Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse – Review

Since the turn of the century, Spider-Man has enjoyed a very strong place at the box office.  Swinging onto the screen with the Sam Raimi directed Spider-Man in 2002, the webslinger managed to generate the first ever box office weekend north of $100 million.  Two more films from the same team would follow with mixed results, though still very healthy and at the top of the class when it came to super hero franchises.  But something happened in the following decade that would shake up Spider-Man’s presence on the big screen.  After years of trying to find a permanent home for all their super hero properties, Marvel finally set up shop with their own studio after they were bought by the Walt Disney Company.  Now with deep pockets big enough to fund their plan for a shared universe, Marvel finally was able to tell stories the way they wanted to.  Only, there was still the problem of all the continuing contracts that remained at all the other studios in town.  Paramount and Universal, which held the rights to characters like Iron Man, the Hulk, and Captain America handed over their characters to Disney without issue, but the same cooperation would not be demonstrated from the other hold outs; Fox (who had the Fantastic Four and the X-Men) and Sony (who has Spider-Man).  With the upcoming merger of Disney and Fox next year, Marvel will finally have a huge chunk of their character roster back under their control, leaving Sony and Spider-Man the last remaining holdouts.  Now, to Sony’s credit, they did work out a deal with Disney that essentially boils down to a joint custody with the character.  Sony takes a minority share of profit when Spidey appears as an ensemble player in massive crossover, and a majority share whenever he has a standalone feature, with Disney taking the reverse on each.  That’s how we get Spiderman in Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018), and Iron Man in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017).  And for the most part, it’s been a mutually beneficial relationship.

However, there are some odd happenings on the Sony side where they are trying every way they can to work around the loopholes of the agreement.  As part of the deal, Marvel Studios has taken the measures of making all the future creative choices regarding the character; from the casting, to the types of stories that the character will be living through on the big screen.  This has of course been very beneficial for Spider-Man, as his storyline is now linked with the full Marvel universe, and the universally beloved casting of Tom Holland in the role has made many believe that this is best version of the character we’ve seen yet.  But, the team at Sony is showing more and more that they would like to be the ones in charge of this franchise and they are looking for ways to build a Spider-Man-esque franchise without using the character himself.  One way they have attempted to do that is by taking one of Spider-Man’s most famous foes and build a franchise around him instead.  That’s what happened this year with the creation of the movie Venom (2018), a standalone feature centered on the famous alien symbiote villain from the comics.  The movie benefited from the casting of Tom Hardy in the title role, but the film received a very polarizing reception from both fans and critics.  Still, it did well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel, but the disconnect from the rest of the Marvel Universe was palpable for most people.  Venom was more of a Sony movie than a Marvel movie, and a lot of fans were not happy to see this beloved character so cast aside, because of Sony’s refusal to play by Marvel’s rules.  That’s why you see the opening logo say “In Association with Marvel” meaning it was made with their blessing, but not their approval.  And it’s any wonder if Venom may ever cross paths with Spider-Man at all because of this, which would be a shame.  Safe to say, it’s a move that probably won’t endear Sony with comic book fans in the long run, but there is another feature coming out that may allow Sony to play in the world of Spider-Man on their own terms, and still make it worthy of the brand.  Simply, since Disney and Marvel are taking the charge with a live action Spider-Man, why not let Sony take charge with an animated one.

Thus, we have Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, a new animated film from Sony Animated Pictures.  Sony Animation has had mixed results over the years, ranging from good (Hotel Transylvania, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs), to mediocre (Peter Rabbit, Open Season), to downright awful (The Emoji Movie, Smurfs).  Spiderverse probably marks their most ambitious film to date and with good reason; they are playing with a comic book icon now.  You might think that the movie is your standard mild mannered Peter Parker saves the day story-line, but you are wrong.  This one focuses on Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a bright young student living in Brooklyn.  Miles lives under constant pressure living up to the high standards of his police officer Dad (Brian Tyree Henry), and finds solace in the counsel of his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), who indulges his more artistic tastes.  After stumbling through an underground sanctuary that belongs to his uncle, Miles finds a large Hadron collider that opens up a portal to other dimensions.  The collider is being operated by the crime boss Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who is thwarted when Spider-Man (Chris Pine) shuts the machine down.  Unfortunately it leaves Spider-Man fatally wounded, and he trusts Miles with the duty of keeping the key to Kingpin’s collider out of the villain’s hands.  Miles, who has also inherited the powers of Spider-Man, tries what he can to take up the mantle of the former hero.  But, he surprising has a run in with another Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) from one of the other dimensions; one where Spider-Man has fallen on hard times and has grown into a bit of a slob.  The older Spider-Man takes Miles under his wing and teaches him the basics.  Soon they are met by other inter-dimensional Spider-beings including Gwen Stacey aka Spider Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), anime girl Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and cartoon pig Spider-Ham (John Mulaney).  Together, they put their strengths to the test to stop the Kingpin’s plan and return everyone home safely, but that all hinges on whether Miles can find the hero within himself.

Thanks to catching a brief advance screening at my local Burbank, California theater, I was able to see this movie a week early.  And I’m very glad I did.  Quite in contrast to the compromised Venom  from a few months ago, Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse is a movie made on Sony’s terms that feels more in the spirit of the character of Spider-Man.  Essentially, this is a movie that list being “In Association with Marvel” that Marvel will gladly give their approval to.  Animation really is the best way to present a separate story-line from the connected Marvel universe, and Into the Spiderverse delivers above and beyond what you would expect.  Not only do I think that this is one of the best Spider-Man films ever made (standing toe to toe with the likes of Spiderman 2 and Homecoming), but I would dare say it’s the best animated film that I have seen this year overall.  Yes, even heavy hitters like Pixar’s Incredibles 2 and Disney’s Ralph Breaks the Internet didn’t work as consistently well as this movie.  What makes Into the Spiderverse work so well is because it takes chances and carves out it’s own identity, even as a standalone animated feature.  I for one have never seen animation as stylized as seen here, taking a very comic book aesthetic to the extreme.  Even the very simple action of movement is differently realized in the movie, coming across as a hybrid between stop motion and actual real life, only animated through a computer.  It takes some getting used to but, by the end, you feel very enriched.  I just found the whole approach more interesting than all the other animated efforts this year, though I still very much liked Incredibles and Ralph too.   And the best thing is that it doesn’t try to distance itself from it’s comic book roots like so many of Sony’s other mismanaged super hero films.  It embraces it’s origins and even has a little fun with it as well.

One of the best elements of the movie is it’s sense of humor.  Much like movies such as Deadpool (2016) and The Lego Batman Movie (2017), this is a film that likes to break down the cliches of the genre while at the same time having fun with them.  This is especially personified in the older Spider-Man played by Jake Johnson.  His Peter B. Parker is the obvious cynical one and much of the film’s best jokes revolve around his ability to perform as Spider-Man, but with a slacker’s attitude.  I especially like the detail that he wears sweatpants through most of the movie.  There are some fun nods to past Spider-Man movies too, but turned on their heads as part of the film’s irreverent take on the mythos of the character.  I also really enjoyed the different Spider-Man types that we meet as well.  Nicolas Cage is especially hilarious as the moody to the point of absurdity Spider-Man Noir, and his vocal delivery had me cracking up most of the time.  Much of the humor feels very much in the same vein as a Lego Movie, and it’s not surprising given that one of the writers, Phil Lord, was also the creator of that film as well.  But, even with all the irreverence, the movie also delivers a lot of heartfelt emotion that doesn’t feel out of place.  And most of that is centered around the development of Miles Morales as a character.  Miles, a beloved version of the famed webslinger from the comic books, makes it to the big screen finally with a beautifully told coming of age story about becoming the hero he was always meant to be.  The road there is paved with a lot of humor, but when it needs to hit those emotional moments, it does not disappoint.  I especially liked how they dealt with the relationships he has with his Dad and his Uncle, and the unexpected turns that those points take.  There’s even a touching bond that he builds with the other Spider-beings that helps to enrich the story as a whole.  Even as the movie hits some wacky curves, it’s Miles story that gives the movie it’s beating heart.

The movie also benefits from a fantastic voice cast.  Shameik Moore delivers a surprisingly emotional turn as Miles, and helps to make him endearingly and also goofily charming at the same time.  He has to take the full burden of managing the wild changes in tone throughout the movie and he does so quite effectively.  Bringing perfectly tuned assistance is Jake Johnson as the middle aged Spider-Man.  His voice is perfect for this version of the character because he can go from quirky to sincere in a heartbeat.  Some of my favorite moments in the movie are from the little asides that he adds to the conversations in the movie; often pointing out the absurdity of their situations.  And a lot of his persona comes through in his performance, to the point where I could have easily seen Jake playing this same role in live action as well with the same exact result.  The same goes for Hailee Steinfeld who also brings the fan favorite Spider Gwen to the big screen for the first time.  Her role also brings a nice balance to the cast, as she is often the most proactive of the film’s heroes.  The previously mentioned Nicolas Cage is probably the funniest out of the bunch, just because his deadpan delivery is so perfect for the lines that he reads.  Also John Mulaney and Kamiko Glenn are wonderfully quirky in their own roles.  On the opposite side, Liev Schreiber delivers a wonderfully menacing turn as Kingpin, standing larger than life (literally) among the other Spider-Man baddies in the movie.  I was happy to see him play a version different than other versions of the character, like Michael Clark Duncan in 2003’s Daredevil and Vincent D’Onofrio in the Daredevil TV series, favoring a more cinematic heavy, crime boss version instead.  And his version is perfectly suited for this kind of version of Spider-Man, which is more cartoonish as a whole.

Speaking of cartoons, it’s an interesting move on Sony’s part to take the world of Spider-Man and put it in animation, given that the whole rest of Marvel is now owned by a company born out of an animation background.  Disney, curiously, has been very selective about where they cross their animated field with the Marvel properties that are now in their stable.  So far, apart from a couple cameos in Ralph Breaks the Internet, the only Marvel characters brought to life through animation have been the ones from Big Hero 6 (2014).  Sony has filled that hole quite effectively by taking the more noteworthy character of Spider-Man and bringing him into the animated medium.  But, they do so without running contrary with what Marvel is doing with Spider-Man in the Cinematic Universe.  This is very much it’s own thing, and that’s reflected in it’s visual aesthetic.  No one would confuse this with a Disney animated feature.  The texture of the visuals is really unique, and makes this film feel unlike any other movie you have ever seen.  There’s a hand-drawn quality to the characters and background that makes the movie feel very much like a comic book come to life, but at the same time, you can still tell it’s animated with the 3D capabilities that computer animation allows.  Character animation is also top notch, whether it’s in capturing the awkwardness of Miles Morales, the slouching, out of shape posture of Peter Parker, or the gracefulness of Spider Gwen.  I especially like how Peni Parker is animated in an anime style, making her really stand out among the others, and really taking advantage of the simulated hand drawn aesthetic.  Kingpin is also remarkably realized, portrayed as a bulky monster with the widest, squarest shoulders that you’ve ever seen.  Truthfully, you could never get this kind of look from Disney Animation; their in-house aesthetic is too entrenched over there.  Because Sony had less of a legacy to live up to, so they chose this opportunity to really experiment and be bold, and it worked beautifully.  If Sony keeps those Spider-Man rights in the years ahead, it might work best to have the animated medium be their best option, because it’s where they are best able to do the things that Disney can’t with the character.

While I feel that overall the Spider-Man character has been better realized through the guidance of Marvel Studios under the roof of Disney, it’s here in animation that Sony has shown it’s best avenue for continuing to work with the character.  It helps that Miles Morales is the center point of this Spider-Man story-line, allowing it to not conflict in any way with the Peter Parker story line in the MCU.  Although, it’s not like Miles will never make his way into that universe as well.  Both Into the Spiderverse and Homecoming share a common character with Miles’ uncle Aaron Davis, played by Mahershala Ali in the animated film and Donald Glover in live action.  The seeds have been planted, but for those impatient to see Miles Morales in his full “Spider” glory, then this movie will easily satisfy their appetite.  This is a great animated film from top to bottom with a lot of humor, a fair bit of heart-pounding action, and a surprising amount of heart at it’s center.  The biggest triumph of all is the character of Miles Morales, and this movie will instantly endear him to long time fans and newcomers alike.  I especially love that this is a movie that knows what it wants to be, and holds to it’s own unique identity.  I have certainly never seen an animated movie that looks like this one before, and it easily is a game-changer for the Sony Animation Studio; one that they have desperately needed for some time.  There could have been a lot of opportunities for this movie to have gone wrong, and come to theaters as a cash grab, but it thankfully doesn’t.  It’s a worthy addition to the cinematic presence of Spider-Man, and one that can stand apart, thankfully, from all the rest.  Also, being the first Spider-Man film released since the passing of Spidey’s legendary creators, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, this movie respectfully honors the legacy of their work (including the expected Stan Lee cameo) with a story and aesthetic that feels very much rooted in the comic book form.  Here’s to a healthy animated future for our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

Rating: 8.75/10

FilmStruck Out – A Streaming Channel’s Final Days and Why Physical Media is Important

It was a fleeting life, lasting all but 2 years, but the streaming channel known as FilmStruck still left an impact on film fans across the world.  For those of you who were unfamiliar with the FilmStruck channel, it was a Netflix style streaming service that catered to the art house and classic movie crowd.  Created in early 2016 as a joint venture between the Turner Classic Movies cable channel and The Criterion Collection home video label, it was intended to give fans of both of these beloved distributors a chance to have on demand content available on a sleek and easy to navigate platform much like the other big dogs of streaming.  In addition to housing the vast libraries of Criterion and WarnerMedia, FilmStruck also provided exposure for hard to find and obscure films, like documentaries that have been little seen outside of your local library collection, exploitation pictures that have been long archived in mostly defunct theater shelves, and some movies so weird that they can only be discovered by those who just stumble across them on a whim.  The FilmStruck channel also provided original content like profiles on filmmakers and special behind the scenes looks at some of the most prestigious movies available to view.  It was a favorite service for many a film fan, but sadly, it was short-lived.  Like most other subscription based services, FilmStruck’s existence was reliant on seeing the membership base grow over time, and when it was not expanding as quickly as was hoped, parent company WarnerMedia no longer saw any justification for continuing the service any longer as part of their future plans for content streaming.  And just this week, millions of subscribers had to sadly watch as FilmStruck went offline, effectively ending it’s short life and closing access to a library of some of the greatest works of cinematic art in world history.

Now FilmStruck is not the first failed attempt to break into the booming industry of content streaming.  It seems like everybody in the media industry wants to have the next Netflix or the next YouTube, and we are starting to see from the failures of channels like FilmStruck is that it’s easier said than done.  That’s not going to stop the upcoming Disney+ or the Apple Channel from opening in a big way in the next year.  But what makes FilmStruck’s demise stand out is the outcry that followed it’s announced closure.  The subscriber base was very vocal about their outrage over the end of the service, and perhaps more than any other failed channel, the outrage had a very public face.  Many high profile fans of the service, including filmmakers like Guillermo Del Toro, Christopher Nolan, Rian Johnson, Alfonso Cuaron, and Paul Thomas Anderson as well as actors like Leonardo DiCaprio and Barbara Streisand, all voiced their outrage over the channel’s end, and co-signed a letter directly addressed to Warner Brothers’ Chairman Toby Emmerich to convince him towards saving the service.  But it was to no avail.  FilmStruck went silent on schedule this last Friday, and all the movies available on the channel have now quietly been shelved back into their selective libraries.  Of course, it doesn’t mean that all these movies are forever unavailable, since most can still be found on home video in a variety of places, but the convenience of having the library available on demand is gone, and the exclusive content especially lost for good.  The demise of FilmStruck also stands as a valuable reminder about the growing risk of relying too heavily on digital content.  At this moment, we the consumer have little say in what happens to all the media that is made available to watch on most streaming services.  What is available right now may not be available later, and how much of a loss to our culture may we find when a whole chunk of our cinematic output is lost due to a server shutdown, with no backup available.  That is the danger of relying too heavily on a digital only output for our content, and we are learning more and more about the value of physical media.

One of the most important things that the film industry has had to deal with over the years is preservation.  I’ve talked about it before in my article here, but it’s important to stress once again that throughout the years, we have lost many important films to the ravages of time.  The downside to physical media is surely the fact that over time things do decay and rot.  This was certainly the case with most of early cinema, which filmed most early movies on volatile nitrate film stock.  Many films have been lost either through fire, decay, or have just been thrown away due to years of not recognizing the value of preservation.  Hollywood has made a valiant attempt over the years to restore as much as they can of the films of the past, and while many have been saved, a few sadly ended up beyond repair.  Still, even after nearly a century of film-making, a few relics do remain and it gives us an ever crucial window into our past.  With today’s technology, we are able to restore films back to their original glory better than ever before, but it can only be made possible if the original elements are still in the best condition.  Many restoration experts will tell you that the best possible source for their efforts are the original camera negatives, which gives them the closest to the purest image possible.  From there, they are able to strike new prints with the highest image fidelity and have a source that will ensure the film’s survival for years to come.  Nowadays, we archive the source in a digital file as a quick reference for future distribution, but it’s equally important that those original negatives be archived alongside it.  If one is lost or damaged, we can rely on the other to create a backup.  Forgetting to do so may lead to a catastrophic loss that may leave a valuable work of art forgotten to time.

