Off the Page – Jurassic Park

There really are very few action adventure films that hold up as well as Jurassic Park (1993).  Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking blockbuster ushered in a new era in Hollywood when it came to visual effects, utilizing CGI at a level previously unseen before in the movies.  It also restarted a renewed interest in paleontological studies, as fans young and old finally got to see dinosaurs on screen that looked more real than ever before.  The movie’s plot certainly was tailor made for the cinema, but you have to go pretty far back to remember that before Jurassic Park was a hit movie it started out as a hit novel.  Jurassic Park was the original brainchild of one of the most celebrated Science Fiction authors of his time; Michael Crichton.  Crichton had already built up a long-standing relationship with Hollywood before.  His earlier work like The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man were runaway best sellers that in turn were adapted into hit movies.  Crichton even dabbled into filmmaking himself, both writing and directing the original film Westworld (1973), which of course would later go on to influence the hit HBO series of the same name.  So, when he began writing what would end up being Jurassic Park, he probably had a good feeling that it would likely be made into a film right away.  In fact, Universal Pictures optioned the novel even before it was published in 1990.  It passed around to a number of filmmakers, but once it landed in the hands of Spielberg, it was just a natural fit.  Who better to trust with Crichton’s high concept vision than the guy who’s been at the forefront of so many groundbreaking effects films like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Back to the Future (1985).  However, Jurassic Park would be different from those movies before and that is largely due to the themes that Crichton often worked with.

Michael Crichton was a Harvard educated medicinal scholar, earning an M.D. in 1969.  However, he never actually practiced medicine in his life, opting to pursue his writing career instead, especially after getting his first novel published while still attending school.  Despite this divergent path, Crichton still put his scientific knowledge at the forefront of his work, writing through the lens of speculative Science Fiction.  Though many of his novels feature science that either doesn’t actually exist or hadn’t been invented yet, his scientific background allowed for him to provide enough informed detail to actually convince the reader that the fictionalized science in his novels could be plausible.  And many of his predictions have remarkably proven to be close to reality since he first wrote them down.  The Andromeda Strain showed a believable scenario of how society might respond to a deadly viral outbreak that seems eerily close to today.  The Terminal Man provided a dire warning of the dangers of how computers could be used for mind control purposes.  Westworld predicted the advances in robotics, and Jurassic Park speculated on the potential consequences of genetic engineering; all things that we are seeing continually explored in science today.  Despite the usual bleakness of Crichton’s narratives, he was not a science skeptic.  He believed very much in expanding the scientific advancements that he wrote about, but he also argued that every scientific experiment must come with a fail-safe protection, just in case things go horribly wrong.  More than anything, he hated the abuses of science, and this became an over-arching theme of his work.  In particular, he used his writing to critique the science for profit motive that he often saw being abused in his time, particularly by pharmaceutical companies, entrepreneur engineers, and politicians who exploited science for their own agendas.  This in particular is what frames the narrative of Jurassic Park; a money-making venture gone horribly wrong.

“Welcome to Jurassic Park.”

It’s interesting to note that Jurassic Park began not as a novel, but as a screenplay.  Crichton wrote his first draft back in 1983, with the focus of the story centered on a young grad student who creates the first living dinosaur through genetic engineering.  The breakthrough leads to investors, who devise the idea of creating a wildlife park of dinosaurs.  It’s part of Crichton’s critical eye that something as monumental as the creation of a living dinosaur would inevitably lead to the desire of exploitation for the sake of entertainment in the end.  In many ways, this early draft of what would end up being the story echoes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with the one who made the scientific breakthrough being forced to confront the harsh reality of what it means to play god, and how a perversion of nature inevitably ends up destroying those who break it’s rules.  Over time, Crichton revised his story, deciding to expand upon his themes in a novel form.  In the book, the breakthrough and exploitation period has already passed, and what we find instead is a scenario of what corporatized science run amok would look like.  The Jurassic Park in question comes across as this sanitized, Disneyland like paradise, but as the novel progresses, that veneer of safety is stripped away to reveal the harsh reality that man should never have messed around with natural order.  Though the themes never changed over the time of writing the book, Crichton certainly wrote his story with a eye for adventure as well.  His book is filled with spectacular set-pieces that do lend themselves well to cinema.  There are detailed encounters with each dinosaur found on the fictional Isla Nublar, including the memorable raptor chase and the frightening encounter with the Tyrannosaurus Rex.  For the most part, these set-pieces made the translation to the big screen pretty much in tact, but what is interesting is how the move from page to screen shifted the themes of Crichton’s novel.

“Dinosaurs eat man.  Women inherit the Earth.”

One big difference between Michael Crichton’s novel of Jurassic Park  and Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation is the way that the characters are used.  For one thing, Spielberg streamlines the number of characters to just a select few.  A lot of the novel focuses on the scientists working behind the scenes in the bio-engineering labs where the dinosaurs are created.  In the film, much of their roles are distilled down to one character in one scene of the movie.  The character of Dr. Wu (played by B.D. Wong) is given more of a role in the novel, but in the movie he appears just to given scientific exposition for the audience, explaining exactly all we need to know about how the park was able to create dinosaurs.  In this case, it actually helps the film to streamline Crichton’s scientific details.  Spielberg knows that what the audience is waiting for is real life dinosaurs, and by giving us one scene to establish what we need to know, it helps to free up the rest of the movie’s plot just for that.  Spielberg also gave more character dimensions to different characters and even altered their fate from what was in the book.  This is particularly the case with Dr. Ian Malcolm, played memorably by Jeff Goldblum.  In a case where I think the character was altered to better reflect the actor who’s playing him, Dr. Malcolm is very different from his literary origins, where he is depicted as a rigid, intellectual scientist who actually dies early on in the book.  Perhaps when Spielberg cast the suave, eccentric Goldblum in the role, he tailored the character to be more like him.  A lot of the character’s arc in the story is actually taken from another character named Donald Gennero, who is depicted in the movie as a cowardly lawyer who gets quickly eaten by the T-Rex at the halfway point.  Gennero’s skepticism of the park is also reversed in the film, with the “blood-sucking” lawyer being all in on the plan for the park, while Malcolm is given the more cynical view.

But perhaps the most dramatic change from book to screen is the depiction of the character John Hammond.  In the book, Hammond is the epitome of Crichton’s view of corporatized science taken to it’s most extreme.  Hammond in the novel is a callous, profit driven business tycoon who created the park as nothing more than a way to earn more money.  He cares little for the dinosaurs that are grown out of his laboratories, and even less for the poor humans who are put at risk of getting eaten by the dinosaurs when they get loose.  He’s basically more P.T. Barnham than Walt Disney in this regard, seeing the park less a bold vision and more as a means to increase his own stature in the world of business.  Spielberg on the other hand leans more in the Walt Disney direction with his portrayal of John Hammond.  With his version, John Hammond is more idealistic and is not concerned about the financial viability of the park.  In his own words, he “spares no expense” in seeing his park becoming a reality.  For him the park is a source of pride, but it’s in that rosy outlook that he naively misses the flaws in his plan.  It’s a far more sympathetic version of the character, departing very far from Crichton’s version.  It also helps when the charming and jovial Sir Richard Attenborough is playing him.  And Spielberg definitely seemed to want to emphasize Hammond’s noble intentions, because cinematically it reinforces the wonder of the park’s potential.  Inevitably, Hammond’s arc in the movie is proof of Murphy’s Law imagined through this scenario, where everything that could go wrong, does go wrong, and it better illustrates the Frankenstein parallels even more.  In the book, Hammond is unredeemable, and inevitably is killed by his own creation; eaten alive by a pack of dinosaurs.  But in the movie, Hammond lives, and Spielberg leaves us with a poignant moment as Hammond looks back on a park he must now leave behind, seeing it descend into disaster.  Though Spielberg’s version of the character of John Hammond is sympathetic, the themes of Crichton’s novel still resonate, as his naivete is emblematic of the lack of foreseeing the need for a fail-safe plan to be in place.  As Ian Malcolm astutely points out to John Hammond in the film, “You spent so much time thinking about whether or not you could, you never stopped to think whether or not you should.”

“If Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.”

From that we see the biggest departure that Spielberg makes from Crichton’s novel, and more than anything it speaks to Spielberg’s sense of how such a story should play on the silver screen.  We as the audience need to be given the sense of wonder, looking in awe at a world where dinosaurs walk the earth again.  That’s why the opening part of the movie takes a far more optimistic tone.  The movie does begin with an intense opening scene, where we do see the lethal threat that keeping dinosaurs captive can pose; in this case with one employee becoming a victim of a velociraptor.  But, after that, the movie doesn’t have it’s next moment of danger until almost the halfway mark.  Instead, we follow the characters of Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), who are pretty much as they are from the book, as they see the park for the first time.  And their sense of wonder translates to our sense of wonder.  With help from John Williams iconic score, we are given an amazing introduction to the dinosaurs, roaming the park peacefully in the way that I’m sure John Hammond had envisioned.  But once the movie moves into the second half, the wonder gives way to terror, as we learn the real cost of toying with nature.  By giving that contrast between the idealized vision and the risks that lie underneath, Spielberg gives the themes of Crichton’s novel more resonance.  We need to be given that exciting sense of the potential of the park, before we see the terror that can come when it all falls apart.  And that’s when the terrifying set pieces of Crichton’s novel become all the more cinematic.  The Tyrannosaurus Rex encounter in particular is a masterclass in cinematic tension building, as Spielberg builds up the reveal of the creature in an incredible way.  Utilizing the groundbreaking CGI animation from Industrial Light and Magic and full sized animatronics from the Stan Winston workshop, the T Rex is an incredibly realized creation that still holds up to this day.  And perhaps drawing from his “slow reveal” lessons from the making of Jaws (1975) Spielberg brilliantly establishes the T Rex’s arrival through something as simple as water ripples in a cup.  Though Crichton’s writing lends itself very well to the cinematic form, it’s Spielberg who made it work in such a brilliant fashion with his sense of how to make it all work on the screen.

One thing that I do think Spielberg translated perfectly in tact from Crichton’s novel is the corporatization of science within the park.  After that inspiring moment where we first see the dinosaurs, John Hammond then takes his guests to the main hub facility of the park.  There we see the sanitization of what Hammond has accomplished, presented through branding, merchandising , and state of the art presentation.  The film even has the characters watch what is essentially a propaganda piece in the form of a cartoon, which both spells out the science behind the film for the audience but also illustrates the naïve way that John Hammond is trying to market his park to a less informed public.  Spielberg definitely drew inspiration here from some attractions found in Disneyland and other parks, like the Carousel of Progress and Adventures Thru Inner Space, which also provided sanitized, propaganda messaging from their corporate sponsors like GE and Monsanto.  And though there initially is no malice behind what Hammond is trying to push through what he sees as entertainment, it nevertheless shows the way that science can often be manipulated in order to create the rosiest of outlooks to the wider public.  It’s in this part of the movie that we do see the movie reach the more cynical view of Crichton’s novel.  Though the realization and the vision behind the park is impressive, it’s once the scientists dig deeper into what’s actually going on inside the labs that they begin to see behind the corporate veneer of it all, and see it’s inherit danger.  The little details in Spielberg’s portrayal of Hammond’s compound really drive home this point, as there is a great contrast between the sweet wholesome confines of the facility and the ultimate wild reality of the park itself.  It’s especially poignant when Spielberg cuts to a stuffed animal version of a dinosaur in the gift shop right after the characters have been attacked by the real thing.  Ironically, an identical gift shop can be found today at Universal Studios right outside the Jurassic Park ride exit.  At least there the dinosaurs are not real.

“They never attack the same place twice.  They are testing the fences for weaknesses, systematically.  They remember.”

In both cases, the novel and the movie are both brilliant bodies of work, but they do take different angles on achieving the same message.  For Crichton, the perversion of science is inevitable and the consequences bear out on the people who unwisely play god without caution.  In Spielberg’s film, there is an added level of poignancy where the failure of the park becomes more of a tragedy than anything.  I think the most fascinating angle that Spielberg takes in his film is the way he portrays John Hammond.  For Crichton, he was the epitome of capitalism’s exploiting of science for all the wrong reasons.  Spielberg, on the other hand, almost in a way identifies with John Hammond, viewing him as a man wanting to create something positive for the world in an entertaining way, only to see his vision unrealized and shattered by the end.  I think that it’s why he cast a fellow film director like Attenborough in the role.  Like a lot of directors, Spielberg has had his share of disappointing failures go wrong even after embarking on them with the best intentions.  I don’t think it’s any coincidence that he added this element into the movie that was his follow-up to the disappointing Hook (1991).  At the same time, I hardly think that Spielberg was disrespecting the vision of Michael Crichton with his revisions.  After all, Crichton had a hand in the screenplay for this as well, taking cues from his original draft and also giving Spielberg the go ahead to make the changes that he needed, with David Keopp providing the extra material.  Whether you read the book or watch the movie, the message in the end remains the same.  We all must be wary of how we use science in near and distant future.  Science is a powerful tool that can help uplift society if used correctly, but it can also be a force for destruction if used improperly.  Basically, both Crichton and Spielberg’s ultimate intentions is for everyone to educate themselves and have a better understanding of Science in general.  Jurassic Park is a cautionary tale of unchecked Science run amok by people who should never have utilized it in the first place.  And on top of that, it is an incredibly vivid adventure that still stands the test of time, even as Science has caught us up to where it’s visions may even become a reality some day.

“Before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you’re selling it, you wanna sell it.  Well…”

Intermission – The State of the Audience Experience in Movie Theaters and Why It Matters

There is one thing that I want to extrapolate from my review of Tenet (2020) last week.  Putting the movie itself aside, there was a thing that mattered a lot to me on my experience watching the film from last week, and that was the feeling I had of just being in a movie theater again.  It’s one of those things that I realized I had just taken for granted all these years, and it made a little emotional getting the chance to go back into a theater after such a long time away.  The COVID-19 pandemic led to a months long closure of the theatrical exhibition market, and as a result for me and many other film enthusiasts around the world, this has been the longest time we’ve had separated from our favorite local theaters.  Where I live, the City of Los Angeles, theaters are still closed, but in the nearby San Diego and Orange counties, they have been allowed to reopen.  Taking this opportunity, I drove far out of town to finally regain that experience and all I can say is that there really is no substitute.  After months of either consuming films at home on Netflix or driving out to the local Drive-In’s, I can definitely say that the theatrical experience is absolutely the preferred way to go.  It’s the best way to have a distraction free connection with a movie; sitting in a four-walled room in the dark with the silver screen aglow, transporting you into it’s story.  An even better experience can be found when the theater is full of equally enthusiastic fans, all reacting to the movie in the same way, either through laughter, screams or cheers.  This has sadly been what the pandemic has taken away the most, and my hope is that as time heals the destruction of this pandemic, that we may be able to return to that shared experience again.  The only question is, are we trying to hard to bring that back right now?

Tenet had a lot of high expectations coming into the start of the year.  Christopher Nolan films are always big screen spectacles, and this was not going to be any different.  What I don’t think Nolan and Warner Brothers ever anticipated was that Tenet would be tasked with being the “great white hope” of saving the movie theater industry.  The prolonged length of this pandemic and the shutdown that it has caused in order to control the spread has led to numerous tent pole films being pushed back from their original release dates.  Many opted to wait a year, while others decided to just skip theaters entirely, moving to video on demand instead.  There was no question what Nolan wanted for his film.  A passionate defender of the theatrical experience, Nolan has insisted that Tenet be screened in theaters first, and Warner Brothers has kept to their promise.  The only question is, why do it now, at a time when the pandemic is still raging?  The movie is releasing only in markets where the theaters have been allowed to reopen, which excludes the biggest ones of New York and Los Angeles, and the theaters that are screening it are doing so with ticket sales well bellow the usual capacity, in order to not violate the health guidelines of their community.  So, despite having the highest box office total in North America since the shutdown began, Tenet’s box office returns for it’s opening weekend were well below what it normally would’ve made under different circumstances.  It’s opening was a paltry $22 million, which is Nolan’s lowest opening weekend since The Prestiege (2006) fourteen years ago, and alarmingly short of what it needs to recoup the staggering $200 million budget of the movie; Nolan’s most expensive film to date.  One has to wonder if pushing the movie back to next year could have changed the fortunes of this film.  By insisting on opening the movie in the middle of a pandemic, and seeing this expensive project fall well short of it’s potential given the circumstances, it unfortunately casts a shadow of failure upon the movie, regardless of the quality of the film itself.  In the end, Warner Brothers and Nolan may have self-inflicted a negative blight on their reputations going forward.

