so strongly with audiences.  Perhaps it’s the uncharacteristic level of humor that makes it stand out among other Disney movies.  The fact that it is irreverent, and is free of the many Disney clichés that people find refreshing.  Who knows?  20 years later, I think that the story of how this movie rose from the ashes and managed to carve out it’s own road to success is it’s own fascinating story.  Disney has been ruthless when it comes to scrapping troubled productions even after having fully announced them (see the history of the cancelled film Gigantic for example), so the fact that Emperor’s New Groove not only survived but thrived is something pretty special in the history of the company.  The Emperor’s New Groove still lives on, spawning a direct-to-video sequel and a Saturday Morning cartoon spinoff.  It also proves that there’s no such thing as a sure thing in Hollywood.  Sometimes sure things are doomed to fail, while potential disasters can manage to become a surprise success.  Take it from this pandemic year, where we saw a Christopher Nolan film bomb while Sonic the Hedgehog became a box office hit.  Movies have a way of surprising people, especially in the long run, and The Emperor’s New Groove is proof of that.  It’s worth exploring the tumultuous history of this film more.  Trudie Styler did compile all her footage together into a documentary called The Sweatbox (2002) and it chronicles first hand how Kingdom of the Sun fell apart behind the scenes.  What’s most fascinating in her documentary is that it also features rough animation from the original film, the only parts that have managed to escape out of the Disney vaults.  My hope is that a rough workprint of Kingdom of the Sun does see the light of day eventually, just so that we can all see what might have been.  Even still, the fact that The Emperor’s New Groove managed to survive at all and become a long term success is something pretty miraculous in the world of animation.  Perhaps, as a means of preserving their future, a “new groove” is exactly what Disney needed.

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