Thankfully, most archivists do just that, ensuring that treasures of the past are well cared for and made available for future generations.  But it’s the content that is produced today that gives cause for worry.  More often today, people are filming on digital camera and presenting their content on digital platforms.  It’s all convenient to use and a valuable tool for those who don’t have the luxury of being able to afford film stock.  But, when using digital content, one runs the risk of losing their material more quickly and not being able to get it back ever again.  You know how frustrated you can be when you’ve been working on a project for hours, like a blog post, a video game, or a film edit and then suddenly the power goes out and you suddenly realize you forgot to save your progress?  Well, relying far too heavily on digital content has the same risks when not properly backed up with either digital or physical copies.  Remember, digital content is encoded in zeroes and ones, and those can be corrupted very easily over time.  Also, with changing technology, we also run the risk of having our only backups becoming unusable on newer platforms.  Imagine an alien race searching our planet long after we are gone and trying to learn about our culture through the content that we created.  If our material was only available to view in a technology that is long gone extinct or has no power source available to make the viewer playable, then that cultural artifact is lost to history and those aliens will have a missing piece to their archaeological reconstruction of our cultural history.  It seems like an extreme example, but it’s happened throughout our history before.  Historians say that we lost a great deal of our understanding of ancient Egyptian history because of burning of the Library in Alexandria during the Roman Empire.  Had that not happened, we may have had more knowledge about the people who built the ancient pyramids and the mysteries they left behind.  Our knowledge of our own history is based on the things that are left behind, and when a whole chunk of our history is lost in a single catastrophe, it leaves a major hole in our understanding of the world, and that hole can easily be filled by speculation, tall tales, and falsehoods.

As of right now, we do have the benefit of two viable options for watching our content.  DVD and Blu-rays present a digitally sourced presentation through a disc based format, and it’s been available for the last 20 years and has been extremely successful as a form of providing home entertainment.  It has, however, been challenged in the last decade by the emergence of streaming content, which allows the consumer to watch movies or television through an online connection without a physical media interface.  Streaming has quickly emerged as a major alternative to distribution, and more and more companies are jumping aboard, making exclusive content only available to stream.  This has become a preferable source for many people, who simply just want to be able to watch something without leaving the comforts of home.  On demand content has already affect many businesses that were reliant on providing supplies of physical media before, such as Blockbuster Video, which dominated the video rental market for decades.  Right now, retail is feeling the pinch of online servicing taking much of their business away, and I have already observed a significant downsizing of the home video sections at stores like Best Buy, Costco, and Target, which used to have large sections devoted just to home video.  The fact that these retailers are rolling back the availability of purchasing physical media is troubling, because it makes us as a culture more reliant on services that are more at risk of disappearing once their value is deemed insufficient to the profitability for their parent companies.  And with that, we may be in for another period of a whole chunk of our film history lost because it was never backed up with something physical.

It also makes it a problem for those of us who enjoy the collecting aspect of physical media.  Some of us out there just like having a shelf full of movies, and in many cases, it’s the attractiveness of the package that makes us take interest in a movie that we’ve never seen before.  This is one thing that I especially like about the Criterion Collection label, because they not only curate this incredible library of movies, but they also take special care to make their packaging look visually pleasing as well; knowing full well that their target consumer takes pride in displaying their Collection as a centerpiece of their own home collection.  That’s certainly the case in my own movie collection, which Criterion now makes up an entire shelf of.  In many ways, there will always be a market for physical media, and there are hopeful signs that some formats that go out of style may have a way to return.  Take for instance the return of vinyl records to prominence in the music industry.  As more and more people chose to adopt mp3 audio as a preferred music listening source, it caused a downturn in the production of the dominant physical media at the time; the CD disc.  But, overtime, collectors began to seek out a physical format that could allow them to still play their music if something happened to their online libraries or their mp3 files becoming corrupted.  But, surprisingly, instead of returning to the CD’s of the past generation, the demand instead started to arise for an even older format; the nearly century old vinyl record.  One of the reasons why vinyls and not CD’s made a return is because they sound better, because of the uncompressed audio playback.  It makes me hopeful that not only will physical media continue to remain a viable source for movies and television, but that even long time traditional formats like 70mm could even come back in a big way.

But, that’s only contingent on what value the industry sees in making those formats available in the future.  The music industry saw the demand for a return to vinyl records, so they catered to it.  For movie and television, the growing trend is still heavily favoring the digital world.  There are sticklers out there like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino who not only film on physical stock, but also demand that their movies be screened through traditional projection as well, wherever they able to.  But, when you have streaming giants out there like Netflix who are challenging the industry itself to follow their model, the risk of loosing the necessity of a physical format for presenting film to an audience becomes far more likely.  This year especially, Netflix is pushing heavily for a Best Picture Academy Award recognition with their critically acclaimed film Roma, from director Alfonso Cuaron.  Roma already faced resistence from the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, as the prestigeous fest refused to screen the film due to Netflix’s refusal to release the film in theaters and instead premiere it right on their channel.  There are several within the Academy who also share the same defiant attitude to Netflix’s model, and Netflix has begrudgingly rolled the film into select theaters in order to meet the Academy’s guidelines.  I thankfully live near one of those theaters and gladly paid money to watch Roma on the big screen (perk of living in LA), and honestly I see the point of it.  Roma is a movie that demands a theatrical presentation, and I feel that Netflix is defeating it’s own goals by not showing the movie the way that it’s supposed to be seen.  At the moment, Netflix is in no danger of loosing money nor influence, but to push the industry so heavily towards embracing digital only content is endangering our chances of having movies that stand the test of time.  Netflix may disappear suddenly in the years ahead, and take the only source of movies like Roma with it.  It’s unthinkable now, but not impossible.

That’s why the end of FilmStruck is a wake-up call not just for people in the industry, but for film lovers everywhere.  All the movies we love and cherish could suddenly go away if we are not careful to preserve the treasures of the past and to have a reliable backup for every produced media that we create.  I for one have an extensive digital movie library through all the codes I have redeemed from the digital copies that come with the Blu-rays that I buy.  Because of that, I have the ability to watch all my favorite movies on the go, as well as the ability to pop a movie into my player whenever I have a disruption in my online connection.  The two should exist together just like that, but not exclusive from one another.  The danger of moving too heavily towards online only content is that we are increasingly reliant on seeing these service providers dictating more and more what they choose to make available for viewing.  Clashes between companies like Disney and Netflix has already led to the premature cancellations of beloved shows and a loss of a platform for some movies to be available to the consumer.  And as the number of streaming services grows, the cost of finding the content you want also rises, as you now are forced to subscribe to multiple channels just to be able to see their exclusive content.  Because FilmStruck’s content was so specifically geared towards a certain audience, WarnerMedia no longer saw the value in it, because it didn’t have broad audience appeal.  Thankfully, in the restructuring that has gone on, Criterion has stepped up and picked up the pieces, announcing that they would be launching their own streaming channel in the next year, with lesser but still very valuable support from their Turner Classic Movie partners.  It may not be as extensive a platform that FilmStruck was at it’s height, but Criterion can still provide a service that allows viewers to see those obscure and overlooked movies that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere.  It also gives them a valuable platform to tout their library of movies available to purchase on Blu-ray as well, helping to reinforce the importance of physical media in the broader market.  For us to leave behind a cultural legacy with the  movies that we create, we need to have real, tangible records of those creations and that’s why it’s important to support physical media now more than ever in this increasingly digital world.  Treasures, like those forgotten films rediscovered through FilmStruck, are meant to be found, but it only is possible when there is an actual treasure buried and not just numbers on a server that can easily be erased on purpose or accidentally.

Ralph Breaks the Internet – Review

The 2012 animated film, Wreck-It Ralph, holds a very interesting place within the Disney canon.  It was the first animated film to be released after Disney’s noble but ultimately short-lived attempt at reviving the traditional animated format, with The Princess and the Frog (2009) and Winnie the Pooh (2011).  It was also the first computer animated film from the company’s in-house studio to distinguish itself, after the less than popular outings of Chicken Little (2005), Meet the Robinsons (2007), and Bolt (2008).  For the first time, Disney showed that they could create an computer animated feature that could compete on the same level as their output from Pixar.  And though Wreck-it Ralph was no record setter, it did well enough to gain a following and helped to set the Disney Animation Studio located in Burbank, California on the right footing that would quickly blow-up soon after with Frozen (2013), Zootopia (2016), and Moana (2016) soon after.  And I think that the reason Wreck-it Ralph worked as well as it did was because it was an animated film from Disney that had it’s own unique identity.  You could tell from earlier CG animated flicks from Disney that they were struggling with the medium, as animators who were more comfortable with sketch drawings were suddenly forced to learn a whole new way to animate, and it often reflected in stories that never quite felt quite right in this style of animation.  Ralph, on the other hand, is tailor-made for computer animation.  It takes place in a world of video games after all, so there really was no other way to visualize that world other than through CGI.  It was a hit with both audiences and critics, and was a touchstone for the legendary cartoon maker, which now has led Disney to make another unusual step that you don’t see from them very often; making an animated sequel to one of their movies.

Now, when I say that Disney sequels are rare, I am of course ignoring the often maligned direct-to-video sequels of the 90’s and 2000’s.  It’s a recognized, canonical sequel that Disney rarely ever undertakes, and to date there have only been three previous ones; The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Fantasia 2000 (2000) and Winnie the Pooh.  This new follow-up to Wreck-it Ralph titled Ralph Breaks the Internet marks the first sequel ever for one of Disney’s computer animated features (and it won’t be the last, as Frozen 2 is scheduled for next year).  But the question is now, how do you carry on from where the last one left off.  The answer would have been simple for most animation studios; because the first movie was populated by so many famous video game icons of the past, it would make sense to continue showing even more game characters thrown into the mix that weren’t in the original.  However, the filmmakers behind this sequel decided to go in a whole different direction.  Instead of just limiting their world to just the denizens of an arcade community, they decided to broaden their scope and take a look at the whole world wide web itself.  There within they have the opportunity to take their retro-minded characters and bring them into a fast paced world that they are initially not quite ready for.  The premise also allows for a cheeky, satirical look at all things internet related, which makes you wonder if they can contain it all in one short 90 minute run time.  It’s a bold move regardless, because it shows that Disney is not just rehashing the same plot over again, which some animated sequels unfortunately tend to do. The question remains is whether Disney is able to find a story within that premise that manages to live up to the original.  It also remains to be seen if the choice of tackling the internet as the setting provides enough fodder for an entertaining adventure, or if it’s too out touch with the realities that real internet experiences have in our daily lives today.

The story picks up 6 years after the original, which is exactly the same amount of time between movie releases as well.  Wreck-it Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) continue to spend their days together as best friends, bouncing from game to game in the Litwak’s Arcade that they call home.  One day, Mr. Litwak (Ed O’Neill), the arcade owner, plugs a new device into their terminal, which turns out to be a WiFi router.  After a malfunction leaves Vanellope’s game, Sugar Rush, broken and unplugged, Ralph and her begin to believe they can find the solution to their problem by using the new device to explore the Web.  After leaving all the remaining Sugar Rush teammates behind with their close friends Fix-it Felix (Jack McBrayer) and Sgt. Calhoun (Jane Lynch) as their new caregivers, Ralph and Vanellope enter the router and find the terminal that leads to the internet itself.  Once through the portal, they find a vast open community that’s home to numerous sites like Amazon, Google, Instagram, and the place they need to go the most; Ebay.  There they find the replacement part they need for Vanellope’s game, but are unable to afford it.  Looking for ways to raise money fast leads them to an open world racing game called Slaughter Race, where they need to steal the car of the game’s most expert driver, Shank (Gal Gadot).  Though unsuccessful with their heist, they do earn the admiration of Shank, who suggests  that they should talk to a viral marketing algorithm that can help them get rich quick named Yesss (Taraji P. Henson).  Yesss sees the potential in Ralph’s clumsy behavior and immediately puts him to work making viral videos that will make money with the more likes he receives.  Meanwhile, Vanellope is put to work with spreading the link to Ralph’s videos, which leads her to of all places, the Disney website, where she has a pivotal encounter with the Princesses who convince her to look deep inside to understand what she really wants in life.  The only question is, is what she wants something that might tear her friendship with Ralph apart?

The movie certainly has a lot to pack into it’s short run time, and for the most part, it does pull it off nicely.  The movie’s greatest asset is the sense of humor, which is even more fast paced than the previous film.  A major part of the enjoyment of this movie is just in catching all the background jokes, relating to all sorts of puns related to the internet.  Some things are easy to catch, but others are pretty subtle.  There’s a moment later in the film where Ralph ends up on the lower depths of the internet, and in the dark and dusty scraps of this graveyard like area, you can see signs for Dial-Up service and AOL; a nice nod to relics of the old internet that a keen eye can get a good chuckle out of.  I would say that this is probably the most consistently funny movie in the entire Disney canon, because unlike the other movies before it, it does not add any sugar to the spice; it is wall to wall jokes unhampered by schmaltz.  And for the most part, the jokes hit their mark.  Anyone familiar with the highs and lows of navigating the internet will find a lot pointed jabs at everything great and not so great about the service.  One of my favorite funny moments in the movie is seeing how the outside world interacts with the citizens of the online world.  In the Slaughter Race section, we see the online players animated in a jumpy, glitchy way compared to every else because that’s how an online avatar would act when controlled through a joystick or controller.  The movie does keep things PG, as the darker elements of the web are wisely not mentioned or are in the carefullest of ways; though surprisingly the Dark Web does make an appearance, albeit in a sanitized version. I also liked the fact that Disney didn’t overdo it with the visit to their own website.  What could have easily turned into shameless self promotion thankfully holds together as a nice excuse for meta humor directed at itself.  And that Princess scene is likely going to become one of the most talked about moments of the year, and is made all the more impressive when you learn that most of the princesses retain their original voice actors, as do a couple Marvel and Star Wars characters as well.

The one negative I can say about the movie is that it’s pretty light on story.  The central conflict is pretty well established early on, and the movie does little to really delve much deeper throughout the rest of the story.  Basically it comes down to Ralph having too many insecurities and it’s made him into a clingy friend, which is starting to hold Vanellope back from achieving her own dreams.  The movie’s break-neck pacing and huge amount of entertaining humor can make you forget about the plot’s shortcomings through most of the movie, but after a while, you do kind of realize that about halfway through, the filmmakers pretty much ran out of story.  That inevitably leads to an underwhelming final act, in which Ralph and Vanellope head towards a final confrontation that is a very heavy handed metaphor for the status of their relationship.  While the finale does take the movie into epic territory in terms of scale, it doesn’t have the emotional heft that you found in the first movie.  At the end of the original Wreck-it Ralph, Ralph’s arc found him believing in himself to where he could live with acting as the bad guy while being a hero where it counts.  It also helped that there was a strong antagonistic presence in that movie in the form of the villainous King Candy, played by Alan Tudyk (who’s also in the sequel playing a Truman Capote-like search bar character named Knowsmore).  Sadly, this is a Disney movie without a villain, which doesn’t necessarily ruin the movie, but is still missed nonetheless.  While the humor is definitely ratcheted up, I still think that the lack of cohesive story does bring the movie a notch below the original.  And it’s surprising that even with a longer than normal runtime of 112 minutes, the movie still drops a lot of plot elements for no reason.  An entire B-plot involving Felix and Calhoun seemed to be set up and is completely forgotten about for almost the entire movie; something which I think the directors were aware of, because there is a funny joke near the end that references how their whole arc was completely left off screen.  Overall, I’ve seen movies handle their story more poorly, but the lack of it here is still something that holds the movie back from being truly amazing.

One of the movie’s greatest assets however is the visualization of the internet world.  Like I mentioned before, a big part of the movie’s humor is in the little background jokes you can find throughout the movie, and it’s a great credit to the filmmakers for putting so much effort into things that will likely go unnoticed on first viewing.  It’s also incredible watching the many different ways that they re-imagined different websites throughout the online world, making each a different skyscraper in the expansive metropolis that we see in the movie.  Some are cleverly visualized, like Twitter being represented by a large aviary housing bird-like tweets.  Even the made up online communities like Yesss’ BuzzTube website and the Slaughter Race game are presented in a visually interesting way.  I especially like all the details put into the Slaughter Race environment, which does a fairly good job of recreating the look of most post-apocalyptic online multiplayer open world games.  It even manages to throw in some ridiculous elements like sewer sharks, and still make it feel not out of place.  Even with all the tongue-in-cheek representations of real websites, the movie still does a good job of not making any of it distracting.  Compare this with a similarly themed movie from last year called The Emoji Movie, which was really pushy when it came to showing off all the different brands that they got product placements for.  When Emoji Movie stops the progress of the story just to have it’s characters play a game of Candy Crush for 5 minutes, you can easily see the cynicism on display, as the movie clearly just existed to cross promote.  Ralph Breaks the Internet thankfully refrains from shilling for all the corporate brands too heavily, and it’s all better integrated into the story itself, because seeing all the recognizable brands in the background help to give the online world a sense of authenticity.  Not seeing them there would have made the film feel a little weird, as the filmmakers would’ve been forced to make up new websites, which would have been a self-defeating chore.  Thankfully, the online world is fully realized and is integrated into the story much better than it otherwise could have been, had a more cynical approach been in place.