The movies in themselves do matter, given how much work goes into making them from so many working professionals, but at the same time, so does the safety of the people who choose to go to the movie theaters.  A lot of people are just not ready to take that risk right now.  I consider myself one of those willing to venture back to the theaters as soon as possible, but I understand the concern of those who are not ready.  The reality is, Hollywood is just going to have to deal with this for probably the rest of the year and some time after that as well, and that maybe the rest of 2020 should be blockbuster free until we can get this pandemic under control.  Unfortunately for Tenet, it has become the sacrificial canary in the coal mine telling us that it’s not time yet to have things return to normal.  Just having theaters open at all is incurring some level of risk, especially for those who are working there.  I can tell you from my experience in San Diego last week that I felt very safe in the hands of the staff at the theater I attended.  Run by the ailing theater chain AMC, the Mission Valley multiplex that I visited had an attentive, friendly and most importantly cautious staff who worked hard to make the place as clean and worry free as possible.  In each theater, there was a large amount of space separating each person in their seats, and I felt very confident in the fact that I wouldn’t be infected while watching a movie in there.  Even still, the staff at the theater is under enormous pressure to make everyone feel safe in their establishment, and every day for them now becomes a march to the front lines in combating this illness.  We don’t know at this point how much of an impact working through this pandemic will have on theater workers across the world, and my heart really goes out to them considering that I too once worked in a theater like them, albeit in much more stable and healthy times.

No doubt, the worries about what might happen in the weeks and months ahead is still giving Hollywood pause.  Tenet’s soft opening is now causing another round of delays across the industry, as more and more blockbuster are pulling out of their release dates, and moving back even more.  Wonder Woman 1984, which was supposed to have been out last June, is now on it’s third delay, releasing on Christmas Day, and even that might not even be the last of it.  We also don’t know what effect that Disney’s Mulan (2020) experiment on Disney+ may have, and if more blockbuster films are just going to abandon theaters altogether.  It may end up leading to a year without blockbuster films at the theaters.  As Tenet has shown, it’s just impossible right now for any movie to generate the kind of record-breaking box office that we saw in the last decade.  My prediction is that theaters will remain open, but for the next year, you’re only going to see smaller films released on the big screen.  While Tenet and The New Mutants are suffering from mediocre box office numbers, smaller budget films playing right now at the same time like the Russell Crowe headlined Unhinged (2020) and the period drama The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019) are performing at an appropriate level reflective of their substantially lower budgets.  In fact, the movie Unhinged has reached the point now where it is turning in a small profit.  I think this is going to be the pattern for a while moving forward; lower risk films carrying the burden of helping the theaters businesses stay open, while the tent pole blockbusters wait out the storm until it’s ready to open up big again.  I don’t know if that is how it will exactly play out in the end, since major studios don’t want to sit on their expensive projects for very long, but it may have to be the necessary route in order to bring things back to normal.

I certainly want a return to normal sooner rather than later, but it simply isn’t possible right now.  What Hollywood and the theatrical industry have to do right now is follow the recommendations of the health experts and follow their guidelines.  We have thankfully reached a point where a reopening is possible now, and that theaters no longer have to keep their doors shut.    There is one thing that I remember well from my time as theater employee, and that is to always make the customer feel at home when they come to see a movie at our establishment.  It’s all about driving customers to want to return again, and that aspect of the job could not be more important right now than it has ever been.  I do see an innate desire in people towards wanting to get out of their homes and go out to the movies again, but that takes a level of trust between the theaters and the audience that is in desperate need of being reaffirmed.  From my experience, I saw a theater staff ready and happy to welcome customers back, but I don’t know what the rest of the country is seeing right now.  Movie theaters are going to be going through a lot of changes in order to reaffirm their standing in the eyes of audience members, and it will probably extend to a significant alteration in how they do business.  For the foreseeable, I believe we’re going to see a lot of cost cutting from some of the major chains, including smaller staffs, fewer showtimes, and even the permanent closures of some facilities.  In order to bring more customers back, a lot of theaters are likely going to be lowering prices on tickets and concessions, just so that they can generate any money they can.  Even if the pandemic ended tomorrow, the damage is already done on the theatrical industry, and they are going to be recuperating for a long time.  But, they have no other choice but to cater to the needs of their audience, because they are going to be what is essential to their survival in the years ahead.

I did find it interesting upon my experience how much emphasis AMC put into thanking their theater patrons on returning to their venues.  Right before the movie trailers began, the screen projected a big thank you message to all of us in the theater for returning.  It’s all marketing to be sure, but the push their trying to make is an understandable one.  AMC, above all the others, was the most vulnerable theater chain in the country during this pandemic.  Taking on massive amounts of debt just to fend off bankruptcy, as well as cutting a very one-sided deal with Universal Studios, AMC is at a make or break point where they need theaters open just to survive.  And the other chains are also dealing with their own financial liquidity problems, which likely haunt them for many years.  The one thing that could make things better for the chains going forward is an expansion of their subscriber based ticketing.  AMC was already benefiting from such a program, but had to put it on hold for all their subscribers once the shutdown started.  What could help convince subscribers to restart their monthly subscription is to incentive-ize people to rejoin.  This could be either through more perks, credits, free monthly gifts, or even a tie-in offer with a partnered company.  It’s all about convincing customers that it’s in their interest to remain a loyal subscriber.  I can see AMC and Regal trying a whole variety of ideas to help boost their numbers back up to where they were before.  Their MoviePass inspired programs were after all only a couple years into their life-span before the shutdown happened; it wouldn’t be impossible for them to get back to those numbers again in the same amount of time.  Reduced pricing of concessions may be harder to implement, because it would greatly reduce the profit margin of the theater companies who are dependent on strong concessions sales, but introducing quantitative bargains could help drive more people towards wanting to buy snacks from the theaters.  Necessity is the mother of all invention after all, and movie theaters are going to be experimenting with a lot of ideas in order to bring back their lost audiences.

A lot of things could happen in the next year in order to bring people back to the theaters, but I think that perhaps the most effective tool for bringing audiences back to the theaters will be the feeling of Nostalgia.  It’s certainly what I felt when I walked back into a theater.  We all have fond memories of watching movies in a theater, whether with family or friends, or alone with a bunch of complete strangers.  The powerful effect that movies have on us comes from the shared way we respond to them.  Sometimes the greatest entertainment that we can have in a theater is in seeing the reaction the film can have on the people who are watching it.  And it’s those reactions that in themselves become part of our nostalgia for the movies.  There’s been videos floating around the internet since the pandemic began that show the audience reaction to last year’s climatic finale to Avengers: Endgame (2019).  It’s an experience that I can recall first hand myself because it was just like the response I saw at the IMAX screening I was at.  It’s the moment when all the superheroes who were killed off by the villain Thanos in the previous film, Avengers: Infinity War (2018) return and join the Avengers on the battle field, passing through magically produced portals.  It’s one of the most amazing audience experiences I’ve ever had, with the whole audience hollering and cheering, and a few even crying, all in response to this powerful moment in the movie.  It’s one of those moments in life that you could only have with a totally engaged audience, and I’m thankful that someone has preserved that moment in a video and shared it online for everyone to relive.  It reminds us what we have been missing and what we should strive to get back, and that in itself is a powerful reminder of why we need the theatrical experience.  The response that that video has received gives me hope that we may return back to normal someday, because the desire to have that experience is still out there.  It’ll take some time, but we’ll get back there.

So, for the moment, if you are still weary of returning to the movie theaters because of fear of the pandemic still raging, I don’t blame you.  Things are certainly not back to normal yet.  But I have hope that we are getting past the worst of it, and are beginning the long climb back to where we were before.  Based on the response I hear about people hoping for the reopening of their local theaters, and the strong business I see from the local Drive-In’s in my area, there is a desire out there to go to the movies again.  It’s just going to take some time in order to return to the way it was before.  Movie theaters are in a moment of renewal, where they have to start again from scratch after a long pause.  We may see a renewed focus on the customer experience that could turn into a positive for the industry going down the road, but we’ll also see a significant downturn in the market reach that they once had.  At the same time, Hollywood is going to have to consider what is in the best interest of their biggest movies in the years ahead.  Clearly putting Tenet out there as a test run did not generate the desired effect, and it may have even unfortunately tarnished the track record of one of the industry’s most celebrated filmmakers.  I’d say it would be best to just put the rest of 2020 on hold when it comes to the big tent-pole films.  It would be better to have the smaller movies carry the load for a while.  It is Awards season after all, and it’s the moment where low risk, critically acclaimed films can take this opportunity to shine, without making it look like they are putting the audience at risk.  That’s ultimately what is going to ensure the survival of the industry after all, the level of trust between the filmmakers, the theaters, and the audience.  The pandemic has disrupted the happy medium between all parties, but out of that disruption, we could see a renewed effort to make the theatrical experience better as a whole.  People want to go out to see movies; that’s apparent now.  It’s just about making it so that audiences don’t have to feel that there is a risk involved in doing so.  Things are bad right now, but this too will pass, and it’s up to us to hold Hollywood and the movie theaters accountable for taking the right measures in welcoming us back in a way that is not reckless.  No matter what, I will always choose movie theaters first when it comes to the cinematic experience, and I want it to come back in a way that ensures that it will have a bright and prosperous future.

Tenet – Review

The Summer season of 2020 came and went, and for the first time in a century, movie theaters remained silent.  There have been a few individual theaters open here and there across the country where the COVID-19 pandemic has been less virulent, but for the major chains across the country, it has been anything but a normal year for them.  With the major studios either moving all their major tent-poles to next year or dropping them off onto streaming services, there has been no reason for the theaters to reopen and return to normal business.  The next year or so is going to be a long, slow return to normalcy for the theater industry, and the feats they had to go through over this Summer just to keep themselves afloat may have made the marker for normalcy far different from what it used to be.  At this point, we don’t know where the end game of all of this will land, and that is making everyone worried.  Hollywood is facing it’s most existential crisis since the advent of television, and they are being increasingly confronted with the hard choice of what they must do in order to survive this pandemic year.  Do they sacrifice the theatrical market in order to secure financial stability for the year ahead, or do they assist the theatrical market with new releases, at the risk of receiving less than normal returns.  After a Summer that made it impossible to do any business normally in the movie theaters, Hollywood is now trying some new experiments with their upcoming releases.  As we head into Labor Day weekend, two of the year’s biggest new films are making their debut, but with entirely different roll outs.  Disney’s long delayed Mulan (2020) is skipping a theatrical release in favor of a premium streaming debut on Disney+.  At the same time, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020), which was originally set for mid-July, is also coming out this weekend, but exclusively on the big screen, and only in areas of the country where it is allowed.  Whoever prevails out of these experiments may in fact be the one that ultimately determines the future of movie theaters as we know it.

For the movie Tenet, it’s clear that a theatrical premiere was the only logical choice for it’s debut.  Christopher Nolan has built his reputation as a filmmaker on being the master of grandiose, cinematic spectacles that can only be fully appreciated on a big screen.  Ever since The Dark Knight (2008), Nolan has utilized the large format IMAX process as his favorite cinematic tool.  With every new movie he makes, he has incorporated more and more scenes shot with those very big and very expensive cameras.  Nearly 80% of his last feature in fact, the World War II epic Dunkirk (2017), had been filmed in IMAX.  So, even considering taking his newest film Tenet, which purportedly is his first entirely IMAX movie, and dumping it off on Warner Brothers’ new streamer, HBO Max, would be sacrilege to both Nolan and his fan-base.  So, a theatrical run of this movie needed to happen at some point.  The only question is, why now?  Why put this movie out while the country has yet to clear itself of this pandemic.  I understand wanting to assist the struggling theatrical industry, but with social distancing protocols still in place in theaters across the world, theaters aren’t exactly going to be a full house for quite a while.  Universal, Sony, and Paramount all moved their big tent-poles to next Summer, while Disney opted to push everything they could to November and December.  For some reason, Warner Brothers’ is making a gamble here, and they are betting high on Nolan to help bail them and the theatrical industry out.  The only question is, will Tenet indeed be that movie that will save the theatrical experience?  Can Christopher Nolan deliver a spectacle that lives up to it’s important status, or will it have proved that we were far from ready from returning back to normal?

Tenet, probably more than any other movie in the director’s oeuvre, plays around with Nolan’s fascination with the element of Time.  A reoccurring trope in all of his movies, the flow of time and it’s many different branches of theory, is clearly something that Nolan loves to explore in his stories.  Whether it’s in the nonlinear way he can tell a chronological story, like with Memento (2000) and Dunkirk, or the way he can manipulate time as a plot device, like in Inception (2010) or Interstellar (2014), he’s always looked at the flow of time as an interesting cinematic device.  Tenet places time front and center within it’s narrative, but adds a new flavor to Nolan’s use of the gimmick; inversion.  The movie follows an unnamed, highly-trained mercenary known as The Protagonist (John David Washington) who finds himself recruited into a secret underworld squad of spies tasked with stopping a world-ending event that is making use of inverted technology.  He learns that objects are being transported from the future to the past through a process of Inversion; meaning that they are moving backwards in time while everything else in moving forward.  A Russian crime lord named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) is the one smuggling all the future objects and has intentions of using them to create a nuclear bomb.  The Protagonist embarks on his mission towards stopping Sator’s plot by infiltrating his organization through a relationship with Sator’s wife, Kat (Elizabeth Dibicki).  Along the way, The Protagonist also receives assistance from a resourceful but mysterious British operative named Neil (Robert Pattinson), who helps him uncover the heart of Sator’s organization, as well as the technology he’s using to actually created the Inversion effect on both objects, and people.  With time literally in the balance, can the Protagonist manage to stop Sator from enacting his evil plan, and can he also end up making sense of what which way through time is the right course.

For me personally, just being able to see this movie was an adventure in itself.  I am un-apologetically an ardent fan of Christopher Nolan’s work; especially with not one but two of his movies making my best of the 2010’s list right hereInception and Dunkirk respectively.  I have been eagerly anticipating Tenet ever since it was announced back in 2018, and was hoping that it would continue his track record of success.  When the pandemic began closing theaters, my hope was that things would get back to normal sooner rather than later, so that Tenet could still premiere on time.  With every new push back of the date, it became clear that this was just wishful thinking.  Now, some theaters are beginning to reopen, and Tenet is the movie being touted as the first big blockbuster to usher in this return to business.  Unfortunately, movie theaters are still not ready to reopen in all parts of the country where hot spots still exist, and sadly, I just happen to live in one of those hot spots.  Movie theaters in the Los Angeles metro area are still closed as of this writing, which made me worry that I would be having to wait weeks and maybe even months before I could see this movie while the rest of the country had already had their opportunity.  But, there has been a silver lining, which is that although LA remains a hot spot, it’s neighboring metropolis to the south, San Diego, is in the process of reopening, including it’s many movie theaters.  For some film enthusiasts, there is a limit to how far one will travel in order to see a movie, and for me, a 130 mile drive falls under that ceiling.  I decided that it was worth the long trip and I made my way down to sunny San Diego just so I could finally see Tenet at the same time that most of the rest of the country was.  So, did it live up to my lofty expectations and justify the long road trip that I took.  Well, yes and no.

I will say that my overall reaction to the movie is a positive one.  I would say that I don’t feel like I wasted my time and effort to travel down to  San Diego just to watch this movie.  At the same time, I do acknowledge that as far as movies within Christopher Nolan’s filmography go, I would’ve felt more satisfied with the risks if it had been for Inception, The Dark Knight, or DunkirkTenet is a massive spectacle that certainly needs to be experienced on the big screen to be fully appreciated.  At the same time, it also is probably the flimsiest story that Nolan has ever constructed for any of his movies.  Tenet is very plot heavy, and as a result, it has to rely upon excessive amounts of exposition just to make everything make sense for the viewer.  In the process, it sacrifices other important narrative elements like character development and emotional resonance.  It’s like Nolan spent so much time trying to make all the pieces of his intricate puzzle of a movie fall into place in a way that made sense while writing the screenplay that he forgot to add all the other important things that should belong in the story.  As a result, there is a bit of coldness to the story that may alienate the film from some viewers.  But, that being said, what Nolan lacks in emotional resonance he makes up for in daring visual extravagance.  Sometimes he has fallen in the trap of doing the exact opposite and relying too heavily on emotion to carry the story.  That’s why I liked Tenet over Interstellar for example.  Nolan injected too much emotion into that story to the point where it became sappy and inauthentic, despite delivering some incredible visual complexity at the same time.  Tenet is cold, but it’s also a thrilling adrenaline rush that kept me engaged all the way through.  It does pick up in the second half of the movie, where all the pieces do come into place and things start to make more sense.  But, I can see the slow burn of the first half as a being a make or break point for many viewers, and Tenet will likely be the most polarizing film he’s made to date.