The movie also benefits from a well-rounded cast, both returning and brand new.  One of the things that really helped out the original was the genuine chemistry between the two leads, Ralph and Vanellope.  Their relationship was at the heart of the first film, and it does continue in the same way here as well.  Though the movie does struggle to generate story momentum through the arc of their story, it still benefits from that chemistry, and the film soars every time they share the screen together.  It helps that John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman are clearly having fun voicing these two characters.  Reilly’s performance primarily remains the same in both films and he is still really funny in the role.  I especially like how much he has fun doing his variations on famous viral videos of the past.  Sarah Silverman is actually given a more improved role in this outing, as her character has both more screen-time and more of an arc.  I like what the did with Vanellope a lot more in this film than the last, as she sees her options opened up a bit more in the online world.  Her interaction with the Disney Princesses is a particular highlight, especially in how out of place she seems initially.   The movie even gives her a princess song, written specially by famed Disney songwriter Alan Menken just for this movie, and it’s not just a hilarious parody of a classic Disney tune, but also touchingly performed with gusto by Silverman, clearly enjoying her moment.  Other new characters are briefly used, but nevertheless make an impact.  I especially liked Gal Gadot’s Shank, who stands out as a enjoyably rough but good-hearted ally for our heroes.  Taraji P. Henson is also hilariously over-the-top as Yesss, tapping into that no-nonsense executive mentality that makes her brief moments on screen worthwhile.  Getting all the Disney Princess voices together is also an impressive feat, and you can hear how much fun the actresses are having poking fun at their previous roles, especially with Princess Merida’s ultra-thick Scottish accent.  And though they are sadly sidelined for most of the movie, Jack McBrayer and Jane Lynch are still hilarious in their brief moments as Felix and Calhoun.  Overall, the cast helps to make this an enjoyable experience and one that will entertain just as well as the original.

As far as sequels go, Ralph Breaks the Internet does a lot of things right.  It stays true to the characters and also expands the world, making it bigger in scale and also broadens the humor. It unfortunately seems to run out of story halfway through, and even with a nearly 2 hour runtime, the lightweight plot does feel padded at times.  Thankfully most of the filler is entertaining enough to keep the movie afloat, but I just wish that the filmmakers had found more conflict within their narrative to justify the extra time they had.  I understand that they had some limitations; there is only so much you can explore about the internet within a PG-rated story.  You obviously can’t go into too much detail about the worst parts of the internet like the trolling, the hate speech, and the other taboo spots that thrive within there.  The closest the movie gets is when Ralph finds his way into the comments section of the BuzzTube page, and learns very quickly how toxic things can be on the internet.  I would have liked to have seen more of the de-humanizing and anti-social aspects of online activity be brought more into the story as an antagonistic threat to the characters, but what we got instead is not exactly bad either.  There is still plenty to enjoy about Ralph Breaks the Internet, especially through the movie’s sense of humor.  I like the fact that it doesn’t dwell too long on some jokes and keeps the pace up throughout the entire movie.  There are even some treats left for us through the end credits (and please wait until the very end for an especially hilarious parody).  It’s good to see that this was a sequel worthy of it’s place in the Disney canon.   While there isn’t anything in it exactly that will break the internet itself, it’s still a very enjoyable romp that will keep families entertained over these upcoming holidays.

Rating: 8/10

A Defense for Ron Weasley – The Potterverse’s Misunderstood Hero and Why Second Bananas Matter in Cinema

The legacy of the Harry Potter films over the last decade has been a fruitful one for those involved with it’s creation.  Author J.K. Rowling  has further expanded the universe in which she has created into, among other various things, several spinoff books, a whole backstory franchise called Fantastic Beasts, as well as an online community network where fans of the novels can experience a connection to the Potterverse with a uniquely personal touch.  But central to all of that is the seven volume series devoted to the boy wizard himself.  Harry Potter’s journey captivated the world, both on the page and on the screen, and nearly a decade after the conclusion of that journey, audiences have been left with a deep attachment to the Wizarding World.  But the interesting thing is that it isn’t Harry as a character alone that continues to hold a special place in the hearts of all, but really everything in the series as a whole.  Audiences of all kinds talk about everything from the rules of Quidditch, to which house in the school of Hogwarts is the best, to their favorite side characters, and often it’s Harry himself that factors least within their fandom, partially because what more is there to say about him.  It’s the discussions of the characters that inhabit Harry’s world that I find fascinating, because it reveals so much about how people project themselves into the story.  Because Rowling set her story within a classroom setting, we naturally think about the types of people we knew ourselves in school, especially our friends.  Harry’s story is shaped by his friendships, and in particular, those of his closest allies; the resourceful and bright Hermoine Granger and the clumsy but loyal Ron Weasley.  Most fans put more value into Hermoine’s role in the story, but I would argue that Ron’s role in the story has just as much merit, and sadly he far too often is misunderstood as a hero, even by the author herself.

I thought it was a very peculiar stance made by J.K. Rowling when she gave an interview to Wonderland Magazine back in 2014.  In the interview, she stated that she believed that Hermoine should’ve ended up with Harry Potter at the end of the series and not Ron as she did in the books.  The  reason she wrote their budding relationship into the books is because it was something that was always part of her overall draft of the full narrative of the books, and over time as she soured on the idea of bringing them together, she still stuck by the original arc, because it was already too intertwined into the full narrative.  She also made a shocking confession earlier that she even considered killing Ron off before the novel’s finale.  Thankfully, she never utilized these narrative angles, but you have to wonder, why did she feel so negative about such a beloved character.  It perhaps had more to do with the way his character meshed with that of Hermoine.  Their relationship is certainly one of those “opposites attract” types, with the hyper intelligent girl falling for the simple minded boy.  In a way, I feel that Rowling felt ashamed of the point that, by story’s end, Hermoine ends up turning into some kind of reward for Ron because of his good deeds, and she didn’t want her independent minded heroine turned into a trophy.  In addition, it seemed from her statements in the interview that she didn’t view Ron as the ideal kind of man, noting that him and Hermoine were likely to have gone through numerous couples therapy sessions.  That last point feels especially unfair once she states how she would have preferred Harry to have been Hermoine’s instead, as if Harry wouldn’t have had relationship issues himself, especially given his baggage throughout the story.  Regardless of what excuse she gave in her interview, Rowling’s feelings towards Ron I feel stem from a far more problematic issue found within most literature and media overall, which is the dismissive attitude against side characters that sometimes are referred to as “second bananas.”

The “second banana” moniker has come over the years to refer to sidekick characters, particularly those that are intended to get a laugh from the audience.  The term actually originates back to vaudeville, referring to a performer who is the recipient of the punchline from the headlining comic; namely, the one who receives the banana.  A staple of comedy for many years, the second banana served the role of punctuating the gags, but sometimes the role could be less meant for a comedic situation.  Sometimes, the role of the second banana could be filled by an assistant to a titular hero, as a means of reinforcing the good deeds or grand discoveries they have accomplished.  Think of the value that Dr. Watson adds in witnessing the brilliance of Sherlock Holmes’ deductions.  Think of the guidance that Tonto gives to the Lone Ranger as they travel across the Wild West.  Think of the undying assistance the Alfred the butler lends to Batman.  Second bananas have a narrative purpose beyond just being comic reliefs.  But, for the most part, these types of characters continue to be valued less for their actual worth as an individual character and more for what they do to service the story or just the punchline.  Interestingly, sometimes the second banana rises out of the shadow of his or her more famous star companion and actually becomes the star themselves.  When you think of comedy teams like Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, and Martin and Lewis, the ones that standout is the person who gets the biggest laugh, and it’s usually the wackier of the two that is the recipient of the punchline.  Sometimes the whole direction of the story rests on the actions of the second banana, especially when the main hero is in their darkest point.  And that more than anything, is what makes a second banana character sometimes the most important character in a story overall.

One particular place where you see a lot of emphasis put on characters of this type is in animated films, particularly those made by Disney.  They have especially influenced the growth of sidekick characters over the years, mainly due to the fact that they usually are the ones that end up being the more marketable in the end.  With Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), they found their narrative drive in the comedic potential of the seven little men who give shelter and protection to the ritual heroine.  Down the line, they began to find that the sidekicks were the ones that audiences especially gravitated towards, favoring them in the toy tie-ins that naturally followed once the movie premiered.  Characters like Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio (1940), Tinker Bell from Peter Pan (1953), Sabastian the crab from The Little Mermaid (1989), Timon and Pumbaa from The Lion King (1994), and Olaf from Frozen (2013) have risen out to be among the most popular characters of all time, even sometimes eclipsing their main stars, and becoming icons themselves.  Some of them get there by being the funniest character to be sure, but the best of them also stand out by having worthwhile arcs themselves.  Jiminy Cricket’s guidance of Pinocchio coincides with his determination to be a certifiable conscious, complete with an official badge.  Sabastian grows from being a hinderance to Ariel’s dreams to being someone intent in letting her be who she wants to be.  A fuller story benefits when the side characters go through as much change as their primary hero will.  One film, I would argue perhaps accidentally made it’s side characters the real heroes; Sleeping Beauty (1959).  In that film, it is the three good fairies who save the day.  They sacrifice their powers to protect Princess Aurora, they sneak into Maleficent’s castle without hesitation, and they are ultimately the ones who put the sword into the prince’s hand in order to slay the dragon.  The titular princess is almost an afterthought in the end.  While sometimes Disney misfires with these kinds of characters (the gargoyles from Hunchback of Notre Dame, for example), they nevertheless know that these characters matter a lot as a part of their on-going legacy.

So, to get back to the subject at hand, why does Ron Weasley not get the love as a character as he should?  The history that we associate with second banana types has something to do with that.  Ron is a character that is far too often played for laughs; more so in the movies than in the books.  He’s a mediocre student, a terrible spell-caster, and lacks a great deal of talent in most things that you would expect from a great wizard.  But, the thing that he makes up for amid all his failings is the moral compass that he provides through his friendship to both Harry and Hermoine.  Ron is Harry’s window into the Wizarding World, and he helps to steer him through all the negative aspects within.  It’s better as part of the narrative for Harry to have befriended someone who is so immersed in the this world that he kind of takes it for granted, never acting as a show off or making Harry feel that he should feel threatened.  This is apparent when Ron and Harry first meet aboard the Hogwarts Express.  Ron’s attitude towards meeting Harry is just the same as chatting with a new friend; no pretension about Harry’s celebrity status or how ill prepared Harry is for the world he’s about to enter.  He finds his value in helping ease his new friend into feeling like he belongs in this world he knows nothing about.  Much more importantly, he teaches Harry the real stakes of the Wizarding World, and who is worth trusting and who they should fight for.  Apart from the things that make Harry and Ron different, they do have one thing in common, which is an outsider perspective.  Ron is lower class and is looked down upon by the wealthy elite at the Hogwarts school, so while he himself is knowledgable about the world of Wizardry, he benefits very little from the fruits of such power.  Harry is born into the world a celebrity, but was raised on the outside, knowing nothing about what he truly represents.  That combination creates a mutually beneficial friendship for both, and combine that with Hermoine’s Muggle (non-magic) background and you’ve got a pairing of friends born through a shared desire to keep the others on  the right path.

If there is one thing that really defines Ron Weasley as more than just a second banana but in actuality a hero in his own right, it’s his position in the story as an ever crucial lifeline.  One thing that especially defines every hero’s journey is an inevitable descent into a dark place.  Famed scholar Joseph Campbell, who crafted the blueprint for the typical hero’s journey in his examination of the narrative, called this moment in the story the Abyss.  In the Abyss, the hero succumbs to either a tragedy or a temptation that shakes the hero’s belief in themselves, leading them to a point where they are on the verge of giving up.  Some heroes climb out of this moment by their own determination, but sometimes it takes a secondary element to help the hero see the light again, and sometimes that comes in the form of the sidekick who has stuck by the heroes side.  Sometimes, that comes from a forceful kick in the pants to bring the hero out of their despair, like you see from characters like Han Solo and Princess Leia in Star Wars (1977), who help a whiny little farm boy named Luke Skywalker believe in himself again after tragic moments like Obi-Wan’s sacrifice or learning the truth about his father.  Ron Weasley, though, owes more of his inspiration to another lifeline character named Samwise Gamgee, the famous companion of Frodo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  Sam, like Ron, has little in the way of talents, which makes him an unlikely guardian, but he more than makes up for that in his determination to never leave Frodo’s side, not even in the darkest of moments.  Over the course of Tolkein’s trilogy, Sam grows into more than just a buffoonish companion; he ultimately becomes the one who carries Frodo on his back to the summit of Mount Doom and pulls him back from the abyss once Frodo succumbs to the Ring’s dark hold.   Had Sam not been there, Frodo would have failed.  Ron fulfills the same role in his story, as Harry grows ever more withdrawn and angry during their many trials.  A particular narrative element in the book is that Harry and his arch-nemesis, Voldemort, have a lot in common, but what ultimately separates them is that Harry has true friendship, which keeps him empathetic and kind, and ultimately a believer that good will win out in the end.

Ron gives that support that ultimately keeps Harry believing in himself, but he does more than just steer Harry the right way.  One of the pleasing aspects of the story that J.K. Rowling crafted is that Ron himself discovers his own strength as the story goes along.  Ron starts off as a squeeling coward in the earliest part of the series, but after facing trolls, giant spiders, a whomping willow, and even menacing classmates and faculty, he ultimately has faith in himself enough to stand his ground against dark wizards by series end.  It’s particularly crucial at one point in the penultimate film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010), when Harry gives the duty of destroying a Horcrux to Ron, knowing that at that point he has more of the aptitude to get it done in that moment, after Harry has been weakened physically and emotionally by the evil device.  With that, Ron overcomes the last bit of weakness in himself and ultimately serves as someone who can change the course of the story himself.  I think that when we look at the character of Ron Weasley, we sometimes get stuck in the image of that comic relief character from the earlier part of the story.  By the end, we almost forget that as Harry has grown into a hero, so has Ron.  By the end, Ron is just as likely to stick his neck out to save the day as Harry is.  The only difference by the end is that Harry is the one for a reason; the villain selected him as his foe.  I think that J.K. Rowling doesn’t in particular think she did a disservice to the story by involving Ron Weasley in it, and rewarding him with the same spoils of victory.  I just think she feels that by linking him with Hermoine that she ultimately didn’t satisfy her own desires for how she would have liked the story to end; that maybe she was just being too cliche with her choice.  But, I think in saying so, she is undermining the effectiveness that she had in making a sidekick like Ron more than just the average second banana in her story.

I for one, in the end, love the fact that he and Hermoine grow closer together throughout the story and by the end have cemented their love for one another.  He’s not perfect, but neither is Harry Potter for that matter, and I don’t see why J.K. thought any different.  Hermoine obviously has a mind of her own, and it’s apparent from the story that what drew her to Ron ultimately is his devotion to doing good even depite his limitations.  That, and I think that some of the push-back she would receive from Ron throughout the series also endeared him to her, as most geniuses want to be challenged.  What I like so much about Ron is that he does overcome that harsh stigma that follows characters of his type.  He becomes more than just the fool in the story on which the punchline is built; he becomes a hero in his own right by the end.  The real genius of J.K. Rowling’s series is that she gives that to just about every character as well.  Even the most absurd characters get their heroic moment, like Dobby’s heroic sacrifice or Neville Longbottom ultimately destroying the final Horcrux which leaves the villain finally vulnerable.  Ron especially gets to standout as a hero because, apart from a brief falling-out in Goblet of Fire, he never leaves Harry’s side.  We like to poke fun at the sidekicks and how worthless they sometimes are, but Ron Weasley is in that rare breed of sidekicks who is just as heroic as the hero he’s there to support.  One thing that especially makes these second bananas so important to a narrative is the fact that they sometimes are more interesting than the main hero.  Though that isn’t exactly the cases for the Potterverse, it is especially true in other media, where the story has to rely upon the supporting characters to add flavor when the main hero proves to be too boring.  I find that even though I do like Harry Potter as a character, I find Ron’s journey more fascinating, because of how undervalued his character type usually is.  The fact that he has a personality helps, which a perfectly cast Rupert Grint wonderfully supplies, and I can’t imagine what the story would have been like without him.  Probably not as good.  So, Ron Weasley shouldn’t be undervalued just because he’s not Harry Potter.  He’s a wizard with worth too, and the Potterverse as a whole might not have the same effect had he not gone above and beyond his second banana role in this story.