One thing that helped me get through some of the more lackluster parts of the movie was in recognizing what Nolan was actually trying to accomplish with this movie.  Though Nolan is working with some very heavy, philosophical themes and out-of-this-world concepts, he’s also making what is essentially a very standard genre film too.  In particular, he’s making an espionage thriller, bearing the marks of a lot of tropes within the genre.  There is a very not so uncanny resemblance between Tenet and the likes of films from the James Bond franchise; much less a parody as a homage of sorts.  If you’re going to borrow inspiration, borrow from the gold standard I say.  Tenet has all the makings of a Bond film, but through Nolan’s unique vision.  As a result, I was able to go along with the movie in it’s more languid first act, because I anticipated that it was all going to lead to something pretty grand by the end, which it did.  And Nolan certainly makes his movies with an eye for what will look best through the lenses of the IMAX cameras.  Whether it something on a grand scale like a 747 airplane crashing into a storage warehouse, or something more intimate like a hallway fight scene between two characters, one moving through inverted time, he captures it with an incredible cinematic flair that is unparalleled in Hollywood.  And like the Bond movies he’s emulating, Nolan also does some incredible globe-trotting photography for his many locations.  The way that he crafted the inverted time environments are also pretty incredible, especially considering that much of it was done with very little digital touch-up.  Once the characters do enter inverted time, it does take the movie into surreal territory, which changes the whole dynamic of the movie in a positive way from it’s more straightforward set-up.  Working again with with the same cinematographer of Interstellar and Dunkirk (Hoyte Van Hoytema), Nolan has managed to craft a movie that still feels akin to his previous work, but also unique enough in it’s own right to stand out.

Another great thing about the movie is just how solid the cast is.  Albeit, their characters are written as pretty flimsy compared to those from other Nolan films, but the cast makes up for that with strong, engaging performances.  In particular, John David Washington carries the weight of the movie perfectly on his shoulders.  His character is such a blank slate on the script that Nolan didn’t even bother to give him a name, just merely calling him the Protagonist.  And yet, Washington stands out by giving a wonderfully charismatic performance.  He can be charming, authoritative, and even vulnerable throughout the film, and I get the feeling that Nolan left much of the development of the character up to the interpretation of the actor who plays him, and thankfully Washington brought a lot of talent into the role.  He’s also supported very well by Robert Pattinson in another departure for the heartthrob actor.  Pattinson’s performance feels like a throwback to the roles once played by Peter O’Toole, Robert Harris, or loyal Nolan stand-by Michael Caine (who cameos in Tenet) in the old espionage thrillers of the 1960’s, and he too does stand out as much more likable than he might have been originally written.  Kenneth Branagh gives the movie it’s most over the top performance as a growling, Russian thug, but this too feels at home in a movie like this, and he makes for an effective antagonist to John David Washington’s Protagonist.  There’s also solid work coming from Elizabeth Debicki, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Himesh Patel in their supporting roles.  What I also found rewarding was the pulse-pounding musical score for this film, which in itself marks a departure for Christopher Nolan.  For the first time in nearly 20 years, Nolan is working without his frequent composer Hans Zimmer, who actually turned this down to work on Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming Dune (2020) instead.  So, in his place, Nolan turned to Ludwig Goransson; famous for his Oscar-winning score to Black Panther (2018).  And Goransson actually proved to be capable of filling Zimmer’s big shoes, and create a musical symphony that matches Nolan’s bold vision perfectly.

It may not be among my favorite of Christopher Nolan’s films, but a B-grade Nolan movie is still far better than most other movies out there.  Nolan may have become a victim of his own success, in that he has to hit one out of the park every time in order to maintain his reputation in Hollywood.  That’s why I think that many may end up being disappointed by Tenet.  It finds the director at his most uneven, particularly at the script level.  And yet at the same time, you can’t also say that he’s lost his touch when it comes to crafting mind-blowing scale within his movies either.  Though it may lack some narrative punch, Tenet may also be the director’s most ambitious movie to date, which is saying a lot.  He really is pushing the envelope in a way you see from few directors in the business, and I am happy to see that he’s continuing to build his artistic vision around more and more original concepts.  He’s working within a familiar genre, yes, but doing so in a way that you’ve never seen before.  Honestly, I don’t think anyone has ever seen a movie that utilizes the different flows of time the same way we see here.  I think that Tenet is going to see a lot of repeat viewing from people wanting to see all the things they missed the first time around.  That could be the key to Tenet finding success on the big screen, but that’ll all depend on the kind of access audiences will have to endure during this ongoing pandemic.  For me, I may not have understood all of it, and may have found some of the movie lacking in certain aspects, but I am glad that I managed to see it at all, and in a movie theater setting no less.  Part of my enjoyment certainly came from being able to sit in a theater seat again, after having missed out on it for 6 months.  There really is no replacement for the theatrical experience, and I hope that it comes roaring back soon.  I would absolutely go see this movie again, if it were closer to home.  Hopefully I can see it in the even better 70mm IMAX format when it comes to LA finally.  When that happens, or if you are already near an open theater, obey the guidelines and wear a mask.  Tenet is flawed, but it is still an enjoyable ride nonetheless, and a great reminder of why we need to keep the theatrical experience going.

Rating: 8.5/10

The New Mutants – Review

Few movies have had the kind of roller coaster like roll out that The New Mutants has had.  After years of delays, cancellations, and speculation as to if it ever was going to be seen at all, Mutants has finally made it into theaters and on PVOD this weekend.  So, why did it take so long?  A lot of factors have led us here.  The movie is based on a spin-off comic from the X-Men franchise, created by comic writers Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod.  It was green-lit in 2015 by 20th Century Fox studios, with Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars) attached to write and direct.  The production was intended to branch off from the main X-Men movie franchise, taking a decidedly darker and more horror like tone, which is in line with the comic itself.  The production wrapped filming in 2017, with an intended release date set for Summer 2018.  And then something happened that I’m sure no one involved with the film probably ever expected.  Fox was suddenly put up for sale, which caused a major disruption in the release calendar for the studio.   And when Disney emerged as the victor in the bidding war for the legendary studio, this made it extra awkward for The New Mutants, because it’s very existence conflicts with the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe plans.  Fox had been holding onto the rights to their Marvel properties throughout the 2010’s and were attempting to compete with Marvel Studios with their own franchise plans with the characters they had.  With Fox and Disney now part of the same company, Fox’s haphazard attempt at franchise building now seemed superfluous and pointless.  The X-Men franchise as we knew it was pretty much over, and whatever movies were left in the pipeline were basically just going to be epilogues to a now dead series, waiting for it’s inevitable re-imagining under Marvel’s guidance.

But, with The New Mutants already complete and ready to launch, some held out hope that it might still be given a chance to stand out on it’s own, separate from it’s place within Fox’s X-Men franchise.  Unfortunately for it, the last X-Men film, Dark Phoenix (2019), crashed and burned at the box office and was blasted by critics.  This came at a point where New Mutants was already pushed back by last minute re-shoots, presumably to film a new ending for the movie.  After Dark Phoenix‘s problems emerged, Mutants was pushed back again, going from a Summer 2019 to Spring of 2020, a full two years after the movie was originally supposed to be released.  Some were even speculating that Disney may have ended up deciding to dump the movie off on demand or on Disney+, instead of letting it play in theaters.  But, for a while earlier this year, it actually looked like the movie would finally see the light of day.  And then the pandemic happened.  New Mutants, like so many other films this year (big and small), was scuttled off of it’s April release date and was at one point not even on the calendar at all.  Without a set release date, many believed that this was indeed the final nail in the coffin for this horribly unlucky film.  But, to everyone’s surprise, Disney still committed to a theatrical release of the film.  Who know’s why, especially after deciding to put Mulan (2020) on Disney+.  Maybe it was a strange clause left in as part of the Fox merger, but there’s no definitive answer.  Despite many pockets of the pandemic still raging on in parts of the country, movie theaters are beginning to slowly re-open with strict social distancing protocols.  And to everyone’s surprise, The New Mutants is going to be one of the first movies to mark the return to theaters, with the potential of being the first box office hit of the reopening era.  The only question is, was it worth all the wait and trouble to get here?

The story begins with a young Native American girl named Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) finding her reservation community under attack by a monster of unknown origin.  She looses her father (Adam Beach) in the attack and later is knocked unconscious.  When she wakes up, she finds herself in a gloomy looking hospital, where she meets Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga).  Dr. Reyes informs Dani that she has been brought to this hospital because when she was discovered after the attack, it was shown that she possessed mutant powers, similar to the X-Men.  However, Dani is told that her powers are far too powerful and dangerous at the moment, and that she’s been brought to the hospital for safety reasons and also to help her learn how to control it.  At first Dani is skeptical of her new home, but once she begins to interact with the other teenage mutants on the compound, she feels less afraid.  The other “new mutants” include Raine Sinclair (Maisie Williams) who can transform herself into a wolf; Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), who is able to launch his body like a rocket, but hasn’t learned how to land; Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who can teleport and also summon weapons from her own body; and also Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga) who can set his whole body on fire.  Each of them has had a traumatic experience involving their powers just like Dani, which has brought them to this facility in the hopes of improving or even “curing” their powers.  However, the forces behind Dr. Reyes’ research may have other plans for the new mutants, and it be far more sinister that previously thought.  And pretty soon, the silent tranquility of the compound is broken by the arrival of the same mysterious beast that attacked Dani’s reservation; a massive Demon Bear.

So, how is this movie going to fare during a pandemic?  It depends on where it’s playing.  It will almost certainly not perform as well as it normally would under normal circumstances, but at the same time, the movie has garnered attention for it’s troubled history, which may drive curiosity up for it that it otherwise would’ve not had.  The movie is playing on screens in theaters in as many as 44 states that have since lifted their shut downs and allowed theaters to reopen.  However, I unfortunately live in a state (California) that is still on lock-down and has yet to allow theater re-openings.  It’s still a situation that I can support, because health of the customer must come first and foremost, but also disappointing because I do miss going to a movie theater and enjoying movies the way they were meant to be seen, especially when other places are already making that possible.  Disney has made The New Mutants available on VOD rental services, but I felt that I still needed to watch it on a big screen in order to really judge it properly.  Thankfully, there was one screen in the whole of the Los Angeles metro area that had New Mutants playing on it; at the Mission Tiki Drive-In in Montclair, CA, which I previously spotlighted here.   Drive-In theaters have been a godsend for me during this pandemic, as they have allowed me to still enjoy a big screen experience without having to suffer the health risks.  The choices of films have been slim, but when one I’m interested in comes available at these facilities, I will gladly choose it over video on demand any day.  I will say, watching the movie there was a great choice because there is something magical about watching a movie under the moon and stars.  The only question is, was the movie itself worth it.  Sad to say, not really.  My feelings overall about The New Mutants are a mixed bag, but the worst thing I can say about it is that it’s just generic and mediocre.

Overall, I would say that The New Mutants is not the worst thing I have seen from a super hero movie, and definitely no where near the worst that I’ve seen from the now defunct Fox X-Men franchise.  Dark Phoenix was just an embarrassment for the once proud franchise, and a terrible note to go out on.  The best thing that New Mutants does is that it closes the door on this version of the X-Men series with a less sour finale.  But apart from that, there isn’t much else to say that’s positive.  It’s more competently made than Dark Phoenix, but still unfocused when it comes to tone and character.  For a movie that was trying to put a horror spin on the X-Men universe, it’s not a particularly scary movie.  It’s clear that something went wrong during the production of the movie, whether it was studio interference or just a lack of vision on the director’s part.  Josh Boone emerged as a filmmaker with a surprise hit in the doomed romance movie that was The Fault in Our Stars.  For him to go from that to the pseudo-horror of New Mutants seemed like a bit of a stretch, and it turns out that ended up being the case.  Boone just borrows wholesale from other claustrophobic horror movies and just ends up making it feel cliche as a result.  I’ve seen many of these same tropes work better in other movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), IT (2017), and even One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) which this movie also borrows heavily from.  And it becomes very clear that the last minute re-shoots were done in part to dilute the horror elements and make the movie more like a standard Marvel action movie, particularly in it’s final act.  You’ll be spending most of the time watching this movie thinking about better films of it’s genre, and that’s never something you want a movie to be doing while you watch it.  That being said, it’s blandness in some ways shields it from being anything worse.  Like I said, Dark Phoenix not only failed, it failed on an almost legendarily bad way.  New Mutants doesn’t warrant the same kind of notorious reputation.  It’s just good enough to be passable and just bad enough to be forgettable.

One of the things that really defines the mixed results of the movie can definitely be found in it’s cast.  One thing that I do appreciate about the movie is that it keeps things very simple.  The cast in this movie is actually quite small for a franchise film, and it allows the movie to better use it’s time to establish each character without losing them within the shuffle.  The only problem is, the lack of direction on these actors is very apparent.  There is a ton of overacting clashing with under-acting between each performance, and it leads to a fairly uneven ensemble throughout the movie.  I’ll say that one of the bright spots of the movie is newcomer Blu Hunt in the role of Dani Moonstar.  She manages to keep the character engaging enough as the protagonist to keep us interested in her story.  I also like the performance of Alice Braga as Dr. Reyes, who manages to fill the antagonistic role well enough without taking it over the top.  The best performance overall I would say comes from Stranger Things’ Charlie Heaton, who manages to perfect a believable Kentucky fried accent in his performance as Sam Guthrie, giving you no indication of his real British accent underneath.  The same can’t be said about the other Brits in the cast.  I believe that Maisie Williams is attempting to do a Scottish accent as Raine Sinclair, but it slips constantly throughout the film.  And Anya Taylor-Joy’s attempt at a Russian accent is just laughable.  And it’s a shame, because I’ve seen these two actresses do so much better in other roles; especially with Maisie Williams whose understated performance here is such a far cry from her beloved work on Game of Thrones.  For the most part, these distracting attempts at different accents take away from the potential character development that these actors might have been able to pull off.  And the movie doesn’t do them any favors either with some poorly edited scenes that are meant to build the characters’ relationships together.

The movie also is visually rather bland.  I’ll give the movie credit for keeping things simple, with a single location used for most of the movie.  But, when it gets to the point where the movie needs to bring out some visual effects, it becomes clear just how neglected this movie was overall.  The visual effects in this movie are pretty bad, and definitely not up to the standard that you’d expect from a movie of this genre.  Every creature that manifests in the movie looks like it jumped out of a video game, and doesn’t feel natural at all.  At other points, like when Sam Guthrie attempts to practice his rocket launching powers, the movie literally makes it look like a cartoon; like he’s spinning around like Wile E. Coyote on one of his failed contraptions.  The best effects are the ones that are kept either at a minimum or hidden in the shadows.  The Demon Bear works effectively when you see less of it, but once we finally see him in his full monstrous glory, oh boy does it deflate the tension fast.  The only thing that I think that Josh Boone and his team get close to right is the atmosphere of the film.  The movie is shot in a way that does convey an unsettling mood, even if it doesn’t entirely make it feel creepy.  There is some creativity in the way that the movie executes the feeling of a repressive atmosphere in which these characters live in, like the blank stone walls of each of their cell rooms, and the ever present cameras that stare down on the characters from above.  Indeed, the movie actually does an effective job in it’s first act of not revealing too much right away and allowing the atmosphere to convey to the audience the feeling of oppression and menace into the story.  Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t live up to that potential, and the longer it goes on the less you feel the movie’s atmosphere working the way it should.