Leader of the Club – Mickey Mouse at 90 and the Magical Kingdom He Helped to Create

When you consider who the greatest icon to come out of Hollywood could be, the answer might surprise you.  It is not an actor, actress nor a movie mogul or filmmaker.  Instead, it is a little cartoon mouse named Mickey.  Sure, you have your Marilyn Monroe, or your James Dean, or your Charlie Chaplin whose images have transcended the work they have done and have inspired legends of their own purely through their existences alone.  But, Mickey Mouse is altogether different.  His impact is felt on all of us earlier on than any other entertainer in the world.  Apart from their mothers and fathers, Mickey Mouse is likely the first face that an infant will recognize due to the fact that for generations the first exposure that all children usually have to the world of entertainment is through watching a Mickey Mouse cartoon.  Though distinctively American in creation and in personification, Mickey is known and beloved the whole world over, making him one of the world’s most effective ambassadors as well.  It’s been said that the only things more recognizable worldwide than Mickey Mouse would be either Jesus or the Coca-Cola bottle.  But, it really makes you wonder, why Mickey Mouse?  He wasn’t the first cartoon character, nor the most prolific.  Some would even argue that he’s the least interesting cartoon character because he’s portrayed so often without flaw or negativity.  But, regardless of personal feelings towards Mickey, the true reason why he is held up in such high regard is because of the of his overall effect on everything, from the legacy and power of the Disney company, to his affect on pop culture, to even the personal affect on our childhoods.  And with the marking of his 90th year in existence, we are left with an even more profound question: what would the world have been if there never was a Mickey Mouse?

The most immediate impact that Mickey Mouse certainly has had is in the creation of the largest media empire in the world.  When Walt Disney first conceived of the character back in the summer of 1928, I don’t think he would have ever had imagined that the company that bears his name would have the kind of reach that it does today.  The Walt Disney Company is an undisputed industry leader, having arms devoted to the business of movies, television, theme parks, consumer products, and even hospitality and cruise lines of all things.  They are just about to overtake one of their competing studios in an unprecedented merger, and will soon add streaming entertainment to their ever growing portfolio of services.  But despite all the growth and the broadening of collective properties that are brought into the Disney company’s fold, there is still one constant, and that’s the presence of Mickey Mouse.  Mickey remains the symbol of the company, embodying the wholesome, reliable face that the Disney company wants the world to recognize them as.  Mickey’s power as a symbol is crucial for a mega-giant corporation like Disney, but he’s also held up in such esteem because of his significance to the company’s survival.  Walt Disney said so himself in one of his many television specials, “I hope we never loose sight of one thing.  That it was all started by a mouse.”  This has become the motto of the company itself, as they recognize that after all the movie premieres, after all the earnings reports, the new attraction openings, the product launches, the ups and downs, the surprises and failures, that everything that makes Disney what it is stems from Mickey.  It’s a statement to say to all those working in the industry and in particular to those at the Disney company, that you should always have eye towards the past while looking forward into the future.

For Walt Disney himself, he fully understood what Mickey Mouse meant to him.  After working his way through early animation studios in Kansas City, Missouri, Walt set out to Los Angeles to embark on creating a studio of his own.  There, he worked closely with another young, ambitious animator named Ub Iwerks, who helped  Walt Disney experiment with groundbreaking techniques like mixing live action and animation together.  With the help of his business savvy brother Roy, Walt soon opened his first animation studio in a back office in the Los Feliz district of LA.  Having put together a robust staff and gained some notoriety for his cutting edge Alice shorts, Walt soon developed a new series devoted to what he hoped would be a cartoon star on the same level as Felix the Cat.  That character would be Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit.  But, after producing a handful of Oswald shorts, Walt soon learned that his distributor, Charles Mintz, had effectively written Walt out of his contract and signed away all his animators (except Iwerks), leaving him with nothing;  not even Oswald.  On the ride home after that fateful meeting, Walt brainstormed what to do next and out of that came the concept for a spunky little mouse.  With Ub’s help, they created the first drawing of their new character and gave him the name of Mickey out of the suggestion from Walt’s wife Lillian.  They now had their character, but what would make him different than Oswald?  The answer was a voice.  After the breakthrough of synchronized sound in the movie The Jazz Singer (1927), Walt made a gamble of adding this technique to the medium of animation, and it not only worked, it made history.  But, what voice would do for a cartoon mouse?  Well, for Walt Disney, the answer was simple: he would perform it himself.  Walt’s falsetto fit the character perfectly, and more important, it gave him personality.   That’s why Walt had such a lasting devotion to the character, because Mickey was such a part of him, and essentially is what saved him in Walt’s darkest moment.

You don’t have to look further than the very hub of Disneyland park to see just how connected those two are to the history of the company and to the industry in general.  The bronze statue, dubbed “Partners” shows Walt and Mickey holding hands as they overlook the worldwide destination that they built together.  You’ll see no more a fitting representation of the bond between creator and creation in art outside of religious iconography.  But true immortality only benefits the creation in the end.  Walt Disney passed away with many of his ambitions left unfinished, and much of what the Disney company is today is quite different than what he would have intended it to be.  But, the Walt Disney Company still has an affinity for it’s past, and that’s no more apparent than in how they’ve maintained their icon for all these years.  Walt didn’t just give Mickey his voice, he gave him an identity.  Mickey Mouse became an icon because of the way that he embodied the every man hero that we all wanted to be.  That’s why he gained so much of his popularity during the height of the Great Depression.  The determination that Walt Disney put into the character to stand up for justice and pull himself up from the depths of despair gave hope to those who had all but lost it in those times.  The same proved true during the War Years as well.  Though Walt stopped short of putting Mickey in uniform (because he didn’t want Mickey to symbolize actions related to killing others as a part of combat), Mickey nevertheless represented the American spirit that helped unite the nation together.  You know Mickey had the right effect when dictators like Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin wanted him banned from their countries.  One of the most compelling instances of Mickey’s powerful influence in the culture came when Walt Disney made a goodwill tour of Latin America in the midst of World War II.  Upon visiting Uraguay, Walt brought with him a collection of shorts that the South American nation had rarely seen before then, as well as plenty of Mickey dolls for the children of the country.  Mere days after Walt’s visit, the Uraguanian government told the German ambassador to leave and that they would be cutting diplomatic ties with the Nazi regime.  All that, because of a cartoon mouse.

Naturally, the Walt Disney Company recognizes that Mickey Mouse is a powerful symbol, and they’ve been careful to guard his image over the years.  Apart from the use of the character for wartime propaganda in the 1940’s, Mickey Mouse has never been used for anything more to do with government.   He’s thankfully never endorsed a politician nor any political party.  Individual groups unaffiliated with the Disney company have however adopted the image of Mickey Mouse into their own iconography, and usually depending on the level of objections you hear from the Disney corporate offices will tell you just how much they themselves stand on most issues.  Though Mickey is meant to symbolize neutrality officially from the Disney company, his image has been used among a variety of things like advocating for the environment, for civil rights, and for the welfare of the poor and disenfranchised.  I can tell you having been to the LA Pride festival that I’ve seen many members of the LGBTQ community showing off their pride with among other things shirts and pins with a rainbow flag shaped into that distinctive three-circle silhouette of the mouse himself.  Mickey may not officially be an advocate for all those things, but the effectiveness of his ability to spread a message is certainly not lost on all these groups.  In particular, many advocacy groups like to use the symbol of Mickey Mouse because it helps their message reach younger minds who naturally grow more interested when they recognize a character whose played such a big part of their upbringing.  Mickey Mouse is trusted in ways that most politicians would dream about, and that can be both a blessing and a curse.  The reason why the Disney company chooses to not make Mickey Mouse an official symbol of anything other than their brand is because they don’t want there to be any backlash brought their way when certain positions face fierce opposition.  Mickey is often used as a means of undermining the good aspects of the company and the character, as critics and troublemakers like to break down something that is manufactured to be portrayed so pure.  You see this in stuff as harmless as t-shirts with Mickey covered in tattoos or giving a gang sign to more extreme aspects like showing in some media Mickey committing murder, involved in a sex act, or using hate speech.  Mickey is almost too powerful a symbol, and the best we can hope is that the desire to see him remain a positive influence in our lives wins out over everything else.

Despite Disney closely guarding their the image of their iconic mascot, they still do their best to keep Mickey in tune with the times.  That, more than anything, has kept the character relevant for 90 years and will likely continue to keep him around for another 90.  Mickey has changed little in some ways, but at the same time is also greatly different than how he started.  The whistle-blowing steamboat captain of Mickey’s debut short, Steamboat Willie, set the primary look for the character, but several changes like the addition of pupils in his eyes and a more pear shaped figure that is easier to animate have been added over the years.  There are certainly benchmark moments that cemented new eras for the character; one in particular being the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence from Fantasia (1940), which is widely regarded as one of the greatest examples of animation of all time.  Not every use of Mickey Mouse has aged well; I’m sure Disco Mickey is something that no one wants to remember fondly, Disney most of all.  But, the fact that Mickey never has fallen out of popularity after all these years is a real indication of the effectiveness that the Disney company has had with adapting the character over the years.  And the interesting thing is that Disney has done that sometimes by even returning to the things that have worked in the past.  Surprisingly, Mickey has returned more recently to a more retro look in recent animated shorts, with the color taken out of his skin and the pupils returned to their original black dots.  And when you look at most Mickey related merchandise, what ends up selling the most are the things that have sold well generation after generation.  I don’t think that it’s any mistake that one of the face options available on a newly purchased Apple Watch is one of Mickey Mouse designed to look like all the classic watches made throughout the years, with Mickey’s arms moving across the dial.  In some ways Mickey moves with the times, and then sometimes the times move to meet up with him.  That’s the power of a character who transcends all the rules and manages to endure no matter what else happens in the culture at large.

For me, Mickey Mouse has had a profound impact.  My journey into the world of cinema was, to say the least, all started by a mouse.  I had my first Mickey Mouse doll before I could even walk, and the first things that I likely ever saw on television were the Mickey Mouse cartoons that my parents let me watch on the then newly launched Disney Channel.  Since then, I spent many of summers in California, often visiting Disneyland, and some of the oldest pictures I have of myself are in the embrace of a Mickey Mouse walk around character from the park.  I have only worn watches with a Mickey Mouse face on it, and have numerous shirts in my wardrobe with some Mickey design on it.  Though my movie tastes have largely moved beyond just Disney related materials, I still hold a special place in my heart for the studio and their mascot, because they were the gateway to everything else.  And I’m sure that it’s the same for a great many other people out there, especially in the film industry.  Many people learned how to portray heroism through Mickey; because he embodied everything that made a hero great.  He’s also an embodiment of the every man ideal, much in the same way that the likes of Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart often represented on film.  Though not always used perfectly, Mickey Mouse stands as an ideal for good-natured civility in a world that desperately needs it.  One of the most profound moments ever on the big screen related to Mickey Mouse came not in a Disney film at all, but in a sharp satirical comedy from Preston Sturges called Sullivan’s Travels (1941).  In that movie, a jaded filmmaker embarks on a soul-searching mission to go out into the country and find a sense of the real human condition in America, warts and all.  He casts aside his wealth and influence and lives life as a hobo, becoming more cynical and frustrated with how Hollywood seems to overlook the real plights of the average person.  At the end of the movie, he ends up in  a chain gang of prisoners and all of them are brought into a room and treated to a film after a long days work.  And it happens to be a Mickey Mouse cartoon.  The director, played by Joel McCrea, is stunned to find these downtrodden souls suddenly filled with joy and laughter when watching the cartoon, and for a moment, he too forgets his sorrows and laughs along with them.  From then on, he realizes the real effect that cinema has on uplifting the hearts of everyone and has faith renewed in his art-form once again.  The fact that it took Mickey Mouse to make that profound change is a real testament to how impactful he can be on one’s personal journey.

Like most influential things in our culture, Mickey Mouse is many different things to many different people; a symbol, a corporate logo, an ideal, a nuisance, a role model, a teacher, a celebrity, an icon, a relic, a revelation, and for many people, a friend.  90 years has made the character so monumental across the world mainly due to the fact that he is passed on through the generations.  Our parents and even some grandparents have known only a world with Mickey Mouse as a part of it, and for most of us, he was an essential part of our upbringing.  Most parents even intentionally bring their fondness for Mickey Mouse into the rearing of their own children, keeping that tradition going in the hopes that they can have that as something that helps to bond their family together.  Few other characters become a part of our lives the same way that Mickey does.  Walt Disney may not have realized it at the time, but he had stumbled upon one of the greatest assets to humanity that the 20th century likely ever produced.  The fact that Mickey has gone on to symbolize goodwill across the world is one of the greatest accomplishments that he’s ever had the privilege of being a part of.  Imagine a world where Mickey Mouse never came into being.  Would Walt Disney had found success with something else, or would he have faded into obscurity having given up on his dreams?  Would another cartoon character have excelled in his place?  Would the power and influence that the Disney company now yields have been scattered differently throughout the film industry?  Would America and Western democracy have battled back tyranny had they not had as powerful a goodwill symbol as Mickey Mouse?  The world would have likely been very different.  Historically and culturally, Mickey Mouse is an indispensable part of our lives.  That’s why, as the Mouse hits that monumental 90 year mark this month, we all are reminded of the personal effect that he had on our own lives and for most of us, it’s filled with fond memories.  Whether you are putting on your mouse ears, or watching “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” for the hundredth time, or getting that ever crucial picture at Disneyland, it’s a celebration worth rejoicing over as that little Mouse named Mickey is still going strong.  Come along, sing the song, and join the jamboree; M-I-C-K-E-Y-M-O-U-S-E.

Focus on a Franchise – Pirates of the Caribbean

The old phrase “dead men tell no tales” could also easily apply to forgotten genres within cinema.  And then, somehow miraculously, some genres rise from the dead.  That was the case with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise; the unlikeliest of blockbuster phenomenons in movie history.  You have to look back at the time in which the Pirates franchise first premiered to really understand just how unusual it was.  Pirates movies, as a genre, was all but dead around the turn of the millennium.  Once a wildly successful part of early Hollywood, with renowned classics like Captain Blood (1935) and The Sea Hawk (1940), the genre fell off deeply in the decades after, with only a handful of noteworthy films in all that time.  The final nail in the coffin came with Cannon Films notorious box office flop Cutthroat Island (1995), which all but spelled out for Hollywood that Pirate movies were poison in the cinema.  So, the fact that Disney not only took another shot this troubled genre but also poured a substantial budget behind it makes the creation of these movies all the more puzzling.  Couple this with the fact that the source of inspiration for these movies wasn’t a novel or a notable historical figure, but a theme park attraction.  So what exactly happened to make everything go right.  Turns out the “X” factor for the franchise’s success was an oddball, unconventional actor by the name of Johnny Depp.  Depp was not a box office draw at the time, but somehow he struck a cord with this role, and created one of the most original characters to have appeared on the big screen in quite a long time; the notorious Captain Jack Sparrow.  And not only did Jack Sparrow strike gold once for the Disney company, but he would continue to do so for a whole decade after.  But, like most other things, even this couldn’t last, and now the franchise is at a crossroads.  Because of waning box office, and Depp’s own off the set issues becoming a liability, it seems like Jack Sparrow’s days on the big screen are over.  So, let’s take a look back at the franchise that briefly resurrected the Pirates genre and turned Jack Sparrow into a household name.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (2003)

Directed by Gore Verbinski

When action film producer Jerry Bruckheimer walked into then Disney CEO Michael Eisner’s office and pitched this idea of a movie based on the Disneyland attraction of the same name starring the actor best known for playing Edward Scissorhands, it seemed only logical to give the idea a heavy no.  And yet, Eisner bit and gave the go ahead to make this movie.  But, even with the project funded and well into production, the prospects still were negative given the recent box office flop of The Country Bears (2002), another movie based on a Disneyland attraction.  Eisner even intervened numerous times, raising serious questions about the direction that Johnny Depp was taking his eccentric performance.  But, probably to the surprise of everyone, including I’m sure even the people that made the movie, the film was a smash hit with audiences.  And Disney had no one better to thank for that than Johnny Depp.  Depp’s Jack Sparrow gave this movie, and the subsequent franchise, it’s identity and made it instantly stand apart from both the Pirate movie genre and all movies in general.  Like a mix of Errol Flynn and Inspector Clouseau, with a little extra inspiration from rocker Keith Richards, Jack Sparrow is equal parts the greatest and worst pirate you’ve ever seen.  Bumbling his way through harrowing situations, teetering between drunkenness and sobriety, Sparrow somehow seems to luck his way through any situation, making him the unlikeliest of heroes.  Depp’s performance embodies every bit of this and it’s easy to see why he was so endearing to audiences.  He’s also given one of the greatest character entrances in movie history, sailing triumphantly into port on a sinking boat; a perfect encapsulation of the character, and really of the impact he would have for the Pirates genre in general.  And the best thing is that, even with all the questions raised beforehand, Depp was still able to form the character his way and was free to experiment and improvise throughout filming.  It was risky, but rewarding as Jack Sparrow commands every scene he is in.  His performance even garnered a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars (his first) which once again just shows the unprecedented success this movie had surprisingly found.