As poorly as the final product has turned out, there’s still a part of me that kind of admires what the movie has accomplished.  It reminds me of those times when you see a track runner either pull a muscle or break an ankle halfway through their race, and yet they pull themselves up and hobble their way to the finish line regardless, just so that they could say they finished it.  It’s those kinds of moments, adversity in a moment of complete disaster, that carry their own kind of inspiration with them.  The New Mutants was a movie that was probably always going to never live up to expectations and was going to be forgotten like so many other disappointments.  And yet, there is something inspiring in how it managed to defy the odds and still get a theatrical release.  The story about this movie’s troubled road to the big screen may far go down as far more legendary than the movie itself.  Despite being caught in the turbulent shuffle of a corporate merger and then once again placed back on the shelf due to a historic pandemic, The New Mutants still managed to make it to the big screen, and that in some way makes it a triumph of perseverance that we can all feel inspired by.  Unfortunately, the movie itself is a mess, and not really warranting of the hype that has surrounded it’s release.  But at the same time, it’s not an embarrassment either.  For a movie that is just a stray remnant of a now defunct franchise, it does work as a better final bow than Dark Phoenix.  Who knows, in time the movie may find a second life as a stand alone oddity, but I think that the movie is a little uneven to warrant that.  As it stands, I’m happy that the movie managed to escape it’s notoriously troubled shelf life and actually make it to the big screen.  A mediocre movie, that surprisingly carved out it’s own inspirational journey that’s far more intriguing than the movie itself.  Will it be the movie that saves movie-going overall?  I doubt it, since there is still a raging pandemic right now, and this is definitely not a movie to spark repeat viewing.  But, the fact that it’s made it to the big screen at all given all the circumstances makes me hopeful that the industry itself is still looking at the theatrical experience as an integral part of the business going forward.  If New Mutants can make it to the finish line, any movie can.

Rating: 6/10

The Movies of Fall 2020 (Hopefully)

When I published my last movie season preview here in April, I knew that it was on the optimistic side and would’ve likely changed over the course of the summer.  Sadly, the worst case scenario played out.  2020 will be a historic year for the film industry, because for the first time in who knows how long, there was no Summer movie season.  Movie theaters remained shuttered for the entirety of what used to be the most profitable period of the year, and only now are some of them (not all) beginning to reopen for business here in America.  Some of my last summer movie preview covered movies that I was hopeful would make it to the big screen on time, and almost all of them failed to meet their original release date, with only Bill & Ted Face the Music (of all movies) actually sticking the landing.  For a movie fan like me who greatly prefers the big screen experience, it’s been a rough couple of months.  Not only am I seeing so many movies I’ve been excited for be pushed back months or even a year away from it’s original date, but some of the studios have just given up and dropped their movies off on streaming services.  I’ve already covered the boom of streaming content plenty during this pandemic, but I will add that my hope is that all these measures taken is just to get us through the crises of the moment, and that things will turn around soon, giving us a chance to return back to normal soon.  I feel bad for the people behind movies like Mulan and Tenet, as they are seeing their films roll-out in a less than desired way.  My hope is that within the months ahead, it will be safe to once again watch movies on the big screen, and that the movies of Fall 2020 don’t see the same disruptions in their roll-out that their Summer cousins endured.  Like my last preview, I am foregoing my usual categories, and instead just spotlighting the most notable movies coming out in the Fall season; hopefully with all of them managing to avoid any postponement.  Anything could change between now and New Years, but hopefully for these movies, we’ll still be enjoying them this Fall season.

DUNE (DECEMBER 18, 2020)

What was already one of the year’s most anticipated new films from the start still remains the most anticipated movie of this holiday season.  Based on Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel of the same name, Dune is a grand scale epic that people are hoping will be the movie that brings people back to the big screen in a major way.  Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario, Blade Runner 2049) will undoubtedly bring a bold artistic style to this film, and with major studio backing from Warner Brothers, this movie will almost assuredly demand a big screen presentation just to capture the immensity of it all.  This movie could very well be for science fiction what Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy was for fantasy.  The movie also boasts an impressive all-star cast that includes Timothee Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Mamoa, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Zendaya, and Dave Bautista just to name a few.  For many fans of the book, this movie will also satisfy a long held desire for a faithful adaptation that feels truer to Herbert’s vision, after David Lynch’s failed 1984 version left much to be desired.  It’s going to be interesting if Warner Brothers can pull this off, but you get the sense already that they are hedging their bets.  Nearly 3 months out from the scheduled release date, and we still don’t have a trailer.  That’s unusual for a big movie of this kind, and it makes people wonder if this will be yet another big tent-pole pushed back to 2021.  Hopefully, the pandemic will have died down by Christmas and studios will feel confident in putting this and others like it on a big screen again.  But, without a viable vaccine available in time, and a threat of a second wave, it’s possible that we may have to wait a bit longer for Dune to make it’s big screen debut, if it indeed gets one.  All I can say is if the industry needed a big movie to help boost the theatrical market once again, this would indeed be the movie to do it.

BLACK WIDOW (NOVEMBER 6, 2020)

Marvel’s newest blockbuster was supposed to herald the beginning of the Summer 2020 movie season, as Marvel has done over the last decade on the first week of May.  However, plans changed quickly, and Marvel had to postpone like everyone else; missing out on that traditional slot that has always served them well.  However, unlike most other studios this year, Marvel was actually well positioned to adapt to the delay.  Because they plant their flags so far in advance in anticipation for their upcoming releases, all Marvel had to do was have each of their movies take one step backward to the next available slot.  As a result, Black Widow, which was supposed to come out May 1 is now coming out on November 6 instead, taking over the release date of their next film, The Eternals, which was pushed back to Marvel’s next available date, February 12.  At this point the Marvel brand is so strong that they can make moves like this without hurting their chances at the box office.  Black Panther already showed that they can perform just as well in February as any other time of year, so Eternals is still in a good position.  What also benefits Marvel is that they delay has allowed audiences to build up more of an appetite for a new Marvel movie, with last July’s Spider-Man: Far From Home coming a full year and a half before Black Widow.  That’s good for this new movie, which marks the starting off point for Marvel’s Phase 4 plans.  It will be interesting to see where Agent Natasha Romanoff’s long awaited solo film fits within the ongoing MCU storyline, given what we know of her fate from Avengers: Endgame (2019).   The movie also looks like a fresh departure from past Marvel movies, taking on a more grounded Jason Bourne-esque style and plot.  The inclusion of Black Widow’s “family” of fellow assassins, played by Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz and David Harbour also looks to make this a fun action movie as well.  Can Marvel keep the ball rolling into Phase 4?  Hopefully, we’ll get the chance to see this November.

SOUL (NOVEMBER 20, 2020)

You can always count on Pixar to get movie goers excited about what they have coming up next.  Unfortunately for the studio, they suffered a bad hit right at the start of this pandemic when they’re highly anticipated Spring 2020 release Onward suffered at the box office during it’s brief two week run before theaters started closing.  It failed to cross the $100 million mark, a first for Pixar, and was rushed quickly onto Disney+ in the hopes that it might help the new streamer gain more subscribers.  With the pandemic raging on through the summer, it became clear that Pixar’s second original film of the year, Soul, would not meet it’s June release date and a delay was quickly enacted.  Taking the release date from Disney Animation’s Raya and the Last Dragon (now set for Spring 2021), Soul is hoping to get a chance to bring Pixar back strong at the box office.  This new film comes from Pixar chief Pete Doctor, who has one of the best track records as a director so far at the studio, having made the likes of Monsters Inc. (2001), Up (2009) and Inside Out (2015).  With his fourth film, Doctor is delving into another high concept, which is what makes up a person’s soul.  Here, the story revolves around a jazz musician and music teacher (voiced by Jamie Foxx) who suddenly finds himself in an ethereal realm after an accident, stuck between the afterlife and the place where souls begin before life.  There he meets a soul named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), who refuses to join the realm of the living.  It’s the kind of ambitious, multi-layered film that Pixar has built it’s brand around, and my hope is that we will get to see this movie presented beautifully on a big, wide screen.  The trailer gives the indication that this movie will be gorgeous to look at, and hopefully those high Pixar standards bear fruit.  Let’s just hope that the theatrical experience will be able to give us that chance to witness all that beauty in the best way possible.

NO TIME TO DIE (NOVEMBER 20, 2020)

The very first casualty of the 2020 pandemic, this newest entry of the long running James Bond franchise gave us the first real indication of the severity that this pandemic was going to have on Hollywood’s plans for the year.  The movie, marking Daniel Craig’s fifth and final turn as 007, was originally going to be released in April, an unusual time slot for the franchise.  With the delay, it has now moved in a traditional Fall release, which has always been what the Bond franchise has done before, so it seemed a natural move given the circumstances.  But it is interesting that when MGM and Sony moved their massive tent-pole to the Fall, the world had not really fully grasped how bad this pandemic was going to get.  Sure, we already saw China suffer through the outbreak during the winter, but here in North America, it still seemed remote.  The decision to move this film came as a shock, given how close to the release it was.  Tickets had already gone on sale (I bought mine, in fact) and were soon refunded.  But, as we now know, it was only the first domino to fall.  In hindsight, the Bond team did the right thing by postponing the film.  Hopefully, they won’t have to do it again.  This is another movie that definitely demands a big screen presentation, as most Bond movies are.  Considering that Craig is hanging it up as the iconic character after this makes the new movie all the more monumental, and it will help to generate excitement once it’s finally released.  Seeing old faces return, as well as new ones coming in for the first time, like Oscar winner Rami Malek’s enigmatic new villain, will be pleasing to many fans of the franchise.  Let’s hope that the long wait will be worth it, and that Craig’s Bond goes out with a big bang on the big screen.

WONDER WOMAN 1984 (OCTOBER 2, 2020)

You’ve got to hand it to Warner Brothers; they are committed to the theatrical experience for their big tent-pole films.  In addition to Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, they stated that Wonder Woman 1984 would be screened in theaters and they have stuck with that.  Whether or not theaters are going to be ready is another question.  Tenet is already getting a staggered release in markets across the world, with some theaters in North America getting it for the Labor Day weekend, while others in hot spot areas (which sadly includes California, where I live) will have to wait.  Hopefully, when Warner’s next big tent-pole comes out, more theaters will be open to present it.  But, October is readily approaching and it’s hard to say if we are going to be ready.  Having already passed on two Summer release dates, people are hopeful that Wonder Woman 1984 will be able to stick the landing this fall.  The highly anticipated sequel brings back Gal Gadot as the super heroine and the movie looks to deliver on the same blend of high octane action and charming character dynamics that the original 2017 film gave us.  Given the double threat of Pedro Pascal’s Max Lord and Kristen Wiig’s Cheetah, two of Wonder Woman’s biggest foes from the comics, this looks to be a movie that not only builds on the original, but also takes it to new heights.  Hopefully, Warner Brothers and DC’s high expectations are justified with their optimistic release date.  I enjoyed the last film very much, and I too have high hopes for the movie.  This could indeed be the movie that helps to bring movie theaters back to booming business, but given the dangers involved with the ongoing pandemic, it could prove to be a huge risk as well, and it’s asking a lot of the audience to put their health on the line in order to watch this in a theater.  Hopefully, the curve finally flattens before this movie makes it’s debut, but we’ll have to wait and see.

MANK (TBA FALL 2020)

With all this talk of the big tent-pole movies pushed back from the Summer and Spring, we can’t overlook the awards season films that also normally make their way to the silver screen.  The only question is, will they make it to the screen this year.  The entire rest of the 2020 movie calendar could still be in flux, and a lot of the movies put up for Oscar season might not even make it as scheduled.  Given that Academy Awards already decided to push back their deadline for consideration into February, there is less pressure to get these kinds of movies out onto screens before December 31.  Most of the Oscar season movies may now be coming out in January or February at the latest.  There are, however, a few movies vying for Awards consideration that will be released this year, and they are mostly the ones being made by streamers like Netflix.  In fact, Netflix has a few highly anticipated new movies from the likes of Charlie Kaufman, Ron Howard, Aaron Sorkin and maybe even the Coen Brothers if we’re lucky.  But, for me, the one that I’m looking most forward to is David Fincher’s new biopic called Mank.  The movie tells the story of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, who co-wrote the film Citizen Kane (1941).  The plot will detail the tumultuous history of that legendary film’s making from the point of view of Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman) and show how the pressures put on him from threats by the Hearst Corporation as well Orson Welles (Tom Burke) taking most of the credit, led to a short lived career for the now celebrated writer.  For movie lovers like me, this story is one that will make for a great cinematic experience, especially in Fincher’s hands.  We don’t much about the movie other than it’s cast and that it will be in black and white (a first for Fincher).  I hope that Netflix does screen this somewhere here in LA like they did for last year’s The Irishman (2019).  At least with Netflix behind this one, we know that it will be released without delay.  The only question now is when, and hopefully we get that answer soon and with an exciting trailer to go with it.

It will be interesting to see if these release dates do indeed pan out over the next few months.  I’m hopeful that we’ve gone through the worst of this pandemic and that movie theaters will be able to screen new releases in a safe manner.  That being said, it’s going to be a while before the business will be able to return back to normal.  With the digital only releases of Trolls World Tour, Scoob! and now Mulan, a precedent has been set for how studios can circumvent the movie theater industry with a premium On Demand model for release.  One hopes that it is temporary for the circumstances, but as of right now, the movie theaters need the studios support more than the other way around.  Now of course not every movie is going to benefit from streaming.  Disney suffered a loss by dumping the $140 million Artemis Fowl onto Disney+ instead of delaying it for theaters, but let’s face it, that movie was always doomed to fail, even with theaters open.  But, movie theaters are still in a desperate place, and a lot of hopes are riding on the movies set for this Fall.  Time will only tell what impact the deals the theater industry cut with the major studios, like the controversial one between AMC and Universal, will have on the future of the business.  If anything, this Fall season may be the one that makes or breaks the theatrical market forever.  Hopefully, the movies that I spotlighted here are big enough of a draw to help people return the movies.  I am cautiously optimistic, though I do understand that it will still be a tall order.  One thing that does give me hope is that I hear a lot of people lament about missing being in a theater during this time of year.  Being stuck in a home has run it’s course for many people, and they are eager to get back outside whenever they can.  I can see this whenever I’ve gone to Drive-In theaters here in LA.  They are almost always packed, which is a great sign for the theatrical industry.  It’s hard to know the future, but if what I’ve seen is any indication, the movie theater industry may not nearly as dead as we thought.

The Streaming Summer Games – How the Streaming Race Has Fared in the Stay at Home Era

Under normal circumstances, we would be having a much different experience this summer.  This mid-August week would have seen the closing of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games, which would’ve been a unifying and celebratory event for everyone around the world.  At this point, we would have had an exciting post-Comic Con outlook to get excited about, as the industry would’ve been rolling out all their most exciting news in the mega Summer event.  And at this point, we would have had a robust Summer movie season with the likes of Black WidowWonder Woman 84Tenet, Pixar’s Soul, and many more already in our rear view mirror.  But none of that has happened.  The coronavirus continued to rage on for the entire summer, even hitting it’s peak in July, and that left us with no Olympics, no Comic Con, and no movie season whatsoever.  2020 is almost certainly going to be seen as the “lost year,” with so much in the way of entertainment and sports having been either altered or cancelled outright in the hopes of flattening the curve of the pandemic.  Worse yet, it’s a problem that we still haven’t seen the light at the end of the tunnel with yet.  We know that like most other pandemics it will eventually burn out, but the impact will be felt long after it has subsided.  Movie theaters will forever change, as will sports and fan conventions.  We may never see the box office numbers that were once the life blood of the industry the same way again, and at the very least, it will take several years if not a generation to get it back to where it was during the 2010’s.  And yet, people are still able to find entertainment that has helped them to endure through these hard times, and it’s been through a platform whose development could not have been better timed for the era that we are going through right now.  For the moment we are in right now, streaming has been the life preserver for an industry and an audience that needs fresh and new entertainment.

The year 2020 will be known for quite a lot of things, but it will probably also be known as the year that Streaming came into it’s own as a vital part of the entertainment industry.  With movie theaters, performance venues, and sports arenas all shut down in compliance of the disease control requirements, streaming became more essential for the average household than ever before.  For the last decade, streaming was just a secondary option for anyone wanting to watch something new on television; competing more directly with say cable television than with any other entertainment output.  But, with things the way they are now, people are looking more and more at streaming as the future of entertainment.  With the “Stay at Home” orders coming down hard on many American states at the first outbreak of COVID-19, people were distressed by the fact that it left them with so little options for entertainment.   But with the loss of movie theaters and sports venues came a boom for streaming services.  The streaming market saw a nearly 20% increase in new subscriptions in just the first half of 2020 alone, greatly outpacing even their most optimistic of predictions.  The market leaders, Netflix and Amazon benefited greatly from these market conditions, but the same was also true for the fresh new crop of competitor whose launch over the last year could not have been more opportune, even though it came in the middle of a pandemic.  For some like Disney and Universal, streaming came as a much needed life line to help save them from the struggles of the economic hit that came from the pandemic.  And while the market has given a favorable hand to the streaming newcomers, it hasn’t all been spread out equally.  With this tumultuous and empty summer about to soon come to an end, it’s makes sense to take a look at who the winners and losers are in this Summer of Streaming.

First, we definitely need to examine the strength of these services by the factors that they themselves measure their success.  Chief among them is the rate of new subscribers to their service and the retention rate that they yield over time.  Netflix has managed to build it’s empire through a very high retention of old and new subscribers over it’s decade long history of streaming content.  As a result, they now have nearly 200 million individual accounts that pay the monthly subscription cost, which generates monthly revenue for the company in the billions, which in turn goes into the production of new exclusive content that will help them to grow their subscriber base even further.  This cycle has enabled Netflix to not only compete with the major studios as a formidable producer in it’s own right, but has up to this point also put the theatrical market into a defensive mode.  Amazon, though they operate a bit differently offering their streaming service as an extension of their Prime membership, still has a high retention rate of their viewership, which has firmly put them in second place overall.  But there is also the other marker of success that the streaming market has been making progress within, and that’s in the accolades it receives.  It’s not enough to have a high quantity of viewable content on any given platform; it also matters if it’s quality as well.  That has been the thing that upstart Hulu has proven among it’s bigger competitors.  Despite having launched well before Netflix and Amazon, Hulu’s subscriber base has remained relatively small.  But, they made up for it by making history as the first streamer to have won the top award at the Emmys, taking home Best Drama for The Handmaid’s Tale.  There are certainly several ways in which the newest competitors can tout their achievements, and the one’s shown from Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have proved that.  And given the shake-up that 2020 has made, these factors may end up being the new barometer for success in a very changed industry.

Considering all the factors, new subscribers, high retention, and accolades for the quality of the content, there are certainly some winners in this Summer streaming season.  Of the newest contenders, there is no doubt that Disney+ takes the crown by a significant margin.  Launching last November to much fanfare, Disney+ positioned itself perfectly to not only put itself in strong contention with the streaming giants of Netflix and Amazon, but to also have a strong foothold just in case something crazy and unexpected happened, like say a pandemic.  Once theaters began closing, Disney made the risky but overall right choice to bring their short-lived box office champ Onward (2020) immediately to the platform.  Onward only managed a two week run in theaters before the shutdown, and while it did cost Disney money to cut it’s run short, it did benefit Disney+ with more interest from prospective subscribers.  Couple this with earlier than expected premieres of Frozen II (2019) and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) on the platform as well, and Disney+ was generating some much needed buzz for a still relatively new streaming service.  And then they pulled out their ace in the deck; the musical Hamilton.  Originally intended for a theatrical release in 2021, Disney instead opted to launch the much anticipated filmed version of the blockbuster stage musical on Disney+ instead; and on a well timed Fourth of July premiere too.  With this, Disney not only propelled themselves ahead among new streaming competitors, they also gave the top dogs a run for their money.  Hamilton was the most streamed film on any platform this summer, even higher than any Netflix premiere, and by a wide margin.  If streaming is going to challenge the norms of Hollywood distribution in the next decade, it may not be Netflix that leads the charge but Disney given the huge swings they are currently taking, and that’s without having played their Marvel cards just yet.

One thing that has also benefited Disney+ plus thus far is their ratio of value to content at the core of their service.  Their $7 a month price tag is relatively reasonable and perhaps even a bargain given what they already have put on their service.  Not only is every Disney movie ever made available, but also every Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar film, plus a whole host of 20th Century Fox and National Geographic titles as well.  Netflix by comparison has a higher $12 a month base subscription, but their decade long production of original material has helped to back up the value of their service.  Eventually Disney will raise their price once they fill their platform with more original content, but for the meantime, their launch comes at a reasonable rate which has allowed for new subscribers to flock to them quickly, even in the middle of economic hardship.  And for a start-up, that value to cost ratio matters and it probably is what is separating the leaders from the rest of the pack.  This price point in particular is what is holding back what could have been one of the other top contenders from reaching where it should be.  HBO Max, the streaming platform run by Warner Media, has touted itself as the new home for everything under their media umbrella, including Warner Brothers Entertainment, HBO, DC Comics, Turner Classic Movies, Cartoon Network, as well as exclusive rights to Studio Ghibli.  However, while their lineup of content was impressive, their starting price was not; $14.99 a month.  Charging more a month for a platform with very little content than what Netflix has with their huge library, was a hard pill to swallow for many potential subscribers, and in many ways it has been what has prevented it from having a huge start in the market, which has alarmed some in the Warner Media empire.  Still, a last minute deal made with cable giant Comcast has given HBO Max some legs to stand on, but their continued absence from other streaming hardware makers like Roku and Amazon Fire may also dilute any success for them in the future.  For HBO Max’s shaky start, they can only hope that future high profile exclusives like the Snyder Cut of Justice League (2017) can give them the boost they’ll need to gain ground on the likes of Disney, Amazon and Netflix.

It makes you wonder if HBO Max had not made that eleventh hour deal with Comcast that they might have crashed and burned upon release.  It shows that more than anything that succeeding in this new market depends greatly on a good strategy.  Disney benefited from ideal timing and the strength of their catalog, but also being able to improvise in a time of crises has given them the edge they needed to stand out on top.  While HBO Max has had to figure their strategy out in new circumstances, other new platforms are making themselves stand out in other ways.  Apple TV+ launched two weeks prior to Disney+, and did so with lesser fanfare, but also with an entirely different roll-out model.  Apple’s platform runs through their iTunes store, making each of their exclusive content available to purchase separately without a subscription, but also makes this available as well at a bargain rate of $4.99 a month.  The downside is that Apple’s exclusive offerings are the smallest of any of the streamers, but again the smaller monthly price helps to match that value ratio.  In addition, Apple has also given people who have purchased any of their hardware products within the last year a free year long subscription, which is helping to bring people to their service who otherwise would’ve passed it by.  It’s too early to say what their retention rate will be once those free year subscriptions are up, but it nevertheless is a smart strategy for a newly minted service to start out with.  The same could hold true for late comer Peacock.  Launched recently in July, Peacock is taking a very different strategy by offering a sizable chunk of their content for free.  Once potential subscribers sign up for the service, then they are able to watch a number of shows on the platform at no charge, with the remainder available behind a pay wall.  Again, it’s hard to know if this may entice new subscribers to pay more for the premium content, but giving away so much for free at the get go is a smart strategy to entice people to try the service out first; like giving them a test run to see if they like it.  Once Peacock starts offering more exclusives and puts more of it in the premium paywall column, they could likely benefit from all the free subscribers who have enjoyed their service up to that point and find people more willing to pay up.  The times right now favor experimentation when it comes to making a streaming platform work, and for Apple and Peacock, they are experiments that could lead to good things down the line.

But, from what we have seen over the summer, there is certainly one example that will probably stand as a prime example of how not to launch a streaming service.  Poor Quibi almost seemed doomed from the get go.  The pet project of former Dreamworks Animation founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and his chief investor, former Ebay CEO and California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, Quibi was and is an odd little duckling in this streaming battlefield.  Instead of competing with the big studios over challenging the likes of Netflix, Quibi sought to carve out it’s competition against another internet giant; YouTube.  Quibi’s format centers around short 10 minute long videos that are ideally watched on mobile devices; with some shows uniquely formatted to play in a smart phone’s portrait mode.  Though short in length, each show would be given polished production values, and would be produced by some top tier filmmakers with marquee names attached to them.  No doubt Katzenberg was calling in quite a few favors from some of his many Hollywood friends, and there were some interesting projects announced to help launch the service.  The unfortunate thing is Quibi’s very format model does not justify it’s value of a subscription service.  YouTube offers millions of hours of content to for free to anyone who opens up their web page, supporting itself and it’s community of content creators through ad revenue.  No one would want to pay extra to watch something similar to that format, and that is what is at the heart of Quibi’s failure.  Upon launch, Quibi couldn’t muster 1 million subscribers in it’s first week; a number Disney+ achieved in it’s first hour.  And since then, their subscriber base has dwindled more than 80%, leaving the struggling streamer with the smallest overall viewership of any streamer.  Sure, it was a unique angle to take, making what are essentially bigger budget YouTube videos, but it does not justify the cost of Quibi’s subscription value, and as of right now, Katzenberg’s baby is sadly on life support.  Nobody wants to be a cautionary tale, but Quibi may indeed be what we look back on as the model for exactly the wrong way to build a streaming service.

It will be interesting to see what the competition that this summer has brought to the streaming wars will create for us in the years ahead.  Disney is certainly happy to see their streaming platform become a huge success, especially when all the other divisions of their company are suffering during this pandemic.  The upcoming experiment with Mulan on premium VOD will be yet another monumental movement by Disney+ that may change the film industry even more in the future.  And though HBO Max, Peacock, and Apple TV+ are all growing their viewership much more slowly, their experimentation may pan out in the years ahead as well; perhaps even putting them in contention with the industry leaders.  The only certain thing right now is that Quibi is not very likely to last long in this market.  If they couldn’t make their move in a period of time where streaming was the only game in town, then there is little hope for their future.  They’ll likely end up on the ash heap of other failed industry experiments like MoviePass, with their assets likely sold off to each of their competitors.  And let’s not forget, Netflix and Amazon continue to grow as well with this ever expanding market.  Netflix enjoyed it’s best quarter ever in fact, with all the people waiting on the fence finally diving fully in once the loss of the movie theater business made streaming more essential than ever.  At this point, we are learning what it takes to make the best moves in an industry that is rapidly changing.  When many of these streamers set out to launch themselves over the course of the last year, I’m sure that none of them thought that their value would be so needed so soon.  And as a result, we are seeing what could be the start of the new power base for the future of the industry; especially if the theatrical market fails to recover from this pandemic.  Some are winning and some are losing, but the race to the top is a long game, and it’ll be interesting to see what each streaming services pulls out of their sleeves in the years ahead, hopefully in a more stable world than we live in now.

Evolution of Character – Emma Woodhouse

There exists a stereotypical viewpoint over the works of an author like Jane Austen.  The books that she wrote over the course of her all too brief life have been the inspiration for many costume period dramas that more often or not are targeted towards middle-aged women heading to the movies with their friends after an afternoon lunch at a local wine bar.  Sure, Austen’s fan based has skewed female over the years, but it is such an underestimation of her impact on literature.  Her works are evocative of an era in pre-Victorian England, but the themes therein throughout her novels are just as provocative today as they were back when she wrote them.  On the surface, her novels are comedies of manners, but they also tackle harder issues such as class differences, the roles of women in society, and perhaps most pointedly, the manners of sexual activity.  She was not afraid to point out the abuses that men enact upon the “fairer” sex, and also challenge the definitions of masculinity and femininity in her novels.  Though still bound by the constraints of her time, Austen still managed to prove her free-thinking ideals through her writing.  It’s probably why she has endured so long as a favorite writer to many, because her writing was so ahead of it’s time.  As women have gained more equality over time, Austen’s novels take on a far more nuanced poignancy, as modern day critics begin to view Jane Austen as a pioneer for cementing a feminine voice within the canonical institution of Western Literature.

What particularly stands out in Jane Austen’s writing are her heroines.  In contrast to her contemporaries, Austen wrote about women burdened by societies expectations and constructed narratives that gave her female protagonists more control over their own destinies.  In the single most famous sentence of any of her works, the opening passage of her 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice, she wrote, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”  In a few simple words, she diminishes down exactly what men expect of the women in society, so that throughout the rest of the novel, she can focus far more on the complexity of her female characters, and how they challenge these “truths.”  In her short lifetime, Jane only published four novels, with two more (Persuasion and Northhanger Abbey) published posthumously.  Each of her novels focuses on much of the same thing, women torn between their independence, societies expectations, and falling in love.  But for the most part, she also goes out of her way to draw sympathy from the reader towards her heroines throughout the narrative.  Except for one.  With her fourth, and last published novel, Emma (1816), Jane Austen set out to in her own words, “take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”  With the character Emma Woodhouse, Jane created what may end up being her most richly complex character overall; spoiled rich and hopelessly naive, and yet endearing in her pursuit of self-realization and personal satisfaction.  What is interesting about Emma is that she is a character so far ahead of her time, that translating her story to modern day diminishes nothing from Jane Austen’s original vision of the character.  That is what has given Emma Woodhouse such an interesting presence on film throughout the years.  What follows is an interesting collection of some of her most noteworthy screen appearances, with some interesting contrasts that enrich the character and Austen’s writing even further.

JUDY CAMPBELL from EMMA (BBC FILM) (1948)

It may be surprising to know that Emma’s cinematic presence actually emerged relatively recently, as opposed to the other works of Jane Austen throughout the years.  Pride and Prejudice famously made it to the big screen in 1940 with Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson, but Emma would have to wait another half century before that would happen.  Instead, the story of Emma Woodhouse made it’s debut mostly through the medium of television.  The first ever adaptation of the novel outside of theater was this televised production put on by the BBC network in England.  Unfortunately, because the BBC never kept back-ups of their aired content due to their routine of recycling old tapes (Doctor Who fans know about this all too well) the original broadcast of this film is lost to us, surviving now only in scant still photographs like the one above.  It’s hard to judge how well this version translates Austen’s story, but it is interesting noting how this version came to be.  The project was spear-headed by actress Judy Campbell, who played the title role in addition to writing the teleplay adaptation.  A colleague of notable playwright and actor Noel Coward, Campbell was popular performer in her native England and she used the new medium of television to give herself a creative spotlight in the post-War years.  No doubt she viewed Emma Woodhouse as an ideal role to play, showcasing her knack for comedy as well as drama.  Other roles of hers that have survived throughout the years give us a sense of her talent, and you can imagine what she likely brought to the character in her performance.  Sadly, the lack of forward thinking on the part of the BBC has prevented this very first adaptation from surviving to the present day.

DOARN GODWIN from EMMA (BBC MINISERIES) (1972)

Given a couple decades to learn that it’s better to preserve for posterity, the BBC finally revisited the story of Emma Woodhouse again, this time with a version that was intended to last.  The lavishly produced mini-series (which also aired here in the States the same year on PBS) leaves no stone un-turned in the 6 episodes devoted to telling this story.  With that amount of time, the series does give an extensive amount of time to developing all the characters within the fictional village of Highbury.  The character of Harriet Smith, Emma’s friend and “pet project”, gets far more extensive development of character here, as we see the effects of Emma’s meddling in her advancement take a hold over the prolonged story-line, played effectively by actress Debbie Bowen.  Where I think that the mini-series falters slightly is in the depiction of Emma Woodhouse herself.  Actress Doran Godwin’s portrayal is perhaps a bit too restrained for the character.  Emma has to be nosy and at times very rude, but Godwin’s Emma is a bit too refined.  It’s perhaps because the BBC was churning out all these similar themed period dramas, including others based on Jane Austen’s other novels, that Doran Godwin was just filling in that expected Austen heroine persona, which she does convey well enough.  But, remember, Emma Woodhouse is not the same kind of character.  Her growth as a character is in discovering her own faults and that’s something that I don’t believe comes through in this telling of the story.  Emma, as a character, is Jane Austen’s critique of misplaced confidence among the idle rich, and it’s something that in many ways calls for a less conventional portrayal.  As classy as Doran Godwin’s performance is, it’s perhaps too refined for what the character needed.