But, it’s not just Depp alone that made the movie so memorable for audiences.  Director Gore Verbinski drew heavily from his background in visual effects to craft a movie that was not only felt epic, but was also effective as a showcase for cutting edge technology.  The movie’s central gimmick, the curse that haunts the crew of the Black Pearl, is effectively realized through some beautifully rendered CGI which transforms the villainous pirates into skeletal figures in the moonlight.  Though the effects are cool to look at, they are not distracting either, and actually mix in well with the period detail in the production design.  Verbinski also draws heavy inspiration from pirate movies of the past, delivering epic sea battles that would feel at home in an Errol Flynn swashbuckler.  The whole movie beautifully delivers on that mix of the old and the new, helping to remind audiences of what Pirate movies used to be like and what they could be in the years to come.  Johnny Depp also gets worthwhile support from the other cast members as well.  Keira Knightly saw a major career boost thanks to this movie, which propelled her into leading lady status in Hollywood.  Orlando Bloom luckily stumbled onto this new franchise just as his work on The Lord of the Rings was coming to an end, and he makes a perfect straight-man for Johnny Depp to work off of.  Other supporting players like Kevin McNally, Zoe Saldana, and Jonathan Pryce also stand out in the film.  But, it’s Geoffrey Rush who almost matches Depp in his equally eccentric role as the villainous Captain Barbosa.   The scenes with Depp and Rush alone are worth the price of admission, seeing two veteran character actors clearly having fun playing these characters.  Naturally, the success of Black Pearl opened the door for this phenomenon to become a franchise, and that would indeed happen, with Disney again taking another big risk with the sequels.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST (2006)

Directed by Gore Verbinski

Shortly after the release of Curse of the Black Pearl, Disney made the logical choice to produce a sequel.  But, what many people didn’t expect was that not one but two sequels were planned, shooting back to back with a half a billion dollar price tag for both.  This was another costly gamble, but this time Disney had more belief in this property, especially now that they had a household name character like Jack Sparrow to carry it.  And indeed, the gamble not only paid off, but even better than they expected.  The first sequel, Dead Man’s Chest, remarkably grabbed the opening weekend crown with a then staggering $134 million three day haul.  And it’s easy to see why this became the high water mark for the franchise, because it’s, in my opinion, the best in the series.  Everything that made the original film a classic is ratcheted up in this sequel, with bigger set pieces, amazing visual effects, and a deeper mythology.  There are many things that makes this movie work so well, but none more so than the addition of a great and memorable villain; Davy Jones.  Actor Bill Nighy steals the movie with his wonderfully over-the-top performance, which remarkably still comes through even underneath the motion captured digital masking that creates the final look of the character.  Motion capture was still in it’s infancy at the time, but it saw a huge step forward with Davy Jones, who looks about as authentic as he possibly could be.  An equally memorable edition is the Kraken, a remarkable CGI creation that earns it’s rightful place alongside the most memorable of giant monsters on the big screen.  Hans Zimmer’s musical score also hit it’s peak with this film, with his already popular Main Theme from the original joined by memorable themes for the two villainous elements; Jones and the Kraken.  The film won a well-deserved Oscar for it’s visual effects, and became the highest grossing film ever for Disney at the time, cementing it’s place as key part of the company’s legacy.  At this same time, Disney even took the step of putting the characters of Jack, Barbosa, and Davy Jones into the park attraction that inspired them all in the first place.  With all this, and another sequel around the corner, nothing was going to slow these Pirates down in Hollywood.  Right?

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END (2007)

Directed by Gore Verbinski

Released less than a year after Dead Man’s ChestAt World’s End looked primed to cap this trilogy off strong.  In a post-Lord of the Rings world, much became expected of trilogy enders, as The Return of the King (2003) was easily the biggest film of that epic series.  As a result, it appeared that Gore Verbinski and Jerry Bruckheimer wanted to go out on a similar note, taking the franchise to even further epic heights.  Unfortunately, the end result did not have the same effect as Return of the King.  At World’s End is by no means a bad movie, but it doesn’t have the same focus that it’s predecessors had.  The movie is bloated, running nearly 3 hours long, with a lot of unnecessary sidetracks that lead nowhere.  The movie starts off promising with a beautifully constructed set piece recreating Singapore in the era of Pirates, which also brings in legendary Hong Kong cinema icon Chow Yun Fat as a nice addition to the cast.  There is also a wonderfully weird sequence of Jack Sparrow stranded in Davy Jones’ Locker, which seemed to be heavily inspired by the work of another favorite collaborator of Depp’s, Terry Gilliam.  But, after a strong opening, the movie sags as the uneven plot looses balance.  Alliances break down, characters plot behind others’ backs for no reason, and there are just too many scenes where there’s a lot of talking and not enough action.  Also, some of the pirate lore and magical elements are never fully realized, making the whole thing hard to follow.  Still, Depp shines as Jack Sparrow, and his final showdown with Davy Jones in the middle of a storming Maelstrom is breathtaking to watch.  While the whole is a convoluted mess, there is still a lot to like in the movie, and it does tie up the trilogy effectively enough.  But, it is still the weakest of the trilogy under Verbinski’s direction.  The movie made less than it’s predecessor, but still well enough to keep Disney in the black.  For the time, this should have been the time to hang up the swords and leave the franchise complete as is, because it was clear that by the end of At World’s End, the series was loosing it’s momentum.   But of course, with a property as profitable as this one, Hollywood just can’t leave well enough alone.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES (2011)

Directed by Rob Marshall

After taking a much needed break, Disney went right back to the well to get more out of this franchise.  Verbinski had moved on, and was already deep into development on another collaboration with Disney and Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger), so the studio turned to a different director in their stable to tackle this next chapter.  Rob Marshall had already made a splash in Hollywood with his Oscar-winning musical Chicago (2002), but had yet to apply his cinematic skills into an action film.  And that inexperience is the biggest problem with On Stranger Tides.  The whole movie is a pale imitation of it’s predecessors precisely because Marshall can’t stage the film’s action set pieces with the same flair that Verbinski had.  There is just a severe lack of fun to the whole movie, and Johnny Depp especially is shackled by this movie’s lack of creative drive.  More than anything, this movie feels like it suffered from the most studio interference, as the whole thing comes across as a paint by numbers rendition of all the thing that had come in the series before.  Perhaps the biggest disappointment, however, is the movie’s villain; Blackbeard.  Casting a great, larger than life actor such as Ian McShane in the role should have made this character legendary, and yet Blackbeard is just a shallow, uninspired baddie that utilizes none of McShane’s charisma or menace.  Davy Jones he is not.  The addition of Penelope Cruz as a love interest for Jack Sparrow fairs a bit better, and the movie briefly comes to life whenever her and Depp share the screen.  Also, Geoffrey Rush returns as a more grizzled Barbosa, and is by far the best part of this movie.  Watching his work here really convinced me that Barbosa is my favorite character in the entire franchise, mainly because he can still shine in even the most mediocre of films.  Stranger Tides is rock bottom for the Pirates franchise, mainly because it makes the cardinal sin of being boring and safe, which is contrary to what made these movies work in the first place.  With bland action set pieces (apart from a sequence that miraculously makes mermaids scary), a wooden cast of new characters, and no real reason to exist, this was the worst possible direction that the studio could have taken their cash cow of a franchise.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES (2017)

Directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg

A full fourteen years after the launch of the franchise, Disney believed they could wring just a little more out of these Pirates.  But given Stranger Tides lackluster results, was it really worth the risk.  Johnny Depp did not have the same box office appeal anymore after a string of costly flops (The Lone Ranger among them) and his recent bad behavior making headlines was also not beneficial to the prospects for a continuation of the franchise.  But, Disney still saw the potential.  They made the right choice and hired Norwegian directors Ronning and Sandberg, who gained notoriety for their critically acclaimed sea-faring Kon-Tiki (2012).  And while their grasp on Pirates convoluted mythology still wasn’t good enough to right the ship completely, they at least staged their action set pieces better than Rob Marshall did, especially a really clever one involving a gag with a guillotine.  The movie also benefits from a charismatic villainous turn by Javier Bardem as the half dead Captain Salazar, who at least comes off as more menacing than McShane’s dull Blackbeard.  Sadly, these are the only positive things to say about the movie, because the rest of the film is just the same old tired tricks again.  Johnny Depp especially looks bored in this movie, and while he still has moments that shine, it’s clear that the Jack Sparrow shtick had run it’s course.  Apparently he even needed an earpiece to feed him lines during filming, showing just how little he cared at this point.  The movie’s convoluted plot also drags the movie down, and even tries to drag up past plot points that we thought were done and over with (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly both appear in pointless cameos that add little to their character arcs).  And again, the mythology just feels lazy at this point; once centered around incredible icons like the Kraken and Davy Jones’ Locker, the series now wanted us to care about Neptune’s Trident, which I still don’t understand how the mechanics of it works.  And you bring Barbosa back to life, just to kill him off again? Seriously?  It was clear that this ship was wildly off course and should have been left in the harbor.  And given it’s lackluster box office performance, that seems to be the message that it left on Disney afterwards.

It is still remarkable that a movie that should have never worked managed to do just that, and spawn a five film franchise that spanned over a decade.  But, the Pirate revival was short lived, even while Pirates was still riding high.  Pirates of the Caribbean didn’t have the same carry over effect on the industry that other genre revivals like Gladiator (2000) and The Lord of the Rings had around the same time.  Other studios didn’t set out to make Pirate movies of their own.  Pirates of the Caribbean ended up just sitting on it’s own as an anomaly within the industry.  But, it was one that did help the Walt Disney out in a transitional time in their history.  As the Michael Eisner era gave way to the Bob Iger era, Pirates was the single biggest source of income for the studio, and it helped them gain the capital they would need to further expand in the years ahead with Marvel and Star Wars, and weather the disappointments along the way.  Though the decline of the series was disappointing in the long run, the fact that these movies exist at all and were worth seeing is a  miracle.  Pirate movies were a dead franchise, and yet somehow this franchise bucked the trend and became a success.  Finding the buried treasure in the character of Jack Sparrow was a key part of that, and I love the fact that he now is as noteworthy a part of the Disney legacy as the likes of Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck.  Also, the franchise was at it’s best when it had confidence in it’s own identity, even separated from the Disneyland ride.  The references in the early films were easy to spot, like the dog with the keys and skeleton Barbosa drinking a bottle of rum, but they didn’t distract from the story at large.  Pirates was it’s own unique thing, and the only thing that anchored it down in the end was it’s inability to be anything else.  I think that’s why Disney is deciding to retire Jack Sparrow as a character and relaunch the series anew.  But, the era that Jack Sparrow reigned was a weird and adventurous one, and even though the rum’s run dry on this series, it’s will still hold an infamous place as a true Hollywood original.  Drink up me hearties, Yo Ho.

 

Top Ten Scariest Places in Movies

When we want to watch a scary movie, we often seek out the films that have the most gruesome monsters or the most grisly of deaths.  But one thing that I don’t think gets enough credit for making scary movies work are the settings themselves.  The best horror movies have memorable monsters for sure, but it’s the location that makes them legendary as well.  Setting helps to build atmosphere, drawing the viewer in by giving them the stage on which the horror plays out.  Sometimes, it the setting that does most of the work, utilizing shadows and creepy sounds that both hide and spotlight the terror within.  One thing that is noteworthy about all the various iconic horror films is that they usually take the standard idea of a scary setting and try different things with it.  There’s no rule in horror that says that a horror movie needs to be set within a haunted house or even a spooky castle.  Horror movies have made just about any place scary over the years, including schools, hospitals, amusements parks, and even nurseries.  In fact, it almost works better to have a horror movie set in a usually safe space rather than a traditionally spooky one.  There are plenty of great horror movies that do make use of the tried and true scary settings, like graveyards and haunted houses, and that why those places have continued to carry an aura of menace to them today.  For this week’s upcoming Halloween, I want to list some of the greatest scary places to ever appear on film.  I am only limiting this to locations that are purely cinematic creations, and not based on real places (like the Amityville house).  Also, I’m opening this list up to scary places found in non horror movies as well, because some of those movies have frightening locations that stand shoulder to shoulder with the best found in horror.  So, let’s take a look at 10 of the scariest places in movies.

10.

DRACULA’S CASTLE from DRACULA (1931)

Let’s start this off with the groundbreaking film that really cemented the visual inspiration for Hollywood Gothic horror for most of the industry’s history.  Sure, Dracula was not the first movie to use setting to build spooky atmosphere.  The German Expressionist movement had been utilizing groundbreaking techniques of light and shadow and Gothic design to frighten audiences for many years before, with iconic horror classics like Nosferatu (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).  But director Tod Browning brought those techniques to the mainstream with Dracula and created the template on which decades of future horror films would be made.  The gloomy, cobweb adorned castle of Count Dracula perfectly accentuates the chilling performance of Bela Lugosi in the title role, and helps to give us the feeling of unease that danger lurks within every nook and cranny of this place.  The movie was made at a time when you couldn’t show any onscreen violence or blood, and even just implying the threat of violence faced scrutiny from censors.  So, with Dracula, the filmmakers had to let the setting be the thing that frightened audiences and made them feel that ever crucial sense of dread.  And they did this by implying the sense of decay of Dracula’s castle.  It’s dark, empty, and rotten, and yet is still a threat to anyone who enters; much like the master who inhabits it.  In the years since it’s release, you can see the fingerprints of Dracula in countless other horror movies, all of which still use the dusty, cobweb adorned interiors that worked so well before.  Even Francis Ford Coppola’s big budget remake took much of it’s visual cue from some of the same techniques found in the original.  It may not seem as scary today, but Dracula’s Castle from the original classic earns this spot just from the impact it’s had on the genre as a whole.

9.

BUFFALO BILL’S BASEMENT from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)

Not every scary place in movies needs to necessarily be haunted; sometimes it just needs to house a truly horrifying monster.  This was the case with The Silence of the Lambs, which has two such places that you could spotlight as among the scariest settings of all time.  One of those places is the cell block that holds Hannibal Lecter behind bars (or in this case bullet proof glass).  And though those scenes are terrifying on their own, I think they are edged out by the horror show that is the underground dwelling of serial killer Buffalo Bill.  At least with the cell block, you get the feeling that the monster inside is neutralized to a degree, but in Buffalo Bill’s basement, we see his full, deranged life laid bare before us in a truly disgusting way.  Most horrific is the dried up well in which he holds his victims captive before killing them and harvesting their skin.  The movie’s most terrifying scenes show Buffalo Bill psychologically torturing his most recent captive as he forces her to apply skin lotion or else he’ll spray her with a garden hose, all the while calling her an “it” which shows the disconnected, dehumanization that plagues his mind.  The dreariness of the setting is also very well realized, giving Bill’s living space this rotten feel to it.  The fact that these scenes are also the only ones colored with sickly greens and oranges in the movie, which is mostly filmed in cold grays and blues, also sets it apart and shows just how unnatural it is compared to everything else in the movie.  The whole setting may not be outwardly scary, but it puts the audience in a sense of unease that still effectively helps us dread every time the movie returns to it.  Creepy is just as effective as horrifying, and that’s what helps to make Buffalo Bill’s basement on of cinema’s most terrifying places.

8.

SHELOB’S LAIR from THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003)

Proof that you don’t just find scary places in horror movies along.  Peter Jackson’s epic fantasy trilogy based on the novels by J.R.R. Tolkein all have their fair share of memorable spooky locations; the mines of Moria, the tower of Orthanc in Isengard, the dead city of Minas Morgul, and even the expanse of Mordor itself.   But none of those places carries the sheer terror that is found in Shelob’s Lair.  The iconic scene from Tolkein’s novel is horrifically realized in the movie, with a remarkably grotesque representation of the massive spider who lives within it.  What Peter Jackson brilliantly gets across in the film is the sheer terror of feeling like a fly trapped in a spider’s web, or in this case a burrow.  After Gollum leads Frodo Baggins in the tunnel, we follow the harrowing experience through his eyes, and feel the same isolation that he feels.  The most terrifying aspect of the scene is the disorientation that Frodo experiences, not knowing from which corner the massive spider Shelob is going to pop out from.  The fact that even with all that extra weight, Shelob is still able to move with the same agility and speeds as a tiny spider makes the scene all the creepier.  It’s not surprising to learn that Peter Jackson is arachnophobic by his own admission, and it’s apparent that he funneled all that fear and anxiety into this scene, effectively terrifying us in the same way he would be terrified.  In a movie series already heavily populated with iconic and terryifying monsters, it really takes special effort to make something like Shelob rise above the rest, and the design of her lair really does a lot of help to make that happen.  The isolation and wildness of it really sells the terror of the setting, giving us the sense that this is a place where even the most evil of creatures would not set foot in.   And that as a result puts it in the same league as many of the scariest places from actual horror movies.  Even fantasies can rise to that level of terror.

7.

THE FREELING FAMILY HOME from POLTERGEIST (1982)

The movie Poltergiest broke new ground in the horror film genre by moving away from the old fashioned template that had existed for years in Hollywood.  It showed that a haunted house didn’t need to look rundown, broken and dilapidated in order to be effectively creepy.  A haunted house, it turns out, could look just like any other suburban home.  That’s the case with the Freeling family in this horror classic, as they move into a freshly developed new property with a house that has all the modern fixtures that a upper middle class household would want.  But, over time, it becomes apparent that they are not alone, as all sorts of paranormal activity begins to terrorize them, even leading to the capture of the youngest child who gets trapped in the spectral plane with all the terrifying ghosts.  This Tobe Hooper directed, Spielberg written film brings a sense of terror out of the audiences fears of witnessing a home invasion, only that the invaders are ghost.  We feel safe in our homes, but the sense that this peacefulness can be broken by the supernatural really drives it home for audiences, who probably return home wondering if their living space might also be haunted.  We do learn the source of the family’s haunting; their new neighborhood was built on land previously used a cemetery, and the greedy land developer moved only the tombstones and not the bodies underneath, desecrating the remains of many and angering their souls.  But even without that explanation, the fact that a pristine new home can turn into a house of horrors is one that still leaves audiences in a state of apprehension.  The impact of this movie is still felt in many modern day horror films, like the Paranormal Activity series, which uses the same aesthetic of a normal home violated by the presence of ghosts.  More than anything, it’s terrifying because it gives us the dreadful sense that no place is safe in the end.

6.

THE SEWERS OF DERRY, MAINE from STEPHEN KING’S IT (2017)

There is no doubt that the master of the horror genre for the last half century has been writer Stephen King.  His endless string of novels have inspired a whole generation of writers and filmmakers to shape the current identity of the horror genre, and his books have also been the source for some of the scariest movies ever made.  Probably most surprising is the fact that he still uses his home state of Maine as the setting for so many of these stories; which is odd because if you’ve been to Maine, there’s nothing there that really screams out to you as Gothic or spooky.  For Stephen King, he ‘s created his own alternative Maine, which is the focal point of so much of the world’s evil and home to many of it’s most frightening creatures.  One of the greatest creations of his horror mythology is the demon clown Pennywise, who is the focal point of the novel It (1986).  King’s iconic novel has since spawned two classic adaptations; a TV mini-series starring Tim Curry as the clown, and last years big screen feature, starring Bill Skargard in the same role.  Though the TV version is admirable, the movie does a much better job with making the setting truer to King’s vision, and that’s no more apparent than in the way it envisions the sewer dwelling of Pennywise.  Much like Shelob’s Lair, the sewers create the disorienting feeling of entrapment and that the monster could be lurking just about anywhere.  Thanks to the better resources from a larger budget, we are given a more surreal and terrifying setting that feels truer to the menace of the character.  But to the original TV series’ credit, it does match the same creepiness with the movie when it comes to that introductory scene of Pennywise lurking up from a storm drain.  Like what we read from King’s novel, it’s the darkness underneath the clown face that really is the thing of nightmares.

5.

THE PALE MAN’S DINING HALL from PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006)

Guillermo Del Toro has left his mark in numerous fields, such as science fiction (which earned him a coveted Oscar), fantasy and horror.  Of those different genres, however, he feels more closely at home in horror, which is clear from his most direct cinematic and literary inspirations.  An devout fan of the writings of Edgar Allen Poe and H. P. Lovecraft, Del Toro has often tried to fill most of his movies with creatures that stem from the darkest of nightmares, even if the movies themselves are not inherently scary.  The most interesting visions of horror actually come from his trio of historical dramas set around or are influenced by the dark history of the Spanish Civil War.  There are Cronos (1993) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001), both of which have their spooky elements, but it’s in the third feature, Pan’s Labyrinth, that we see his twisted imagination in full display.  And in this film, we find what is probably the single most terrifying figure that the visionary director has ever conjured up in his entire career; the terrifying Pale Man.  Played through breathtakingly detailed make-up by Del Toro regular Doug Jones, the Pale Man is a literal nightmare come to life.  With it’s pale, drooping skin, monstrous teeth, and creepy eyeballs that it holds in it’s hands, it’s like no creature you’ve ever seen before or would want to see again.  Paralleling this creature with the very human monster in the real world, the Fascist captain Vidal, Del Toro visualizes the nightmarish realities of his characters lives in a terrifying way, and this is emphasized very vividly in the Gothic decadence of the Pale Man’s banquet hall.  Del Toro’s twisted designs extend from the character through the setting, and makes yet another dark web like others on this list ready to entrap it’s prey.  Though briefly seen in the film itself, the Pale Man’s Hall is still scary enough to frighten our memories long after we’ve left it behind.

4.

THE NOSTROMO from ALIEN (1979)

Ridley Scott’s Alien may seem on the surface like any other science fiction thriller, but there is plenty of things about the movie that owes more inspiration to the genre of horror.  The cargo freighter space ship Nostromo is essentially a cosmic haunted house and instead of ghosts, we get a bloodthirsty humanoid alien.  Scott manages to make the ship terrifying by using the same techniques used in horror; darkness and shadow, loud disorienting noises, and creepy scenery throughout every moment.  The Nostromo is not some clean, pristine interstellar vehicle that you would find in an episode of Star Trek.  It’s a beat up, unglamorous utility ship meant for shipping cargo.  And the fact that it looks so dingy and corrupted helps to reinforce that sense of it being just as menacing to the main characters as the creature that hunts them from within it.  There are some inspired moments where Ridley Scott stages some of the movie’s most frightening scenes, like a hanger where Harry Dean Stanton’s character is caught by the alien, with water leaking from nearby pipes and iron chains dangling from the ceiling.  It really does make the scene feel like a haunted house, even though the setting is wildly different.  The movie released with the tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream,” so they knew the connection they were making with this.  Ridley Scott did an effective job of melding genre tropes together to make Alien arguably the scariest science fiction movie ever made.  And it all is due to the fact that they created a space ship that lends itself perfectly to that horror aesthetic.  Other horror films set in space would follow in it’s footsteps, like 1997’s Event Horizon, but there’s no doubt that the Nostromo still holds that iconic place in Sci-Fi and horror fans hearts today.  It’s still a place that makes us scream, even if it’s lost out in space.

3.

THE BATES MOTEL from PSYCHO (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock proved with the movie Psycho (1960) that not all scary places needed ghosts to be haunting.  With the iconic Bates Motel as the setting for much of this movie, we see a very real depiction of the lingering effect that evil acts have on a singular location.  The murders that occur within the unassuming walls of the hotel suites are shocking to first time viewers, who will probably come away worrying about the next time they stop for the night in while out in the middle of nowhere.  The reason why the Bates Motel turns out to be so frightening in the end is because it’s true nature reveals itself to us quietly.  The rooms themselves are accommodating, but the large Gothic house that looms over it projects that feeling of unease very quickly.  The interesting thing about it is that the house is not where the danger lies.  It’s a haunted house without a ghost.  The real menace is the low lying rooms themselves, with the caretaker Norman Bates being the real monster.  The Bates Motel is like a rattlesnake ready to pounce on it’s victim.  The house looks ominous, but it’s just the warning rattle, as it’s the fangs that are really the danger.  All that said, the Psycho house is rightfully iconic in it’s own right, and is enough to scare audience on it’s own.  It still exists in it’s original state on the Universal Studio’s backlot and is still a highlight of the tour.  The genius of Alfred Hitchcock was to present a false sense of anticipation on the audience’s part, as they never expected the Motel itself to be the real house of horrors.  He created another icon of the genre by subverting the idea of safe zones, and showing us how evil can indeed lurk just about anywhere.

2.

REGAN’S BEDROOM from THE EXORCIST (1973)

There is no more terrifying idea than the invasion of evil into the most innocent of places.  We see that played out to the extreme in William Friedkin’s iconic horror classic The Exorcist.  The movie details the possession of a young girl by a particularly menacing demonic presence.  As the movie goes along, we see the demon progressively corrupt young Regan (Lind Blair) and make her nearly unrecognizable by the end.  That same corruption manifests itself as well into the room where she is kept.  The bed she sleeps on is broken and the posts are padded in order to prevent any further damage to her body.  As the movie goes on, all light and warmth is also removed from the room.  All that’s left is minimal lamplight in an otherwise pitch dark room.  And that effect perfectly constructs the very unsettling atmosphere that makes the film’s climatic finale so memorable.  It’s disturbing to think that this once warm living space for a young, full of life child has devolved into this chilling battlefield between good and evil by movie’s end.  William Friedkin makes this all the more effective by gradually changing the room over time, until it becomes the nightmarish setting of the finale.  An extra special detail is found in the way that we see the breath of Fathers Karras and Merrin blow out when they speak, giving us the feeling of how cold it really is in that room.  The stark lighting is another effective feature, taking cue especially from early German Expressionist techniques.  But perhaps the reason that this setting is so memorably scary is because Friedkin made it feel so authentic.   There’s no feeling of manipulation on the director’s part; no jump scares or visual effects.  He puts you in that room with the characters and makes you feel the terror right alongside them.  That’s what helps keep this little bedroom one of the greatest visions of hell on earth ever put on film.

1.

THE OVERLOOK HOTEL from THE SHINING (1980)

All of the places on this list have their own great effect on exploiting the fears of the audience.  But none are more relentlessly frightening than those seen in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.  Another original creation from the mind of Stephen King, the Overlook is without a doubt single most terrifying place in all of cinema, and that’s because it’s shocking presence doesn’t come in just small doses; it permeates the entire movie.  From the opening credits on, Kubrick puts his audience into a state of unease which doesn’t let up until the end, and even beyond that.  The effectiveness of the movie comes from the feeling that there is no escape.  Every corner of the Hotel is ripe for scary the hell out of us, and that’s largely because Kubrick broke one of the crucial rules of horror film-making.  He casts every scene in bright light, making shadows non-existent.  Most horror movies usually use a brightly lit scene to reassure a moment of safety for the characters, as all the shadows are the bastions of evil, lurking in places unseen to entrap our heroes.  Because the shadows are absent in The Shining, there is a consistent sense of feeling that no place in the hotel is safe, and that is terrifying.  There are countless moments in the movie that could rank high among the scariest of all time; like the confrontation between Jack and Wendy on the staircase, the chase in the hedge maze, the horrifying encounter in room 237.  Perhaps the most iconic moment though is the appearance of the two twin girls at the end of the hallway, beckoning young Danny to come play with them.  Again, it’s brightly lit without shadows and sneaks up on us the audience without warning, reinforcing the idea that not one part of this hotel is safe.  King was not happy with Kubrick’s adaptation, because he felt that the movie minimized the evil of the hotel, but I would argue that Kubrick amped up the terror that was in the novel by making it so random and immediate.  For all the scary places in other movies, they at least bring the audience back home to a sense of comfort.  Kubrick dismantles that idea and gives us the most horrifying place in movie history with a setting where there is no place to hide.

So, there you have my choices for the scariest places in movie history.  Some are certainly scarier than others that rank higher on the list, but the effectiveness of each is also what really matters.  One pattern that I noticed from my own tastes on the subject is that the scariest places I observed are usually traps set by evil creatures to prey on the innocent.  Whether it’s actual monsters like Pennywise from It and Shelob from The Lord of the Rings, or human monsters like Norman Bates from Psycho and Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs, the home bases of these different monsters often are terrifying reflections of the evil they embody.  Of course, there are also the places that are transformed by evil acts like the house from Poltergeist or the Nostromo from Alien.  And then you have just the relentless evil of a place like the Overlook in The Shining, which just leaves it’s dark mark on anyone unfortunate enough to be living within it.  Whether it is haunted or not, a place often becomes an embodiment of our greatest fears and it’s aura permeates even beyond the evil deeds done there.  This can be attributed to entertainment reinforcing superstitions throughout the course of history.  There really is no real inherent danger when you walk through a graveyard, especially during daylight hours, but because they have this connotation with the supernatural, most people avoid venturing through them without reason.  We give places the power to scare us, and it usually is the result of wanting to create a notorious reputation for something that is otherwise benign.  And that’s something that has helped horror become as beloved a part of our collective narrative as anything else.  It’s interesting to see that a dark past can be put on just about anything, and that’s evident in all the greatest scary places found in film.  The ones from this list are perfect examples of that and there are plenty of more ways we can continue to scare one another by finding the mystery and terror found in even the unlikeliest of places.

The Haunted House That Blum Built – How an Indie Producer Saved Horror and Changed Hollywood

It’s hard to think of it now, but there was a time when it looked like the Horror film genre had lost any and all credibility in Hollywood.  For much of the late 90’s and through the 2000’s, the horror genre was plagued by a number of mediocre films that were neither scary nor entertaining.  More telling, the complete disdain that the industry had for horror films could be seen in the way that the studios were simply just making films for a target audience, namely young adults 18-25, and no one else.  This led to the dreaded notion of PG-13 rated horror movies, that were far more reliant on jump scares rather than actual violence and gore.  And this wasn’t always the case with Hollywood horror.  There had been decades of noteworthy horror flicks that had left a major impact on the industry.  Starting from the Universal monster movies of the 30’s, all the way through B-movie horror of the 50’s and 60’s like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), to the slasher movies of the 70’s and 80’s like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980).  The genre even became so admired in Hollywood that it won the coveted Best Picture Oscar with Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  But, like most other genres, Horror saw a decline when studios tried to interfere too much in the direction of where the genre was headed.  Soon it became less important creating memorable monsters and spooky atmosphere and more about hitting those cheap scares, or trying to one up themselves in the over the top gore.  Mostly, the horror films of the 2000’s fell flat because they pretty much all look and felt the same.  Sure there were exceptions like The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Ring (2001), and Saw (2004), but even those were undermined by lackluster, play-it-safe sequels.  Towards the end of the decade, the consensus was that horror was just not as effective at being scary like it used to be.  But, that would change once someone came along and changed the industry standard.

In walks Jason Blum, and his newly formed production outlet, Blumhouse.  Blum, probably without intention, has become the most valuable name in the Horror genre today, and has brought back a bit of prestige to this long neglected genre.  Though there are a lot of factors that have led to Blumhouse’s success, none is more key than the business model that the company has set out to identify itself with.  The Blumhouse model simply involves producing films on a controlled small budget with complete creative freedom for the directors and releasing them wide through the studio system.  By doing this, Blumhouse is able to have an output that is artistically unique without carrying a whole lot of financial risks, making them easier to sell to the major studios as well as to theaters across the country.  Because of this, the cost to profit margin has been extremely beneficial to the production company, with each film grossing significantly more than what they cost to make.  And with the huge profit margin, they have been able to build a great deal of personal capital which has allowed them to grow their business and increase their output.  Today, Blumhouse is not only putting out quality horror films, but are venturing into genres of all kinds; comedy, romance, family, even Christian drama.  They even recently announced a joint production with Dreamworks Animation (tentatively titled Spooky Jack) which will be their first venture into cartoons.  They also have also delivered several documentaries and TV movies, mostly for HBO so far, which has shown that they are not just a one trick pony within the film industry.  Even with all the continued success, the stated business model still drives the output of the company.  They don’t spend more than they need to, and they are keenly interested in discovering new talent and giving them the tools they need to make a mark in Hollywood.  That’s the key to making a difference in Hollywood; showing a commitment to a working strategy.

It wasn’t an overnight change for Blumhouse and the industry as a whole, however.  Blumhouse was launched in the year 2000, but it didn’t see it’s first theatrical release for 6 years.  It wasn’t even the intention of the company to take a look at horror, but that changed when a little project named Paranormal Activity (2009) dropped into their lap.  The found footage style film was not a novelty at the time, since Blair Witch pioneered the technique nearly a decade earlier, but under the guidance of the Blumhouse model, this little haunted house flick would prove to have a significant impact on the industry.  The movie cost a paltry $15,000 to make, utilizing unknown at the time talent, a single location, and cheap digital cameras.  The movie’s stripped down, cheap look actually proved to be it’s biggest blessing because it made the movie stick out greatly among all the other “polished” horror movies.  The jump scares didn’t feel cheap because they appeared more natural through the limitations of the presentation, and the lack of CGI manipulation helped to give it that ever crucial element of authenticity.  In the end, Paranormal Activity actually became even more monumental than Blair Witch, because it cost less and made even more, which only emboldened it’s creators to trust their instincts going forward.  Hollywood soon took notice once they saw how much return Blumhouse got on it’s investment.  Naturally, the sequels followed, but the quality of the finished films didn’t matter as the business model continued to ensure positive dividends on their side.  They were certainly continuing to figure things out from a creative standpoint, but ensuring that they weren’t making any rising financial decisions early on really helped to set up the foundation that would carry them forward over the next decade.