ALICIA SILVERSTONE from CLUELESS (1995)

Of course, this is as far from conventional as you can get for adapting a Jane Austen novel, and in doing so, it managed to hit a bullseye.  Writer and Director Amy Heckerling took Jane Austen’s Emma and brought it up to date with a very contemporary re-telling.  To capture the essence of Austen’s vision of wealth mixed with naivete over gender roles and sexual destinies, she changed the setting to the one place that still fits within those conventions today; Beverly Hills, California.  In doing so, she transformed Austen’s high-spirited but naive heroine from a rosy-faced pre-Victorian debutante to a dim-witted but open-hearted American teenager.  A lot of the comedy comes from the different ways that Heckerling examines the “clueless” bubble in which her characters exist within.  Emma Woodhouse becomes Cher Horowitz (played to perfection by Alicia Silverstone) whose ambition to improve the lives of others clearly is over-matched by her lack of actual expertise, and whose focus is often dictated by fashion trends.  Despite the difference in time periods, Cher’s story is nearly beat for beat what Jane Austen imagined for Emma.  She spends the movie delighting in playing matchmaker and giving social outcasts their time to shine, such as the Harriet Smith stand-in Tai (played by the late Brittany Murphy).  But like Emma, she only realizes later on that her ambitions have taught her nothing about actual love, and that part of her loneliness has come from misjudging others.  Her crush turns out to be gay (already wed in the book), and the one she really discovers feelings for is the one who always pushed back against her attitude, that being her ex-step-brother Josh.  One improvement that Heckerling made from the book was reduced the age difference between her heroine and her ultimate love, which she did well by casting the ageless Paul Rudd in the role (seriously, 25 years later, he still looks the same).  It’s amazing that the best adaptation of Austen’s novel is the one least like the book, and yet it’s faithfulness to the ideals of the character as absolutely spot on.

GWYNETH PALTROW from EMMA (1996)

Of course, it only took a year later for us to get a film adaptation of Emma that actually sets itself in it’s original period.  In contrast to Clueless, this version of Emma is far less focused on pointing out the absurdities of it’s main character.  For the most part, Emma’s flaws come about more out of her tireless ambition that her lack of knowledge.  This version, played by then rising star Gwyneth Paltrow, is extremely assertive and intelligent, but is shown to be unfocused or perhaps too stubborn to understand what effect her meddling in other people’s affairs is actually doing.  Following a string of lavish productions based on the works of English classics during the 1990’s, including the many Merchant Ivory productions as well as Ang Lee’s lavish adaptation of Sense and Sensibility  (1995) written by Emma Thompson, this adaptation of Emma was a no-brainer.  Given the recent popularity of Clueless a year prior as well, the works of Jane Austen were experiencing something of a revival, and many people were anxious to see how this movie would indeed stand up.  While the movie itself is wonderfully produced and looks beautiful, and also has some great supporting performances from the likes of Toni Collette and Ewan McGregor, it’s portrayal of Emma herself unfortunately suffers, and there is something of a tragic reason for that.  American actress Gwyneth Paltrow was still fairly fresh in Hollywood at the time, and hadn’t quite mastered the British accent at this point, though she would improve by the time she played her Oscar-winning role in Shakespeare in Love (1998) a couple years later.  At the same time, she was being haunted on the set by Miramax chairman Harvey Weinstein who was grooming her for stardom and “other things.”  Now that we’ve seen the disgraced former producer finally be brought to justice,  Paltrow has come forward detailing  her own awful encounters with the predatory Weinstein, and it explains in a way the cloud that hangs over this movie and her performance.  It would have been interesting to see where she might have gone with the character had she performed under better circumstances.

KATE BECKINSALE from EMMA (ITV FILM) (1996)

Not to be outdone by their American counterparts, but British television also offered up their own new adaptation of Emma in the same amount of time.  Produced by independent British cable company ITV, this adaptation is a beautifully lavish production that does indeed feel true to the time period of Austen’s England.  Though lacking the budget of Miramax’s version, this television is still impressively mounted and features a stellar cast of British character actors.  But, what makes it stand out even more is Kate Beckinsale in the title role.  Long before Pearl Harbor (2001) and the Underworld series, this was the role that launched the actress into stardom.  She was celebrated for her performance, and it’s largely what got her attention in Hollywood soon after.  With regards to how it stacks up to Jane Austen’s vision of the character, her performance is certainly closer to the book than any other we’ve seen up to now.  She is less restrained than Gwyneth Paltrow and Doran Godwin’s portrayals, but is not a caricature like Alicia Silverstone’s Cher.  She balances both the comical and the dramatic with ease, and captures the gentility of the character perfectly well, but at the same time shows a bit of edge that helps to ground her in present.  Of all the earnest adaptations of the novel, this is the version of Emma Woodhouse that feels the closest to what is on the page, and that is a testament to Beckinsale’s range as a performer.  She would of course have a prolific career on the big screen, including a role in another Austen adaptation, Love & Friendship (2017), based on Jane Austen’s last posthumously published novel, the unfinished Lady Susan.  Given the crowded market of new films all adapting the same novel in a two year span, it’s a special thing to have this one stand out as well as it does.

SONAM KAPOOR from AISHA (2010)

It seemed inevitable that Jane Austen and Emma Woodhouse would find their way to Bollywood eventually.  Set aside the troubled influence of the British Empire on the Indian subcontinent, but English literature has found an interesting niche within Indian society, and in particular, has been a reliable source for adaptation in their vibrant film industry.  Jane Austen’s stories in particular fit very well with Bollywood’s love of melodrama and glamour, and of course Emma would be among them too.  Indian society is still grappling with issues of class strata and the expanding roles of women in society, and the plot of Emma lends itself very well to this dynamic.  I also wonder if the movie Clueless also influenced this adaptation, as it sets the story in the present day and it also a movie centered on fashion and pretty people living in pretty houses.  But, the essence of Austen’s story is still there, and the portrayal by actress Sonam Kapoor does follow the exact same attributes that we expect from the character.  She’s open-hearted, but also oblivious to what she really needs to do in order to find happiness, and obviously that involves her looking beyond superficial status.  Integrated society is something relatively new to India in the last couple generations, so seeing the heroine here using her influence to help out her lower class friends is something bold to show in a Bollywood film.  Kapoor herself probably identifies a lot with the character given that she is Bollywood royalty herself, being the daughter of one of India’s most famous actors, Anil Kapoor (Slumdog Millionaire).  What her portrayal definitely shows is the universality of Jane Austen’s work across the world, inspiring women from all walks of life to define their own destiny, while also holding onto their ideals.

ANNA-TAYLOR JOY from EMMA. (2020)

The most recent adaptation of the novel brings the character far more into the 21st Century with a decidedly more cynical take on Austen’s narrative.  This new film enjoyed a brief theatrical run in the early Spring of 2020, before theaters closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and largely got overlooked as a result.  Which is a shame, because it’s probably the film version that more closely follows Jane Austen’s intentions with the character than any other adaptation we’ve seen thus far.  In this version, we do get a version of Emma Woodhouse that is hard to like.  She is dismissive to others that she finds annoying, often rolls her eyes at inconveniences, and is clearly out of her depths with regards to what she believes is best for those around her.  It’s like filmmakers made this earnest, straightforward adaptation of the novel, but with the awareness of the movie Clueless.  The satire of Amy Heckerling’s modern adaptation certainly influenced this version, which places the story back in it’s appropriate setting, but combines it with a knowing wink to it’s audience about all the absurdity of it’s era as well.  Anya Taylor-Joy certainly relishes her time in this role, and she conveys so much through just her facial expressions alone.  I especially like the fact that she captures Emma’s unwarranted superiority in the early part of the film, showing the smugness of the character that I don’t think I’ve seen in any other version to date.  Through this, we see much more of an evolution that the character undergoes throughout the story.  In many ways, it’s a brave thing for the actor to do in starting off their performance by making the heroine less appealing and more spoiled.  If done correctly, the actor can earn far more goodwill from the audience when they see the hard edges of a character soften throughout the film, and Anya does that very well here.  It’s still fairly new, but already I feel like this version of Emma Woodhouse has cemented her place in the albeit short cinematic history of the character.

The work of Jane Austen is likely not going to diminish anytime soon, and surprisingly it has been the inspiration for not only some lavishly produced period adaptations of a long ago time, but also some rather sharp social commentaries of our own times as well.  Clueless for one thing holds up remarkably well today on it’s 25th anniversary as a satire of a specific class of people that still exist in our society; the idle rich.  When Austen first conceived of Emma Woodhouse as a character, she imagined this well-to-do upper class lady who felt that her own station in life granted her this authority to determine the destinies of those around her.  Though done without malice, Emma’s naive notion of thinking that she can make the best choices of partners for all the people in her life comes out of her lack of awareness over her position.  People in lower class can figure out love for themselves, they don’t need the guidance of an “enlightened” girl with very little to distress her.  Too often we see today people with wealth and influence try to inject themselves into an issue, and despite them meaning well, it only leads to more complications than what might have existed before, and in turn, reflects badly on said wealthy individual.  I think that is why Jane Austen wanted to write Emma as an experiment.  She wanted to shift the focus away the traditional “lowly” girl elevated to high standing through a dream husband that defined so many novels at the time, including her own, and instead show the flaws of a rich individual who understands so little while proclaiming to be an “expert” in love.  Emma Woodhouse as a result remains Austen’s most layered character and a character that remains surprisingly and disturbingly relevant to today’s society.

The New Normal? – Did Universal and AMC Change the Theater Industry Forever?

Within a matter of days, it will have been 5 full months since the silver screens went dark across the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage on with only the faintest view of the light at the end of the tunnel emerging, and we still don’t know if and when it will be safe to go back to the movies.  My optimistic outlook on the summer movie schedule for this year sadly didn’t pan out, and for the first time ever, the Summer Movie Season did not happen.  Once the launching point for some of the biggest blockbuster openings of the year, the Summer this year saw not one single theatrical opening.  Sure, the odd independent film did make it to a Drive-In here and there, but those were done at the same time as a day and date Video on Demand release, where the actual money was being made.  It’s a sad reality, but one that is unavoidable.  It’s just not safe or possible right now to cram people into a dark confined room and expect them to return in the same numbers as they have before.  As a result, the entire theatrical industry has had to completely restructure itself just to be able to survive.  The largest chains in America, AMC, Regal, and Cinemark have had to take out massive loans just so they can cover the substantial rental fees that their un-opened theaters require to remain standing.  AMC in fact is verging on the edge of bankruptcy and may even begin subtracting their reach in order to survive into next year.  All the while, the theaters are struggling with the ever increasing threat of streaming and VOD taking their business away for good.  This led to the very contentious showdown between AMC and Universal over the decision to release Trolls World Tour early , in breach of Universal’s long-standing contract with AMC.  This led many to believe that AMC would no longer run any Universal film as retaliation.  But, as we learned this week, the two parties came to a new agreement, and it is one that shockingly may forever affect the theatrical industry forever.

Here’s what you need to know about what this new agreement.  Upon the release of any new film under the Universal umbrella, the movie will play first theatrically in theaters like AMC exclusively for a period of 17 days.  Then at the end, it has the option of offering the same films as a VOD rental, thereby allowing the studio to make money off of audiences who prefer to stay at home much sooner than they have before.  What this does is close the previous window of 75 days (or roughly 2 1/2 months) that existed between theatrical and home video releases; a previously agreed upon deal that allowed theaters to benefit much more from the long tail lingering box office runs that have helped to keep ticket sales strong long after opening weekend.  With AMC and Universal closing that exclusive window down to just 2 1/2 weeks, it means that movie theaters only have that short amount of time to make the most of a movie’s opening box office before they lose to competition from on demand.  Now, the deal also gives AMC a bigger slice of the VOD rental revenue on Universal films as well, but upon looking at the deal as a whole, it’s hard to see where AMC really benefits at all.  Ticket sales alone aren’t what keeps the theater afloat; its the concessions sales that actually brings in the profit.  And with a still raging pandemic making concessions sales a harder sale even if the theaters reopen right away, it almost looks like AMC is the losing party in this, because that window of exclusivity is so much smaller.  But at the same time, AMC no longer had any solid ground to stand on.  The thing that makes this new deal between the two entertainment giants so eye-opening is the fact that it is in complete contradiction to what has been the norm in the theatrical machine of cinema for most of it’s history.

With Universal and AMC’s new distribution deal, we see an unprecedented shift in the dynamics between the theaters, the distributors and the studios.  The thing that has drawn so much attention is that this 17 day window is not standard across the industry; it’s just between Universal and AMC.  Naturally, other studios like Disney, Warner Brothers, and Paramount complained to AMC about them giving this special consideration to their competitor rather than them.  And Regal and Cinemark raised concerns as well, saying that AMC was changing a norm across the industry that is going to hurt their long term futures as well.  Sure the pandemic has led to drastic measures to be taken to allow for movie studios to be able to still make revenue during the closure of theaters across the country, but no one thought that Universal and AMC would shorten it by so much.  As of right now, Regal, Cinemark and many other smaller chains maintain contracts with all the studio distribution departments that enshrine that long-lasting tradition of a wide theatrical window.  With AMC’s supposed capitulation, it puts the pressure on the other chains to reconsider their own contracts, as the other Hollywood studios are demanding shorter windows like Universal has gotten, so that they too can remain competitive.  This has led many to believe that this change in the length of exclusivity for theatrical runs may be part of the new normal that we are likely to see after the pandemic has run it’s course.  And it is a new normal that will forever change what we think of as the theatrical experience.

What will change most is the way that we judge a movie by the revenue that it makes.  Particularly in the last decade or so, box office became the barometer of a movie’s success.  If a movie didn’t open well in the first week, or even in the first couple days, it would be labelled forever as a box office bomb, which for some movies becomes a stain that is hard to wash off.  Sometimes, movies would benefit from long theatrical runs, and become a box office hit steadily over time.  Remember, neither Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) opened to record-breaking box office, but they continued to build their audience over successive weeks and eventually became the highest grossing movies of all time.  But, with the exclusive theatrical window shortened, that long tail effect is far less likely to happen.  The movies will still be able to generate profit with the VOD option being made available sooner, but box office numbers will likely plummet after that 17 period.  And at that point, we may have to reconsider what we label as a flop and a hit, because many movies make money on different scales.  Something big like a Marvel movie no doubt has a huge front loaded opening weekend, which helps to cement a reputation for being a box office champion, but there are sleeper hits that quietly become profitable long after they’ve left the silver screen.  With a shorter window, the terms box office hit and box office flop become far more relative.  Do we begin to combine these two revenue generators together, or do we abandon the entire notion of judging a movie by how many tickets it sells?  This is one of the things that is likely going to change dramatically with this new normal that is likely going to take place, and it’s one that puts far more pressure on the theatrical market than it does the studio.

What this also means is a huge reversal of established law that prohibited the studios from having too much influence over the theatrical market.  Here’s a history lesson for you:  the United States Supreme Court made a landmark decision in the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948, otherwise known as United States vs. Paramount Pictures, where it was stated that film studios could not own movie theaters, nor hold exclusive rights on which theaters would show their movies.  This decision effectively ended a practice known as block-booking, which is where a studio sells to a theater a collection of films as a unit, to which the theaters had to screen, regardless of the quality of the films themselves.  This benefited the studios, because they then could ensure the profitability of their movies regardless if they were good or not, which itself caused an unfair advantage towards what was known as the Big Five of the time (Paramount, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, MGM, and RKO) all of whom owned the same theaters.  The smaller independent studios like Republic, United Artists, Columbia and yes Universal (the ones who didn’t own theaters) complained that block-booking squeezed out business for them and they took the majors to court for what they saw as a violation of Antitrust Laws.  The Supreme Court ruled in their favor and the theatrical and distribution machine that ensured profitability for the major studios were completely upended.  Theaters now had to run independently, and it was now upon the studios to reassess what kind of movies they would be making for theatrical release.  It was a time of significant upheaval, because the studios no longer force theaters to buy nearly 400 movies in a given year, and it led to many layoffs and closures of theaters across the country.  At the same time, television emerged to fill that gap, and the studio system became effectively a shell of it’s former self.  But out of this emerged new innovations like Widescreen and surround sound, which made going to the movies again a special engagement.  And movie theaters likewise adjusted.  The newly formed independent industry grew, and eventually evolved to create multiplexes across the country, creating more theaters than before.  But, under the circumstances that we are in now, a lot of consideration is being given to reexamining that past decision.

There is no doubt about it; the Paramount Case was a violation of Antitrust Law, which stifled competition in the marketplace, and by breaking up the studios from the theaters, it did open the industry up to more independent voices and renewed competition that would help it grow.  But, in a time when the very existence of movie theaters is at a precarious point of collapsing altogether, some are wondering if studios should once again take a larger role in the theatrical distribution market.  There have been exceptions over time.  Many of the major studios today can hold an interest in publicly traded companies that operate movie theaters, although not with a majority stake.  A small chain like Pacific Theaters, which owns the popular brand Arclight in some major American cities, has investors like Disney as a part of their portfolio.  And studios are allowed to have ownership of independent screens as well.  Disney owns the landmark El Capitan Theater on Hollywood Boulevard here in Los Angeles, and have used it as their home base venue for premieres and special screenings.  More recently, Netflix purchased the nearly 100 year old Egyptian Theater down the street from the El Cap, and have used it for their own screenings, while still maintaining the partnership with American Cinemateque that existed previously with the venue.  But the change that we are seeing with AMC and Universal is an unprecedented quid pro quo that we haven’t seen between theaters and studios since that Paramount Case decision.  What does that mean for the future?  The two parties are not exactly breaking the statute of the law, since AMC is maintaining as an independent body, but by giving so much leeway to Universal, it’s granting so much more power to a studio body to distribute the way it sees fit than we’ve seen in a very, very long time.  Is it going to lead to even further control of the theatrical market by the studios from here out?

One thing to consider is that changes have been made many times to the theatrical experience to suit the times, and they have been funded largely by the studios themselves.  The reason why movie theaters converted all to digital projection 10 years ago was because the studios invested in the technology.  They saw the money that was being made by 3D movies like Avatar, and they wanted to be sure that the widest possible reach of the audience could be maintained, so they helped the theaters update their equipment.  The existence of multiplexes are another example of this; when the blockbuster era emerged, more screens were needed to meet demand.  Now, with theaters closed and in need of cash flow, who else can they turn to than the movie studios for a lifeline?  Federal loans can only help in the short run; a long-term plan is going to be needed to get the movie theaters back to normal.  The question remains, do studios step in temporarily or is it time for industry to revert back to its old ways.  The Paramount decision remains in place, but it has been chiseled back over time, and with our current administration, who knows really how much oversight is in place.  Up until now, I would’ve said that the Paramount Decision ensured a far better environment for all parties; it granted more autonomy for the theaters to operate the way that they saw fit, and that put more pressure on the studios to change the movies that they make.  It was a balance that was not always perfect, but nevertheless allowed for more creative freedom to build business more effectively.  But the times call for immediate reassessment of the flaws in the system.  There’s no doubt that part of why AMC is in such a desperate situation is because of their recklessly unchecked growth.  No doubt they felt the pressure to hand more influence over to Universal.  The question is, what is Universal going to do with it?

One thing that is certain now is that enough has been done to ensure that the major theatrical chains will eventually reopen once this pandemic has run it’s course.  That is good news for people like me who greatly prefer the theatrical experience because after spending months watching movies in the home, I can say that there seriously is no substitute.  But, in the case of Universal and AMC, have we seen too much given away in exchange for these theater chains to survive the pandemic closure.  AMC’s window of profitability is much smaller now, and Universal now is able to ensure it’s financial security at the former’s expense.  Not only that, but the other chains and studios are now put into the situation that they have to reconsider their own contracts in response.  Are we now going to see a complete breakdown of the separation of powers tradition in the industry, and witness exclusive engagements between different studios and chains as a new normal?  It’s hard to believe that only 5 months of closed movie theaters could change so much in the industry overnight.  It remains to be seen if the deal made between AMC and Universal will indeed change cinema as we know it.  The next Universal release won’t even be until next year, as they’ve completely given up on the rest of 2020.  With other studios still holding onto their 2020 releases, do they make similar deals with the theaters to ensure their bottom line?  The thing that I worry about the most is that movie theaters, who were already struggling against the rise of streaming, are going to be forever relegated by this move.  We may likely see a complete reduction of the theatrical market in the years ahead, with the larger chains forced to close many of their under-performing locations forever.  Many other contractions in the past have led to periods of renewal after, and movie theaters have made resounding comebacks over the years.  But, this time is different.  The studios have a new way to make money, and it’s putting the theaters in an ever increasing position to prove their worth.  The pandemic is testing that at this very moment.  We’ll know in time what this will all lead to, but it’s safe to say whatever comes out of this time of turmoil for the movie theater industry is not what we would’ve called just a few months ago anything close to “normal.”

Cauldron Born – The Story of The Black Cauldron and When Disney Went Dark

Sometimes you just want to try something new.  After devoting much of their history to producing films that were geared for all audiences, Disney found itself in the post Walt years in something of a creative depression.  Not wanting to divorce themselves from the tried and true formula that had worked for them so well in the early days, Disney unfortunately began to become complacent in the 1970’s, and were likewise criticized by both the industry and their fan base for it.  While Hollywood was in a experimentally vibrant period of renewal with films like The Godfather (1972), Taxi Driver (1976), and Jaws (1975), Disney was putting out simple light entertainment like The Barefoot Executive (1971), The Shaggy D.A. (1976), and Pete’s Dragon (1977).  They were films that were entertaining an increasingly smaller audience base, and it seemed more and more that Disney was out of step with the time period.  This would come to be known as the Disney Dark Ages; a time where the once mighty company reached it’s closest point of failure.   If Disney was going to survive, they needed to reconsider the kinds of projects they would be investing money in, and with the times changing like they did, that meant green-lighting projects that never would have made it past Walt’s desk during his time.  In the late 70’s, Disney made it’s first forays into more grown up entertainment, albeit with caution.  This included their first ever PG-rated film, the Sci-Fi adventure The Black Hole (1978), as well the horror themed The Watcher in the Woods (1980) and the highly experimental Tron (1982).  Though Disney changed precedent many times to make these kinds of films possible, it unfortunately didn’t work as expected, with many of the films either disappointing at the box office, or outright flopping.  The question going into the decade that followed remained this; could Disney indeed grow up and make edgy entertainment, and even more uncertain, could they do it in animation too.

Disney animation during these Dark Age years was also in something of a transition.  With Walt Disney’s untimely death in 1966, the animation studio that had been the core of the company since the beginning no longer had a clear creative direction.  The powers in charge of the corporation looked to a select group of Disney artists known affectionately as the Nine Old Men to steer the next few years of animation at the studio, but there was only so much these artists could do.  The Nine Old Men were just that, growing old, and were ready to retire.  Some would stay on well into their twilight years at the company, but it became more important than ever that new talent was needed as a replacement for these aging veterans of the Golden Years.  The studio established a special studies animation program at the nearby California Arts Institute in Valencia, California.  There, the Nine Old Men would pass along the tricks of their trade to a new crop of animators.  Out of this program would emerge the artists that would go on to define the next 30-40 years of Animation, including future pioneering directors like John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Ron Clements, John Musker, and even Tim Burton.  And though the promising talent that was coming out of Cal Arts was giving the studio confidence about the future, the state of the products that they were making was a less optimistic picture.  The Aristocats (1970), Robin Hood (1973), The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) and The Rescuers (1977) were all under-performing at the box office, and as a result, the budgets were slashed with each subsequent film.  It also became noticeable that Disney was just tracing over old animation in a way to save costs.  It was not an ideal situation for an eager new crop of artists to find themselves being a part of.  Something big and different was needed to shake Disney out of it’s complacency.

That bold new thing would turn out to be a collection of fantasy novels known as The Chronicles of Prydain.  Written by American author Lloyd Alexander, the Chronicles of Prydain were a high fantasy series based on Welsh mythology that was no doubt inspired of the wild success of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.  Alexander wrote five novels in total, formalizing the concept during his time stationed in Wales during World War II.  All five novels would be published a year apart in the mid-1960’s, with the second and fifth both earning prestigious Newbery honors.  It seems strange now, but fantasy novels were not a popular source for Hollywood properties back in the 60’s and 70’s; even Lord of the Rings would be passed over multiple times.  So, surprisingly, Disney picked up the rights to Alexander’s novels in 1971 in a rare big studio move.  Nine Old Men legends Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston were the one’s who initially brought the series to the studio’s attention, seeing it as a possible successor to the likes of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) or Sleeping Beauty (1959).  Early pre-production began in earnest in 1973, with veteran conceptual artist Mel Shaw creating the first visual development for the film to be.  Shaw, whose incredible pastel paintings helped to influence the style of Disney films all the way back to Bambi (1943) created a truly epic vision of the world of Prydain that could rival Sleeping Beauty in scale and scope.  But alas, as production rolled along in the years of the Disney Dark Age, that vision would sadly become more and more compromised.  It became clear that Disney would not be making all the books in the Prydain series, instead opting to condense the epic story down to a singular film.  Many characters were either excised or condensed down, and the story itself beared less and less resemblance to the original books, save for the bare essential ingredients.  Eventually, you would think that Disney would choose to either shelve such a project for later or abandon it completely after it became clear that they didn’t have the resources available to make it into a reality.

But, continue they did, because in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Disney was facing a crisis in the field of animation that shook their very foundations.  Don Bluth, a prominent animation director who rose through the ranks of Disney, had a very public falling out with the diminishing studio.  He complained that Disney was not rising to the standard of what they used to make, instead opting to make safe and often cheap looking animation.  He wanted to push Disney towards taking more artistic risks, but when they refused to listen to him, he decided to not only cut ties with Disney, but he also took half of their staff with him, as many of them shared his grievances.  It wouldn’t be long before Bluth had set up his own independent studio and within a short time, he received studio backing for his first feature; The Secret of NIMH (1982).  NIMH would be a game-changer in the animation industry; utilizing Disney quality animation on a story that was far more mature and darker than what we knew was capable from the genre.  Adult animation existed before, but it was niche and no where near as polished as The Secret of NIMH.  And it appealed to audiences of all ages.  Adults could finally watch a cartoon that had some edge to it, while kids could enjoy a movie that actually challenged their senses.  In essence, it was movie that more or less should have been what Disney could have been making, but weren’t.  And Bluth’s gamble worked.  The Secret of NIMH was a huge success, and Disney suddenly found itself now in a position that they were unfamiliar with; playing catch-up.  Their cute animal film released just before NIMH, titled The Fox and the Hound (1981) seemed trite in comparison.  Animation was changing fast, and Disney needed to change themselves if they were going to survive.  So, that’s when they began to put their newly trained artists to work on the world of Prydain, hoping to make a dark turn of their own that would match what Bluth and his team had just done.

Taking it’s title from the second book in the series, The Black Cauldron would introduce many firsts for the Walt Disney Company.  It was the first animated feature from Disney to earn a PG rating, something that wouldn’t happen again until 2001’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire.  It also was the first animated film ever to use computer animation, albeit in a very primitive and largely unnoticeable way, primarily for the visualization of the titular cauldron itself and a floating light orb.  Though there were some advancements during the making of the movie, The Black Cauldron also suffered from the many budget cut backs made during this period of time.  The film’s original director, John Musker, was moved off the project and re-teamed with another fresh new director named Ron Clements on the smaller scale The Great Mouse Detective (1986), and his replacements Ted Berman and Richard Rich (Fox and the Hound) were brought in to reign in the budget even more.  Despite the smaller budget, a concerted effort was still made to create a epic scale film.  It would be the first animated Disney movie since Sleeping Beauty to be for 70mm film, and it would bring back animation techniques not used since Walt’s time like animated backgrounds and the multi-plane camera to help make the movie more dynamic despite the budget cuts.  Even still, the production lagged on with delays  and numerous reworkings to the script.  The voice actors recorded their dialogue over the course of 5 years, which creates a jarring effect, especially when the voice of the main character Taran, a young newcomer named Grant Bardsley, had his voice break during that time.  Watching the movie, you’ll notice that Taran’s voice changes half way through, and that’s only because there was just no money left in the budget to recast or re-record the main character.  Despite the cost-saving measures, The Black Cauldron still came in at a staggering $44 million dollar cost; equivalent to $120 million today, which was a lot for animation.  Disney was hoping that this would be the game-changer they needed and they were banking a lot on that gamble, even with money being as tight as it was.

The conditions might have seemed favorable for Disney at the time.  Fantasy films were going through something of a renaissance in the early 1980’s.  Movies like Excalibur (1981), Dragonslayer (1981), and Conan the Barbarian (1982) emerged as box office and critical hits, and the success of Wolfgang Petersen’s The Neverending Story (1984) even showed that a fantasy film could succeed at appealing both to adult and younger audiences in equal measure.  However, Disney had another issue to contend with right before The Black Cauldron’s summer 1985 release.  After a near hostile take-over by aggressive business capitalist Saul Steinberg, the Disney Board of Directors elected to end CEO, and Walt Disney’ son in law, Ron Miller’s tenure at the studio, a move supported by Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney.  The Disney company then brought in Michael Eisner and Frank Wells over from Paramount to revitalize the ailing studio.  In one of their first moves at the company, Eisner and Wells appointed Jeffrey Katzenberg to head the animation department.  Katzenberg was in charge of shoring up the cost overruns in the animation department, and unfortunately The Black Cauldron became a major point of concern.  With animation at near 90% completion, Katzenberg requested a screening of the film in it’s current state, and according to staff at the time, was just appalled by what he saw.  The movie, as he stated, was just far too violent and graphic, and he worried that Disney might end up with an R-Rating as a result, which would’ve been catastrophic for it’s chances at the box office.  As a result, nearly 10 minutes of completed or near complete animation was cut from the film, which led to an already tense beginning to Katzenberg’s tenure at the animation studio.  Much of what was lost in the edit were some of the more graphic moments relating to the un-dead Cauldron Born soldiers that emerge in the film’s climax, which some in the animation community considers to be among some of the most incredible animation ever done at the studio.  To this day, little of those missing minutes have ever been recovered, and it’s thought that a full restored cut is impossible as a result, sadly making the movie feel even more unfinished all these years later.  Still, Katzenberg did what he felt he needed to do in order to make the movie more palatable for family audiences.  But as both he and the studio would soon learn, the writing had already been on the wall for this troubled production.

The Black Cauldron released on July 24, 1985 and was immediately met with disinterest by audiences.  Cauldron failed to capitalize on the fantasy craze of it’s era, and was also rejected by long time Disney fans as well for being very out of character from what they expected from the studio.  Perhaps most embarrassing for Disney was not only the fact that The Black Cauldron failed at the box office, but that it also lost out in it’s opening weekend to The Care Bears Movie (1985), which was still performing well despite opening 3 weeks prior.  Ultimately grossing a meager $21 million on a $44 million budget, this ultimately looked like the final nail in the coffin for Disney Animation.  In fact, Disney would be so embarrassed by the movie that the film wouldn’t receive a home video release until 1998; a full 13 years later.  But, to Katzenberg’s credit, he didn’t give up on the studio after The Black Cauldron’s crushing disappointment.  The already green-lit Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company (1988) would still continue on to completion, and the promising Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) was getting many at the studio very excited about the company’s future prospects.  So, Katzenberg looked to the John Musker and Ron Clements, whose work together on Great Mouse Detective came about as a result of Musker’s depature from Cauldron, for any new ideas that could be looked at as a future project for the demoralized animation department.  Their idea of a return to the traditional fairy tale formula with an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid was immediately accepted, and out of the ashes of The Black Cauldron, Mermaid would indeed be the movie that would launch what we now know as the Disney Renaissance.

It’s been 35 years now since The Black Cauldron crashed and burned at the box office, and it’s place within the Disney canon is still an interesting one.  For the most part, Disney still kind of treats The Black Cauldron as the black sheep of the family; an embarrassment that they would rather forget.  Despite an eventual home video release and a couple DVD releases thereafter, it has yet to be given a blu-ray release or high definition transfer.  Still, they don’t hide it away like Song of the South (1947); the movie is out there in the market, it’s just not treated with the same care as some of the other classics.  Even among die hard Disney fans, the reception is still mixed.  Some see it as an unfinished mess while others see it as a neglected gem.  It has developed a cult following over the years; in fact the film has had a long standing fan base in Asia and Europe long before it began to take hold here in America, mainly due to them having earlier access to home video copies.  The movie’s villain, The Horned King (voiced incredibly by the legendary John Hurt) is widely celebrated as one of Disney’s darkest and most captivating characters, and he’s likely the only character from the film that Disney still acknowledges today in any sort of marketing.  However, if you are a fan of the books themselves, this film adaptation will still leave you wanting.  Even Lloyd Alexander himself stated that the movie bears little to no resemblance to his narrative.  But given Disney’s recent proclivity towards remaking their past properties, I suggest that they take a look again at the Prydain Chronicles once again.  For one thing, they can finally do the books justice and not have to compromise the epic scope of the story anymore, given Disney’s success since then.  I also suggest that instead of a live action film, Disney should instead look at making The Black Cauldron into a live action series, in the same vein as Game of Thrones or Amazon’s upcoming Tolkein series.  Disney’s just sitting on those rights; why not put them to work.  The Black Cauldron as a movie is an interesting oddity in the Disney canon, and in many ways a valiant attempt to do something different at the legendary studio.  Had circumstances been different, it could have rivaled some of the greatest classics of all time in animation, but even still it’s ambition makes it a standout, especially at a time when Disney was in dire need of a shake-up.  Despite being the darkest point of the Disney Dark Ages, it’s lessons helped to spark one of the greatest revivals in movie history, and that in itself is something that helps to give it a special footprint in the history of all animation.