Since Paranormal Activity, the continued focus of Blumhouse has been less on building their capital, which has been steadily flowing for them for years, but instead to procure and propel top tier talent to and from their company.  Their goal has been to convince the industry that they are an artist friendly outfit, and that directors, actors and producers will have more creative freedom under their tent than they would anywhere else.  This became especially beneficial for the horror genre as one of the first directors to make the jump over to Blumhouse was James Wan, the creator of the Saw franchise.  After leaving his series behind, Wan was ready to explore a different side of the genre with the more subdued and eerier project, Insidious (2010).  Insidious was a very antithetical style horror film compared to everything else at the time, because it was a quiet, low key film which used silence and atmosphere as more effective ways to build tension and chills for it’s audience.  It was also a movie that calls for a lot of patience on the viewers part, which is a risk, but one that pays off well if it works.  Thankfully it did, and James Wan was able to carve out a new trend in the horror genre that he otherwise wouldn’t have had if he shopped his idea anywhere other than to Blumhouse.  Since then, other directors have sought out Blumhouse as the place to get their unique ideas off the ground.  You wouldn’t have had horror flicks with a noir sensibility like Sinister (2012) nor another with political commentary like The Purge series had Blumhouse not embraced new concepts through their model.  The most interesting aspect of their artist friendly ideal is that they’ve attracted filmmakers who feel they have been compromised too much elsewhere.  You can say that Blumhouse has single-handedly resurrected the career of M. Night Shaymalan, with his recent hits like The Visit (2015) and Split (2017), and that’s only because it seems like he’s finally getting back to the movies that he wants to make again, with their support.  The financial model has helped Blumhouse to build significant capital, but in attracting the talent they have, they’ve ensured a treasured reputation amongst filmmakers that will greatly help them in years ahead.

Perhaps the thing that is especially noteworthy about Blumhouse’s intent on attracting new artists into their fold is that it’s also opened the door for voices within the horror genre that we’ve never been able to see before.  This was very evident with the production of comedian Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out (2017).  Not only did the movie manage to become a hit with horror fans, but critics and industry insiders took notice as well, mainly because of the film’s content.  Unlike most other horror films, this was a movie that tackled it’s subject with a clear intention to provoke discussion and take very clear shots; in this case, with the very touchy issue of race relations in America.  Peele used the horror genre as a clever mirror held up to society, and framed the tropes of the genre in a way to make the cutting commentary even more insightful.  More than anything else, this opened up a very crucial door for the genre as a whole because it introduced a distinctly African American voice into a genre that has largely ignored it.  It’s surprising that it has taken this long for a horror movie from a black perspective to have been made, or at the very least become mainstream.  African-American audiences are some of the most reliable consumers of the horror genre, so it seems like a no-brainer that there should be one made that speaks with their own voice, tackling issues important to their community.  Hollywood took notice of this breakthrough and honored the movie with several Oscar nominations, including a Best Picture nod.  Peele won the Oscar for his original screenplay, a first for a black writer, and for the first time since Silence of the Lambs, horror had been recognized by the industry as prestige entertainment.  The most positive aspect of Get Out’s success is that it has convinced places like Blumhouse to look into other disenfranchised communities to find new voices to add to their every diversifying body of work.  Blumhouse, maybe unintentionally, might have broken the glass ceiling that has kept the horror genre a predominantly white, male centric world and shown that it can indeed be a genre that can carry a million voices within it.

But, when your business model involves taking creative risks rather than financial risks, an open production company like Blumhouse still needs to be moved in the right direction before it can fully make a significant change happen.  Jason Blum recently put himself into hot water recently with a not very well thought out statement that he would like to “make a female centric horror movie,” but there just aren’t enough women directors in horror right now to make that happen.  This rightfully sparked outrage from female critics and horror movie aficionados alike, who felt that Blum showed a very narrow-minded outlook on the relationship between women and the genre at large.  He’s not opposed to the idea of more female-centric horror movies, but his words showed how little effort he’s put into changing that situation.  First of all, he clearly hasn’t been looking hard enough, as there are plenty of aspiring and budding female filmmakers who are huge fans of the horror genre.  Secondly, you don’t have to look just for women who work exclusively in the horror genre; there are filmmakers out there who would gladly make the jump into horror if it allowed them to bring their own unique voice into the genre.  Apparently, Jason Blum did make the attempt to court director Jennifer Kent, who made the cult horror hit The Babadook (2014), over to Blumhouse, but she refused and this seemed to convince him that women directors were just not interested to a great extent in horror.  He thankfully went back on his statement and reassured that he’ll try harder to bring a female voice into Blumhouse’s future output.  But this is something that’s indicative of an overall problem with the genre, which has sadly objectified women throughout the course of it’s history.  Women are not opposed to horror as a genre, but they have clearly lacked control over their own representation in the genre and it’s more important than ever that they be given that opportunity.  With the kind of clout that Blumhouse has right now, they can make that change happen, but they also need to realize that they need to look harder than they already do.

Despite their recent hiccups, the overall direction that Blumhouse has moved Hollywood in is a positive one.  Not only have they opened the door for more diversity in the creative talent behind their movies, but the industry is taking strong notice of their successful financial model.  More and more film companies are seeing that more modest budgets for movies with unique character is the best way to generate profit in the long run.  Also, allowing artists creative freedom helps to manage the high costs of the movies because actors and directors are more likely to take a smaller salary if they are allowed to do whatever they want instead of asking for 7 or 8 figure paydays for movies that they know full well are going to be garbage and are just using their name recognition to boost box office numbers.   Blumhouse has already made a name for themselves as a likely place for actors who want to make their first directorial effort, like the already mentioned Jordan Peele as well as Joel Edgerton with his horror thriller The Gift (2015).  Their model has already clearly had an influence on their nearest competing rival, the Michael Bay created Platinum Dunes production company.  Platinum Dunes spent much of it’s early years following the already uninspired horror film formula of the mid-2000’s, largely being responsible for critically panned remakes of horror classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Amityville Horror (2005), Friday the 13th (2009) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010).  But, thanks to the Blumhouse influence, who they co-produced The Purge (2013) with, they have changed their focus to reflect the new direction that horror has been moving towards.  Their recent hit, A Quiet Place (2018) reflects that, with a modest budgeted production built on atmosphere and crafted as a pet project from an already established star, John Krasinski; written, directed, and starring him and his real life wife, Emily Blunt.  Whether or not Krasinski would have made his movie there or somewhere else, it’s clear that Platinum Dunes wouldn’t have taken on the risk had they not seen Blumhouse’s success with like-minded films before.  As a result, you can see the way that more and more of the industry is seeing the benefits of Blumhouse’s model as a way of maximizing their output with all the future movies they have in production currently.

So, where does that leave Blumhouse in the future.  It’s clear that even though they have certainly become synonymous with the horror genre, they don’t intend on relying just on that alone.  They are already venturing out into other genres and while at the same time continuing to leave their mark with horror movies.  Their more long term goal is to make their business model the ideal for all Hollywood, especially when it comes to finding new talent.  They already have reinvigorated the careers of already established directors, like James Wan and M. Night Shaymalan, and have propelled the likely all star filmmakers of tomorrow too.  They are responsible for discovering director Damien Chazelle with his debut film Whiplash (2014) which was one of Blumhouse’s first non-horror theatrical releases and their first Best Picture nominee.  Chazelle of course went on to become the youngest Best Director winner in history, so you can see just how well a launching off point Blumhouse can be for fresh new talent.    But most horror film fans are grateful to Blumhouse for bringing the genre back to it’s basics.  Relying less on visual effects and more on atmosphere, Blumhouse horror seems much more in line with the roots of the genre, which always were more effective when dealing with the constraints of a modest budget.  That’s not to say that Blumhouse is making horror feel old-fashioned, but rather using the idea of not spoiling a good idea with too much film-making.  They are also revolutionizing the genre with fresh concepts never seen in the genre before like pointed social commentary directly from the minds of oppressed minority groups.  It’s also telling just how much trust they’ve earned within the industry when they are being trusted with carrying established genres into the next decade like Halloween and Spawn.  Both as a creative factory and as a role model for the industry at large, Blumhouse has managed to accomplish a lot over the last decade and it looks like their success will continue for many years to come.  More than anything else, they are beloved by horror fans around the world for helping to bring prestige back into the genre and show that these are films that are much more than scary movies, but worthwhile and provocative entertainment just like with any other genre.

First Man – Review

It’s a career long struggle to be at the top of your field for most people in the film industry.  It’s even rarer to see someone reach that level before they even reach middle age.  That’s been the case with film director Damien Chazelle.  Chazelle has seen a meteoric rise in Hollywood over the last couple of years, with only three feature films to his credit.  Starting off from the critical darling Whiplash (2014), Chazelle would undertake a very ambitious project for his second feature, which was also a long time dream project of his.  The musical feature La La Land (2016) caught fire immediately upon release and instantly made the thirty-something phenom a force to be reckoned with.  Of course, the movie has now garnered the notorious reputation of having lost out the Best Picture race, even despite it’s record tying 14 nominations, and having been mistakenly named the winner at the ceremony.  But, Damien still managed to walk away from the Oscars as the youngest Best Director winner in history at the astonishingly young age of 32.  Now, certainly, coming from an already affluent family and earning a degree from Harvard helped to give him a leg up that few others have the privilege of having in the industry, but it’s still undeniable that he is an enormously skilled filmmaker who, more than anything else, has a bold sense of how to use the medium to tell some larger than life stories.  Many rising stars among filmmakers tend to fluctuate between taking on big risks or steadily working with intimate, personal stories.  Damien Chazelle, it would seem, is eager to build upon what he has already built and push even further with the medium of film.  After taking on a tumultuous character study with Whiplash and a whimsical love story with La La Land, what appears to be the next adventure for the young director to pursue is the skies itself with the space based biopic, First Man.

First Man is another in what seems to be a quasi-Renaissance of films about the cosmos.  Starting off with Alfonso Cuaron’s ground-breaking thriller, Gravity (2013), we have seen a new film nearly every year that continues to use the final frontier as it’s point of interest.  Christopher Nolan delivered his epic exploration of deep space exploration with 2014’s Interstellar.  Ridley Scott followed that with The Martian (2015), a harrowing stranded on a desert island adventure where that lonely island just happens to be the fourth rock from the sun.  These were critical hits, but more recent space themed movies, like 2016’s Passengers, 2017’s Life, and this year’s Cloverfield Paradox have all proven underwhelming by comparison.  But what set’s First Man apart from all the more recent space themed movies is that it’s not looking into the future, but rather the past.  All the other movies are speculations of what space travel will be like in the years ahead, but First Man tells the story of how we got there in the first place.  It tells the story of the monumental Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, and more importantly, sheds light on the personal story of the man in charge of the mission iteself; Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.  There have been many celebrated movies that have celebrated the achievements of the space race, from Phillip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983) to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995).  There was also the delightful earthbound, behind the scenes movie of Hidden Figures (2016), which told the story of the women who figured out the math that made space travel possible.  But strangely, we have never seen a feature film about the historic mission to the moon itself, nor about Armstrong; which is partly due to the legendary figure’s insistence on privacy.  With First Man, director Damien Chazelle hopes to change that and shed light on what led to the giant leap for mankind.

The movie starts off showing Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) in his early career as a test pilot for rocket jets that were designed to launch into near orbit around earth.  After the tragic death of his young daughter from cancer, Neil is grounded due to questions about his mental stability.  He soon learns that the NASA program is seeking candidates for it’s Gemini program, which is intent on testing the possibilities of taking men on a mission to the moon.  Armstrong moves his family closer to the Houston command center and performs well at his interview.  He joins the Gemini team, where he quickly builds a friendship with his fellow trainees, Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) and Edward White (Jason Clarke).  Armstrong builds valuable experience along the way and is soon selected by the program’s director, Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) to pilot the Gemini 8 rocket.  Not long after getting the honor, he learns of Elliott See’s tragic accident on a test flight.  Suffering another loss in his life, Armstrong finds solace in his work, which he takes to an almost manic level of seriousness.  Neil’s self imposed seclusion puts a strain on his relationship with his two sons, Rick and Mark, as well as his patient but over-burdened wife, Janet (Claire Foy).  Neil manages to successfully conclude the docking test aboard the Gemini 8 capsule, but a malfunction nearly brings him to the brink of death and casts doubt on the future of the moon landing itself.  This coupled with the tragic Apollo 1 fire that claimed the lives of three astronauts, including Ed White, and the future of NASA becomes pretty dire.  Out of all this, Neil Armstrong is selected alongside Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Mike Collins (Lukas Haas) to command the pivotal Apollo 11 mission that’s been picked for the actual landing.  With so much at stake, both personally and historically, Armstrong must pull together in order to do the impossible.

The first challenge for a filmmaker tackling a historic event is to make a story that everyone knows the outcome to feel brand new.  We all know how the Apollo 11 mission turned out; everything went according to plan without incident and all three astronauts returned home safely and lived prosperous lives for many years after.  First Man needed to find another way to build tension for it’s retelling of the mission in order to work as a film, and it does so by chronicling the enormous struggle it took to get to the moon.  The movie isn’t so much a film about the Apollo 11 mission itself as it is a personal journey through the years long process it took for NASA to finally work out all the problems and get everything right.  In this regard, the movie succeeds spectacularly.  The most fascinating aspect of the movie is in witnessing the human cost that it took on the people in the Gemini and Apollo missions.  Lives were lost in tragic ways, which left a deep scar emotionally on those left behind.  Damien Chazelle does a great job of showing the emotional toll that keeps building on these people over time, as they watch friends and loved ones die suddenly.  And the shocking aspect of the movie is that very little time was allowed for these men and their wives to grieve, because the mission to the moon was so paramount and they all had to bury their sorrow quickly and move on.  What the movie brilliantly lays out is the fact that reaching the moon was a hard fought victory, and by the time the lander does reach the surface, you feel the full weight of what has just been accomplished.  I love how poetic the actual scene on the moon is, because it’s almost tranquil compared to the whirlwind of emotions that preceded it.  The movie finds it’s greatest success in building the tension through the human experience of what these guys went through to get to this moment, and once we finally do reach the moon, the film graciously lets us breath and enjoy the beauty.

Unfortunately, in order to do justice to the tumultuous trial and error that it took to reach the moon, the movie sacrifices something important that might have helped to elevate it just a little more.  The movie is strangely emotionally vacant when it comes to the human story, as we don’t really get a good sense of who these people are and what makes them tick.  The movie attempts it’s best shot at understanding the person that was Neil Armstrong, but I feel that by the end he remains an enigma to the viewer.  That’s not to say that Ryan Gosling gives a bad performance; quite the contrary, he gives one of his best performances yet in this movie.  I think the problem lies in the fact that Damien Chazelle is working from a script that is not his own (a first) and from a writer whose style is very different from what Chazelle likes to work with.  The script was written by Josh Singer, an Oscar winner for the movie Spotlight (2015).  What Singer is great at as a writer is detailing historical events through meticulous detail and finding a compelling story within, which he managed to do so well in a movie like Spotlight and more recently Steven Spielberg’s The Post (2017).  But, at the same time, his scripts are not character studies.  The people within his scripts fill their roles, are often very interesting, but are ultimately not what drives the story, that instead being the event itself.  Chazelle on the other hand is much more comfortable exploring the minds of his characters, often to uncomfortable points, like the tumultuous relationships he explored in Whiplash and La La Land.  First Man finds the director out of his comfort zone and I don’t quite believe he found the emotional center of this movie the way he would’ve liked to because of the scripts limitations.  The details about the mission are still brilliantly staged, but when it cuts back to Armstrong’s domestic life, the movie feels like it looses it’s way.  I wanted to understand more about what Armstrong was like as a person, and I feel that the movie didn’t quite deliver on that.  It does show flashes where Armstrong seems to still be haunted by the memory of his daughter, which might have been true, but it just comes across as a fabrication on the filmmakers part to try to find some explanation that they honestly didn’t have an answer for.

Despite the shortcomings of the film’s script and emotional weight, I still have to commend the craft that was put into it.  The movie is visually stunning, and shows that Damien Chazelle is still exploring new ways to play around with the medium.  I like the fact that he is continuing to experiment with different kinds of film stock for his movies.  After shooting La La Land in the rarely used Cinemascope 55 format, which helped to give that movie an old-fashioned Hollywood musical texture to it’s lavish visuals, he takes a whole different approach to First Man which not only affects the aesthetic of the movie, but also offers up some underlining thematics as well.  The majority of the movie is actually shot in 16 mm, a very grainy format often used by small budget movies and documentaries.  The effect really helps to sell the intimacy of the production, putting the viewer right in the center of the action, as if they were watching a documentary.  This really helps to amp up the tension in some of the more intense scenes when the astronauts are launching into space.  Damien Chazelle really captures the cramp, claustrophobic feeling of being inside one of those capsules, something which the grainy detail of the 16 mm image really enhances.  It also feels appropriate to the era, as most of the footage we have of the behind the scenes workings of NASA during the 60’s also comes in the form of 16 mm stock footage.  But, once the moment arrives when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take their first steps on the moon, Damien Chazelle does something very bold.  The two astronauts open the hatch, and suddenly the movie shifts to stunning 70 mm IMAX.  You don’t really get the full effect unless you see the movie projected in IMAX (like I did), but it’s still an incredible effect.  Suddenly the film shifts to ultra high definition and bold colors that only IMAX can fully exploit, and it spectacularly presents the majesty of the moment.  Thematically it fits with the rest of the film itself, with grainy 16 mm signifying uncertainty before the mission and IMAX revealing the clarity of what all this was leading up to.  It shows that cinematicly, Damien Chazelle is still using his position as direction to really make some bold choices, and this movie benefits greatly from that in a visual standpoint.

Damein Chazelle has actually stated that he’s looked at the movies of Christopher Nolan as an inspiration point when it came to finding the epic scope of the film’s biggest moments, and it’s very apparent from the way he stages the crucial parts in outer space.  There are a few parallels with this and the movie Interstellar, especially the shots showing the exteriors of the spacecrafts, but First Man breaks from it’s predecessor by never venturing too far away from those crafts either.  Christopher Nolan balanced a lot of his movie out with close up shots of his spacecrafts as well as wide shots that accentuated just how insignificant they were in the great expanse of the cosmos.  First Man never goes that far, and keeps much of the visuals close to the human element as possible.  There are one or two wide shots of the moon in all it’s glory, but most of what we see is from the point of view of the astronauts.  This helps to give the movie a very valuable “you are there” experience, and we the viewer feel like we’ve been dropped into the cockpit with Neil and Buzz.  When you see the surface of the moon coming closer and closer through the port windows of the lander, you have the same amount of anticipation as the astronauts do, and that landing sequence is easily the film’s most effective moment.  I have to give a lot of praise to both the film’s visual effects unit and it’s sound design team.  The movie makes brilliant use of large scale models in it’s recreation of the rockets that launched the astronauts into space, as well as the moon itself.  It’s all shown very subtly, further enhancing the realism that the movie is intending to achieve.  And if there is an absolutely certain Oscar win in this movie’s future, it’s the sound design.  You hear every moan, clank, and bang of these spacecrafts as they go through the harrowing experience of launching past the Earth’s atmosphere and reaching the vastness of Space.  Those sounds especially reinforce the claustrophobia of every scene as well, and drives up the tension even further.  I love the fact that all the noise of the movie completely disappears once the hatch is opened on the moon and all that we hear thereafter is the actual recordings of Armstong on the moon followed by a graceful musical underscore by Oscar winner Justin Hurwitz.  For a movie that so aggressively amps up the cacophony of noises that the astronauts had to endure to reach their goal, the movie ends on a wonderfully quiet and peaceful climax.

As a chronicle of the greatest achievement of mankind in the 20th century, First Man largely succeeds.  I found myself fascinated by the steps that it took to get to that moment, and what that meant to the world as a result.  I certainly never considered the human cost that was involved before and the movie really shows how this moment in history was hard won.  I just wish that the film had balanced that with a closer look at the people themselves.  Everyone’s personalities are fixed and there are no great arcs for the people in this story; not even Neil Armstrong.  I feel that this is the one disappointing thing in what is otherwise a brilliantly staged production.  I believe that this is more a flaw of the script itself rather than anything else, because the very talented cast does their best to work as much personality as they can into these historical figures.  Corey Stoll does the best out of the bunch as his version of Buzz Aldrin comes off as obnoxious in the most humorous kind of way.  I also thought Claire Foy used her brief moments of passion as the long frustrated wife of Neil Armstong to great effect, finding the strength in what is otherwise an underwritten role.  Gosling, probably had the hardest job to undertake as Neil Armstrong was one of the least known figures of the early days of NASA.  Armstrong never sought publicity or actively argued that he should be the first.  He was the first man to walk on the moon simply because someone had to be.  The movie, as well as Gosling as an actor, seems to have had it’s arms tied as a result, because there is very little to actually mine from this man’s life.  Armstrong rarely did interviews, never wrote a memoir, and all we know about him is from the recollections of his friends and family.  As a result, the movie works best as a chronicle of his achievements, but not as an examination of his character.  For a director like Chazelle, whose work up to now has been primarily focused on intimate portraits of personal struggles, this unfortunately feels like a step backwards for the director.  But only in a storytelling sense, as he continues to impress as a visual artist, becoming even more confident working with a larger scale.  It is still great to see an ambitious film finally devoted to this moment in history, emphasizing it’s importance and how much it propelled us forward as a civilization.  And Chazelle and company do honor it with a great deal of profound respect.  For this still young director, it will be interesting how he takes the next leap forward himself in future projects.

Rating: 8/10

Off the Page – I am Legend

With the month of October arriving once again, audiences begin to crave the twisted thrills of horror on the big screen as it provides the right kind of atmosphere to match the tidings of this Halloween season.  Hollywood has long provided generations worth of taut, scary thrillers of all kinds to satisfy their audiences, and it’s interesting to see how many different varieties have sprung up over the years.  Universal Pictures popularized the monster flick with their rogues gallery of classic baddies.  The 1950’s sci-fi craze began the era of the creature feature, which also saw the international contributions of Japanese cinema which popularized their giant Kaiju creatures like Godzilla (1954).  Then of course the 70’s and the 80’s brought the rise of the slasher flick, which would go on to popularize new, very human monsters like Jason Voorhies, Freddy Kruger, and Michael Myers.  But the current era of horror has yet to yield it’s own definable icons like ages past.  More often than not, the nostalgia heavy culture we live in is more concerned with reinventing past movie monsters rather than creating new ones, like the upcoming Halloween reboot is about to.  But if there is one cinematic creature that has really carved out an identity in the last couple years, it would be the zombie.  For a while, zombie flicks became a red hot property in Hollywood, with both major studios and independent companies all taking their stab at it.  Some would say it probably became over saturated for a while, as it seemed like it was all that Hollywood was producing at the time.  But it’s all been in response to a genre that largely became devoid of anything original for a long time, and at least with the zombie flick, you didn’t have to rely on the same monster every time.  Zombies became popular because of their lack of definition and because audiences recognized that the scariest possible thing in the world is that the monsters could be us.

The zombie flick may be popular now, but it’s roots extend further back.  There were many films about the rising of dead dating back to Hollywood’s early years.  There was the Bela Lugosi headlined thriller White Zombie (1932), though that was more about hypnotic control rather than the undead.  Ed Wood had alien controlled zombies in his camp classic Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).  But, the genre wouldn’t see it’s true cinematic emergence until George A. Romero’s universally beloved Night of the Living Dead (1968).  Romero’s film has since become the gold standard for all zombie movies since, defining among many things how the creatures would appear and act, what their weakness are, how they pose a danger to society, and most importantly, showing how survivors react when faced with the threat of a zombie attack.  The legacy of that low budget, but extremely effective film are still felt today.  But, despite how ground-breaking Living Dead was as a touchstone for the zombie sub-genre, the movie still owes a great deal to another inspiration; one that of course comes from literature.  George Romero does point to the novel I am Legend as an inspiration for his film, and it’s clear to see what left an impression on him.  Published in 1954 from writer Richard Matheson, I am Legend is largely seen as the originator of the modern zombie narrative, chronicling the aftermath of a pandemic that wipes out most human life on earth and showing a lonely survivor’s livelihood in a world now filled with the infected.  It’s easy to see that the concept of the survivors’ story in a post apocalyptic world really resonated with the likes of Romero plus many others, and it’s effect no doubt touched Hollywood as well.  Several adaptations have been made of I am Legend, including some wildly disparate versions like The Last Man on Earth (1964) and The Omega Man (1971).  A far more earnest take on tackling the novel faithfully didn’t come until 2007 however, with the big budget version directed by Francis Lawrence (Hunger Games series) and starring Will Smith.  But earnest doesn’t always mean faithful, and the 2007 film I am Legend shows how trying to bring a modern sensibility to a classic story doesn’t always result in a film that’s as effective as the written word.

“My name is Robert Neville.  I am a survivor living in New York City.”

For the most part, the movie does a fairly good job of following the basic premise of the story.  Society has fallen due to a pandemic that caused the human population to turn into vampiric zombies.  In the novel, Matheson does have rely on this hybrid concept of zombies that act like vampires, including retaining the same weaknesses like aversion to garlic and holy images, which in a way seems like a rather unnecessary addition to the story.  Why would a disease suddenly make these once human creatures react so harshly to crucifixes and the like?  Just wondering.  But, the one vampiric trait that does help drive the story is that these zombies cannot survive in the daylight.  The movie wisely uses this as the basic trait of the zombies, as they only pose a threat in the nighttime, which drives the feeling of isolation for the main character.  Neville, or as he’s known Dr. Robert Neville in the film, is the only human left immune to the disease that transformed humanity, surviving by himself in the crumbling infrastructure of a once booming metropolis (Los Angeles in the book, New York in the movie).  There, he scavenges for food, supplies, and other essentials before barricading himself up in his home while the zombie vampires swarm around his home at night.  All the while, he researches to find the cause and possibly a cure for the disease in the hope of reversing it’s affects and bringing society back to where it was.  The book and the movie stick very close together for the first half, and most of the movie’s earliest scenes do a really effective job of world building.  The images of Manhattan Island crumbling after years of neglect and foliage now overtaking the once concrete jungle are strikingly realized.  In this regard, I am Legend does the best job we’ve seen yet of capturing the landscape of the novel.  Only once the plot starts to deviate that some of the problems in the adaptation begin to arise and the film itself starts to fall apart.

“This is ground zero.  This is my site. I can fix this.”

It’s actually frustrating watching the movie version of I am Legend after reading the original novel, because there are many points that the movie does get right.  For one thing, Will Smith’s performance is actually quite good in the movie.  The actor forgoes his usually “slick Willy” swagger in favor of portraying a broken man who’s slowly losing his faith in a better tomorrow.  I love how the movie also portrays the way he deals with his isolation.  Throughout his daily routine, Neville goes out into the city and visits the same locations for his rations, including visiting a video store where he picks out something to watch back home.  In every spot, he has set up department store mannequins, posed individually like they are going about their lives, and he interacts with them as if they were real people.  One might look at this as a sign of insanity brought on by extended isolation, but it’s also a clever coping mechanism to allow for Neville to keep his remaining sanity in tact.  The mannequins are an addition to the movie not found in the novel, and it works really well, helping to add another dimension to Neville’s character that is worthwhile.  The film also expands on a subplot from the book involving Neville befriending a dog, who becomes his companion for a while.  The film’s highlight is the heartbreaking point where the dog becomes infected and Neville has to put him down, which is effectively staged for the maximum amount of pathos.  And these moments hint at a movie that not only could have been faithful to the source material, but also could have transcended it.  Unfortunately, the film’s second, more conventional half reveals a different story, and one that sees a revisit from that old cinematic menace; studio interference.

The problem first begins when Neville is visited by other survivors who have the same immunity that he does.  There is a similar episode in the books, where Neville finds another person walking the streets in the middle of the day just as he has been.  This mysterious person, named Ruth, plays a wildly different role for the original story than the two new surviors in the movie, named Anna and Ethan (Alice Braga and Charlie Tahan) do in their roles.  For the most part, Alice and Ethan serve merely as motivation for Neville to do what he was already on his way towards doing without the despair getting in the way, which is using his resources to find a cure.  They are largely superfluous and are clearly there to give the movie a more conventional hero arc to Neville, basically meant to live to tell his story and make him a “legend.”  But that’s not the message that the book had in mind.  The big revelation about Ruth is (spoilers) that she is one of the infected as well, and has proven to Neville that those who have been infected have not lost all their humanity in the process.  In fact, during the nighttime hours in which Neville has been sleeping in fear, the more sentient of the infected (mainly those who succumbed to it while they were still living) are still conscious of their being and have been trying to live their lives normally under the conditions, even seeking medication themselves.  They have even domesticated some of the more feral (undead) zombies in the process, and have used them to hunt those who would hurt them, like Neville.  It’s through this revelation that Neville becomes aware that as he has grown to fear and hate the zombie infected, they have reacted the same to him, and that he is even more of a monster from their perspective.  It’s revealed that Neville was responsible for killing Ruth’s own husband, making Neville realize that his lack of view of their humanity has made him aware of just how much he has lost his own.  In the novel’s closing chapter, Neville reflects on how he has become the monster that preys on these new creatures while they sleeping, saying, “I am a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever.  I am legend,” the passage which gives the story it’s name.

“The people, who were trying to make this world worse… are not taking a day off.  How can I? Light up the darkness.”

Through this plot development, we see how Richard Matheson takes his story about vampire zombies and turns it into an allegorical story of mankind’s cruelty towards the natural world.  It never dawned in Neville’s mind up until that point that he might be the villain; he was just doing what he could to survive another day.  It’s that compromise of morals in desperate times that becomes the message of Matheson’s story, and it’s one that has likewise been very influential in zombie flicks and post-apocalyptic stories ever since.  You see this in stuff like the Mad Max franchise and the Walking Dead TV-series, where the biggest threat isn’t the environment nor the undead zombies that have infested it. but rather the other desperate survivors among you who would just as readily kill you if it meant they would live another day.  Desperation is the great leveler of civilization found in the story of I am Legend, and it’s a powerfully delivered message as well.  So, it makes it doubly frustrating when the movie that is a direct adaptation of the book, completely disposes of that message.  The truth is, when Hollywood invests so much into a big budget film, they are less willing to accept a more downbeat moral such as the one found in the book as the backbone of their story.  Instead of being revealed as the layered character that he is the books, Neville falls into the mold of your typical savior figure who ends up saving the world.  The movie even has him going out in a blaze of glory, blowing himself up with a grenade in the middle of a swarm of zombies, after conveniently discovering a cure minutes earlier and giving it to Anna and Ethan as they make their escape.  There’s no allegory, no satisfying turnabout of Neville’s character.  Everything is shaded in the black and white morality of humans beating back the scary monsters, which makes the story feel very unoriginal and contrary to the way it started.

And yet there is even a more problematic aspect to the way that the movie ended; it wasn’t always supposed to be that way.  Director Francis Lawrence actually shot another ending for the film that was closer to the original.  In this alternative ending, after Neville and the other survivors are cornered in his basement laboratory by a swarm of enraged (and poorly animated) zombies, Neville makes the shocking realization that the test subject that he retrieved days earlier was in fact the mate of the zombie’s alpha leader.  In this moment, he realizes that he committed a kidnapping and that the zombies are only there to get back one of their own, and not to kill, unless provoked.  Like his novel counterpart, movie Neville realizes he’s been a monster by not seeing the humanity that’s still in these creatures and he makes the conscious choice to let his last chance at a cure go in order to settle a peace with the creatures.  This more complex ending, as it turns out, did not focus group well, and Warner Brothers decided to force a last minute re-shoot of the scene to create the more conventional ending.  But, in doing so, it robs the remainder of the story of any real satisfaction.  The ending from the book may not be ideal, but it is nevertheless though provoking.  The ending of the movie is generic and forgettable.  The movie may not have gained a bad reputation if this alternate ending was never seen, but for some reason Warner stuck it onto the home video release and marketed the alternate version as well, like they were proud of it.  But if you were so proud of it, why didn’t you include it in the original movie.  To me, it’s an extreme case of the studio not having the faith in the original story and not trusting their audience to be open to something more complex than the “save the day” narrative.  Couple this with a lot of unnecessary scenes of explaining to the audience what led up to this (including a weird cameo from Emma Thompson in the prologue, playing the doctor who inadvertently caused the pandemic with her believed cure for cancer) and you’ve got a clear indication that the studio was not fully on board with all this, and tried to dumb the movie down.  The thing that made I am Legend so memorable was that it made the reader feel unsafe and as a result terrified of what turn might come next.  The movie leaves no surprises and scares absolutely no one.

“God didn’t do this.  We did.”

And that’s a shame too, because there are flashes of brilliance in the movie adaptation.  Will Smith’s performance is effective up until that unnecessary ending, and I love the fact that his version of Neville is proactive in trying to retain some level of normality in this world.  I get the feeling from that and the alternate ending that both him and the director wanted to come close to the message of the original story, but were undercut by the powers that be at Warners.  In the end, the movie is a pale imitation of what could have been had the studio been more confident in the story.  Richard Matheson knew that he was making a story not about monsters, but about people, and how sometimes evil acts are committed once we begin to lose that grasp of humanity that is ever so crucial in our society.  There are so many cases where horrible, evil movements are created by demonizing another group as the “other” in modern society, and it’s even scarier when a person doesn’t even realize they are falling in that hole.  Like many others, Neville believes that he is doing the right thing by fighting back against these zombies, but once he sees that these are beings who are struggling to survive just like him and that he’s been the menace in their lives, then the horrifying realization becomes apparent and he has to cope with the awareness of the evil that he has wrought.  We are all susceptible to same downward spiral that Neville succumbs to, and that’s a frightening concept that has made this such a profound horrific story over time.   Unfortunately, we have yet to see a movie capture Matheson’s story faithfully, though many films inspired by the novel have lived up to the spirit of it.  Zombie movies can be quite scary when done right, but it becomes all the more unsettling once it shows the toll that it takes on those who manage to survive, and that even overcoming such a threat can awaken an even greater evil among the survivors.

“Nothing happened the way it was supposed to happen.”

This is….