Focus on a Franchise – Star Wars: The Sequel Trilogy

What a ride the Star Wars universe has been on in it’s 40-plus years of existence.  When George Lucas wrote out his first draft of his intergalactic space opera back in 1977, I don’t think he ever thought that it would be a movie that would change cinema forever, let alone build it’s own empire.  He was just looking to make a movie that would satisfy his own interests; namely making a throwback to the movies that he grew up with.  Nevertheless, Star Wars changed everything, and it launched George Lucas into an entirely different path in his life.  He stepped away from the director’s chair and instead focused on managing this ever growing movie empire that spawned from the success of Star Wars.  He built Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) into an industry leader special effects studio.  He helped to put the Bay Area on the map as a film-making destination with his establishment of the Skywalker Ranch compound, and also with his early investment in Pixar Animation.  But, it was always the continued influence of Star Wars that fueled George’s many projects thereafter.  Eventually, he did return to the director’s chair and expand the Star Wars mythos even more with his prequel trilogy.  The results, however, divided the Star Wars fan-base.  Older fans saw the prequels as a betrayal, while younger fans embraced these new adventures much in the same way that the past generation had.  For Lucas, the movies proved financially successful, but he was also receiving backlash for the first time for making the same kinds of movies he had made all those years before.  As a result, Lucas again retreated from directorial duties, and instead focused on maintaining what he had already built before.  In time, he managed to win around more goodwill with his efforts to expand the Star Wars universe outside the main saga films with animated series like Star Wars: The Clone Wars as well as with well received video games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.  But, in 2012, Lucas stunned the world by declaring that he was handing the reigns of empire over to a new master.

With a deal valued at just over $4 billion dollars, George Lucas agreed to sell his studio and all of it’s assets over to The Walt Disney Company.  Though the sale came as a surprise to many people within the industry, the fact that it was Disney who were behind it was less surprising.  Lucas and the Disney Company had collaborated before, mainly on theme park attractions based on Lucasfilm properties.  Disneyland won out over other heavy hitters like Universal to become the home of rides based on the Star Wars and Indiana Jones properties, and it was mainly because Lucas himself just believed Disneyland would be a better home for his characters.  For nearly 30 years, it was already commonplace to see Star Wars characters represented alongside those of Disney at the parks.  Now, with the deal in place, Disney was making all of Star Wars officially a part of the Disney family.  But, was Disney just buying Star Wars in order to capitalize on already established products.  Of course not.  Just like with Marvel, Disney intended to put their newly acquired asset to work, and they did so by announcing that they would be making a whole new series of Star Wars movies.  Not only that, but they would be picking up where George had left off in 1983 with the ending of Return of the Jedi.  This was exciting news to Star Wars fans across the world, but it also came with a grain of caution.  The backlash against the prequels was still fresh in a lot of people’s minds, and many were wondering if making Star Wars without the guidance of George Lucas was even possible.  Still, Disney wasted no time, enlisting widely celebrated filmmakers to undertake their reboot of the series, with J.J. Abrams, Rian Johnson, and Colin Treverrow put in charge of what would be the new prequel trilogy.  To the delight of many, Disney also managed to talk all the former cast into returning, including Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher.  Even ailing Peter Mayhew was going to don the fur once again as Chewbacca for a couple scenes.  But, even with all that talent, a lot rested on how audiences would embrace this new era of Star Wars.  So, let’s take a look at the completion of the Skywalker Saga with this retrospective of Star Wars’ sequel trilogy.  And caution, spoilers ahead.

STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS

Directed by J.J. Abrams

The way you make or break a franchise is in how you approach the way it starts.  Some franchises just like to jump out of the gate running, delivering every bit of information we need to know right from the beginning, which unfortunately robs the movie of any mystery.  J.J. Abrams rightly assumed that everyone who was going into his seventh chapter of the Star Wars saga was already familiar with the world of this series, so he focused instead on the thing that mattered more; the characters.  In a wise gesture to the past success of the franchise, Abrams enlisted Empire Strikes Back (1980) scribe Lawrence Kasdan to help him with the script, and this made a big difference in the end.  If there was ever someone who knows this universe as well as George Lucas, it’s Kasdan, and with his help, the script was able to capture that past glory of what made Star Wars so memorable in the first place.   The story picks up 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, and all that time is perfectly summed up in the succinct opening scroll; Luke Skywalker has vanished, a zealous group known as the First Order have risen out of the ashes of the fallen Empire, and General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is once again leading a rebellion.  That’s all we need to know before the movie begins, and the rest of the movie can breeze along.  The one major complaint that I hear about The Force Awakens is that it’s too familiar, and it’s hard to argue against that.  The movie does, for the most part, play like a retread of A New Hope, almost beat for beat.  And yet, J.J. Abrams was able to make that work to his advantage.  What people wanted to see was that it was still possible to make a Star Wars movie that felt like a true Star Wars movie, and to the tune of record smashing box office, J.J. proved that it was indeed possible, if a little overly derivative.

What makes The Force Awakens work as well as it does can be found in it’s opening act.  Before Abrams starts to drop all the heavy nostalgia nuggets into his film, he devotes the first 30 minutes to establishing the newest characters to the series.  In the first act, we meet Poe Dameron, the cocky rebel pilot, Finn, a disillusioned storm trooper ready to defy the First Order, Rey a mysterious, young orphan scavenger on a desolate planet, and Kylo Ren, the First Order’s Sith Lord commander.  The stakes are made clear and every new character’s wants and needs are defined very well; with much of the same economic efficiency as George Lucas had in the original film.  After all the introductions are made, and we are abe to sympathize with our new protagonists, we finally get our first taste of the series icons, starting with a hilariously casual reveal of the Millennium Falcon.  From then on, Abrams lays on the nostalgia pretty thick, but it feels earned at that point.  We’ve already grown attached to the new characters, so we’re able to both enjoy the nostalgia points while also remaining invested in this new adventure.  Even the most hardened critic will find it difficult not to smile when Han Solo and Chewie reenter the Falcon for the first time in years and with a smile Han says, “Chewie, we’re home.”  At the same time, Force Awakens is not afraid to take some chances, primarily with some of the legacy characters.  Han Solo meets his end in this film, at the hands of his own son, Kylo Ren, in a extra tragic twist.  No matter what, it was crucial for Abrams to put the series on solid footing on it’s first time outside of George Lucas’ control, and he managed to do just that.  In particular, he did a marvelous job of establishing the new generation that were going to be the standard bearers of this series, with Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver all delivering stand out performances that both stand on their own, but also do justice to the series that they are in.  The only question is, did Abrams play it too safe by repeating much of the same notes as past Star Wars movies, and would it be possible to make a Star Wars movie that felt a great deal different.

STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI

Directed by Rian Johnson

The table was perfectly set for Rian Johnson (Looper, Knives Out) to pick up where J.J. Abrams left off.  Rey, having learned that she is sensitive with the Force, goes off to find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), so that he can train her to be a Jedi.  Meanwhile, Leia and the rebel force continue their offensive against the First Order, with the Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) taking on a more active role after the destruction of the Starkiller Base.  So, what does Johnson do with the narrative that’s been laid out for him; why he completely upends everything we expect we know about Star Wars.  Johnson took this opportunity to rethink what a Star Wars narrative could actually be.  Here, we have a Jedi Master in Luke Skywalker who has lost his faith and wishes to live in solitude.  Snoke, who was established to be a new big bad for the Star Wars universe, is quickly tricked and disposed of by his own apprentice; Kylo Ren.  Poe Dameron learns that it’s to the best interest of the rebellion that you shouldn’t try to take on the First Order alone, and instead fight to protect the things you love instead.  The Last Jedi takes every expectation that we have about Star Wars, and flips it on it’s head, raising some very provocative questions.  Unfortunately for Johnson, this was not the movie that many Star Wars fans were wanting or expecting.  Of all the movies in the Star Wars franchise, this is the most polarizing one, with people falling into either the loved it or hated it camps, with almost no in-between.  For me, I actually fall into the former.  The Last Jedi is not my favorite film in the franchise, but it’s the one that I admire the most, because it took the boldest chances.  The moment that Luke tosses his lightsaber over his shoulder like it’s trash was when I knew we were in for a whole different Star Wars movie, and I was all for it.  For a series like Star Wars to grow, it needed to redefine itself, or otherwise it would just keep repeating the same notes over and over again.  But, alas, a lot of vocal critics were not pleased with this choice.

The heart of The Last Jedi is found in it’s portrayal of Rey’s growth as a character.  We learn that Rey’s path towards becoming a Jedi is not going to be as easy of a road as it was for Luke.  Luke recognizes the dangers of tapping too deep into the powers of the Force, and that’s what has made him disillusioned for all these years.  He sees the potential for Rey to be drawn to the Dark Side, just like Kylo Ren and Darth Vader had been, and more troubling is just how unchecked her powers are and how her desire for purpose is fueling that dangerous road towards the darkness.   Many critics have found Rey to be a “mary sue,” but in Johnson’s narrative, he makes that point as the danger always lies in the fact that Rey is too powerful for her own good, and her naivete could drive her more easily towards the Dark Side, making her a potentially threatening presence.  It’s that fine line between heroism and villainy that Johnson wanted to explore, and show that any one of us could also mistake purity as security.  Rey’s search for identity endangers both herself and those she loves, and the fact that she steps back and accepts that heroism is  more about selflessness than glory, she ultimately manages to distinguish herself as a hero.  In turn, Luke finds a way to believe in himself again.  Though Johnson does flip the narrative around, he does leave us with Luke Skywalker once again facing down the Empire by himself, only in a self-sacrificing way that doesn’t stop the bad guys so much as it gives the good guys a fighting chance.  Luke learns to fight for what he loves, and that is where the heart of the movie lies.  At the same time, The Last Jedi may also be the most gorgeously shot movie in the entire series, with the contrasting red and white’s of the Planet Crait being a particular standout.  Sure, The Last Jedi is divisive and challenges everything we believe about the universe of Star Wars, but honestly, it’s the change that Star Wars needed and I for one welcomed it.  With the bold choices made by this movie, you would think that the final chapter would carry it forward and continue to push the series to newer heights, right?  Right?

STAR WARS: EPISODE IX – THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

Directed by J.J. Abrams

From the get go, The Rise of Skywalker was destined to be the problem child of this new trilogy.  Colin Treverrow was let go from the project right after delivering his first draft of the screenplay.  At the same time, Lucasfilm also removed a number of other directors from their selective projects; most notoriously Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who were nearly two-thirds of the way through shooting their stand alone film, Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), and also had to do numerous re-shoots in order to salvage the troubled production of Rogue One (2016).  The backlash over The Last Jedi didn’t help, and it seemed like Lucasfilm CEO Kathleen Kennedy was doing a lot of last minute re-thinking that was shaking up the Star Wars universe in a bad way.  J.J. Abrams was brought back to salvage the Episode IX project, but instead of working with Treverrow’s own treatment, Abrams elected to start from scratch, while at the same time, meeting the same Christmas 2019 release date without delay.  This was a recipe for disaster, as it gave Abrams so little time to get the movie done right, but he was kind of stuck.  That release date was set, because it had to line up with the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in the parks and the premiere of The Mandalorian on Disney+.  As a result, The Rise of Skywalker ended up being a mess.  It might have not been so bad if this was any average sequel, but by being a closing chapter in a saga that has been strong for forty years, as well as the culmination of the story delivered through The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, it made the end result especially disappointing to long time fans.  It wasn’t as polarizing as The Last Jedi as this time almost everyone didn’t like Rise of Skywalker, including myself.  Is it the worst Star Wars film; no.  I will say that I never found myself bored watching the movie, like I had while watching Attack of the Clones.  But, Skywalker may be the most disappointing of all the Star Wars movies because of all the blown potential.

It’s clear that J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson are two entirely different filmmakers, as their approaches to the same story take wildly different trajectories.  But as Johnson’s subversion of tropes worked well after Abrams infusion of nostalgia, it doesn’t make much sense for Abrams to re-contextualize everything Johnson laid on the table in order to better suit his vision.  I almost believe that it might have been better to have left Colin Treverrow on to help the series flow better with a different vision for every movie, even if Treverrow’s script would’ve been messy in it’s own right.  The problem begins from the very start, as Abrams shoe-horns the presence of Emporer Palpatine into the narrative, which is indicated no where in any of the previous two films.  I do acknowledge that it is nice to see veteran actor Ian McDiarmid back in the role that he’s played ever since Return of the Jedi, but it makes no sense for Palpatine to re-enter the story at this point in time.  It takes away much needed time to further establish the growth of our cast of characters in order to change the stakes once again.  It’s a plot reset that cheats the narrative flow of the new trilogy and feels like an act of desperation on Lucasfilm’s part; hoping to bring disgruntled fans back to the flock.  Plot points are completely dropped and nothing feels earned.  The movie also has the uncomfortable aspect of using stock footage of Carrie Fisher in order to complete her role as Leia, after her untimely death before the release of The Last Jedi.  J.J. does the best he can, but her presence here feels less graceful than it should be, and it might have been better served to have had Leia pass away off screen.  The biggest insult to the fans is that the 9 film arc of this story only led up to something so hollow and manufactured.  At least The Last Jedi was trying to say something.  The goal of The Rise of Skywalker was to please everybody, and in the end it pleased no one.  Look no further than the completely insulting final kiss between Rey and Kylo Ren to see just how shamelessly pandering this movie was to being a manufactured product rather than a movie worth celebrating.

When all was said and done, was Disney’s reboot of the Star Wars’ Skywalker Saga a success or a failure.  It depends on who you ask.  Some would say that it betrayed the fundamentals of the series, while other believe that it took Star Wars into bold, brave new territory.  Regardless, I don’t think anyone can safely say that Disney stuck the landing.  Their stewardship of the Star Wars universe certainly got off on a rocky start, but the future still remains bright.  The Mandalorian received almost universal praise upon release, and there are still plans for many more stand-alone Star Wars extended universe projects on the horizon.  But the mixed results of the sequel trilogy may leave a bad taste in the mouths of several fans, because this was the saga on which the foundations of the universe were built upon.  It involved the original characters, with the performers of that trilogy delivering their swan songs as Han, Luke and Leia all meet their ends in this new trilogy.  There is still a lot of good things I can say.  The performances are strong throughout the trilogy, even with the lackluster script they had to work with on Skywalker.  Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley in particular delivered truly iconic performances as Kylo Ren and Rey resepecively, and they remain two of the past decades greatest cinematic characters, as I stated in my lists here and here.     Though Poe, Finn, and especially Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) get pushed to the sidelines in Rise of Skywalker, their selective actors’ performances remain strong right to the end.  And visually, each of the movies still maintain that great sense of wonder that every Star Wars movie has, as we jump from one world to the next, each with it’s own identity.  Disney certainly wants to see Star Wars live on forever; why else would they spend billions on it.  Hopefully the lesson they take from this is that they should never launch a trilogy without a unifying vision from the very outset.  By giving too much leeway to each individual director, they may have undermined the trilogy from the outset.  Even still, I enjoy most of this new trilogy, even parts of The Rise of Skywalker, and that’s mainly because I liked the different ways that Disney and Lucasfilm set out to expand this universe.  That’s the genius of George Lucas’s creation in the end; it’s endless possibilities.  Disney may need more time to get it completely right, but I think that Lucas put his universe in the right hands, and I have no doubt the Force will be strong with Star Wars in the decades ahead.

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